The Arthurian saga: fairy tale, folktale, mystery, morality play

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I think the Arthurian story still fascinates so many people because it has all the good elements of a fairy tale, a folktale, a historical mystery, and a morality play–all in the same saga. It has something for everyone. Let’s examine each in kind:

Fairy tale: It has magical elements (the magic of Merlin and Morgause and Morgan Le Fay, the Holy Grail, the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur). It has a great warrior marrying a princess. It has heroic deeds. About the only thing the Matter of Britain does not share with the classic fairy tale is a happy ending.

Folktale: The variants of the Arthurian story are many and wide. Celts tell their visions, Scots claim Arthur as their own, Britons say he was their High King, etc. Classic folktales usually have a fanciful explanation for ordinary things. How did Arthur become king? Why, he pulled the Sword from the Stone, of course. Becoming a king is ordinary enough by historical standards. But pulling a sword from a stone? Now, that’s fanciful. Take this into the realm of classical literature and we encounter Nennius, who says Arthur killed at least 900 men all by himself. Obviously, the Battle of Badon Hill was significant in that is stopped the Saxon migrations for a generation. But did Arthur really kill 900 all by himself? Who are we to say?

Historical mystery: Here’s where we get to the theme of this topic. Who was Arthur really? Where did he live? Where was his stronghold? Where did he fight? Was he a land-based hero, or did he have a navy at his disposal? The questions are legion and the answers few. Archaeologists and historians alike would love to solve their respective mysteries, but the clues are so few and far between that no clear solution emerges. From the murky depths of Ancient British History we get this picture of Arthur: a great man who saved his country when it needed saving. Beyond that, no one knows for certain. Do you believe Nennius or Geoffrey of Monmouth or William of Malmesbury, who were writing only a few hundred years after the historical Arthur is believed to have lived? Or do you believe Geoffrey Ashe and Leslie Alcock and Richard Barber, who are writing almost 1,500 years after the (supposed) fact? Because the Arthurian story has been expanded to incorporate so many elements, a clear-cut vision of who Arthur was and where he fought and against whom is nonexistent. About the only thing everyone agrees on is why he fought: to save Britain from the invading Saxons.

Morality play: The historical side of the story has a few elements to offer here, but the majority of the morality comes from the literature side, especially the Christian influence. Beginning with Chretien de Troyes, we see the figure of Lancelot falling in love with Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. This forbidden love (whether it is consummated again depends on whom you read) brings down the kingdom. The writers who write of this element of the story (and most do nowadays) seem to suggest that duty to one’s king and kingdom is far more important than duty to one’s heart. (This is not to say that I condone either adulteror!) We also see the morality tale come into play in the story of Mordred, in that Arthur’s illicit coupling with either his sister or his half-sister or the wife of one of his knights (depending on whom you read) leads to his own downfall. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we see Lancelot being refused access to the Holy Grail because of his moral shortcomings. Galahad, the purest of spirit, achieves the Grail Quest.

The Arthurian story has something for everyone. What you get out of it doesn’t always depend on where you’re coming from, either.

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