Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus
Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future KingSir Thomas Malory
Ok, I can hear a few groans out there now. Why, oh why, must we go over King Arthur yet again? Isn’t that all outdated and out of touch these days?
Well, no. It’s not out of touch. It’s only out of touch if you persist in the Victorian-era interpretation of the King Arthur legends and don’t seek any further. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is very eloquent, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original legends, The Lady of Shalott notwithstanding.
But to get a full appreciation of just who Arthur was and why he was so significant takes a bit of imagination and a LOT of re-evaluating what we think we know of European history. Because let’s face it, we have seen European history fall by the wayside in popular culture unless it was too, once again, mull over the implications of Nazism and Imperialism in the 1800s and 1900s.
So, for just a moment, forget the past 200 years entirely. Travel back farther. A lot farther. The world is older than you know, and there are at least three things that I think turn the entire Arthurian legend on its head.
You should know I never really approach anything conventionally by now. So, I’m going to introduce you to just three ideas I want you to mull around for a bit.
The Two Great Culture Shifts that aren’t Christian
God did not wish the Britons to rule in Britain any more, until the moment should come which Merlin had prophesied to Arthur.Geoffrey of Monmouth
For the purposes of Arthurian legend, there are two major cultural shifts that you should keep in mind, and no, Christianity is not one of them. The first is the shift in Europe from a Celtic way of life to a Roman way of life. The second is the shift from Celtic to Germanic.
Celts once held most of Europe in their grasp. Not as a single empire, mind, but more like a band of petty kings and kingdoms held together when they weren’t warring with one another. Which was hardly ever. When the Romans came, they adapted to the Roman way of doing things from law to how the city was set up.
But the majority was still Celtic. It wasn’t until the Germanic tribes—descendants of one of the Celtic subcultures along with Huns, Sarmatians, and other tribes in the East that Europe transitioned once again. Only this time, it was from Celtic to Germanic.
The differences between the two are a discussion for another time.
Why is this significant? Most of what we know about Arthur is from Celtic texts. Not French, not German. Celtic. Specifically, British. Or, as we know them today, Welsh. King Arthur and his knights are not a French thing, or even an English thing. They are very deeply Celtic on several levels.
Mainly because of the blend between the mythical and the real. The Isle of Avalon itself may very well have been a Sidhe from ancient times: a mythical portal to Otherworld or the Faery Realm. The place where the old gods retreated.
The Green Knight? Well, isn’t that a leftover from the Green Man?
The list could go on. The more modern movie interpretations of King Arthur, such as Merlin, The Last Legion, King Arthur, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, all play upon the Celtic heritage of the legends.
In my not-so-humble opinion, it’s about time.
Third Rome Doctrine and the Continuing the Roman Legacy
Alas for the Red Dragon, for its end is near. Its cavernous dens shall be occupied by the White DragonGeoffrey of Monmouth
Sometimes called the “Third Rome Doctrine,” the idea originated as propaganda for the Russian Tsars. The theory stands on a more religious base than a political one. The idea was that you had to have one imperial state to carry the torch of Christianity. One “chosen” people, if you will. That torch was lit with Constantine, was passed to Byzantium after Rome’s fall, and then after Byzantium, passed to Moscow.
Sounds a little sus doesn’t it? Well, this is the sort of ideological stuff that we all look back on and groan. By the way, this kind of thinking wasn’t just the Russians. The French claimed it at one point too, through Charlemagne. So did the Puritans, only they went farther back and tried to claim the covenant of Ancient Israel.
Remember, propaganda 500+ years ago was very much religion-based. And the division of the East and West, both politically and ecclesiastically, was just the perfect fodder for all involved.
Why does this matter with Arthur? Well, it matters with Arthur because this longing to identify with Rome, especially with a Christianized Rome, influenced how the legends were told and retold. There are definitely pre-Christian elements in them, but Geoffrey of Monmouth, and others, preserved them, as many things got preserved, with a slight Christian gloss on them to make them socially acceptable.
Or acceptable to a specific audience.
The entire story arc Geoffrey of Monmouth uses to tie Britain to Troy is exactly the sort of thing which would appeal to a educated elite because it echoes what Virgil wrote about Rome in The Aeneid. By saying a descendant of Aeneas founded Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth was linking the idea of Troy, Rome, and the Age of Heroes with Britain on a mythical level.
Only while Third Rome Doctrine was supposedly introduced in the 1500s, Monmouth wrote in the 1100s. Typical, isn’t it? You’re the first at something and you don’t even get recognition for it.
Although, no one seems to mind the idea of Arthur coming back. But everyone does seem to mind the idea of Moscow being another Rome.
One Big Medieval Mess
There’s another aspect to Arthurian legend which makes it highly criticized or highly annoying, depending on your viewpoint. And that is the sheer number of contradictions and soap opera-type narratives within the legends. Adultery, intrigue, egotism, petty squabbles between the knights, etc all within a larger framework of Christianity and chivalry.
Medieval mess, as Disney’s version of Merlin would claim.
Mostly, the mess originates because of the sheer volume of people who have written King Arthur stories. Sometimes, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author has faded while the work has remained. There are, in fact, several elements of the Arthurian legend for which we have no authors. The entire saga of the Holy Grail? Yep, written by Anonymous.
That, by the way, was one origin of Monty Python’s treatment of the legend.
The mess also comes from a historical figure taking on mythic proportions and absorbing a lot of religious symbolism. From more than one religion at that. There is more at work here than a mere Christian gloss over some old stories. If anything, it’s a deep recognition on some level that those stories meant something not only historically and culturally, but spiritually as well.
More on that in a later post.
Why are there so many different versions of Arthur? Well, because his stories were an oral tradition, as most Celtic myths were until Romanized Britons and Christians started writing them down. Your average Christian monk did more to save the ancient world than we like to credit him for.
And so it was with Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth himself opens his History of the Kings of Britain with the observation that his countrymen still remember the heroes of old, handing down the stories from generation to generation.
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