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I have had the Matter of Britain on my hands for twenty years. That is what it has been called since before the days of Malory, and it is a serious subject.
Thus TH White introduces his The Once and Future King, a whimsical, sometimes elegant, retelling of the classic story of King Arthur. As well as being a serious subject, it has become an immensely popular one with writers of various capabilities, including those who share White's reverence for the story, and some who merely wish to capitalise on the voracious world-wide appetite for Arthurian tales.
The Once and Future King
White's treatment, intended primarily as a story for 'young people', at times seems rather patronising, but the well-presented characters and playful humour are so charming that the reader soon forgives the author's tiresome moralising.
White identified certain characteristics which he felt were integral to the Arthurian tale:
- The clash between 'might' and 'right'
- Man's place in nature
- Racial conflict
- The 'Aristotelian' tragedy1 of Arthur's personal doom
White also endeavoured to portray the characters in The Once and Future King2 as they were in Malory's Mort d'Arthur. His rendition also shares three other themes common to most 'traditional' Arthurian stories:
- The Quest
- Magic or the Supernatural
- The notion of Redemption and Rebirth, or Triumph over Death
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
If TH White's presentation of the Arthurian epic is at one end of a spectrum, closely paralleling that of Malory, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court may be considered the very opposite, and somewhat bitter, end of that spectrum.
The story's protagonist, Hank Morgan, knocked on the head with a crowbar in 19th Century Connecticut, awakens in England in the time of King Arthur. The practical, scientific Yankee soon finds himself embroiled in conflict with Merlin, who in this tale is a malicious schemer. Attempting to create a Utopia, Morgan introduces 19th Century technology, including the printing press, bicycle, baseball and gunpowder. Hank's attempt fails, of course, because in Twain's pessimistic view, science and technology cannot change man's fundamentally evil nature.
Although A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court frequently alludes to certain events found in Malory's classic version, such as Lancelot's affair with Guinevere, and Mordred's conflict with Arthur, these episodes are peripheral to the main intent, which is to expose the failings and foibles of mankind, both in 6th Century Britain and in 19th Century America.
The comic characters in Twain's farcical caricature of the Arthurian story bear superficial resemblance to those depicted by Malory or White, and the story certainly never approaches Classical, heroic tragedy. Twain was very impressed with Le Morte D'Arthur, and although he intended to present a contrast between 'Arthurian' life and the modern world, he did not consider the book he was writing to be a satire. Rather, he planned to write the story for his own amusement and for his grandchildren, and did not even intend to publish it. He expressed a wish to leave unbesmirched and unbelittled the great and beautiful characters drawn by the master hand of old Malory
Although A Connecticut Yankee depicts war, might versus right, and racial disharmony, it lacks even the slightest hint of the classical quest, magic becomes superstitious twaddle, and the notion of rebirth or redemption is non-existent. Twain's work is superficially an uneven, sarcastic diatribe against British social institutions and culture, and more deeply an exploration of mankind's contradictory nature, or good versus evil. The nature of Twain's treatment of the material may have been in response to English critic Matthew Arnold's negative review of the memoirs of Ulysses S Grant, published by Twain's nephew. Twain had begun working casually on the story two years earlier, before he rushed it to completion, possibly to help finance production of a newly developed typesetting machine in which he was heavily invested.
The continued public fascination with the Arthurian stories has inspired a significant number of modern writers to pen their own variations of the legend. Although the basic storyline usually remains intact, the characters and their motivations are frequently altered to suit the authors' intents.
The main characters: Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot etc, are generally present in these revisions, but they are often quite different from those delineated by Malory or White, although usually not so distorted as in Twain's caustic parody.
Mary Stewart's Myth and Magic
There was a boy born A winter king Before the black month He was born And fled in the dark month To find shelter With the poor He shall come With the spring In the green month And the golden month And bright Shall be the burning Of his star
The popular romance novelist, Mary Stewart, treats the Arthurian characters with sensitivity and compassion. Told in the first person by Merlin the enchanter, (Myrddin Emrys Ambrosius) - prince, prophet and bard, the story deals admirably with the themes of magic, battle, and classical personal tragedy.
In Stewart's hand, magic is less of a supernatural force than a form of extrasensory perception, including psi powers such as pyro-kinesis3 and mysticism. Merlin is a sensitive man, devoted to his country, and to his king.
Arthur, as seen through Merlin's eyes, is a classic hero: intelligent and brave, and fiercely loyal, compelled by the 'will of the gods' to save his country, and doomed by his misplaced trust and impulsiveness.
The themes of the Quest and Redemption are intertwined in Stewart's treatment. Arthur seeks to unite Britain to defeat her enemies, and thus expiate his 'sin'4.
Bernard Cornwell, Richard Monaco and Others
Cornwell, the creator of the Sharpe novels and various popular maritime war stories, created an Arthurian trilogy entitled The Winter King Chronicles. Monaco's uneven four-volume story is a surreal retelling of the Grail Quest, involving the character of Prince Parsival, one of King Arthur's knights.
While retaining the overall storyline, and at least the names of the main characters, some writers have distorted the Arthurian saga to the point where it becomes almost as much a travesty as in Twain's version. Sadly, few of these contemporary authors approach Twain's comic genius.
Arthur is transformed into an indecisive politician, a neurotic military genius, or an embittered misogamist. Merlin mutates into a scheming puppet-master or a demented, bloodthirsty Druid.
The Quest is nothing more than desire and a lust for power, or a psychedelic, incoherent mind-ramble; magic is superstition, trickery and drugs; and the promise of redemption and rebirth becomes an uncertain requiem.
There is political intrigue and bloody conflict; adventure and passion in some of these stories, yet little remains of 'Aristotelian' Tragedy, perhaps because the Arthur character presented in them is shallow and vague, thus fails to awaken in the reader the requisite feeling of intense pity.
These stories deal with war, and the struggle between good and evil, often in somewhat excessive measure. While this may be entertaining, these tales somehow fall short of the more classical treatments, perhaps because the authors confuse empathy and understanding with sentimentality and sensationalism, and as a result, fail to establish credible characters.
The Sword in The Stone (1963 - Animated)
The 18th Disney animated feature, The Sword in the Stone was a reasonably accurate adaptation of TH White's original children's story of the same title. Regarded by some as not one of Disney studio's best efforts, children seem to enjoy the 80 minute family film.
Dealing only with the first part of the legend, involving Arthur, (nicknamed 'Wart'), receiving instruction from Merlin and discovering his destiny, the cartoon does not explore the themes of tragedy, war, or the struggle between good and evil. The idea of redemption or rebirth is also absent. Magic, however, is central to the movie. Indeed, Arthur's quest takes the form of three lessons learned from various singing and talking animals, via Merlin's magic, which bestow upon him the gifts of 'Intellect, Wisdom and Love'.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government
The quote from one of the characters in Monty Python's comedy classic is just one of hundreds of memorable one-liners from the very low budget, (£229,000), film.
Monty Python's Flying Circus became a hit BBC television series in the late 1960s and early '70s. The comedy troupe achieved almost instant international recognition with the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Regarded by some as a mild satire, this zany film bears little resemblance to Malory's story, with the exception of some character names, and the Quest itself, of course.
John Boorman's Excalibur (1981)
No mortal could possess it! No kingdom could command it!
Forged by a god. Foretold by a wizard. Found by a man.
The movie 'tag lines' and the title itself suggest the film is about a magic sword. In fact, Excalibur turns out to be a very serious retelling of the legend of King Arthur as written by Malory, and therefore attempts to depict all the classic elements and themes of the original.
Excalibur is a visually stunning, blood-soaked film of knights in somewhat improbable armour, an enchanted sword, evil spells, earth magic, and passion. Arthur is once more the classic hero, destined to save his country yet doomed to personal tragedy. Merlyn, (Merlin), is the devoted teacher, guardian and patriot, torn between his love of Arthur and his need to save the land.
The Relevance of the Myth
Arthur the King is the classic hero. Strong, fearless, noble and brave, we cannot help but admire him. Arthur the man is likeable. Charming, handsome, trusting and trustworthy; he is the brother, father, friend, lover that we would like to know. But despite his seeming perfection, he has a flaw: conceived out of wedlock, he is the bastard son of lustful Uther Pendragon. It is this flaw which enables the reader to feel empathy for Arthur, and thus makes him a fitting candidate for a tragic character.
Virtually every human society has an incest taboo, and it is this taboo that Arthur unwittingly violates. Rather than condemn him, we sympathise with his shock and horror, and pity him for the anguish he feels.
It is this sin, this loss of innocence, that impels Arthur to transcendency, yet condemns him to his tragic fate. He cannot ever rest, or be content, even after defeating Britain's enemies. The guilt eats at every aspect of his life, poisoning his closest relationships. He even feels somehow responsible for the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot - if only he had been more loving, more admirable, his wife would not have cheated, nor would his friend have lost respect for him.
Merlin's wisdom and counsel is not enough. Excalibur is not enough. He blames Merlin for failing to save him from sin, and feels more guilt for such feelings. He feels unworthy to wield the great sword, and feels guilt because he relishes combat; enjoys defeating Britain's enemies.
It is guilt, and the almost uncontrollable desire to expiate it, that inspires Arthur to seek the Grail. He believes the Grail can wash away any stain, remove his guilt, and thus return him to a state of innocence. He believes the Grail will bestow upon him the power of renewal, and can heal the wound in his soul. Attaining the Grail will not only restore his personal innocence and power, but will enable him to fully unite Britain, and make her unassailable by her enemies.
The search for the Grail is the final irony, for it is the Quest that results in further weakening of his kingly power, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Arthur fails to attain the Grail, and loses his knights, and his physical, superficial power, including that of the mighty sword. At the end, we do not know for sure if he has died, or has passed into an unknown and unknowable plane; a place beyond words, beyond thought, attaining a state of purity, regaining the innocence he craved.
With the care and nurture of Merlin, Arthur's innate goodness manifests as devotion to his country, and love for his people, thus Arthur's right and good actions transform the sin of lust, but he fails to recognise this, and therefore cannot forgive himself. The fatal flaw is not the act itself, but Arthur's perception of it. The ultimate irony is that he always had in his possession a power equal to the Grail, if he were but to recognise it.
The hint at the conclusion of the story is that somehow, at the very last, he does.
That is why the legend of King Arthur is timeless. It is not just another fantasy adventure story, or a morality play, or even a pean to national pride; it is a tale that touches the soul, transcending the Classical, 'Aristotelian' Tragedy, and reminding each of us that flawed as we may be, we carry within ourselves the seed of greatness, and this greatness is not of might or right, but of the heart.