31 Days of Post (2) Day 16: An Arthurian Question
I recently watched Excalibur. A fine movie. Perhaps one of the best adaptations of the Arthurian legend I’ve ever seen. And I’m planning on finally reading Mists of Avalon soon. Thinking about Mists got me to thinking about the Arthurian legend and how that legend has been reinterpreted and adapted over the centuries.
Mists of Avalon (as well as Merlin, the miniseries from the 90s) posits a Britain transitioning from a (usually Hollywood) Celtic Paganism to Christianity. But there is a huge issue with this.
By the time King Arthur would have lived, Britain would have already been a largely Christian island. I’m not an expert in Late Roman history, but I think it is safe to say that Rome had largely converted to Christianity a century before Rome evacuated Britain. The pagan element would have come from the Anglo-Saxons when they invaded Britain later.
So, here is my question: Why posit a (Hollywood) Celtic religion on the decline conflicting with a rising Christianity? Furthermore, why the lack of Roman influence? Or why not touch on the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons?
Maybe I should ignore, for a bit, the actually history behind the Arthurian legend and focus on the politics inherent within each interpretation of Arthur.
What does Arthur mean to Malory? What does Arthur mean to Spenser? To Tennyson? To White? To Bradley?
I’m not an Arthurian scholar, so I really cannot tell off the top of my head. But I do have suspicions.
For some, Arthur is a symbol of Britain. Of the ideal king to contrast with whichever despot sits on the throne at the time of writing. For others, Arthur is an idealization of a Golden Age, a time to yearn for. But what about today? What does Arthur represent for us?
Imperialism. Decay. Tradition vs Modernism. Feminism.
As far as Excalibur is concerned, I wouldn’t be too surprised is Arthur didn’t reflect the fears spinning out of the dissolution of the British Empire. Given how much time Arthur spends as the Fisher King, it makes sense.
And what of Mists of Avalon? Feminism. Marion Zimmer Bradley writes a feminist interpretation of the King Arthur legend. And the avenue Bradley chooses to use is through a conflict between patriarchal Christianity and a more matriarchal Hollywood Celticism. And the reason why the paganism of the Celts is privileged over Anglo-Saxon paganism is because the Anglo-Saxons were equally as patriarchal as Christians. (Or, it could be that modern Wicca uses primarily Celtic imagery which Bradley then uses. Either idea bears investigation.)
Now, this is just my quick take. It needs more work. And I could be wrong.
To end this post, I do want to ask a final question. What would the Arthur legend look if the Anglo- Saxons’ paganism is a featured element?