If the name of King Arthur is mentioned, I suppose what comes to mind is not so much one person as a whole array of characters and themes, a montage so to speak. Of course we do think first of the King, the magnificent monarch of a glorified or idealized medieval realm. But we think also of his Queen, of the fair and wayward Guinevere, we think of his enchanter, Merlin, who presided over his birth, who set him on the throne, who established him there in the early and traveled days of his reign. There were the knights of the Round Table, vowed to the highest ideals of chivalry, and the greatest of them, Sir Lancelot, who, of course, has a tragic love affair with the Queen. There is another great love story, that of Tristan and Isolde, the theme of Wagner's Opera.
We think of the place where these people assembled, Camelot, Arthur's magnificent, personal castle and capital and then, there are stranger things; the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, giving a spiritual dimension to the whole story and there is magic. Not only the magic of Merlin but the magic also of his strange, ambiguous student, the women, the enchantress, Morgan LaFay. And at the end is the tragedy of Arthur's downfall, his passing away at the isle of Avalon and another mystery that we do not know what really happened to him that he was said to be immortal, that one day he would return and restore the golden age in his country.
I suppose, the version we know best is the one that was composed in the 15th century. This is the great English version of the story, compiled out of earlier versions by the creative genius of a rather mysterious and cryptic figure, the knight, Sir Thomas Malory. But the story doesn't end there. The whole thing revives in the time of Queen Victoria, with Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." As a result of this great work on the Arthurian Cycle by England's Poet Laureate, the story became known to everybody.
Other poems, novels and plays in our own time, and almost a rebirth of it yet again in T. H. White's novels, "The Sword and the Stone" and "The Once and Future King" and other plays and musicals and films based on these works. There are Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart, Marian Bradley, Pat Godwin and others, who have gone off on another line and tried to imagine the Britain of King Arthur as it might really have been.
What I have personally ...
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... like that than the resplendent kingdom that we see in a film like "Camelot" or "First Knight."
Well, of course, you may say I've been rather begging the question here. What was the real setting? And the modern novelists I've spoken of, have been moved to their work partly by the fact that there is a very slowly growing awareness of what it was and when it was, through historical study and through the work of archaeologists. And if we look at that period we can ask, and I think this is a better way of putting the question, not did King Arthur exist, but how did this legend originate, what fact(s) is it rooted in?
Then, of course, we must ask what period? Well the medieval writers with all their fancy did know, more or less, that they were being a bit vague. They don't give us many real dates but they place King Arthur somewhere in the period from about 450 A.D. to 550 A.D. That, of course, is longer than any one man could have reigned, but they see him as living somewhere about that time, and they were right. This, in fact, is where the story we know began its career, but the foundations for the medieval romances had been laid a little before, in the old legends about Arthur.
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