If you’ve been following my series on Arthurian Legends, you will know by now what we know and love, or barely tolerate, as King Arthur is a mixture of historical events, Celtic legend, and Christian allegory. Aside from any mystical value these legends have either as morality tales or as encoded cultural references, the legends stand as perhaps one of the great examples of how great literature and great stories can unite different aspects of culture and bring them new life.
To anyone in the 21st century, this seems to matter very little. It’s just another round of European fantasy stories we are all made to learn, right?
Arthurian Legend is a prime example of how to express your own cultural identity when you aren’t the cultural majority.
Perhaps one of the best things that have come out of the cultural turmoil of the past few years is the much broader range of stories being told. Oh, the tropes are all the same. You still have the rom-com fluff, the thrillers, the murder mysteries, and the horror stories, but there’s a wider cultural swath in these stories.
It’s not all middle-class high schools in America anymore. Thank goodness.
While we continue to debate how the world works and why things are the way they are, we don’t really seem to realize that issues we see today about culture, especially as it pertains to how much imitation is flattery and how much is appropriation were all conversations our ancestors had before us. The Arthurian Legends are proof of that just from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s own account.
It’s a debate that hovers in the background of what we now know as English literature. The Venerable Bede, a Saxon in what is today Yorkshire, since the continued unease between the remnants of the Celtic Church, in particular, Iona, and the Roman Church, which nearly all the Saxon kingdoms adopted. Geoffrey of Monmouth, living later than Bede but in no less a time of cultural turmoil saw in dismay how the stories of his culture were only oral tradition and not highly regarded.
The best way to fuse a semi-mythical figure is to blend him with religion.
Midwinter for Celtic pagans was, from what little we know, largely about the cycle of rebirth. The darkest day of the year is not only when the setting sun aligns perfectly with Stonehenge, but it’s also when the days incrementally start getting lighter again.
The sun is “reborn” as light returns to the world and we are reborn with it.
Perhaps that is why early Christians eventually settled on Midwinter as the time for Christmas celebrations. Even today, liturgical traditions in Christianity celebrate a pre-Christmas season known as Advent—a time to reflect on how a deity manifested in human form. The Advent wreath with its five candles would slowly get brighter as each Sunday mass, another candle is lit.
It’s a reflection of exactly the same thing our pagan forbears celebrated—the return of light to the world. And it’s a chance to celebrate, reflect, and anticipate rebirth in a more metaphysical sense. You die to the old year and the old broken patterns of living to be reborn.
Into all of this, throw the so-called “once and future king.” Where does Arthur fit in?
Arthur unites the ideas of Christian and Pagan Rebirth
Arthur is also part of the cycle of rebirth. He is the king who will, as legend has it, return in a quasi-mystical sense. Just as in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, the Celtic Britons will once again rule Britannia and cast out the Germanic invaders. i.e. the Saxons.
Celts thought of life and death opposite the way we think of them. Birth meant a soul left the Otherworld. Death meant they returned there. Down the centuries, the Otherworld and the Faery World nearly became one and the same. This is why we see Avalon as a type of of the Otherworld in accounts such as Marie de France and Sir Thomas Malory.
It’s also why the Grail quests, with their trials, tribulations, and enchantments, are seen in an almost spiritual light.
What you are basically reading is a very stylized, romantic, and mystical union of legend, religion, and culture. In fact, the more I read of the literary source material for Arthur, the more I’m convinced the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the anonymous writer of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were actually just glossing over their Celtic heritage in both Christian allegory and chivalric sentiment.
Seriously, go read Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis and then go re-read some of the literary Arthurian source material. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Making a minority culture popular means you have to “sell” it to the majority.
Yes, I know this is controversial, but look at Arthur. These are Celtic tales essentially, what German Odin-worshipping Saxon is going to read about a Celtic king who will come again? What Norman hell-bent on being Roman would do the same?
Yet, even as the Saxons paid little heed to the Celtic legends, the Normans loved the stories of Arthur.
If you can’t sell your culture full out to your conqueror, then you might as well sneak it in and see if they bite. And boy did the Normans bite!
Thanks to their vast interest in the subject, we have a wealth of legends, poetry, and, in the 20th century, movies and TV shows to show for it. If it was a sell-out on the part of the people who wrote the legends, then it was a very shrewd sell-out.
And one which I would argue helped more than it hurt.
When your culture is on the verge of extinction, you do what you have to.
Create a story that the world wants to hear. Or even the majority culture of wherever you are. Be creative with it! Arthurian legend not only incorporates offshoots of Roman mythology–supposedly Brutus, son of Aeneas of Troy, founded Britain–but also offshoots of Christian romance. Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Britain just as he had brought the boy Jesus to Britain long ago.
Accuracy, purity, and correctness be damned. If it’s all dying out anyway, none of those things are going to matter when there’s no one who cares to remember. So, why not flex your creative muscles and make it part of a larger cultural narrative? If a small part of it survives where it would have otherwise faded, why not?
Why not make everyone love it, even if it’s a shadow of its former self?
I began the year 2022 with a post on the much-maligned James MacPherson and his Poems of Ossian. The legends he tells in that volume are almost certainly Irish—not Scottish as he was led to believe. He was so heavily criticized in his own day that while we almost certainly know about Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, both of whom he inspired, we never hear about him.
Does his inaccurate mean his work was worthless? Considering Burns’ and Scott’s legacies, I think we can safely discard that notion. We can go to places like the Isle of Sky and Edinburgh because Sir Walter Scott made people want to visit Scotland and Robert Burns makes us sing Auld Lange Syne ever year at New Year.
Without writers willing to get creative with their own heritage, there would be no Arthur. No Round Table. No Holy Grail. No Parry’s Jerusalem sung. We’d have old stones in a field worn down from age, a few half-remembered legends, and none of the romance.
Sorry, but I kind of like having that little bit of romantic fantasy.
Cultures survive because they are synthesized, not purified.
There is something to be said for keeping a culture “pure,”. You should always strive to remember the correct origins and provenance of things, if only for truth’s sake. But, at some point, recognize that cultural purity is a mostly academic pursuit because you are going to have to make concessions if you’re going to do business in the world and keep the idea of a global community alive.
It’s fun, it’s educational, and for some cultures, it’s even spiritual. But culture survives when it gets shared and when other people fall in love with it too.
If you don’t allow people to connect in their own way, then they aren’t going to care. Whether that’s the food, the clothes, the legends, or the writers, make some part of your heritage accessible to that other people can relate to it.
I, personally, will always love nearly anything Japanese. I lived there briefly when I was a child and my earliest memories were of military housing in Japan and of sushi, miso, and fried rice. I even have the little child’s kimono one of our neighbors gave me over there. It wasn’t appropriation to them or insulting.
Trust me, when the neighbors show up at your doorstep with a pound of salmon roe because they know the little American toddler loved eating it, you know it’s not insulting. Salmon roe, by the way, is still my favorite. If you even want to see me attempt to face-plant in a plate of food, set some of that before me.
If Japan were gone tomorrow, God forbid, a small piece of it would live on in me. Just as a small piece of the Celtic world that is no more lives on in every single person who loves Arthurian legends.
You can have a closed community. You can fence yourself in from the rest of the world as much as you choose to do. But, there are consequences that come with that because, at some point, you won’t be able to fence the rest of the world out.
Should we scrap the Christian gloss from the Celtic myth?
So, what about legends and cultural traditions that have gained a gloss from another culture, or from someone within the culture trying to preserve what they can? The old argument of reparations comes up repeatedly, so what about restoring legends to their original form?
Why not just consign Geoffrey of Monmouth, Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory along with all the anonymous writers of legends to dust? It’s appropriated culture after all, right?
We should leave things as they are, and I’ll tell you why.
The Celtic way of life, like all ancient cultures, would have died out anyway at some point, even without Christians adapting the customs. Pagans, like the more militant Christians (who were usually more self-righteous than they were Christian), didn’t mind wiping out cultures they thought inferior or appropriating others they thought superior.
Other pagans were already there and started the destruction. The Romans—the pagan Romans—burned down the most sacred of the groves for the Druids on Anglesey. With them went much of the knowledge, the traditions, the secrets. Almost everything.
The particular Christians responsible for the legends we have today stole nothing. Geoffrey of Monmouth was Welsh and he recast Welsh legends. Marie de France freely attributes her own lays to tales from the Bretons. Chretien de Troyes arguably is the only one who “stole” anything and we don’t even know his full background, so we can’t really be certain of that.
The more important question at stake here is whether you are really that willing to erase others’ work just to satisfy your own sense of propriety. Keep in mind that people have burned books, committed murder, and canceled major holidays over their own sense of propriety. To their own destruction.
Saving other cultures starts with the people in those cultures being creative.
You don’t have to throw everything out the window; you don’t have to bastardize your culture just to please someone who’s only interested in the next NFL game. Like with anything else in this world, find your target audience and go for it.
For whom were all the Arthur stories written? Norman aristocrats. Niche audience.
And yes, you may have to pull the ole Fall of Troy bit. Hey, it worked for both Virgil and Geoffrey of Monmouth so don’t knock it ’till you try it. And, like the now anonymous minstrels of the 12th and 13th centuries, you may end up starting something much larger than you expect.
Think of it as an alternate historical timeline. What if the American Natives were really the outcasts of Atlantis and they had a spell cast on them so they forgot? What if there were more survivors from Troy and they traveled East? There are hundreds of possibilities for you to explore.
You’ll find ways of sharing your culture with people who can genuinely appreciate and love it even if they are from a completely different background. Think of it as an entryway. The truly curious will try to find out more. The less curious? Well, there’s still a market for them. Even if you get them to like a small piece of it, you’ve won.
You may even inspire future generations to embrace their roots more fully.
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