Jonathan G. Reinhardt

The : An Introduction to Arthurian Legend

hen most Western contemporaries - the bridge where her bedestined bemusedly Wnisce upon the King, they inevitably waits to consequently rescue her; they form the do so with a certain wistfulness, a sense of story- chivalrous template for how to act adolescent books and wonders, ideals of justice and love for men shy with verse and roses, or bois- romance: they see Disneyesque castle lands, or terously steeded with big trucks—and the Kennedy’s smile. Arthurian legends are indeed unwell-spring of dreams of life-long love whence the mythology of the anglophone world. even on their deathbeds not yet disenchanted Wrapped in the mists of childish memory, they women murmur princes themwards. are the childhood photographs of its sense of ad- The pivotal medieval reteller Sir Thomas venture, every memory shaking with the yearning Malory’s conclusion to his Mort d’Arthur (ca. sense that this is a good, magical world after all, 1470)—that “some say in many parts of where all women are beautiful princesses, all that is not dead, but had by the will men glistening on horseback, and evil of Our Lord Jesu in another place; and men say merely monsters to be slain. that he shall come again”—embodies the dream Even to those who have knowledge of the of a encompassing all aspects of life. stories beyond The in the Stone animation Thus the Arthurian legends evoke the cultural and , to the cultured who have memory of the Anglo-Saxon and of much of the bowed and curtsied before Arthur, , Lance- European passages, ravages, and rebirths of lot du Lac and , have grappled with époques faded and revived. Accumulating the encountering the Green , hoped hopes and hatreds of the centuries, the highly with Perceval, been touched by Tristram and eclectic mythos interprets this Anglophone Isolde in their fate-crossed love—even to them, dream and memory vivacious in terms historical, the legends recall primarily a pleasant story-book mythical, narrative, religious, and sentimental. illustration of what medieval times were like (or The “real” Arthur, however, remains an likely not). And of course, all around they re- enigma—if he existed at all. In the sources pre- sound as the patronizable seat of somber girlish served from close to his lifetime, the historical excitement, such as when Anne of Green Gable and mythic qualities of the traditional Arthurian opheliaizes “” before she slips characters and their genuine are an off her bargelet into the emerald river beneath imbroglio difficult to disentangle. Most have, pre- MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay sumably, some unfabled origin, but often enough he himself was campaigning abroad. Although it it seems the current characters are variously is unclear where exactly Camlann was, Arthur fused from a handful of historical heroes, vestiges likely met his end in battle there, as did another of folklore, and memories of Celtic and Norse prominent figure named Medraut (). mythology. Whoever the “historical” Arthur was, he was Of the authentic Arthur himself, for example, not the wondrously fabulous, aging, high medie- only four claims can be somewhat safely made. val monarch he has come to represent as a First, given that his historical name Artorius is of literary figment. Much that the Arthurian legends Roman origin, and in concurrence with the earli- are now valued for—as well as the lack of clarity est sources, he was a war leader ( bellorum) concerning the “historical” Arthur—arises from in Britain, fighting—probably at the head of Ro- the Welsh poetical tradition through which the man-style cavalry units—for the Romanized Celtic hero’s stories were preserved after the Saxon Briton petty kings, soon after the Romans with- hordes harried and hounded the battered, broken drew from the island in A.D. 407. Secondly, based Britons into the island’s western hills. Thus the either in Welsh southwestern Britain or in those first preserved mention of Arthur is not in a his- parts of the north inhabited by Brythonic , torical text, but occurs in the long poem Y he defended Christian Celtic Britain against hea- from the Book of , originally then invaders. Interestingly, the earliest Welsh written around A.D. 600. Most Welsh poetry was writers mentioning Arthur in the twelfth century transmitted only orally, as was the Celtic tradi- Vita Paterni—the of the saints tion, so that Welsh verse was not more widely , Carannog, , and —describe collected in books until the twelfth and thir- Arthur as a tyrant who plundered monasteries to teenth centuries. Among these were those telling finance his wars. Of course, the authors were some of the Arthurian legends, and unrelated sto- likely themselves simply put-out monks, and they ries of their characters, that were then collected did note favorably that Arthur carried Christian into the Book of Taliessin and the Black Book of emblems into battle. It seems the dux victori- . One such story, and ously battled , , and the heathen fac- , which was first recorded in the tenth- tion among the Britons headed by a predecessor century forms the arch-pattern for most all pur- (“high king”). Thirdly, in the later sixth suant Arthur-related romances. In these texts, century several Arthurs find mention in the his- written four centuries after his death, Arthur has tory books, which indicates a bearer of this already ascended the throne of the benevolent originally rare name was important and admired arch-king surrounded by other valiant Welsh he- enough for people to name their sons after him. roes such as Bedwyr/ and Cei/Kay. The Finally, according to renowned Arthurian complex Welsh poems recall Arthur’s rule as an scholar , his true per- idealized time, and intertwine what is left of the haps inspired at least some of the story elements historical account with popular elements of pre- in the highly eclectic group of legends, since a Christian : battles with , Gwenhwy- very few of them cannot be traced to other far/Guinevere and her triplet sisters, the sources and remain in essence unchanged ambiguous Myrddin/Merlin, and such magi- whether reinterpreted by Welsh , French cal places as the -isle of . troubadours, or English laureate poets. Among The Myrddin/Merlin character is a prime ex- these remnants are Arthur’s leading horse- ample of such mythological eclecticism. In the mounted men into a series of successful battles medieval manuscripts, he appears in two cultur- and his dominance during a few decades in the ally defined roles: he is a bard in the Welsh sixth century when the British Celts held the tradition, and an enchanter and counselor in the Saxons and Picts more or less peacefully at bay. service of Arthur in the English texts. Perhaps He ruled from hill-top fortifications, and pre- reflecting the differing interpretations of his “his- ferred an especially prominent one with a name torical” role, authors frequently describe Merlin similar to “”. More speculatively, the his- in terms half demoniac, half human. When Geof- torical Arthur’s wife may have been abducted (or frey of later conflates him with an- seduced) by one of his lieutenants at home while other collected character, Imrys/Ambrosius, the

Jonathan Reinhardt, “An Introduction to Arthurian Legend,” page 2 MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay future sorcerer’s ambiguity earns its exposé by the Irish figure’s tales include hiding within an inheriting the latter figure’s alleged conception apple tree (symbolically associated with the lure by a fiend’s rape of a noble nun. Briton heroes of of the supernatural), it is likely that the entire that particular time seem to have had an inordi- episode is a vestige of an older Celtic divine. nate propensity towards being fathered on Some have noted Merlin’s repeated association ravished brides of Christ: the sixth century Welsh with stags, his preferred steed, and thereby trace Dewi/, for example, reportedly him to the Celtic sylvan Pan-like god . was the son of a nun raped by a local prince The best-known mythic quality of Merlin, (sometimes said to be a nephew of Arthur’s). however, stems from what is likely a faulty asso- Less can be said about a “historical” Merlin ciation of the Welsh figure with the Briton Am- than of Arthur. If he existed at all, he seems to brosius (sometimes faultily Celticized as “Imrys”, have been a truly talented poet of noble back- the eternal). It has been suggested that the two ground (and contrary to recent attempts at figures actually represent St. Martin of Tours and reconstruction, likely not a covert ) St. Ambrose of Milan, but even when confined monikered, like Shakespeare, “The Bard”. The within Britain their identities repel one another. name Myrddin seems to have been an adjective The Welsh Myrddin is clearly a Celtic figure, connoting inspiration by a Celtic deity of the arts, whereas Gildas calls the military predecessor to similar to the Greek Muses. At times, the Welsh Arthur “the last Roman,” Ambrosius was the Myrddin skirts identity with the ideal Welsh bard, leader of the Romanized and Christianized Brit- , whose name “radiant brow” likewise ons and ruled in competition with another high implies supernatural inspiration. king, or vortigern, who likely led the pagan Additionally, most scholars presume that the Celts. The latter may be the “Vortigern” who in- “historical” Merlin is closer to the “” or vited the Saxons to Britain. Later sources like “Merlin Sylvestris” tradition revolving around the (ca. 1135) and Robert de Scottish king Rhydderch ap Tudwal. The name of Borron in his Les Prophécies de Merlin (ca. 1200) this tradition’s Merlin-figure originally was firmly appropriate a legend concerning Ambro- , which scholars think derives from the sius to characterize Merlin: Vortigern plans to Welsh llallogan or llallawc, linked to the word sacrifice the fatherless, incubus-spawned future llal, “other”. In the Welsh poem Cyfoesi Myrddin sorcerer to assure that his shaky tower remains a Gwenddyd ei Chwaer (“Conversation of Myrd- standing. The lad exposes two fighting din and his sister Gewnddyd”) recorded in the under the building’s foundations, and interprets fourteenth century Red Book of Hergest, Gwen- them as a to Vortigern’s detriment. hydd (probably the original “”, The historical probability that Ambrosius Niniane) uses llallogan and lallawc as she im- preceded Artorius as major military leader plores her bardic brother for his insights. The reemerges in Merlin’s role as the providential term here seems to be an attribute to Myrddin, or king-maker of the , beginning with a sort of invocation. Most often, llallogan is the future ruler’s fathering by a Merlin-enchanted translated “twin brother,” “lord,” or “dear friend.” Uther on the deceived , his However, “Lailoken” is frequently used inter- Merlin-monitored upbringing by the knight An- changeably with “Lalage,” which derives from tor/Ector, Merlin’s when Arthur the Greek word “to babble” or “to chirp.” In the ascends the throne, and the sorcerer’s crafting of Sylvestris tradition, his ruler’s demise in battle the . By the time Borron wrote his drives Lailoken mad. He wanders the woods and Prophécies, Merlin’s mythic persona remains no prophecies there, claiming he is conversing with more than a caricature figure with deus-ex- the dead. Given that Myrddin’s version of the tale machina qualities who is finally ensnared by his is rather similar to Lailoken’s—that of a noble own and damning flirtation with the warrior-bard driven mad by the loss of a loved fairy /Vivienne. one in battle who then retreats to the woods to While most mythical influences on the Arthu- become a wild prophet—given also that the same rian cycle are veiledly Celtic, others, like the story is reflected in the seventh-century tale of Grail, are of unsure origin and constantly change Irish Suibne Geilt, and that both Myrddin’s and their form: the Grail is variously a cup, a lance,

Jonathan Reinhardt, “An Introduction to Arthurian Legend,” page 3 MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay even a stone, plus various . The incorpora- ginal women who, to quote from Shakespeare’s tion of Germanic into Arthur’s story marks , were “as chaste as unsunn’d snow.” the supreme irony that the Angles and Saxons Martial noblemen often had little difficulty, then, Arthur combated came to hail him as their own in espousing the Marian heresy and making the idealized king. While itself is most Virgin Mary their object of chivalric idolatry. likely a descendant of a sword named Thus inspired, the courtly romances of Chrétien belonging to the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, the de Troyes and others interwove the ideals of story of the sword-in-the-stone, for example, may with knights’ heroic action, recasting have its parallel in the Norse Volsunga Saga the hitherto stature of rough-hewn warrior- (twelfth century). There, the hero (who is knights as an effigy of fine-mannered, virtuous later absorbed into the Nibelungen’s Siegfried) gentlemen willing to offer up their lives for their succeeds in pulling the Balmung ideals, their honor for their lady, and their king- divinely sent by the bard/enchanter-god out dom for a horse. of an oak after many others have failed. The Likely inspired by the reputedly talented Bre- -slaying episodes of later Arthurian legends ton minstrels, French and Anglo-French noble- likewise descend from the Norse sagas. men had mused over some of the Arthurian The French may be credited with transform- subject matter before Chrétien heard it, and even ing the mythical Welsh Arthur poems and the of- spread Arthur’s fame as far as Italy. The eighth- ten bungling pseudo-histories into so-called century Briton and in the tenth-century romance narratives, or legends. Scholars at the Welsh Annales Cambriae briefly mentioned the turn of the first millennium were well aware of “historical” Arthur, and in his 1136 Historia the tenuous presence of fact in the mythical nar- Regum Birtanniae the highly unreliable historian ratives they were transcribing. The ninth-century Geoffrey of Monmouth “made” the once and fu- Irish monk who copied the Táin Bó ture king’s legend by creatively compiling Angli- Cualigne, for example, added as a postscript: “I, cized and feudalized versions of Arthur’s story. By who copied this history down, or rather this fan- 1155, Monmouth’s revision was available as tasy, do not believe in all the details. Several ’s French , al- things in it are devilish lies. Others are the inven- ready inflected with bits of . From these tion of poets. And others again have been far-flung sources, in the late twelfth century thought up for the of idiots.” Chrétien des Troyes selected the materials for his The idiotes savantes for whom the French narrative verse romances and sung forth a series troubadours recreated the British folklore passed of works seemingly inspired—and certainly fol- on to them by Breton minstrels were the likes of lowing the “boy-meets-girl” plot of—the earlier Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Welsh work . Chrétien’s Champagne. Such noblewomen sponsored the Érec et Énide, Cligès, le chevalier de la newly arisen chivalrous movement, based mainly charette, Yvain le chevalier au lion, and the un- on the former monk Andreas Capellanus’ manual finished Perceval le conte del Graal are not as The Art of Courtly Love (1170s & 80s). Taking unconcerned with scope, and Arthur’s kingship seriously the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s (both serves as their setting, not their subject matter. first centuries) ironic player handbook Ars Chrétien does away with all pseudo-history, and Amandi, Capellanus offered advice on how to thus his works are considered the first great lit- pursue adulterous love, or at least cuckoldry. erary treatments of the Arthurian legends. Among nobles, the sacrament of marriage had at Arthur’s own story, in fact, would find a more the time largely disintegrated into political ar- able rewriting in the anonymous La Mort de le rangement so that The Art of Courtly Love Roi Artu (ca. AD 1230). However, it is Chrétien’s offered a consciously immoral reprieve of sorts, characters and narrative emphases that have and became immediately popular. The Church come to be dominant in Arthurian retellings. De condemned Cappallanus’ advice, and insisted on Troyes introduced Lancelot as a major figure, as the faithfuls’ transmuting their desires into an well as constant returns to the chivalric Round adoring devotion so nearly religious that many Table motif. knights chose to worship those married or vir-

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Most of de Troyes’ romances are really love- the romance narratives were meant as “every- interest illustrations, drawing on the plot of the knight” illustrations of courtly chivalric love—a earlier Culhwch and Olwen. As in Culhwch, function they still have. Chrétien’s take adds Chrétien’s Arthur is an elderly sage who often some sense of nobility and an assenting romantic remains the rather passive ruler of a realm of sentiment to the treacherous amour that is un- marvels, and often acts merely as a foil to another usually benevolent. narrative. The most prominent of these is, of Even as a minor character, Guinevere had course, the courtly-love romance of Lancelot and preoccupied legendwrights throughout time. A Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which Chrétien versi- fragment of Welsh poetry names the capricious fied in Le Chavalier de la Charette, and which early Arthurian companion Kay as her abductor; has come to dominate the Arthurian legends. in another, Gawain seduces her. Later, as in Geof- Probably drawing on an earlier Celtic tale of the frey of Monmouth, it is most often the murderous abduction of a noble lady—and perhaps reflect- usurper Mordred with whom she willingly com- ing the biography of the ‘historical’ Arthur to an mits adultery. In any case, the affair always ends extent— Le Chevalier is essentially a recast retell- badly for all concerned. Lancelot’s treachery ing of a story found in the Vitae Gildae, where brings an end to the Round Table and to Camelot. Melwas, king of Aestiva Regis, abducts War breaks out culminating in the battle of Cam- Guinevere. lann where Arthur is slain. In the poetic texts, Lancelot, in fact, is not originally an Arthurian Guinevere usually retires to a convent after her figure at all: his name suggests continental origin, husband’s death, while the pseudo-histories usu- and he first appears as Arthur’s nephew in the ally have her killed. In ’s retranslation of German ’s Lanzelet, Wace’s Brut (ca. 1200), for example, Guinevere without any reference to Guinevere. Zaztikhoven drowns herself. Among the common people, her sends Lancelot on a typical series of adven- memory is reviled and no one offers prayers for tures, several of which incidentally end in her soul. Alfred Lord Tennyson will later go so far marriages to retired damsels in distress. Lance- in his (1889) as to declare lot’s lineage is certainly royal; while nursing her Guinevere and Lancelot’s adultery the root of husband, a king dying of a broken heart in exile, most evil at Arthur’s court, marking it as the cor- the future paragon’s mother leaves her child out ruption that allows barbarism to overrun the of sight on a lakeshore, from whence a water glorious Britain of Camelot. maiden promptly abducts him. Lancelot matures The limited virtuous capacities of chivalric in the care of his foster-mother, the Lady of the love find a treatment in the fourteenth-century Lake and her court of 10,000 maidens. In Zatzik- poem Sir Gawain and the Green hoven’s telling, Lancelot redeems himself and Knight, where the noble knight and later mortal comes into his dead father’s inheritance. Chrétien enemy of Lancelot resists the most explicit en- reduces the unusual in Lancelot’s upbringing, ticements of his enigmatic host’s wife with great confining the Lady of the Lake’s strangeness to a difficulty while he waits to be beheaded by the mirage. Instead, the troubadour focuses on a other-worldly green for in turn having failed similarity between Lancelot’s passage to and from to decapitate the discolored monster the otherworlds with that of Guinevere’s in another previous year. of Zatzikhoven’s tales to find occasion for their The continental romances not only intro- treacherous tête-à-tête. Ulrich’s interpretation of duced the idea of courtly love to the Arthurian the abduction-motif has Guinevere ravished by legends, but also the decidedly religious strain of the Falerin, who hides her in an other- the Quest legend. In this Quest, one or world. Chrétien may have made Lancelot the more knights take upon them the perilous search friendly culprit of such a story to parallel the for the Grail, or Graal, which is elusive to all but popular legend of Tristram and Isolde as versified the worthiest. The quest’s inherent traits of mys- in ’s . ticism and self-denying devotion reflect the teach- Critics have noted that Chrétien’s stories of- ings of Bernard de Clairvaux of the Knight ten seem artificial in tone, and that Lancelot Templars, who encouraged faithful Christians to remains a character without one, indicating that seek beatific visions through arduous self-purifi-

Jonathan Reinhardt, “An Introduction to Arthurian Legend,” page 5 MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay cation so they could re-enact the quasi-marital display good manners, fails to inquire into it. union of the soul with the Divine. Bernard inci- Chrétien’s graal, incidentally, is the blood-filled dentally was among the foremost patrons of cup it will remain hence, whereas Wolfram’s is of copiers of the Arthurian cycle. stone. Once Perceval realizes what he has left The origin of the grail motif is disputed, but it undone, he spends the remainder of his days at- made its original appearance as what seems to be tempting to recover the Holy Grail’s presence. a pagan cult object, with Gawain the hero. In the In later versions of the Grail Quest, Perceval Celtic tradition, the grail consists of all or any of is in turn replaced by Lancelot’s spiritually pure four different objects: the invincible sword Ex- bastard son . (Literarily, this knight may calibur, the unerring white lance covered in actually have had its source in the eleventh-cen- blood, the stone of destiny that future kings must tury Welsh Mabinogi, as , Son of stand upon while being crowned, and the so- Evrawc.) Galahad, too, in spite of being the sin- called cup or of plenty. By the time less contrast to his adulterous father, can only Chrétien de Troyes and his contemporary Wolf- permanently attain the grail in death. ram von Eschenbach wrote their respective The narrative strains of history, myth, ro- versions of the Grail Quest, Perceval replaced mance, and religion in Arthurian legend entangle Gawain as the central hero (only to be later in in the semi-authoritative source of Arthurian leg- turn supplanted by Galahad), and each of the ends for moderns, Mort d’Artur by the fifteenth- grail aspects had taken on an explicitly Christian century knight Sir . Taking the de- meaning. Excalibur became an attribute of the historicizing impulse of the romance troubadours just king, which is why Arthur could wield it, but to heart, Malory seized the sixth century hero Ar- Bedivere has to cast it back into the Lake. The turus by the throat and then, as blood on the lance was that of , pierced by remarks, “put his knights in fifteenth century ar- the centurion during the crucifixion. mor and imposed the twelfth-thirteenth century The stone gradually transfigured into the alche- code of knighthood against a curious depopu- mist lapis philosophorum. The cup, most impor- lated and ruined countryside, which reminds us tantly, came to hold the blood and sweat of Jesus of England after the first plague and ruined as the crucified, the wine-vessel of the spir- made it.” Malory drew on the ited to Britain by Joseph of Arimathaea. so-called “post-Vulgate” stories of the thirteenth Both Chrétien for his unfinished Perceval le century as well as on the French lays and their conte del Graal and Wolfram for his . Consequently, in Sir Thomas’s telling drew their material from a common source, an Mordred is considered the king’s bastard son by otherwise unknown poet by the name of Kiot. his sister Morgaine, Excalibur is clearly associated The narrative itself is probably of Celtic origin with the magical Lady of the Lake, the calamities and first told in Syr Percyvelle of Galles. In both of Arthur’s later realm are ended only by Gala- tellings, Perceval is the son of a widow of nobler had’s death attributed to the slaying of the lineage than his father who brings him up in ig- suffering Grail king Pellean by the Round Table norance of his heritage and in isolation from the knight Balin (subsequently murdered by his twin world in order to spare him his sire’s violent Balan), Tristan joins the Round Table, and thus death. As providence will have it, the characteris- the destruction of Arthur’s kingdom is advanced tically innocent Perceval happens upon a knight by King Mark of , Isolde’s husband. Most who impractically lectures him on manners. Per- importantly, however, Malory sheds all pretense ceval adheres to what he is told and ends up of pseudo-historicity and thus paves the way for raping a sleeping noblewoman in all courtesy, the Arthurian legends to once again become offending Arthur’s court with his lack of civility, myth—this time the national mythos of Tudor killing a knight, and having to prove his heritage England. by setting out on a series of ennobling adven- With the , whatever values may tures. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and Es- have been originally associated with the legends chenbach’s Parzival the young questor of Arthur now were reduced to inspiringly sen- accidentally stumbles upon the grail castle, but timental fairy tales (in the more meaningful does not realize its significance, and, wanting to sense). As J. R. R. Tolkien explained in his lecture

Jonathan Reinhardt, “An Introduction to Arthurian Legend,” page 6 MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay

“On Fairy Stories,” “It is the mark of a good fairy- chivalry, Wagner was preoccupied with the story, of the higher or more complete kind, that mythic dimensions, and replaced any inherent however wild its events, however fantastic or ter- ideas of holiness with a quest for empowered rible the adventures, it can give to child or man compassion. that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of Characteristically, the twentieth century the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to greeted the traditional legends with calls for up- (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that dating and fundamental reinterpretation, careful given by any form of literary art, and having a pe- scholarly scrutiny of its sources, and the combi- culiar quality”—that of joy, or in this case, nation of more or less qualified rewritings in light encouraging enthusiasm. To the Renaissance of personal contemporary agendas characteristic writers Drayton in his Polyolbion and in of much so-called historical fiction. The last of the Faerie Queen by , for exam- the traditionalist mohicans was American poet ple, the Arthurian tales are treated as more or less Edwin Arlington Robinson (of “Miniver Cheevy” fictitious, but respected as an important part of and “Richard Cory” fame). His three blank verse the inspiring English national mythology, a fading poems “Merlin”, “Lancelot”, and “Tristram” cap- memory losing its narrative power, and thus its ture the legends in conventional forms, but he artistic attraction. assigns his heroes a psychology, and one fitting In the wake of three centuries of literary ne- the dark, disenchanting dilemmas of the modern- glect, Arthur the King regained popularity during ist West. More famous are the British T. H. the era of Victoria the Empress, thanks in part to White’s rewriting of Malory, The Once and Fu- medievalizing tendencies in pre-Raphaelite art ture King (1958) and The Book of Merlyn and in Newman-inspired religion. Of course, the (1977). White’s works inspired the Disney adap- politer preferences of the chivalrous ideas, too, tation The Sword in the Stone (1963), but, more revived with the rise of the post-Romantic bour- importantly, were clearly cast as biting satire of geois gentleman. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, contemporaries. His tales sport a naïve and falli- which depends heavily on Malory, became a ble Arthur, a gandalfesque, bungling, providential bestseller in Britain in spite of being poetry. Merlin (complete with Archimedes, the owl), Other prosodists like Swinburne, Morris, and older knights clearly modeled on public school- Browning, too, treated Arthurian themes and mo- groomed retired British army officers who ramble tifs. Their view of Arthur the King evoked the boorishly over their port, nonsensical never-end- golden age of a simpler England lost, the high ing , and lectures by Merlyn on such topics ideals of which were to be exemplary for their as totalitarianism and anarchy. To top it off, own contemporaries, even more so as social and White makes a point of Merlin knowing the fu- political reforms eroded the aristocratic classes ture because he lives his life backwards. The whose puritanical principles demanded a poetic humorous work does away with any poetic ele- authority to wean them from the presumption ments, ending up a mock-fairy tale complete with that vulgarity is simply the conduct of other peo- anachronisms, political allegory, and pacifist ple, and from the anxiety that they, like the boor- commentary. ish degenerate gentry and the seedy, foul-toothed The legends subsequently received a high lit- proletarians, could resist anything except erary treatment by American novelist John Stein- temptation. beck, who emphasized the humanity of the king The interest of the British poet laureate and and the vassals as realistic characters in his The his colleagues coincided with the Wagnerian re- Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. vival of Teutonic mythology, which included Even more scholarly, philologists at Oxford such Tristan (1859) and (1882), although not as Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis attempted to Arthur proper. Wagner’s inspiration was by no restore mythological meaning to the legends by means a chivalrous trajectory; rather, the ranting placing them back into researched contexts, and composer sought to resurrect the Teutonic complimenting them as they saw fit. Charles Wil- strengths he perceived dormant through his liams’ poetry collections Taliessin Through völkisch mysticism. Where Tennyson was con- (1938) and The Region of the Summer cerned with the ideals and sentiments of neo- Stars (1944) are considered major, spiritually

Jonathan Reinhardt, “An Introduction to Arthurian Legend,” page 7 MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay complex contributions to the grail idea as the Christian Celts and pagan Saxon invaders), and as unorthodox thinker has Welsh bard Taliessin re- “true myth” with believable characters is now the tell the Arthurian cycle from his poet perspec- most common method among Arthurian - tive. Part of Williams’ attempts to reinfuse mean- ists. Also noteworthy is that, like Bradley, most ing to the material is his use of traditional motifs contemporary writers focus on previously mar- in criticizing modernist materialism, as when his ginalized characters, especially women, and that Modred claims the grail’s best use is to drink versions of Merlin, not Arthur, tend to be at the from it at dinner. C. S. Lewis resurrects Merlin for center of their narratives. his own modernist critique in the novel That Almost contemporarily with Bradley, Mary Hideous Strength (1945), pitching him against Stewart authored her Crystal Cave-series, a crea- the obliterating evils of technological nihilism. tive biography of Merlin. She, too, attempts to His Christian druid-wizard pays the price of his recover a “real person” behind the mythological own dabbling in magic by becoming the imper- Myrddin figure, and portrays him as less a relig- fect vessel of divine wrath against the techno- ious figure than a perceptive and intelligent logical occult, transforming the somewhat-pagan gifted. There is a host of other retellings, most of into a mighty Elijah-figure. Lewis also edited some which largely mimic Malory in updating the atti- of Williams’ Arthurian criticism—often amount- tudes and world-view positions of the protago- ing to a reinterpretation of the texts—and nists, and Geoffrey of Monmouth in their complemented them in the so-called Arthurian concoctive creativity. The post-Tolkienian fantasy Torso (1948). romance in its Arthurian incarnation, too, has yet The most contemporary garb of the Arthurian to live up to the genre’s ability to convey relevant legends, however, has once more departed from mythic depth without destroying either the po- art form and returned into the seething lap of the etic complexities or metaphysical consistencies novel. The major authors of of their predecessors. Two of the more success- the interpretation of the Arthurian cor- ful fantasy interpreters in the Arthurian subject pus (the authors would probably call it a “recov- matter are probably Stephen Lawhead, who goes ery”) are , otherwise so far as to integrate even the myth, and known for her space fantasy pulp fiction Dark- , who brings more historical over series, and the more traditional Mary Stew- expertise to the task than most others. Adding to art. Bradley’s take on Arthur’s story is dominated the “Celtic” mystique currently en vogue, such by an attempt to impose a matriarchal structure mythographically pluralist popular fantasy retel- on the pagan elements of , proba- lings have added an anthropological shimmer to bly under the influence of Joseph Campbell’s pu- our consciousness of what especially Arthur and pil Marija Gimbutas, who proposed that pre- Merlin may or may not stand for. Christian and especially pre-Indo-European Who, or what, then, is Arthur to the contem- religions were dedicated foremost to a mother- porary hearts and minds? The essence and persis- goddess. The view is largely discredited among tent strength of the Arthurian legends has always scholars, but apparently lingers among what been the cultural arch-myth his story has be- seems to be Bradley’s other influence—the New come: a larger-than-life figure of high nobility Age “neopagan” movement. Throughout her reigns over a near-, only to nobly fall Avalon series (beginning with The Mists of through the tragic flaw that is his humanity, but Avalon in 1983), Bradley persistently advances leaving the hope that beyond history, he will be the polytheist view of , pantheist meta- ruling a gloriously perfect state forever. physics, anti-Christian stereotypes, and even Not a few idealists envision in ’s morn- ritualistic practices that constitute the largely lit days of just right kingship and courteously faulty so-called neopagan understanding of pre- gracious knights-errant phantasms of spotless Christian British religion. Bradley’s approach, presidents and generous executives whisking to however, has proven widely influential, and the the gates of our-homes-our-castles in luminescent telling of the Arthurian tales as the conflict be- limousines to lay the heads of evil tyrants at our tween pre-Christian and Christian culture (rather feet, safeguarding the mirth-imbibing treasures of than, as in traditional Arthurian legend, between life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or at

Jonathan Reinhardt, “An Introduction to Arthurian Legend,” page 8 MARS HILL AUDIO Resource Essay least the spoils of rights, tolerance, and safe than to seem able and furrow-browed (the king). retirement)—also known as the Holy Grail. Like the Arthur of later legend, he is the heroic Certainly Kennedy’s Camelot and its subsequent CEO who promulgates things peacefully so that porches have always been much more than a all his paragons (that would be us) can quest ad- rhetorical flourish. They are the resonant venturously for our material wenches. fondling of the heartfelt hope for the good glories Arthur is hope. Arthur is enchantment. Arthur of a brave Free World. Frankly, the expectations is romance. As long as there are holy grails and towards an ideal and just Christian king as a dreams of the good kingdom, as long as there are moral, political, and military figurehead of a Good belles dames sans merci and mists, black knights Nation do differ but slightly from those and dark giants, as long as young Hero will gaze frequently associated with the glorious burden of on sleeping beauties sighing “she has a lovely the decent, to-the-best-of-my-ability President of a face,” Arthur’s eternal summer will not fade. republic that fancies itself a Promised Land with Where the merry spawn of Britain is concerned, spiritual, ideological, and militant righteousness at least in spirit, “some say . . . that King Arthur is pervading all its acts and objectives—an attitude not dead, but had by the will of Our Lord Jesu in not least gleanable from the Manichean rhetoric another place; and men say that he shall come that arouses its people to “decisive action”, and again”—. the standards by which the decency of a presi- dent is judged to the neglect of his political prowess. In the Anglophone land of amber Jonathan G. Reinhardt worked as an editorial intern for waves, where Camelot has its mailbox on Penn- MARS HILL AUDIO in the summer of 2003. This article sylvania Avenue, it is still more important for the was written in August of that year. head of state to seem good and smile (Arthur)

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