27 March 2024

The Matter of Arthur

I’m not quite sure why Rosemary Sutcliff floated into my periphery, recently - I saw her name somewhere, obviously - but as soon as it happened, I immediately went out and found her Arthurian historical, Sword at Sunset, which had fallen off my radar in the interval of fifty years, and read it again.  If you’re not familiar with the book, it reimagines the legend of Arthur much the way Mary Renault does with the mythological Theseus in The King Must Die, as an actual historical person, not a demigod.     

Arthur is, of course, the “Matter of Britain,” a story every English schoolchild once knew by heart.  The basic lineaments were around long before Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur, in the 15th century, going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 12th.  I’m more concerned with the modern iterations.  Leaving aside Prince Valiant, no disrespect, Hal Foster’s draftsmanship is astonishing, but he positions the Round Table in some sort of fairytale medieval period; excuse me, but no.  That puts Arthur some time after the Norman Conquest, which just doesn’t fly.  The better guess lines up with Rosemary Sutcliff and Bernard Cornwell, who place the historical Arthur after the fall of Roman Britain, the withdrawal of the legions to Gaul, around 400 AD.  Then come the Saxons, raiding across the North Sea, and the Picts, from beyond Hadrian’s Wall.  Arthur would appear to be the last hope of civilization and order, fighting a losing battle against the darkness.  

The version most of us know is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which is the source material for Camelot.  I saw the Broadway-bound tryout.  (Back in the day, the big shows would work the kinks out on the road.  They’d open in Toronto, and then circle through Boston, Philadelphia, and DC, before they got to New York.)  The production of Camelot in Boston ran, as I remember, four hours.  They cut at least an hour, after that.  For my money, I would have watched Richard Burton for six hours.  He made Arthur tragic in a way I’d never even considered.  I thought the story was about Lancelot and Guinevere.  Not that Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet were chopped liver, but when Burton was on stage, every other character was a walk-on.  I wore out the original cast LP, and it reduced me to tears every time I listened to it.  

Camelot is somewhere in that Neverland along with Prince Valiant.  It’s a backlot fantasy, it doesn’t have the smell of smoky hearths and scorched meat, unwashed bodies in thick fur cloaks, blood and bowels and rape, but there’s a counter-narrative to both: Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart, The Mists of Avalon and The Crystal Cave, which feminize the story, in the one case, and foreground the otherworldly or magical, in the second, but these are mirror narratives, the female principle (in myth, at least) a correlative of sorcery.  

Robert Warshow wrote a famous essay about the Western, in which he said there were only X archetypes, of plot, and character.  And we could haul in Joseph Campbell, or Robert Graves, or Jung, but the arc of the hero bends in similar ways.  A friend of mine was leaving Excalibur, and he overheard a young person say to their date, “It’s just like Star Wars.”  

We draw the sword from the stone, and our fate is foretold.  There’s no escaping it. 


  1. I read Arthurian legends as a kid and, on a Sunday with my father, heard Parsifal over the radio. Mostly my thoughts concerned whether Merlin was a good guy or bad guy, the rĂ´le of Morgana, and who of pure heart unseated lone knights, cruising the forest in predatory road rage.

    I was 10 or 11 when one afternoon an unexpected penny dropped. Wait… Lancelot… Guinevere… Wasn’t she married? To the King? No!

    My mother confirmed my reading, the pair banging biological broadswords in bed. Illusions were crushed, our heroes had feet of very sticky clay. What good was having a magic blade if your best friend impales your beloved wife?

    Then I came across Morgause. WTF came another oath. Was it a revenge affair? What was wrong with these people? Yea, preteens have pretty strict ideals. I still want to bitch-slap Lancelot. How dare he.

  2. I burned my way thru all the Arthurian legends after reading The Once and Future King (I infinitely preferred the book to the movie, but that's my life's history). But I think the greatest summary of what Arthurian Britain was really like was done by C. S. Lewis in "That Hideous Strength". What follows is long, but...
    "During lunch Dr. Dimble talked about the Arthurian legend “It’s really wonderful,” he said, “how the whole thing hangs together, even in a late version like Malory’s. You’ve noticed how there are two sets of characters? There’s Guinevere and Launcelot and all those people in the centre: all very courtly and nothing particularly British about them. But then in the background — on the other side of Arthur, so to speak — there are all those dark people like Morgan and Morgawse, who are very British indeed and usually more or less hostile
    though they are his own relatives. Mixed up with magic. You remember that wonderful phrase, how Queen Morgan set all the country on fire with ladies that were enchantresses. Merlin too, of course, is British, though not hostile. Doesn’t it look very like a picture of Britain as it must have been on the eve of the invasion? ...“one section of society that was
    almost purely Roman? People wearing togas and talking a Celticised Latin — something that would sound to us rather like Spanish: and fully Christian. But further up country, in the out-of-the way places, cut off by the forests, there would have been little courts ruled by real old British under-kings, talking something like Welsh, and practising a certain amount of the Druidical religion.” And Arthur, "One can imagine a man of the old British line, but also a Christian and a fully-trained general with Roman technique, trying to pull this whole society together and almost succeeding. There’d be jealousy from his own British family, and the Romanised section — the Launcelots and Lionels — would look down on the Britons. That’d be why Kay is always represented as a boor: he is part of the native strain. And always that under-tow, that tug back to Druidism.” And Merlin: “Yes... He’s the really interesting figure. Did the whole thing fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil; yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid; yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’; but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all. You remember, ‘There dwell in the sky many kinds of wights. Some of them are good, and some work evil’...I often wonder,” said Dr. Dimble, “whether Merlin doesn’t represent the last trace of something the later tradition has quite forgotten about — something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerers."

    1. A lot to unpack and ponder, Eve. You have an article here.

  3. Sutcliff gets rid of Lancelot entirely - she says he's a later French interpolation - and Cornwell makes him an opportunistic slime (Guinevere an active and scheming betrayer).
    Both of them adopt that C.S. Lewis formulation, that Arthur is both Romanized and Celtic at once; Guinevere an arranged, dynastic marriage, Morgana the lure of the oak and the mistletoe. Cornwell takes the religious/ceremonial aspects to a darker place: the Christian monks are devious and foul; Guinevere's political challenge goes hand-in-glove with the the worship of Mithras (which makes dramatic sense be cause a lot of the Legions were in fact followers of Mithraic ritual); and the old Druidic rites involve human sacrifice and mumbo-jumbo. Merlin is a snake-oil salesman.
    I find Rosemary Sutcliff the most convincing; T.H. White is the most enchanting.

  4. I haven't read Sutcliff; I'll have to give her a try. I actually hated Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Mists of Avalon." I still love Mallory, and I will always love White. (I have read the Brut, but...) And while it's not strictly in the canon, I find Chretien de Troyes' Perceval fascinating.


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