If the Western is the national myth of the United States, you could argue that the King Arthur story is the national myth of England. Its power and appeal are so vast that this one tale informs thousands of stories throughout Western storytelling.
— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
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.
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 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)
- 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?)
THE BASIC ARC OF AN ARTHURIAN STORY
- Hero: Freedom to Slavery or Death
- World: Freedom to Slavery or Death
Arthurian stories begin in a utopian world in which the hero is happy but vulnerable to attack or change.
A new character, changing social forces, or a character flaw causes the hero and their world to decline and eventually fail.
King Lear and How Green Was My Valley also fit this pattern.
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
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
King Arthur As Romantic Hero
King Arthur is not just a man and not just a king. He is the modern centaur, the metal horseman. As such, he is the first superman, the Man of Steel, the male taken to the extreme. He is the ultimate embodiment of warrior culture. He represents courage, strength, right action, and establishing justice through combat in front of others. Ironically*, as masculinity taken to the extreme, he lives by a code of chivalry that places woman high on a pedestal of absolute purity. This turns the entire female gender into a symbol, divided into the Christian binary opposites of Madonna and whore.
*I don’t see this as at all ironic; rather, benevolent sexism is an expected result of misogynistic cultures.
King Arthur also symbolizes the modern leader in conflict. He creates a perfect community in Camelot, based on purity of character, only to lose it when his wife falls in love with his finest and purest knight. The conflict between duty and love is one of the great moral oppositions in storytelling, and King Arthur embodies it as well as any character ever has.
Arthur’s ally is Merlin, the mentor-magician par excellence. He is a throwback character to the pre-Christian worldview of magic, so he represents knowledge of the deeper forces of nature. He is the ultimate craftsman-artist of nature and human nature, and of human nature as an outgrowth of nature. His spells and advice always begin with a deep understanding of the needs and cravings of the unique person before him.
… If you want to use King Arthur symbols, be sure to twist their meaning so they become original to your story.
— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
Examples Of Arthurian Stories
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- Shrek The Third
- The Usual Suspects
- Star Wars
- Forrest Gump — Forrest Gump uses two objects to stand for themes: the feather and the box of chocolates. You could criticize the writers’ technique of attaching symbol to theme as heavy-handed. In this everyday world, a feather just floats down from the sky and lands at Forrest’s feet. Obviously, the feather represents Forrest’s free spirit and open, easygoing way of life. The box of chocolates is even more obvious. Forrest states, “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” This is a direct thematic statement of the right way to live connected to a metaphor.
- But these two symbols attached to themes work much better than they at first appear, and the reasons are instructive. First, Forrest Gump is a myth form connected to a drama, and the story covers about forty years. So like the feather, the story meanders over space and time with no apparent direction except the general line of history. Second, its hero is a simpleton who thinks in easy-to-remember platitudes. A “normal” character declaring outright that life is like a box of chocolates is preachy. But simple Forrest is pleased by this charming insight, learned from his beloved mother, and so is most of the audience.
- Ulysses — Joyce takes the idea of storyteller as magician, symbol maker, and puzzle maker further than any other writer. This has benefits, but it also has costs, most notably moving the audience from an emotional response to one that is intensely intellectual. When you present literally thousands of subtle and even obscure symbols in thousands of tricky ways, you force your reader to become a story scientist or literary sleuth, determined to step as far back as possible to see how this elaborate puzzle is constructed. Like Citizen Kane (though for different reasons), Ulysses is a story that you can admire greatly for its techniques but that is very hard to love.
- LoTR — The Lord of the Rings is nothing less than a modern cosmology and mythology of England. It brings together the story forms of myth, legend, and high romance, along with story and symbol references to Greek and Norse mythology, Christianity, fairy tale, the King Arthur story, and other tales of the knight errant.
- 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.
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