Then when the lady was delivered, the king commanded two knights and two ladies to take the child, bound in a cloth of gold, and deliver him to the poor man at the postern gate of the castle. So the child was delivered unto Merlin… to christen him, and to name him, Arthur**
The endless East in anger woke,
and black thunder born in dungeons
under mountains of menace moved above them.
Halting doubtful there on high saw they
wan horsemen wild in windy clouds
gray and monstrous grimly riding
shadow-helmed to war, shapes disastrous*
The legendary King of Albion, the oldest name extant for Britain, is about to enjoy a new re-incarnation in the Warner Bros movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie from a screenplay by Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram from a story by David Dobkin and Joby Harold.
Starring Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, Jude Law as Vortigern with Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon Arthur’s natural father, the film embraces the idea Arthur lived in Londinium during the last gasp stages the Roman Empire in Britain.
His uncle Vortigern is on the throne and Arthur raised in the city not knowing his birthright, would have to fulfill his destiny, which was to draw the sword Excalibur, associated with the rightful sovereignty of the British Isles, from a stone and, take action.
Sun shone on swords
the spears sparkled
as they sprang upward,
white as wheatfield.
Wheeling above them
the crows were crying
with cold voices*
King Arthur, a Celtic Briton is said to have spoken a language ancestral to modern Welsh and Cornish. Throughout history he has been considered the once and future King of the Isle of Albion and has over the centuries became a legend; his life story conveying a profound spiritual truth in an attempt to explain the inexplicable.
Getting to the truth about the real Arthur and who he was has proved difficult and many scholars have devoted their lives to arrive at a point in history where he is revealed, but have they succeeded fully?
The wealth of research material available can be overwhelming.
King Arthur had acquired his legendary status by the era known in Europe and England as the Middle Ages, which was deemed to have started with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and then merged into the first phase of the age of humanism an intellectual movement in Europe that manifested itself in Italy with the works of scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374).
During the twelfth century there had already been an ‘awakening’ in Europe, when an outpouring of extraordinary intellectual inquiry and discovery meant significant advances in both the intellectual and emotional spheres took place.
A new literary genre deriving from the language formerly spoken by the Romans as well as other languages taken from Latin, such as Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, emerged. Tales of the legendary king related in the ‘vulgar tongue’, arose from those passed by word of mouth and King Arthur was immortalized first in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Printed in 1485, he based his book, originally titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, on various previous versions penned during the 12th century in an age when ‘Romanz’ – an old French word, meant the ‘speech of the people’.
Scholars were kept busy exploring new areas of philosophy and science and they began to reflect on relationships and what it meant to be human, an individual. Belonging to the traditions now surrounding Romanz, a term later applied to novels.
The difference being they were now being written down by professional writers trained in both the disciplines of grammar and in rhetoric in cathedral schools where the study of the Latin language and interpretation of Latin authors were at the heart of founding a great ongoing literary tradition.
The stories concerning the legend of The Holy Grail in the Christian tradition also became closely connected with King Arthur at this time, yet originally both were originally independent of each other.
The great body of Grail romances came into existence between the years 1180 and 1240 when an atmosphere of chivalric adventure prevailed, with Knights of the Round Table like Sir Galahad often made to participate in a quest to find the holy object, whose form has never really been satisfactorily explained.
Whatever its reality, the Grail became infused into the legend of Joseph of Arimathea landing at Glastonbury Abbey and the conversion of Britain to embrace the Christian faith as scholars were inclined to connect this British sanctuary as the origin of the Grail romances, as in the man known as ‘Chief of our Historians’ William of Malmesbury’s account of the mythical Avalon.
‘Vortimer, who… perished prematurely, or would have governed the kingdom in a noble manner, had God permitted… died. The British strength decayed, and all hope fled from them; and they would soon have perished altogether, had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who became monarch after Vortigern, quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur. It is of this Arthur the Britons fondly tell so many fables, even to the present day; a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history. He long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war.
For troubadours roaming around Europe, the writers of the all-new romance literature composed in vernacular language, the focus of their works was the expression of personal feelings and the image of the feminine, which was all about beauty.
Guinevere the golden
with gleaming limbs.as fair and fell
as fay-woman in the world walking
for the woe of men
no tear shedding…*
Narratives concerning the deeds of brave warriors including the English knight who was motivated by love for his lady and accordingly, women played an increasingly important and active role as she inspired him to ‘do great deeds’ in order to become worthy of her love and win her favour.
The lady became an ennobling force, of a relationship that became idealized.
In reality it was one that could not exist within the context of medieval marriages, which were arranged among those already noble, or seeking to be, based on practical and dynastic concerns, rather than on love – a truly radical notion.
Romanz stories championed courtly love as a model for appropriate behaviour, teaching young men to channel their energies into socially useful behaviours of service for the greater good, rather than wandering around the countryside stealing.
Emerging during the Italian Renaissance (14th – 17th century), during an age of discovery and when the last re-printing of Mallory‘s document for nearly 200 years, occurred in 1634, since then King Arthur and his knights have been all about the stuff dreams are made of.
Now from hope’s summit headlong falling
his heart foreboded that his house was doomed,
the ancient world to its end falling,
and the tides of time turned against him *
Growing up reading the tales of the legendary Arthur to my brother, who at the time was recuperating from being in hospital over a long period, I am looking forward to a new take on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which begins on May 11, 2017. A popular figure, he’s always sure to innovate further debate. Can’t wait!
Watch the Trailer
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Images: Movie – courtesy Warner Bros
Images: Art – Victorian Artist, John Waterhouse
*The Fall of Arthur A previously unknown work by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in 2013.
** Project Gutenburg – LE MORTE D’ARTHUR, King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table, By Sir Thomas Malory, In Two Volumes – Quote: CHAPTER III. Of the birth of King Arthur and of his nurture.