Monday, August 22, 2016

Once and Future: the 20th Century Arthur (Notes: 26)

A Modernist approach to the Roundtable; however, we will not be discussing furniture in this entry, you will be glad to know.



Although the Arthurian legend was a bestseller in the medieval period and continued to fascinate during its resurgence in the Victorian, by the 20th century one scholar remarked that every year since 1980, over five-thousand Arthurian tales, per year, have been created with signs indicating that it has been exponentially increasing. Several key texts, however, stand out.

T.S White’s The Once and Future King, one of the most inventive books in the Arthurian corpus, is one such book; original, it was a trilogy, but was later united into a single volume. 

The changes which White enacted to Malory’s text reflected his own sensibilities. White had a lonely childhood with an alcoholic parent and a distant parent. So, he found it difficult to form any connections with people. He was an ardent pacifist and refrained from serving in World War Two, though he felt guilty about doing so. 

Whereas Malory had gaps in his narrative which forced a vague understanding of Arthur’s childhood, White fills in these gaps with fanciful imaginings. Arthur is a student of Merlin and has the nickname of ‘Wart.’ Merlin teaches Arthur mainly by turning him into different animals which teach him various lessons about the world. It is White who adds the idea of Merlin aging backwards, who has already experienced Arthur’s future and so can inform Arthur of what he will be doing in it.

Wart comes to a key realization, one which would be key to the Arthurian tradition as it developed in the 20th and 21st centuries and which would be key to film, plays, and other adaptation of the legend.
The first realization is that those who have ‘the might’ can go around telling others what is ‘right’ precisely because they have ‘the might’ even if what they say happens to be wrong; the second realization is that if someone has both might and the desire to do right then it could change the world. Arthur thus has the epiphany that the status quo so far has been ‘might makes right’ when it could be the reverse, essentially: ‘might for right.’ 

Although the first tale of White’s novel reads much like a children’s story, later installments become progressively darker. However, a stand-out shift that White makes is that he replaces the errantry of knighthood with a representative legal system. 

Another modern writer, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, the Crystal Cave, and the Wicked Day are all powerful and well-researched pieces of modern Arthurian fiction.

One of the stand-out features of Stewart’s books was that she takes a highly original approach to the legend and explains the magical happenings with logical explanations. Merlin has a father in this version of the legend and it is revealed to be the brother of Uther Pendragon, who is King Arthur’s father. Merlin’s mother simply keeps the truth from Merlin for a while. Part of the logical explanations are traced to symbolic problems; for instance, when it comes to Merlin explaining why a castle’s foundation collapses, instead of two literal dragons fighting at the base, it is two towers with dragon emblems on the top, thus making it symbolic and not literal. Even his absence and imprisonment in his cave is explained by detailing that he drank a potion which put him asleep.
Indeed, Stewart’s books are so well written that Armstrong suggests that anyone with having difficulty in memorizing facts about the Arthurian legend read good historical fiction; she recounts how it was only through such excellent fiction that she was able to wrap her head around the many important figures and conflict of the medieval period.

Another standout modern Arthurian text is Marian Zimmer Bradley’s the Mists of Avalon.
A feminist retelling of the classic, Bradley’s text appears to stand in opposition to her personal, troubled, beliefs; appearing in 1982, this eleven-hundred page epic which takes Morgan le Fay as its protagonist (called Morgain). The narrative is seen through Morgain’s as she watches King Arthur rise to power and struggle against ‘The Old Ways’ of the British Celts. In her tale, Christianity is characterized as a dour and oppressive religion. The faith of the Druids, meanwhile, is concerned with honoring nature and the Mother Goddess with many issues of tolerance promoted. 

Bradley emphasis the distance between the Christian and Pagan geographies in her work by playing lingual cues against one another and so highlight the semantic differences. Avalon becomes a sacred place for those who follow the Old Ways; should those who not serve the Goddess attempt and travel to this sacred place, they will only find the Christian abbey. As the conflict becomes more pronounced, and the two sides diverge, it becomes more difficult for followers of one tradition to find themselves in the realm of the other tradition. Thus, King Arthur’s rule is reframed as a ruler who will honor the Old Ways and serve as a bridge between each group of believers. In the end, Morgain realizes that eh Virgin Mary is just another aspect of the goddess and so will remain alive in the hearts and minds of people.

But, to move onto another modern Arthurian work, no other text perhaps comes close to being as innovative as does Camelot3000

This work is actually twelve works in one. More specifically, it is twelve comic books in one. Published by D.C Comics between 1982-85, these comics follows the cast of the Arthurian legend when they are reincarnated in the year 3000 and tasked with saving an overpopulated Earth from an alien invasion that is headed up by Morgan le Fay. 

The idea for the course came to its creator, Mike Bar, after he took an Arthurian literature course in the 70s. He originally submitted it to D.C Comics but it was rejected. Next, he submitted it to Marvel Comics and it was accepted but it was never published. Finally, he went back to D.C Comics and got an acceptance for a ‘Maxi’ series which consisted of twelve issues. Each character is radically reimagined and add quirks to the narrative.

What makes this adaptation of the Arthurian legend so memorable, however, is its focus on gender identity; if Bradley’s text was a feminist re-telling, then this comic book is the next logical step. Sir. Tristan, for instance, finds himself reborn into the body of a woman instead of a man. Isolde is reborn as a woman. Each character, however, still love one another and allows the author to explore issues of sexuality and gender identity with Tristan and Isolde ultimately becoming, once again, lovers but as a Lesbian couple.

Dating from the 1930s, but not published until 2013, the last modern Arthurian text which prof. Armstrong discusses is J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished epic poem. Though originally tackling the project with enthusiasm as his Hobbit and Lord of the Ring books took up more of his time, his unfinished epic gradually vanished from his periphery. Structured as Old English alliterative half-lines, they recall early English epic Beowulf. Interestingly, Tolkien combines both Anglo-Saxon atmosphere with his own Middle-Earth fantasy.

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