King Arthur: A 21st-Century Hero
The legend of King Arthur exists in a group of written sources and images that is constantly changing. Unlike the great texts of the Abrahamic religions (the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran), there is in fact no authority to decide on the canonical works of this legend. On the contrary, each era, from the Middle Ages onwards, and more broadly each region and social group, has created its own Arthurian myth according to its needs, by drawing from known stories, adding or subtracting characters, and by modifying narrative elements.
This constant reinvention encourages us not to separate the medieval legend of Camelot from contemporary legends; the former is re not more ‘authentic’ than the latter.
This is all the more true as most historians today believe that Arthur did not exist: he is a construction, even the first time he is mentioned (in The History of the Britons by Nennius, written in the ninth century). What’s more, the construction of this figure is never-ending; Arthur is always being reinterpreted, and it is best not to make hierarchies among the many versions. When studying the changes in Arthuriana, twelfth-century author Geoffroy de Monmouth has as much right to speak of Arthur as filmmaker Georges Romero in Knightriders (1981), in which the knights ride motorcycles. Or we have the comic-book Camelot 3000 (1982-1985), by Mike Barr and Brian Bolland, which transposes the legend into the realm of science fiction at the beginning of the 4th millennium. All these works reveal elements about the context of their creation and are worth studying.
The Arthurian Legend Goes Global
However, there are notable differences between medieval Arthurian works and those from the 20th century. For example, today the legend of Camelot has become a mass phenomenon. Yet in feudal times, stories about the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table developed a noble ethic, and Arthurian works circulated almost exclusively among (and were read by) the lay aristocracy. Moreover, unlike stories about Alexander the Great, which since Antiquity had spread widely throughout Eurasia from Europe to what is today Indonesia via Russia or Ethiopia, the myth of Camelot remained confined within the Latin West for a very long time.
It was not until the 19th century that the legend passed through England and crossed the Atlantic to the very young United States of America. Initially mocked, notably by Mark Twain in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), it was here that the Arthurian legend became an object for the popular classes by spreading through the new mass media, cinema and comics in particular.
The considerable spread of American cultural productions around the world, especially after the Second World War, enabled Arthurian narratives to appear by imitation in certain countries for the first time. In Japan, from the 1970s, directors of anime and manga, then video games, transformed the legend of Camelot in order to better speak about their society. For example, Avalon (2001) by Mamoru Oshii situates the Grail quest in a cyberpunk universe and uses the quest myth as a metaphor for virtual realities.
France: A Late Arthurian Country
The Histoire mondiale de la France [World history of France], edited by Patrick Boucheron (2017), shows that France’s past cannot be understood without understanding the influence of other cultures. This is also true of the Arthurian myth: despite texts in Old French, such as those by Chrétien de Troyes (second half of the 12th century) or the vast compilation of the Vulgate (13th century), the legend of Camelot had been largely forgotten by the fifteenth century.
Even though France rediscovered the Middle Ages in the 19th century, this first surge of medievalism (a fascination for the feudal era), a reaction to the French Revolution, did not incite historians or great writers to take an interest in the adventures of King Arthur. On the contrary, it was La Chanson de Roland [Song of Roland], composed at the end of the 11th century but supposed to have taken place at the time of Emperor Charlemagne, which would become the great national medieval text. This occurred in particular after France’s defeat in 1871, where Roland served as a model of heroism and self-sacrifice in defending the country against invaders.
Of course, Arthurian works existed in France at the beginning of the 20th century, but they remained largely confidential. It was not until the post-war period, and the arrival of American culture, that the myth would be subject to modern interpretations. The first, Yves le Loup, was both an imitation of and a response to the popular American comic book Prince Valiant, created by Harold Foster in 1937. Published in 1947 in the pages of Vaillant, a newspaper for young people close to communist circles, Yves le Loup transformed narrative elements of the American Arthurian myth (the knight close to the people, like Prince Valiant) while borrowing themes from national French novels. The hero, a young woodcutter who came from the forest to save the kingdom from invaders in spite of an apathetic King Arthur, borrows both from the story of Joan of Arc, as told by the Republicans, and from Grand Ferré, the peasant hero of the Hundred Years’ War celebrated in school textbooks.
Even artists from Brittany were strongly influenced by American productions, such as the telling example of Alan Stivell, the great Celtic folk songwriter, who wrote an Arthurian piece (Brocéliande) for his first professional album, Reflets (1970). But afterwards, it took more than twenty years and the success of English-language films such as Holy Grail! (1975) and Excalibur (1981) for him to devote an entire album to the legend with Camelot: The Mist of Avalon. The title follows a novel written by American author Marion Zimmer-Bradley, published in the early 1980s.
The French case shows that the Arthurian myth is probably more present in today’s culture and society than it was in the Middle Ages: three Hollywood feature films and a television series have been announced for 2017 alone.
This success can be explained by the fact that recent generations of authors have moved the legend out of its medieval context into contemporary or futuristic settings, giving them a pretext to adapt the myth to current situations and problems. This process was already used by John Steinbeck in his novel, Tortilla Flats (1935), which transposes the Round Table into poor Latin American neighbourhoods in California.
By reincarnating the Arthurian knights in the 4th millennium, the authors of Camelot 3000 play with codes to make a political statement. With their African Gawain, a Japanese Galahad and a Tristan reappearing in a woman’s body and maintaining a homosexual relationship with Iseult, they assert that anyone, regardless of their origins, can sit at the Round Table. Finally, influenced by feminist discourses, a female Arthurian warrior has been seen recently in the movie King Arthur (2004), or in the more recent Kingsman: Secret Service (2015), which blends Arthurian myth and James Bond-style spy films.
This was a major change, especially since in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Camelot legend promoted a model of manly achievements and still does so today. In the film Thor (2011), inspired by the 1962 comic book, the Mjolnir Hammer, is embedded in a rock like the sword brandished by King Arthur, in the middle of the contemporary American desert, until a worthy man appears to draw it out. Only the son of a Viking god, with an overpowering physique, succeeds. This story projects a fantasized medieval masculinity in which men are superior in gender relations. This serves as a kind of symbolic revenge against a social reality in which the dominant position of men is increasingly challenged; and thus is a discourse with elements of self-parody…In the film Avengers 2 (2015), Thor challenges several male superheroes to try to lift a hammer which, as suggested by the angle of the shot, recalls their phallus. The only woman in the group, the Black Widow, refuses to take part in this male-ego competition.
The Arthurian legend has thus become a contemporary myth. Its large gallery of characters is now used to convey a wide variety of discourses: feminist, masculinist, environmental, neo-liberal, or progressive. This fascination must also be seen as part of a renewed interest in the Middle Ages since the 1970s (the second wave of medievalism), which relates to the vast crisis of confidence in a Western world dedicated to progress and modernity. In this context, it’s a safe bet that the myth of Camelot will continue to fascinate us in the coming decades.
Crédits image à la Une : tous droits réservés Guy Ritchie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, 2017