Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Reel Arthur: Politics and Truth Claims in Camelot, Excalibur, and King Arthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Reel Arthur: Politics and Truth Claims in Camelot, Excalibur, and King Arthur

Article excerpt

Filmmakers use King Arthur as a platform for their own agendas and as a figure of hope. Examination of three works reveals a range of implicit and explicit politics. (RD)

The figure of Arthur and the legend of Camelot have inspired an unusual degree of political proselytizing, as Arthur is recreated in each version in the image of the storyteller's ideal leader.1 As Susan Aronstein has pointed out,

Arthurian romance, by displacing a problematic present with an ideal past, endows its resolution of contemporary cultural crises with the authority of that past. It argues that the new order the romances propose is actually the old order, the world of an idealized past to which the present must be compared and found woefully wanting. Furthermore, only by returning to this ideal past can the culture in question-whether twelfth-century France, thirteenth-century Wales, nineteenth-century Britain, or twentieth-century America-find its divine mission and heavenly vindication.2

Sir Thomas Malory, the fifteenth-century source of most modern versions of Arthur, saw such connections between Arthurian history and his own turbulent times, and commented upon them to his readers.3 Although acknowledging the problematic nature of the past-who would need Arthur in the first place if there hadn't been problems?-Malory and his literary descendants have nonetheless consistently constructed their own activity of reinventing the past as a step toward the restoration of a better world. The ideal that existed once, they imply, can exist again if the present is inspired to remember the past. Arthur can indeed come again.

Despite the tragic ending of the story, the act of remembering in these texts paradoxically becomes an act of hope. The return of a 'once and future' king who shares the artist's ideals and concerns-who offers a real world solution which he alone, charismatically, can persuade the public to adopt, and about which the public is informed through the medium of the artist's text-links the artist's idealized and articulated political agenda with the weight of timeless and universal truth, and presents a claim to linking the fictional narrative with objective reality. Accordingly, there is a significant weight placed upon the veracity of the work. Despite Arthurian literature being one of the most historically and fictionally complex inheritances of character and narrative from medieval literature to the present, the artist must make good a claim to veracity-that this Arthur, out of all the possible Arthurs past and present, is, indeed, the authentic Arthur.

The artist is not always whom we might expect. On Life's 50th birthday, journalist Theodore H. White told the then twenty-three-year-old story of how the Kennedy administration first became associated with Camelot:

Friday, one week after the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy suddenly telephoned to my house in New York. It was almost an unreal conversation. She felt the American people were going to forget John F. Kennedy...And she wanted me to come because she had a message to give the American people. Remember it was Friday night, so we stopped the press for a second time...Mrs. Kennedy wanted to be out of the camera and television and just talk her heart out because she loved him-and I must confess I loved him, too...She told me so many things that I realized should not be printed at that time. But one thing stood out. She said that when Jack quoted lyrics they were usually classical. But, she said, 'At night, before we'd go to sleep, Jack liked to play records, and the song he loved most came at the end of this record, and the lines he loved to hear were

Don't let it be forgot

That once there was a spot

For one brief shining moment that

Was known as Camelot

'This was Camelot, Teddy,' she told me. 'Let's not forget the time of Camelot.'4

We may note, therefore, that it was neither the musical's lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, nor the public, nor the press who were directly responsible for linking the 1960 musical and the assassinated president so indelibly in our minds. …

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