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Arthurian Literature

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SarahWoodbury
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Postby SarahWoodbury » Sun April 5th, 2009, 4:22 pm

So what is it about King Arthur, folks? Why do we keep coming back to him?

Because, while I've read so many Arthur books, and found many of them compelling, I don't often LIKE them, if you know what I mean. They're not necessarily fun. And from a historical perspective, it seems to me that Arthur, as usually written, comes off as either a flat character whom the author employs as a backdrop to explore the personalities of other characters (Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgane), or as unheroic and human, tripped up in the end by the overwhelming burden of his imperfections. Arthur is either a pawn, buffeted by the winds of fate, or so flawed, one has to ask how he was remembered as a hero in the first place.

I can imagine the simple reason for this is that it is very hard to synchronize the different aspects of Arthur’s story into a complete whole because the essential, heroic element of Arthur’s story—his defeat of the Saxons for a generation—has been grafted, at both the beginning and the end, to a romantic tale told for reasons having more to do with the authors and the time in which they were living, than with Arthur. In so doing, his character is incomplete and inexplicable, one who reacts instead of acts, and who never has a say in his own destiny.

In a bunch of these books it is Merlin (and sometimes Morgane)who is the active character. It is he who sets the whole plot in motion, whose behavior acts at times like a ‘get out of jail free card’ for Arthur, who manipulates everybody else, but who is powerless to stop Arthur’s downfall in the end. It is through Merlin at the beginning of the story that Arthur becomes high king, and because of Merlin's abandonment at the end of the story that (in rapid succession), Arthur loses his wife, his best friend, his son, and his life.

If you set this story in the modern day, you have a guy who has every gift and privilege in the world (imagine a mogul of some kind, or a star athelete) and loses it all, never really knowing why. Is it the promise of his return and redemption? Is it the Greek tragedy and cautionary tale?

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SarahWoodbury
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Postby SarahWoodbury » Tue April 14th, 2009, 8:23 pm

Sorry to cut off the oxygen to this thread. I didn't mean to :)

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ErichBeller
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Postby ErichBeller » Wed April 15th, 2009, 5:11 am

Reading your response, Sarah, I was reminded of what usually bothers me about most Arthurian adaptations - it seems a lot of them forget to make Arthur into the focus of the story and an interesting character in his own right. With everything going on around him it's easy to see why, as you so eloquently point out.

I first discovered the King Arthur legend when I was about 8 or 9 and saw the John Boorman's "Excalibur." It's got some typically Boormanish weirdness to it but as far as I'm concerned it still gets a lot of it right. For one thing, it's about sex, blood, and death, which as far as I'm concerned is the crux of the Arthurian story. Nigel Terry brought a really human yet superhuman quality to the character of Arthur and made him incredibly sympathetic, especially when he's talking to Guinevere in the convent at the end.

As for literature, I loved the Steinbeck version and Mallory, of course, but I've never been a big fan of a lot of the stuff that came later. Lawhead's "Merlin" is a great book in my opinion, I just think his stuff gets a little...boring...for lack of a better term.

For a couple of years now I've been writing a stage play about Arthur, but the thing's almost too huge. My own sensibilities won't let me leave anything out, starting the whole story off with Vortigern and Uther and Ambrosius and all of that, moving along at a snail's pace to the wars against the petty kings, the Romans, and finally the siege of Joyous Garde and the battle against Mordred. But the focus of my version has always been Arthur, who for me is the most interesting character. He starts off as a servant and a child and he's thrust into the role of Christlike savior and war god practically overnight. That's gotta mess with your head, especially when you consider that everyone suddenly wants what he has.

I also worked on a "family friendly" stage adaptation back in 2002 as the fight choreographer and a consultant (I also played Kay.) That was interesting, to say the least. I just remember telling the director about all of these things from different versions of the story and ideas I had to incorporate some of them into the production. He kept saying "That's the version I'd love to make. But we can't."

Ah well.
Speak fast, I lost patience twelve years ago.

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SarahWoodbury
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Postby SarahWoodbury » Wed April 15th, 2009, 3:46 pm

A stage play about Arthur would be really hard to do in a short amount of time, which is why authors do trilogies, I guess. But that was what I was trying to get at--that 'King Arthur' doesn't tend to be about him at all.

That said, maybe because there are all these different elements in the story it can be all things to all people, and anyone can get out of it what they want/need.

chuck
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Arthur

Postby chuck » Wed April 15th, 2009, 4:07 pm

"SarahWoodbury" wrote:A stage play about Arthur would be really hard to do in a short amount of time, which is why authors do trilogies, I guess. But that was what I was trying to get at--that 'King Arthur' doesn't tend to be about him at all.

That said, maybe because there are all these different elements in the story it can be all things to all people, and anyone can get out of it what they want/need.


One of my all time favorite books regarding Arthur is Rosemary Sutcliffe's "Sword at Sunset"....This great novel is Arthur centered....One of the first Arthurian novels to use the Romano/Celtic background....I have read most of the fiction/non fiction around Arthur and his companions....For me the Romano/Celtic connection is key....I think the Arthur tale is so oft told that authors over the years have added their own spins to entice the reader...And many times Arthur is the pawn....I have moved on a bit.. Arthur Rex subject matter is not so addictive to me as it once was....I will have always room for more "Arthur"....Maybe I'm a hopeless Romantic.....

annis
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Postby annis » Thu April 16th, 2009, 2:58 am

Posted by Sarah
That said, maybe because there are all these different elements in the story it can be all things to all people, and anyone can get out of it what they want/need.


I think you've nailed it there, - the answer to the enduring interest in Arthur is that there is something in the stories and legends which lends itself to as many different interpretations as there are authors and readers. There have been many articles looking at the psychodrama of Arthurian legends and imagery. The Arthurian cycle reaches us at an atavistic level reflected in many mythological and religious legends of the chosen one who suffers and is sacrificed willingly for the health and fertility of the land and the good of the people. The Celtic myth of the Summer King (or as Bernard Cornwell would have it the Winter King, seeing Arthur was by tradition born at the winter solstice, a time associated with rebirth), the Norse legend of Odinn hanging on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and of course in Christianity, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

However realistically the story of Arthur is portrayed, the mythology of sacrifice and renewal is an unspoken given at a deeper level. Some of the fantasy interpreataions of course make the most of it., like Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Fionavar Tapestry” and Robert Holding’s “Mythago Cycle”. Btw, I see that Robert Holding’s series has a new title due out later this year, called “Avilion”

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Ludmilla
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Postby Ludmilla » Thu April 16th, 2009, 12:47 pm

"annis" wrote:Posted by Sarah


The Arthurian cycle reaches us at an atavistic level reflected in many mythological and religious legends of the chosen one who suffers and is sacrificed willingly for the health and fertility of the land and the good of the people....

However realistically the story of Arthur is portrayed, the mythology of sacrifice and renewal is an unspoken given at a deeper level. Some of the fantasy interpreataions of course make the most of it., like Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Fionavar Tapestry” and Robert Holding’s “Mythago Cycle”. Btw, I see that Robert Holding’s series has a new title due out later this year, called “Avilion”


I've really enjoyed the Mythago Cycle so far (I've read three of them, and intend to hunt down the others). They operate on that atavistic level you mention above, but are something more than just Arthurian. I haven't found that many fantasy authors who really delve into primitive mythology and the permutations of myth the way that Holdstock does in his Mythago Wood cycle. Am looking forward to his new one. Originally, I thought Avilion was going to come out this spring, but looks like the date got pushed out to this summer in the UK (not sure when it will come out in the US).

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Thu April 16th, 2009, 7:39 pm

Oops- sorry, I see that I had a mental blip there and gave Robert Holdstock the wrong name- put it down to ageing brain cells! Yes, I find the way Holdstock plays with the deeper levels of mythology quite fascinating- the Arthurian influence, is as you say, just one aspect.

"Avilion" is scheduled for release in the UK sometime in July, as far as I can see.

Btw, talking of novels which delve into mythology, have you ever read Naomi Mitchison's novel, "The Corn King and the Spring Queen"?
Last edited by annis on Thu April 16th, 2009, 7:45 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Ludmilla
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Postby Ludmilla » Fri April 17th, 2009, 7:59 pm

I haven't read that one, Annis, but it looks right up my alley. I generally love books like that.

Scrapcat
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Postby Scrapcat » Sat May 2nd, 2009, 3:02 pm

I have just finished Helen Hollick's PENDRAGON, and I recommend it to anyone who liked Sutcliff's SWORD AT SUNSET. It is another "5th century warlord" type of book. The names are the same but the events are somewhat different. This book, the first of a trilogy, ends with Arthur becoming High King.


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