Who is the greatest hero in Western mythology? His tale sprouted from a small seed of history into the most epic of fantasies, crossing multiple genres and cultures. His story inspired countless interpretations for over fifteen hundred years. He’s even beloved in the Far East, as seen in current anime and manga. Welcome to the discussion of King Arthur, Hero of Britain, The Once and Future King.
I can hear the audience crying already – but Arthur isn’t a myth, he’s real!
Was he? Sure, evidence exists of a fifth century British warlord who won a temporary peace in the power vacuum left after the Fall of Rome. The legions abandoned all outposts to protect their motherland. The greatest empire in history was crumbling, vulnerable to waves of fierce barbarians. Attack came on all sides of Britain after Rome fled – Irish Celts, Scottish Picts, and a gang of pre-Viking warriors from across the sea (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes). One man held back the tide for a generation, safeguarding his home for as long as possible. The conquest was inevitable, creating the Europe of today. This real man left enough of an impression to spawn multiple legends.
But beyond that, King Arthur of Camelot is pure myth.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (The History of the Kings of Britain, 1136), Chrétien de Troyes (Poet and Inventor of Lancelot, c.1180), and Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte D’Arthur, 1485) are the earliest architects of this myth. Geoffrey is credited with a more historical interpretation, which has led to some interesting archaeological finds. Chrétien, inspired by the courtly love trend in France, added various characters including the perfect knight and flower of chivalry himself, Lancelot du Lac. And Malory surpassed them all. He arguably wrote the most popular version within his Newgate prison cell, blending elements of the Christian faith and Pagan symbolism into a timeless tale which influences writers to this day.
Thanks to Malory and the European Renaissance, the myth of King Arthur took off. Fresh retellings faded during the Enlightenment, but the Romantic era saw a renewal of interest with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859). And my favorite version was next in line, composed after humanity survived the trauma of two World Wars. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) is a heartbreakingly relatable saga detailing Arthur’s rise from lowly squire to the greatest king the world has ever known.
In this story, Arthur is a good king but an imperfect human. He holds back the encroaching darkness of war and ignorance, promotes peace and acceptance, but never achieves his ideal society. Sad and all too realistic, it exemplifies the adage “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”.
But there is a silver lining, a thread of hope offered by Mr. White. Readers exit his interpretation knowing that although Arthur failed to achieve utopia, he will never give up. Arthur sacrificed himself and will return one day, hopefully to a world more deserving of his majesty.
King Arthur the myth is one of the best examples of the classic hero, a brave and stalwart individual who rises above adversity to become an iconic leader. His story has everything – action, adventure, romance, conflict, and various manifestations of white and black magic. While multiple authors focus on specific aspects of the mythos, certain plot points remain universal.
Arthur is destined for greatness from birth, pulling an enchanted sword from a stone to become king. Or, some say he’s gifted the sword by the mystical Lady of the Lake, a representative of the Sacred Feminine and the natural spirit of the earth. He’s guided by an aged and wise mentor, the wizard Merlin. He leads the Knights of the Round Table, a band of men who are heroes in their own right as we see in the search for the Holy Grail and other quests. He falls in love with a princess of the realm, the lovely Guinevere who personifies the feminine ideal of the time. His romance becomes a tragic love-triangle with his best friend, Lancelot, but accounts on that differ wildly.
Arthur’s downfall comes from some combination of sin and betrayal inciting a coup within his seemingly unbreakable kingdom. Some blame Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit love. And some versions blame Morgan Le Fay, Arthur’s sorcerous half-sister and mother of Mordred, Arthur’s final nemesis. Depending on the tale, Mordred is either just Arthur’s nephew or the product of a night of incest with Morgan. And yet some versions make Morgan an ally, a female version of Merlin. But most tales agree that Mordred is Arthur’s bane.
In the past few decades, Arthurian myth has experienced a pop culture resurgence. Cartoons, anime, books, movies, tv shows, songs, video games, you name it! But some argue that Arthurian myth remains rooted in fantasy, a silly world of make-believe. Because what relevance does this hodge-podge of history, folklore, romance, and magic have to do with us? Quite a bit, I would argue.
Humans are not perfect, and I seriously doubt that will change. I hope not, anyway, because how boring would that be? Part of the fun of life is learning from our mistakes, growing from our victories, and striving to be more than just an animal operating on instinct. Survival isn’t enough. We seek personal fulfillment, love, acceptance, and spiritual enlightenment. We want to be inspired by something bigger than ourselves.
Arthur is amazing, but he’s flawed like all of us. Some of the myths make him seem pure as a saint, but the best storytellers never forget to mention his shortcomings. And no matter how the tale is spun, Arthur’s empire falls – a devastating failure at the Battle of Camlann.
Despite his legendary triumphs, suffering, and sacrifice, Arthur does not save his precious homeland. After all, Britain is known as the land of the Anglo-Saxons. But Arthur fought, he stood for his people regardless of personal risk. Each of his sincere efforts intertwine in a glorious tapestry which alters to reflect the beliefs of an ever-changing society. Modern tales of Arthur liken him to a freedom fighter, an archetype that resonates for modern cultures who recall the bitterness of oppression. And for us female fans, the most recent retellings offer insight into the ladies of Camelot, namely Guinevere and Morgan. I adore these interpretations from visionary creators who inject a shot of girl power into the traditionally male-dominated stories.
For me, Arthurian legend resonates for several reasons. A glimpse into history is always fun, allowing us to marvel at the similarities and differences of the past. But, there is always a contrast of beliefs – tradition vs. modernism, Christian vs. Paganism, Might vs. Right and more which all lead to the same conclusion.
Change is inevitable. The world continues to move forward and we adapt, creating new beliefs as we learn from experience. In America, we’ve seen a lot of change in our brief history. Heroes and villains have stood against the people and ideas they feared, but that never stopped the tide of progress. Our country is a gorgeous melting pot of multiple cultures, a point of pride for those of us whose families once sought refuge from tyranny in a promising new world. America is also imperfect, but our ideals are not so different from Arthur’s Camelot.
Arthur fought against bloodthirsty invaders who threatened to rape his lands and enslave his citizens. But he welcomed all good people to his Round Table, regardless of their origins. Arthur’s court was a haven of tolerance, despite the Catholic beliefs added at a time when the church wasn’t known for its open-mindedness. He welcomed Saracens, Pagans, and foreigners as long as they shared his democratic vision. His chivalrous knights fought against tyranny and believed nobility was born from personal merit and virtuous deeds.
Although Arthur was betrayed by those he loved, he never lost his pure idealism. This fundamental goodness allowed him to transition to paradise. A trio of queens guided Arthur to the magical Isle of Avalon, offering a rest for his immortal spirit until he one day returns in our time of greatest need.
Arthur the man may have been real, but it is Arthur the myth we know and love. He is the archetype of the Warrior, the Enlightened Leader, a Sacrificial King from folklore who gives his life for the good of the land. In a constantly evolving world, Camelot’s ideals inspire our own – honor, chivalry, equality, fraternity, liberty. Arthur symbolizes integrity and honor, a search for higher truths, a love of country and our fellow citizens, and a moral imperative to be the best people possible.
King Arthur and his Companions guided us for fifteen hundred years, but we need his example now more than ever. Our world continues to struggle because humankind will always dance between the Light and the Dark, Tolerance and Ignorance, Freedom and Oppression. There will always be an evil to vanquish. And with King Arthur as an illuminated icon to light our path, hopefully we might discover a fresh hero among us. For each generation needs someone to stand, selfless and true, while holding the darkness at bay a little while longer.