September 28, 2018

Arthur or not?

It’s pretty well established that  if there was a “real King Arthur,” (which is not to say the same thing as “Malory is history,” but that there was in fact a historical personage or two or three upon whom some early medieval writers expounded  – a few hundred years after his or their existence – so that  (yet another few hundred years later yet) Chretien De Troyes and Thomas Malory superimposed all the knights and pennants and Quests and courtly love upon him and we have our beloved King Arthur of Camelot and his Round Table and its Knights), this person or persons bore no resemblance to any of the interpretations we’ve seen over the years.

So forget about gleaming castles and jousts, and Sean Connery and Richard Burton, especially forget about The Holy Grail and all that Disneyfied banana oil.

Or not? Whether traceable to an actual human or not, King Arthur exists for us as a cultural artefact, and all the trappings and folderol that have nothing to do with a “historical Arthur,” are nevertheless foundational to much of modern narrative.

Ya think?

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. I definitely believe Arthur to be an amalgamation of several different characters (both historical and fictitious). For me, the real question is in the details — where did the sources come from, and how did the resonate over time? It’s the discussion that really sells me on Arthur, moreso than the end result. I can only hope to discover more fiction that inspires the same.

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    • The Pryor book is unusual in that he takes the standard “documentary” sources – Gerald and Geoffrey mostly – as well as a ton of incidental and ancillary theories (some pretty far off the wall) and evaluates them against the archaeology, which is substantially more robust than it was even 20 or 30 years ago. It’s the first instance I know of that such an assessment has been carried out. Pryor is fun to watch and listen to, but keep an open mind, he occasionally gets a tad bit full of himself. He’s an authority nonetheless. If I could figure out how I’d lend you my Kindle copy.

      DQ

      >

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  2. Yes to all – so then what do we think about the notion of the inevitability of his fall? On the one hand he’s betrayed by his best friend and his loving wife, and on the other he dies at the hand of his (illegitimate, incenstuously – though unwittingly – conceived) son Mordred? It this where Arthur enters mythology in the Jung/Campbell sense. “Do the right thing, do the best you can, and you get screwed anyway.”

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    • Well, in a sense, we are all going to fall, aren’t we? That’s, I think, an important dimension to the Arthur story (and the Holy Grail thingy too), that the Quest may seem like a chimera — you ain’t gonna get the Grail, and Arthur’s efforts are all ultimately doomed (or we might be writing one another in some Celtic language now) — but the Quest was still worth undertaking, and behavior (decisions) still matter.

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      • Yeah, virtue is its own reward, and all that drill. And I buy that to a certain extent, but there’s gotta come a point at which, when someone says “Well doing the right thing is the best reward for doing the right thing,” one is permitted to wonder what, exactly, makes it the right thing. Nu?

        I’m mostly being devil’s advocate here, but … maybe not entirely. Coming upon The Matter of Britain as the proverbial “man from Mars” I’d have to wonder why it’s a shining example of anything but mindless dedication to doomed causes.

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    • Context is important. When Mallory wrote his Le Morte d’Arthur, the context was salvation and the afterlife — doing the right thing to get into heaven, and be in God’s good graces. In our times, the message is simpler, but not dissimilar: in a society — in a group of people whose survival depends on the various economic and social networks we build — we need people to make the right decisions most of the time, even when it may not seem to be in their personal best interest to do so. Otherwise, why should a soldier, a cop or a fireman risk their own lives? We need people like Arthur who rise above their own narrow interests and “do the right thing” — “the right thing” often being defined in romantic, altruistic terms, but in reality it just means putting the community over one’s self. Today we accept a sliding scale of dedication; we cut Arthur some slack and are fine with him occasionally doing what is best for Arthur, even at the community’s expense. But that scale still puts a lot of weight — 75%? 80%? 60%? — on the Arthurs in our world (i.e., each of us) making the “right” decisions in the clutch.

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      • I believe there’s also a strong component or recognizing that the “right” thing in terms of choices where “the community good” is involved is in fact the best thing for our own good as well.

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  3. King Arthur resonates with us still today because he represents a Western archetype, of the kind-hearted and goodly king who is blessed by Providence but who still must prove himself — and that’s where he becomes accessible for average people. Despite his high birth and being given Excalibur (“some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at [him]…”), Arthur still needs to earn his way and live up to the highest ideals. Maybe he could just lounge around Camelot, but he accepts the challenges thrust upon him and goes on his quest, his adventure. Even in failure, through betrayal, he still achieves a sort of nobility. Arthur is the quintessential Western Hero, in Campbell’s sense. He’s all the more romantic for being doomed in many respects — in both facing the overwhelming odds of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, as well as being betrayed by his closest associates. And yet, he never flinches, and does what he thinks right. The Grail Quest is the quest for becoming a moral being in a physical world, in learning how to rise above our animalian natures. Whether the real Arthur(s) was some Welsh brigand or a Romano-British warlord or a Bretonese earl is irrelevant to the mythological Arthur. King Arthur — and not just Troyes’ or Mallory’s creation — represents the ideal of someone who does the right thing, despite the worst circumstances.

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About Dean Quarrell

Mr. Quarrell was born in 1946, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He has so far survived various public schools, community college, university (his baccalaureate degree is in English but written in Latin), the US Air Force, and various employment, including 30 years in the software industry. He lives and writes in New Hampshire.

Category

Writing, (noun & verb)