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ARTHUR REX BRITANICUS

A STUDY BY THE PECONIC STREET LITERARY SOCIETY





Round Table Discussion of King Arthur & Arthurian Literature


LEGACY OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND

Introduction

Life and Times

Christian and Pagan

Masonry

Masonry

  • A Man and a Mystique
    • admired
    • respected
    • feared
The Legacy of the Legend

Arthur and the Brythonic Celts and their Gaulo-Roman allies eventually suffered defeat and the Saxon covered the land like the Grim Reaper leaving only the legend as a reminder of the high civilization of the Latin period in England.

In the histories, the Irish historian Gildeas (circa 550 AD) chronicled the first History of the reign of Arthur some 50 years after Arthur's death and referred to the nine great battles and the final battle which took Arthur's life and that of his rebellious heir Mordred.

In the eight century Venerable Bede speaking of problems recruiting Celts in the Celtic church as missionaries to the Saxon refers to the last Celtic King and his battles, but writes of a conflict that could have come from today's newspapers. The saintly Bede exhorting Celts to save the heathen Saxon was rebuffed. "Heaven," the Celts told the preacher, "will be better without them." In an ironic twist which holds true to this day, Bede observed, "Celt and Saxon will not worship in the same building." The text of Bede then turns to the martyrdom of St Lawrence in a pagan Saxon rite.

Then the world turned upside down. The Saxon was vanquished at Hastings in 1066 and the Celts became the favored entertainers (troubadours) at Norman courts. Glastonbury Abbey became the repository of the chroniclers of the legend. The Norman Knight Sir Thomas Mallory penned Morte D'Artur, capturing the legend's epic force into print. Norman plantagent royalty invented fatuous genealogies connecting themselves with the legendary Arthur. The place of the Arthurian legend seemed secure.

The Norman dynasty ended with Richard II's death in battle, the Tudor dynasty, notwithstanding its suspicious birthrights affected an affinity for the line of Arthur. Henry VIII in breaking with the Church of Rome laid waste to Glastonbury Abbey and its library. In destroying a thousand years of English literature and art, Henry broke not only England's cultural ties with continental Europe but also his ties with England'' past.

The Arthurian saga was dismissed from the royal pantheon as the iconoclasm of the Reformation stormed across Britain. What little pre-Henrican literature remains survived by accident. The Pearl Poet's adventure story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was rediscovered centuries later in an attic with an incomplete copy of the saxon epic Beowulf. The fury of destruction continued until Elizabeth I passed a law to protect what remained of England's antiquities.

The romantic revolutions recalled Arthur from obscurity. Writing in the mid 1700s, the English historian Gibbons declared Arthur a legitimate British King and throughout the Regency and Victorian periods Arthur, Boddica and other Celtic heroes were honored as British Heroes in statuary and in the poetry of Tennyson, partly in concession to the restive Celts. In the early American republic, the Arthurian legend became an example of good government.

By 1922, Britain's hold over the Celts could no longer be sustained by illusions and poetry. As the Union Jack lowered in Dublin castle, Arthur was dismissed from the British pantheon. In the History of the English Speaking People, the imperialist Churchill who had greeted Irish independence with a Pharonic reluctance makes note of Gibbon's finding, but refused to endorse Gibbon's judgement.

Notwithstanding Churchill's cool neutrality, the legend retained its mystical power. If there is one weakness to the legend, Arthur's saga unlike the Odyessy or the Illiad never became trapped by one author who became so great that his or her word was final. The legend is alive with authors who rework it for the benefit of each new generation.

Today there are three major authors with best selling versions of the legend: Jack Whyte, Morgan Llwellyan, and Marion Zimmer Bradley have all contributed a fresh perspective on the legend.

The legend lives because it is a tale of life which keeps repeating. Its appeal is that of life itself. There is a children's story about growing up discovering the marvels of the universe, an adventure story as knights go on their quest, a war story of a nation under constant external stress without friends or allies, a romance of star crossed lovers... There is something in the legend for everyone.

The legend is powerful magic admired and feared. T H Whyte's account of the final battle between good and evil was so feared by Franklin Roosevelt for its pacifistic leanings that it was buried by Roosevelt and its publication forbidden. The manuscript was not recovered until 1965 when the popular movie Sword and the Stone based upon T H White's best selling trilogy renewed interest in the subject.

The best actors have cued up to play Arthur. No other British King has been played by so many leading thespians: Robert Taylor, Peter O'Toole, Sean Connery.

Arthur may have lost his life in the final battle, but in doing so conquered the world.

OTHER ARTHURIAN LINKS
Arthurian Index
Introduction to the Legend
Life and Times of Arthur
Christian and Pagan Elements in The Arthurian Legend
Masons in The Arthurian Legend

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