Approaching Arthur

I was very fortunate to be introduced to Arthur in what I consider the best possible way; as a child, listening to an audio book of Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke, read in the sumptuous Welsh accent of Sian Phillips. Manning’s story is a frame tale, in which a young girl on holiday in Cornwall encounters a retired dragon living in a seaside cave. The dragon, who has been around since the time of Arthur, recounts episodes from Malory, interspersed with other English folk tales. The Arthurian stories are themselves reworked as folk tales and linked to the surrounding locality, including Tintagel and Bodmin Moor. I listened to and read this story over and over, so that the tales are deeply imprinted on my memory. I realise now that Manning was doing something very subtle and clever; returning Arthur to his homeland, and perhaps even to an older form of storytelling than the Romances or epics produced in the Middle Ages. As a slightly older child I read Bulfinch’s The Age of Chivalry (1858). Both writers used Malory as source, indeed Manning’s dragon sometimes quotes his most evocative lines. Arthur was so great an influence on my early experience of literature, that I find I am always drawn back to him. It is part of the reason I am pursuing medieval studies in the first place (the other being C. S. Lewis) and yet I am nervous of approaching the vast body of texts that make up this tradition.

Lately, I’ve decided I really can’t afford to skirt around the topic any longer and must make a considerable effort to get to grips with it. I’ve begun with Derek Pearsall’s Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (2003), which does exactly what it says on the cover, in an witty and insightful manner. The most helpful distinction Pearsall makes is between the English tradition, which focuses on Arthur as a national hero and even conqueror, and the French romances in which he is more of a background figure to the courtly love intrigues of Lancelot and Guinevere. Both explore the tragedy of the death of Arthur but while the Vulgate cycle (composed in monasteries) blames this on sexual transgression and the vanity of secular knighthood, English writers explore the human failings of the principal characters.

Having just started reading Malory (Helen Cooper’s Oxford World Classics edition) I’m impressed by his ability to include both streams of the Arthurian tradition and weave them into a whole. We often think of Arthurian characters as idealised, even archetypal figures but Marlory’s knights and kings are deeply flawed. He plays on the dramatic irony of his audience’s familiarity with the source material by having his characters spout morals that we know they will fail to live up to. I’m fascinated by the contrast between Gawain, who cannot seem to put a foot right, and Lancelot, who never loses a physical or moral battle and am keen to see how their later conflict is portrayed, because I feel it is this contrast; between worldly Gawain and holy Lancelot, that is really behind the downfall of Arthur more so than the treachery of Mordred, which was anticipated from the beginning.

There is another thread to the Arthurian tradition that is only touched on by Pearsall, and that is the supernatural elements it inherits from Breton lais and Welsh mythology. These are the features that intrigue me personally; Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Nenive/Vivienne/The Lady of the Lake and various other warlocks and enchantresses who pop up throughout the texts. I’m pleased to find that Malory preserves these, and although he seems to get confused as to which magical lady is which sometimes, the effect is that there are a fair few women in Le Morte Darthur with personal agency. Merlin, thankfully, is shut away in his rock fairly early in the book and Nenive assumes his role as deus ex machina, resolving difficult situations with magical intervention. She’s not altogether benign, but then neither was Merlin. I’m fascinated by the way magic is used in Morte Darthur, where enchantment is as commonplace as violence, and just as morally ambiguous.

I’m glad I’ve decided to return to these texts and explore them more thoroughly, because they still retain the power to enchant me. I love the combination of quirky humor (not always intentional), rollicking adventure and gentle pathos in Malory, and I look forward to reading later works inspired by him to see how these are developed.

Image: The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Edward Burne-Jones, 1889.