Why Are Arthurian Legends So Popular?

It is wholly possible that you have come across an adaptation of Arthurian legend at some point in your life. After all, there have been so many interpretations across varying genres and media that an entire Wikipedia page has been dedicated to listing them all. One of the most well-known works includes Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It has been deemed the most extensive and culturally important work based on Arthurian legends. This is because it goes in-depth into the histories of many characters, notably the more prominent Knights of the Round Table and Arthur himself. Le Morte d’Arthur has inspired other great works, such as T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Arthurian legends have also been often referenced in parodies, such as Monty Python and the third Shrek movie. With all these different retellings of Arthurian legend, it becomes clear that they are widely celebrated even within pop culture. That leads us to the question, why are Arthurian legends so popular in the first place?

The general storyline of Arthurian legends goes something like this: Arthur, guided by the eccentric wizard Merlin, obtains the legendary sword Excalibur and becomes King of Camelot. In some versions, he acquires the sword from the Lady of the Lake. In others, he retrieves the sword from its immovable place in stone. He then held court in Camelot and was aided by the many Knights of the Round Table, his rule peaceful and prosperous. Eventually, King Arthur and the Knights set off on a quest to find the immortality-granting Holy Grail. While they are away, Lancelot, one of the Knights of the Round Table, engages in adultery with Queen Guinevere. An enraged King Arthur starts a civil war upon receiving word of the affair. However, King Arthur’s rule was ultimately brought to an end when he was betrayed by the Camelot’s regent, Mordred, who sought to seize the throne for himself. The resulting battle ended with both King Arthur and Mordred meeting their demise. After his death, King Arthur was sent on a boat to Avalon, where he is presumed to remain until today. It is said that someday when Great Britain is in dire need, King Arthur will return to save his people.

It is likely that Arthurian legends are popular due to its character archetypes and storytelling. Arthurian legends feature characters that possess distinct personalities or capabilities yet still leave a lot of room open for interpretation. This is especially the case for characters who are fan favourites, including Merlin, Morgan le Fay, and Lancelot. There are retellings centred around these specific characters. For instance, BBC’s Merlin series and 1974 French drama Lancelot du Lac. Many characters in Arthurian legends represent beloved archetypes commonly found in literature. As an example, King Arthur expectedly falls under the Hero archetype. This is evident through his tremendous courage and dignity making him the perfect example of chivalry. He is able to triumph in multiple challenges throughout his life and manages to ensure peace while he remains King. Archetypes can also be easily assigned to other characters in Arthurian legend. An example would be Merlin, who falls under the Mentor archetype. Equipped with knowledge and magical abilities, Merlin acted as an advisor to Arthur as he was growing up, hence becoming a great influence to Arthur. The Hero and Mentor archetypes as well as styles of character have been replicated in famous works, for example Aragorn and Gandalf respectively from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Character tropes are still commonly used in the realms of fiction and literature. They are viewed as incredibly important as they are able to depict particular aspects of human nature and life, thus constructing a sense of familiarity for readers or the audiences of a variety of media. Another reason attributing  to the perseverance of archetypes include linking the current text to established identities in other past works, therefore adding supplementary meaning to the text. Consequently, it is not exceptional to discover that numerous characters and plots resemble or overlap with that of Arthurian legends, which have served as models or inspiration for later works.  

Furthermore, Arthurian legends may be well-received due to the mystery involved. There is no definite storyline as Arthurian legends are pieced together from a number of different sources. There is no confirmation on which version is the original, adding to the intrigue revolving around the tales. Arthur’s birth and life have even become a point of research for historians, while some scholars claim that he is a Celtic deity- others assume that he was a real person of Romano-Briton origins. However, it is not only Arthur that is subjected to such ambiguity. The characters and settings surrounding him also vary in terms of their history and moral alignment. Take Morgan le Fay for example. She is portrayed as an evil sorceress in some versions but is shown as a benevolent healer who laid Arthur to rest at Avalon. As Arthurian legends are known to end on a cliffhanger (hence Arthur is known as the Once and Future King), it is generally agreed upon that the period of time in which he presumably ruled – the Golden Age, has passed while the true question of “when will he be back?” is left unanswered. The obscurity of the source material gives artists and creators the freedom to come up with their own versions of the characters and the story based on their own takes and perspectives. The temptations of filling in plot holes or exploring different parts of Arthurian legends may prove to be too alluring to withstand for storytellers. Apart from fiction, it is perhaps because we know so much yet so little of Arthurian legends that academic research on the very subject is still carried out today. As curator Dr ap Huw mentions, the appeal of Arthur is that he was or is “whoever you want him to be”.

Sure, Arthurian legends may be popular, but at the possible expense of angering Arthurian scholars and fans, are the legends actually important? The answer to this is subjective and depends on the audience’s opinions. Still, it cannot be denied that the legends are classics that illustrate an important piece of history, no matter Arthur’s status as real or fiction. Like fairytales, they are a snapshot of how and what people’s beliefs were like at the time. Arthurian legends have also been proved to withstand the test of time from mediaeval to the modern era. As mentioned, they have been revamped a great number of times in the form of official published works to writings across fanfiction sites, although essentially all Arthur retellings are fanfiction of sorts. It has become a cultural work of considerable significance and its enduring popularity demonstrates that the legends are still fully capable of attracting a sizable audience, old, young and anywhere in between. The many adaptations of Arthurian legends in the fantasy genre like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and even George Lucas’ Star Wars, undoubtedly attest to the legends’ influence. Not only have they been featured heavily in fiction and academia, aspects of it, namely Excalibur and mediaeval armour, have also made circles in the fashion world as seen in the form of Italian designer Alberta Ferretti’s limited edition collection inspired by King Arthur. There are also those who have dedicated their time and effort to uncovering the real life counterparts of the settings in which Arthurian legends take place. In particular, it has been widely hypothesised that Avalon could in actuality be Glastonbury or Isle of Man, though the lack of substantial evidence points Avalon to be a myth derived from early Celtic tales.

The story of King Arthur dives into romance and chivalry. Historian Michael Woods suggests that King Arthur’s times was a “golden age of lost innocence”, hence forging a strong connection with people who long for a sense of dignity and justice that seem to only exist in myth. The diverse interpretations of Arthurian legends also bring to light different aspects of the tale, such as the contrasting portrayals of Morgan le Fay and how it possesses links to misogyny and the storyteller’s perspectives.  What do you think of when it comes to Arthurian legends? Is it the memorable characters, the beautiful settings or the weighty symbolism? Do you have any theories of when King Arthur will rise again? Arthurian legends can mean many things to many different people. They evolve according to its audience and their expectations as well as understanding of the stories. Even so, it is evident that Arthurian legends remain compelling in the minds of the people. As the BBC reports, “Romantics may hope that, one day, Arthur will return to rescue his people. But if he lives on through his legend, the ancient monarch, it would appear, has never really gone away”.

By: Jia Xuan

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