The Legend of King Arthur

I enjoyed watching the video series, Anne of Green Gables, with my daughters when they were small. Since this genre wasn’t something I was inclined to watch for my own enjoyment, I’m glad I was exposed to the movies; I wanted to watch something wholesome and family orientated that would resonate with them.

Anne was fascinated with the Arthurian legend. In one of the scenes from the movies, she reenacted the boat incident from the poem “Lady of Shalott.” Though I first watched this particular scene over 20 years ago, it planted a seed of curiosity within me to learn more of the legend.

I can’t recall whether or not I read much of King Arthur when I was in grade or high school; it was a body of literature I don’t believe I was exposed to or encouraged to read. Though I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, the mythical story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table never crossed my literary radar.

Curiously, the references to the legend in society is extensive in certain respects. For example, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, his aristocratic wife, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, spoke about Camelot, the mythical kingdom/castle of King Arthur, comparing it to her husband’s administration.

I remember this “Camelot” reference and, again, it was a term that stuck in my mind but was something I did not fully understand until later in my life when I started doing research on the topic. This helped fuel my interest in the story of King Arthur.

It wasn’t long ago I stumbled on the magnificent poem, Morte d’Arthur, by Alfred Tennyson. It describes the last moments of King Arthur’s life with his last and most trusted knight, Sir Bedivere, whom Arthur instructed to take his sword, Excalibur, and throw it into a lake.

This poem is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of brilliant and creative writing, capable of stirring the emotions on an unusual level not often experienced in most writing. It moved me when I first read it and still moves me when I read, or listen to it, today.

How I stumbled on the poem is interesting: while listening on Youtube to a famous speech by Winston Churchill, “We shall fight on the beaches,” he quoted this line from the poem:

“Every morn brought forth a noble chance
And every chance brought forth a noble knight…”

This line leapt out at me and I googled it, discovering its origins; the poem has since become one of my favorites.

I admire great writing and talented authors: Tennyson is one of those rare artistic geniuses whose canvas is paper and brush his pen.

Recently, I stumbled on a superb reading of this poem and have listened to it several times. The video is amateurish and distracting in places, but the narration is where the magic happens:

A reading of “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Tennyson

There are several reasons why I like this poem: one is the idealized world which the legend reflects. There is chivalry, bravery, honor, dedication to morality and noble causes, redemption from betrayal, etc.

In the romantic and idealized kingdom of Arthur and his knights, we have a wise king who rules over both his kingdom and subjects in a wise, just, and loving manner.

“Every morn brought forth a noble chance

And every chance brought forth a noble knight.”

Adding drama to this idealized story, we then have treachery, greed and betrayal, and groan to learn that even in a kingdom ruled so wisely and justly by a good king like Arthur, such wonders fail to last. Among the final words of the dying Arthur, this sentiment is expressed:

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Tennyson creates a showpiece of emotions using only the power of words. One particularly riveting scene is the internal conflict which raged within Sir Bedivere when he finds himself torn between obedience to Arthur’s last request for him to fling Excalibur in the lake and his sudden greed when he views the jeweled hilt of the sword twinkling in the moonlight. How Bedivere justifies these two acts of disobedience to his king’s dying commands, and how he finally overcomes his failures to obey, is exquisite.

I believe most people yearn for the values found on the “old paths” which the best of American society was founded upon. Sadly, these values are evaporating like the morning mist: the nuclear family, honesty, hard work, commitment, justice, simplicity, integrity, honor, wisdom, and plain old common sense.

Those golden days are headed for extinction and I see little hope of Americans recovering what we have lost as a nation and society. Now, we are too divided, almost as divided, it seems, as the North and South were by slavery during our Civil War times.

This is one reason I’ve always been attracted to fantasy and science fiction literature: the real world we live in can be so depressing that temporary relief can be found in what J.R.R. Tolkien labeled the “secondary world,” a fictional, idealized location where the “old paths” are prominently followed and woven into society.

Tennyson’s poem does justice to this idea of a “secondary world” by providing readers with a cast of characters and chains of events that epitomize the values most people yearn for in society. I can relate to that.