In the spring of 2020, I spent a lot of time staring out of my parents’ kitchen window at Liddington Castle, a Bronze Age fort in Wiltshire, England. Rumored to be the site of King Arthur’s last battle, all that remains of the castle are two concentric banks of earth atop a high hill, surrounded by fields of wheat and sheep-grazing. As the first lockdown tightened, as the skies emptied of planes and the traffic stilled, the intensive care units filled to capacity and the ambulances started queuing up outside the hospitals, I remembered that Arthur was prophesied to return when his people needed him most.
Now seemed a pretty good time.
The legend of King Arthur is to Britain what the Wild West is to the USA: our preeminent founding myth. Britain’s sense of itself as the underdog, its belief that it invented the concept of fair play, can they not be traced back to the squirty little squire who astounded everyone by pulling the sword from the stone, the king whose knights sat at a round table to symbolize their equality? Is Arthur why Britain, despite its history, continues to see itself as the good guy, and why in 2016 in the run up to the Brexit vote, so many were willing to buy into the narrative that what was wrong at home was the fault of outsiders?
It was a surprise then when I dug out a copy of Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth century epic Le Morte D’Arthur and discovered that the story of enchantment, chivalry and honor, familiar from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot, is based on a frank tale of warfare, conquest and nation-building.
The legend of King Arthur is to Britain what the Wild West is to the USA: our preeminent founding myth.
The skeleton of the myth remains intact: Arthur is the king who unites Britain, defeats its enemies, and establishes a brotherhood of Christian knights at Camelot before his betrayal by his faithless wife, Guinevere, and nephew-son, Mordred, lead the kingdom into ruin. Mortally wounded—his order of knights broken, the grail quest unfulfilled—Arthur retreats to the magical isle of Avalon.
But to say that in Malory’s retelling its heroes are nuanced is an understatement. For example, early in his kingship, upon learning that the man who will destroy him will be born on May Day, Arthur has all the May Day babies rounded up and sent out to sea on a boat to drown. His righthand man, the sorcerer Merlin, contrives the rape of Arthur’s own mother and even the best of his knights are prone to fits of murderous temper.
We read the following:
The kynge stablysshed all his knyghtes, and gaff them that rychesse and londys, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and allwayes to flee treson; also, to gyff mercy unto him that asketh mercy, and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen succor upon payne of death…
And wonder just whose riches and lands were the knights given, and what succor was due to women who were neither ladies, damsels or gentlewomen?
While Malory’s work is ingrained in Western culture and the source for many later versions of the myth, it is by no means original. Throughout the Morte, Malory supports his version of events by asserting that they are “as the French book sayeth.” The French book in question is authored by the twelfth century poet Chrétien de Troyes, inventor of courtly romance and writer of the baldest justification for rape I have ever read. In The Story of the Grail, Perceval encounters the Haughty Knight of the Heath who asserts:
A woman who lets herself be kissed easily gives the rest if someone insists upon it; and even if she resists, it’s a well-known fact that a woman wants to win every battle but this one: though she may grab a man by the throat, and scratch and bite him until he’s nearly dead, still she wants …to be taken by force, but then never shows her gratitude.
Shortly thereafter Perceval hands him his arse in a hat (or do I mean helmet?) and the Haughty Knight must solemnly promise to look after the woman he’s been jealously abusing.
If you’ve ever struggled to conceptualize what the patriarchy might look like, Camelot is an easy reach. The modest power female characters have is attained through birth or marriage. Anything else is the result of unnatural, unchristian power, which the enchantresses amongst them largely use to seduce knights against their will.
As I discovered more about de Troyes’ sources—the Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth—and the writers who succeeded him—the Pearl Poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach—I began to realize that as interminable as lockdown felt, it would not be long enough to read all of the Medieval Arthurian texts.
How British was Arthur even? Everyone seemed to claim him for their own: the Irish, Welsh, Cornish, French, Italians and Germans. Flitting from one clamoring, competing source to another, themselves based on hundreds of years of oral storytelling, I had the sense the myth was like a rapacious blackhole into which the whole of European folklore had been sucked and put on a spin cycle.
In her cult book From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, Jessie L. Weston goes further, proposing that elements of the grail legend—the Fisher King, the waste land, the grail and lance—are remnants of pagan fertility rites whose origins Weston traces to the Indian subcontinent. An unwelcome theory, I imagine, to alt-right fans for whom Arthur is the ultimate poster boy. In 2001, the far-right British National Party planned to run a summer camp called “Camp Excalibur” to celebrate Britain’s white heritage. But I doubt they’ve read their Malory, or much else for that matter.
At some point, I developed the suspicion that if I didn’t press the eject button, I would soon find myself in the middle of the night, on Reddit, arguing with strangers about the Vulgate Cycle. Because, and this probably isn’t clear to you from the above, I had fallen horribly in love with the whole gang.
Le Morte d’Arthur crackles with vitality. Despite their constraints, the women are horny and relentlessly sharp-tongued, quick to get the hump if they’re slighted. The knights are petty, the heroes self-doubting and weak willed. Everywhere the striving for perfection must meet the reality of human nature.
Besides, it is a myth and it does what myths do. In the Odyssey, the monsters—murderous and seductive—are our own, as is the thwarted longing to finally arrive home. Equally familiar is the lonely quest, the barren wasteland, the search—doomed to failure from the start—for a grail which promises to heal all wounds, deliver eternal youth and grant everlasting happiness, which is to say cure the human condition.
At some point, I did manage to tear myself free from the Middle Ages, but it was only to move on to more recent iterations of the legend, curious about the visions of Britain they would contain.
I had the sense the myth was like a rapacious blackhole into which the whole of European folklore had been sucked.
In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a cycle of twelve narrative poems written at the height of the Victorian era, one sees the anxieties of empire. The kingdom’s enemies are heathens and wild beasts. Arthur is the perfect Victorian gentleman (and by far the weakest character) but the rot can’t be stopped. The kingdom falls and the blame is squarely laid at the feet of Guinevere. Female sexuality is fungal, contaminating. If only she could have kept it in her pants!
TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922, is not strictly an Arthurian retelling. It opens with the kingdom already in ruins. World War I has been and gone. We are in rat’s alley and the dead flow over London Bridge. The mythic past intrudes upon the desolate present and a wounded Fisher King casts a line into a canal “behind the gas house.” Eliot, the drab banker, is none other than Merlin, trying to conjure the kingdom whole with his spellbinding poem-incantation.
Finally, I came to TH White’s The Once and Future King. By this point, I was getting nervous. Malory’s characters, particularly his women, had begun talking to me and showed no signs of stopping. I knew I was going to write my own version and feared that White might have pitched his camp on the ground I had my eye on.
But White, a conscientious objector, writing as the world slid into the Second World War, was compelled by a different set of historical circumstances and the questions he wrestles with—urgently and not without torment—concern might and right, and the correct use of violent force. A proto environmentalist, in the first and last books, he gives voice to the animals who share our world and with whom Arthur has served his apprenticeship. It is only a shame that White’s Mordred, modeled on Hitler, is also portrayed as queasily effeminate, his wickedness harnessed to, or arising from, his failed manliness.
Research can cripple a writer: you get bogged down in detail, uncover too many constraints—but the sheer volume and multiplicity of the Arthurian canon is liberating. Once upon a time, before Lance showed up, Kay was a hero. Mordred wasn’t always bad, although I did come across a version in which he and Guinevere are lovers and, imprisoned together, he ends up eating her lovely corpse.
Eventually, I looked up from the page towards the castle. A kingdom in ruins, I thought, and Arthur off swanning about on the magical Isle of Avalon! It didn’t seem right.
Who was he? It had nagged at me throughout those long months, as we scried the screens of our phones, as we doom-scrolled for the latest bad news on social media. Who had the power now? Whose blindness and overreach had the requisite scent of doom?
And then I knew and I summoned him.
Bliss & Blunder by Victoria Gosling is available from Serpent’s Tail.