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Of Cabbages and Kings

I’m always a bit surprised and a little amused when someone speaks with authority about “the way things were in Arthurian times”. From apparel to architecture, courtly custom to common cusswords, practice of arms to magical charms, the Arthurian world inhabits the imagination with a grandly vivid and elaborate presence. The ease and completeness with which one can paint the visual canvas of the legends argues for a special time in which these tales must be set, an era which confers the truthfulness of history upon the characters and events.

It’s not so much the precision of the details as it is the imprecision of the tense that I find interesting. If one is not talking about the Arthur of history, (and one probably isn’t because virtually nothing is definitely known about him), then the reference must be to another embodiment of the character. It must be the Arthur of legend, the king who was and also will be.

The earliest written references to Arthur appeared in the form of self-described historical accounts. Geoffrey of Monmouth and a few others sketched out the foundation of what would become the Arthurian edifice in the early twelfth century. While these writings stretch the concept of “history” somewhat, they do portray events that must have had some credence in popular lore. They depict a warrior king of the fifth century who marshals the Britons in resolute opposition to forces invading from the continent and from the Celtic north and west.

Interestingly, it was Welsh poets, numbered among the vanquished opponents of this martial Arthur, who shored up the structure of this early narrative with the pre-Arthurian backstory of the Mabinogion legends. Filled with exhaustive genealogy, these narratives tell, in epic style, of the advent of Merlin and the rise of Uther Pendragon, later to be known as Arthur’s sire. Already a pattern emerges in the telling of the tales: Arthur is adaptable. If you need a military hero, he’s your man, but if generations of prehistory need be crowned with an emblematic cultural figure, he can be that too.

A further elaboration of the legends came, not from Arthur’s presumed countrymen, but from the works of a French writer. In the late twelfth century, Chretien de Troyes composed four Romances based on the court of Arthur, giving us, among others, the characters of Percival, with his quest for the Holy Grail, and of Lancelot. It was here that the courtly intrigue with Queen Guinevere first appeared. The realm of Arthur has been considerably updated from the fifth century, and now reflects the influence of the chivalric code.

However it was the English writer Thomas Malory, whose fifteenth century Le Morte d’Arthur created what is probably the defining cast of characters and embedded them in the plots most familiar to us today. Set in surroundings evocative of the late middle ages, the tales serve to illustrate the principles of honor, altruism and service to ideals that typify the age of chivalry. Arthur, now with a distinctly Norman accent, has become the inspirational center of a world suffused in magic and questing for honor and fairness.

Testing the Arthurian waters of the 19th century, we find another definitive portrayal, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Here the basic narrative of Mallory emerges, colored by Victorian era sentiment. Arthur is at the eye of a storm of court intrigue, betrayal and discord. He strives with selflessness and fortitude to overcome obstacles both within himself and without. He is the romantic hero whose demise must be conditioned upon the expectation of his return.

Modern re-tellings of the tale abound. In the early 1900’s Howard Pyle crafted a beautifully illustrated volume of the stories designed for children. Sir James Knowles published a somewhat melodramatic version of the tales in the late nineteenth century. Even Mark Twain had a go at the fable with his comic parable, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

By the mid-twentieth century, Arthur had become something of a modern man. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, we meet a ruler who struggles with issues of authenticity and definition of good and evil with a characteristically contemporary ambivalence. While the framework of the story is still Malory, this rendition of the late middle ages has a distinctly modern ambiance. Merlin has become a time traveler, and the issues that confront Arthur echo those that face the English people in the darkest days of the Second World War.

A significant recent shift in the perception of the legends has recast the stories from the viewpoint of the female characters. Books like The Mists of Avalon examine the role of Morgaine and others who were largely marginalized in traditional narratives. This reclaiming of the legend seeks to explore and awaken the ancient matriarchal Celtic underpinnings of the story – a sort of full circle return to its roots.

So how were things really in Arthurian times? It seems to me that the notion of Arthurian times is a pretty flexible concept. It is always Arthurian times, and it is never Arthurian times. Arthur is a construct of every age in which his tale is told. He reflects the sensibilities and aspirations of the narrator as much as the times to which his adventures are ascribed. In this sense, he is arguably the Once and Future King.

Susan Cooper, the author of the version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that we are presenting in this year’s Christmas Revels, has an interesting take on the legendary status of Arthur. In a 1989 interview she observes, “ I'm interested in the creation of layers of myth. You can really see how the Arthurian legend has developed, and why it is so impossible to go backwards and say, this bit is true and this isn't. It's all true. How much of it is real is another matter and really irrelevant. This is like Camelot. Where was Camelot? Who cares really? It doesn't matter.”

- David Parr, Artistic Director