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Through the Ages with King Arthur

Updated on October 10, 2014
Richard Harris as Arthur, 1967
Richard Harris as Arthur, 1967 | Source

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.

Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur, 2011
Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur, 2011 | Source

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?

Saxon helmet form Sutton Hoo
Saxon helmet form Sutton Hoo | Source

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 Since 410, Roman troops had been continually withdrawn from Britain to help with conflicts elsewhere in the empire.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.

Chrétien 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.

Idealised Knights
Idealised Knights | Source

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

T. H. White used his novel The Once and Future King to explore the nature of power and violence, and to throw up ideas about its legitimate and illegitimate use.

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)

1970s Television

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.

In her classic The Mists of Avalon, the story is not celebrating the fellowship of men, but the fellowship of women.

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?

See results

Every comment, question, bouquet or brickbat is welcome. You don't have to be a legend to leave yours

© 2008 Susanna Duffy

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    • mariacarbonara profile image

      mariacarbonara 4 years ago

      Its interesting about the Victorians and the Arthur legend. Its an interesting distraction and a way to add nobility.

    • greenspirit profile image

      poppy mercer 4 years ago from London

      This is my take on King Arthur. Arthur is a cipher. The interesting thing about him is how he does indeed lie sleeping in the national consciousness, periodically awakening when needed. I think it's to do with the fact that so much of our original cultural heritage was wiped out of time and knowledge by Christianity, so we are always seeking foundations and connections. Currently, with urbanisation, the relationship between Arthur and the land is foremost. So history and myth at this time are providing a dream time where many can access a lost relationship with the land and country.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I don't think one can ever tire of the Adventures of King Arthur.

    • tandemonimom lm profile image

      tandemonimom lm 8 years ago

      Excellent overview of the many incarnations of Arthur! Please join the new Squidoo group Rulers and Royalty!

    • drifter0658 lm profile image

      drifter0658 lm 9 years ago

      Very interesting read. I had no idea there were so many incarnations of Arthur. I've only recently exposed myself to the Celtic King Version.

      This reminds me of so many tales, legends, and teachings. We often change the story to suit our needs. This is most likely the reason I have a general disdain for most organized religions.

      Once again; splendid.


    • profile image

      tdove 9 years ago

      Thanks for joining G Rated Lense Factory!