Thursday, April 5, 2012

The King's Evolution

What happened to King Arthur? One minute he's a young warrior king who can pull swords out of rocks and anvils, the next he's stuck shuffling papers in some keep while his wife dallies with his best friend. That is one serious midlife crisis.

And it happens very abruptly, too. The first quarter, at least, of any Arthurian cycle revolves around the once and future king himself: his conception, his fostering, his coming-of-age via sword trick, his defeat of the rival kings, his marriage to Guinevere, and his creation of the Round Table knights.

The Sword in the Stone, Rodney Matthews

Then all of a sudden it's about the knights, each one getting a day in the limelight. Gawain, Percival, Balin and Balan, Kay, Gareth, and of course Lancelot, each with his own quests, successes and failures, which they dutifully report on back at Camelot. Where Arthur's
King Arthur, Winchester
Round Table
sitting, presiding over feasts and refusing to eat until he sees marvels and all that jazz. Kind of a comedown for a vigorous young king whose early career puts everyone else's to shame.

There's a lot going on in the transition from fighter to lawgiver, from active participant to benevolent presence in the wings. The first factor in play was probably the difficulty legends have with making a legislator a warrior. The archetypal "wise leader" is rarely found making corpses on a battlefield. We remember Hammurabi as the first lawgiver in history, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was a Mesopotamian emperor, which by definition means he kicked ass like nobody's business. Nestor, spouting smart advice Agamemnon rarely heeds, is old and ill suited to hack up Trojans. Ptah, the Egyptian god of creation, also presides over handicrafts, products of peaceful times; Maat, who represents balance and justice, is a woman. Nobody wants their legal system in the hands of a berserker. So for Arthur to take the place he himself has prepared - that of lawgiver to the masses, bringer of peace to a troubled land - he has to become inactive. He can't represent good government while also taking the lead in all quests that come to Camelot. And once it becomes clear that Guinevere will never give him a son, it's all the more important that the king protect his life and not go gallivanting after every Questing Beast and white hart that turns up.

The White Hart, Arthur Rackham
There's also the nature of the mythos itself. Arthurian legend as we know it is a hodgepodge of individual stories collected under one great umbrella. That umbrella is Arthur and his law-forged peace, which wasn't even in some of the stories in their original forms. Latecomers to the mythos - Merlin, Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde - are the active and heroic centers of their own stories. There's simply no way to inject Arthur into a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, especially given its similarity to his own marriage, except to say, "Well, it was happening in Arthur's reign." Merlin's exploits become a prequel and a foreshadowing of Arthur's greater glory; Lancelot can fight for the honor of Queen Guinevere as easily as for any other woman. But their stories are their own. Arthur's peace can bring them all together and give us a tapestry of courtly life, possible only in peace. Without Arthur, they'd be disconnected and blurring together; but his inclusion, although important for the unification of the mythos, is in name only.

And then there's the whole question of courtly love. Let's face it: the husband never comes off well in those stories. It's actually a miracle that Arthur survives his bout with courtly love with an even greater reputation as a friend, lover and king. It would be so easy to turn him into a
Lancelot Brings Guenevere to Arthur, Henry Justice Ford
Mark of Cornwall, obsessed with proving his wife's guilt and stabbing his friend in the back. Instead, facing a scenario tailor-made to break a great man, Arthur proves his greatness of spirit by acknowledging Lancelot and Guinevere's pain at their betrayal of him. He may be the only cuckold in legend with depth. But he's never going to be the hero of this story. That part is always going to go to Lancelot, to the flashy young wooer in love with a woman above his station. The whole notion of courtly love was invented so that character could seem heroic rather than lecherous. Lancelot is a creation of courtly love; the structure of the story requires that he be the hero. It's a testament to the appeal of Arthur as benevolent ruler that the worst he suffers is passivity, rather than character assassination.

So in terms of the mythos' requirements, Arthur has to be deactivated. You could argue that his
time with Merlin is his apprenticeship in learning how to rule from a throne rather than a battlefield, and that Merlin only leaves when Arthur finally learns. But that doesn't mean we have to forget that teenage Arthur led an army against several northern kings and defeated them all to prove his right to the throne, or that his earliest appearances in Welsh legend are all as a great war-leader, or that in the twilight of his reign he still personally led troops to Brittany.

The Two Crowns, Frank Dicksee
We tend to simplify Arthur. He makes it easy for us; he takes so easily to the mantle of lawgiver that we give him no other plaudits. But he's a much more complicated figure than that. He's a gifted warrior who deliberately retreats from the field of glory to concentrate on day-to-day administration. He's a devoted husband and friend who sacrifices his peace of mind to protect the hearts and consciences of the people he loves. He steps back to give other people time to shine, becoming forgotten even in his own story cycle until the end. He's a leader, in every sense of the word. And he shouldn't be put in a neat little box. He's too interesting for that.


  1. I don't actually know much about the Arthurian legends. They were originally Welsh oral stories, right?

    Anyway, I guess you'd probably pick the bits to recite that best fit your PR goals. Like, if you want to remind people that your government is badass, you tell stories about battle. If you want them to have faith in order and the benevolence of their leader, pick those bits.

    While instructing the people on one hand, the stories might also be used to nudge the leaders. Things run a lot smoother when you deal gracefully with courtly intrigue than when you start stabbing your knights.

    1. Arthur starts out as a Welsh war leader (the nifty Latin term is "dux bellorum," or "duke of battles," which definitely needs to be said more often). He initially got his fifteen minutes because he was an effective war leader at a time when the Saxons were curb-stomping the native Celts. Geoffrey of Monmouth later wrote Arthur into his history of England, but said some rather uncomplimentary things about him, possibly because of religious differences. It did legitimize the character of "King Arthur" as a historic person, regardless of how much the story resembled the actual man. The French are the ones who really created Arthur as we know him today, with a court, downtime, an order of chivalry, and marital woes. By that point, whoever the "real" Arthur was had been long lost. (If he was ever one man in the first place, and not an amalgamation of several sort-of-victorious leaders combined to boost morale after the fact of conquest.)

      ...history lesson over. For now.

      But at least it does prove you right. The whole history of the Arthur cycle is one of choosing the bits and pieces that will make a satisfactory story. His story has always been used as instructive, for kings, knights, and ladies. The problem with that is one of character consistency, which to be fair is all across the board (with the exceptions of Lancelot, who is perfect, and Galahad, who is too boring to have any character). That's pretty much why I love revisionist Arthuriana - it can explain the change in Arthur, the weird way Gawain goes from awesome to dumbass, the total bitchiness of the beloved Guinevere, etc.

    2. Interesting. I didn't realize the French were so involved in the actual formation of the Round Table part of the story. I knew they had a lot to do with Lancelot (I mean, his name is French), and we had to read Tristan & Isolde in French lit. It sort of makes sense they'd be interested in the court business, since they were rather busying attempting to HAVE a court. lol. Nice to have myths that legitimate your fancy new form of government.

    3. Truth. And given the vast umbrella of myths that "Arthuriana" encompasses - and the lack of any authoritative canon - you could make him and all his requisite glamour legitimate anything you wanted. Knight X did it, so it's right! And he did it because... well, because I made this song about him doing it, and it's a really good song! :)