first discovered T.H. white’s The Once and Future King in my early teens. The tetralogy is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur, with White’s own particular spin on it.
White often refers to Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which is a pretty late version of the story, and includes a lot about jousting, which by the time Mallory wrote had become a sophisticated sport with standings and statistics, comparable in that respect to baseball.
The protptype of King Arthur probably lived in the 5th or 6th century AD, and probably had little to do with the ideal of chivalry which comes in the later versions. I don’t think the figure who inspired the story has ever been certainly identified, and Mary Stewart, who wrote a version of the legend of her own, says that the earliest chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story.
So we don’t know exactly where the story came from, or on whom it was based, but it’s a pretty odd story, as White often comments. A civilization, or at least a strongly different development of a civilization, begins with King Arthur and ends with his death. Arthur is constantly struggling with big questions, trying to solve problems that prove to be too much for him. They’re problems that we can easily imagine will be with humankind for the foreseeable future.
White begins with The Sword in the Stone, an account of Arthur’s childhood, when he’s known as the Wart, since no one knows who he really is. Merlyn becomes his and his stepbrother’s tutor, and extends his teaching by transforming the Wart into various animals. An unusual sort of education. His childhood is idyllic, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that. It makes him into a good person, but it doesn’t help him understand evil people.
He does try, though. In one scene shortly after having become king, he’s exulting about how exciting a recent battle has been, which he was able to win with his sword, Excalibur. Merlyn asks him how the peasants who had to fight felt about it. Knights were so well armored they were difficult to hurt in battle, but the peasants who had to fight didn’t have very good weapons, and little protection. It was accepted as perfectly fine for large numbers of them to die in battle. This starts Arthur thinking about the use of force.
The existing power structure is based on the idea that Might is Right. On thinking about this, Arthur decides there’s something wrong with this idea, and decides to try to channel Might into righting wrongs. Thus is the idea of the Round Table born, with its ethic of competing to rescue maidens and anyone else being oppressed by the various barons. These, being almost invulnerable in their armor, could treat ordinary people any way they cared to. Not all were oppressive, but some behaved much like contemporary gangsters. These were the ones Arthur tried to either convert or replace.
Complicating the picture is conflict between the upper classes (in White’s version, Normans, though in the 5th century it would have been Romanized Britons, who were Celtic) and either Celts or Saxons. A coalition of Celts declare war on Arthur, expecting him to massacre a lot of their serfs, and at worst hold some of them for ransom. That was often the way war was conducted in the Middle Ages.
Instead, Arthur opts for total war, and aims at the nobility instead of the serfs. A shocking but successful strategy, which enables him to establish the Round Table and build a secure civilization. Sir Lancelot enters the picture at this time, and becomes the dominant figure of the Round Table. He also eventually enters into an adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere. White portrays Arthur as a relatively simple and decent man. He loves both Guinevere and Lancelot, so prefers not to confront the problem of their adultery. Lancelot is portrayed as a man with an extremely ugly face (probably to combat the stereotype of the hero as thrillingly handsome as well as skillful or charismatic) and a very tender conscience. He wishes to do something miraculous, and considers virginity to be necessary for that. He rescues a virgin from boiling water, subsequently is tricked into sleeping with her, and decides he may as well give in to his love for Guinevere, which he had been resisting. From all this many problems arise.
The other main problem arises from Arthur sleeping with Morgause, a queen of the rather despised Celts, and, it turns out, his half-sister. From this alliance, Mordred is born, and turns out to be Arthur’s nemesis. Besides that, Mordred has 4 older brothers: Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, all knights of the Round Table, to their mother’s disgust. The legend of Arthur and the Holy Grail evolved. Gawaine was originally one of the dominant characters, to be succeeded by Lancelot, Galahad and Percivale (Parsifal in the German accounts of Wolfram von Eschenbach and Richard Wagner.
But the civilization begins to become decadent. Arthur and his friends think they’ve been neglecting spirituality, and the idea of the search for the Holy Grail is born.
All of this seems a condensed version of any civilization. It develops according to a central idea, which may be nothing more than the desire for land and loot, but which may develop in higher directions; necessarily so, if the civilization is to endure. White has Arthur and Guinevere sitting at home waiting for the knights to return. First to come back are those who failed through sexuality, killing, or insufficient theological acumen. Most of them have run into Galahad, Lancelot’s illegitimate son, who has become the best knight of the Round Table, and is regarded by most as priggish and immodest. Lancelot, when he returns, remarks that Galahad’s irritating behavior is beside the point. He’s on a higher plane than the other knights, so they’re unable to understand him. Lancelot himself has been beaten in jousts by Galahad, and realizes that he has too much pride to attain to the Grail, though in the end he is allowed to be in an outer part of the church where the knights selected to come to the Grail are celebrating Mass with the Grail central in the performance.
Arthur’s problem continues. The best knights seeking the Grail have died; what remains are the lesser knights. High spiritual achievement leads out of this world. If it doesn’t influence ordinary people, it’s of little use to society.
According to Joseph Campbell, this is what makes Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal the best of the various versions of the legend of King Arthur and of the Grail quest. Galahad is a virgin, and dies after having attained to the Grail: he has nothing else to live for. Parsifal (whose name von Eschenbach translates as meaning “right through the middle”) is married, and therefore engaged with society. He has also married for love, rather than for dynastic or economic reasons. Campbell says this is the first writing he knows of that recommends love as the primary reason for marriage, though that has since become the ideal in the western world.
Arthur continues to struggle with the idea of Might, which cannot be done away with. How can it be disciplined, so that it’s not constantly destructive of society? His next idea is the rule of law. This causes him personal problems because of Lancelot and Guinevere. Mordred and Agravaine try to catch them in adultery, succeed, and Guinevere is sentenced to be executed. Lancelot rescues her, but accidentally kills Gareth and Gaheris, younger brothers of Gawaine and older half-brothers of Mordred. Lancelot takes Guinevere to his castle, Arthur must lay seige to it, despite his personal reluctance, and while he is away Mordred engineers a coup. Arthur leaves the seige to fight Mordred.
In the last scene of the book Arthur is sleepless late at night in his tent, working fitfully at various things and thinking about his life. The central problem is unresolved, he knows he’s going to die the next day, and that all he worked for will be lost. He summons a page, and tells him to leave that night and survive to tell Arthur’s story, so that the effort can be renewed by someone else, possibly more successfully.
This seems a microcosm of any civilization, which begins, grows, develops, becomes decadent and dies. Not all civilizations try to achieve such high ideals, but civilizations that last more than a few hundred years have come to be unusual. All human organizations can become corrupted, and most do. Perhaps a civilization can be built on better foundations than those of Arthur, but there are no guarantees of success or indefinite survival. We know that the ideals of chivalry came from the Muslim world, at that time a much higher civilization than the European, but just who formulated them we don’t know. Some have suggested that ideals come originally from outside the human world. If so, they are probably not expected to be more than partially successful in the short term. If humans as a whole manage to evolve, that’s something that might change.