Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories

The Final Page of The Polar Express

Is fairy land real? Some children’s stories would like us to think so. Their endings contain a ‘wink’, encouraging readers to carry the possibility of fantasy lands with them, even after the story draws to a close. This is one way of achieving resonance. We might argue this is a cheap trick.

Enter Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Magic of Reality partly as an antidote to magical thinking, which he famously despises. His main argument? Reality is far more interesting than anything fiction writers can make up. In this he is probably right.

Continue reading “Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories”

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

Thomas J. Banks - A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.

The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.



RE-VISIONED CLASSIC TALE

Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case  the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

  • The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
  • There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
  • Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
  • Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
  • Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
  • The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
  • When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)

So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new.  However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).

THE AUTHOR READS

Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’.  The publishers were happy to wait for it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED”

SHORTCOMING

Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.

His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His shortcoming is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.

The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.

DESIRE

Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his conscious desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.

OPPONENT

Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.

Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.

PLAN

Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.

Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:

On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.

BIG STRUGGLE

Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.

But the Battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.

ANAGNORISIS

This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s Anagnorisis — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.

But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Anagnorisis is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.

NEW SITUATION

By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.

In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.

Header image Thomas J. Banks – A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Legend Or Fairytale?

A version of The Pied Piper cover by Monico Chavez

The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is at least part legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town, all of the children really did disappear in a short space of time.

The street in Hamelin, where the children were last seen, is today called Bungelosenstrasse, translated to ‘street without drums’. No one is allowed to dance or play music there. This street is now a tourist attraction — alternatively, you can check it out on Google Earth, though it appears the Google street car has yet to traverse the area.

Any cultural image in which children follow an adult playing music is likely to conjure images of the Pied Piper.

SETTING OF THE PIED PIPER

Hamelin is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are a number of theories.

THEORIES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE PIED PIPER

A creepy Pied Piper illlustration by, I think, a Russian illustrator?
THE BLACK DEATH THEORY

The story of the Pied Piper suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. In Black Death days, those with literacy skills generally wrote to other towns nearby to warn them of it.

According to Marina Warner, in No Go The BogeymanThe Pied Piper legend warns that the fey and the pied, the eldritch and the elf, are dangerous to humans in their capriciousness. They personify the unpredictable mischief making of fate. The Pied Piper story is dated to 1240 when Hamelin is known to have suffered a similar plague and in several ways its hero prefigured many spectres who come to haunt Germany. Though not devilish or otherwise monstrous the piper appears in the motley sometimes worn by the devil and even more by the fool who mocks truth while the mountain, which uncannily opens when he plays in order to swallow the children, is the familiar habitat of elves and deserves and giants and other messengers from the dark side.

THE PIED PIPER INVENTION AS COGNITIVE BIAS

It’s perfectly reasonable to think there was no human figure leading the children away, that it’s all metaphor. Throughout history there is evidence a persistent cognitive bias — humans have a tendency to find meaning in the universe by imputing agency to events that might as plausibly or more plausibly  be due to chance.

A better documented historical example are the French famines. Under the old regime, the population could never accept that nature was solely responsible for the dearth. The general assumption was that people were hoarding grains somewhere, driving the prices up. The actual cause, we are sure now, was a bad harvest. This particular conspiracy theory is known today as the Pacte de Famine.

THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADES THEORY

However, there may have been a person involved. Another theory involves children taken away for The Children’s Crusades. In this story, dating from the Middle Ages, young, charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. However, there’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. The crusades were almost certainly much smaller than legend has it. There remains no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit.

THE CULT RECRUITMENT THEORY

It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier those days (around June 20-22).

THE DANCING PLAGUE THEORY

Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania.  There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. Injuries were sustained. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.

THE ABDUCTION THEORY

But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a terrible news story similar to that one.

THE RAT PLOT

In early, 1400s versions of the Pied Piper tale there was no mention of rats. Of course, by the time Robert Browning turned it into a poem, rats seemed vital to make the story work.

Why and when did the rats come into the story? Rats were a problem in every town and city throughout the history of cities. They’re still a problem today. Rats have often represented the worst of humanity since they thrive in urban environments we’ve come to associate rats with other urban ills such as crime and overcrowding and disease.

The Ratcatcher is a fairytale in its own right. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Ratcatcher (in 1839) which is separate from The Pied Piper, also collected. There are no disappearing children in this fairytale. Instead, it is much more concerned with a magician who can charm rats. A Danish version of the tale similarly elevates the role of the ratcatcher to an almost godlike status. In the Grimm version of The Pied Piper, the children are taken through a portal into Transylvania (a spooky country where vampires live). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. This leads us to another theory: Many Germans settled in places such as Transylvania during this time. They would drum up volunteers to go with them. Is it possible that the children of Hamelin disappeared because they were taken by fellow townspeople migrating? By people who needed young, healthy workers? Perhaps the parents even sold the children, or at least gave them permission to leave, knowing that starvation was the other option. They may have been led away by a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought. Hunger is a strong motivator.

It looks like the fairytale of The Ratcatcher (as collected by the Grimms) combined over time with the real story of the missing children of Hamelin and now we have a fairytale/legend hybrid. This seemed to happen in the 15th century. By the mid 16th century they seem permanently intertwined. The first written version of The Pied Piper was penned by a guy with the wonderfully fairytale name of Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern, and that included the rats.

After it was re-written in German a couple of times (including by the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By the mid 1800s, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE PIED PIPER

Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are by. Arthur Rackham.

classic illustration of the pied piper street scene

Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Errol Le Cain
by Errol Le Cain
Pied Piper illustration by Errol Le Cain
Pied Piper by Oskar Herrfurth
Pied Piper by Oskar Herrfurth
Pied Piper by Henry Justice Ford
Pied Piper by Henry Justice Ford
If you recognise the illustrator, let me know.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN”

Robert Browning’s version, and similar adaptations. This is the version you probably know. This is the one I grew up with.

I have realised in the writing of this blog that I have a harder time working out the ‘main character’ of fairytales than I do of modern stories.  Every now and then in a modern story you find the ‘main character’ is actually an ensemble cast a la Little Miss Sunshine or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Winnie-the-Pooh, in which each member of the cast represents a different facet of human nature. Fairytales are like that, I think. Normally we can ask ourselves: Which is the character who changes the most? That is your main character. But what if, as in this legend, an entire town changes forever?

In this case, unusually, The Town is the main character, but the town is personified by the men who run it.

SHORTCOMING

The town is overrun with rats. This surface level problem will highlight the inadequacies of the town.

DESIRE

The town wants to get rid of the rats. But then the desire shifts. For the second part of the story, the men who run the town don’t want the town to fall into poverty by paying what they promised.

OPPONENT

Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so let’s treat them like any other natural phenomenon such as a tsunami, earthquake or flood.

The Opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the town council. (Some see the Pied Piper as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper in a long, brightly coloured gown. It’s significant that it’s ‘pied’, because this means he’s pieced it together out of bits of rag. In an era where clothes were clear signifiers of wealth (due to the expense of clothing), the ragtag clothing suggests someone wearing a mask — a duplicitous person who pretended to be more important than he was.

The Pied Piper is the subcategory of False Ally Opponent because at first he helps the town. However, his motives are revealed to be entirely selfish. He is just as morally lacking as the town council who refuse to pay him. He sacrifices the lives of an entire town’s worth of children, collateral damage.

Or is he? Do you come down on one side or the other? The tale of The Pied Piper endures partly because it asks us to think about the nature of altruism. Is the Pied Piper an altruist?

To be genuinely altruistic an action has to satisfy two conditions:

  1. Proactive not reactive
  2. Anonymous (not clear cut when God comes into it, because in some cases the agent believes God is watching)

The Pied Piper was proactive. He wasn’t asked to save the town — he offered. However, he is a businessman. He’s doing it for money. So he is quasi-proactive.

He’s not anonymous. He could have simply gotten rid of the rats without telling anyone, expecting nothing in return.

But what if the Pied Piper was starving and needed payment in order to eat? Does that change our calculation of his altruism? The modern leftie view is that all people deserve a living wage, and the modern right-wing view is that people who contribute a lot to a society deserve a very large living wage. So according to any point along the modern political spectrum, the Pied Piper should garner some sympathy.

DEPICTIONS OF THE PIED PIPER

The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era. The unifying feature is of course his clothing, but we can group his body type into a few distinct categories.

GOOD-LOOKING PIPERS

Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin play El Flautista de Hamelin
SKELETAL PIPERS

But he’s more traditionally very skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, and long fingers. See Errol Le Cain’s version (above), which may have influenced character design in Shrek.

Why all the skinny, pointed representations? I suggest the illustrators see the Pied Piper as a symbol of death — whereas he does have skin, he is nevertheless a skeletal/skeleton figure, not so different from many depictions of the grim reaper.

the Pied Piper from Shrek
from the Shrek franchise
ANDROGYNOUS PIPERS

Eleanor F. Brickendale (who died in 1945) even made him slightly androgynous — he could almost pass for an old woman.

The Pied Piper old woman

PLAN

Promise to pay the piper and then not pay him. We don’t know if this is because the town can’t pay him or they won’t. It is implied they simply will not, but if the town has suffered famine for an enduring period, it’s also likely they cannot pay him.

Would you have lied to the piper in order to save your town? This is similar to the moral dilemma posed by philosophers: If you were dying and a drug company possessed a drug that would keep you alive — but they charged so much you couldn’t afford to buy it — would you steal it?

BIG STRUGGLE

In the Robert Browning poem, the Battle is dramatised with the scenes between the Pied Piper and the council.

The death big struggle takes place off the stage, when the piper drowns all of the children.

ANAGNORISIS

Oh. We should have honoured our promise. (Audience: honour your promises. Retribution is often way out of whack with your original misdemeanour.)

The mid 1800s were an era which favoured retributive justice, so Browning would have written his poem influenced by this idea: That if someone does not honour their promise, you are fully justified in meting out retribution. However, he would have been influenced by the ‘eye for an eye’ idea. That phrase is often mistaken today to mean, “If someone takes your eye, feel free to take theirs.” It’s actually an expression urging moderation — “If someone takes your eye, do not take both of theirs — you may take only one in return.” (In other words, don’t go batshit when dishing out punishment.)

So the Pied Piper’s actions, killing all the children, will have been seen by the 1800s audience — as they are today — as completely over the top evil.

NEW SITUATION

A town with no children. The town of Hamelin is no longer on the map — the children are a community’s future.

MORE ON “THE PIED PIPER”

FURTHER READING

I wrote a re-visioning of The Pied Piper. It’s called “The Magic Pipe“. I wondered when, exactly, children became immune to the music. Did it happen overnight? Adolescence takes a while. There must have been a group of adolescents or young adults who heard it but faintly, sufficiently conscious of the draw of the music to perhaps resist it. What would that story look like?

The Influence Of King Arthur

Was King Arthur A Real Person?

King Arthur is a fabled British leader, said in medieval tales and chronicles to have ruled over England and defended it against Saxon invaders following the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century. But at the start of the Dark Ages, when the island was under constant threat of invasion, and at various other troubled moments in their history, the inhabitants of Britain longed for a strong leader who could  unite their fragmented regions under one rule and enable them to defend themselves. Hence the legend of King Arthur, the saviour king, was hugely appealing, its popularity spreading over the years, thanks especially to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History Regnum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of England’), written in about 1136, and to Thomas Malory’s Le MOrte d’Arthur, published in 1485.

Largely thanks to Malory, the legend of King Arthur was integral to the medieval conception of English history, but with the waning of the Middle Ages came a lessening of belief in the story. While the stories continued to be popular, their truth was disputed. The sixteenth-century humanist scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the idea of a post-Roman Arthurian empire, calling it a fabrication — much to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel, in a discussion about the nursery rhyme Good King Arthur.

Features Of Arthurian Stories

Arthurian retellings are generally considered Historical Fantasy (or myth, depending) because there is a lot of magic, so the events aren’t anywhere near believable.

One of the most popular contemporary King Arthur series is the Avalon series by Marion Bradley. Neopaganism also gave King Arthur stories a modern resurgence.

Arthurian Settings

Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)
Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)

The Wild is any place knights have to go to prove themselves, usually to the woods or to the mountains.

These settings stopped being so useful after a while, because Victorian writers transformed woods and mountains into pleasant settings. So now storytellers writing Arthurian tales decided to give their heroes less naturalistic settings.

One example is The Dark Tower in a poem/ballad written Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (a Victorian fairy poem, and O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Things Associated With King Arthur

  • The search for the Holy Grail — the Holy Grail is a sacred cup thought to have been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Sir Galahad found it but died on his way back home (to cut a long story short). The Holy Grail is related to the category of fairy tale known as Fairy Cup Legends.
  • The magic sword of Excalibur — before he expired Arthur threw his sword into the lake. A hand appeared in the waves and caught it.
  • The Knights of the Round Table
  • Merlin (his ally)
  • Camelot (a perfect community created by himself)
  • Guinevere (Arthur’s wife)
  • Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s older half sister) — the aristocratic evolution of the category of fairy who leaves a silver coin in the shoes of tidy maids. Arthur’s enemy, basically. This character was re-visioned as a feminist in the 1970s by Marion Bradley in Mists of Avalon. However battered and bruised she gets, she rises again like a Phoenix, the O.G. Strong Female Character. But she isn’t especially skilful, just resilient. For example, her spells rarely work. In The Once and Future King series by T.H. White Morgan le Fay is a witch archetype out of Hansel and Gretel, who tries to build a castle out of milk and pork hoping to attract children.
  • Sir Lancelot (one of Arthur’s knights and Guinevere’s lover)
  • Brave Sir Galahad (the best and purest of King Arthur’s circle, the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot)
  • Elaine (Galahad’s mum, daughter of King Pelles, employs a sorceress to help her appear in the likeness of Queen Guinevere to trick Lancelot into bed with her)
  • Mordred — Arthur’s nephew. Mordred murdered Arthur by sword.
  • The Isle of Avalon — After Arthur was killed a barge happened to pass by on a lake. Three women, one of whom is Morgan le Fay, take him to the Isle of Avalon. Some legends say Arthur died on Avalon. Other legends say he’s sleeping in a cave somewhere. He’ll wake up at England’s greatest need. (If not for Brexit, when, though?)
John Mulcaster Carrick - Le Mort d'Arthur
John Mulcaster Carrick – Le Mort d’Arthur
Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin  (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927
Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) "The Death of Arthur", 1910
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) “The Death of Arthur”, 1910

THE GRAIL LEGENDS

The best known of these is probably ‘The Holy Grail’ by Robert de Boron, but since the grail is such an important symbol in the Arthurian stories, there are more than one.

  • The Story Of The Grail by Chrétien de Troyes (a poem). It was never finished, actually.
  • Various continuations of that poem written by other people
  • A German story called Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
  • There’s a Welsh story
  • etc

Basic Plot of a Grail Legend

  • Joseph of Arimathea acquires the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon his removal from the cross.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison, where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup.
  • Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

SYMBOLISM OF ARTHURIAN STORIES

The Grail Legends are full of sexual symbolism.

A knight, usually a very young one whose “manhood” is barely established, sallies forth bearing his lance, which will certainly do until a phallic symbol comes along. The knight becomes the emblem of pure, if untested, maleness in search of a chalice, the Holy Grail, which hit you think about it is a symbol of female sexuality as understood once upon a time: the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And the reason for seeking to bring together the lance and the chalice? Fertility. (Freud gets help here from Jessie L. Weston, Sir James Frazer and Carl Jung, all of whom explain a great deal about mythic thinking, fertility myths, and archetypes.) Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the ageing king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols. Perhaps he can no longer use his lance, so he sends the young man. It isn’t wanton or wild sex, but it’s still sex.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Problems With The King Arthur Story

King Arthur stories are part of the reason why the male hero has been central since the fifth century. Before that, females were often the main characters in stories, because they were thought to have produced the world.

The Centrality of the Adventure Story, Marjery Hourihan

Examples Of Arthurian Stories

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Shrek The Third
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Star Wars
  • Forrest Gump
  • Ulysses
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — The other Narnia books are Biblical but this one has a distinct Arthurian feel.

The alternative world of Narnia into which CS Lewis’s four children repeatedly escape is beautiful and magical but fraught with danger. Like Nesbit, he explores the possible consequences of magic, but he also provides spiritual balm in the figure of Aslan, the talking lion.

There are many examples of this guiding, protective, mysterious figure in the literature of this Second Golden Age. Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series has a wise, magical old teacher in Merriman Lyon – or Merlin, as he turns out to be. Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan have the wizard Cadellin, and Frodo Baggins’s Companions have Gandalf. All of these draw on national myth, both Celtic, Norse and Arthurian, but above all they draw on the European concept of God, and it’s no surprise to find the same figure popping up more recently in Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore. And no wonder we needed him. In the 1960s, it wasn’t enough for a child to find her father or restore the family fortune. This time, we were told, we needed to save the world. By the time you get to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s not just this world which needs saving, but the multiverse.

Amanda Craig

King Arthur and Westerns

In the characters of the American Western film, [Frank] McConnel notes that we can see, with very little stretching, the heirs to the Arthurian legends. In westerns, the king or founder, is represented by the figure of the frontiersman or the cattle baron who carves out from an inhospitable landscape a space that human beings can live in. Examples are provided by the frontiersman of John Wayne and especially the film Red River. It is a vision created by film director John Ford. Here is the city as it was founded and the audience is left to imagine the way things must have come to be the way they are.

Symbolism of Place

Subverting The Myth of King Arthur

WHEN good king Arthur ruled this land, He was a goodly king; He stole three pecks of barley-meal, To make a bag-pudding.
A bag-pudding the king did make,
And stuffed it well with plums: And in it put great lumps of fat,
As big as my two thumbs.
The king and queen did eat thereof,
And noblemen beside; And what they could not eat at night,
The queen next morning fried.

Of the above nursery rhyme Jack writes:

This nursery rhyme, with its down-to-earth king and queen, would seem to stem from this period [the 16th century]. After all, far from being a heroic figure of high chivalry — as portrayed by Malory — this goodly king is now a thief. Arthur’s famous banquets, where no one could eat until a marvel had occurred (from headless knights and damsels in distress to visions of the Holy Grail), have turned into a slapstick pudding-making and -eating session. Guinevere, rather than being the mysterious, beautiful queen and object of forbidden love, is demoted to a penny-pinching housewife, thriftily frying up the remains of the pudding for breakfast. It’s hard not to feel that the author of the rhyme must have heard the Arthurian legends one time too many. Opening with When good King Arthur ruled this land, this rhyme mocks both the high-flown poetry of Le Morte d’Arthur and wistfulness for ye goode olde days that almost certainly never were.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel

Header image: William Bell Scott – King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment – 1846-62

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