Why does the tale of Arthur and his knights still resonate with its readers centuries after its first introduction? It ends in the tragic defeat of the King, with the deaths of nearly all of his men, and his dreams for a better Britain trod to nothingness under the feet of his enemies. What is so inspiring about that? Why does it remain so beloved and so bright a light in the imagination of each new audience? There is no one answer, but a significant one is the remarkable flexibility of the tales between the centuries of their first appearance and the present day. Each sub-creator finds a new way to present the legends, from the gamut of completely fantastical to grittily real. Each reader then encounters a fresh view while traveling on well-trod ground that still branches off to forge new paths. Arthurian scholars have considered many possibilities to answer this question of endurance, of which this paper submits a sampling.
Sørina Higgins observes, “Arthur was a powerful figure of social cohesion, moral rectitude, and military might during the terrible conflicts in which Britain was engaged” (1-2). She notes how Arthur’s world impacted the writing of the Inklings, a literary group that included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Their own additions to the legendarium focused on “the present’s need for redemption” (2). This included “incisive critiques of their own times and visions of utopian or dystopian futures evolving out of contemporary decisions” (2). Melissa Rogers argues, “The medieval imagery provides a surface identity for Arthur and his knights, but the underlying Anglo-Celtic threads are responsible for the captivating, vibrant, and ultimately enduring essence of the Arthurian legends” (4). Yannick Imbert observes throughout the centuries, “Arthur has not only become the subject for legends but also the vehicle for social, philosophical, and culture discourse, concentrating society’s hopes, desires, and fears” (175). Dan Nastali takes note of the tremendous popularity and adaptability of the tales “from retellings of medieval works for young readers to every type of genre fiction, from sophisticated contemporary realism to postmodern experimental works” (5). Lucinda Austin adds, “In the broader Arthurian context, changes over time are a result of what the authors want to say and believe and also, more significantly, a result of what an audience wants and expects to hear” (82).
Nastali also observes the switch in the middle of the 20th century from the earlier emphasis on the medieval tradition of tales told by Malory and others to the era of the Dark Ages during which Arthur, if he truly existed at all, lived and fought. These stories had “historical settings of interest to modern readers for some parallel with our own age; competent scholarship into the historical period; characters of ordinary rather than heroic stature; modern diction; and an attempt to portray the world view of the period of the story” (6). Holly Ordway notes, “The Arthurian tradition is a living one, which not only provided material for medieval writers and poets, but continues to inspire authors to the present day. The earlier texts are not mere relics of the past, but the productions of authors who, like modern-day authors, felt the need to retell an important story in their own way” (77). Rogers states, “Arthur’s kingdom is a beacon, an ideal nation that is continually seeking to expand its territory and spread its light while resisting the threat of invading darkness. More than one author has recognized the power of such a concept and has woven a tale that employs many of these trends” (123).
This paper highlights two such authors: Stephen R. Lawhead and Jack Whyte, who, respectively, penned The Pendragon Cycle and The Camulod Chronicles. They both consider the shining dream of a strong and independent Britain rising from the ruins of the Pax Romana and retaining the Christian virtues of a civilized society amidst a world descending into chaos as a matter of importance to contemporary readers. Whtye observes:
In a world in which people are being increasingly and remorselessly reduced to statistical numbers and where individuality is becoming more and more archaic and less respectable; where it seems that every hero we can identify is being pulled down, scorned, defiled and degraded, and where the old and cherished, standard values are being thrown out and replaced with nothing better than lowest common denominator vulgarism, intelligent people are looking for reassurance that they still have within them, within their own souls and persona, what it takes to achieve greatness . . . or perhaps merely even singularity. (Austin 126)
Of the two, Whtye’s series is “[t]he most through and convincing attempt to endow the Arthurian story with a Roman inheritance . . .” (Nastali 19). He labors long to provide a story of what life in Dark Ages Britain was truly like and what roles Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and others could have played in it. “As such, he offers the readers a fictional but matter-of-fact look at sixth-century Britain that is neither entirely brutal, nor romantic and supernatural . . . . His presentation relies at least in part . . . that while people’s inclinations can go to both extremes . . . human nature tends to be balanced somewhere in the middle” (Austin 4). Whyte’s Britain is not a fantasy land, but “a solid, realistic world where nothing is left to the supernatural or the Otherworld to explain and where the real magic is found in the pride, determination, and vision of the characters” (13). While Lawhead offers a believable world too, it is also connected with the divine and the supernatural. These different approaches do not detract from the emotional power of the two sagas. Both movingly recount the passionate dream of a victorious, just, and peaceful Britain standing against all those who oppress it.
Whyte begins his elaborate tale grounded in the reality of the waning days of the Roman occupation of Britain. Arthur’s Roman great-grandfathers Publius Varrus and Caius Britannicus realize the end of Roman rule will mean the end of civilization as they know it. In unflinching detail, Britannicus lays out for his fellow Britons what is ahead for those who do not flee back to Rome. After the Eagles leave, lawlessness will reign; there will be no more new roads made and those which are there will not be kept up; there will be no food unless one grows it on their own; there will be no troops to guard against Saxon raiders; Roman currency will be no longer minted and will become valueless. In the face of this coming disaster, these men refuse to bow down to despair or to surrender to it and flee. They stand in open defiance of it. They see the end coming and prepare a bulwark against it, a haven of Roman life and values when all else is swept away. Britannicus states unequivocally they already have all they need in skills and strength of stubborn will to withstand the fall of night, and not only to withstand it, but to prosper (The Skystone 370-71). Thus begins the daring struggle to maintain a shining light in the darkness, to build a place where the hope of a Britain strong enough to repel invaders on its own takes form. They call it the Colony. In time, it gains a new name: Camulod.
Merlyn Britannicus is the great-nephew of Publius and the grandson of Caius. He carries the torch of this light after the other men die. There is no hint of sorcery about him, though later, he allows this perception. He has no unusual conception or birth, and he has no hand in Arthur’s conception. Indeed, he knows nothing of him until the child’s mother dies, and the baby’s cries alert Merlyn to him. Awe strikes him, as he beholds the squalling, soiled infant. Here, he perceives, in this tiny body is a heart large enough to save them, the heart of a man, a leader, a king. All this is but potential, yet what potential! Merlyn recalls the words of his great-uncle shortly before the man died. “You’ll know the day, and you’ll know the man. . . . You’ll find the secret of the King, someday. You’ll know him as soon as you set eyes on him” (The Eagle’s Brood 622). With the blood of Celt and Scots in Arthur as well, the dream of a Britain united against its foes remains alive in this hungry child. Merlyn accepts the responsibility to mentor him into adulthood to become the next and greatest torch-bearer to hold back the darkness.
To add to the realism of his tale, Whyte includes in fictional contexts personages who truly existed. One of these is St. Germanus, who was once a Roman warrior and later Bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. During a visit to Britain, Germanus and Merlyn speak of Arthur, who is now a young man. The bishop asks Merlyn whether he thinks Arthur is strong enough to accept his great destiny as a leader. Merlyn has no doubt and lays out the reasons why. St. Ambrose, in truth Bishop of Milan, is another historical figure who in this tale comes to Camulod. Merlyn credits him to a great extent for Arthur’s Christian behavior, beliefs, and worldview. The great concern of Germanus is for the Christians in Britain, as the darkness outside Camulod deepens and the rampant torture and murder of those leading the flock is an increasingly vexing problem. But what Merlyn says sparks in the bishop the hope that Arthur “might well be the salvation of us all” (The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis 355). Merlyn believes this also, but at some point in the future, when Arthur is old enough to shoulder the tremendous burdens his destiny will place upon him. He incredulously realizes Germanus has a much shorter timeframe in mind. Merlin points out Arthur has only just recently passed his 16th birthday and wonders what in the world makes Germanus think Arthur is ready at the present time. The bishop replies Merlyn already gave the answer in his own glowing endorsement of the lad. “God needs a champion today, Merlyn, to defend His people and His faith right here in Britain, and you have described that champion to me this night, in Arthur Pendragon” (356). Germanus knows well the power of Camulod and its armies to hold back the darkness and allows Christians there and in the surrounding area to live in peace. He argues hard for Arthur to be placed in a position of power that will extend this influence and protection to the whole island (The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis 353-56). Germanus notes, “Who rules [Camulod’s] armies could, and should, rule Britain, providing that he be a man of simple faith and Godliness, of dignity and in-born nobility. Arthur Pendragon will be that man, I believe . . .” (356).
After Arthur is crowned the next year as High King of all Britain and Defender of the Faith by Bishop Enos, the light of the grand dream for Britain flares up anew. Arthur acknowledges the monumental task before him and fully embraces his destiny as a specifically Christian king. The bishop asks the congregation to pray for a sign of God’s blessing. It comes even as he asks for it, as stormy clouds break and a beam of light comes down (486-88).
Years later, the harsh reality that Britain remains sorely beset its enemies conflicts with this heady vision. Arthur is painfully aware his title of High King of a united land exists still only as a dream. Yet it continues to burn within him. He tells his friend and confidant, Clothar, a Frankish knight better known as Lancelot, “I dream of a Britain united, one people, unified under one monarch and protected as securely under the rule of law as they were when Rome governed here” (The Eagle 149). He believes he received what amounts to a divine mandate to take up the daunting task of uniting the myriad lesser, regional kings under himself as High King as the only hope of defeating those foes who continue to threaten them. He knows nothing less than whole-hearted commitment will accomplish this (150). Sadly, with even this complete dedication, the task proves impossible.
Still the glorious light of the dream did not die with the dream, for its light is still visible 1600 years later for those who know how and where to look for it. Whyte saw the light.
Stephen R. Lawhead did as well. His tale also starts before Arthur’s birth. The first, Taliesin, tells the story of Merlin’s parents: Charis, a princess who flees to Britain after the destruction of Atlantis, and Taliesin, a druid and bard of unknown origin. Taliesin has an encounter with the Ancient One and tells his wife of the wondrous sights he beheld:
I have seen a land shining with goodness where each man protects his brother’s dignity as his own, where war and want have ceased and all races live under the same law of love and honor.
I have seen a land bright with truth, where a man’s word is his pledge, and falsehood in banished, where children sleep safe in their mothers’ arms and never know fear or pain. I have seen a land where kings extend their hands in justice rather than reach for the sword; where mercy, kindness, and compassion flow like deep water over the land, and men revere virtue, revere truth, revere beauty, above comfort, pleasure, or selfish gain. A land where peace reigns in the hearts of men, faith blazes like a beacon from every hill and love like a fire from every hearth, where the True God is worshiped and his way acclaimed by all. (Taliesin 443)
Taliesin recognizes in this ancient figure the presence of God and converts to Christianity, as does Charis. Rebecca Heine notes his knowledge that this vision does not refer only to an earthly Summer Realm where Christianity first flourishes in Britain, but to something far greater. “The corporal Kingdom of Summer, Arthur’s kingdom, is just a reflection of the true Summer Kingdom beyond this present world – a reflection of the true realm of God” (Heine 18). Taliesin passionately believes in this divine mandate to establish Britain as the physical kingdom, but he dies before he sees its realization. Yet the dream lives still in Charis and her son.
Many years later, after Merlin emerges from a long period of madness where both Satan and God visit him, he knows it is his task to find the right champion to bring the dream into reality (Merlin 275). This, John J. Doherty argues, ties in with the meaning of life:
Lawhead believes this to be faith in God and the ability to love in the face of great adversity. He illustrates this by showing Merlin keeping faith with God even in the depths of his madness, and retaining the love for his murdered wife as his guiding force. For Merlin, in madness, life became meaningful in that he once more learned that he was the instrument of God’s will. Destiny and fate, God’s plan, have taken over and the battle that is to come, the emergence of the Kingdom of Summer from the Darkness of strife, is God’s way of building a beacon of Light in a sea of Darkness, much as the sacrifice of His Son was a similar weapon in a similar battle. (62)
From Merlin’s mouth comes a prophecy to the gathered petty kings of Britain about the man who will establish this kingdom. No one, including Merlin himself, knows who this is, but he sees him quite clearly nonetheless. Humility will be this champion’s greatest trait, and he will exercise his kingship as a servant of all in justice and mercy. He will be like no other man ever known. “Chief Dragon of Britain, he shall stand head and shoulders above the rulers of this world in kindness no less than in valor; in compassion no less than in prowess. For he will carry the True Light of God in his heart” (Merlin 444-45). His deeds will be celebrated, and his name will be immortal. Only such a man will wield the Sword of Britain, and Merlin declares he will be his servant. Two of the kings ask for an additional sign how to recognize this paragon of virtue is more than merely words. Merlin plunges the Sword into the stone. For fifteen years, Britain continues its plunge into darkness until one day a boy not yet born comes to claim the Sword (Arthur 16).
Later, Charis gives Arthur another sword, one she made originally for her father, Avallach. After Arthur meets Avallach, the Fisher King and Merlin’s grandfather, it confirms Merlin’s hope the young man is the one prophesied. “It is true! All that we have hoped for Arthur, all that we have worked for . . . is coming to fruition! Arthur is the Summer Lord! His reign will establish the Kingdom of Summer” (134-35). Charis tells Arthur of the vision God gave her husband. Arthur is transformed by this high calling with a bright light shining from his eyes. He now understands why he was born. He asks for Charis to bless him, and in the name of Jesus, she does (132-37). Even before Arthur is officially crowned, Merlin announces the inauguration of the Kingdom of Summer. “Behold a kingdom of peace! Behold a kingdom of right! Behold a king ruling with wisdom and compassion as his stalwart counsellors!” (137).
Much later, Bedwyr, Arthur’s foster brother, reflects on what this means. “The Summer Realm lived in our midst; the yearning of our hearts gave it shape and substance. We tasted the sweetness of its fragrance on our lips, and heard the gentle music of its fair winds rising within us. The gleam of its unfailing light filled our eyes” (233).
As Whyte’s Arthur has his Knights Companion, Lawhead’s has his Cymbrogi, companions of the heart. They are his right arm and utterly devoted to him, and he to them. To hell, and through hell, they would go because he is a true leader. He leads from the front. He does not consider the traditional meaning of impossible. In his labors to establish peace between Britain and its invaders, he sees it as I’m possible. And because he does, so do his Cymbrogi. He would rather defeat his enemies through peace and forgiveness rather than destroy them in battle, but he is fully prepared to go to war if that is the only way to achieve victory.
Alas, in both Whyte and Lawhead, the gloriously dogged pursuit of Arthur’s bold goal to unite Britain and repel its invaders proves beyond achievement. That he and his loyal warriors do not succeed is no fault of theirs, and many sub-creators of this enduring story do not condemn Arthur.
This reluctance to condemn Arthur is no surprise, because the power of the legend lies in its ability to inspire us with same vision that inspired his followers so long ago. And that it will do as long as we continue to dream of a better and brighter world. Amidst the new Dark Age that seem forever rising, a darkness born of our own failure and despair, Arthur remains a beacon of hope, not of easy success, but of the ever-renewed determination of the human spirit to strive for a nobler way, regardless of the cost. (Thompson 311)
After a sorely wounded Arthur apologizes for being unable to completely fulfill Merlin’s hope for the Kingdom of Summer, Merlin says, “You were the king God wanted. Nothing else matters” (Arthur 431). This is why Arthur continues to inspire. Because he made the effort. He and all those who fought and died alongside him for the dream did not stand idly by. They chose to be lights, rather than curse the darkness. They chose not to bow under the tremendous weight of the daunting task before them, but to embrace it with absolute love and complete commitment. Through many retellings and adaptations, they remain celebrated and immortal, simply for the pursuit of the dream.
Perhaps the dream still awaits the next one to make the attempt, and then it will re-emerge and become reality. Dimble from That Hideous Strength notes, “There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres was our name for it . . . . gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting” (367). The light from Logres still shines to beckon us on, as it did for Arthur and his knights. Long live the king!
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This is one of the papers I wrote for my Master’s Degree at Signum University.