Arthurian Legend

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Arthurian Legend

The name of King Arthur resounds with images of knightly romance, courtly love, and mystical magic. Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, and Merlin all carry meanings reflecting the enduring themes of adultery, saintliness, and mysterious wisdom from the Arthurian legend, which can truly be described as a living legend. The popularity of the tales of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Avalon, Camelot, and the Holy Grail is at a height unrivaled after more than 1,500 years of history. By the 1990s the legend had appeared as the theme of countless novels, short stories, films, television serials and programs, comics, and games.

Some recent writers have attempted to explain why there should be such a popular fascination with the reworkings of so familiar a story. Much of the enchantment of Arthur as hero has come from writers' ability to shift his shape in accordance with the mood of the age. C.S. Lewis noted this ability, and compared the legend to a cathedral that has taken many centuries and many builders to create:

I am thinking of a great cathedral, where Saxon, Norman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Georgian elements all co-exist, and all grow together into something strange and admirable which none of its successive builders intended or foresaw.

In a general view of this "cathedral" as it has evolved into today, one can see several characteristics of the legend immediately: it focuses on King Arthur, a noble and heroic person about whom are gathered the greatest of knights and ladies; who has had a mysterious beginning and an even more mysterious ending; whose childhood mentor and foremost adviser in the early days of his reign is the enchanter Merlin; and who has a sister, son, wife, and friend that betray him in some fashion, leading to his eventual downfall at a great battle, the last of many he has fought during his life. Quests are also common, especially for the Grail, which (if it appears) is always the supreme quest.

Probably one of the most familiar and successful modern tales of King Arthur is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). At first poorly received, this novel has since established itself as one of the classics of American literature. Twain's characteristic combination of fantasy and fun, observation and satire, confronts the customs of chivalric Arthurian times with those of the New World. In it, Hank Morgan travels back in time and soon gains power through his advanced technology. In the end, Hank is revealed to be as ignorant and bestial as the society he finds himself in.

In recent times, however, the legend appears most frequently in mass market science fiction and fantasy novels, especially the latter. Since the publication of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (1938), it has appeared as the theme in some of the most popular novels, including Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (1970), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982), and Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle (1987-1999). For the most part, the fantasy tales retell the story of Arthur and his knights as handed down through the centuries. They also build on the twist of magic that defines modern fantasy. Merlin, therefore, the enigmatic sorcerer, becomes the focus of most of the novels, particularly Stewart's and Lawhead's.

Due to Merlin's popularity, he has also appeared as the main character of some recent television serials, including the 1998 Merlin. Sam Neill is cast as Merlin, son of the evil Queen Mab. He tries to deny his heritage of magic, but is eventually forced to use it to destroy Mab and her world, making way for the modern world. This has been one of the most popular mini-series broadcasts on network television since Roots (1977) even though Arthur and his knights are barely seen in this story.

In the movies, however, Merlin fades into the background, with Hollywood focusing more on Arthur and the knights and ladies of his court. The first Arthurian film was the 1904 Parsifal from the Edison Company. It was soon followed by other silent features, including the first of twelve film and television adaptations of Twain's Connecticut Yankee. With the advent of talking pictures, the Arthurian tale was told in music as well as sound. After World War II and with the arrival of Cinemascope, the Arthurian tale was also told in full color. Most of the early movies (including the 1953 The Knights of the Round Table, Prince Valiant, and The Black Knight), however, were reminiscent of the western genre in vogue at that time.

In the 1960s two adaptations of T.H. White's tales, Camelot (1967) and Disney's The Sword in the Stone (1965), brought the legend to the attention of young and old alike. Disney's movie introduces Mad Madame Mim as Merlin's nemesis and spends a great deal of time focusing on their battles, while Camelot, an adaptation of the Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical, focuses on the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. This was also the theme of the later movie, First Knight (1995). However, Britain's Monty Python comedy troupe made their first foray onto the movie screen with the spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). This movie not only satirized all movie adaptations of the Arthurian tale, but took a swipe at virtually every medieval movie produced by Hollywood until that time.

It is Twain's novel, however, that has produced some of the best and worst of the movie adaptions. Fox's 1931 version, with Will Rogers and Myrna Loy, was so successful it was re-released in 1936. Paramount's 1949 version, with Bing Crosby, was the most faithful to Twain's novel, but was hampered by the fact that each scene seemed to be a build up to a song from Crosby. Disney entered the fray with its own unique live-action adaptations, including the 1979 Unidentified Flying Oddball and 1995's A Kid in King Arthur's Court. Bugs Bunny also got the opportunity to joust with the Black Knight in the short cartoon A Connecticut Rabbit in King Arthur's Court (1978), complete with the obligatory "What's up Doc?"

The traditional Arthurian legend has appeared as the main theme or as an integral part of the plot of some recent successful Hollywood movies, including 1981's Excalibur, 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1991's The Fisher King, and 1998's animated feature The Quest for Camelot. While the Arthurian legend has not always been at the fore of these movies, merely being used as a convenient vehicle, its presence confirms the currency and popularity of Arthur and his knights.

The legend has not remained fixed to films and books. Other places where the legend appears include the New Orleans Arthurians' Ball held at Arthur's Winter Palace, where Merlin uses his magic wand to tap a lady in attendance as Arthur's new queen, and the Arthurian experience of Camelot in Las Vegas. Also, in the academic field, an International Arthurian Society was founded in 1949 and is currently made up of branches scattered all over the world. Its main focus is the scholarly dissemination of works on the Arthurian world, and the North American Branch now sponsors a highly respected academic journal, Arthuriana.

Throughout its long history the Arthurian legend has been at the fore of emerging technologies: Caxton's printing press (the first in England), for example, published the definitive Arthurian tale, Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Today the new technology is the Internet and the World Wide Web. Arthurian scholars of all calibers have adapted to this new forum, producing some top web sites for the use of scholars and other interested parties alike. One site, for example, The Camelot Project, makes available a database of Arthurian texts, images, bibliographies, and basic information. The site can be found at:

The legend has been a staple of the fantasy role playing games from the late 1970s onward. In higher level modules of the popular Dungeons and Dragons game, characters from the legend appear. Shari and Sam Lewis created the "Pillars of Clinschor" module (1983) for the game, where the adventurers had to seize a castle from Arthurian arch-villainess Morgan Le Fay. With the rise of computer games, the Arthurian game has entered a new dimension of role-playing and graphical user interfaces. The Monty Python troupe, for example, released their Monty Python and the Holy Grail multimedia game in the mid 1990s, where the player takes Arthur on his quest through scenes from the movie in search of the Grail and an out-take.

The legend's prominence in comic books cannot be underrated either, given that it forms the backdrop of Prince Valiant, one of the longest running comic strips in America (1937-). Creator Hal Foster brought the exiled Valiant to Arthur's court, where he eventually earned a place at the Round Table. Prince Valiant itself has engendered a movie (1953), games, and novels. Another major comic to deal with Arthur had him returning to Britain to save the country from invading space aliens (Camelot 3000, 1982-1985). The success of these comics have seen some imitations, most poorer than their originals, but in some instances even these comics have remained very faithful to the legend.

The popular fascination is not limited to the various fictionalizations of Arthur. Major works have been devoted to the search for the man that became the legend. People are curious as to who he really was, when he lived, and what battles he conclusively fought. Archaeological and historical chronicles of Britain have been subjected to as much scrutiny as the literary in search of the elusive historical Arthur. A recent examination notes that this interest in Arthur's historicity is as intense as the interest in his knightly accomplishments. Yet, the search for the historical Arthur has yet to yield an uncontroversial candidate; those that do make the short list appear in cable documentaries, biographies, and debatable scholarly studies.

Finally, the image of Camelot itself, a place of vibrant culture, was appropriated to describe the Kennedy years, inviting comparison between the once and future king and the premature end of the Kennedy Administration.

King Arthur and the Arthurian Legend are inextricably a part of popular culture and imagination. At the turn of a new millennium, the once and future king is alive and well, just as he was at the turn of the last, a living legend that will continue to amaze, thrill, and educate.

—John J. Doherty

Further Reading:

Doherty, John J. "Arthurian Fantasy, 1980-1989: An Analytical and Bibliographical Survey." Arthuriana. Ed. Bonnie Wheeler. March 1997. Southern Methodist University. March 5, 1997.

Harty, Kevin J. "Arthurian Film." The Arthuriana/Camelot Project Bibliographies. Ed. Alan Lupack. April 1997. University of Rochester. November 2, 1998.

Harty, Kevin J. Cinema Arthuriana: Essays on Arthurian Film. New York, Garland, 1991.

Lacy, Norris J., editor. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York, Garland, 1996.

Lupack, Alan, and Barbara Tepa Lupack . King Arthur in America. Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1999.

Mancoff, Debra, editor. King Arthur's Modern Return. New York, Garland, 1998.

Stewart, H. Alan. "King Arthur in the Comics." Avalon to Camelot, 2 (1986), 12-14.

Thompson, Raymond H. The Return from Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1985.

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Arthurian Legend

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