Monday, July 14, 2014

The Timelessness of Arthurian Tales

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a new series I had started watching called MERLIN.

As I said then, I was shocked by what I perceived as the ridiculous aspects of the show and how much they had changed the Arthurian cycle. However, after the first few episodes of the show I began to see its qualities and the wonderful ways in which it revived the Arthurian legend for a new generation.

This past weekend, I finished watching the fifth and final season of this BBC Series.

I’m actually a little sad that the series is done. I’m also surprised at how attached I became to many of the characters, especially the characters of Merlin and Arthur whose bantering, odd, loyal relationship is the central theme and strength of the series.

We all know that Arthur dies in the end. Of course he does. But I found myself hoping that maybe, just maybe, Arthur would survive. I wanted him to! The series had changed so many other aspects of the legend, why not change that? End things on a positive, uplifting note, right?

No. The death of Arthur in story is something that is inevitable, even for a modern interpretation. It’s the death of Arthur that shows the essential elements of tragedy, sacrifice, and hope for the future that are so crucial to Arthurian tales.

In MERLIN, the actors Colin Morgan and Bradley James manage to pull off an emotional, gut-wrenching final episode that is, to me, a worthy addition to the Arthurian canon.

After watching that final episode, I found myself dealing with a familiar feeling of sadness and longing in the pit of my stomach. It’s something I always feel when I finish watching or reading the story of Arthur and his knights.

This experience reminded me why I love Arthurian stories so much, and why I will never tire of them.

I grew up with the stories of Arthur. In fact, they are a big part of the person I have become, the ideals I hold to be true and important. They speak to me on many levels. They are timeless.

Historically, those few decades straddling the 5th and 6th centuries A.D gave rise, in my opinion, to some of the most important and moving literature and literary traditions since Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Whether ‘Camelot’ was a late medieval castle, or a re-fortified Iron Age hill fort at South Cadbury doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant if the sword Excalibur rose out of the water in the hand of an ancient priestess or water nymph, or if it was cast as a solid piece of iron in a stone mould by a highly skilled smith.

What matters in the Arthurian cycle are the people, and the journeys that they take.

When I think about Arthurian legend, I think about a young boy facing his destiny, I think of lovers facing insurmountable odds, I think about brave and gifted people working to better the land they love.

When I think of these stories I think about ideals of chivalry that, real or imagined, are a bright light in a world that seems to be crumbling apart, pinioned as it is between the classical and early medieval worlds.

When I travelled to Glastonbury, Cadbury Castle, Birdoswald, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, Tintagel, or Caerleon, I wasn’t focussed so much on the archaeology and whether it supported the legends of those places.

What pulled me into those places, what grabbed my imagination and would not let go, were the stories and people associated with those places. Therein lies the true magic.

I’ll never forget the names of Balin and Balan, Eric and Enide, Sir Gawain and Sir Perceval, Tristan and Isolde, The Lady of Shalott, Lancelot, Guinevere, Uther, and Arthur, and so many more.

If my heart were a book shelf, there would be a scroll with a special space dedicated to every chapter of the Arthurian cycle.

I feel like I’ve watched the barge carrying Arthur’s body sail to Avalon countless times, and yet the cycle is always reborn inside of me, my mind, and my imagination.

Someday, when I’m ready, I’ll write my own version of the cycle in as historically accurate a way as possible. This has always been my goal.

But, even more so, I will write my own offering to the traditions in a way that the most inspiring aspects of the tales come to the fore.

It feels like an impossible task, but then, no quest is intended to be easy.

Thank you for reading.

Which are your favourite Arthurian tales? Share yours in the Comments box below!

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