By Danièle Cybulskie
When I was in university, I took a course on medieval romance in which we studied many different stories in the romance tradition, a lot of which focused on King Arthur and his knights. Tutorials were held in the evening in the quiet, dimly-lit library overlooking the beautiful river that ran through campus, making the atmosphere perfect for undergraduates to have emotional debates about The Round Table. Over and over again, I found myself in the minority, defending a figure I have loved since childhood: King Arthur. I have to confess it: I heart Art.
Stories of King Arthur are very old and wide-ranging, varying from simple and silly to deep and complex. There are the stories of Arthur’s early years, going from boy to king and uniting Britain (a topical subject this week!), and those from later in his reign where he is cuckolded and barely holding that kingdom together. What I love about King Arthur stories is that they give authors the opportunity to explore the complexities of kingship and relationship without any of the personal knowledge of actually being king. Today, the adage is “write about what you know”; when it comes to King Arthur, the human element is projected onto him by both the original author and the subsequent readers, since (as far as we know) kings didn’t write Arthurian stories. How can that not be amazingly interesting?
Because Arthur is fictional (I know, I know – this is another subject of fierce debate!), writers could use him to explore ideas about what it meant to be kingly from the view of the people. Arthur has connections to the Christian world, shown through piousness and celebration of Christian feasts; he has connections to the old, pagan way, shown through his association with Avalon and with Merlin and Morgan; he values the opinion of the people (at least, the upper class), shown through the idea of The Round Table; he has close family ties with kin who are loyal to him, like Gawain and his brothers; and although he is a skilled fighter, he doesn’t have to wade in to every battle or tournament – he is humble and responsible. Various stories in which Arthur appears dial up or down on these scales, giving readers and listeners the opportunity to see their changing values reflected in the deeds of this hero and his knights. Although the histories suggest at least some people thought Arthur was a real king of old, we know that authors, such as Chretien de Troyes, were comfortable enough creating whole fictions which featured him, like Lancelot. This gave them great freedom to explore ideas.
In those fierce, undergraduate debates, we asked questions like why didn’t Arthur recognize the Lancelot-Guinevere thing sooner? Why doesn’t he just jump right in and solve [insert problem here] rather than waiting for a knight to do it for him? I like to try to look at Arthurian stories the way I imagine medieval people must have, asking questions about Arthur as a contemporary king: if Arthur did know about the Lancelot-Guinevere affair, what were his options? Was it wiser to split the kingdom when there seemed to be no danger of an illegitimate heir? Should a king be directly involved in solving the problems of his kingdom even at risk to his life?
This type of questioning and discussion would have happened often among medieval readers and listeners, as it gave them the chance to think aloud about contemporary issues in the safe space of talking about a fictional situation. This is Arthur’s power, and perhaps the reason no one could really bear to have him actually killed in the end. Perhaps too many people had spent too much time thinking about being in his shoes.
A good, overarching read about Arthur is always Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, written as the interest in Arthur began to fade. As you read it, or perhaps the more accessible Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson (not medieval, but based on Mallory), put yourself in the shoes of medieval readers and listeners, questioning Arthur’s decisions in the context of ruled subjects. Whether he’s being a paragon of virtue, or making a selfish mistake, I find I’m always looking for the good in my hero. I can’t help it: I heart Art.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist