By Patricia Clare Ingham
The affecting combination of untimely loss and utopian hope is the Arthurian double-helix, knit into the narrative DNA of this centuriesold story. The earliest Arthurian narratives, composed well over 800 years ago, persistently link heroic success with devastating loss. King Arthur unites warring armies and builds a remarkable court filled with chivalry’s best and brightest. Yet that court will, ultimately, be destroyed from within when Arthur’s own nephew Mordred—in some versions, Arthur’s bastard son—connives to undermine the sovereign’s power and the unity of his knights. This story of rise and fall would have very long legs, indeed. Alongside a contemporaneous range of Arthurian adventure tales, it would circulate throughout the European Middle Ages as “The Matter of Britain” and in a host of languages (Welsh, Latin, French, Middle English, Middle Scots, Middle Danish, Spanish, Middle High German, Hebrew and Old Norse, for example). In the more recent Anglo-American tradition, King Arthur and his court have served as vehicles for the consideration of persistent human questions and concerns. It served the ends of honor, nostalgia and sovereign rule in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem cycle, The Idylls of the King, published between 1859–1885; truth and popular gullibility in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and David Barthelme’s darkly satiric The King (1990); gender and sexuality in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist fantasy novel, The Mists of Avalon (1979); and, perhaps most incisively, the ethics of government, war and compassionate community in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958).
What are we to make of Arthur’s persistent appeal? For one thing, and as the preceding makes clear, Arthur’s story has always been flexible enough to accommodate competing literary, political, social and historic agendas. The figure of Arthur began as a Welsh “native” war hero, mentioned in poetry and story as early as the sixth century C.E.; yet the first full narrative of his rise and fall emerged from the pen of a cleric known to us as Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095–1155), who gave him sovereign sway over the entire “totius insulae Britanniae,” or whole island of Britain. Arthur Pendragon is the star of Geoffrey’s monumental Latin prose Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, dated 1138) and it was Geoffrey who gave the full shape to Arthur’s narrative arc, beginning in his extraordinary birth—legendary heroes often get extraordinary births—from the ambiguously adulterous coupling of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, the Duchess of Cornwall. It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who told the story of Merlyn’s prophetic prowess and it was he who depicted the noble king uniting a war-torn land eventually brought low by the perfidy of his inner circle. The Historia inaugurated what would come to be called the Arthurian chronicle tradition and as such his Arthur—a member of the group of leaders known during the Middle Ages as the “Nine Worthies”—stands at the head of a genealogy of British kingship. Geoffrey’s Historia was equivalent to a medieval “bestseller”: more than 250 manuscripts of it survive today, written in a variety of languages. In some of those Arthur’s return is predicted, the Rex quondam, Rexque futuris—the “once and future King”—destined to return when need for him is greatest.
Arthur’s fellowship of Round Table Knights would also inspire what has been called the Arthurian romance tradition, first written not in Latin prose but in French verse. The story of the famous, adulterous Arthurian lovers Lancelot and Guenevere did not originate in England, but in the gorgeous French Arthurian tradition. Arthur the King makes appearances in the writings of French poet Chrétien de Troyes (1130–1191) and when he does he is less an admirable leader than the sovereign inutile—the ineffective king. The real stars of Chrétien’s tales are Arthur’s adventurer knights, particularly Lancelot, Yvain and Perceval, who each occupy center stage in one of Chrétien’s romances. Lancelot’s story, Le Chevalier de la Charrette (“The Knight of the Cart”) relates the transfixing tale of the dashing Lance and his desperate love for Guenevere, who also happens to be his Lord and Sovereign’s queen. Their dalliance is a treasonous act. It is also a daring and delightful story of amour courtois (courtly love), a tale of courage, humility and adulterous passion, written at the command, so Chrétien tells us, of his patron Marie de Champaigne (1145–1198).
These and other Arthurian tales would be folded together in Thomas Malory’s (1405–1471) Middle English prose Le Morte D’arthur. Malory’s work—thanks in no small part to Caxton’s printing and re-printing— would be a major source for all the many modern attempts at retelling Arthur’s story. Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is taken from this version, by way of T.H. White’s gorgeous and moving The Once and Future King. White adapted Arthur’s rise and fall specifically for readers in the latter half of the century of the great World Wars; his Arthur is an exemplary, if tragic, leader well aware that “those who live by the sword will be forced to die by it.” White’s King is hesitant to use violence and regularly insists that “Might does not make right! Right makes right!” White also humanized Arthur by giving him a childhood, told in Part One of the novel, “The Sword in the Stone,” made famous in its 1963 animated Disney rendering. The young, unassuming Wart (as he was familiarly called) is schooled in lessons of ethics and power by a grandfatherly and wise, if also slightly doddering, Merlyn. White’s version may have defanged Merlyn (who was fierce and, at times, ambiguously demonic in the medieval tradition), but it also retained and strengthened the Arthurian combination of greatness and loss, this time focused on ethics and right rule for a ragged world still recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
“Let us sit upon the ground,” intones Shakespeare’s Richard II, “and tell sad stories of the death of Kings” (act 3, scene 2). The story of King Arthur encodes precisely these poignant attractions: of greatness brought low, of the persistence of hope even against all odds. Arthur’s story persists because this combination resonates with the long arc of human history. It persists as well because, as the combined chronicle and romance traditions suggest, it straddles history and fiction. This last fact often leaves modern readers wondering whether a real King Arthur existed. The short answer is that we do not know. But in key ways this is the wrong question. Searching for one historical Arthur inadvertently casts aside the avidity with which the many legendary King Arthurs have been drawn, Arthur and his fellowship reimagined to fit the needs of so many different times and places. White sketched a king committed to peace and unity in the wake of uncountable human cruelties and abject losses. This is precisely the way that King Arthur keeps returning when we need him, his story flexible enough to console us in precarious times, imaginatively rich in aesthetic pleasures, an eloquent reminder of the fragility of our communities.
Patricia Clare Ingham is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of books and articles on medieval literature and intellectual history, including Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
Excerpted from the full essay in Guide to the Season 2017–2018, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook. Subscribers receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.