Monday, August 06, 2007

The Once and Future King

This phrase has echoed in the back of my head for two decades, like a call from a bird flying too high to see. I don't know how long it was before I realized that it was the title of a book, nor am I quite sure why it took me so long to read the book once I discovered it. Perhaps I was afraid that the book could never live up to the title.

I cannot say I was disappointed, exactly, even though it was not exactly what I expected. (But who would want things to be exactly what was expected? How dull life would be.) There was much to appreciate, and some to dislike. The book (or really four books) is full of too many things--comedy, tragedy, obscure details of medieval life, psychoanalysis--full like an overstuffed chair, and like an overstuffed chair, hard to get out of once you get in.

As a straight retelling of the Arthurian legend, it is not so good. Most of the auxiliary plot lines are left out; Gawaine (always my favorite) gets short shrift and most of the gallant knightly adventures are alluded to only in passing. (I like Rosemary Sutcliff's retelling for finding out what was happening.) But then, it wasn't really meant to be that, and it is hardly fair to critique a book for not being what it doesn't want to be. It is more of a commentary on the Arthurian legend (though still in a story form) and what it tells us about human nature and governance. Certainly from that perspective it will color how I read the story in whatever form.

One thing that annoyed me throughout the books was that the entire story line was moved forward to the twelfth century. Now I know Arthur is always presented in late medieval trappings, but the story still belongs much earlier; it's like reading a retelling of the Bible set in seventeenth century Holland to go along with those paintings of Bible characters in the clothes of Dutch burghers. The multiplied layers of racial conflict this caused (Norman vs. Saxon vs. Celt vs. Pict) just got to be mind-boggling, although I suppose the real reason for the time change was because the ideals being critiqued were best illustrated by the Norman nobility.

The books focus on Arthur's (and behind that, Merlin's) efforts to fight the rule of force in the world. First Arthur tries the Round Table and chivalric ideals to put Might on the side of Right. Pretty soon the knights run out of bad guys to fight, however, and inner conflicts begin to surface. Then Arthur hopes that spiritual questing can take the place of battle, and the knights search for the Holy Grail; this too fails in establishing a just order on Earth, as the best knights all leave for Heaven. Finally Arthur tries to establish impartial justice in a civil code, but even this is turned to bad ends through Mordred's scheming.

What makes the Arthur legend such a complete tragedy is that the evil is completely bound up with the good. Doom comes not as some relentless fate you can neither duck nor explain, like Oedipus Rex's mysterious obligation to kill his father and marry his mother, nor is it the consequence of milder quirks of circumstance that you can wish away with an "if only." (If only the friar had delivered the letter in time! If only Cyrano had talked to Roxanne before Christian died!)

Given Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere being who they were, bad things were bound to happen; turn them into other people, and the Round Table never could have happened at all. You could wish away Mordred, but to be effective that would require undoing the malice of Arthur's sisters, and to do that you would have to undo Arthur himself. The Arthurian legend is not so much about why good people do bad things, as to how bad people can accomplish anything good at all. And yet they can.

What finally spurred me to read the books this time was noticing their place in the reading list at Ambleside Online. Well, the first two books are on the list for the early teen years--The Sword in the Stone, which focuses on Merlin's tutelage of Arthur, and The Queen of Air and Darkness, which focuses on Arthur developing the ideal of the Round Table while also following the youth of Gawaine and his brothers and their mother's idle but malicious scheming. After that the series takes a more grown-up turn, and The Ill-Made Knight focuses primarily on Lancelot, Guinevere, and Elaine, and the motives and results, public and private, of adultery and seduction. It's not particularly graphic, but definitely not for children. At the same time, it shows the Arthurian court declining into a middle age of disillusionment and decadence.

The Candle in the Wind concludes the matter by showing the unraveling of the court. And it was on the last page that I was most frustrated. After reflecting on how each thing he has tried has failed--chivalry, religiosity, legality--and other ideas, like communism, seem just as insubstantial against the evil in human hearts, Arthur has one last bright idea that if only people could learn to disregard the imaginary borders of countries, perhaps through education, then war and strife could cease. He is going to die in battle tomorrow, and has no time to put it into practice. But still, he thinks it would work. I can't figure out what the author is trying to say here--is he really so blind as to think internationalism and education will succeed where everything else has failed? Or is it ironic, one last foolish notion of Arthur's in his old age?--in which case, what a horrible way to end!

At any rate, the exact ending is not that important in a book whose ending is ordained from the first, nor does it destroy the value of the understanding throughout the book of the great difficulty present in trying to do right and establish justice in the world. And the series is certainly not pessimistic. The title of the last book sums it up--public justice is like a candle in the wind. Always it is in danger of being snuffed out--and yet, there it is. Worthy of protection. Beautiful in its very fragility.


the Joneses said...

Did you ever read Steinbeck's retelling of the Arthur story? I've never read a Steinbeck I like, and this was no exception.

My favorite version is still Stephen Lawhead (the first three; after that, it seems like he was just cashing in).


Dana said...

What is the Steinbeck version of Arthur? I've read only East of Eden and LOVED it but I tend to like the "depressing" books that the Bookfest crowd doesn't care for. :-) It's been too long since I read the Once and Future King so I can't respond to this level of analysis...

Oh, QOC, I've been reading often and commented a few times but realized that you may not remember me although we have met and have some close mutual friends... I'm an OBCL drop-out of 98B.

the Joneses said...

It's called something like "King Arthur and His Knights."

I should have known you like Steinbeck :)


Headmistress, zookeeper said...

You got it, you got it!! I love this story, not because of the Arthurian parts, because you're right, this isn't really about Arthur. King Arthur et al are the vehicle used to muse about the Rule of Law and government and self-discipline and cool stuff like that. I get so frustrated when people complain about this book because the King Arthur story isn't right.

I do think the author was that confused- he was writing in a world enamoured with the League of Nations/United Nations.