Friday, 12 February 2010

King Arthurs and Their Stories

I recently started watching the series “Merlin”, which has pitched me back into one of my favourite subjects: the stories of King Arthur, sometimes called Arthuriana or The Arthurian Cycle in academic contexts.

Let me state for the record that I have not always been a great fan of these stories, which has always been distinctly out of character, since I have tended to fall on the sword-and-sorcery side of aesthetic pleasure, of which the Arthurian tales are considered the epitome, since before I can remember. Puzzling over this recently has led me to the realization that despite containing all my childhood favourite ingredients for a story – magic, sword-play, mythic beasts and ladies in smashing outfits – the Arthurian stories never appealed to me because I’d never been able to tap into a female connection to the story, an absolute necessity for my enjoyment of a tale. Two discoveries led to my conversion: the first was of Morgan Le Fey, at last a female character I could root for, and secondly, the astounding thematic space afforded by the mythic nature of the tales, which I did not have the sophistication to appreciate as a child. I should explain what I mean by 'thematic space', while I hope that my meaning of 'myth' will speak for itself.

There is no definitive source for the all the elements linked to the Arthurian stories, no ‘original’ text from which it derives its fundamental material. J.R.R. Tolkien compared its formulation to the steady brewing of a soup over centuries of story-telling, involving participants of various kinds – story-tellers, legend-bearers and some bits of history – all of which have added to the mix. What it is now is a collection of associated tales and a family of characters and events in endless variations occasioned by innumerable retellings. Its central significance, holding the lot together, lies in the rise and fall of a golden age, the age of King Arthur. Less to the abstract, King Arthur’s reign has come to represent an idealized Britain, situated and sustained within the ahistorical boundaries of mythic time.

To date, the tale has come to assume the following ‘core’ formulation: Arthur unites the factions of Britain and reigns over a stable and flourishing kingdom. In this he is either aided or opposed by the established characters in the Arthurian cycles, Merlin the wizard, Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and of course his trusty Knights of the Round Table. The key themes underlying Arthur's success are unity and brotherhood, symbolized in the literary device of the Round Table. The fall of the kingdom coincides with the affair of Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, and his First Knight and dearest friend, Lancelot, which unravels the fabric of brotherhood and thus destabilizes the kingdom (symbolized in the fidelity between King and Queen and between King and Knight). Hence many retellings (and it should be stressed that all tellings of the Arthurian tales are retellings) reduces the tale to these elements. These are the bare bones of the tale as they have evolved; no matter what archetypes are evoked by the characters in each telling, heroic king, tragic knight, doomed lover, selfish seductress or suppressed female, the tale always ends the same, and that is what enables the story’s mythic function.

But what is fun about the Arthurian stories is that so many additional elements, complex and compelling in themselves, have been boiled into the mix that there is an almost limitless possibility of themes that can be played out, so that the story is at once always familiar, always mythic, and yet always delightfully different, always able to yield new and rich stories.

End of Part 1.


Waseem said...

I've also enjoyed the stories, having no need to worry about the female character thing. I wasn't really big into sword fighting though and preferred the magical element. The Sword in the Stone is one of my favorite animated movies next to the first Alice in Wonderland.

I also really liked the Merlin miniseries with Sam Neill as Merlin. It was much darker than other versions of the story, with the incest and Uther's rape of Igraine (well kind of rape). I really enjoyed it though becaue it was much more magical compared to the other Arthur tales I heard. I'm not sure if you have seen this version but is it canon (as far as there can be canon for Arthurian tales)?

Libra said...

Waseem: I've never watched the miniseries, but I've come across many references to it. Hearing you describe it as emphasizing the magical side of it makes me want to watch it, however. That was what drew me to The Mists of Avalon. There is both a book and a movie adaptation of Mists; if you follow it up, I think you would enjoy the story.

The closest to canon you will ever get in Arthuriana is probably Le Mort d'Arthur, by Thomas Malory. Most modern tellings look back to Malory as a collection of most of the elements linked to the Arthurian Cycle.

The Arthur tales are known mostly in their retellings as children's stories, but you'll be surprised to hear that the tales really are quite dark when they haven't been sugared up. Arthur's incest with his sister (variously Morgan or Morgouse) is a standard plot element, and Uther's unlawful bedding of Igraine to beget Arthur also occurs in more than one telling.