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The Legacy

Chapter 6

The Legacy

During the reign of Henry VIII, the English poet 'Spenser' (AD1552-1599) wrote acknowledging and inspiring accounts of Arthur's existence, in the volumes of the 'Faerie Queene', further establishing the Royal House of Tudor with the Arthurian bloodline. The Elizabethan's, interestingly, extolled the virtues of Arthur as sea, at a time when nautical exploration was at a height and the British navy was a force to be reckoned with. Arthur was revived as a hero of Britain, but this was short lived. The Royal of Stuart banished Arthur to the realms of storytelling, and heavily mocked any idea connected with the cycle. It was not until nearly two-hundred years later that Arthur was again reborn.

In 1809 'William Blake', (AD1757-1827), the English poet and painter, revived the image of the heroic Arthur as first seen in Celtic legends but now associating him with Albion (ancient and political name for Great Britain), providing a new support to the regenerated Britain. This was the Age of Romanticism. Arthur was once again a hero. After a severe fire at the British Houses of Lords, London, the seat of Government of the British Isles and the British Empire, Albert, the Prince Regent, husband of Queen Victoria, re-invented Arthur suggesting he be included in the new paintings. These were to be created by the Scottish religious and historical painter 'William Dyce', (AD1806-64), to be installed in the corridors (which can still be seen today). Arthur it seemed had become a Victorian gentleman.

At the same time, the English poet 'Alfred Tennyson', (AD1809-92), a devout monarchist at a time when the monarchy itself was in crisis as a result of Albert's death, took up the cause of Arthur, writing the 'Idylls of the King' (AD1859-85). The passages have been described as highly moralistic, with an explicit chivalric manne r, with perhaps the most notable works being that of 'Geraint and Enid', and 'Lancelot and Elaine'. The threat to Arthur's kingship and supremacy here is depicted in the form of the 'Red Knight' but he is killed by Arthur and his supporters in chivalrous combat. The form of the threat has been seen to be connected with the historical need to eliminate pagan heresy, the need to establish a clear doctrine, the perceived threat of political gain from outside Britain, and also the need for a king to battle and win over his own weaknesses for the good of the nation. The legend of Excalibur here is rewritten, and Griflet is turned into a new character, that of 'Sir Bedivere' (See Bedivere) which appears to have been based upon the ancient Welsh hero, 'Bedwin', who ensures that the body of King Arthur is safely carried over to Avalon.

'TH White' (AD 1906-64) the English poet, known to be a pacifist, wrote the tetralogy 'The Once and Future King' (AD1958), a reference once again to the early Welsh, Cornish and Breton beliefs of the early Middle Ages. Completion of the work covered a span of some twenty years with the first part 'The Sword in the Stone' being published in AD1937. The tetralogy's title though provides a reference to the inscription on the alleged tomb of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury, but here, White adds a new element, that of a 'Page boy', who is told the full story of the Arthurian Legend, including the Knights of the Round Table, by King Arthur himself, on the eve of the Battle of Camlan. The page boy is named as 'Tom of Newbold Revel' (a play on words as we know to be a reference to Sir Thomas Malory of the fifteenth-century). King Arthur is seen to express a political viewpoint of the unnecessary destruction caused by war.

Although we could say that White is clearly expressing his own beliefs, the Arthur depicted is in keeping with that of a Christian or pre-Christian time expressing wisdom gained by experience. Arthur tells the Page boy that the hope of the survival of innocence and of that of Arthurian legend depends on Tom surviving the battle. Using the vehicle of Arthurian legend to express a political viewpoint is not a twentieth-century phenomena as we know. What we see is a virtuous, somewhat tired twentieth century Arthur as an embodiment of peace and justice, as a man fighting for what is right. The Arthur of legend is skilfully interwoven so that the past and present spirituality of the man are seen together. As White suggests if Arthur, or innocence, is to return, or survive, the acceptance of the possibility of losing the heritage and order, of losing the innocence of youth must be considered. It appears that White is saying that to doubt the origin and return of Arthur is to undermine the existence and the survival of hope.