Saturday, May 19, 2012

Arthur Rex

I've long been a fan of tales about King Arthur, and I've read everything from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and T.H. White's magnificent The Once and Future King, to Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. In high school I wrote a research paper about Tintagel, the castle on the coast of Cornwall considered to be the model for Camelot.

So I'm pleased to report that Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex is a worthy addition to the pantheon. With a dash of humor (for example, telling us that the original name of Camelot was Cameliard) he spells out the philosophical and humanistic implications of Arthur's bold experiment of the Round Table, in which there is no hierarchy, and men-at-arms forswear combat for its own sake, adopting instead the rules of chivalry, setting aside blood-feuds. They pledge their lives and honor to defending the weak and upholding right, fighting fairly and holding no grudges.

Spoiler alert (if you know nothing of King Arthur and his knights): Here is a passage near the end, in which Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine fight each other to the death. Gawaine, having learned that Launcelot, defending Guinevere's honor, slew all his brothers, feels he must fight him:
  "And if Sir Gawaine was victorious, he had no brothers left but the vile Mordred, and the Round Table was shattered forever. And perhaps the best thing he could do for his sons was to give them an example by dying nobly. Now this was the first time that Sir Gawaine had ever thought in this fashion, for he had loved his life in all its phases.
  "Whereas Sir Launcelot, who had always hated life and wanted to die, now that he was bleeding to death he began to think otherwise, for actually dying is not so romantic as is thinking about death when one is invincible, and Launcelot had never been in real danger before in his life. Therefore he began to see himself in a new light, and he came to think that his invincibility might be a myth, and that he had previously overwhelmed his enemies because they were half-conquered by the myth before they met him."

Thus, even in the tragic circumstance of these two great knights battling to destroy one another, Berger makes tongue-in-cheek observations that set one to nodding over that most human of tendencies - to change one's mind.

Near the end of the battle against his bastard son Mordred, in which all his knights but one perish, Arthur laments to the Lady of the Lake:
  "I would ask why you attended me only in the beginning of my reign and thereafter no more? And methinks you led Merlin away as well, leaving me altogether without magical counsel. Lady, I could have used some! For 'twas reality that brought me down, and I had no defense against it."
  "King Arthur," said the Lady of the Lake, who was gleaming in white samite, "the passions are not real, but rather fantastic. Thou couldst not have done better than thou didst."
  "Yet," said King Arthur, "was I wise to tolerate the friendship between Launcelot and Guinevere for so many years? I know that I thereby connived in a Christian sin."
  "Address me not in Christian sentiments," said the Lady of the Lake, "the which I find too coarse for fine kings. Thine obligation was to maintain power in as decent a way as would be yet the most effective, and a Camelot without Guinevere, a Round Table without Launcelot, were inconceivable, as would be an Arthur who put to death his best friend and his queen. All human beings must perform according to their nature."
  Now King Arthur did wonder at this speech, and he said, "Then the will is not free? And can we not choose to be either good or evil, but are selected for whichever?"
  "This is the wrong question," said the Lady of the Lake, "being political and not concerned with the truth. And do not chide me for abandoning thee, my dear Arthur, for I am here now..." 

By upholding the traditions of otherworldly magic and all-too-worldly temptation and struggle, Berger has written a fair and humorous accounting of a beloved tale. Read and enjoy!

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