Sunday, December 21, 2008

Paladin (Part 3A) – Arthurian Mythos

I initially started this series with Roland and Charlemagne, so it seems only fitting that I also include commentary on the Arthurian Mythos. While the myths are a bit different, there are some common themes which I will build upon in part 4 of my blog. I am not going to dig into the actual history King Arthur, but rather I am going to stick to the literary history, as I think this will be more appropriate to the general discussion on the Paladin.

Prior to the publish of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485, the themes and stories varied from text to text, with no formal tie between any of them. With Le Morte d'Arthur, a common canon was established. Below is the high level summary with the different sections called out. I am not going to go through each of them at this point, although that could be a topic for a future blog.
Summary - Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur

Book I: "From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles" (Caxton I-IV)
Book II: "The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome" (Caxton V)
Book III: "The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac" (Caxton VI)
Book IV: "The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney" (Caxton VII)
Book V: "The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione" (Caxton VIII-XII)
Book VI: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” (Caxton XIII-XVII)
Book VII: "Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwenyvere" (Caxton XVIII-XIX)
Book VIII: "The Death of Arthur" (Caxton XX-XXI)

Without a doubt, the unification of theme and stories was the biggest contribution of Malory. After this work was published, and number of other works (I will include films, novels, short stories, and poems in this definition) followed, building on the framework that Malory had established. I think it is fair to say that some are better than others and that some hold to the central myth better than others. I suspect that everyone has their favorite post- Le Morte d'Arthur, work that they are passionate about. I will not even attempt to list all the works that followed, as that could fill a small library. Once and Future King is one of my favorite novel versions, and Excalibur is by far my favorite film version. I will also say that I hold a special place for the musical Camelot, and I am a fan of both Richard Burton and Richard Harris. As an aside, I saw the Richard Harris version live and met him afterwards as he was getting into limo, but that is another story altogether.

In my opinion, any follow on work to Malory, that attempts to tackle the Arthurian Mythos, needs to address the following:

1. The birth of Arthur and the legitimacy of his blood line
2. Merlin
3. Excalibur
4. Lancelot & Guinevere
5. The Quest for the Holy Grail
6. Sir Tristan and the Belle Isolde
7. Christianity and Pagan religions (the rise of one and the fall of the other)
8. Mordred and the downfall of Arthur
9. Camelot & the Round Table of Knights*

There are perhaps other tales that one could quibble that should be included, but I think these are the main stories that make up the Arthurian mythos.

No discussion of this topic would be complete without some commentary on the themes of overall story. While each sub-story has its own theme, I would sum up the story as the legitimacy of medieval government and noble embodiment of chivalric codes, while lofty in proposition, will always end poorly with the failure of man to live up to the standard. I realize that there is a lot ties up in that statement, and it could lead to a fair amount of discussion, but I think that captures the essence of the story.

As a final thought, the inscription on Arthur’s gave is: HIC JACET ARTURUS REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS, or "Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King," provides considerable food for thought. Is it a message of hope, or a statement on the inevitable downfall of medieval institutions? As the eternal optimist, I do think there is a bit of hope in the statement, but I do recognize the themes contained within, are rather pessimistic in nature.
*Late Edit
I wrote this blog in the morning, and I found that Brian over at The Silver Key, wrote up a very similar post to mine earlier in the year (May). In his blog entry, he also has a list that is very similar to my list. After reading through his blog, I added Camelot & the Round Table of Knights as I agree with him, and I do think this is fundamental to the story. It is interesting to compare our write ups, which is why I have added this paragraph to the end of mine. His thoughts on the topic are very similar to my own, and he also likes both Excalibur and The Once and Future King.

Next up

This blog served as a bit of background and set up for my next installment, which will center on the Knights of the Round Table.
Paladin Series Summary
For ease of reading, I will provide the links to all the blogs in the series:


Matthew James Stanham said...

It is worth drawing a distinction here between the paladin as conceived by Gygax and the paladin as he went forward into second edition and beyond.

Gygax was adament that the Arthurian tales should have no influence on the paladin of his imagination, the subject matter he does not seem to have considered "serious" enough or somesuch thing.

The knight of the Arthurian mythos falls into several interesting categories in Malory's tales, but perhaps most pertinant to your previous post are those knights who survive the fall of the round table, become monks, and then after the death of Lancelot go to the holy land to end their days fighting the infidel.

This is also significant in a text like the alliterative Morte Arthure, which has Arthur planning to conquer the holy land before the betrayal of Mordred.

I should also point out that the core Arthurian narrative was complete from the beginning of the twelfth century in the Historia Regum Brittaniae (the french adaption of which was insanely popular). What Malory did was force a number of other stories related to the mythos of the core story into a complete narrative.

Mr Baron said...

Thanks for the comments. Without a doubt, there was plenty of Arthur myths prior to Malory, and Malory created his consolidated version of the myth. I used Malory's tale as the standard for my analysis, as that is probably the most well known, not necessarily the first. But it is interesting to note, that there are some striking differences between the different versions.