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Arthuriana June 29, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
Tags: ,

I’ve been meaning to write this particular post for ages. It was inspired by a thread on Obernet.

I’ve always thought that the expression ‘in a democracy, we get the government we deserve’ can be more widely applied. Certainly, I think that every age gets the vampires it deserves and desires. (Dracula is certainly perfect for the 19th century, with its thinly-veiled anxieties about female sexuality and so on, while Anne Rice is a product of the 1970s and ’80s. Buffy is, of course, pure ’90s postmodernism.)

But the same thing can be said about Arthurian literature. Ever since Sir Thomas Malory sat down and wrote Morte Darthur, people have been using the Arthurian story to tell stories and make a point about their own time. (And yes, I’m aware that there are earlier versions of the Arthurian legend. I read ‘Culwch and Olwen’, people!)

Now, you might think that the Arthurian legend is about knights and damsels in distress and the Holy Grail and so on, but really, it is the basic skeleton of a story which can be made to fit in with the concerns of the times in which it is retold. And at the heart of a good retelling is a coherent story about why Camelot failed. A good Arthurian author will find the flaw at the heart of the Arthurian ideal. And this flaw will reflect more about the author’s times than the Arthurian legend itself.

So, for Malory, Camelot failed because people couldn’t put aside their family loyalties in favour of the greater good of the country (Wars of the Roses, anyone?). For Tennyson, in Idylls of the King, the problem is that Arthur’s personal morality means he’s unfit to dictate morality to his subjects. In allowing/condoning his wife’s affair with Lancelot, he has lost the right to authority. This fits in with the Victorian fixation on sexual morality (even though the Victorian era was probably less of the prudish stereotype it’s so often depicted as).

For T.H. White in The Once and Future King, the flaw is with the whole martially-fixated society. White, a pacifist, wrote with alarm against the backdrop of the Second World War. ‘Might is right’ was what was wrong with not only Arthurian but also contemporary British society.

Things pottered on from there until Marion Zimmer Bradley blasted a hole in everything with The Mists of Avalon. When I first read it, Avalon seemed like a revelation: of course, the problem with Arthurian society was that it was destroying the old pagan, matriarchal ways. After a few years and a few re-reads, I got annoyed with her dodgy history, and her pagan/British/matriarchal-Christian/Roman/patriarchal dichotomy seemed too flimsy. But she interprets the legend as she sees fit, and it is refreshing to see it from the perspective of the women.

I reviewed a fantastic Arthurian story called Here Lies Arthur. The title was a pun: the story was all about the Arthurian legend as ‘spin’, with Merlin as a kind of 5th-century spin-doctor. I like to think that it was written partly in the shadow of the war on terror, working with early 21st-century concerns.

My personal favourite Arthurian retelling is Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga. I promote it mercilessly everywhere, and I’ve got at least one person reading it, so I must be doing something right. This little known alt-historical series tells the familiar legends through one of Arthur (or Urdo’s) warriors, a woman called Sulien ap Gwien. Rather than go into it in detail, here’s an LJ post where I reviewed it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that too many people attempt to retell the Arthurian legend. They write Arthurian stories for no good reason. Women trying to emulate Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist rage are the worst culprits for this. (I can think of Rosalind Miles and Sarah Zetell as two heinous examples.) As I hope this little essay has demonstrated, the Arthurian legend can be made to say just about anything. Making it repeat something it’s already said is pointless and frustrating for people like me who spend much of their fantasy-reading time searching for the Arthurian holy grail: an Arthurian retelling that uses the familiar material to say something profound about the current times.


1. Peter - June 29, 2008

Although it’s in many ways a pretty awful book, in the climax of That Hideous Strength CS Lewis does a pretty good spin on Merlin and a somewhat less good one on the Pendragon / Fisher King. As for what it epitomises – it’s quite clear in this case. Lewis’s dislike of College cliques – at least the ones he wasn’t at the centre of – and science-based politics shines forth, not necessarily to the story’s advantage.

2. dolorosa12 - June 29, 2008

Yeah, I’d agree with your assessment. I read That Hideous Strength as part of a university course called ‘Arthurian Literature’ (which is when I read a lot of the other stuff mentioned here) and I certainly agree that it’s a book worth reading. It certainly fulfills the criteria of any good Arthurian novel, which is to make the Arthurian material say something about contemporary society. As with much of Lewis’s work, I might not like what he’s saying, but I can’t deny that he’s saying something.

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