The myth has run its course
From indiscriminately shoring up the legitimacy of Briton and Norman kings to damning us with theater students blurting “Ni!,” it’s fair to say the Arthurian legend has shown its got legs.
And there’s no mystery why: It’s a damn good, and, it would seem, endlessly mutable story.
An unlikely king rises during a time of strife and conflict. The king brings peace and prosperity to the land. But lo! His foibles lay the seeds for ruin. The king grimly rides to Camlann to die in defense of his realm, his dream. But his story? That will never die.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe should be so lucky to have such a run. And the public domain Arthur franchise is still spitting out films, TV shows and novels. But in these times, in this political moment, do we need another telling of a savior king?
Is it time to let King Arthur, at long last, die?
By Force Alone
This thought came to mind while reading By Force Alone, a gritty Arthur reboot by Lavie Tidhar. Tidhar is a fantastic writer with a knack for using pulp conventions to pose provocative questions, a Tarantino with a (lightly worn) moral seriousness. ‘Osama’ is a hazy exploration of the anesthetic effects of pop culture in a world where the eponymous terrorist is a pulp-fiction rogue. In ‘A Man Lies Dreaming’ pulp novelist turned Auschwitz inmate Shomer Aleichem sustains himself with fantasies of Hitler as a failed putschist who works as a private dick in London, where a Jewish gangster forcibly circumcises him. You might say he’s a writer who takes risks. By Force Alone, by comparison, reads as a conventional revisionist work you’ve read or seen before. Because you very likely have
King Arthur as an amoral power-hungry politician (the title is an inversion on meditations of right overcoming might in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King)? Seen it in Game of Thrones. Shining knights as rapists and cutthroats? Again, seen it in Game of Thrones. An alien presence falling to earth and warping the reality of the land in which it fell? Read it in The Southern Reach Trilogy.
Many of Tidhar’s trope twists aren’t even fresh in the expanded Arthurian universe. Arthur’s retinue as London brothel-dwelling muscle? Straight out of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Lancelot as a kung-fu-fueled medieval wrecking ball? Seems novel until you recall that inscrutable martial artists also wreak havoc in “Legend.”
Tidhar is a deft pastiche artist. A Man Lies Dreaming owes a debt to everything from Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream to Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and beyond. But riffing off a bomb (box office of $148.7 million on a budget of $175 million) from Guy Ritchie? That’s a clear step down. One has to wonder at Tidhar’s levels of defensiveness when he writes in the afterword, “The attentive reader will no doubt find a great many and various references scattered throughout this novel. To them, my congratulations.”
Not that there’s no good stuff. His telling of Pellinore, and the creation and subsequent pursuit of the questing beast, has a real pathos to it. There’s humor in Guinevere leading a band of female brigands. Gawain as a committed father, scraping out a life in an alien-poisoned back of beyond, is a spot-on take of the Round Table’s earthiest knight. Tidhar, as always, has a sly sense of humor, can turn a phrase and can set a scene. The story is well-crafted and told and easily could be lifted and shifted into a Netflix series.
The Curse of Arthur
But again: the point? There’s been no shortage of Arthurian content on TV. Since 2010 we’ve seen Merlin (BBC) and Camelot (Starz). Up next, if we’re to believe the Internet is to be believed, is something called Pendragon, in which a detective finds a way into another realm (it rhymes with Spamalot). Do we really need another?
Based on the 2020 Netflix series Cursed, the answer is no. What’s cursed? The sword Excalibur, which for centuries has been wielded in defense of the Fey, elemental fairy folk who the genocidal Christian Red Paladins are shoving out of Britain’s green and pleasant lands. Nimue (Katherine Langford, the suicide girl from 13 Reasons Why) who makes a stand as the Queen of the Fey, picks up the blade. She winds up shot full of arrows and sinking into a lake. That’s not a spoiler, it’s the opening shot.
Real Arthurheads know Nimue is one of the monikers for the Lady of the Lake, who will hand Excalibur to the future king of Camelot. As it happens, one of Nimue’s champions (and lover) is a young mercenary named Arthur (Devon Terrell, who played a young Barack Obama in Barry.) Don’t think you need a road map to see what’s coming next.
And it was…fine? Given the source material is a Frank Miller graphic novel, one should give it credit for recognizing racism is bad and fascists are always the bad guys. It has some creative (and some dumb) twists on the source material, but is it inventive or surprising enough to overcome the fact you know how the story will play out? I’m not the only one who says.
Time for a new myth
The best modern interpretation of the Arthur legend is a 1956 novel by Henry Treece (a buddy of Mervyn Peake and Dylan Thomas) called The Great Captains. Treece’s “Arthur” is a Celt who tries to impose order on a dark, muddy sland following the departure of the Romans. Treece renders his Arthur’s brutality and spirituality–along with his humanity and vision—at once alien and comprehensible. It’s a fantastic feat of imagination. And in his foreword Treece insists that the Arthur legend “is a tale which sooner or later most story-tellers with to set down in their own way, for the struggles and characters portrayed are archetypal, and there is no getting away from them!”
Maybe it’s time to get away from these idylls and archetypes of empire.
The Arthur legend started as a brilliant lie to prop up kings. Perhaps a thousand years ago a king could create Camelot by exercising might or championing right. But the world’s moved on. Climate change is an exponentially greater threat than pesky Picts or rampaging Saxons and Northmen.
The old models are insufficient. Worse, they cramp our imagination.
Which raises the question: Why stick with these legends when you have an abundant alternatives, even if you confine yourself to tales from Merrie Olde England?
Boudicca and Queen Gwendolen are legit rebel queens compelling enough to wash aside gossipy royals and iron ladies. One could make a violent and sexy tale of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. The stories of the Luddites and the agrarian rabble rousers behind Captain Swing never have been more relevant. Or just do a series based on Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, an endlessly fascinating tale of the revolutionary Atlantic (including pirates!) of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Arthur legend did not rise, like the Holy Grail, at an appointed time. It was made. Now we need new stories to be made because King Arthur can’t save us any more. Saving us was never the point in the first place.
Building a new Camelot will depend on a lot, starting with luck. It absolutely will require new ways of thinking. It will require new archetypes.
And it will require King Arthur to, at long last, die.