This wishful thinking is, of course, flawed, as its based on a childishly idealized portrayal of authentic medieval monarchies. In order for an actual monarchy to succeed, the king (or queen) must be the human ideal, a paragon of strength, wisdom, justness, and grace--in other words, someone who never was, and probably never will be. With an imperfect man on the throne, we'd see poor policy, unfair laws, or at worst a cruel dictatorship. Real history is rife with examples of corrupt kingdoms.
Nevertheless, this quest for perfection on earth is part of the reason why I find the Arthurian legend in all its forms so powerful and compelling. The other reason of course is that the best of these tales--Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, the film Excalibur, T.H. White's The Once and Future King--are amazing works of art which not only tell a great story, but convey deeper meaning about mankind, the roots of passion and conflict, social and spiritual ideals, and more. These, the best Arthurian stories, are worthy of study and repeated readings/viewings.
I've often wondered whether Le Morte Darthur is at some level an elaborate criticism of monarchies--after all, if ruin afflicts the kingdom of even the near-perfect Arthur, and was fated so from the start, then when can a monarchy ever succeed? But perhaps Malory's intent was to present in his work an honest portrayal of a king who is flawed because he's just a man, after all, but is nevertheless the shining ideal for past and future civilizations. After all, he is the once and future king, and according to Malory will return again at some time of dire need, presumably:
Hic Iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus (Here lies Arthur, The Once and Future King)
Over the years the myth of King Arthur has taken on as many different forms as it has tellers. Each author, director, musician, and artist has his or her own version the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, a shining, golden kingdom that illuminated a dark period in human history.
I've listed here my own criteria for tales of King Arthur. These elements should make their way into the story in some form:
Arthur (of course), a semi-divine king, a lawbringer, selfless, whose only fault is his love for his knights, which blinds him to Launcelot's indescretions with Guinevere.
Launcelot, the best knight and the stuff of legends, but flawed by his passion for Guinevere.
Guinevere/Launcelot betrayal. The story should in some way depict the love triangle, which played a part in the downfall of Camelot.
Foundation of Arthur’s kingdom/round table/chivalry/code of law. The foundation of right over might, representing a codification of order and peace and light as a bulwark against the chaos and tyranny of the Dark Ages.
- Merlin, who adopts Arthur and who represents the old guard of paganism and faerie giving way to Christianity.
- The Quest for the Holy Grail, the literal search for religion and Christ's cup at the last supper, but also the symbolic quest for a spiritual ideal, an internal search to elevate the soul beyond earthly ambitions. The myth of the Fisher King.
- Mordred, the ill-begotten son of Arthur and his half-sister Morgause. He delivers the fatal blow to his father on the battlefield, and prior, when his betrayal strikes a grievous blow to Arthur's heart.
- Camlann, the final battle, which must include Arthur’s wounding by Mordred, and his spiriting by boat to the mystical island of Avalon.
- Excalibur, which confers a divine right upon Arthur when he draws it from the stone, and is cast into the sea at the tale’s end. Like Arthur it too will be found and return in some shadowy, indetermine future time, a powerful weapon with the singular, paradoxical ability to unite.
- Camelot, the idealized kingdom of gold and silver spires.
- Anachronistic elements. While I like the idea of the 5th century “historic” Arthur, as best portrayed by Bernard Cornwell in his terrific Warlord Trilogy, I enjoy more the full plate armor, 14th and 15th century, classic version of the knights of the round table.
- Mythical beasts. If you like your Arthur with anachronisms, I figure that you might as well go full-bore and throw in serpents and giants and dragons, too.
- Galahad, the paragon of virtue who succeeds in finding the grail and ascending to heaven. Other versions have Percival finding the Grail.
- Morgan le Fay, the evil enchantress and foe of Arthur.
- Sir Gawain, one of Arthur's bravest and perhaps his most loyal knight, whose desire to revenge himself on Lancelot for the murder of his (mostly) wicked brothers helps lead to the downfall of Camelot.
- Any version of Thomas Malory, the wellspring from which the tales flow (yes, I know there are older French sources, as well as Monmouths' History of the Kings of Britain, but these works contain scattered bits of the myth. Malory created the first complete narrative of the Arthur legend. I have a copy of Malory: The Complete Works, as edited by Eugene Vinaver, which retains the old English. But any version of Malory is acceptable.
- The Once and Future King , T.H. White. The best modern treatment of Malory available. It's simultaneously very readable and focuses on the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the tale.
- The Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell. Great three-part series which portrays the "historic" Arthur (who is believed to have existed in some form in the 5th century). Brutal and realistic to the period.
- Pendragon/The Great Pendragon Campaign, Greg Stafford. A meticulously researched role playing game by Greg Stafford. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, which contains a mish-mash of elements from fantasy literature, Pendragon's game engine is designed specifically to recreate the spirit and events of Malory. It's a great read besides.
- Excalibur. By far the best version of the myth ever put to screen. This is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now a cliche, but it remains one of the funniest movies ever made and a great send-up of the tale of Arthur.
- The soundtrack to Excalibur, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Terrific score that includes tracks borrowed from Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.
- Mordred's Song, Blind Guardian. Powerful, epic treatment of Mordred that captures the pathos of the villain of the Arthur myth and renders him sympathetic ("No one can heal me, nothing can save me, no one can heal me; I've gone beyond the truth, it's just another lie; wash away the blood on my hands, my father's blood, in agony we're unified")