SWORD & SORCERY OF THE PAST

ARTHUR
I had intended to move from here directly The Faerie Queene, but Orlando Furioso is such a significant and influential work, I think I will add a button and follow up on it. It is a work that did not appeal to the modern age, but we are now in the post-modern world, and I suspect it would receive a better hearing today.  Besides, I have a really good set of pictures.  Click here to add your text.
Click herSPENSER'S FAERIE QUEENEd
    My original intention had been to make this section fairly elaborate, but too much of the material overlaps with Ariosto, who Spenser copied very closely, and all the pictures I have for Spenser are black and white, which would not go well with the rest of this page.  Therefore I will settle for a relatively small essay.
    Spenser is a virtuoso of language, writing his huge romance in a very complex nine line stanza invented by himself, but used by many since.   He does make rhyming easier for himself  by writing in a pseudo-Middle English, that allows him to both distort the structure and pronunciation of words and to use them in ways that are not current, and in some cases never were.  Still, he has a terriffic ear, and though the general public has never warmed up to him, he has been a favorite with poets--Milton, Dryden, Pope, Keats, Tennyson.
    One reason for the Faerie Queene's lack of popularity is the allegory.  An action-adventure story wasn't "serious" enough for him so, borrowing a technique Ariosto uses now and then, he turns his whole story into allegory--everything means something else.  The dragon is not just a dragon, but the "dragon of Errour" vomiting ink and religious tracts, and so on and so on.  It requires a certain amount of  innocence and sincerity to make allegory work, and no writer in English has managed it but the inspired, though barely educated tinker-preacher, John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress.  Bunyan's story of Christian's journey to the Heavenly City is a moving and involving story.  By comparison, Spenser's allegory is merely annoying.  Aside from having the wrong degree of literary sophistication for allegory, Spenser has the wrong type of mind.  He is pure artist by nature.  He is not an idea person.  If he has any ideas at all, they are ideas about art.  Thus we are sure early on that the Faerie Queene (1596), which insists on being an idea work is not going to tell us anything new or interesting, or even do a very inciteful job of rehashing old ideas.
   The plan of the book was to produce twelve books, each representing an Aristotelian virtue, culminating in the final book which would introduce Arthur as representing the final virtue which contains all the others.  Only six were completed, but that still makes the Faerie Queene a huge work, dwarfing poems like Paradise Lost, which at about 10,000 lines is no little thing.  The first book covers purity, and it is the story of the Redcross knight's quest to save a princess' country from an evil dragon.  The next best known of the books is the story of Britomart, or chastity.  Much of this is copied very closely from Ariosto, and it is fortunate for Spenser's reputation that  most English scholars are too lazy to read primary sources.  Each of the six books is structured like Orlando Furioso with multiple plot lines that are forever crossing and recrossing, combining or separating.  Further, there is a good bit of interplay between one book and the next, so that the plotting is very complex.
    This essay has probably been overly negative.  Many of the scenes are very well done, and the language is always graceful and evocative.  Still, it is a work easier to praise than to read.
    But then the Arthur stories came out, and this old fashioned war and politics stuff began to seem a little stiff and colorless--time for an update.  And, given a century or so, with hints from the Arthur cycle, the Charlemagne cycle become something to really notice.  The culmination of the process is Orlando Furioso (Roland, raving mad).  Now there are love interests all over the place, sexy temptresses, buxom female knights, wicked enchanters, rings of invisibility, magic pools to make you fall in or out of love, dragons, hippogriffs, griffons--you name it.  And all of it woven together in a great number f different story lines that separate and cross like the weave of a tapestry.  This story, more than any other, except the Iliad, is the origin for the structure of Mythosphere.

    The story of Roger and Angelica illustrated below is just one example of what made Ariosto's work popular.
    Unlike Arthur, a great deal is known about th historical Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who ruled France in the latter half of the eighth century.  He too, though, is the center of a large hero cycle of legend and literature.  The centerpiece of this tradition is an epic poem, The Song of Roland, which tells of the last stand of Roland, Charlemagne's chief peer, overwhelmed by a hughe Moslem horde in a pass of the Pyrenees.  In actual fact, it was Christain Basques who overcame Roland and the Frency rear guard, but why spoil a good story?  It is a rousing story of battle and bloodshed, an action story with no sissy girls to mess the action up with girly stuff.  It is also a buddy story, with Roland, the arrogant superhero falling out with his more cautious sidekick, Oliver, then making up as they are dying.  According to tradition, this was the poem the poet ricited to inspire the Norman troops invading England.
Charlemagne
Films and Plays

Camelot                          The classical musical retelling.

Monty Pyhon and the      A very funny film, and at times surprisingly
Holy Grail                        evocative atmospherics.

The Sword in the           E.B. White's novel in film with animal
Stone                              characters.  Not bad as Disney films go.

The Sword of Merlin       Silly, but intentionally so.  The heroine falls
                                      down a rabbit hole, Alice-fashion, at
                                      Stonehenge and finds herself in the world
                                      of Arthur.  Candace Bergen looks imposing
                                      as a wild-haired Morgan le Fay.  A
                                      charming retelling of the Sir Gawain and
                                      Dame Ragnal story.

Excalibur                        An expensive, but overly busy retelling of
                                      Malory's version.

The Green Knight           None of the intelligence or elegance of the
                                      original.

First Knight                    The ancient Celts discover political
                                      correctness, and oxcarts produce Medieval
                                      roadkill.  Color-co-ordinated Camelot.  Silly
                                      beyond belief.
Percival--                        Chretien de Troyes.  The oldest Grail story.

Parzival--                        Wolfram von Eschenbach.  The classic Grail
                                      story.

Tristan and Isolt--          Godfrey of Strassburg.  The best version of the
                                      Tristan story.  Incomplete, but a proper ending
                                       has been supplied by Jessie L. Weston.

Sir Gawain and the         The Pearl Poet.  A beautifully constructed story.
Green Knight--

Morte de Arthur--            Sir Thomas Malory.  The classical story of Arthur
                                      from birth and before to death, and source of
                                       most modern films and other adaptions.

The Sword in the            E.B. White.  Notable modern retilling of Arthur's
Stone--                            earlier and later careers.  Based on Malory.
The Once and Future
King--

The Mists of Avalon--     Mary Stewart.  New Age Arthur.
Notable Versions
    Arthur, born under complex and mysterious circumstances, is claimed by the magician Merlin.  He is fostered by an elderly knight, pulls a sword from a stone or anvil, is proclaimed king, forms the Knights of the Round Table, is severely wounded in battle with his illegitimate son Mordred, and is carried off by nine women in a boat to the Isle of Avalon (apple land), to be cured of his wound.  He will return in the hour of his country's greatest need.
Arthur's Story in Brief
Kay:           Arthur's foster brother.  Supernatural strength.  Later
                      presented as caustic and mean spirited.

Gawain:     Arthur's nephew on the mother's side.  His strength waxes
                      until noon, then wanes.  The knightly ideal--mastery of both
                      physical prowess and of courtly manners and the language
                      of love.  Later presented as too "slick."

Percival:    Only remotely related to Arthur.  No supernatural powers. 
                     The Grail knight.  The spiritual knight whose simplicity is a
                 critique of the chivalric values represented by Gawain.

Lancelot:    No relation to Arthur.  No supernatural powers.  Represents
                  the absolute claims of love.  His spontaneity is set up against
                 Gawain's concern with his own dignity and image.

Galahad:    Lancelot's son.  No supernatural powers beyond those that
                 come with purity.  Represents purity as opposed to his father,
                 whose life is dominated by an adulterous affair with
                 Guenevere, Arthur's wife.  Represents a critique of courtly
                 love with its ideal of adulterous passion.
    Meanwhile, Breton minstrels had brought their colorful and exotic stories of Arthur into France, displacing the old-fashioned stories of real politics and warfare.  Many lords had gone off to the crusades, and the lady of the house often preferred something more romantic where women played a more central role.  From France the stories spread to Germany, the low countries, and England, becoming a vast international literature.

    In hero cycles interest often moves from the original hero to first one, then another of his followers as poets look for a new angle.  The first hero was, of course, Arthur, himself.  But he becomes older and more marginal as the tradition evolves.  Here is the probably sequence of chief heroes.
    Anglo-Saxon England (Land of the Angles) developed a flourishing civilization that suffered an invasion by their North-Germanic cousins, the Danes, and then conquest by the Normans, another set of cousins that had grabbed a chunk of French coast and now spoke French.ext.
    In 410 a.d. the Romans pulled out of Britian leaving behind a network of good roads, towns, Roman theaters and baths, a knowledge of Latin, and some Christians--how many is anyone's guess.  Forty years later the German Angles and Saxons arrived, quickly overrunning most of the island, and pushing the native Celts to the borders, or to Brittany on the French coast.  In all these areas, southern Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, and Wales stories of Arthur appeared.  The earliest  made some pretext of history, but soon Angles and Saxons were dropped altogether, and Arthur's Britian became an ideal Nevernever Land, a sort of alternate reality of Celtic legend and hero story translated into pseudo-history, where the storyteller and his audience could see an image of their own drab and harsh environment translated into a bright and beautiful world of love and adventure unmarred by real wars, politics, or Germans.
    King Arthur and his knights may not be quite the first sword & sorceryt heroes, but they're close to it.  Nothing specific is known about the historic Arthur, not even whether he was a king, or what he would have been a king of.  The one thing we do know is that he and his court could have been nothing like the picture we have from the stories..
Counter added Jan. 31, 2006.