From Wagner to Walt Disney, Milton to Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, composers, writers, poets and painters have all been inspired by the legend of King Arthur.
The stories are as familiar as Shakespeare or Dickens, but the difference is that there is no one original source. The producers of a new ten-part drama, Camelot, have decided to base their narrative on perhaps the best known of these, Le Morte d’Arthur, written by the 15th-century knight Sir Thomas Malory. First published by Caxton’s press in 1485, it has never been out of print since, making it one of the oldest books in the English language.
The Irish-Canadian producers of Channel 4’s series are the same team who made The Tudors, so viewers shouldn’t be surprised that when we first see the young Arthur (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) – within seconds of the opening credits – he is stark naked, frolicking in a meadow with a buxom, blonde wench.
Sir Thomas Malory’s account is not quite as graphic as that, but it is packed with stories of incest, rape and adultery. Sir Lancelot certainly puts it about. At one point, he tells Queen Guinevere that he is obliged to seek the company of other ladies at court in order to divert attention from the fact that they are lovers.
It is thought that Malory culled the details of the Arthurian stories from other, earlier accounts. Peter Ackroyd, who recently published an updated version of Malory’s book called The Death of King Arthur, says the knight composed his account from French dventure novels that were popular among the nobility of the time.
No one knows for sure when the adventures of Arthur and Merlin were first told. The earliest versions probably weren’t even written down, but recounted by druids sitting around camp fires. In the 12th century, the Welsh-speaking cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about Merlin’s prophecies and Arthur’s adventures, which he claimed to have translated from some other, unspecified language. Other early manuscripts in which the tales appear are the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen and the 14th-century Mabinogion.
It seems extraordinary that these stories should remain so popular from generation to generation, throughout so many centuries. Is there an explanation for such longevity? “It’s the first epic that combines magic and adventure,” says Peter Ackroyd, “and it’s been the template for all future epics to come out of England. The ingredients are all there: an enchanted world suffused with honour, chivalry and shame, and then there is romance. The Arthurian legends contain two of the greatest love stories of all time: Tristram and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere.”
Malory’s version of the King Arthur legend is also a story about nation-building and national honour. Ackroyd recounts in his preface how Malory was born in the first decade of the 15th century – a period of great violence and uncertainty. By the time the knight wrote his book, the English crown had lost all its territories in France. Merlin brings young Arthur to the throne as a unifying figure who would become sovereign of England by fighting off invading armies and other pretenders to the crown. “It is a story of Englishness,” says Ackroyd, “one of the founding texts of English literature.”
In the 20th century, Hollywood – and Disney in particular – sanitised the character of Arthur, making him into a one-dimensional fairy-tale king. But Ackroyd points out that in Malory’s version, Arthur is “an ambiguous character beset by doubt, fear and jealously. In some ways he is quite a nervous king.”
This is evident in the first episode of Camelot. Jamie Campbell Bower’s Arthur is a callow youth, nervously eyeing up the hairy warlords who have gathered to meet him as he claims the throne. The only things he has to prove his birthright are the sword he has plucked from the stone and Merlin’s prophecies.
Malory’s Arthur is also guilty of some very dark deeds. When Merlin tells him that his future destroyer will be of noble blood and born on the first of May, Arthur carries out his own slaughter of the innocents, demanding that every lord and knight in the land deliver up their children born on that day, so that he can have them drowned at sea.
Merlin (played in this new version by Joseph Fiennes), meanwhile, is no cartoon wizard with a pointy hat and wand. In Malory’s version he’s a cross between a holy man and a machiavellian consiglieri, who dies fairly early on in Arthur’s reign. But not before he has appeared before his charge in all sorts of guises to make his prophecies, all of which come true.
The great thing about the Arthurian legends, according to Ackroyd, is that you can do whatever you like with them. “There is no one true version,” he says, because in all likelihood King Arthur never existed. There is a theory that he may have been based on a fifth-century English warrior called Arthur, who achieved a victory against the Saxons circa 490 in the Battle of Mons Badonicus. But that Arthur is referred to as a “Dux Bellorum”, which translates as military commander, not king.
One can argue that whether Arthur really existed is irrelevant. The fact is that he lives in our collective imagination and will continue to do so long after we have all departed.
The mythology of Camelot remains part of our national identity as Britons. From bedtime stories to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and, most recently, the BBC’s Merlin series, generation after generation of British children have been raised with the iconography of the Arthurian legend firmly implanted in their brains, while the king himself is continually being reinvented.
As Ackroyd observes, “The lords of our country were disloyal to him and lacking in reverence. What was the reason? The English are forever unstable and untrue, seeking novelty in new guises. Nothing satisfies us for long.”
Kirsty Lang presents Front Row, weekdays R4
Peter Ackroyd’s The Death of King Arthur is out now in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)