Yet Some Men Say in Many Parts that Arthur is not Dead

by E. John Winner

This essay is composed of informal reflections on the historical impact of the recent election; therefore, I hope the reader forgives the lack of endnotes and links supporting much of what I say here, since I am not making a case but offering a personal point of view.

From Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Twenty-first Book, Chapter IV:

Then the king gat his spear in both his hands, and ran toward Sir Mordred, crying, Traitor, now is thy death day come. And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And then king Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear throughout the body more than a fathom. And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death’s wound, he thrust himself, with the might that he had, up to the bur of king Arthur’s spear. And right so he smote his father Arthur with his sword holden in both his hands, on the side of the head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain-pan, and therewithal Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth. And the noble Arthur fell in a swoon to the earth, and there he swooned oft-times. And Sir Lucan de butlere and Sir Bedivere oft-times heaved him up, and so weakly they led him betwixt them both to a little chapel not far from the sea side. And when the king was there, he thought him well eased. Then heard they people cry in the field. Now go thou, Sir Lucan, said the king, and do me to wit what betokens that noise in the field. So Sir Lucan departed, for he was grievously wounded in many places. And so as he went, he saw and hearkened by the moon-light, how the pillers and robbers were come into the field to pill and to rob many a full noble knight of broaches and beads, of many a good ring, and of many a rich jewel; and who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches. When Sir Lucan understood this work, he came to the king as soon as he might, and told him all what he had heard and seen. Therefore by mine advice, said Sir Lucan, it is best that we bring you to some town. I would it were so, said the king…

The legends of King Arthur are widely remembered and frequently taught as a narrative of Medieval nobility, of brave knights engaged in dangerous challenges and jousts in their quest for the Holy Grail, of love longing and love lost; but above all, of the wisdom and leadership of Arthur, “the once and future king.”

Unfortunately, this characterization of the Arthurian mythos is itself a myth and misleading, as well.  The Arthurian legends, taken as a whole, form a collective memory of moral corruption, political decay, and failed ideals.   Arthur has indeed been taught by Merlin that he is destined to bring about a golden age of morality and justice to the British Isles (actually to Wales) and forms a court of chosen knights to help him realize this.  But he is doomed almost from the start.  An illegitimate son, himself, he sires two more illegitimate sons.  The first he kills outright, although there is no discussion in the legends of the reasons for this.  The second is the spawn of an incestuous tryst with his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, who is said to be a witch.  Mordred, the son, ultimately becomes the tool of Arthur’s undoing, but even before their final battle, Arthur’s world has been pulled inside out.  The fabled knights of the Round Table prove hot-headed and untrustworthy, falling out among themselves while making one mistake after another.  Arthur’s childless wife, Guinevere (whom he may have married against her will), commits adultery with Arthur’s noblest knight, Launcelot, which effectively dooms Launcelot’s quest for the Grail.  (By the time he returns for Guinevere, she has entered a convent and died, perhaps of a broken heart.)  The great Merlin himself falls under the enchantment of a witch, who imprisons him in stone while on his way to aid Arthur.  As we see in the passage above, the first thing that happens among the people of his kingdom, once he is mortally wounded, is degeneration into a mob plundering the bodies of his slain knights.  Camelot, indeed.

So it is considerably ironic that, in the early 1960s, the Administration of President John F. Kennedy was often referred to, by insiders, as well as the press, as “Camelot.” He had a beautiful wife; he appointed the “best and the brightest” to fill Executive Branch offices.  He seemed to seal the fate of an already discredited political Right, and his election put an end to decades of anti-Catholic propaganda.  He voiced support for the Civil Rights movement, yet still showed bold determination in confronting Communism.  He poured government money into the economy and yet cut taxes, thus beginning a decade of the greatest affluence ever enjoyed by the citizens of a rich and powerful nation.

But “golden ages” are a function of myth.  Kennedy, son of a former bootlegger, proved a womanizer in the White House.  He brought the world as close to the brink of nuclear war as imaginable without actually dropping a bomb, during the Cuban missile crisis.  He privately rejected any federal action on Civil Rights.  The decision to cut taxes laid the foundation for all the “tax revolts” of later decades.  Unable to control an intelligence community that was already effectively operating as a shadow government on certain policy matters, his major contributions to it were decisions that would sink America into the swamps of Vietnam, including the overthrow of the Diem government, which would necessitate the murder of Diem.  He privately expressed some regret for that, but shortly afterwards, he himself was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

Some great good came out of the 1960’s, but a lot of ugliness as well.  It should be well known, so I won’t recount it all (although I admit that one person’s good will appear ugly to others and vice versa).  But the fact is that enjoying, as they did, the greatest wealth and power of any nation in history, the people of the United States needed to consider their real opportunities, as well as the real dangers that awaited them.  Instead, they partied.  “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” does not sufficiently express the casual abandonment to the quest for new experiences and greater pleasures realized at the time.

Even Vietnam was a kind of party.  As Ozzy Osbourne sang in “War Pigs,” “Generals gathered in their masses/ just like witches at black masses (…) Making war just for fun,” the Military Industrial Complex saw the war as playground for new inventions of mass destruction.  From Agent Orange to massive air-strikes, from strategies of population displacement to tactics of coercion, Vietnam was a kind of clinic for experiments in new weaponry, new military theory and practice, and new means of dominating an occupied population.

And let’s admit that it delivered at least some amusement back in the United States as well.  It provided television journalism a moment to shine, from whence it took off to become the media monster it is today.  It supplied fodder for a host of artists, musicians, academic theorists, and hopeful political activists, who would later take the lessons they learned from their uncompromising positions to political causes in the 1980’s and beyond, both on the Left and on the Right.

The only thing golden about the “golden age” of the ’60s was the gold itself.  And America went off the gold standard in 1973.

When I was researching the rhetoric of Mein Kampf, I felt chills as I read the first line of Hitler’s posthumously available Second Book: “Politics is history in the making.”  What disturbed me about this line was that it spoke to every romantic notion we’ve inherited from Modernity; about the decisive nature of every political moment and every act we take, and about the grandeur of the narrative of history to which we are contributing.  But after a series of political and social disappointments over the past few decades, I realize that history is never in the making, except in the writings of historians.  What is being made in our decisions are the consequences we will have to live with, for good or ill; and responses to other consequences not even of our own making; the results of decisions by nameless others long before we were born.

When Ronals Reagan was elected in 1980, I was terrified; my response was best summed up by Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, in “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now”:  “Welcome to 1984/ Are you ready for the Third World War?”  Well, WWIII hasn’t happened yet, and the surveillance state took much longer to put in place (with bi-partisan agreement) than either Biafra or I feared back then.  Nonetheless, there really was a Reagan Revolution, and we are still living with it – as are our children.  Most Reagan Republicans would eschew Trump, but Reagan’s manipulation of the media, the changes he made in the executive branch, the pressures he put on Congress, the Rightist memes his people circulated, his de-industrialization of the economy, and its shift to the demands of the “supply-side” – all of this made Donald Trump possible.  And who knows what lasting effect Trump’s election will have?

I can guarantee this:  Democrats and progressives have suffered an enormous disappointment in the election itself.  But the disappointment doesn’t end there.  No one will be happy with this administration.  Trump’s core fans will be expecting fulfillment of wild promises he cannot keep (many of which he has no interest in keeping), and the Republicans in Congress will suffer trying to rein in the beast.  The budget will not produce jobs, and the economy will remain fragile, at best.  His foreign policy will unravel into a shambles of disregarded treaties, miscommunications, and an overall lack of direction.  There may indeed be a war down the line –our precarious relationship with North Korea, for instance, has just gotten so much more deadly.  Eventually, most of Trump’s voters will realize that all they won in this election was a few months to gloat over those who lost.  What goes around comes around, and most will feel the sting of defeat in their own good time.

Of course, a Clinton administration would also have led to disappointments, albeit different ones. But even if the worse doesn’t come to worst, it isn’t going to get better.  Because it never does, at least never in the ways we wish or are promised.  That’s because “golden ages” do not exist, and in the past lie the seeds that eventually grow into our own misjudgments.

Politics is not history in the making.  Politics is merely the collective effort to deal with people we don’t like, in order to increase our enjoyment of the time spent with people we do like and in the process, persuade some of those whom we don’t like to behave more likeably.  Looking at it any other way may produce beautiful monuments – and hideous wars; fine words – and ruined lives.  But mostly, it just leads to disappointment.

The best we can accomplish is, in fact, an insecure peace, a stagnant bureaucracy, an untrustworthy but negotiable economy, and a tolerable coexistence with our neighbors (most of whom we will never know nor understand).

Of course there is always hope, and Barack Obama made a strong case in 2008 that hope is the motivator we must rely on, if we are to engage in politics at all.  But he himself disappointed many of us, and though his rhetoric soothed that disappointment, it would not go away.  Ultimately we discover that the world we wish we could live in is not the world we do live in, and the men and women we trust to bring us there are, after all, but fallible human beings.

“Yet some men yet say in many parts of England that king Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu in another place. And men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse, Hic iacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rex que futurus.”

Le Morte D’Arthur, The Twenty-first Book, Chapter VII





7 responses to “Yet Some Men Say in Many Parts that Arthur is not Dead”

  1. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    I’ve embedded video from youtube, of performances of quoted material at my own web log, no sign of it, – I especially like the performance of selections of Morte d’Arthur in the original late Medieval dialect.

  2. “The budget will not produce jobs, and the economy will remain fragile, at best. His foreign policy will unravel into a shambles of disregarded treaties, miscommunications, and an overall lack of direction. There may indeed be a war down the line…”

    I am not hopeful on the economy. The huge build-up of debt over the last decade has to be dealt with and so far Trump shows no signs of coming to terms with this. On the international front, Obama has sent confusing messages (e.g. drawing lines in the sand and not following through) and in effect has just continued (in modified form) the broadly neoconservative Bush legacy. Relations with Russia and a lot of other countries have deteriorated markedly. In my opinion there is a real possibility that Trump could make some progress here. Nothing is guaranteed, of course.

    I don’t underestimate the role of mythical thinking in politics. We all think in terms of myth. I don’t think we can avoid it, but we can at least be aware of the myths that drive us.

  3. Mark,
    ” In my opinion there is a real possibility that Trump could make some progress here.” I know this is your great hope here, but I’m afraid you will likely be disappointed. Mr. Trump has no foreign policy, only business policy; he will do what he can to protect his businesses in Russia and elsewhere, but eventually the Republicans in Congress, and in the military/intelligence community will enforce what they perceive as American interests, for good or ill. Besides which, the future of the global economy – and its politics – will likely be determined in the East. This will include orbits of influence of which Trump has little understanding. Do the people around him or his appointments? As you say, nothing is guaranteed.

    Except disappointment.

  4. Hi EJ, your take on the Trump election as viewed through an artistic lens worked better for me than David’s, mainly because I was familiar with everything. The references clicked home easy.

    I don’t really want to be too critical. It is a nice essay, with commentary and advice worth taking on board.

    But like Dan’s essay there are points which I think aren’t completely correct, and (I feel) unnecessary to make your point.

    My main problem is I don’t see why we have to reject golden ages. You say they don’t exist, but that’s not true. They simply exist in a different way than many may feel from time to time. They are bits of history where the blemishes have been airbrushed away, like in year book photos, to try to get at the “best” of that period (of whatever it was).

    A good example is when we talk of a “golden age” of comics or TV. There was plenty of garbage during those times. The point is that there was (within some specific set of criteria) a degree of achievement that had not been seen before (or since). Hell, during the “golden age” of sail, there were certainly lots of crappy ships floating about and a lot of pirates and privateering (so plenty of ugliness going on below the canvas sheets), but as far as life at sea goes (powered only by sail) it was at a high point.

    I agree that people shouldn’t get wrapped up in them, lose sight of reality, but to say they don’t exist at all is too far for me. If anything it seems a manufactured darkness just as mythical and potentially error-producing as the longed for “golden ages”.

    If all you expect is banality, then I think you are in for worse times than if you harbor some vision of what could be great and a desire to make it happen. Mainly because some other guy with a vision (and a crew of similar mind) will exploit your expectations of getting little, by making sure you get what you expect in exchange for more of what they want.

    Another point (but really nit-picking) is that Camelot had pretty well fallen by the time Arthur dies, so it’s somewhat unfair to portray the people as having their base nature suddenly released on his death, like aha that was the way they were all along and now we can see Camelot was a sham the whole time. There are circumstances when people act horribly in general, but there are times when they don’t. I don’t think it’s the case that people (or their “true natures”) are “just waiting” for an opportunity to get out.

    Finally, I’d also want to defend sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but… well… I guess I can leave it with the above.

  5. Test post to see if I can post to EA again…

    -Traruh/Arthur (who is not dead yet).

  6. Ah! I got through!

    Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll!

    I lived 30 miles from Haight Ashbury (in Saratoga) during the ‘summer of love’, but never went there! And my parents were living on Haight Street when I was born. It was a conservative Italian neighborhood at the time.

    Just not ‘born to be wild’ I guess…

  7. dbholmes ,
    In general, I am suspicious of claims of any ‘golden age.’ The term is really an expression of nostalgia, and has limited applicability. For instance if some one wants to talk about ‘the golden age of light rail,’ then this would only refer to an era when light rail dominated intra-city and inter-city transport, with beneficial effects. But once we start talking about ‘golden ages’ in broadly historical terms, we run into problems: cui bono? The 1850s seems to have been a golden age in American literature; for African Americans, not so much. We think of the 5th and 4th century BCE as a golden age of ancient philosophy – you know, the era the people of Athens sentenced Socrates to death? I honestly do not buy any generalized ‘golden age’ claim, because it blinkers us from recognizing how diverse and complex a reality the people of that age actually lived.

    Is the denial of a ‘golden age’ a move towards ‘mythic’ darkness? Well, that assumes that we always read history in terms of light and dark, and this again distracts from dealing with matters in a realistic fashion. That the Romans or the Chinese of the ancient world killed girl infants in order to preserve resources for their sons is dark to us only in hindsight, and something I would strongly advocate we do not allow; but the Romans and the Chi9nes were pretty comfortable with it.

    What does this mean? It means we pass moral judgments on historical events, just as we pass moral judgments on current situations. It’s not clear that we can avoid doing so, or that we should. However, we should be aware that events in the past are primarily just what they are, which we cannot undo. And whatever we do now, while hopefully helping to improve our lives, and those of loved ones, does not assure us, or our loved ones or children, any such improvement.

    Again, the point about the ’60s is that its remembrance as a ‘golden age’ largely depends on forgetting that much of our experiences then depended on enormous – and unsustainable – wealth, some of which was generated by neocolonialism and military industrialism – in short, causing others pain. And the lasting results of events of the ’60s, while improving some lives, have also including wounding others.

    So no, having lived through a ‘golden age’ and its aftermath, I don’t buy that there is actually any such thing.

    As for my reading of the passage from Morte D’Arthur: I’m perfectly aware of what came before; however, I think it’s a fair reading of Malory’s intention to put the notice of the looting of the dead knights where he did, as remarking a fall into anarchy. Malory, who had been engaged in violent political intrigue, wrote as the War of the Roses was beginning to take shape, and may be reflecting on that, as well as on his own entanglements that led to his imprisonment. That’s largely speculation; nonetheless, Malory was no primitive cataloguer of Arthurian myths.

    As to expectations – the wisest course seems to be, strategize for maximal achievement, expect minimal results, but always keep advancing one’s cause. Banality is in the eye of the beholder. Most people just want to get on with their lives. They have a right to that; and if they can be assured of it, then we can talk about grander futures.

    However, remember that grander futures don’t always realize what they’re promised to be.