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KING ARTHUR, THROUGH THE AGES

A GOOD LEGEND, whether true or not, has legs. And so it is with the legend of King Arthur, his sword Excalibur, Queen Guinevere and Knights of the Round Table.

Geoffrey of Monmouth made the tale popular in the 12th century, Sir Thomas Mallory added to it in 1485. Latter-day contributors included T.H. White, Lerner and Loewe, John Steinbeck and Monty Python. There’s even a King Arthur starring Kermit the Frog.

Not bad for a 1500-year-old legend.

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King Arthur, as envisioned by illustrator Howard Pyle, 1903.

Arthur may have been a British leader in the late fifth and early sixth century. His legend got a literary boost around 1138 with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of British Kings). Merlin the magician disguises Uther Pendragon as Igraine’s husband, and the two conceive Arthur in Cornwall’s Tintagel Castle.

A pretty lively start.

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Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, about 235 miles west of London.

In 1485, Sir Thomas Malory enhanced the Arthurian tale with Le Morte Darthur. Though the title was in Middle French, the work’s eight books, arranged in 21 chapters, were in late Middle English, the vernacular of Chaucer and hence not unreadable by English speakers today.

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Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World’s Classics), by Sir Thomas Malory, Oxford University Press, 2008. This cover image by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-1894.

The University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse offers the entire work. Here’s a one-line sample from Le Morte Darthur, Book Three, The weddynge of kynge Arthur, Capitulum quantum:

“THene was the hyghe feeste made redy/and the kynge was wedded att Camelott vnto Dame Gweneuer in the chirche of saynt steuyns with grete solempnyte.”

Perhaps Arthur and Guinevere are buried at Glastonbury Abbey, in Somerset, about 140 miles west of London. However, this particular legend has also been associated with fund raising for the Abbey’s rebuilding around 1200.

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“In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen were said to have been found on the south side of the Lady Chapel.” Glastonbury Abbey. Image by Tom Ordelman.

Malory’s telling has numerous 20th-century offspring: T.H. White’s book The Once and Future King (1958), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical Camelot (1960), Disney’s animated film Sword in the Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition (DVD + Digital Copy) (1963), the zany Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Special Edition) (1975) and the learned John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (1976).

Commented Steinbeck about his modern translation, “Malory wrote the stories for and to his time…. But that has changed—the words and references are no longer common property, for a new language has come into being.”

A new language, new portrayers—and a new attitude—have continued the Arthurian legend in Muppet King Arthur.

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Muppet King Arthur, by Paul Benjamin and James Silvani, BOOM Kids!, 2010.

Puppeteer Jim Henson created the Muppets and their singular comedic style in 1955. Kermit the Frog and other Henson characters survived his death in 1990 and have thrived as part of the Walt Disney Company since 2004.

In The Muppet King Arthur, Kermit plays Arthur surrounded by the Muppets’ wacky bunch. Early on, for example, he successfully extracts Excalibur from its stone, with self-referential humor offered by nearby serfs.

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Image from Muppet King Arthur.

The Muppets act out the Arthurian legend with a modicum of accuracy, but all the elements are there: Merlin the magician, the sorceress Morgana le Fey (Miss Piggy in fright wig), and Arthur’s evil kin Mordred, whom he battles in the Great Camelot Pun-Off.

“How do noblemen fight?” “They duke it out!” “What did the nobleman say when he delivered a peasant for the dragon to eat?” “Serf’s up!”

All in good Arthurian entertainment. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

One comment on “KING ARTHUR, THROUGH THE AGES

  1. carmacarcounselor
    March 28, 2015

    My favorite Arthurian approach is that of Mary Stewart (no relation). It is told from the point of view of Merlin from his childhood in Wales. The descriptions of his “gift” and the reality behind some of his more famous exploits are brilliantly conceived, and set in real locations and among real and familiar historical characters (Old King Coel, etc.).

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