Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Arctic Arthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Arctic Arthur

Article excerpt

Arthur's northern adventures are little recognized. Early hints and seventeenth-century developments led in the later 1700s to the northern Gothic Arthur of Hole, Betham, and Thelwall. More conservative was the king's nineteenth-century representation by Milman; and his apotheosis, and conclusion, came in the arctic adventurer of Bulwer Lytton's King Arthur. (SK)


Over some thousand years Arthur has appeared in strange situations. A Welsh giant threw stone spears at him; King Ryens wanted his beard to complete the collection for a mantle; for Dryden he attacked a tree that turned out to be a fake version of his beloved; Tennyson apotheosized him on a mountain top; Bradley had him impregnate his half-sister at the Beltaine celebrations.

But it seems fair to suggest that none of these situations was as unforeseeable, improbable, or downright weird as when in 1848 Bulwer Lytton made him leader of a Viking ship sailing above the Arctic Circle. And then the walruses attacked:

Uprose a bold Norwegian, hunger-stung,

As near the icy marge a walrus lay,

Hurl'd his strong spear, and smote the beast, and sprung

Upon the frost-field on the wounded prey;-

Sprung and recoiled-as, writhing with the pangs,

The bulk heaved towards him with its flashing fangs.

Roused to fell life-around their comrade throng,

Snorting wild wrath, the shapeless, grisly swarms-

Like moving mounts slow masses trail along;

Aghast the man beholds the larva-forms-

Flies-climbs the bark-the deck is scaled-is won;

And all the monstrous march rolls lengthening on.

'Quick to your spears!' the kingly leader cries.

Spears flash on flashing tusks; groan the strong planks

With the assault: front after front they rise

With their bright stare; steel thins in vain their ranks,

And dyes with blood their birth-place and their grave;

Mass rolls on mass, as flows on wave a wave.

These strike and rend the reeling sides below;

Those grappling clamber up and load the decks,

With looks of wrath so human on the foe,

That half they seem the ante-Daedal wrecks

Of what were men in worlds before the Ark!

Thus rag'd the immane and monster war-when, hark,

Crash'd thro' the dreary air a thunder peal!

In their slow courses meet two ice-rock isles

Clanging; the wide seas far-resounding reel;

The toppling ruin rolls in the defiles;

The pent tides quicken with the headlong shock;

Broad-billowing heave the long waves from the rock;

Far down the booming vale precipitous

Plunges the stricken galley,-as a steed

Smit by the shaft runs reinless,-o'er the prows

Howl the lash'd surges; Man and monster freed

By power more awful from the savage fray,

Here roaring sink-there dumbly whirl away.1

The battle with the walruses is only the most memorable part of Lytton's northernizing of the Arthur myth: Arthur in Odin's hall and Gawain among the Eskimos run it close. The poem, of little impact in its own day and overlooked ever since, is not only a surprisingly scholarly and richly ideological mid-Victorian statement on many topics, but also the last and the most developed element in an almost unknown formation of the Arthurian story, which is hard not to call the Arctic Arthur.

While R.S. Loomis said that 'with the Romantic Movement Arthur and Merlin heard the magic horn pealing through fairyland and returned once more to the fellowship of men,'2 and Stephanie Barczewski felt that 'the Arthurian legend possessed such a potent appeal during the years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars,'3 others, who have looked more closely at the actual evidence, are aware that Arthur's myth did not interest either classical Augustans or the major romantics.4 It did, however, in the period from the late eighteenth century to the early mid-nineteenth century, appeal for reasons of nationalistic alterity to Cornish, Welsh, and some Scottish writers. …

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