Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Readings 2K9: King Arthur

King Arthur
by John and Caitlín Matthews

This book, published by the Folio Society, is an examination of King Arthur and of the stories of the Round Table and the Holy Grail. It’s got some interesting material in it; the first chapter is an analysis of a historical figure in 2nd-century England who might have been the original Arthur, which is a relatively new (or newly-revived) theory. There’s a lot of speculation involved, but it’s a creative take on the perennial problem of Arthur’s historicity.

Subsequent chapters move in stages through the evolution of Arthurian myth — examining the historical age of Arthur and its first historians, Welsh narratives in which Arthur appears, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contribution to the figure of Arthur and the use to which that figure was put by Normans seeking to justify their rule of England, then on to medieval narrative epics, Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur, and finally the modern age and the contemporary explosion of Arthuriana. It’s at this point that the book begins to weaken, enough so that it makes one question the scholarship of earlier chapters.

Structurally, the last chapter doesn’t make any kind coherent argument about the use of Arthurian story, which is a pity, as the book’s analyses of what Arthur meant in earlier ages was quite involving. Instead, after the Pre-Raphaelites, the chapter becomes a series of quick mentions of different Arthurian stories. The selection of works referred to is mostly strong, though the inclusion of the original Star Trek is puzzling — the stated justification is that Kirk is an Arthur-figure with Spock as his Merlin, but surely many other stories have the same character dynamics, and the comparison is never made in the show itself. The greater problem is that there’s not much context given for the different works, and the balance of space given to some seem out of balance. I like Charles Williams, and I enjoy his Arthurian poetry, but there’s a page about his poems while Wagner’s Parsifal is described in one sentence. Moreover, by following specific forms (novels, poems, operas), chronology is lost — there’s no sense of how one work influenced another, how the story changed over time.

There are also some factual errors in this chapter, and those are particularly worrying in a scholarly work. Spenser’s Faerie Queene is said to have “been planned as a work in twelve parts”; actually, it was planned to have twenty-four books. Una is described as a “female knight”, which more properly describes the character of Britomart. Later, the creator of the TV show Babylon 5 is named Michael J. Straczynski, instead of J. Michael Straczynski. Both in the text and in a picture caption, the comic book Camelot 3000 is described as created by Mike Barr, with no reference to artist Brian Bolland — which is to say that the man who drew one of the images in the book wasn’t credited for it. Minor details like this make one wonder how thorough the research was in previous chapters as well.

(I’m not entirely sure what to make about the book’s praise for the 2004 movie King Arthur, which gets a whole paragraph: “a convincing picture of the Arthur of the Dark Ages ... unflinching in its depiction of the savagery of the times. Cive Owen makes a strong and thoughtful Arthur ... after decades of films portraying Arthur as a hero of medieval splendour, this is a welcome move towards an alternative, more consciously authentic characterisation.” I’ve not seen the movie, so I have no opinion on whether this is accurate or not. But it’s troubling to find out — from online sources, and not from the book — that John Matthews was a historical consultant on the movie. Surely that would be worth noting in the interest of clarity?)

With these things in mind, one begins to wonder about earlier choices in the book. This is a relatively slim volume, and can’t go into either all the contemporary manifestations of the Arthur myth or the wide range of medieval texts. So choices had to be made, which is understandable, but I wonder now whether some of the complexity of the Arthurian corpus is given short shrift. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival is given a cursory mention, for example, but no more. The story the book tells, of how the Arthurian story develops, requires that certain manifestations of that story be passed over in silence. That’s fair enough, as every history must make its choices about what to include and what to leave out; but it means that the historian must maintain the confidence of the reader in their selections. In this case, I have my doubts.

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