It is the nearest thing the English have to a mythology

I freely admit to being deeply interested, possibly even obsessed, by the story of King Arthur. One of the most rewarding books I studied at university was the Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, which I have recently reread, and found to have lost none of its charms.

The Morte is probably the nearest thing we have to an English mythology. The climactic scene, where Lancelot and Guinevere meet for the last time, is not the heart-rending romantic farewell that you would expect it to be. By this time Guinevere has taken refuge in a nunnery and taken vows, and she says to Lancelot, her former lover:

Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world; for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord [Arthur] slain. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, wit thou well I am set in such a plight to get my soul’s health; and yet I trust, through God’s grace, that after my death to have a sight of the blessed face of Christ, and at doomsday to sit on his right side, for as sinful as ever I was are saints in heaven. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, I require thee and beseech thee heartily, for all the love that ever was betwixt us, that thou never see me more in the visage; and I command thee on God’s behalf, that thou forsake my company, and to thy kingdom thou turn again and keep well thy realm from war and wrack. For as well as I have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee; for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed.

This is found in Book XXI, chapter 10, which can be found online here.

Malory ought to be required reading for all who have care of souls, and all who have to exercise rule in the world. What the story points to is that all matters of rule will in the end depend on self-rule, and that private passions will have public repercussions. It is a call to responsibility. And it is also a book about the various gradations of love, reminding us that the greatest love of all is not man for woman and vice versa, but the love of the soul for God. The key scene, apart from this parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, is of course, the virginal Sir Galahad’s ecstasy at the sight of the Holy Grail whereupon he is taken up to heaven at once.

This rather adult theme was absent from the recent BBC series Merlin, which ended this Christmas. I joined the series very late on, but what I saw, I loved (though perhaps not enough to buy all five previous series on DVD). The series was beautiful to look at, an intelligent updating of the myth, filmed in a gorgeous French chateau, Pierrefonds, associated with another hero of mine, the Emperor Napoleon III.

The ending of the series, which can so often disappoint, in fact took the whole thing to a new, even transcendental, level. King Arthur died, killed by Mordred, and was conveyed to Avalon, and there he rests still, as the final shot of the series told us. Until we need him again. Rex quondam, rex futurus.