Weekend Gloss: Arthuriana

Of the two parts of this, the second is I think the better. The poem’s quite old now, and I made a single change to it in posting it here: replacing “ichor” with “blood” (Geoffrey Hill uses “ichor” in a similar context in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and it seemed too direct a borrowing – although given that the whole thing’s a Geoffrey Hill Tribute Act number, I’m not sure whether this wasn’t a misplaced scruple).

The first part comes in equivocally: “the mythos is as you find it” could read any number of ways. One way of approaching the Arthurian mythos is to find it all a bit silly, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail certainly does. But there’s also the sense that the mythos is in some sense there, waiting to be found or rediscovered, and that its perennial availability for rediscovery is precisely its way of being there. It “is” “as you find it”, for each and every “you” that might come across it. Of course this notion is built into the mythos itself, with Arthur and his knights asleep in Avalon awaiting the moment of need when they must re-awaken. This is a bit of a late addition to the story (attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth), a kind of self-mythologising appendix; but it feeds into all kinds of things from That Hideous Strength (which recalls Merlin from the grave to combat a particularly nasty rebel-Oyarsa infestation) to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And of course it’s directly implied in the title (itself taken from Malory) of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a tremendous and, by the end, wrenchingly-sad meditation on war, power and governance. (I owe White, amongst other things, the observation that his Lancelot was “probably sadistic, or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle”).

For my children’s generation, their Arthur is probably the boneheaded crypto-homophobic jock portrayed in the BBC’s Merlin – an excellent series, but one which like so many contemporary “re-imaginings” plays subversively with material with which its intended audience cannot be presumed to be familiar (cf Sherlock). My Arthur, I think, is this one:

Re-watching it now, I’m very struck by how the tone of its closing minutes coincides with what I was envisaging and aiming for in the second part of Arthuriana: that late-70s BBC eerieness must have struck deep (although I would have been only 5 when this first aired – it must surely have been an early-80s repeat?). The shift across the two parts of the poem from bathos (“spurs snagging in damp bracken”) to pathos (“the barge drifts / with its burden”, an unconscious borrowing from Eliot’s The Waste Land – “The barges drift / With the turning tide”) accords with how I feel about the myth, I think: the Pythons made great fun of its chauvinistic brutality and face-saving nationalism, but even Monty Python And The Holy Grail can’t entirely withhold dignity from its subject.