Arthur Part 2: Arthur as Art

© 2005 Jeff Lynch

She is not any common earth
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s isle of Gramarye.
Where you and I will fare.*
The subject of Arthur as myth, art and fable or if you like Arthur as a creation, is a massive subject and far too big for any article similar too this puny one to say that it is even passably covered. But simplify me when I am dead, I will say something in any case. Arthur as a creation in literature may go back as far as the sixth century AD in Britain. This subject is rife with the problems of translations, updatings and the like, but in the ‘History of Britain’ perhaps written by Nennius, which is an essentially 9th century work, we are given the names of five 6th century poets. We know nothing at all of three of them, but ... ‘We still have copies of poems which may reliably be attributed to the other two, Aneurin and Talisein.”* Aneurin wrote ‘Y Gododdin’, and the work is a major primary source for whatever we know about sixth century war, weapons and social organisation. His works are from a Northern English aspect overall! Taliesin’s works are maybe also Northern in aspect, but are also peculiarly Welsh with use of Welsh names and with some use of place names like Anglesey and Gwent or Menai. An Arthur appears in the Gododdin where the hero named Gwawddur is compared with Arthur:

He glutted black ravens on the wall of the fort
Although he was no Arthur.

Most of the suggestions of Arthur, or Artur as he sometimes appears in the works, may already be Romanticising on a figure already long dead and presumably buried. Some of the existing works (as copied) are as recent as the 13th century, yes some seven hundred years later. The problems of history are legion indeed dear reader! Just how much art there is in the ‘The History of Britain’ is a far flung guess, but the ninth century work is accepted by many I would say as a good basis of history with overlays of later ‘insertions’, some of a religious nature and others of sheer creation for its own sake. Arthur becomes Art while wearing the mantle of historical accuracy maybe!

You will not find a mention of one Chretien de Troyes in either The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or Bartletts Familiar Quotations. And yet he almost single handedly was more influential in literature art and song than any other Arthurian writer. I have not knowingly read a line by this 12th century Romance writer, from Troyes the capital of the Champagne country in France. Even the word Romance and its concept really can in many ways be traced back to Chretien! He wrote five Arthurian Tales, which proved very popular, presumably with the elite, seeing that lower classes of the European workers could rarely read at this time. It is generally thought this new concept of’ ‘Romantic love’ spread wide in Europe and a new word troubadour began to be heard. A tale teller by song and stringed instrument, who like the Celtic Bards of old, wandered from court to court presumably and conquered the nobility’s sensibilities. 

An even more shadowy figure whose name we think is Sir Thomas Mallory, although in truth, even this is in doubt, appears in or about the last third of the 15th century in England. When I think of ‘Morte de Arthur’ I think of Tennyson, but this name was first given to Malory’s work by it’s printer William Caxton. He named and printed it in 1495 and it was also printed later by one Wynkyn de Worde. Oh I just had to put that name down! So we have a sort of match for shadowy Arthur the king in this almost unknown knight, who may have come from Newbold Revell in the parish of Monk Kirby, Warickshire. As I stated before, even this information, is by no means certain at all.
And so we have lines like ...

‘Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightful King born of all England.’

And ...
‘Therefore all ye that be lovers call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenevere,
for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.’

Did Mallory’s works then spring from French Romances of nearly three hundred years prior?

Some last lines ...
‘Thus endeth the story of the Sangreal that was briefly drawn out of French into English,
which is a story chronicled for one of the truest and holiest that is in the world.’

And suddenly we can see that Sir Thomas Malory’s stories, handed down to us English readers are shaped fancies from half forgotten French Romances. Certainly we now have a Christian imprint with a capital C as was never found before. It is true that mentions were made of Christian symbols carried into battle in ‘The History of Britain, but nothing like a raison d’etre of Arthur’s very existence and practices now found in Mallory! Arthur as Christian has met Arthur as Romance and the style was to linger for a while.

My father had a copy Of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s works exquisitely bound and situated upon the mantelpiece over the fireplace in one of the rooms that burnt when our house burned down at Yarrawonga. I always remember reading from Morte de Arthur, and also images of wintry fogbound lakes and perilous rocky crags abound in my mind’s eye! This one time hippy Victorian soon to be poet Laureate and fashioner of all Victorian poesy in fashion,  reforged Arthur as the countries prime hero, it’s chief lover and fallen idol too. Who can forget lines such as …

‘The splendour falls on castle walls
 And snowy summits old in story:
 The long light shakes across the lakes,
 And the wild cataract leaps in glory.*

or ...
I found him in the shining of the stars
I marked him in the flowering of His fields,
But in the ways of men I find him not.’*

Lord Tennyson is fondly remembered by that great character of John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Bailey. However, that gritty fighter for British justice and the freedom to breathe, drink and smoke is more often seen quoting from ‘Ulysses’ than any of the Arthurian works.

Alfred had stirred once more, the English collective yearning for a hero both lost and found. Like a Botham to the wicket striding or yet again a Beckam unto the fields of combat, go these men of action and all the better they are too, if they are flawed as mortal men often may be. Arthur was again at England’s centre then, in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

What other work would I end up this topic, other than the wondrous ‘The Once and Future King’? This book is both erudite and a work of superb insight into ‘le condition humaine’. It is certainly recommended by me to sensitive, intelligent children from the ages of seven to one hundred and eleven. T.H. White went to all the correct English schools and emerged first as a teacher and then a reclusive writer, whose major work was forged between 1939 and 1941-42. He died in Piraeus Greece in 1964 Because he had sold the rights of ‘The Once and’ to become the Broadway hit Camelot, he had plenty of money on which to survive. The work is divided into four short novels and the reader may recognise the Walt Disney work of ‘The Sword In The Stone’ as the first of the titles. The others are ‘The Witch In The Air and Darkness’, ‘The Ill Made Knight’ and finally ‘The Candle In The Wind’.

The work begins with the early education of young Wart. Wart or ‘the Wart’ as he is usually called, studies Court Head, Summulae, Logicales, Organon, Repetition and Astrology at his castle. He is not especially favoured at first around the castle keep and grounds, as he is revealed as a commoner and supposedly of little significance in the scheme of things. However, he soon meets a rather unclean old man whose name is Merlyn. And so the Wart’s life is gradually changed as we watch him given a solid grounding in the special arts of falconry, and also heraldry, and then weapons training. He is to be a squire and a knight and then something else altogether. He is of course ‘The Once and Future King’. White pretty well follows the basic plot lines of Malory from the ‘Morte D’Arthur’ in the 1495 book printed by the famous Caxton! It is really impossible to describe this fabulous (in its full sense) book, or should I say the four books. But what raises this book above most efforts, is the fact that although White writes generally in a humorous tone (especially in the earlier books) what emerges is a profound sadness of the human condition. He writes with irony, controlled passion and loving detail on diverse subjects. The loves and lives of the famous ménage a trois of Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot, is just heart breaking. This work defies all attempts to criticise the folly of human desire and weakness. It has of course all been done before by the Ancient Greeks, by Shakespeare, Johnson, and many many others, but the mind of White with all his intricate knowledge of late medieval artistry, warfare and science shines through both the humour and tragedy of this work. Buy it or if you are short this month borrow it, and as a last ditch tactic, go ahead and steal it! It is just that good. A last note … the very last words written by T.H. White after the close of the text of ‘The once and Future King’ are ‘The Beginning’.

As I intimated at the start of this essay it is impossible to survey even so briefly anything like a full gamut of Arthurian literary attempts. We have peeped at a few French and English writers and that is all. It would seem that a universal desire to dream about a past and golden realm is like the world, always with us. To construct a Camelot, but know in our hearts that downfall is only steps away seems an imperative for us! In part it is perhaps the Burkeian principle of conservatism that hearkens to a better age and a barely hidden knowledge of better times, better manners and better climes! Although we realise that the ‘Camelot’ of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was just a construct really, of clever public relations in many ways, the desire to believe in this, a real life example is no small thing. This President did not fare so well privately with this, his first lady and unlike the Arthur of myth, one feels that there was only small love in his heart for Jaqueline, who truly managed to seem like an American Queen. And then after the glittering White House functions, the downfall, which seems to fit our already constructed dream, makes it seem more thrilling in its poignancy.
The depths of the Arthurian themes are far more personal than that though. The subject of human desire too, is always with us both emotionally and sexually. To witness Guinevere having it all, and yet being Marilyn or Diana is already known in our own hearts, You have made your bed and you must lie down it, is the saying. But every human knows that beds are for burning in their hearts and minds, no matter how well they may behave in public. To bonk or not to bonk, that is the question. And so there will always be room enough in our minds for two lovers and the brief bliss and the long pain. The essence then is merely, a man and a woman. We also cast our minds eye ahead, towards the visual arts as well, which are so rich in recasting the Arthurian stories. From Burne Hogarth’s Prince Valiant of cartoon fame to, the Pre-Raphelite painters, there is much to plumb and with fortune I shall return to discuss them.



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