Arthurs for Our Time: Recent Interpretations of a Legend

Writers across ages and places have created versions of Arthur that either retell his legend or depict what could happen whenever his prophesized return occurs, when and how he’ll address whichever crisis is at hand.  T.H. White’s Once and Future King, for example, includes a Merlyn who lives backwards so that when he reaches the Middle Ages, he’s able to refer anachronistically to World War II and Nazism, definitely relevant to British audiences during the mid-twentieth century.  Decades later, Peter David penned Knight Life, starring a humorous Arthur, now Arthur Penn.  He reappears in Manhattan, reconnects with Merlin, and then enters politics when Merlin tells him that the world needs a leader like him.  White injects current (to him) history to link his British readers into Merlyn’s instructions about war, giving them a medieval Arthur who models what White feels his contemporaries might need to survive Hitler, making our hero truly once and future.  David, then, blends humor with politics that resonate within the zeitgeist and desires of the 1980s. That David chooses Manhattan rather than the United Kingdom for Arthur’s return indicates that the story doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of Britain, because Arthur and his themes apply not only to England, but to many nations, and — considering Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland’s Camelot 3000 — across worlds.  You know what I mean if the terms “timeless” and “universal” pop into your mind. Both these qualities imply thematic flexibility and adaptability, just what an eternal king requires for getting the job done.

Three recent offerings have successfully stretched Arthurian themes to bold limits. One is a trilogy, another a stand-alone novel, and the final is an ongoing comic-book series. In the twenty-first century, the need for Arthur or an Arthurian figure has become quite open to wider interpretations, but (What a twist!) that need isn’t always met advantageously for all concerned.

The Knights of Breton Court by Maurice Broaddus

When pitching The Knights of Breton Court — a trilogy including King Maker, King’s Justice, and King’s War — Maurice Broaddus described his idea as Excalibur meets The Wire.  He states further that his pacing “has more in common with a crime novel than [with] urban fantasy.”  Finally, add that Broaddus drew inspiration from years working with Outreach Inc., a concern focusing on homeless teens, and you have the matter of Indianapolis, the spirit of Arthur reborn into King James White, a gang leader armed with his handgun, Caliburn. He’s the son of a gang leader who surrounds himself with Lady G, Lott, Wayne, Percy, Tristan, and his advisor, Merle, to confront the evils lurking within his inner-city neighborhood, hoping to unite the disparate gangs.

The familiar tropes abound, albeit adapted to this challenged world, with Lady G and Lott following their mutual attraction and nearly ruining King, with Merle falling sway to Nine, and Percy setting out to find the “Pimp Cup.”  Readers will recognize the Tristan and Isolde romance through lesbians Tristan Drust and Isobel “Iz” Cornwall, Iz being a heroin addict here.  And what to make of Merle, wearing a tinfoil cap, communicating with the various fay and monsters that enter the narrative, and reminding all that although cast differently these are the original legends returned.

Broaddus uses the legends to explore what he terms “voiceless” issues in society, and so his characters are homeless individuals, gang members, drug addicts, or parolees.  These players have dignity easily matching that of those who originally rode out of Camelot.  King is the Arthur required to address what confronts this Indianapolis neighborhood.  He’s not only once and future, but he’s also the present, and thus the eternal king, or at least his essence, adapts to what’s needed in the moment.

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

All right. So much for chivalry, because here comes Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, an eye-popping retelling that, while set in the Middle Ages, lays out an Arthur and Camelot quite oppositional to the traditional versions to which we’re accustomed.  I find this appropriate, however.  T.H. White recrafted Arthur partially to reflect events of his twentieth-century moment, and so does Tidhar, I posit.  Over the last fifty years, Americans have fallen in love with organized crime.  Literature, film, and television have romanticized this violent world. Tidhar does the opposite by subverting the original romance of chivalry, knights, and quests into an account of drug pushers, protection rackets, and the right to rule by might instead of by divine providence.  In the Washington Post, Vivian Shaw says about this novel, “It is a vicious, beautiful, profane, and wickedly funny reimagining of the rise and fall of King Arthur, and Matthew Keeley writing for Tor.com opines:

Tidhar’s Arthur, like Boris Johnson with a sword and better PR, fights to keep foreigners from his island. In the novel’s post-Roman setting, these foreigners include the Angles and the Saxons. Towards the end of the novel, Merlin imagines that one day the Angles and Saxons, convinced that they’ve always been there, will make Arthur their national hero. Jingoism is self-defeating in the short term and ridiculous in the long term.

Arthur came up much like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, running a small gang that sells “Goblin Fruit” throughout Londinium while slowly accruing power until Merlin devises the con involving Excalibur – yes, I said con.  The Lady of the Lake’s nothing more than an arms dealer, Guinevere leads an all-woman bandit crew, and Galahad runs a brothel.  It’s a cynical world, but no more so than the mobster life about which Sammy “The Bull” Gravano felt had caused more damage to American life than the communists we feared so much during the Cold War.

Grimly funny, the takeover scenes in By Force Alone read more like Don Corleone and company taking opponents to the mattresses than consolidating a nation to repel foreign invaders.  Perhaps this Arthur presents the gritty truth underlying the glossy surface to show us what we need to see? The truth behind the ideal?  It’s a theory.

Once & Future by Kieron Gillon, Dan Mora, and Tamra Bonvillain

I never miss purchasing titles from certain comic writers.  Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, Jughead, and his current run with Daredevil easily have won me into his camp.  Greg Rucka’s Stumptown, Lazarus, and Black Magick had me at hello.  After experiencing Mark Russell’s, The Flintstones Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles I’ll never watch Hanna-Barbera cartoons the same way again.  And Gail Simone and Mags Visaggio have become known for experimenting with time-honored themes in new ways.  Kieron Gillen too plays beyond the edge with his The Wicked + The Divine, and with the title now under scrutiny, Once & Future. Now we say goodbye to any shred of heroism Arthur may have possessed while learning to find it elsewhere.

Ex-monster hunter Bridgette McGuire explains the situation to her grandson, Duncan:

Arthur united the Britons, beat back the invading foreigners.  And then the bit people always forget about . . . he went to war with a European empire and crushed it. He’s said to return in Britain’s darkest hour. There was always something about the prophecy that rubbed me the wrong way. Never trust a prophecy that can be taken two ways.  What do they mean by that? Well, he could return because it’s Britain’s darkest hour, sure, or his return could cause it.

Wait.  What?

Arthur returns, but he returns undead, racist, and embracing hyper-nationalism. Indeed, it’s a British white supremacy sect that initiates his return to flush foreigners from England’s sacred soil.  In an interview with Comiccon.com’s Olly MacNamee, Gillen admits that the rise of nationalism globally inspired him to pursue this project, and he further elaborates:

[A]bout a decade ago I was watching The Mummy and wondering if there was any way to do something that scratched the Indiana Jones adventure itch while side-stepping the worst of the colonialism inherent in turning the founding legends of another culture into monsters. I instantly thought “Do it with King Arthur” and the rest cascaded out quickly, but King Arthur As Mummy was the core. I did the core thinking of it, then left it on the side for a rainy day.

One day it rained, and there it was.

So as with Broaddus and Tidhar, Gillen reimagines Arthur to address certain cultural and societal issues, here being trends that permeate Britain during the Brexit age, not a nice time by the estimates of many English citizens.  Gillen’s undead-mummy Arthur plays right into that, morphing the legend into fresh territory without destroying everything altogether.

But don’t despair.  Bridgette and Duncan McGuire are on the scene to blast away at monsters, knights, and modern Nazis.  We learn that things have been brewing for a while, actually, and although the story starts with Bridgette living in a retirement home, she’s still up to the job while training and enlightening her grandson about the strange and unfriendly situation he confronts.

Dana Mora’s artwork and Tamra Bonvillain’s colors nicely enhances Gillen’s fast-paced narrative, and what was once meant for only six issues has expanded into an ongoing series.  After all, Bridgette’s only getting started, so fuck retirement and remember that old age hath yet HER honor and HER toil. Arthurian heroism isn’t dead.  It’s just not where you’ve been trained to look for it.