By Danièle Cybulskie
It’s hard to stay popular for well over a millennium. Stories that seem like they’ll last forever fall by the wayside as others rise to take their place. The secret to enduring popularity, clever marketers tell us, is changing just enough to stay relevant. Since the Early Middle Ages, no one has done that better than King Arthur.
After appearing and disappearing for centuries, Arthur’s story is set down in its longest and most widely-read early form in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. In it, he stands for everything that was ideal in the author’s twelfth-century world: unity in a time of near-constant political instability, kingship with wisdom and fortitude, strength of arms with the courage to use it, and Christianity above all. As a historian, although widely discredited even in his own time, Geoffrey of Monmouth emphasized Arthur as worthy of legend because of his political acts: unifying warring kingdoms under one banner and ruling justly over all.
At nearly the same time, courtly love was all the rage in the literary world. This ideal love was adulterous, courageous, and so passionate moderns might find it marginally embarrassing. It was at this moment that Lancelot rode into the Arthurian mythology, fainting with love over Guinevere, and pushing Arthur to the side as a stodgy, less hip cuckold. Arthur endured this romantic shift as a great but increasingly less-adventurous figure, who stayed behind boringly but brilliantly governing his realm while his knights risked life and limb on their glorious quests. Although this was also the moment in which the quest for the Holy Grail emerged, Arthur, ever-involved in worldly affairs and now tangled up in a love triangle, is not the one to find it.
Despite Lancelot’s leaving Arthur in the permanent position of king but not romantic lead, his childless love affair with Guinevere didn’t tarnish Arthur’s political brilliance in the eyes of the fourteenth-century kings who now idolized him. While Edward I had made a show of reburying the “once and future king” to drive home the point that Arthur would never return to rescue the Welsh from English rule, his grandson set about actively aligning himself with Arthur. Edward III established the Order of the Garter to surround himself with the most loyal and chivalrous knights, playing up the “Britishness” of Arthur as propaganda to rally English enthusiasm during The Hundred Years’ War, while across the Channel, King Jean II of France created his own chivalric order: the Order of the Star. Setting the tone for what it meant to be the ideal king in real life, Arthur’s story was starting to settle into its familiar lines.
When Sir Thomas Malory wrote his famous Morte D’Arthur amid the turn and turnabout of kingship in the Wars of the Roses, Arthur was somewhat eclipsed in his own story again, left in the shadow of Lancelot and especially Tristram, who showed both prowess and the ability to please their lovers in a way Arthur never did. Yet, if Arthur is again relegated to the sidelines, and even mortally injured by Mordred, the collapse of Camelot is only partially laid at his feet. Arthur is still wise, still brilliant at kingship, and still destined from birth to be the greatest king ever known. Thanks to one of Malory’s most enthusiastic fans, William Caxton, Le Morte D’Arthur was one of the earliest printed works in England, solidifying Malory’s version of the myth in the popular imagination.
The centuries following Le Morte D’Arthur were relatively quiet in terms of Arthuriana, unsurprisingly, as the English and the French violently struggled with the idea of kingship, itself. The Victorians, though, with their strong and powerful monarch, breathed new life into the myth, and this time, it subtly changed again. For writers like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, there was a strong emphasis on King Arthur’s reign as being the ideal moment in history; a time when life was simpler and everyone could agree on right and wrong. Arthur and his knights were in shining armour once again as the Industrial Revolution spread its grubby fingers over the land, and his unifying presence as a benevolent and unifying king was a reassuring counterpoint to the realities of Victorian colonialism.
The last hundred years have seen Arthur changing forms again and again, especially in film and television. Each time, Arthur’s story reflects important elements of the society which invokes him, whether it’s the magic of childhood in The Sword in the Stone, the awkwardness of adolescence in Merlin, or the difficult problem of “truthiness” in Clive Owen’s King Arthur. As ever, Arthur shifts from innocent to conflicted to stoic to fit the story, depending on the message and the director.
The latest Arthur movie has this time reimagined him for an audience that is suspicious of the “elites” who may be unworthy to rule, and that values everyday street smarts over the chivalric training of the Arthur of old. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is made for the viewer who is not squeamish about sex work, and unconcerned with exploring Arthur’s early connection to Christianity in favour of magical special effects. The centuries of legend built on legend have been stripped nearly entirely, reflecting the popular twenty-first century feeling that if we just started everything again from scratch, we could do so much better.
And yet, the core of Arthur endures, ever-destined to be king, to struggle with power he never expected, and to rise to be the greatest of all. Over the centuries, he has changed and changed again to suit the focus of each new audience in its own time. As we watch Arthur transform to suit our own moment, it seems clear that, for the next few centuries at least, he will continue to be our beloved once and future king.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: King Arthur (from the Nine Heroes Tapestries), c.1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art