At long last, we return to the series on Brian Sibley’s adaptation of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King for BBC Radio 4. Deadlines, Christmas, and deadlines compressed by Christmas conspired against me to write this on a timelier basis, and by this point I suspect that most listener’s attentions have turned to BBC Radio 4’s just-finished adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens or the forthcoming adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace starring John Hurt, but this is still worth writing.
The office closed early on Christmas Eve, and I took advantage of the early closing to drive down to North Carolina for the holiday. I made a stop in Pikesville, though — I dropped by the Barnes & Noble there as I’d not been to a Barnes & Noble since September, not since the day I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival with some friends from northern Virginia.
I had no intention of buying anything. I wandered aimlessly for fifteen minutes, which was all the time I’d allotted for the stop, and then I made one last pass of the bargain book racks at the front. There, among the Barnes & Noble classics and omnibuses of public domain literature (like Edgar Allan Poe’s work or the early work of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the first three Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs), was an omnibus of Howard Pyle’s King Arthur novels. I had not read these, so I found the copy in the best condition and waited in line. This stop was five minutes longer than I had intended, but it was worth it.
Pyle was a writer and illustrator of children’s books who worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was probably best known for his adaptations of old stories, like Robin Hood, and in the first decade of the twentieth century he tackled the Arthurian legend, retelling Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur over four books. The omnibus Barnes & Noble had on sale, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, collects the first two of Pyle’s Arthurian books, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights and The Story of the Champions of the Round Table. (I do not know if Fall River Press intends to publish a matching volume for the final two books.) It features gorgeous typesetting and Pyle’s illustrations. Yes, I notice things like typesetting. It’s a lovely book.
Pyle’s prose is not as lovely.
The second time I listened to “The Candle in the Wind,” the sixth episode of The Once and Future King, a half-remembered quote from somewhere in my Arthurian library nagged at the back of my mind.
The quote seemed like something John Matthews had written, so I went first to Matthews’ The Book of Arthur, a collection of stories and tales that he calls in his introduction “a kind of alternate” to Malory. Sadly, I found nothing that looked like the half-remembered quote there, so I turned to my edition of Malory and its introduction by Matthews. Again, no such half-remembered quote.
Perhaps I had imagined this quote on historical accuracy in Arthur. I looked at my Arthurian bookshelf. I ruled out Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain and John Morris’ The Age of Arthur off the bat. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t be one of the Norma Lorre Goodrich books; Goodrich is to Arthur what Von Dannikan is to astronomy and history, a crank whose pseudohistory sounds so reasonable that the reasonableness masks the crankiness.
Then I took Courtway Jones’ In the Shadow of the Oak King off the shelf. Jones wrote an Arthurian trilogy twenty years ago that attempted to meld Malory’s story to a generally historically accurate portrait of fifth century Britain.
And there, in his introduction where he explained how he was going to approach the Arthurian story in his series, I found the half-remembered quote, almost precisely how I half-remembered it:
Malory wrote in the fifteenth century about the fifth century, in thirteenth-century terms.
There were cannons on the Salisbury Plain. Mordred was fighting for a kingdom with gunpowder.
Arthur’s greatest knight is…
Wait. That’s a trick question. The answer changes, depending on when and where you are.
If you’re in the British Isles, prior to the twelfth century, Arthur’s greatest knight is Gawaine, his nephew and the son of King Lot of Orkney. No other knight in Arthur’s court is worthy to carry Gawaine’s armor. And no other knight has Gawaine’s solar powers; as the sun rises in the morning sky his strength increases, and as the sun sets his strength wanes.
If you’re on the Continent, Gawaine is an also-ran. Oh, he does great deeds in some tales, but he’s a secondary character and new heroes have adventures that are out of Gawaine’s league. One of those newcomers is Percival, and then in the twelfth century there’s someone else — Lancelot.
Stories about Gawaine are still told (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the prime example) in Britain, but it’s Lancelot that really captures the imagination elsewhere, and before long his popularity crosses the Channel. Lancelot becomes the unarguable best knight in Camelot, while Gawaine is cast aside and treated with contempt if he’s treated at all.
The relationship between Gawaine and Lancelot is complicated. In the stories, there is jealousy, but also mutual and earned respect. There is friendship, but also genuine anger and sorrow. Gawaine, of course, came out of a Celtic (and pagan) heroic tradition, while Lancelot was from the Romantic (and courtly and Christian) tradition. Even the characters’ homes in the legend point to their mythological origins — Gawaine comes from Orkney, a Celtic land, while Lancelot comes from Benwick, a kingdom somewhere in France. (No exact location for Benwick has ever been identified, but it’s clearly on the continent, as Lancelot’s father, King Ban, fights several wars with his neighbor, King Claudus of France.) On an esoteric level, you can read the characters and their relationship as representing the clash between Britain’s distant Celtic past and Britain’s not-as-distant French-Norman past.
Last year, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, BBC Radio 4 broadcast Robin Brooks’ radio play, Lewis & Tolkien: The Lost Road, a dramatization of the friendship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as narrated by an Elf Queen in the Undying Lands. (You can work out who that’s supposed to be, and the actress portrays her the way a fan of a certain series of films would expect to be portrayed; at various points in this play, Tolkien and Lewis actually visit the other’s imaginary worlds.)
There’s a passage, about fifteen minutes in, that touches upon Arthur. Tollers (Tolkien’s nickname) has been explaining to Jack (Lewis’ nickname) his discovery of the name “Earendil” in the work of a ninth century poet, Kenilworth, and how he felt instantly that it was a name that reached back into ancient myth, a feeling that prompted him to write.
I wanted to write a myth for England. England has no ancient tales, not like the Edda, not like Iceland, not like the Mabinogion.
(Exasperated sigh/groan) Arthur is French. We lost our myths when the Normans came. I wanted to find them again, but it meant inventing a whole world. The world before.
Lewis & Tolkien is fiction, but there’s an obvious problem with Tolkien’s argument to Lewis — Britain’s ancient tales were lost before the Norman Conquest, because the Normans weren’t Britain’s first invaders. There were the Norse in the ninth and tenth centuries, the Angles and Saxons in the sixth, the Romans in the first. The native culture with the authentic myths were pushed to the margins. The invaders brought their own myths and mystery cults to the island. The great heroic epic Beowulf has absolutely nothing to do with England; Beowulf belongs to the culture and heroic tradition of Thidrik and Sigurd, not that of Gawaine and Arthur.
In reality, Tolkien was not as dismissive of Arthur. Sometime in the 1930s, he began writing for his amusement an alliterative poem, “The Fall of Arthur,” based on the end of the Arthurian myth. Like many things Tolkien began writing, this epic poem went unfinished, and it was published a few years ago with editorial matter from his son Christopher.
If you like alliterative poetry in a medieval metre, The Fall of Arthur is utterly fascinating. It is also, like The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Tolkien’s finished poems based on the same Norse myths that Richard Wagner used for Der Ring Des Nibelungen, a completely uncommercial book. This is a book for scholars and curiosity seekers; the lay public who knows Tolkien for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would have been left scratching their heads at The Fall of Arthur or Sigurd and Gudrun.
I, of course, loved them both. I have yet to read Tolkien’s Beowulf, however.
Christopher Tolkien plays the part of an Arthurian scholar in his editorial matter in The Fall of Arthur. His first essay, “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition,” talks at length about the sources his father drew upon in writing “The Fall of Arthur” — Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, an anonymous Middle English poem known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, another anonymous Middle English poem known as the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and finally Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
What intrigues me about Christopher Tolkien’s essay is how he pieces together how the ending of the Arthurian story as we generally think of it came about. He walks us through how a story about Arthur’s campaign against a Roman emperor in Geoffrey of Monmouth is split apart in later works to create a long, peaceful reign (an Arthurian renaissance of sorts) bookended by two Continental campaigns, one early in Arthur’s reign against the Romans, the other near its end against his own friends.
The ending of the Arthurian legend, at least as told in Malory, has never sat well with me. I accept it, because that’s the way it goes, but I don’t really like it.
I know I’m approaching Arthur from the perspective of a writer in the 21st-century, with modern ideas of narrative structure and development, and Arthur’s story doesn’t fit into the modern narrative boxes. While it has been argued — and I’ve made the argument myself on occasion — that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the first English novel, Morte might be better described as a proto-novel. At three hundred thousand words it’s certainly long enough to be a novel, it’s structured the way we would structure a novel today, it has a wealth of characters and incident as a novel should…
The story develops awkwardly and things just happen. The story of Arthur’s reign was never meant to be a unified whole. Multiple stories from different sources about the same character were drawn together into a single tale. New stories, like the Holy Grail, were created. Characters from other unconnected story cycles, like Tristran and Yseult, were absorbed into the growing Arthurian myth. Arthur’s story grew by accretion; Geoffrey set the basic outline of the tale, subsequent writers and poets expanded on elements that interested them, and, to borrow Tolkien’s phrase about the writing of The Lord of the Rings, “the tale grew in the telling.”
The ending of Arthur’s story doesn’t feel like a culmination. There’s no tragic victory over overwhelming odds, no heroic sacrifice so that the dream can live on. Centuries of fiction have conditioned us to expect climaxes and conclusions and themes to our stories. Life, however, is messier and plays by different rules.
There’s no meaning to what happens in Arthur’s final days — friends, comrades, brothers, they all turn to enemies; inexplicably bad decisions are made; the Round Table turns on itself and consumes itself in fighting until there’s not enough people left to fight; and those who survive are so shell-shocked that they give up on everything they believed in. It doesn’t help matters that most everyone is portrayed at the end of Malory as bewilderingly stupid and even homicidally violent, and that goes for Arthur and Lancelot especially. (It’s worse in the final book of the great French romance, the Lancelot-Grail, Le Mort de Roi Artu, where Arthur is so passive and so stupid that you genuinely wonder how this person ever had the brains to rule a kingdom. James Cable calls Arthur, aged ninety-two at this point of his reign, “pathetic.”) You’re almost forced to ask, “What was the point? All the quests, all the wars, winning the kingdom, bringing peace to the land, finding the grail, all of it. If it doesn’t mean anything and didn’t matter in the end, what was the point?”
Yet, the story lives on. Clearly, it means something to people. It means something to me. There are new Arthurian novels being published every year. There were two Arthurian television series in the last decade (Merlin and Camelot) and at least two Arthurian films (King Arthur and Tristan + Isolde, though the later removes the Arthurian milieu from the adaptation). The tale resonates, not in spite of its problems, but because of its problems. Malory and those who came before built a structure, but it’s one full of cracks and incomplete edifices. Solving narrative problems, crafting consistent and interesting characterization, even imbuing meaning, these are all things writers and artists in the last two or three centuries have done with the material. They have made the story relevant and meaningful to their audience just as the minstrels and bards did seven hundred years ago when they recited or sang Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Alliterature Morte Arthure to their audiences in the great halls or the town commons.
Alfred North Whitehead famous said that “philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato.” To some extent, T.H. White is a series of footnotes to Malory. Malory didn’t imagine Arthur’s childhood, so White does. Creating a characterization for Morgawse and Lot didn’t interest Malory, so White invests the backstories and histories hinted at in Malory with detail and incident to invent genuine characters. Malory’s Arthur stumbles haphazardly into his final act, never quite recognizing the fact; White gives us a fully human Arthur, fatalistic and worn down, scared of what the future holds. The Once and Future King may be footnotes to Malory — indeed, White at times tells us to go to Malory to read the full story — but these footnotes retell the critical moments of Malory’s tale in the form of a modern novel.
I have written at length of many things Arthurian that have little obvious connection to “The Candle in the Wind,” the sixth and final episode of Brian Sibley’s adaptation of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King for BBC Radio 4. The truth is, I was utterly wrecked by “The Candle in the Wind” the first time I listened to it.
I've listened to the final episode of BBC Radio 4's "The Once and Future King." I'm not prepared to discuss it yet.
— Allyn Gibson (@allyngibson) December 19, 2014
The emotional wreckage began less than two minutes in with this exchange between Paul Ready’s Arthur and David Warner’s Merlyn:
Do you know why I came?
At first, I hoped you’d come to help me to victory. But I see now you’ve come to help me to die. Haven’t you?
Are you afraid to die?
Yes. I am. Because I’ve never had a chance to live. I sacrificed everything to duty and I allowed others their happiness at the cost of my own.
Guenever and Lancelot.
My Gwen. My Lance.
I had thought, in an early episode, that Sibley’s adaptation was building to this moment. On the night before Arthur’s final battle with his bastard son Mordred, Merlyn has come to Arthur’s camp to “complete his lessons,” paraphrased from memory. In the first two episodes, we heard Merlyn teach the young Arthur how to be strong enough of mind and body to be fit for kingship, and in the third episode Merlyn worked to teach Arthur how to use power for more than power’s sake. What further lesson remained for Merlyn to impart, except to teach the aged Arthur how to face his mortality?
The next wreckage came forty minutes in. Circumstances have forced Arthur into a war in France against his best friend, Lancelot, and Gawaine has suffered grievous injuries in the battle with Lancelot. Gawaine is certain he is soon to die, and he and Arthur have a touching conversation about England in the spring. Five minutes later, Lancelot receives a letter from Gawaine, written from his death bed, and when he read it aloud I was lost.
Finally, the final conversation between Arthur and Merlyn about what it all means and, after that, the conclusion. In the span of five minutes, we hear Arthur move from despair to hope and from life to myth. The light of the candle that is Arthur’s dream may flicker and dim, but Arthur sees at last that it will never truly go out.
I knew how the story would end, but knowing it and experiencing it are different things.
The experience wrecked me.
The secret to reading Middle English is to read it aloud.
A few years ago, when I wanted to write a Merlin novel, I looked to the Prose Merlin, much of which covers the reign of Uther Pendragon, for some ideas. Malory skips over Uther’s reign, but there are some stories, including the Lancelot-Grail, that covers some of what happens then. But the Prose Merlin, at least that I could find online, was written in Middle English. The longer I looked at it, the less I understood, and then I hit on an idea.
Read it aloud.
The words in Middle English look vaguely like modern English, but with different vowels and inconsistent spelling. Sounding out the words and speaking them aloud, however, the brain understood more, and once I trained my eyes to “read” Middle English words, I didn’t have to sound it out any longer.
When I was visiting family for Christmas, I watched Frozen for the first time. Okay, technically, the first time in full; I’d seen part of it (though nothing that actually spoiled anything) at Shore Leave over the summer when two friends were letting their daughter watch it before we all went out to dinner. As I watched Frozen, I did something that I invariably do when I watch television or film — I tried to work out the story and its structure. I was trying to out-think the plot. Frozen, frankly, is not a movie where you should do this; the film is never quite sure who its protagonist is, who its antagonist is, or what the plot and character arcs are. I thought I had the film figured out by the point of “Let It Go,” which reads like the villain’s big musical number, but what followed was so narratively schizophrenic that I was genuinely boggled, and the ending failed to clarify matters and only raised new questions.
As I’ve listened to Sibley’s The Once and Future King, I’ve been doing the same thing. I’ve been trying to take what the episodes individually have given me, match them up to what I remember of Malory and White, look at the structure, and deduce from that where the story is going.
I can say, with honesty, that I didn’t have the whole picture, and as a result I drew some hasty conclusions. Episodes that I thought were problematic or difficult really aren’t; Sibley was telling a different tale that I thought he was, one that didn’t quite match to my expectations. It’s when viewed as a whole and the structure revealed that it all makes sense.
The Once and Future King — the clue is in the title, and I didn’t have the wit to see it — isn’t the story of King Arthur’s reign. It’s the story of Arthur the man, how he develops from an son of an adoptive father who tolerates him to a young king with dreams and vision about bettering human nature to an old king confronted with the failings and realities of when human nature doesn’t match up to his dreams who comes to recognize that, even if the dream doesn’t work today, it’s still a good dream and it’s always worth fighting for.
When viewed in that light, suddenly some of the things that bothered me made perfect sense. The focus of Sibley’s script was on Arthur and those who were most important to him — Merlyn, of course; Guenever, naturally; and Lancelot. That’s not to say that there weren’t other relationships in the adaptation — I was glad to see Arthur interact with Gawaine and especially Mordred in the final episode, though I would have liked more in both cases, and Elaine’s relationship with Lancelot was important for driving some of the interpersonal conflict in the middle episodes — but the focus is really on the central relationships that build the dream of Camelot and, ultimately, bring about its ending.
Yet, there was one relationship that I wanted to see more of, because without it I felt that one emotional beat in the finale wasn’t entirely earned — that of Gawaine and Lancelot. I felt the emotion when Lancelot read Gawaine’s deathbed plea, because I had the experience of other telling of the Arthurian story to draw upon, but to listen to The Once and Future King Gawaine and Lancelot feel very much like strangers. In “The Ill-Made Knight” Lancelot has nothing but contempt for Gawaine, and then when Lancelot saves Gawaine during his year of quests Arthur tells Lance that Gawaine is prideful and will resent him for it. Then we hear Gawaine as part of the embassy to Joyous Garde to convince Lancelot to return to Camelot. Beyond that, they have little interaction, so the depth of their relationship and the pain of betrayal may not carry quite the import that it should.
Was Merlyn really there, or did Arthur only imagine the presence of his old friend that night before the battle? Is there any truth to the prophecy of “the once and future king” who will return in the hour of England’s greatest need, or was that merely a story told (or imagined) to give comfort to an old man faced with his own imminent mortality?
I can make credible arguments either way. The thought has nagged at the back of my mind since the first episode, when Kay walks into Arthur’s tent and is unaware of Merlyn’s presence. Merlyn says that no one can see him, and perhaps as part of Nimue’s enchantment it was true.
Or perhaps he was never really there.
I’ve praised Paul Ready and David Warner’s work as Arthur and Merlyn respectively in recent weeks, and I don’t know that there’s anything more than I can add. I loved their conversations in the tent and the depth of relationship and feeling they conveyed, and I was consistantly impressed with Ready’s ability to convey Arthur at many different ages with many different concerns and many different moods. He moved seamlessly from the young king to the aged king, often in the span of a minute. He sounds like a broken man at Lancelot’s trial. His impassioned speech to Gawaine on the eve of Guenever’s execution is powerful, as is his final conversation with Merlyn.
In the final episode, mention needs to be made of Joel MacCormack’s Mordred and Shaun Mason’s Gawaine. MacCormack’s Mordred feels controlled, coiled, serpentine; the scene in which he accuses Guenever of adultery shows a man in full control of the situation and who easily gets under his father’s skin, and his scene with Guenever late in the episode is full of menace. Mason’s Gawaine, though relatively new to the stage, feels like a character who has been there all along; his friendship with Arthur feels as genuine as Arthur’s relationship with Guenever and Lancelot.
The Once and Future King had a strong cast, one worthy of the material.
“It is tragic.”
So says Gareth, the younger brother of Gawaine, on the fateful night in Camelot, when Arthur has gone off on a hunting party and Mordred and Aggravaine are determined to uncover the adultery of Lancelot and Guenever.
Things don’t just happen here. White and Sibley give context to a story that simply happens in Malory and his sources. The situation spirals out of control, becoming something no one wants but no one is able to escape from.
Arthur doesn’t want to sentence his wife to death, but even the king’s desires are not above the law. Lancelot doesn’t want to slaughter Guenever’s guard, but his duty to his queen forces his hand. Guenever doesn’t want to flee, but she has no other choice if she wants to live. Gawaine doesn’t want to go to war against Lancelot, but he’s trapped by the dictates of familial honor and duty. Arthur doesn’t want to leave Mordred in charge in England, but as his heir there is no other choice. Lancelot doesn’t want to battle his friends, but they give him no other choice. Arthur doesn’t want to go to war against his son, but he must depose the son who has usurped his throne.
A tragic air hangs over the final chapter of The Once and Future King as Arthur’s reign — and the listener’s sojourn in its Arthurian world — nears its end. This adaptation of the classic tale and the beloved novel has been wonderful from its beginning, and I didn’t want it to end.
This was a keeper.
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