Historical Text; Text Historical
I have finished this book that has been hidden unnoticed all these years upon my bookshelf. I think my father bought it when I was small; but the fact was I did not start reading English books until quite grown up.
The stories of King Arthur and his knights of course delight me (and am the more delighted to find out references for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – indeed nothing comes out of nothing!); yet the most interesting part is not the American Pyle’s narrative (in fact I find him not a very good narrator, since he keeps using the same descriptions, as if all the knights and all the ladies, even all the adventures, are the same to him), but the afterword contributed by a certain scholar.
It talks about the history of the King Arthur stories – somehow after the Master degree at Queen Mary I become very scrupulous about the history of a text – and it proves to be as amusing as the stories themselves. The earliest King Arthur was a warrior, somehow associated with Jesus Christ, around 540AD; around 800AD he was recognized as Celtic who had battled against Saxons (guess the recent film adaptation King Arthur based the story on this historical reference). King Arthur became a legendary king and warrior, somehow connected with the foundation of Christianity, until around 1135AD, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia incorporated King Arthur into history. That was when King Arthur became a national hero – a great warrior, and a powerful as well as moralistic leader. After which Medieval writers recreated the King Arthur stories, incorporating them into a Medieval court and Chivalric ideals – that was when the association of King Arthur and Chivalry began. Camelot became the earthly paradise, anonymous to Eden. It was Chretien who introduced the quest for the Holy Grail to the Arthur stories, blending Christian tradition, Celtic legends, and Medieval romance into one. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was printed by William Caxton, one of the earliest printers in England, in 1485. His stories of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table became the basis for most later Arthurian narratives.
It goes without saying that during the Renaissance (though it began rather late in England) there brought forth a fever over Classical studies, and for several centuries the Arthur stories were undermined by poets and artists alike (not even Shakespeare took the slightest interest in them). It was not until the 19th century, that some Romantic poets and artists again turned to their own national history, and recovered their past glory of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Among those poets the most important was Lord Alfred Tennyson; and those artists who named themselves the PreRaphaelites. Some argue that the recovery of Arthurian themes indicates an era when the British found a need for a national identity – so the reappearance of King Arthur becomes a signifier of the 19th century British nationalism. King Arthur became the British ideal: Christian, strong, and wise. Honour and loyalty towards one’s lord became the greatest virtues (note that the Round Table did not denote democracy as is often today, but a sign of honour for the worthy and loyal).
Is not that interesting? King Arthur is not only a myth; it is not only about chivalrous knights rescuing gracious ladies. There is much going on within as well as without the margins. When Stephen Orgel asked “What is a text?”, he does not mean Roland Barthe’s denial of the author. The author creates the text, and it is difficult and unreasonable to deny the intentions therewith. But Orgel’s question is, “What happened to the text after it left the hands of the author, and before it came before our eyes?”