Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Sir Kay, Arthur’s seneschal leads me down the corridors of the mighty castle. Out in the courtyard I can hear armored warriors practicing for battle. The wall is covered with majestic tapestries of the wars and quests of the Knights of the Round Table. There is a sense of awe in this place both historic and mythical in nature.
Kay leads me to the great chamber of the Round Table. There seated at the table is none other than Arthur King of All Britons. He is tall, muscular and wide shouldered. He is dressed in chain mail with a tabard depicting lions over it. He has a long but neatly trimmed beard and on his head he wears a golden crown. His presence is commanding. He seems relax sitting upon his throne, as if he has learned to take advantage of the few times of peace and quiet and enjoy them to their fullest. I see at once why the knights follow him and why he is seen as one of the greatest leaders of litterateur.
I may be an Oregon hick, but I know enough to wait until I am told to sit when in the presence of a king. He nods and Kay tells me I can sit down then leaves the room. “You may commence with your questions.” He says in a surprisingly casual tone, but still even under this simple order I hear the voice of a man who commands a nation.
“Well…”I start gesturing to the manifestly crafted Round Table. “Isn’t the idea of the Round table and what it stands for…I don’t know….extremely democratic, for a monarch?”
I am surprised as he laughs and gestures to his throne. “Well I do get the best chair.”
I laugh too and say. “And it is a really nice chair at that.” Not knowing what else to say. “Ok, this is why I have so much difficulty getting into the Arthurian legends. You are set in the fifth century. But you use technology that comes along sometimes a thousand years later. Castles don’t come to England until after William the Conquer in 1066. The first English knightly order is the Order of the Garter which forms in 1348. Full plate mail armor doesn’t come around until the fifteenth century. It would be like me writing a story about the founding fathers of America, George Washington, Ben Franklin and the others driving around in cars and talking on cellphones.”
He laughs again. “Yes, that is true. We do have technology that didn’t exist in the fifth century, but we also have wizards, magic swords, and the Cup of Christ. The Arthurian Legends are no longer historical fiction Instead we are now considered fantasy. Camelot is as much a land of fantasy as Narnia or Middle Earth. A fantastic place that had knights, castles and plate armor before the real world.”
I nod, thinking of Arthur and his knights as fantasy rather than history does change my perception of the stories. “But aren’t you based on a real person?” I ask.
“I am probably based on several people.” He admits. “Roman Lucius Artorius Castus fought the Saxons, after Rome pulled out of Britain, like I am supposed to have. There are several Welsh kings that come close to fitting as my origin and some scholars believe that the name Arthur came from the title “Arth” which is Latin for bear, and if so I could be based on almost anyone who used that title. But I, King Arthur, am a fictional character, one who may have been inspired by real people.
“One of the most famous tellings of your life is Le Mort d’Arthur. Isn’t that kind of depressing it says right in the title that you are going to die? Mallory latterly says on the title page the book is going to end.” I ask.
Again Arthur laughs. “Remember Thomas Mallory wrote that book when he was in prison for many things, some of them were political crimes. He was lamenting why this perfect England he was writing about didn’t exist in his time. He is explaining why we failed. And the reason why we failed was because we were betrayed and fell apart form the inside. We were from his prospective the perfect society, we could not be destroyed by outside forces, and we could only be defeated by ourselves. That is what Mallory is trying to say with the title of the book.”
“OK.” I say taking notes. “Who was Lancelot du Lac, who was he really?”
For a moment the king looks sad. “He was our greatest knight, and my closest friend.” He then stiffens up a bit and continues. “He started out as a character in his own stories in France in the Twelfth Century. Most fifteenth century readers would be expected to be familiar with him when he was merged in to the Camelot sagas. At that time the English reading audiences wanted a more French style romance inspired stories. Eventually the character became intertwined with the Arthurian stories and his affair with my beloved Guinevere became a major plot in the story.”
“I don’t mean to be brash here….But Lancelot and Guinevere get blamed with destroying Camelot because of their adultery yet you have an affair with your half-sister and it isn’t looked on as a bad thing, isn’t that a double standard?”
For a moment his eyes flare with anger then the emotion is replaced with sadness. “It depends on who tells the story. Sometimes Morgana bewitches me. And yes there is a bit of men will be men, and women must be faithful mentality afoot. But a moment of lust is easily forgiven as a repeatable weakness in the midlevel romances. What the true crime was, is to fall in love, when you belong to someone else. Besides I sired Mordred who destroys the kingdom so my sins do not go unpunished.”
It dawns on me that the birth of Mordred is a classic case of medieval karma. ”The one story that kind of bugs me about you is how learning of Mordred’s birth have all male children born on May Day put to death. Doesn’t that take you who are normally seen as a messianic figure and converts into the Harrod role and make Mordred a Christ figure?”
I think the king blushes. “Yes that was a bit out of character for me. Ultimately it is a failure too, as Mordred escapes and grows up knowing I tried to kill him as a child. The only way I could justify it, would be to use an example form your history, if a German in the early twentieth century knew what Hitler would do when he grew up, but not exactly who he was, so he attempted kill all the children in Munich…Or maybe Bruce Willis in Looper trying to kill the Rain Maker before he grows up and kills his love…”
“You know Looper?” I asked surprised.
“Oh yes Avalon has had cable since the eighties.” The king replies.
Changing the subject I ask. “Are the Arthurian legends still relevant in the twenty-first century?”
He seems honestly shocked that I asked him that. “How could they not be relevant? They are about loyalty, friendship and honor. There will always be relevant. And if for some reason you people do not see them as relevant that is when you need them the most.’
“What exactly is chivalry?” I ask. “I heard that word thrown about a lot but I am not sure what it means.”
Arthur nods. “Well originally it was a knightly code of conduct. It originated in France with the horsemen of Charlemagne’s heavy cavalry. It involved the honor and pride as well as individual training and service to others. It became a knight’s moral code, as time went on it began to deemphasize the martial aspects and stress the morality and sense of duty parts.”
“OK, what exactly is the Holy Grail? I thought it was the cup of Christ, but now I hear how it was pagan in origin and also maybe really Jesus blood line.” I ask.
“To the writers of the fifteenth century it was exactly what it was meant to be. The cup Jesus used in the last supper. Being something that touched his lips it would have significant miraculous powers.” Arthur explains to me. “Now yes the legends are undoubtedly based on pagan myths, the Bible other than saying that Christ drank from a cup on his last meal doesn’t say anything about the Grail. So people may have filled in some of the blanks with pre-Christian stories. And though conspiracy theorist may believe in a secret bloodline of Jesus, to medieval writers the cup was a relic of Jesus. These were Christian writers writing to a Christian audience and that part cannot be stressed enough.”
“One person who really went crazy over the mythology of Camelot was the notorious Nazi Heinrich Himmler. Some even say he made a round table for his SS elite. How do you justify what he did, with your code of chivalry?” I ask.
“I don’t.” The king says flatly. “The Nazi’s were evil people who tried to conquer my beloved Britton. They took what I hold sacred and tried to twist it. For their own evil purposes. I will not be held responsible for what mad men do with my name five hundred years later.”
Arthur is of course right. He didn’t create or inspire Nazism. And that a mad occultist like Himmler tried to glom on to it centuries latter only shows the epicenes of the Arthurian legends. But I try to change the subject anyways. “I get confused what is the difference between the sword you pulled out of the stone and Excalibur?”
“Not only do you get confused about this, it seems all of Hollywood does too.” He replies jovially. “They are two different swords despite what you may see in the movies. The Sword in the Stone, is the one I pulled out as a youth to signify that I am the king of all Briton by divine right. Excalibur is the sword that I am given by the lady of the lake to signify my continued kingship. A badge of office if you like. Another thing that modern story teller seem to not understand is that it is Excalibur’s sheath that magically protects me not the sword itself.”
“In the Comic book series Camelot 3000, you are portrayed as coming back from Avalon with the reincarnated souls of the Knights of the Round Table to save earth from an alien invasion, how do you feel about this foray into science fiction?” I ask.
“It is a worthy saga” the King says of the Mike W. Barr series. “I love the twist about Sir Tristian being reincarnated as a woman…” He says with a chuckle. “But it is hardly the first time I have ventured into your science fiction. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, is a classic time traveling story and maybe one of the first modern science fiction stories ever.”
Again I nod and ask him the big question. “So just when will you return from Avalon?”
With a glint of pride he responds. “When England Needs me.”