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.”
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.