First the Easter Bunny, Then Santa Claus, Now King Arthur

Last week, my wife had some research appointments in Tauranga, a beautiful town on the Pacific about three hours drive from Auckland.  She was going to be away for a few days so I decided to tag along.

Because she was going to be busy during the days, I would be on my own for a lot of the time.  It seemed like there was a lot to do to keep busy but you never know about  the weather, etc., so I overloaded myself with books just in case.

My book selection process for a trip is fairly rigorous and ritualized and the overriding principle is I never know what I’m going to want to read when I get there.  So, the bottom line is that I go well prepared.

One of the books in my stock pile was an unopened and unread copy of Michael Woods’s In Search of the Dark Ages.  I’d bought that book years ago after his In Search of the Trojan War series, but never got around to reading it.

Nothing about Tauranga remotely resembles the Dark Ages, but I decided to start the book.  It was fascinating, but there was one very disturbing chapter. 

It was about King Arthur, and one of the final statements in the chapter is “. . . reluctantly we must conclude that there is no definite evidence that Arthur ever existed.”

What?

The chapter is an engaging piece of detective work in which each part of the legend is tested against known facts and archaeological evidence and based on the data, I guess the conclusion makes sense.  The question, of course is how can this be?

Here is a brief summary of the facts.  Although Arthur is supposed to have lived around 500-600 AD, his name doesn’t appear in any accounts, and then only as a name on a list of people involved in a battle, until the 9th century.  The main parts of the legend were developed over the years and by the beginning of the twelfth century, poets had embellished the stories, just as Homer is said to have done with the Trojan War.  The legend was also widely distributed in a book published at that time called History of the Britons. 

The main physical evidence of the historical validity of the legend is the burial places of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey.  Even today you can visit the tombs, but there is some question as to who was buried there and actually whether anyone was buried there.  It turns out that in 1155 the original abbey was destroyed by fire.  The monks needed money to rebuild it to its former glory and right about then is when they “discovered” the tombs.  A while later they also found Excalibur lying around and also the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (he supposedly brought the Holy Grail to England).  Bad, bad monks!

Nothing much happened for another 500 years or so.  In the 1700s historians were “inclined to question the existence of Arthur” and in the 1800s he was deemed “no more worthy of belief than Hercules.”  Even a contemporary historian, William of Malmesbury said of the Glastonbury tombs “Throw out such dubious stuff and gird ourselves for a factual narrative.”

 So how did we get to where we are today with Camelot and Lancelot and Guinevere?  Gird thyself.

As the English empire expanded in the 19th century, the Victorians learned more and more about antiquity and history and cultures.  They realised they weren’t that much different from the people they were colonising around the world.  Throughout history, England had been fought over by imperial powers—first the Romans, then waves of Anglo Saxon tribes, and later the Vikings.  National heroes a la Joan of Arc or George Washington were noticeably lacking, so when Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was published, it became a huge best seller.  Who would make a better national hero than a warrior chieftain who may have united warring tribes to repel Anglo Saxon invaders 

Not only that, the richness of the history and the ideals of chivalry and loyalty appealed to the Victorian tastes.  Plus I bet they liked the sex.  As a result, the legend was rekindled and institutionalised. 

If you’re like me, you are shocked that Arthur is a manufactured hero.  I’m not sure how this disclosure compares to the Piltdown Man or the Milli Vanilli lip-synch episode in terms of myth shattering, but in any event, it does nothing to detract from the appeal of the story.   It did, however, get me thinking about how societies construct myths and made me wonder whether we are in need of developing a myth right about now.

After all, we are in a global recession, it’s hard to keep up with the pace of change, there is widespread political instability and unrest, energy, the environment and the food and water supplies are all at risk.  We need a hero. 

During the Cold War we had James Bond and Superman, but I think that the years of prosperity after that made us think we didn’t need a mythic figure to unite us and provide emotional comfort against the storms of reality.

The Victorians chose a legendary figure who embodied characteristics they valued.  That’s the trouble with coming up with a mythical hero du jour.  I’m not sure what characteristics we value.  Do we want a superhero to knock off all the bad guys out there?  And whose bad guys do we knock off?  Evil governments?  Terrorists?  Big bad businesses?  Drug lords?  Purveyors of junk food?

Or do we create a mythical alter ego who is victorious in love, career and family and is able to deal with all the daily frustrations of modern life?  Their phone battery would never die, their computer would never get a virus and no one would unfriend them.

Or is it a sports hero?  A rock star? All of the above?

The more I think of it, the more I’m convinced that it’s an impossible job because Hollywood is doing the job for us.  Every movie and sitcom and drama series is designed to give us a mythical hero (or villain) who will help exorcise our anxieties.  And if they don’t do it, there is always a sports figure or rock star making megabucks and living the life of a modern mythical hero. 

25 responses to “First the Easter Bunny, Then Santa Claus, Now King Arthur

  1. Gee, Tom…way to burst my bubble!
    I think the trouble with the “manufactured heroes” that we have today is that, all too often, they’re proven to be just like the rest of us: human beings who sometimes fail. Also, they’re only likely to last for their “fifteen minutes of fame” before someone else comes along to unseat them…

    Wendy

  2. Boyle is a hero in my book, but I think Angelina is just nuts, like that woman who gave birth to 8 kids, Nadya Suleman.

  3. “…inmates paying tribute to ‘peace advocates’ (sic) who have learned to love peace as a lifestyle…”

    • Very nice–thanks for posting this.

    • Thanks Dafna for posting this video clip. I have worked with inmates in the past and this sort of activity does wonders for an inmate’s self esteem and gives him/her a sense of belonging in society. It provides them with an alternative to aspire to while experiencing the benefits of co-operation and team work within a community.

  4. I always suspected that Angelina Jolie isn’t real, but you’re saying Hercules wasn’t real, either? You’re bringing me down, Thomas. You’re bringing me down.

  5. Pop culture “heroes” (and ones from the world of sports) tend to have bloated egos. That’s why I like the invisible heroes–for instance the anonymous passerby who pulls the people from the burning car. We don’t seem to have a space in our cultural psyche right now for a prominent figure who is brave and admirable in a straightforward way. The Chilean miners seemed more like heroes than anyone “famous.”

    • The Chilean miners did an amazing feat, and their mere survival is fantastic. But heroes? I hate the watering down of that word.

    • agreed about the miners. i think it is nothing short of heroic to hold on to your humanity under such conditions. the miners were in a perfect “lord of the flies” situation, this time the common good prevailed.

  6. I’ve understood for yearts that, at best, “King Arthur” was no more than a minor Roman leader. And look at Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table- it is little more than a bastardization of Zeus and the gods on Mt. Olympus. There is a clear mythological history that goes straight from Greece to Rome (with the Romans adopting the Greek pantheon, with some name changes) and then from Rome to England, which Rome (partly) conquered and brought their mythology with them. The tales of King Arthur, et al, are little more than a modern retelling of ancient myths.

  7. Vodka and Ground Beef

    Woah. I lost my delicate womanhood to a man who told me his name was King Arthur. Are you saying I’m still technically a virgin then?

    I love “Gird thyself.” I’m saying that a lot from now on.

  8. Yes–the legend has it that Guinevere told Lancelot the same thing!

  9. Hello again Tom! That’s a fascinating question indeed. Whether or not it’s truly a good method for understanding a people, we do tend to study them through their art, specifically their stories and heroes. Without getting into the definition of the hero and archetypes (which Mr. Kluth has been exploring with great fun and insight) and simple vs. complex stories, there are of course commonalities. (Pardon me being a little general.) Regarding highly complex characters, not necessarily “heroes,” they tend to have some element of greatness and some great insight, something to teach us. Whether they are highly complex like King Lear, Hamlet, or Antigone, or repugnant like Richard III, or Medea, they embody something we ought to learn from by thinking about them and their culture and human nature, not just emulating/avoiding what they did.

    Today the great/famous stories aren’t really in the lifeblood of the culture, but we’ve created many fantastic (lit. fantastical) heroes. (It’s very interesting that a very literal and science-minded culture like ours makes such fantastical art: one might think we would have more literary/dramatic characters, but we had to make heroes didn’t we?) I think one day a future Herodotus might compare the depictions of say, Superman, Batman, Captain America, James Bond, over time. What will we have considered timeless and what was a trend?

    Despite the (interesting) trend of rebooting/re-imagining characters, we might wonder too what the original audiences thought of Hamlet, Medea, et cetera. Ought we judge those ages by those stories? Sure, Sophocles won awards, but how many people really like the movies who win at Cannes? (I’m being glib but you know what I mean.)

    A very stimulating post: thanks!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the very thoughtful comment. I like your distinction between heroes and “complex” personalities. And I don’t think that modern “heroes” are particularly complex. Maybe the purpose of modern characters is not to educate but rather to be lightning rods for our fears, aspirations and fantasies?

  10. Very nice post as I’m in love with all aspects of history. I loved the video that Dafna posted as well. I believe that it is only through peace and forgiveness (for being born, basically) that we are able to find redemption.

    • Thanks! I like the video too not only because it celebrates people who have tried to unite rather than divide but also because it shows a very human celebration in a place where you wouldn’t expect it. And that can only have good results.

  11. Tom, please gird thyself: Shakespeare is also a debated character. Real or made up? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_authorship_question

  12. Arthur was a mythical hero long before the Victorians discovered him. He was a major figure in the Middle Ages, in the works of English writers like Sir Thomas Malory who lived in the mid 1400s and wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, and many French writers of the time. He was used in such works to model chivalric codes of behaviour. So the Victorians were treading a well-worn path.

    As for contemporary heroes, I say resist cynicism and look around. Real heroes exist and always will. We’ve seen one — Aung San Suu Kyi — just released from house arrest last week.

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