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The Figure of King Arthur as a Mirror of Political and Religious Views
By Karl Heinz Göller
Functions of Literature: Essays Presented to Erwin Wolff on his Sixtieth Birthday, eds. U.Broich, T. Stemmler and G.Stratmann (Tübingen, 1984)
Introduction: Chretien de Troyes said in his Ywain: “I agree with the Bretons that King Arthur’s name will live for evermore.” This was indeed a prophetic word for Arthur’s fame has spread all over the world, and there is scarcely a national literature where he has not found a home. Critics have tried to explain this popularity by pointing out that Arthur is an ideal romance figure, a prototype of the good monarch, an archetype or even a kind of Everyman, and that he therefore rightfully possesses a permanent place in the human heart. Some authors have even gone so far as to maintain that he remains recognizable whatever his guise, that he remains true to himself.
In contrast to this view, I want to point out that hardly any other figure in literature has been as controversial and as ambivalent as that of Arthur. Under his name, we encounter literary characters who have little or nothing in common with each other in spite of the fact that they can be traced back to the Dux Bellorum of Nennius or to related popular traditions. There is the familiar figure of the chivalric Arthur, who is a kind of incarnation of the ideal suzerain. At the same time there is also the King Arthur who rules his country like a “swine” (in the nursery rhymes). And , there is the less well known Saint Arthur, who is venerated even today in the churches of France, particularly in Brittany.
The ideal chivalric ruler, swine and saint: how can we account for such a wide range of divergent developments? A number of critics have made investigations into the laws which have determined these tendencies5 , without – it must be said – coming up with any satisfactory results. The principles delineated, such as what has been termed “epic degeneration”, have not proved generally valid or applicable – there are evidently diametrically opposed tendencies.
On the other hand, the various lines of development are not completely indeterminable. The figure of the king is by no means freshly conceived each time as if there were no predecessors; on the contrary, the character of Arthur as found in literature or oral tradition is clearly influenced by antecedent portrayals in the development of the legend.