Thursday 1 January 2015

Why was King Arthur a Good King?

This question must be tackled by any Arthurian story with pretensions to depth and significance.

The usual examples that I have come across are related to things like 'peace and prosperity and justice'. Arthur is (supposedly) a Good King because he provides (or at least tries to provide) these - against a alternative backdrop of endemic violence, social chaos, starvation, and arbitrary tyranny.


But - while these outcomes are undoubtedly highly desirable - they are a means to an end - they are a paradise of the farmyard, rather than something especially human.

Therefore Arthur needs also to bring civilization. The stories which use the historical Arthur tend  to place him in the incipient 'Dark Age' period after the Romans left England; and therefore can present Arthur as a Roman - who wishes to restore a complex, literate and unified society.

This provides a higher ideal, especially if it is linked to the still existing international civilization of the Eastern or 'Byzantine' Roman Empire - although I have only come across Charles Williams who used this plot device.


So, thus far Arthur can be regarded as aiming to restore the Roman Empire and establish international exchanges of goods and ideas; as well as provide peace prosperity, and justice at home.

But who is to say that any of these things are Good?

After all, that is what most of Western Europe and the Anglosphere has had for the past couple of generations and the result has been a society which lives for distraction and strategizes to destroy itself.

Indeed, the modern Westerner is likely to see the uncivilized, illiterate and violent 'Celtic' and Gothic tribes as more admirable (certainly more 'romantic' - ironic pun intended) than the Romans - more proud, free, spontaneous, artistic and spiritual. The Romans are admired rather than loved; and indeed are perhaps more often hated than admired - so a Roman-restoring King does not have much appeal.


The missing element is, of course, Christianity. In restoring Roman Civilization, and rejoining the Byzantine Empire, Arthur was bringing his people back into Christendom: and that is (or should be) the ultimate reason why he was a Good King.

When writers (like Malory or Tennyson or TH White) set their Arthur legends in Medieval times, instead of the Dark Ages,  this profound Christianizing rationale is not available to them - because Medieval England was already Christian; and the artificial and unsatisfactory plot device of The Grail Quest has to be introduced to provide a bolt-on spiritual dimension for Arthur.

Modern people tend to suppose the 'Dark' in the Dark Ages refers to lack of goods and technology, or something material; but of course it actually refers to spiritual darkness.

Modern people forget that the Roman England had been Christian for several generations before the legions departed; and that when Rome fell the capital of the Empire had long since moved to Constantinople. Unfortunately, this meant that Britain was cut-off from (the New) Rome, except by a long, complex and dangerous sea voyage - and the consequence was rapidly catastrophic: materially and spiritually. 


But for a (semi-) historical, Dark Age, Romanizing King Arthur; the motivation of re-Christianizing an England slipping back into paganism, and rejoining England to  the international Empire of Byzantine Christendom, would represent an ideal spiritual motivation; and one whose potential has barely yet been tapped.

Now, if only I was a storyteller...



Odin's Raven said...

Arthur as precursor of Alfred?

Bruce Charlton said...

@OR - Yes indeed.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Give it a try Bruce, you may be a storyteller who just needs to start. The main characters of the narrative already exist, you have a period to place them in, and even some blazes on the narrative trail. And it is not as if others have not done it from very different perspectives, be it T.H. White, Mark Twain or Marion Zimmer Bradley. It's a great tale to break your literary teeth on, and you already have an idea of where you want to take it. Now let the characters tell you their tale, and you be their scribe. Be faithful to them. Paint them honestly - warts and all - as they tell you about a time and a tale that clearly captures your interest and imagination.

Be careful to not impose upon the characters, but give them a new voice on an old and much loved mythic tale.

You may find you have the chops for literary writing, but unless you start climbing that particular mountain, you'll not know. It is its own quest, and like any quest their will be challenges, failures and learning along the way; and through them characters and author find their mettle.

You clearly have a love for this type of literature, so give it a go. Don't be intimidated by the edifices of great authors, as everyone starts at the base of the same mountain to begin their Author's Progress.

Bruce Charlton said...

NF - You faith is touching! But fiction is something I have tried and failed in the past - indeed, I find reading my past attempts so embarrassing that I just can't do it! Part of growing-up is recognizing what you can't do - I can't do fiction. Or poetry, for that matter.

AlexT said...

Don't write it as fiction, write it as a historical account. Don't underestimate the power of an interesting idea inspired by Christian truth. That' all Tolkien and Lewis did. Retold the truth.
Speaking of Britain and Byzantium, i read somewhere that King Harold's family escaped to the Kievan Rus after the battle of Hastings. Could it be that the Norman invasion was a part of the great schism? Would be fascinating if true.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AT - I had not heard about the Kievan Rus, but my understanding is that a large number of English (I seem to recall 10,000?) fled to Constantinople after the Norman invasion, and set up an English enclave there which lasted for some hundreds of years.

Leo said...


I would be interested in your opinion of these and similar articles:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - Aargh - I can't have commenters setting me homework! The plain answer is that the vast bulk of modern research is dishonest and incompetent, and then you have the journalist hypeing it for a general audience.

I don't know whether these particular researchers and these journalists are to be trusted, also I have a very low opinion of the kind of people who do this kind of funding-driven political-correctness-filtered research - so generally I ignore it. Maybe in another decade or two we will know what's what - more likely we never will.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's a free online book claiming Harold as a martyr for Orthodoxy and William as the imposer of feudal Papalism on England.
The Fall of Orthodox England
Not quite the usual view of Hastings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@OR- I read the book a few years ago, and thought it was very good.