I have yet to write the conclusion, but otherwise... would love to get some input on how to improve/a general critique. Thanks!!Religion in Arthurian Legend
Throughout the history of the Arthurian myth, King Arthur has always been a figure of great veneration. He was first loved by the British as one of their own, a national hero. However, the rest of the world (and specifically the United States) have been taking note of Arthur's tale and adapting it for their own uses. Pearsall observes, "When a story is removed from its nation or people and transplanted into a different culture, it tends to lose its heroic national temper and be made the vehicle for more generally fashionable social concerns" (Pearsall 20). We will explore the variations in Arthurian legend beginning with Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, followed by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and finally two contemporary sources - Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Jerry Bruckheimer's 2004 film King Arthur. In our exploration we will focus on a single "fashionable social concern" - Religion. Religious thought has been prevalent throughout the Arthurian myth, but differs from tale to tale based on the author's beliefs and experiences, societal mores and standards (or the rejection thereof), and the desire to reconcile both of these with Arthurian myth and the present-day plight.
Malory's Le Morte D'arthur
Thomas Malory wrote his 15th century masterpiece at least partially while in jail. He was never tried for the crimes of which he was accused and so it is uncertain if he even did any wrong. Regardless, Malory appeals to the reader in his post-scripts for their prayers and thoughts. Having no doubt heralded the displeasure of the English monarchy, Malory's writing strives toward religious education. Vinaver writes, "Ever since Malory's time poets and critics have regarded the Morte Darthur as a means of moral and spiritual perfection" (Vinaver 68). Fritscher writes that just as many other educative heroes such as Sophocles' Oedipus, Malory's protagonists "learn their lessons while the reader is himself instructed by and through his delight in their learning" (Fritscher 1).
Malory does not see the key held in a cloistered hand dedicated to sacrifice and love. Instead, he advocates the behavior of a gentleman who seeks good and flees from evil, but "social discipline...[and]...gentle manners" are the chief spiritual attainments (Fritscher 2). However, Malory's tale is not simply one of chivalry like many of the ensuing "courtesy books." He acts as a social critic, speaking of "love nowadays" in England. But still, Malory transcends this role by providing his effectual guide to morality while remaining humble towards the mysteries of religion.
Let us take, for example, Malory's humble inability to grasp the words to convey Galahad's Grail experience. When he finally comes to behold the Sankgreall, when he comes to "see that thou hast much desired to see," Malory can only relate his experience indirectly by describing Galahad's reaction:
And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh began to behold the spiritual things. Then he held up his hands toward heaven and said,
"Lord I thank Thee, for now I see that that hath been my desire many a day. Now, my Blessed Lord, I would not live in this wretched world no longer, if it might please Thee, Lord" (Malory 109).
Armstrong would seem to agree that Malory knew right well a verily pious Christian Grail experience would be "linguistically incomprehensible, perhaps even invisible to worldly eyes that have been focused on the kind of questing, tourneying, and rescuing of damsels that builds honor and reputation for the majority of Malory's text" (Armstrong 32).
Malory is an allegorical writer. He uses metaphor as opposed to theological discourse to convey his religious preference. His allegory is branded for the socio-psychology of the Middle Ages. Just as George Orwell's Animal Farm is not merely the story of a farm full of talking animals, Le Morte D'arthur is not merely "a romance of knightly adventure." Malory writes under the guise of courtly tales, "but makes them metaphorically transcendent so that ultimately the individuals can learn their own lessons of moral independence, leaving the failing court institution behind" (Fritscher 5). Fritscher illustrates this point through Bedivere's last moments with Arthur as the king is being taken away on the barge in The Death of King Arthur.
Then Sir Bedivere cried and said,
"Ah, my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies?"
"Comfort thyself," said the king, "and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in...pray for my soul!" (Malory 213)
Arthur's response emphasizes the necessity of individual responsibility in Malory's overall moral. Certainly ahead of his time, Malory rejects the institutionalized group salvation in favor of the personal responsibility of individual grace. One's personal moral duty transcends the institutions of church and government, in which moral action is simply to do "as well as thou mayst."
Tennyson's Idylls of the King
The Idylls is considered English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson's shining accomplishment. Mazzeno believes this is because of Tennyson's ability to paint the character of King Arthur as "'epochal,' the model of human behavior whose career stands as 'a path towards that fair ideal we strive to attain'" (Mazzeno 34). Augustus Strong, president of Rochester Theological Seminary, dedicates in his The Great Poets and Their Theology his final chapter to the works of Tennyson. While his primary focus is understandably on In Memoriam, an elegy to Tennyson's best friend Arthur Henry Hallam, he also offers what can be an instructive difference between the approaches of Tennyson and Malory in their respective works. The hero of the work Strong calls Tennyson's Paradise Lost, King Arthur, is "no mere allegorical phantom" but "a living, breathing human being instead" (Strong 479).
This is because he is modeled at least in part after "a living, breathing human being" -- Arthur Henry Hallam. Tennyson met Hallam at Cambridge where they were members of a literary club called "The Apostles." The two were close friends and Hallam was engaged to Tennyson's sister Emily before he died suddenly at the age of 22. When someone is taken from us "unfairly," we tend to propagate that person as larger-than-life and idealize them. Thus, Tennyson extolled many of the traits he saw in Hallam upon his King Arthur. Tennyson's grief over his friend's tragic death dominated much of his early poetry and inspired some of his best works: In Memorium, The Passing of Arthur, and Ulysses.
Even though he approaches the last of his idylls from a pessimistic view, Tennyson always comes back to optimism and ultimately favors moving on through the grief. Out of this rose a predominating theme through much of the Idylls: faith. We may illustrate this again with Sir Bedivere's closing moments with King Arthur. Tennyson constantly looks to the past to improve the morals of the present. Further, Lollar writes, Tennyson uses "nostalgia to create a mythic world in which faith existed in attempt to inspire faith in the present" (Lollar 1). In this way, Bedivere, someone who had faith but lost it, is a symbol of 19th century English society.
Bedivere twice is unable to complete the dying king's mission of brandishing Excalibur back into the lake. Excalibur represents Bedivere's entire way of life. He lacked the faith to believe Camelot was more than a dream. Lollar continues, "He fears that his whole life has been spent defending an illusion, defending something which does not, and did not, really exist (Lollar 1). As Arthur is placed in the barge to carry him away to Avilion, Bedivere bemoans,
Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
Arthur languidly responds from the barge,
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! [. . .]
Pray for my soul. [. . .]
Arthur's ultimate message is to trust one's instincts in matters of faith. The Victorian struggle between faith and doubt characterized much of the period's literature. Bedivere of course takes the leap of faith on his third trip to return Excalibur from whence it came. Landow writes that Tennyson at least "sees some cause for hope in the fact that even men with the limitations of Bedivere, and they are many, can make soul triumph over sense" (Landow 2).
Contemporary Tales: Brown's The Da Vinci Code & King Arthur (film, 2004)
The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown's best-selling novel drew extreme ire from the church due to the extreme claims he makes about Christianity and its early history. Brown purports a marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, the royal offspring of Christ were hidden away in the south of France, and the church covered up the whole ordeal for fear it would undercut Jesus' deity. The controversy stems from Brown's representation of the background of his novel as factual. Our purpose here is not to expressly disprove his droll fallacy, as many authors have undertaken since the book's release. Thus, we will leave this niche by saying: In I Corinthians 9:5, Paul defended his right to have a wife (though he did not have one); if Jesus had had a wife it seems certain Paul would have mentioned such a trivial detail.
The Da Vinci Code ultimately amounts to a bad book with a good story. Brown's prose is poor and his "airport-reader" writing style feels cliché and under-developed. Nevertheless, Brown has written a very important book. At the very least he has challenged the basic assumptions of religion. A former chairman with Sony, Mr. Calley, remarked, "In our society, most societies, we grow up with our religion given to us by our parents. We're never truly oriented into the history of it, the subtlety of it. The amazing thing about this book is it's provocative: Is it all true? Isn't it true?" (Waxman)
In the case of the 2004 film King Arthur, more is conveyed by its lack of religious message than an overt message itself. The Arthur of Bruckheimer and Fuqua's film is indeed a Christian, but he is in conflict with the Catholic Church at several points through the movie. He earns the scorn of a bishop he is sent to rescue for freeing pagans being held on the property. This movie takes a decidedly liberal stance in demonizing the Catholic Church in favor of its rationalist, albeit pagan, characters. Even Arthur, an optimistic Catholic turns his back on Rome at the end of the movie proving his allegiance lies in the freedom and equality in man.
He seems to have gotten this crazy notion that all men are equal from a man he calls a close friend, Pelagius. Pelagius was declared a heretic by the Catholic church in the 4th century C.E. and the majority of his work survives in the quotations of his opponents' rebuttals. A harsh ascetic, Pelagius rejected the "moral laxity" of the day and attributed it to the teachings of divine grace by St. Augustine and others. This led him to reject the idea of Original Sin from Adam. He believed that men ultimately had control over their will and thus their salvation; humanity did not need God's grace (Pohle). It is easy to see where the democratic notions Arthur adopts come from, though the movie does not deal with the theological aspect or the scorn "Pelagianism" adopted.
However, this is not a fatal flaw for the movie -- or a flaw at all for that matter. The central theme of democracy throughout the film is projected es as a religion. Released the year after the start of the War in Iraq, King Arthur speaks to a war-ridden nation, asking for the "king in all of us."
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Fritscher, Jack. "When Malory Met Arthur: Sex and Magic in Arthur's Camelot." Ed. Mark Hemry. Chicago: Loyola University Libraries, 1967.
Landow, George P. "Closing the Frame: Having Faith and Keeping Faith in Tennyson's 'The Passing of Arthur.'" Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 1974: 423-42.
Lollar, Cortney. Restoring Faith in the Passing of Arthur." VictorianWeb, 1996. victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/idylls/lollar2.html
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