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Through the Ages with King Arthur
Arthur, a very human story
The Legend of Arthur is a very human story, as old as our history, moving, inspiring and a classic tear-jerker.
A man who dreamed of peace and order, who fought a powerful enemy against great odds and won years of respite for his community. A man whose life was marked with tragedy and wild misunderstanding, with a wife who didn't love him, a best friend who betrayed him and a son who killed him. A man who yet managed to be an ideal king.
You find the same story in great literature and in any television soap opera.
Aspects of Arthur
Through the ages we have seen how the vision of Arthur has changed to suit the current society.
The Legend has been used for over a thousand years to reflect changing views on how the world works. The Legend changes and grows as each society changes and grows.
Arthur, be he Celtic Warrior, Romano-British General, Scottish Nationalist, Christian King or Genocidal Warlord is still a widely known figure from the semi-mythical past.
How many leaders of today will be celebrated in story and song 1500 years in the future?
Arthur the War Chieftain
Arthur was needed for a Time of War
The legend was mainly political for sixth century Britain.
It told of wars, battles, and the manner in which men should behave. This was indeed a turbulent century. Since 410, Roman troops had been continually withdrawn from Britain to help with conflicts elsewhere in the empire.
Britain was under siege. Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded the southern and central areas. Germanic peoples continued to arrive throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, it was a time of constant fear and fighting. A war chief was needed to hold back the invading horde.
Over the next few centuries, more invaders came. The Legend became one of Arthur, the Great General and Successful Defender.
Arthur the Fashionable Courtier
Arthur was a Device in Literary Romance
In France, the legend took on a new twist with extra additions being composed for circulation at court. These new romances appealed to a new market, and that market was women.
The ethos of courtly love and chivalry took precedence over battlefields, especially when the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie de Champaigne, became patrons of the romances.
ChrÃ©tien de Troyes began to write embellishments on the legend, portraying Arthur as a fashionable courtier. Thomas Mallory wrote Le Morte D'Arthur, the last definitive interpretation of the Arthurian myth before the dawn of the English Renaissance.
Arthur and the Victorian Capitalists
Another Makeover for Arthur to suit Imperialism
Queen Victoria brought in another image for the English.
Her court reinvented Arthur to suit themselves. The ideals of chivalry were embraced and celebrated and the idyllic Kingdom of Camelot seemed to most Victorians a perfect metaphor for their own times in an ever-expanding empire.
Alfred Tennyson wrote his epic, Idylls of the King, from his early twenties until a few months before his death, popularising what became an avid Victorian interest in Arthuriana.
Despite references to a variety of medieval sources, it's obvious that, in the Idylls, Tennyson reflected his contemporary times.
Idylls is, in part, a thinly-disguised portrait of Victorian England with its high idealism, hypocritical morality, misogynism, militarism and warring extremism.
We still tell stories about Arthur
We've had a musical stage production turned into a film, plus another couple of quite good movies. Television series have appeared depicting Arthur as a young man for a youthful target audience.
It's a story that won't go away.
Modern Views of Arthur : T. H. White 1958
In White's re-telling of the story, Arthur's career consists of a series of failed attempts to control the violence in the hearts of his knights.
In the end, Arthur creates a civil law, in an effort to clarify what is the "right" use of power and to eliminate the need for using violence to force people to do what is "right".
White derived his source material from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), but creates a personal reinterpretation of the epic events, filling them with renewed meaning for a world enduring the Second World War.
Arthur of the Britons (1972)
It was in 1974 that I watched a television series from the BBC, a cheaply produced programme that was actually very good. It was called Arthur of the Britons and featured a square-jawed young actor, Oliver Tobias, a man I'd never seen before and haven't seen since.
Arthur in this series, is a British chieftan in the Dark Ages, engaged in the mind-numbing task of getting his neighbouring chieftans to understand that they must all pull together to stop the advance of Cerdic and the rest of the Saxon invaders.
These chieftans include the superb Brian Blessed as Mark of Cornwall who shouts his way through the episodes. (Blessed is excellent at outrageous shouting).
If you ignore the minor faults of cheap costuming, (the Saxons all wear sheepskins and I swear I saw a Briton in a plaid travel blanket), overlook the shoddy hill fort and admire, instead, the concept of Arthur which was so far removed from all earlier courtly versions, you'll enjoy an excellent look at Arthur.
Modern Views of Arthur : Marian Zimmer Bradley
Marian Zimmer Bradley turns the legend of Arthur on its head.
It isn't the betrayal by men against men that brings the destruction of Arthur and Camelot -- it is the betrayal by men of the women and the religion.
Zimmer Bradley's classic was a best seller when first published in 1982 as a ground-breaking feminist interpretation of male-centred myth. It expresses womens' experience at a time of great change. The typical battles, quests and feuds of King Arthur's reign are described as supporting elements to the lives of the women.
In the Mists of Avalon, patriarchy was the downfall of Camelot.
Arthur 2004 - The Sarmatian Theory
This film uses the theory that Arthur was a Roman, a praefectus legionis, who commanded a force of Samartians in Britain.
A Serious Look at Arthur - From the Time Team
This is well worth watching.
Which Arthur do you prefer?
We all have our idealised Arthur, which one is yours?
Every comment, question, bouquet or brickbat is welcome. You don't have to be a legend to leave yours
© 2008 Susanna Duffy