Friday, 12 October 2012

The immortal death of Arthur, King

It was with some excitement that your blogger learned that next spring will see the release of JRR Tolkien's epic poem on the Fall of King Arthur.  As any fule kno, said fall was somewhat more significant than sliding off a bucking palfrey, and has, along with the rest of the legend, occupied artists in all media since the middle ages, from epic poems through to one of Rick Wakeman's concept albums, the main theme from which still resounds through my mind (you know, the bit that goes da da da, da da da, da daaaa).  Wakeman's work draws on, among other things, what is for many people the most familiar modern prose interpretation, T.H. White's Once and Future King, the first book of which was adapted by Disney into The Sword in the Stone and the entirety of which (and it must not be held culpable for this) spawned the musical Camelot (I refuse, with quiet dignity, to post a link to the last phenomenon).  This is not to mention (although clearly I'm about to) the whole sub-genre of non-fictional, esoteric and spiritual writing that deals with the Matter of Britain, and especially the literal and symbolic significance of the grail.

I'm in awe of how the Arthurian legend has proved versatile and malleable enough to not only be represented in a number of forms and genres, but also to be clothed in particular perspectives and agendas, be they feminist (Marion Zimmer Bradley) moral and patriotic (Mr. White) or just very, very silly (for me the most satisfying and coherent Monty Python film).  Of course, the deep, fundamental themes of spiritual quest, sacrifice, love and betrayal have assisted this versatility, but there seems to be a deep appeal beyond any easily categorisable aspect.  Two of my favourites are the relatively unsung trilogy by Gillian Bradshaw: Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer and In Winter's Shadow, and - in the young adult camp - Philip Reeve's recent tour de force of a novel depicting Merlin as a proto spin doctor, Here Lies Arthur.  I was for many years besotted with the T.H. White books, but now find the learned, avuncular tone somewhat grating, although I think the animal and bird transformation passages will prove timeless.

Tolkien opted for a robust, alliterative non-rhyming verse form, and segments can be read in an excellent Guardian piece.  I hope it does well, and it will be interesting to compare it to Simon Armitage's similar approach.  The real question is, will Peter Jackson get the film gig?  I can see Andy Serkis as Mordred, and am scared already.

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