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But perhaps not as far as Marion Zimmer Bradley did
March 5, 2013 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Ten ways to rethink Arthur's Britain, by Guy Halsall.
posted by MartinWisse (57 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
10. Start thinking in terms of a mess.

That's the best advice I've read all week.
posted by three blind mice at 6:34 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


‘Arthur’ was not the defender of the Romans.
(makes gesticular motion)
posted by clavdivs at 6:34 AM on March 5, 2013


I heard an interview once with Bernard Cornwell where he noted that there was a great freedom in writing about Arthur because of the paucity of written information. His imagination could run riot!

No such luck. Came the inevitable letters: "Dear Mr Cornwell. You are mistaken in your description of the court of Camelot. I know, for I am a reincarnation of Lancelot...."
posted by BWA at 6:38 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


In summary, drop everything related to King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table.

Got it.

Now someone go make me a King Arthur movie that isn't mediocre.
posted by Atreides at 6:40 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's all myth and legend and should treated as such. This is news to people?
posted by asnider at 6:43 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Me and my buddy drunkenly watched Excalibur on Saturday. His summation: "French bodyguard, what could possibly go wrong?"
posted by Ironmouth at 6:43 AM on March 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Next thing you'll be telling me that he didn't actually get drunk and take baths in a top hat.

Wait, which Arthur are we talking about?
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:44 AM on March 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


Imagine the smell
posted by thelonius at 6:49 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


What? People older than, say, 14 actually think he was a real person? Mind=boggled.
posted by fatfrank at 6:49 AM on March 5, 2013


I'm a bit confused by the premise of this article, which seems to be "there exist people who believe that King Arthur was a real person and the stories surrounding him are about real historical events".
posted by dmd at 6:50 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is hard to believe, given the intense focus worldwide on teaching history as accurately as possible to schoolchildren, rather than just lazily repeating picturesque myths tweaked to support whatever social ideals are currently in vogue. And even kids who miss the Arthur-debunking class in school would surely learn about the truth from one of the innumerable books on historiography and philosophy of knowledge they would inevitably read during their 20s. Maybe this guy fell through a wormhole from some sort of education-disdaining dystopia!
posted by No-sword at 6:58 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


11. Cease having fun.
posted by shothotbot at 6:59 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


12: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:07 AM on March 5, 2013 [36 favorites]


I think folks suppose the legend has some real basis. And in some parts, history prior to 1492 isn't considered important beyond the basic Rome fell, so we had the dark ages. Then Columbus discovered the Renaissance and stole it from the Aztecs, or something like that. Then QEI captured it from the Spanish Armada. And that was fine until the Americans liberated it at the Boston Tea Party and declared American Independence. Then everyone got to have some.

(would you like some fries with that?)
posted by Goofyy at 7:07 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ways to think about King Arthur, Lancelot, Camelot, Knights and all that:

1. There was no King Arthur, Lancelot, Camelot, Knights and all that.

I'm somewhat unconvinced that this is a useful contribution to some sort of ongoing discussion.
posted by Myca at 7:08 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't understand the author's intent? I think most authors know that Arthur is a legend, so they're not quite all that sad that their Cyborg Killer Robot Guinevere isn't actually historically accurate.
posted by xingcat at 7:12 AM on March 5, 2013


But if there was no Camelot, who pushes the pram a lot?
posted by smirkette at 7:19 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Castor and Pollux!
posted by Brocktoon at 7:30 AM on March 5, 2013


Next thing you'll be telling me that he didn't actually get drunk and take baths in a top hat.

Wait, which Arthur are we talking about?


Duh, the talking aardvark....who, come to think of it, probably already has had one of those fever-dream episodes where he got to wear plate armor and ride a horse.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:32 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Start thinking in terms of a mess

I know the article is supposed to be all "history myth debunk time!" but the messiness of Arthurian legend is totally its appeal. On the surface it's all shining armor and chivalry, but by the time story reaches later tellings its really about a guy whose best friend wants to bang his wife, and he has a son with his sister who later kicks him out of his house and shacks up with that same wife. It's basically the Real Knights of the Avalon Shore.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:32 AM on March 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


I thought, on the contrary, that pervasive myths such as the Arthurian legend usually turn out to have some basis in fact, however distorted by the re-telling. Remember reading some fairly convincing theory that he was a king of Dalriada, can't find the book but this came up on a search and there's a section of the 'Northern Arthur' at this page on the Athuriana site. Not suggesting that means a court at Camelot or a round table, but that there might well be some historical figure underpinning the later mythic accretions.
posted by Abiezer at 7:33 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


13: Also consider the violence inherent in the system.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:34 AM on March 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Remember reading some fairly convincing theory that he was a king of Dalriada

According to Wikipedia, Dalriada is a folk metal band from Sopron, Hungary that was formed in 1998 as Echo of Dalriada, but shortened their name to Dalriada in late 2006.

So that makes sense.
posted by goethean at 7:36 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


So less of a war-band and more of a poor band?
posted by Abiezer at 7:38 AM on March 5, 2013


Bad timing for this article.

It seems like all my life I've been reading serious article by serious historians explaining seriously that, oh no, Richard III wasn't really a hunchback, was no serious evidence that he had a deformity, and it was all just Tudor propaganda that no-one should take seriously.

Then they dig the old bastard up from under a car park, and guess what? He had a deformed back.

So historians: screw you guys. I bet there really was a King Arthur, and a Lancelot, and a Guinevere, and why not, a lady in a lake handing out magic swords. Ha.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:39 AM on March 5, 2013 [15 favorites]


Wait, which Arthur are we talking about?

Duh, the talking aardvark....who, come to think of it, probably already has had one of those fever-dream episodes where he got to wear plate armor and ride a horse.

No, that's Cerebus.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:42 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


11. Arthur did not invent ragtime piano.

12. Legends relating to Arthur's fabled "Last Battle" against a giant sailor made of marshmallow have been found to date back only to 1984, and are not to be trusted.

13. Per the article: "It’s not just about the South — get some context! What happened in Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall will only make sense if viewed in a broader context, one that not only takes into account the north of Britain but the whole of western Europe in the fifth and sixth century." While true, it is incomplete. This disregards the vast importance of Britons both subterranean (Mole Men, Lava Men, etc.) and super-terranean (the fabled Bird People of Rhosllannerchrugog, the Levitating Lasses of Llanharan, etc.). The early medieval history of Western Europe makes no sense without understanding their motives.

14. Doughnuts are delicious. This has no direct bearing upon King Arthur, but it needs to be said.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:43 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


More seriously, the "search for a historical Arthur" has led to some truly bizarro ideas. A personal favorite is that he's the reinterpretation of a bear god named "Artor." Because of course he is. That makes total sense! What with the recurring themes of knights' heads stuck in honey pots and Arthur rubbing his back on trees every chance he got. Yeah!
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:46 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


A personal favorite is that he's the reinterpretation of a bear god named "Artor." Because of course he is. That makes total sense! What with the recurring themes of knights' heads stuck in honey pots and Arthur rubbing his back on trees every chance he got. Yeah!

You have to admit, it explains why so many interpretations of the story feature Lancelot bouncing around on his ass.
posted by mightygodking at 7:51 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most if not all war-leaders at the time led warriors who had horses, who sometimes fought mounted and sometimes on foot.

And were doughty fighters ether way, those horses. There are a lot of sentences like this, it's annoying.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:53 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lerner and Loewe didn't invent him? Damn.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 7:53 AM on March 5, 2013


Had a bit of fun reading more quotes from MPATHG. So I thought I'd add this relevant one as a bonus.

King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:15 AM on March 5, 2013


Harvey Jerkwater: " A personal favorite is that he's the reinterpretation of a bear god named "Artor.""

Here's the intro to my favorite: "King Arthur unsheathed his katana and sighed."
posted by boo_radley at 8:18 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the article: "There are far more interesting things to think about in Britain between 400 and 600. Get over it!"

Far more interesting? Really? That Arthur story is a pretty damn good one. Actually, I'd like a few suggestions from some good real life history from this era. As a kid I was heavily into the world of Arthur but stopped following it by the time I became concerned with such story killjoys as "facts" and "historical accuracy".
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:20 AM on March 5, 2013


there exist people who believe that King Arthur was a real person and the stories surrounding him are about real historical events

Does that mean "the legend is likely based on extremely exaggerated memories of a wartime leader, or more likely a composite of two or more wartime leaders, who had some exploits in sub-Roman Britain"?

If so, than, yeah, probably and people aren't stupid for thinking that's possible. If that means that there are people who think Arthur more or less is a history: I doubt there really are too many people who think that.
posted by spaltavian at 8:20 AM on March 5, 2013


Roman civilisation in Britain collapsed in the crisis of the Empire around 400, long before any ‘Saxons’ took over. Any ‘proto-Arthur’ was not fighting to defend Roman civilisation; that had long gone.

Also, this is pretty sloppy. The legions left in 410. Roman "civilization" continued for some time, as it did elsewhere in Europe. (The Germans who originally took Italy kept as much of the Roman system going there as they could.) Britons would have been calling the shots, but they already were: Romans had local leadership throughout the empire.

With universal citizenship given, plenty of Britons would have thought themselves "Roman", and they would have been right.

When the legions left, the Britons didn't suddenly dismantle the entire political, economic and social structure the Romans set up. And there would have been a class of Romanized Britons, the rich people, who benefited from those structures. Peasants probably did too at this point.

So yeah, anyone fighting to defend that was fighting to defend "Roman civilization", at least their little corner of it. They had an equally valid claim as the Byzantines, Greeks who never stopped calling themselves Roman but did stop using Latin, and a better claim than the Holy Roman Empire ever had.
posted by spaltavian at 8:28 AM on March 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


In the notes to the last book in the Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell wrote that he found that for two generations the Saxon progress west was halted. And they hated the warlord that stopped them so much that they didn't write his name. Whatever, the Warlord Chronicles are three of his best books. The battle where Gwyn picks up her bow was just one "fuck yeah" moment after another.
posted by Ber at 8:32 AM on March 5, 2013


For those wanting a more substantial look at the same period, there's also this blogpost which looks at Northern Britain in the context of the "Fall" of the Roman Empire. This also looks at how the various "barbarian" kingdoms outside of Roman Britain fared when the whole Roman client system collapsed.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:34 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


the Levitating Lasses of Llanharan

Dude, stop stealing my band names!
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2013


No Arthur. Fine.

But wait, Marion was real, right?
posted by mule98J at 8:58 AM on March 5, 2013


There is only One True Arthur and his name is Fonzarelli.
posted by grubi at 9:01 AM on March 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh-Oh, now they've gone and pissed off Merlin. Wouldn't want to be in their shoes!
posted by TDavis at 9:04 AM on March 5, 2013


Marion was real as real could be.

There are people who believe Atlantis was real, too. Because, y'know, some old dead guy said it was. So therefore it must be true.
posted by offalark at 9:08 AM on March 5, 2013


I think most authors know that Arthur is a legend, so they're not quite all that sad that their Cyborg Killer Robot Guinevere isn't actually historically accurate.

I'm sad that Cyborg Killer Robot Guinevere isn't historically accurate.
posted by jeather at 9:22 AM on March 5, 2013


I started to watch an old episode of Babylon 5 the other day, in which Michael York plays Arthur, returned to help in mankind's hour of need. Thankfully they say sane things like "Arthur is an amalgamation of legends and anyway his speech and dress are all wrong", so they weren't trying to pitch it as a real thing or any remotely intelligent characters as falling for it. Still couldn't bring myself to keep watching. Who knows, might have been a good episode.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2013


There is only One True Arthur and his name is Fonzarelli.

WHO SO MAKETH THIS JUKEBOX PLAY WITHOUT NICKEL OR DYME, IS RIGHTWISE KING BORN OF MILWAUKEE.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:31 AM on March 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


And thus, in the Year of Our Lord 562, did Good King Arthur, clad in breechclout and mantle of leather, leap bare-legged across the great water, and the Leviathan dwelling therein. And a Great Sadness came over the land, and a Darkness lasting many years.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:42 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's basically the Real Knights of the Avalon Shore.

I recently read the very first vignette in Le Morte D'Arthur. Uther Pendragon wants to screw a rival king's wife. She's not interested, so he declares war, as one does. The queen is in the castle they thought was safer, but Uther has Merlin cast an illusion and teleport him to the castle, where he, in the guise of her husband, has sex with her. The next morning, he sieges the other castle and kills the king; having conquered the kingdom, he presses the queen into marriage.

Learning when and where her husband died, the queen knows her husband wasn't whom she slept with. And she became pregnant that night. She's very upset about the illegitimate pregnancy. Though the text indicates she's ashamed, it's pretty easy to read it as meaning what she was really feeling was fear for her life if Uther knew.

But he does know, and he cruelly browbeats a confession from her, then reveals "Good news! It's not illegitimate. It was me all along! Also, I have no awareness whatsoever of what a monster I am!"

This is presented as a happy ending.

And those, O Best Beloved, were the circumstances of Arthur's conception (according to Malory.)
posted by Zed at 11:53 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Zed: "This is presented as a happy ending."

Surely you admit this is because the story is a product of its time: Social justice was an incipient idea in the 5th century. Every time you shouted out "Notte re-heralding thys be a hate crime!" some shire reeve would truncheon you back to your hovel.
posted by boo_radley at 12:00 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Surely you admit this is because the story is a product of its time

Surely you admit that other times and their products are legitimate subjects of criticism.
posted by Zed at 12:08 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Surely this will bring about the end of the Arthur administration
posted by Smedleyman at 12:10 PM on March 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Zed: "Surely you admit that other times and their products are legitimate subjects of criticism."

I do. This is a fair thing to say and I admit to and agree with it fully.
posted by boo_radley at 12:18 PM on March 5, 2013


Coincidentally, my family and I just climbed that hill to the 14th century church on top at Glastonbury Tor, the picture of "Avalon" illustrating this article.

That pic does not do it justice, its a limestone peak with very steep eroded sides, in the mist I'm willing to believe in Camelot a little bit.
posted by C.A.S. at 12:23 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you think (a) Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a mediocre movie and (b) isn't, in fact, the best movie which could possibly be made about Arthur (for serious), I don't know what to tell you.
posted by maxwelton at 12:56 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


This recap of Le Morte D'Arthur makes the whole thing seem rather grubby.

The best Arthurian character is Roland Deschain, last in the line of Arthur Eld. Or Grant Morrison's version of the Shining Knight.

I usually prefer myth to fact, but King Arthur even in myth feels grubby and compromised, a bully and a warlord, a founding hero for a civilization that would not reach the greatness of the Romans until the Victorian era.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:44 PM on March 5, 2013


Says Charlemagne! Talk about your biased sources.

ÆLFRÆD REX IN ÆTERNUM
posted by No-sword at 3:56 PM on March 5, 2013


I think the evolution of the Matter of Britain is a lot more interesting than whether or not Arthur, Lear and Brutus actually existed. For instance, the Very Convenient discovery of his tomb: But the clearest evidence came when King Henry II of England explained the whole matter to the monks (as he had heard it from an aged British poet): how they would find the body deep down, namely more than 16 feet into the earth, and not in a stone tomb but in an oak-hollow.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:43 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


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