Sunday, 22 November 2015

Personal reservations about the Arthurian legends

I have recently twice had the experience of commencing a modern retelling of the King Arthur legends with enjoyment, only to abandon the story before the end due to a kind of revulsion at the gross psychological implausibility of the narrative turn.

The problem in both instances was that well-established characters, characters I had got-to-know,  suddenly began behaving unnaturally, unbelievably, by tortured-logic - due to their actions being artificially shoe-horned into a pre-exiting plot shape.

The fault, in both cases, was that the authors had tried to stick to the shape of Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (middle 1400s) - which (for all its excellences) is merely a compendium of diverse and originally separate legends, cobbled-together into a semi-coherent set of loosely-linked stories.

As indeed is the Arthurian story itself - apparently consisting of two separate strands of ancient legend - one about the prophet and wizard Merlin, and the other about a noble war leader and exemplary character called Arthur - probably based on real people, probably from different times and places of post-Roman Britain (from the 400s AD onwards).

These strands were brought together mainly by the genius of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the middle 1100s to make the basis of the Arthurian story. And these are the Arthurian elements which I love - especially those concerned with Merlin.

These are the British elements of the King Arthur story - the true 'Matter of Britain'.

The later additional French stuff about knights, chivalry, round tables, courtly love, the Lancelot/ Guinevere adultery, and the Grail Quest I find more-or-less repellent - although I can tolerate them if they are subordinated within the narrative.

(I find the Grail Quest a particularly horrible intrusion. It's hard to put my finger on why; but for me it gathers and concentrates many of the very worst aspects of medieval Christianity - exactly the kind of corruption and pathology masquerading as health and purity that helped keep me away from Christianity for so many decades.)

Of these later elements, that of courtly love is, for me, the worst. The business of knights 'serving' their ladies, wearing their favours, the stupid stuff about 'honour', courtesy and being held bound by a casual and unconsidered word to do some ridiculous or wicked thing...

Bah! it is Frenchified, decadent and anti-Christian (as made clear by the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the late 1300s; in which these elements are a threat to the goodness and purity of Gawain, and his stubborn adherence to this courtly code is revealed as absurd and unworthy).

Consequently, from my perspective, all version of the Arthurian legends I have encountered (in movies, TV, novels and poems) are extremely imperfect and unsatisfactory works of art - through which something strong and important may shine.

In this my attitude seems to resemble that of JRR Tolkien - who, for all that he tried his hand at an extended Arthurian poem, had strong reservations about the thing as a whole, even as he responded powerfully to specific elements.

In sum, I wish that some more authors could put Malory behind them, and re-imagine the Merlin-Arthur aspects without the effete continental intrusions - to create a noble and psychologically plausible tale that taps into deep roots of British myth and the Christian impulse.


MycroftJones said...

Sounds like a good start. How about we throw together a wiki page and list all the elements that have to go, and perhaps ones that must remain.

I admit, I also got super bored when the Lancelot/Guinevere and Grail stuff came up. It just made no sense. Knights going on quests and banging a maid they met in the forest? Sure, that is straight out of the Viking sagas.

Merlin seems like a Thomas the Rhymer character.

Is the Geoffrey of Monmouth version available somewhere for reading? Would his version make a good foundation?

Andrew said...

Hear, hear!

Seijio Arakawa said...


A wiki? Good Lord! That's more or less how this Arthurian mess got started in the first place. It won't be put right by committee.

No, seek solitude, my man, go and think in new places, and beg the acquaintance of some Muse who is just as annoyed at the hash people have made of King Arthur as you are; and then, when you have had many raucous adventures together in the observation of Reality and the people that inhabit it, and grown far more trusting of one another than Man and Wife could ever be, sit down and wow the world with a new legend that pours from your combined creative effort. (It may help to live in Britain, or it may hinder the process, as distance makes the heart grow fonder, or imagining Logres beneath the accretions of the modern UK proves too weary a task.)

Another bit of advice born from difficult personal experience: Muses tolerate modern computing technology, but work much more easily with the old and familiar pen-and-paper.

You may not resurrect King Arthur entirely or the Matter of Britain, but the outcome of such a process will likely be worthwhile reading.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SA "Muses tolerate modern computing technology, but work much more easily with the old and familiar pen-and-paper."

Good aphorism - all my primary insights, such as they are! come via pen and paper - and are only elaborated and tidied-up via keyboard.

Anonymous said...

I like how Mark Twain interpolated into Thomas Malory's version the exploits of his displaced nineteenth-century inventor Hank Morgan in his futile attempt to 'hustle the West'. He was finally foiled by Merlin, who, though portrayed here as a charlatan for most of the tale, turned out to be a real wizard after all.

So far no filmmaker has seen fit to mount a faithful adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

jjbees said...

T.A. Barron wrote an excellent series about the life of the young merlin.
I remember reading those when I was a tween and they brought me to tears.