By Andrew J. Preston
Honors Thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2009
Introduction: And Arthur and his knighthood for a space Were all one will, and thro’ that strength the King Drew in the petty princedoms under him, Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame The heathen hordes, and made a realm and reign’d (Tennyson l. 514-5518)
As encapsulated in the above passage from Idylls of the King, the legend of Camelot presents a compelling archetypal framework. It is the story of a group of men, under the guidance of a strong and divinely anointed leader, coming together to forge justice and order out of chaos. The countless retellings and re-imaginings of the legend, from the Vulgate Cycle and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, testify to the widespread resonance and sustained popularity of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
The Twentieth Century, a time of war and disorder, provided ample stimulus for a rebirth of the Arthurian mythos. Authors ranging from White to T.S. Eliot offered up the legend as a solution to the uncertainty that plagued the modern world. In particular, the chivalric code of Arthur’s Round Table and the Grail Quest legend, in which a wasteland is healed by the miraculous acquisition of a divine treasure, seemed to carry particular heft during this era. However, the tradition’s influence was not limited to explicit Arthuriana. In America, novels ranging from The Great Gatsby to John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold borrowed Arthurian conventions to discuss contemporary American life.