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96: ONCE AND FUTURE

#96: ONCE AND FUTURE. For sheer survival—a continued and lively grip on readers’ imaginations—no body of lore I know of in any Western language can match that of the King Arthur stories: “Rex quondam rexque futuris,” the epitaph naming him the “once and future king” has come to seem strangely appropriate. Legends have traditionally survived first in oral form, then taken on some more-or-less permanent shape in writing, and then subsided into scholarly examination. But the Arthurian tales, with the first mention of Arthur dating back possibly to the sixth century, have, after a long literary history, resurfaced in modern times as musical theater, movies and television, on websites, as Renaissance Fair reenactments and in computer games. An online bibliography of Arthurian matter (www.arthuriana.org) is clearly a going concern. The tales themselves show no sign of settling into any final form.

Arthurian studies can be sorted into two main classifications, the first of which is the scholarly work on texts, references, historical connections and such; “intertextuality” is, I assume, having the time of its life with the Arthurian corpus. Much of this is fine as scholarship but an almighty chore to get through. Roger Sherman Loomis’s short book, The Development of Arthurian Romance (Norton, 1963) is pretty readable and will catch you up on Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach and the alliterative romances, a number of which are very much worth reading if you feel the appeal of Medieval literature. One of the friendliest recent contributions to this side of things is The Oxford Companion to Arthurian Literature and Legend (2005), written, most improbably, by one man, Alan Lupack. Lupack has read and digested a simply stupendous amount of Arthuriana, and his descriptions and synopses—the book hovers somewhere between being a narrative history and a reference text—make an informative and entertaining work to browse through. It’s a wide-ranging and approachable book and conveys the true enormity of its topic.

But for all the vastness of the terrain, there seems to be a general agreement that the subject has produced a single, inarguable masterpiece. Readers approaching Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur often see it as the bible and final authority of the Arthurian tales; it is in truth a work which stands in curious and complex relation to the writing which precedes it and comes after: a culmination and transformation of its sources and source itself of the retellings and dramatic versions written since.

Malory’s achievement in writing the Morte d'Arthur has been much debated. For the sober record, he drew on nine separate sources to retell not just the tales of Arthur’s court but the stories of Merlin, Tristan and Isolde, the pursuit of the Grail and several secondary characters. From this jumble of sources one can catch Malory out in strings of plot hanging loose and mismatched characterizations, but in the end we do consent imaginatively to the Morte d'Arthur being “one book” and a unity of sorts. Eugene Vinaver points out that in drawing together the widely separated plot threads from the more tapestry-like approach of the older romances—the original of the Lancelot story, for instance, being three episodes hundreds of pages apart in the French sources—Malory gave each story its focus, its “singleness,” and hit on “the transition from medieval to modern fiction.” This is certainly true, but for me a good part of the achievement and unity of the Morte d'Arthur rests in the tone and beauty of Malory’s language. Here is the noble rhythm only the greatest masters of prose achieve; the characters march almost in state to their particular dooms with the attentive and knell-like gravity of Malory’s music around them. Because of this, when something unearthly happens—in the casting away of Excalibur, for instance—we feel the glamor of it, the enchantment, as with almost no other book.

Originally published in 1485, the Morte d'Arthur’s textual situation underwent a major change in 1934 with the discovery of what’s called the Winchester manuscript, which returned to sight some of the printer Caxton’s excisions, rewordings and chapter divisions. (Only one copy of Caxton’s first edition survived—it’s in the Morgan Library in New York.) Eugene Vinaver edited the Winchester version as the basis for the Oxford edition of Malory’s Works, introducing his own book-and-chapter divisions, which in turn became the chance for much bickering—excuse me, discussion—in the degree and tenure set. Vinaver retains Malory’s fifteenth-century spelling—give it a whirl, it’s really not that difficult, and this is the version I return to. If you want a modernized text the Modern Library does a nice one-volume edition following Caxton; Penguin does it in two volumes in trade paperback. The Norton critical edition follows the Winchester manuscript and modernizes the language but potholes the text by printing all the names in Gothic typeface. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The second strain of Arthurian exegesis concentrates heavily on the Grail legends and on the location of Camelot and such—the New Age Arthur. From fairly early on, from A. E. Waite and Jessie Weston and on through R. J. Stewart and John Matthews and writers of that kidney, it’s been responsible for a lot of credulity, fuzzy logic (in the non-mathematical sense), turgid prose and outright, not very amusing silliness, and I find almost all of it laborious and unconvincing. On the other hand, one of the great pleasures available to the Arthur buff is a trip to the various sites scattered around Cornwall and environs, Tintagel and such, and of course a stop in the inimitable city of Glastonbury, which, in addition to a lot of crystal shops and lots of three-dollar-bill Arthurian “authenticity,” has the lovely old Abbey ruins and the tower on Glastonbury Tor—heady and memorable stuff. Go and sniff the glamorie.

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