The twentieth century and its aftermath have provoked new needs and wants in society. Worldwide wars and clashes of political, social and religious philosophies and the ethics of leadership have greatly impacted on people living today. In this environment, a belief in the capacity of mankind to govern itself with dignity at all levels - from the individual up to nations and beyond - is a powerful motive to reach out to the honourable Arthur and his court, but with the added requirement for hard evidence to back it up.
Two trends appear in contemporary times. One is the development of fantastic and magical themes based firmly or loosely on the Arthurian legend. Here we find T. H. White's 'Once and Future King' published in 1958, the Arthurian literary work of the twentieth century. Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon' series (1983-91) explores the conflict between Christianity and neo-paganism. Here also we find the thematic basis of epic quest fantasies such as Tolkein's 'Lord of the Rings' (1954-5), Moorcock's concept of the 'Eternal Champion' such as 'Elric' (1961-5), Eddings' guided prophesy in the 'Belgariad/Malloreon' cycle (1982-91) and Stan Lee's noble leadership in the 'X-men' comics (1963+). The other trend is the development of credible historical enquiries into the Dark Ages including the identity of King Arthur. Investigations at Cadbury hillfort and Tintagel sparked both credibility and a demand for rationality in Dark Age archaeology (Beihl 1991); critical analyses of medieval documents have been prepared, such as described in 'Historical Arthur'. At once these paired developments reflect the twentieth century desire for 'scientific truth' conjoined with a requirement for a 'mystical dimension' to provide meaning to the mundane.
The Arthurian literature has burgeoned. As a simple illustration, a list of approximately 150 novels based on Arthurian characters and themes is provided by the University of Great Falls for its Arthurian Legends subject (Bobbitt 2005). The advent of the internet has given rise to a profusion of websites, discussion groups and on-line journals devoted to Arthurian material - the annotated weblinks provided on this site provide an insight to this phenomenon.
A useful milepost for the opening of modern Arthurian literature is the publication of 'The Idylls of the King' by Lord Alfred Tennyson, appointed poet laureate in 1850. His heroic poems were a reworking of Malory, in which each of the characters or events were written as Idylls that helped the nineteenth century reader grasp the epic's great moral themes (Alfred Tennyson by Andrew Lang 1844-1912). In the twentieth century, following the advent of the Cold War, T.H. White produced 'The Once and Future King' (1958). Written at a time when the leadership of nations and the motives for war had been sorely tested over a sustained period, White "uses the Arthurian legend to illustrate a historical pride of England (and) uses this view to expose faults in contemporary society (and) sees that the Arthurian legend is not so much the glorification of one man, but the basis and backbone of an entire country" (Latil 1997). This work serves as the twentieth century's contribution to Arthurian legend, a timely reflection of the timeless theme of leadership and national identity.
Films and television productions relating the Arthurian legend were greatly affected by White, and the visual media have yielded The Sword in the Stone (1963), Camelot (1967), Merlin (1976), Excalibur (1981), The Fisher King (1991), First Knight (1995), The Mists of Avalon (2001) and King Arthur (2004). At the time King Arthur (2004) was in post-production, a review of that movie (Houston n.d) examined the impetus behind the prolific Arthurian story-telling, the "wonderful mixing of magic, God, and kingly power".
White's Arthurian cycle comprises five books (Nevitt 1996), the first four bound as 'The Once and Future King'. 'The Sword in the Stone'is about Arthur's childhood, his tutelage by Merlyn, the coming of his kingship and rivalry with Lot; 'The Queen of Air and Darkness', concerns the rival house of King Lot, his wife Morgause, and sons who love their mother despite her evil; 'The Ill-Made Knight' concerns Lancelot and his love dilemma involving Guenever, Arthur's young wife; 'The Candle in the Wind' follows Arthur's bastard son, Mordred, who comes to Camelot with the purpose of bring about Arthur's downfall, manipulating the unresolved love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenever. The plotting brings about a war that no one wants except Mordred, and the book ends on the battle's eve. 'The Once and Future King' finishes here. Then as now, the reader is confronted with the inevitability of war as the consequence of a lack of vigilance, thoughtless selfish actions and the manipulation of circumstances by ill-doers. The last book, 'The Book of Merlyn', is a separate volume in which Arthur is revisited by Merlyn together with a host of magical animals from his now distant childhood; it is book about hindsight.
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Copyright © John Bonsing & S Rhys Jones 2006. All Rights Reserved
Alfred Tennyson by Andrew Lang 1844-1912 'Chapter VII --Idylls of the King' Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/alang/bl-alang-aten-7.htm
Beihl, M 1991, 'A Short History of Arthurian Archaeology by Michelle L. Biehl Written for Archaeology of Europe, University of Minnesota' Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www.jammed.com/~mlb/arthur.html
Bobbitt, C 2005, 'Arthurian Legends (Eng 226 University of Great Falls)' Bibliography of novels with Arthurian characters and themes Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www.softworx.com/cbobbitt/226novel.htm
Houston, J, 'Bruckheimer does Arthur one more time', The once and future film Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://scifi.about.com/cs/scifimoviesaz/a/aa071703.htm
Latil, N 1997, 'The Once and Future King', T. H. White's twist on a timeless tale Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www2.netdoor.com/~moulder/thwhite/toafk_a.html
Nevitt, T 1996, The Once and Future King, A brief synopsis Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www2.netdoor.com/~moulder/thwhite/toafk_a.html
(All references used on this site can be found on the references link below. If you require a print copy of this article, select your browser's file->print option, and the references for this article will appear on the printed document. Alternatively, all documents on this site are available in pdf format as a single document on the
Caer Australis Archives)