TCS Daily

King Arthur Lives

By Kenneth Silber - July 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Arthur, legendary king of England, has had a remarkable resilience across the centuries, enduring from dimly perceived Dark Age origins through medieval tales and romances and into modern books and movies. The Arthurian legend, in its various forms, is intertwined with history -- both in seemingly having some basis in real events and in serving as an inspiration that shaped the course of events. And as it echoes into the present day, its effects on history are not yet played out.

There is much debate about the historical Arthur -- whether he was one individual or a composite of several, or existed at all. Various candidates have been presented, mostly leaders in post-Roman Britain of the 5th and 6th centuries. Possibly, the name Arthur derived from a title or from the Celtic word Art, for bear. In any event, it appears that someone drove back the invading Saxons during that period. References to Arthur in literature occurred not long thereafter, in Welsh poetry of the 6th century.

A generation after their setback, the Saxons, with their allies the Angles, gained control of most of Britain. But the legend of Arthur now served as a rallying point in the western regions of Wales and Cornwall, where the invaders had not penetrated, and among the exiled Britons of northern France (in what came to be known as Brittany). Arthur was an inspiration to William the Conqueror's army, which swept northward across the English Channel to defeat the Anglo-Saxon rulers in 1066.

The legend spread through medieval works such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1133 Historia Regum Brittanie (History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Malory's 1485 Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur). Story lines developed that Arthur became king by pulling a sword from a stone; that he gathered knights at a round table and held court at a place called Camelot, where his advisors included a wizard, Merlin; that he was betrayed in love by his queen Guinevere and his bravest knight, Lancelot; that he did battle with his evil relative Mordred; that Arthur rests -- depending on the version, either dead or merely asleep until he is again needed -- on an island named Avalon.

Arthurian legend has received numerous treatments in modern times -- everything from Mark Twain's 1889 story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, to T.H. White's 1958 novel The Once and Future King, to the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail and this summer's King Arthur. Arthur's exploits resonate through political culture too, as in the labeling of John F. Kennedy's administration as "Camelot." The legend even extends to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where there are bodies named 2597 Arthur and 2598 Merlin.

Arthurian legend reflects -- and reinforces -- key values of the contemporary West, particularly in the English-speaking nations; Arthur has long held a fascination in the United States almost as much as in the United Kingdom. Consider the congruence between Arthurian tales and essential elements of contemporary society:

Democracy. The Knights of the Round Table are a veritable archetype of representative democracy and equality before the law. There was no head of the table to distinguish the ruler's position; the king was first among equals, and at most sat in a higher-backed chair. Decisions were discussed and deliberated, rather than being handed down from on high.

Contrast this with the highly stratified and carefully calibrated hierarchies found in the mythological and historical traditions of much of the world. It is hard to imagine an authoritarian society embracing a legend such as that of the Knights of the Round Table.

Meliorism. The belief that the world can be made better through human action runs through the Arthurian legend. The Knights deploy their skills to help the weak. Arthur is not satisfied with the status quo but instead goes on missions, such as the quest for the Holy Grail. There is an emphasis on magic, as befits a pre-modern legend -- but it is a magic that can be harnessed by people, not reserved exclusively for supernatural beings.

Moreover, it is not only the world that needs improvement but also individuals, including the heroes. Arthur is a flawed character, as are those around him. He engages in an illicit affair, possibly even with his half-sister. He is cheated upon by his wife and friend, and shows erratic judgment upon learning of this betrayal. He must confront an evil, Mordred, that he himself helped create. And yet he can overcome these challenges.

Power. The Arthurian legend redounds through the military traditions of the US and UK. Gen. Douglas MacArthur came from a Scottish family that traced its ancestry, however dubiously, to King Arthur. Winston Churchill, while warning of the Nazi menace in the 1930s, invoked in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Arthur's defense against an earlier Germanic threat: "Somewhere in the Island, a great captain gathered the forces of Roman Britain and fought the barbarian invaders to the death."

The Arthurian legend provides a bridge back to ancient Roman military tradition. The Britain that defended itself against the Saxons was still largely a Roman society, even though the imperial legions had departed. The historical Arthur may have been a post-Roman official such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, and it is possible the legend began much earlier, with the 2nd-century Roman commander Artorius Castus.

The emphasis of Arthurian legend, in any event, is not on the glory of conquest; rather, it is on the imperative of combating evil and defending against barbarism. As such, there is an Arthurian quality to the War on Terror. The age-old legend provides an exhortation that echoes across the centuries to modern Americans, Britons and their allies: Fight as if the civilized world depends on your victory -- because it does.


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