Legends

A KING FOR ALL SEASONS

A new film presents a King Arthur like no other, but still tells the old story of one brief, shining moment

Brian Bethune July 12 2004
Legends

A KING FOR ALL SEASONS

A new film presents a King Arthur like no other, but still tells the old story of one brief, shining moment

Brian Bethune July 12 2004

A KING FOR ALL SEASONS

A new film presents a King Arthur like no other, but still tells the old story of one brief, shining moment

Legends

BRIAN BETHUNE

THE SWORD in the stone and the Holy Grail. The Knights of the Round Table and the glittering court of Camelot, brought to ruin by adultery, incest and civil war. It’s been almost nine centuries since medieval writers began to craft the West’s most enduring secular myth, and images of King Arthur are now deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. But as the very different Guinevere—a sexy warrior queen—in Jerry Bruckheimer’s new film King Arthur shows, the chivalrous and tragic king of medieval romance is no longer the only Arthur. The story in Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century masterpiece, Le Morte dArthur, and Tennyson’s Victorian elegy, The Idylls of the King, is just one variant of an ever-evolving myth. There’s the 1960 Broadway musical, Camelot, which lent its name to the 1,000 days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, and even a brilliant parody in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

For more than a century, meanwhile, scholars seeking the Arthur of history have peered into the darkest of Dark Ages—fiffhand sixth-century Britain—for traces of a native war chief who rallied his people for a brief while against Saxon invaders. That Arthur has spawned his own fictional offspring, novels like Canadian writer Jack Whyte’s best-selling A Dream of Eagles series, as well as Bruckheimer’s Hollywood blockbuster—all of them heavy on the brutal fighting, light on the magic and fantasy. But all the Arthur variations strike the same chord in us, because the theme is always the same: what Camelot called “one brief, shining moment,” a time when justice and mercy ruled, followed by the defeat of high ideals through human failing. Each one— with the possible exception of the Python spoof—purports to be true. And so they are, in the sense of being true to the beliefs and ideals of their own times.

Not that truth of any sort is easy to extract from Dark Age Britain. There are cryptic allusions in the old manuscripts to great victories over the invaders, and there’s archaeological evidence of a generation-long halt to the Saxon advance. It’s barely enough to keep alive a search driven by stubborn belief— so majestic a story must have a factual basis. The myth itself appears almost fully formed in 1136, in an enormously influential chronicle called The History of the Kings of Britain. The author,

a cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth, was probably born in Wales, and one of his parents may have been Breton. Certainly he had access to a whole body of Arthurian tradition current in Brittany, brought there by the Celtic refugees who carved “Little Britain” out of the northwest of France.

Geoffrey’s exuberant retelling of his people’s folktales introduced many of the essential Arthurian characters and motifs from Guinevere to Merlin. It became a contemporary best-seller, with 200 manuscript copies still extant, and a prime factor in the contemporary Arthur-mania that soon swept Western Europe. His stories and their Breton sources were translated into all the major languages and even many minor ones, including Hebrew and Icelandic. The oral material inspired original works, some of which, notably Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and the writings of Chrétien de Troyes—who introduced courtly love, Lancelot and the Holy Grail to the mix—reach the heights of Western art.

Around 1470 Sir Thomas Malory gathered almost the whole of the legend into his monumental Morte d’Arthur. The book is at once a forceful attempt to reclaim Arthur for the land of his birth and a mournful lament for a lost age of chivalry—not just Arthur’s, but Malory’s own, then crumbling in the face of peasant infantry and royal artillery. Malory himself is elusive, a very well-read (in English and French) figure who describes himself in his work as a “knyght presoner.” No fewer than four men of that name and time have been suggested as possible authors. For most of the 20th century the leading candidate was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, who was frequently jailed in London’s Newgate Prison—across the road from the excellent library in the Grey Friars monastery—on charges ranging from rape to attempted murder. Although there’s no logical reason why a criminal cannot be a great writer—Ezra Pound, after all, was a fascistsuch is the power of the Arthurian myth that scholars have never ceased looking for a more Galahad-like author.

Le Morte d’Arthur was another success story, igniting an enduring English interest in Camelot’s long-lost glory. Almost 400 years later, his lofty themes and superb description of the tragic fall of Camelot were taken up by Britain’s poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson. The Idylls of the King (1859) is a sombre meditation on the royal—read, im-

perial—burden and the character flaws that inevitably undermine all human hopes. It was perfectly suited to the duty-conscious Victorian era, and like all things Victorian was mercilessly mocked through much of the last century. (“Alfred, Lord bleeding Tennyson” was always one of Monty Python’s favourite targets.)

The Arthurian focus has since shifted from the personal to the political, from the romantic king’s tragic flaws to the quasi-historical figure’s military struggles. Whatever the gain in realism, that’s meant a precipitous drop in aesthetic achievement.

MODERN versions

of the story of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere still derive their power from the older myth

Skilled and careful writers such as Jack Whyte have nonetheless used the sketchy factual record to craft first-rate and plausible historical thrillers. Ironically, modern realistic versions still derive their power from the older myth. Authors would not be drawn to their story—an obscure lost cause, long ago and far away—nor would readers much care, if the characters were not Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere.

Presumably, Bruckheimer is relying on that afterglow effect for King Arthur, starring Clive Owen in the title role. The film anchors itself in the belief of some Arthurian experts that a Roman general named Lucius Artorius Castus was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall in the far north of Roman Britain around 400 CE. But even those scholars, who were thrilled to find someone—anyonenamed Arthur that far back in time, curbed their enthusiasm with the knowledge that the bulk of tradition puts the king 50 to 150 years later and far to the south, in parts of Britain actually invaded by Saxons.

Unperturbed, Bruckheimer has his Saxons attack across Hadrian’s Wall, which is rather like Hitler invading France via Spain. But geographical innovation is the least of Bruckheimer’s contributions to the evolving Arthurian canon. In accord with modern fantasy’s recent embrace of female empowerment, Keira Knightley’s scantily clad Guinevere is no Tolkien-esque Elf queen on a pedestal, but a warrior babe who’d gladly put an arrow through any of Malory’s lovesick knights. A Guinevere, and an Arthur myth, for our times, if not for the ages.

Near the end of his great work, Malory records the words carved on the tomb of his hero, who legend said was not truly dead but only sleeping until he was needed again: Here lies Arthur, the once and future king. The first part was a deeply held belief, the second a pious hope. Moderns are more inclined to the opposite: we may no longer believe the real Arthur ever lived, but we can be sure the mythic king will never die. lifi