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King Arthur and Orestes: The Once and Future Crisis

For the first time I have waded into the complete works of Sir Thomas Malory, an overwhelming, mysterious, untidy, and addictive tome written sometime in the latter half of the 15th century. These are the first English-collected tales of King Arthur and his Knights, taken mostly from the early French Romances and blended with Welsh stories and with Malory's own inventions. Anyone who has any interest in reading these classic stories should try the original – or at least publisher William Caxton's near-to-original – text. No modern 'adaptations' will do. As with Shakespeare (and not with Chaucer, in my experience) the structures and spellings of his handsome and self-assured Middle-English makes one feel at first of having been dropped into the middle of a strange, grown-over forest, followed by a gradual realizing of friendly and familiar signposts, pathways, and landmarks. In this world, very angry characters are 'passynge wrothe.' A knight of rare skill and substance is “...a noble knyght of proues as few lyvynge, and jantyl and curteyse and of good tacchys...” And within the space of a paragraph Malory may spell the same word three separate ways, including names of important characters. I have found that once I had gotten into the rhythm of this free-wheeling prose, a certain slow-burning exhilaration set in, as I became aware of exploring the evolutionary limits of my own mother tongue. Any time before Malory's era and I would require a modern translation. Hitting the historical 'back-end' of one's own literacy is perhaps one of the most direct ways a reader can encounter history.

Beyond the language itself, there are interesting threads that connect Malory's Arthur directly to other eras of civilization. Although undoubtedly informed by the quaking politics of Malory's 15th century, King Arthur himself 'lived' – or 'lives,' in the legendary sense – a thousand years before that. These were the dying days of Roman Britain, during the collapse of influence of that great empire on the Continent. They were also days of invasion from the Anglo-Saxons, a widespread, centuries-long wave of Germanic peoples washing onto the island and forever changing it's culture and language. This predated the more muscular, planned Viking invasions. Although the 'real' King Arthur – if such a person existed – may have been merely a petty British chieftain squabbling among other British chieftains, he has traditionally been the figure of resistance to this Anglo-Saxon wave of chaos and violence; a valiant hold-out before the enveloping of Britain, and indeed Europe itself, into the Dark Age.

A theme from Classical literature flashed at me as I was reading a particular passage in Arthur. Morgan Le Fay, here shown as Arthur's once-trusted but treacherous sister, has stolen the scabbard of the sword Excalibur. In an earlier adventure Merlin (or “Merlion” as Malory calls him) had schooled Arthur regarding this scabbard: “Than kynge Arthure loked on the swerde and lyked hit passynge well. Than seyde Merlion,

'Whethir lyke ye better the swerde othir the scawberde?'

'I lyke bettir the swerde,' seyde Arthure.

'Ye ar the more unwise, for the scawberde ys worth ten of the swerde; for whyles ye have the scawberde uppon you, ye shall lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded. Therefore kepe well the scawberde allweyes with you.'”

Reckoning with his generally-accurate sorcerer, Arthur decides to place the scabbard in the charge of Le Fay. We are told that he trusts his sister even more than his own wife Lady Guinevere. Several adventures later we see how misplaced these sentiments are, after Le Fay, through a formidable sorcery of her own, has nearly succeeded in arranging Arthur's murder.


The long-serving U.S. Diplomat Charles Hill, in his lively and very interesting book Grand Strategies, surveys the Western canon of literature from its ancient beginnings and matches his selections with the political machinations of the day. One of the first books he discusses is the Oresteia trilogy of Classical Greece. From this angle he summarizes Aeschylus's masterpiece in the following way: “The drama tracks the aristocratic house of Atreus, disintegrating under a curse that demands revenge down the generations until Orestes, in Athens, is the central character in a transition from the primeval cycle of revenge to civil society based on judicial order.”

Here the great playwright, in the middle of the 5th century B.C., was dramatizing a major, fledgling breakthrough in Greek society, and a cornerstone of any civilization: the rule of law and its process. Hill continues to characterize this evolution as “the shift from the family as the seat of governance to the state.” We see an alternative to the endless archaic blood feuds, which is something like a more dispassionate method of justice. “To administer justice properly, the integrity of the process must be maintained; regardless of the substance of the case, an ill-prepared court case must be dismissed even though the wrongdoer goes unpunished.” Crucially in the Oresteia, Orestes's defense of his matricide is not terribly stronger than his mother's would-be defense of the murder of her husband, Agamemnon. And Apollo's defense of Orestes, in perhaps the first 'courtroom scene' and likely as the first celebrity witness in literary history, is not especially convincing either. What really matters is that Athena has taken justice out of the hands of the emotional parties and placed it in the safe-keeping of the state.

There is also an important symbolic, if not moral, difference between the murder of Agamemnon by his wife and Clytemnestra by her son. This is the shift in Greek society from “status to contract.” As Hill explains, there is now “marriage as an institution. 'Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.' Status or kin relationship is superseded by contract: the marriage vow.” So Aeschylus's cycle also dramatizes the untidy process of moving from blood oaths (the kinds which are determined by birth) towards voluntary oaths (which are at least in principle agreed upon by the individuals). Unfortunately for Clytemnestra, who after all did lose a daughter during the Trojan War thanks to Agamemnon's ruthlessness, symbolically committed a graver sin by murdering someone with whom she made a legal contract. Meanwhile, Orestes at least escapes the penalty of death since (again, symbolically and not morally) his crime was against his mother, a relationship of 'mere' kin. Remember, this 'acquittal' comes after many generations of revenge-killings within the family, some of them unbelievably eccentric (like when Atreus murders his brother's children and secretly serves them to him as a main course). The new justice is brutal enough, but nevertheless the beginnings of a better civil society.


Well, back to Arthur. What is so interesting, so fundamentally true, about Malory's tales, is in Arthur's very human struggle to build some kind of order out of chaos and violence. In this way, this early English epic stands up to its distant Classical forebears, and even to the great Abrahamic stories of the Old Testament. Arthur is two personas in one. He is destined to be a great king through virtue of his hidden lineage, and devoted to his kin in spite of their repeated treachery. And yet he is also attempting to build a kingdom up out by the power and influence of his marriage and the voluntary oaths of his Knights of the Round Table. He is trying to find a way to build a civilized world out of human beings that undergo perpetual crises.

The slow, brutal, but relatively optimistic progress implicit in the Oresteia is mirrored inversely by the ultimate tragedy of Malory's Arthur. Greece was in the midst of a great renaissance of art and statecraft, and poised to bequeath many riches to future generations for all time. The achievement of Arthur's small 'state,' though full of vigor and bravery and earnest attempts at order, is really a last late-Roman hurrah before darkness fell on the British isle for a long time, at least by the standards of art, culture, and in particular historical record. Hence the resort to turning Arthur into a Christ-like figure who has perished but will be resurrected again. This is promised as a kind of coda to the Arthurian tales, and is the meaning behind his familiar title 'the Once-and-Future King.' Having nothing left of the physical kingdom, Arthur's devotees have only the faint promise of a supernatural return to hang their hopes on.

There is finally the curious dual relics of Excalibur and its scabbard to ponder more fully. With any mythic story, especially the really good ones, one wonders how consciously the underlying symbology was written in and how much of it comes from the inference of the reader, or for that matter the long series of readers and listeners over a period of hundreds or thousands of years. In this case there are undoubtedly innumerable readings. The most conspicuous one to me is tied to the dramatic act of Morgan Le Fay throwing the scabbard into the lake. Here is the text: “And whan she sawe she myght nat ascape she rode unto a lake thereby and seyde, 'Whatsoever com of me, my brothir shall nat have this scawberde!' And than she lete throwe the scawberde in the deppyst of the watir. So hit sanke, for hit was hevy of golde and precious stonys.”

This is a terribly significant event, and although there will be many dozens of adventures left in Arthur's life and reign, it may be the event which actually and truly dooms him. “[F]or the scawberde ys worth ten of the swerde,” Merlin had told Arthur, and he believed him but possibly didn't understand until it was too late. Arthur will continue to fight battles with more 'prouese' than any other, but the losing struggle will be in establishing rule of law, and keeping peace. The betrayal of trust by kin, and the casting away of the sheath of Excalibur, is an act of the uncivilized emotional force in humanity shedding reason and restraint, and relying therefore upon only the success or failure of one's open aggression and guile. Once the sheath is gone, the naked blade is all that is left. As stark a parable as there ever was.

One may wonder why anyone would bother ruminating about the fall of a mythical kingdom fifteen hundred years ago, and the failure of characters that did not actually exist. Well, there really is no end to the riches of these archetypal stories. They never seem to leave us or lose their edge or their magic. In the case of the Malory's Arthur, we have the first English-language prose epic – and what a wild beauty it is – that tells of a losing struggle to build and maintain order in the face of a gaping black chasm of chaos. One ought rather to say they wish there was no further need for us to read tales like these.

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