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King Arthur: The Enduring Myth
“Let it ne’er be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” These words, written for the play Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner, have a resonance in our ears even today, particularly for anyone who remembers John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The Kennedy administration was seen as a Golden Age of peace and prosperity in the United States; how true that was is the subject for an entirely different paper, but the fact that it was compared to Camelot shows something about the appropriation of the Arthurian legends throughout history. The myth of Arthur has been revived many times throughout the centuries, and each revision of the story is indicative of its contemporary time period. There is much speculation, scholarly and otherwise, whether or not the legends have any basis in fact. It is probable that there was a King Arthur, a Romano-Briton leader left over when the Romans pulled their legions out of England to defend Rome from Germanic tribes. Most of the stories place him in Cornwall or Wales, and Glastonbury Cathedral even claims his grave. Of course, Glastonbury also claims that Jesus walked there, so any assertions from Glastonbury are doubtful at best. This historical Arthur would have been a territorial warlord, holding off the Saxon invaders in the 5th or 6th centuries A.D. The chivalric trappings of the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot and quests for Holy Grails and such most likely have their origins in French tales of the Middle Ages.
However, whether or not King Arthur was real, or how much of his story is actually true, it is undeniable that the legends surrounding him have had enormous staying power throughout the centuries. Arthur appears briefly in Welsh histories and legends, but did not become a central figure himself until the French romances of the 13th century, which portray a highly chivalric world. The first major mention of Arthur in English was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia, a much more realistic and historical account of the early Middle Ages. Later, during the Wars of the Roses, Sir Thomas Malory adapted the French stories into La Morte d’Arthur, still the most complete collection of Arthurian lore. The final important development in the literature of Arthur came in the neo-Gothic revival in the 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a very idealistic view of the Middle Ages, using Arthur and his knights as exemplars of knightly honour.
In each of these works, Arthur reflects something about each era—either what it was like, or what it wanted to be like. Since not very much was known about Arthur, the legend was perfect for adapting to whatever was needed at the time, and yet holding on to some claim, however tenuous, to authenticity. Let us look closer at each seminal era.
THE MEDIEVAL ERA
The earliest mentions of Arthur are in a very few historical documents, which mention certain battles involving an “Arthur” [Mancoff 12]. Some suggest that arthur was a Celtic title (meaning Great Warrior) rather than a name, and that there were several “Arthurs” whom Medieval historians confused and merged together into one man, Arthur. This would explain why one history mentions that Arthur was made King of the Britons in 415 A.D., and another that he died in 620, an obvious impossibility. These historians were largely relying on oral tradition, which after five hundred years or so understandably had got a bit muddled. Arthur does appear in a few early Welsh tales, such as Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhiannon. These stories are both collected in a work of eleven Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion. The first treatment of Arthur in English was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia (History of the Kings of England—1138), of which he devotes about one fifth to the Arthur’s history. However, Geoffrey seems to have had a bit of trouble distinguishing fact from fiction from downright impossibility, so his ‘history’ is slightly suspect [Mancoff 13]. Geoffrey envisions Arthur as a feudal lord, giving land to his knights in exchange for their loyal service [Reid 1].
Meanwhile, as the English were writing histories and trying to shed light on the Dark Ages, the French were adding to the confusion with the Arthurian Prose Cycle of the 13th century, writing multitudes of otherwise unrelated stories about the quests and intrigues of Arthur’s knights. The most famous of these romance writers, Chrétien de Troyes, introduced both the Lancelot-Guinevere relationship and the quest for the Holy Grail into the Arthur legend, and wrote many other courtly romances to please his queen, Marie de Champaigne. Rather than focusing on the relationship between knight and king, these tales are more concerned with the loyalty a knight owes to his chosen lady [Reid 4], and were very popular among the ladies of the French court. In many of these stories, Arthur and Camelot serve merely as a reference point, a place where knights come together before going their separate ways on daring quests [Mancoff 19]. The individual knights were all-important, Camelot and Arthur were in the background.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, feudalism was still in vogue, and the Arthurian legends showed the ideal of chivalry within the feudal system. By the 15th century, when Sir Thomas Malory put together his massive La Morte d’Arthur, feudalism was fading away, and the fall of the Round Table mirrored the failing of the feudal system. The Wars of the Roses were in full swing, with the crown of England changing hands every few years as the Yorkists and Lancastrians fought for the right of succession. This also is mirrored in Malory, as the feuding knights fight for control of Camelot, symbolised particularly by the treacherous Mordred—who is closely related to Arthur, just as the houses of York and Lancaster were closely related. Even the very title, which means ‘The Death of Arthur,’ casts gloom over the work, foreshadowing the inevitable end. Malory shows us a Utopian society, filled with chivalrous and victorious knights, which is doomed to corruption and defeat from within. From a literary perspective, Malory also ends the Arthur cycle, by having him die at the end. It is promised that he will return, but Malory does not show his return, and leaves no room for more romances to be written [Mancoff 20]. His aim was for a consistent and believable account of the life and death of Arthur; how well he succeeds is debatable, given the many inconsistencies apparent to a studious reader. People who die in one chapter often reappear in later chapters with no explanation, but this can be put down to the multitude of disparate sources with which Malory is dealing.
Interestingly, while Malory is using the Arthurian legend to mirror the downfall of late Medieval England’s political and societal structure, the monarchy was claiming Arthur to show political viability. La Morte d’Arthur was printed by William Caxton in 1485, the same year in which Henry of Richmond defeated Richard III at Bosworth field and became King Henry VII. Henry claimed descent from Arthur through Cadwallader, a Welsh king, and named his first son Arthur. However, Arthur died young, and it was left to Henry VIII to carry on the Tudor dynasty and its connexion with Arthurian iconography. When the Virgin Queen Elizabeth took the throne, Edmund Spenser portrayed Arthur in The Faerie Queene as Elizabeth’s ideal prince consort. James I was an Arthur aficionado as well, but his son Charles I preferred classical iconography to the medieval Arthur, following the trends of the Continent, and Arthur fell from favor. It became dangerous to write about Arthur during the Commonwealth period, because of the connexion between Arthur and the Stuart dynasty under James and his son Henry, who died before being able to take the throne and continue the Arthurian tradition [Mancoff 20-21]. The next revival of Arthurian interest would not come until the Gothic Revival of the 18th and 19th centuries.
THE VICTORIAN ERA
The Victorian Age, or the Romantic Era, ushered in a huge revival of the Medieval. The neo-classicism of the 17th-18th century was passing away, due to a combination of factors. The French Revolution proved that the ideology of the Enlightenment, reason and rationalism, was not sufficient to explain or control the passionate emotions of human beings. The Industrial Revolution threatened to reduce man to a piece of machinery, taking away his individuality and personal freedom. Romanticism was a reaction against these two revolutions, and the Romantics, in both literature and art, tended to look back to the Medieval for inspiration. And in England, the Medieval meant King Arthur.
In fact, even in the neo-classical 18th century, there was sporadic interest in things Medieval. While the continent of Europe could look back to the ancient Roman and Greek periods, the farthest back England could go in its own history was to the height of the Medieval [Mancoff 22], which was epitomised by Arthur, the great warrior king of the 6th century. However, the English were not particularly interested in adding to the literature associated with Arthur, and this scattered Medieval revival was limited to a few castles built by eccentric nobles [Mancoff 24] and a search for relics related to Arthur. It was more archaeological than anything else. The search for the past was more important than any thought of how and when the literary Arthur would return [Mancoff 27].
This is not to say that there was no interest at all in the Arthurian literature. There were several volumes of literary criticism written, attempting to raise interest in reading Medieval works, especially those exemplifying the trait of chivalry—obviously including all of the Arthurian legends. Some writers, like Richard Hurd (Letters on Chivalry and Romance, 1762), wanted these works to be read in the original Middle English; others, like George Ellis (Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances, 1805), provided translations for greater accessibility [Mancoff 31]. These translations would provide the basis for the literary return of Arthur in the Victorian Era.
But how was Arthur to return, even in literature, to a society that was fundamentally different from the feudal Middle Ages? The feudal system, collapsing even in Malory’s time, had now completely disappeared, replaced by an all-but-figurehead monarch and a democratic Parliament, leaving little in common with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s feudal lord. Writers like Hurd and Ellis brought the code of chivalry back into the literary scene, but it took Kenelm Henry Digby to apply it to Victorian society. He wrote a book called The Broadstone of Honour, or Rules for the Gentlemen of England in 1822—a handbook showing modern men how to best exemplify the “gentleman” by acting out the chivalric code in a modern way [Mancoff 32-33]. This started a frenzy to revive all things Medieval, not simply architecture and archaeology. The wealthy began collecting armor, identifying themselves with the knights of long ago. The Earl of Eglinton, Archibald Montgomery, even attempted to put on an old-fashioned tournament in 1839, complete with fourteenth-century costume and armor. Only thirteen “knights” challenged at the lists, and torrential rains destroyed the field and grandstands, showing that it was impossible to resurrect the past physically. The tournament was an utter disaster, and it was not attempted again [Mancoff 34-35]. However, people realised that though Victorians could not be Medieval knights, they could still put the principles of chivalry into practice. The ancient knight became the modern gentleman [Mancoff 30].
The difference in Arthur is evident from even a cursory reading of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Arthur is still brave and fearless, leading his men on quests for relics and in battle against the forces of chaos and destruction. But he is no longer ‘one of the boys,’ enjoying his wine and women as much as any of the lesser knights [Mancoff 49]. Rather, Camelot is shown to be a bastion of virtue, where nothing is admitted that is not pure and chaste—a very Victorian Camelot, as opposed to a Medieval one. The legends are taken out, washed off, cleansed of impurity, and rewritten through Victorian glasses. Many details of the story have been changed. Arthur is no longer Mordred’s father, for a paragon of merit could not possibly have an illegitimate son with his half-sister: that would be scandalous! So Mordred becomes simply Arthur’s nephew. In fact, none of Arthur’s dalliances make the transition into Tennyson. Tennyson had an agenda. He wanted to use Arthur’s court as the example of perfection that could be reached by the proper use of chivalry. And the fall of Arthur’s court is brought about by sinfulness within it.
In Malory and other Medieval treatments of the Arthur legend, the corruption of Camelot is widespread and contributed to by all the members of the court (excepting Galahad the Pure, and possibly Percival, the two main seekers of the Grail). The adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere is just part of kingdom-wide web of decadence, and only becomes a big issue when Mordred makes it a big issue. In Tennyson, it is this affair which sets the tone for the rest of the court, a bed of sin that seeps throughout Camelot, rotting the whole kingdom. This is a very Victorian point of view: the “angel in the home,” if you will. Tennyson’s argument is that if Guinevere had stayed at home, true to her rightful husband, Camelot would not have come to such a violent and disgraceful end. Through the willfulness of one woman, a whole kingdom fell.
Arthur is portrayed as the ideal man in Tennyson, full of righteous anger at Guinevere when he discovers her unfaithfulness, and yet willing to forgive her—the view Victorian men liked to hold of themselves. Unfortunately, by this time Mordred had already taken advantage of his opportunity and sparked the war between Arthur and Lancelot, and nothing could be done to save the kingdom. Medieval writers did not think of blaming the whole thing on Guinevere, as Tennyson seems to do. Quite often Tennyson even gets a bit didactic and preachy when he is afraid that we will not understand his warnings against vice. However, all of this directness can have the opposite effect [Reid 48]. Tennyson’s Arthur is a bit too pure, a bit too virtuous; a bit too much the ideal man. He is not always believable, and as a literary character, he pales next to the well-rounded Lancelot. Still, Tennyson’s poetry is masterful, and the beauty of his blank verse is often haunting (read The Lady of Shalott to see what I mean—out loud, and preferably, outdoors).
The Idylls of the King was a life work for Tennyson. He published portions of it throughout his life and was still tinkering with it in 1891, a year before his death. In the final poem, “Morte d’Arthur,” Tennyson undid what Malory had done in his Morte d’Arthur. Malory had closed the cycle, killing Arthur off so that no more stories could be written. Tennyson reopened it, not only bringing Arthur back for the stories in Idylls of the King, but allowing the king to return in the future, after he is healed in Avalon. He comes “like a modern gentleman” ready to be king again—The Once and Future King, the vision Tennyson had always had of Arthur, since he had first read Malory as a child [Mancoff 52].
On the political scene, it was time for Arthur’s promised return. For with the death of King William IV in 1837, a 19-year-old girl became the queen of England. Victoria was only the fourth Queen in British history (discounting Queen Mary II, who ruled alongside her husband William III), and never had a girl so young been made ruler. Most of the power in England was now in the hands of Parliament, but the monarch was the symbol of the country. Britain was poised to become the greatest power the world had ever seen, and she needed a strong monarch. Victoria would prove to be one of the longest-lived monarchs, but at the age of nineteen, she seemed delicate and frail [Mancoff 30]. Her youth inspired the men of England to become the ‘modern gentlemen’ of chivalry and take her protection upon themselves. Arthur’s knights became the examples, and Arthur became the ideal prince consort for the young Queen. This was not a new idea; remember that in the 16th century, Edmund Spenser portrayed Arthur as Queen Elizabeth’s prince consort in The Faerie Queen. Victoria, of course, did not remain a virgin queen as Elizabeth had done. She married Albert, a German prince related to her mother’s side of the family. However, Albert was not the ideal chivalric consort desired by the English people. He was more interested in reading and intellectual discussion than hunting or other traditional English aristocratic leisure activities. He was denied a hand in politics (though he tried to influence them once in a while) due to the English wariness of foreign intervention in their country [Mancoff 45]. All in all, he was a good husband and father, and Victoria mourned for decades at his death, but he was never popularly accepted by the English people.
Victoria clearly saw Albert as her knight in shining armour: various portraits of the time portray Albert as lord of the household, sitting in armour, or dressed as a Medieval king. She even had him dress as Edward III for a costume ball [Mancoff 46]. However, try as she might to remake him in the image of chivalry, the public would not see him this way, and refused to accept him as their queen’s ideal prince consort. Arthur stepped in to fill the void, partly through the actions of Albert himself. Albert’s one sphere of influence was as the president of the Fine Arts Commission; and in that capacity, it fell to him to supervise the decoration of the new palace of Westminster. In the monarch’s Robing Room, Victoria changed from the docile wife and mother of nine into the head of state of the most powerful country in the world. Personal identity gave way to national identity, and Albert had the Robing Room decorated with depictions of King Arthur, who became Victoria’s ideal consort [Mancoff 47].
Arthur enjoyed great popularity in both the Middle Ages and the Victorian Era, though his incarnation differed in each, reflecting the changing society and culture. From historical warlord to Medieval warrior to modern gentleman, King Arthur’s character had changed right along with the times to fill whatever void necessary in the literature of England. And not only did the writers of each period appropriate the legend to reflect his time period’s values and political situation, but the monarchy used the Arthurian legends to back up or strengthen its claim and hold on the throne of England, from Henry VII to Victoria. The tales of Arthur continue to be read, loved, and re-imagined, now also on film and television as well as in poetry and novels. The legend is so versatile, with so many different facets, that it can withstand even the pummeling of Monty Python and still retain all its magic and charm. At some level, most of us are idealists, and would like to believe that there might have been, for one brief shining moment, a place called Camelot.
Mancoff, Debra N. The Return of King Arthur: The Legend Through Victorian Eyes. London: Pavilion Books Ltd, 1995
Reid, Margaret J.C. The Arthurian Legend: Comparison of Treatment in Modern and Medieval Literature. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1938.
Barber, Richard, ed. The Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated
Anthology. Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1979.
This paper originated as a term paper for British Studies, Harlaxton College, Spring, 2002.
©2002 by Jandy Stone