Yesterday I gave one of my employees a copy of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
A week before she and I had talked about last summer’s King Arthur film starring Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffudd. She had seen the film recently–as had I–and her boyfriend needed to explain to her who some of the major characters were and their relationships to one another. She wasn’t overly familiar with the Arthur and the associated myths of the Knights of the Round Table. This surprised me–I thought everyone knew about King Arthur and his knights, knew about Lancelot and his love for Guinevere, knew about the quest for the Holy Grail (beyond the Monty Python film). Surely, this needed rectifying.
Monday night after work I stopped at the Barnes & Noble two blocks from my house and bought for her Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I had picked up for myself last spring a copy of a new hardcover illustrated edition Barnes & Noble published, and I’ve given several of these as gifts. It’s a very nice edition–heavy paper, a large and readable font, tipped-in glossy illustrations, introductions by Michael Moorcock and John Matthews, a comprehensive index to the people and places of Malory–the sort of book one reads from and treasures for years to come.
I’ve read Le Morte d’Arthur three times–the first, the summer of 1987, between ninth and tenth grade; the second, the fall of 1992 as research for an English project on the Holy Grail in literature; and last, in the spring when I bought the new hardcover edition. It’s a big book, a sprawling book, perhaps the first true novel in the English language, and Malory presents the definitive Arthur, so definitive that when people think of King Arthur and Camelot, they tend to think of a high medieval kingdom that comes straight from Malory, whether they know it or not.
Last summer’s King Arthur film, though, isn’t from Malory. The film had nothing to do with any version of the Arthurian mythos I’ve ever read or studied. I’ve not heard of the Sarmation cavalry before. The film has some unusual conventions. It bills itself as the true story behind the legend, and the historical background on which the story hangs is real–the Saxons invaded England in the same year that Bishop Germanus visited from Rome during the reign of Vortigern. Yet, the characters had names that derived not from the era but from French and Welsh poetry of the eleventh- and twelfth-centuries. I took the film’s use of the traditional Arthurian names as a narrative convention for the audience’s sake, nothing more. For those who knew some version of the Arthurian myth the names would be a shorthand as to who was who and their relationships with one another. Use of genuine Sarmatian names–though technically more accurate–would have proved confusing to an audience expecting to hear the names Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, etc. Yet, I would rather not have seen Galahad used in the film, for in legend he was Lancelot’s son, though in the film he was shown as being approximately the same age as Lancelot. Perhaps Perceval, in some form, would have been a better choice for the character’s name.
Taken on its own merits, though, I found little to fault in the film. King Arthur featured a strong story, well-developed characters, and a fantastic sense of time and place. Compared to the summer’s other big historical picture, Troy, King Arthur out-classed it in virtually every respect. One doesn’t go to a summer film expecting philosophical discourse. I wonder if even one percent of the film’s audience knew of Pelagius–Arthur’s spiritual mentor–or even realized that he, along with Bishop Germanus, were important figures in the fifth century Catholic Church. For me, that was the core of the film, the arguments for free will versus destiny that Arthur and Guinevere argued, and the manner in which they played out and affected the characters held the film together.
Sir Thomas Malory wrote what I consider to be the definitive King Arthur story in Le Morte d’Arthur, but his isn’t the only possible interpretation of King Arthur and his knights. The legend of King Arthur endures because it’s a story that is so broad that it can be reinvented every generation or every century to reflect the times in which the story is told and retold. T.H. White, in The Once and Future King, used King Arthur to tell a story of hope in the shadow of World War II’s darkest hours. Marion Zimmer Bradley used the Arthurian myth in The Mists of Avalon to tell a story of feminine empowerment. The first novel I wrote, when I was nineteen, was a retelling of the Grail myth with a vampire spin on the tale.
I hope that my employee knows and understands that Le Morte d’Arthur is nothing like the King Arthur film. I hope she will read Malory. I hope she will enjoy it and celebrate the differences between the two interpretations.