Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part Five: The Source

Imagine you're a kid. Your father is a landowner and a knight. Your older brother is obviously being groomed as the heir, which is normal and natural. He is, actually, a knight in his own right. You, however, are not being trained as a second, a backup, which would also be normal and natural. You're being trained to take care of horses and muck stalls and do the upkeep on your brother's gear, but that's about it. Sure, you'll get to be a squire, but you can tell there's some... difference; you're just not sure what it is. Clearly, your father loves you, and it's not a matter of favoritism; your brother is held just as accountable for wrongs as you are. But there is something... something that sets you apart. Or is that just wishful thinking?

This tournament comes up, and your brother is going to take part. He's even one of the favored knights. But something happens. The morning of the tournament, there's a problem with your brother's sword. He's livid. Stomping around. He demands that you find him a new one. And that's where everything changes...

* * *

Raise your hand if you know where this is going.
From what I can tell, the Arthurian Legend is at the root of modern fantasy. All of the elements are there. Let's look at it along with the initial list.

1. Arthur is not an adult. His age varies from child to teen, but it's clear that he's not an adult.
2. Arthur is an orphan. Soon after being taken from his parents by Merlin, they are killed.
3. Arthur is the child of the king, the first High King of Britain, even if short-lived.
4. Arthur is the child of prophecy, the one destined to draw the sword from the stone and become the True High King that will unite the land.
5. Arthur is mentored by Merlin, the Wizard.
6. "What is your quest?" "The Quest for the Holy Grail!"
7. Arthur's great descent is the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere.
8. Arthur has all of the Knights of the Round Table, many of whom have special skills and talents.
9. The "dark lord" Arthur has to face is his half-sister, Morgan, a sorceress and mother of his child.
10. And, of course, there is no technology.

Not only is fantasy filled with King Arthur stories... Wait, let me list just the ones that I've read, which is nowhere near comprehensive:
1. Le Morte d'Arthur (technically not fantasy, because it's a classic but, if it had been written today, it would be fantasy)
2. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (also, technically, not fantasy because it was written by Steinbeck, but if it had been written by anyone else...)
3. The Once and Future King
4. The Pendragon Cycle (possibly the best Arthur series I've ever read)
5. Camulod Chronicles (possibly the second best Arthur series I've ever read and it's done completely from a historical fiction perspective, so it's only fantasy because it's about Arthur)

There may be more, but that's what I know I've read right off the top of my head, and those are just the ones that are actually about Arthur. There's probably no good way of counting up the number of books that make reference to Arthur or Merlin (The House on the Corner for one) or show some kind of direct influence from the Arthurian Mythos (even Lewis' Space Trilogy, and the resemblance of the Sword of Gryffindor to the Sword in the Stone can't be denied). It's possible that the Legend of Arthur is the most pervasive literary influence in Western culture (but it would probably take more study than I've put into it to determine that for certain).

And, yes, even Tolkien has a relationship to Arthur. There's The Fall of Arthur (a poem that Tolkien didn't consider finished so was published posthumously) and his re-telling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And probably more but not more that's been published. That I know of.

Even with Tolkien's interest in Arthur, not much of the Arthurian Model finds its way into The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, as has already been discussed. I think Beowulf was a much greater influence on both works than Arthur ever was.

None of which is to say that Tolkien doesn't deserve the title Father of Modern Fantasy. Certainly, he's the one that "created" the genre, and he gave a lot of window dressing to it. The idea of fantastic races in fantasy comes directly from his influence; however, they're not required. Adding elves and leprechauns is like... well, it's like spicing your food. Some people sprinkle on the elf, some shake on some goblins, some keep it plain.

All of which is to say that, even though we can thank Tolkien for ushering in the age of fantasy literature, it's to Arthur that we owe the stories. One little orphan boy who pulled a sword from a stone.


  1. I do love a good King Arthur story. But they are kind of an odd intersection of history and fantasy. Myth, I suppose. Tales from when the world still believed in magic, like fairies and wizards.

  2. There's also The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White.

    As a scientist, I wonder if anyone's done any research to prove that Arthur is the source of modern fantasy. Are there any other stories before his that use all of these elements?

  3. L.G.: Well, we all like to embellish our heroes a bit. Davy Crockett was out killing bears at the age of three, after all.
    And some people still do believe in fairies and wizards.

    Sandra: The Sword in the Stone is part of The Once and Future King.

    I couldn't find anything that fit this model earlier than the Arthur stories. Of course, I didn't do any kind of exhaustive research, but, as far as I can tell, this was the first mythos to use this pattern.

  4. Truth, I think every great fantasy author has toyed with the Arthurian legend at one point or another. I mean, how can you not?

  5. Crystal: Arthur is the foundation. Even if you don't know the name or the story, you can'r get away from the influence.

  6. Top Theoretical Fantasists here at Pagel Labs are working round the clock to prove that Beowulf, Arthurian Legends, and Lord of The Rings were in fact all influenced by "Star Wars," but it may have to wait until we discover the Lucas Boson to show how "Star Wars" actually warped time to inspire things that SEEMED TO be created before it existed.

  7. Briane: You should probably start at "A long time ago." I'm sure that will help your case.