“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”
King Arthur, the once and future king. The name conjures up images of knights and ladies, chivalry, honor and quests. Many an English monarch has traded on these legends. Several sites on the Cornwall coast are associated with Arthur, including his supposed birth place of Tintagel Castle. Glastonbury and its legendary neighbor Avalon are associated with Arthur’s death. The images in this post are from my recent visit to Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Wells.
I think if Arthur lived at all, he would have lived during the chaos following the fall of Rome between AD 400-500 when the Britons needed a leader to quell the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
One of my favorite things about the Arthurian legend is the possibility of harmony between Christian and pagan traditions during a time of historical transition. The idea of Glastonbury Abbey being visible from the isle of Avalon has always been a particularly powerful one to me and speaks to the enduring need for tolerance and mutual understanding. I imagine the Romans and Britons living side-by-side in the first millennium after Christ finding common ground together, sharing ideas and traditions as they did so. Ultimately Arthur’s betrayal by Lancelot and Guinevere and his subsequent death represent a failure to keep the faith.
The first known reference to Arthur was from a Welsh monk writing in the 9th century, but he called Arthur a knight. Geoffrey of Monmouth picks up the story in 1138 and adds some historical context to the Arthurian legend and makes Arthur a king. Ironically many of the aspects most closely associated with Arthur, this famously British figure (the Holy Grail, the Lancelot-Guinevere affair) were actually written in France. Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine were ensorcelled with the legend and carried it to France, where courtiers at Eleanor’s famously romantic court of Aquitaine embellished the tales, adding intrigue and the MacGuffin of the Middle Ages, the Holy Grail.
Sir Thomas Malory then compiled these tales into Le Morte d’Arthur (the Death of Arthur) in 1485. Lord Tennyson and T.H. White both stood on Malory’s shoulders when they wrote their Idylls of the King in the 19th century and The Once and Future King in the twentieth century, respectively. That brings us to the timeless Disney film, The Sword in the Stone (cue Higitus Figitus) and the somewhat less timeless but entertaining Julia Ormond-Sean Connery-Richard Gere First Knight and the strangely watchable Keira Knightley-Clive Owen-Ioan Gruffudd King Arthur (with Stannis Baratheon as Merlin!). Never forget Monty Python’s Spamalot or the classic Camelot musicals. With over a thousand years of portrayals, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the King Arthur legend on Western culture.
Postscript: After I wrote this post, I happened to be in Piccadilly Circus and saw a display that confirms my point about the pervasiveness of King Arthur in Western culture – he’s even an M&M!
Title quote: Graham Chapman, Monty Python and the Holy Grail