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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

A Once and Future King

The title of this post comes from TH White’s book about the legendary King Arthur. I have long been fascinated by the stories concerning Arthur including this relatively modern version based on the 15th century work of Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur. Long after the time when the figure on whom these works was presumed to have lived, stories of his life, death and rebirth continue to seize the imagination and for hundreds of years played a significant role in the rule of Britain.

Although there is some disagreement about the identify and authenticity of the first written mention of King Arthur, most scholars set it in the 9th century in a work by a monk of the name of Nennius entitled, Historia Brittonum—a purported history of the kings who ruled Britain up to that period. It takes some imagination to see the Arthur that emerges three centuries later in another pseudo historical account of the British kings –this one written by Geoffrey of Monmouth around 1136. Nennius’s Arthur has been transformed from a Roman trained war lord—one of many such regional and minor nobility, into the mythologized king whose reign brought peace and law to Britain and established a knighthood pledged to chivalry. It was Geoffrey who was largely responsible for all the derivative works that blossomed in ensuing centuries and gathered around it a belief in Arthur’s immortality.

Whether a historical Arthur ever lived and irrespective of any actual accomplishments, the king of legend is an enduring figure in British history and belief in his rebirth as a savior of the Picts, Celts and Scots remained common in folklore well into the 16th century inspiring works of art, music and literature that continue to be told even today as fictive works and in Arthurian inspired movies and television programs. Indeed, the durability of these stories and the derivative accounts of Camelot, Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain and other knights of the fabled Round Table remains unchallenged in the Western world by any other figure save Jesus of Nazareth.

There is little question that successive generations embellished and, in some cases, hijacked the Arthurian legend to suit the mores and customs of the day to influence secular and political thought, but this hardly accounts for the persistence of the core beliefs that Geoffrey and Sir Thomas contrived. We must look inward to understand why Arthur loomed so large a figure.

I have written recently about the cult of personality that appears to have taken root in our country and its decidedly unhealthy effect on the direction of our democracy. It seems hard to account for the lionization that is poured out, the adulation and clearly mythological endowment of figures whose actions and rule have proved so injurious to the welfare of the public and yet, though you may think I have taken leave of my senses, I believe that the legendary Arthur offers us an insight into the worship of demagogues including our current candidate.

Camelot, Arthur’s legendary court and synonym for his kingdom captures an essential archetype of human aspiration. We dream of an idyllic, peaceful, ordered and bountiful time and place—an Eden, and a leader endowed with wisdom and strength to protect us and our idyll; an Arthur for our times. Of course, one man’s idyll is another’s hell. Few if any are those interludes of peace and prosperity under the rule of any leader, but the desire, the palpable need to feel protected is a powerful –one might say Jungian force in our collective psyches.

For many, life is hard, capricious, unjust, and without hope. Whether those circumstance are self-inflicted or a product of social and economic conditions beyond their control, for those afflicted grievance is a permanent condition. A figure emerges who gives voice to those grievances, who legitimizes the grievers and promises to free them from the conditions that afflict them. Such a figure gains outsized proportions. It is no wonder that the cult which forms around him is spiced with mythic beliefs in his qualities, his prowess and his wisdom.

Arthurs are made not born. But the lessons of history tell us that real or imagined leaders, benign or otherwise, are undeserving of worship. Surrendering responsibility for our own destiny, placing our welfare in the hands of any supposed leader without the safeguards our laws, institutions and charter have established has always and ultimately led us to ruin. And yet, we believe, we believe in a once and future king.

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