I have a book (several of them in fact) I have been carrying around for years but have never read. It is a facsimile edition of JM Dent and Sons’ 1909 edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s The Birth, Life and Acts of King Arthur …and Le Morte DArthur. The edition has 20 full page illustrations and hundreds of small drawings and text decorations by Aubrey Beardsley, and consists of William Caxton’s introduction, and his text, of the first edition of 1485 (it was one of the first books printed in English). The facsimile edition was published in 1990 by Studio Editions London. It is a hefty volume of over 600 pages, and if thrown at an intruder would undoubtedly put him out of action for some time if it made contact.
I resolved to finally read the book. But I have to confess that 600 pages of medieval English (with modernised spelling but original grammar, say the editors) and weighing in at over seven pound, was too much for me. I didn’t finish the book: but I did skim through it. King Arthur, or at least Malory’s King Arthur, was very different to the idea I had of him.
There are several King Arthurs apparently. Not separate persons, but ways in which he has been seen over the ages.
There’s the historical figure, once a medieval knight complete with Round Table, located, and excavated, at Glastonbury. There’s the more ‘authentic’ historical figure, believed to have existed sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, who briefly united some of the Celtic tribes and attempted, Brian Boru like, to repel German and Viking invaders, and who ultimately lost and was killed.
There’s a misty figure from Celtic mythology, a god perhaps, or a hero, who was a great warrior and who operated in the realm of magic and the supernatural, a kind of British Thor.
There are traces from surviving fragments of Celtic poetry from Wales which mention Arthur, where he seems to be both god/hero and historical figure. These may be based on very ancient sources. Or perhaps not.
There is the medieval, largely French, version of these stories, which has been augmented, and Christianised, by the incorporation of the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, and the inclusion of legends about other heroes, such as Kay, Gawain, Galahad and Lancelot (French was the culture of England for several centuries after the Norman Conquest of 1066). This is Malory’s chief source. He attempts to bring all the stories together into a coherent whole (and fails).
And there is the Arthur we know in our modern version of mythology, from TH White to Monty Python.
Malory’s version is based on the French romances, but incorporates some very ancient elements of primitive myth. It is both a tale of courtly chivalry and a tale of magicians, sorcerers and sometimes terrifying gods and goddesses. And it was full of things I never knew about Arthur (though I was never very knowledgeable in that area).
Myths of the king
For a start, Arthur was a changeling. His father, Uther Pendragon (five dragons, or ‘dragon lord’, an interesting name), raped the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, his vassal and rival, and the result was Arthur, an illegitimate child. Arthur became King on the death of Uther Pendragon only by a trick of the sorcerer Merlin. Merlin was said to have learned his magic from Uther, so they must once have both been magi, masters of magic and the supernatural. The lords and knights of the kingdom of Britain were not interested in Arthur’s claim to be King, so Merlin arranged for a magic sword to be found. This was embedded in a block of stone, and only the true King could draw it, according to Merlin. Needless to say, the only one that could remove the sword from the stone was Arthur. Arthur, an illegitimate child with no right to the throne, became King by means of a magic trick of Merlin’s. He had deceived the lords and knights of the kingdom to do so, which didn’t look well for his reign.
Later, Arthur raped Morgan, Arthur’s half sister (or some say her sister Morgause, another interesting name. Morgause is the Duke of Cornwall’s daughter. She married King Lot from the Orkneys and gave birth to the hero Gawain). Morgan conceived a child by Arthur named Mordred (yet another interesting name, the child of incest and also illegitimate, precursor to death), fated to kill his father. In an effort to save himself, Arthur, like King Herod, arranged for all the one year old children in the kingdom to be slaughtered on May Day (the Celtic festival of Beltane, when bonfires were lit and sacrifices made to the gods to ensure fertility in the summer season). Of course Mordred escaped.This is similar to the Greek myth of Oedipous, and also of Theseus, both men who killed their fathers. In the Greek context the myth might refer to a ritual where the aspirant to the throne must kill the existing King in order to succeed, as imagined in Frazer’s Golden Bough. Perhaps Arthur in the original myth killed Uther Pendragon, as Mordred killed him, in order to reign. Only traces remain of the original myths in surviving accounts of Arthur.
Sword in the stone, sword in the lake
This story of the sword in the stone is given by Malory as a kind of justification for Arthur’s legitimacy as king. Yet it is not associated with any other British ruler. It is a once off, not a ritual of kingship at all. It is in fact a story taken from Nordic myth about the god Odin. Odin drives the sword Gram into the tree Barnstokkr, and only the hero Sigmund can pull it out. The original context of tree has been changed to a stone in Arthur’s case. Trees were important to the Nordic tribes who came to settle in what was later France and Britain. There is Yggdrasil, the world tree, which is how the world manifests itself. The tree is often guarded by dragons in Nordic myth, and the dragon often defeated by the hero. In an earlier time, the hero/god would have been lord of the dragons, Pendragon, and guardian also of the tree. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars mentions how the priests of the Gauls whom he calls Druids conducted their rites in groves of trees. Some think that the temple of Stonehenge may have been built on the site of a sacred grove of trees. The stones were said to have been moved into place by Merlin. A sword embedded in the tree and then withdrawn by the hero would have life giving powers (as does Excalibur’s scabbard). Merlin is finally imprisoned in a tree, like the sword of Odin, or in a stone, like Arthur’s sword. His enchanter is Nimue, ruler of Avalon, the Isle of Apples in the western sea and perhaps another aspect of Morgan. This island resembles the Greek myth of the Hesperides who lived beyond the straights of Atlas or Gibraltar, who guard the golden apples of the sun.
But the sword in the stone is lost in battle. Arthur fights many wars in Malory’s book, and is often defeated. He loses the magic sword which legitimises his right to kingship of Britain. This is an essential part of Arthur’s myth, often overlooked. He is the king who is defeated. All through Celtic myth there is this tragic, mournful aspect. It was a culture which knew it was dying, and the hero who was defeated is central to it, as it was for the Samurai in medieval Japan. Irish music is full of haunting laments played on the pipes. However, Arthur acquires another sword, Excalibur. It is given by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, and taken back on Arthur’s death. Preserved in the story is a memory of the impact of the first sword made of steel, able to slice through swords of iron and bronze. Another name for the Lady of the Lake is Morgan Le Fay, Morgan the Fairy, the Spirit and ultimately, the Goddess. The Goddess in ancient cultures had many aspects. For Arthur she is both preserver and destroyer. She imprisons Merlin and preserves Mordred, Arthur’s fate and death, yet grants Arthur Excalibur, key to his ability to overcome foes. Yet death is not really defeat, not if it occurs in battle. The Celts, like the Vikings, thought it glorious to die in battle. This was the source of fame, and thus a source too of immortality. Archilles would understand.
Malory goes on to tell similar stories of other heroes. Balin, for instance, who must draw a sword from a mysterious scabbard that no-one else can. Who slays a knight who has committed adultery with his love then kills the woman. Who finally has an epic battle with his brother Balan, neither knowing the other, and each kills the other. This pattern, or repetition, is a sign of myth, of a ceremony to affect ancient gods which was accompanied by a story or myth, the names varying over different places, but the ceremony being the same. Here it is the hero who can withdraw the sword where no-one else can. The hero who is betrayed. The hero who fights his near kin and is slain, despite the aid the gods have given him.
The situation is set up, so to speak, by the institution of the round table, where no-one shall have precedence, not even Arthur. He doesn’t sit at the head of the table. Historians liken this to the Nordic Moot, the gathering to decide policy, and often whether to wage war. The Moot discussed matters (a moot point) by acclamation. There was no vote, no leader directing procedure. It was a place where all men were equal, and action was taken by the most vigorous, usually the loudest. The round table prevents Arthur from being central to the story, consistent with his role of the defeated king. He is more a Roman Dictator in the stories, a war leader, than what we think of as a king. At the round table he is the equal of many other heroes, but as Malory continues, we hear less and less of him, until the time for his final battle arrives, and more and more of his fellow knights come to the fore.
In fact the stories of knights are so similar Malory’s book becomes tedious, as knight after knight is appealed to for help by a lady, goes on a quest, meets an enemy knight and challenges him, is defeated or kills his opponent. The knights of chivalry were old fashioned in Malory’s day. The battle of Crécy in 1346 had demonstrated just how old fashioned they were when English archers picked them off one by one, and knight after French knight fell and was immobilised by his armour. The knight was formidable because of this armour (which must have weighed a ton and prevented the knights from breathing naturally), but once unhorsed had to lie there and wait to have his throat cut. Many only survived because they were worth ransoming.
Some stories Malory reports of Arthur have a much more contemporary ring than the stories of Morgan le Fay. Arthur sounds at times like Richard the Lionheart, the Angevin king of part of France, and England, who conquered the Holy Land and defeated the Saracen king Saladin in the 12th century while on the third Crusade.
The great bulk of Malory’s story concerns four heroes other than Arthur. Gawain, and his brothers. Tristram, and his adulterous love of Isolde, the Queen of King Mark. Lancelot, the chief character in Malory’s book, and his adulterous affair with Guinevere, the Queen of King Arthur. And Galahad and the search for the Holy Grail. Arthur returns in the last book to kill Mordred in battle but to receive a fatal wound from him. He has lost the scabbard of Excalibur, which heals all wounds. It has been stolen by Morgan, the Lady of the Lake who gave him Excalibur. Dying, Arthur is taken to the mysterious lake, where he embarks on a barge and is never seen again. Guinevere enters a nunnery. Lancelot dies in an odor of sanctity.
As a unified tale the story as Malory tells it is a mess. It is a collection of tales about several heroes in which Arthur plays a minor part overall. It is a story of medieval warfare and tournament. It includes Christian interludes but also Celtic myth and ancient religious rites. There are fairies, pagan gods, and the Virgin Mary as well as thinly disguised contemporary warriors.
The old religion
The figures in this miscellany that appeal to me the most are those from Celtic mythology. Morgan le Fay (the Fairy, a covert way to say, the goddess), one of three sisters, who plays the same role as the Moirai did in Greek mythology, one of the three Fates who determine all human lives, and are ultimately aspects of the Great Goddess. Arthur himself, who is not just a human being. He is the lover of Morgan, and comes from mysterious origins (the magi Uther and Merlin) to assume the kingship of his people, then to battle with Mordred, with Death himself, king of the Underworld, the Greek Hades, only to be saved by Morgan and abide with her in the country of the West, the Celtic Heaven. Arthur is the resurrected hero, the dying and resurrected god seen so often in Middle Eastern myth.
Since the coming of Christianity to Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries AD writers have attempted to remove the Celtic religious element (and that of earlier cultures) from the story of Arthur. But if one looks beneath accounts that treat Arthur as a war leader, or as a model of a chivalrous knight, there is a distinctly religious figure. The hero who dies and is resurrected by the Goddess. Perhaps it is the union of these views of Arthur that give him his enduring appeal. He is remembered as the defender of Britain, the one who is defeated, but will come back and fight again. He will never give up. Perhaps Winston Churchill thought of Arthur when he made a famous speech in 1940, when Germany was winning the war and Britain had nothing to fight back with, it seemed. Behind Churchill’s famous words one can see the ghost of King Arthur:
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.