All Things to All Men

By Michell, John | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

All Things to All Men


Michell, John, The Spectator


KING ARTHUR IN LEGEND AND HISTORY

by Richard White Dent, 25, pp. 512

In response to my complaint that children nowadays are brought up in an atmosphere of scientific materialism, my friend, a pedagogue in the north of England, inquired among the older children at his school and discovered that, whereas none of them knew anything much about Darwin, Freud, Marx, Hitler or Stalin, they were all acquainted with King Arthur and the exploits of his errant knights. I was pleased to hear that, and should not really have been surprised. Children have their own agenda and the Matter of Britain has always been an item on it. Arthur, of course, never dies, and he never seems to get much sleep, being aroused in every generation to satisfy the mythological needs of the time. As role models of chivalry and courteous behaviour, he and his followers have shaped the culture of western Europe and influenced its history. Successive English kings, Norman, Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart, bolstered their legitimacy by claiming Arthurian descent, and the tradition is maintained by Prince Charles in naming his son and heir William Arthur.

Richard White's massive anthology records the development of Arthur's legend through the Middle Ages, beginning with the chronicle of Nennius early in the ninth century and including old texts in French and German which had never before been translated. His last extract is from the 16th century, and he has nothing to say about the subsequent flood of Arthurian literature which continues in full spate today. In many of the modern romances Arthur holds court in a hobbitinfested fairyland, conditioned by the tenets of feminism and the New Age consciousness movement. Well he may, since Arthur is the most adaptable of heroes and, as this book shows, constantly reforms his image to reflect contemporary ideals. This is accommodating but also infuriating, because with all his guises the man or myth that inspires such great poetry and such high-flown nonsense reveals nothing of his true nature and origin. As White himself asks, Who was Arthur? Was he real or legendary, and why does he continue to fascinate so many people? …

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