Arthur sinks the Titanic at Troy in Patriot Love of schlock

Across a misty Avalon lake a barge glides gently over dark waters though no wind stirs its sails. Within, in shimmering armour, lies King Arthur, fatally wounded by a movie camera. On shore, three knights discuss his fate. "Gad, 'tis passing sad the great Arthur should have come to this," observed Sir Prisde. "And passing strange."

"That it is. There, almost unrecognizable, lies the greatest and most moving figure in all of British folklore, the once and future king," responded Sir Perceiving.

"Of course in reality he was but a Celtic chieftain leading a small band through the murk of the Dark Ages," observed Lord Quibble. "The tale grew in the telling. The real Arthur, methinks, won a small futile rearguard battle against Saxon invaders in the chaos following the withdrawal of Rome."

"Aye," agreed Sir Perceiving. "But his legend expanded into the shape of universal human truths. No normal person can be unmoved by it, however badly certain authors, and I don't just mean T.H. White, have mangled the story."

"Is there not always an element of romance in a noble lost cause?" asked Sir Prisde. "Isn't part of the appeal Arthur's determination to fight for what's right, knowing the cause to be lost and him with it?"

"Indeed," said Sir Perceiving. "But there's more, much more. Something mighty was salvaged from the ruins against the odds. It is a tale of hope triumphing over human weakness and catastrophic failure and a promise that it always will.

"What exactly the real Arthur did we will never know, but some sort of melding of Celt and Saxon rather than destruction and genocide seems to have resulted, and a preservation of the rule of law even in the darkest years in a way much of the world still had not seen 15 centuries later.

"And did not Britons always, to their benefit, compare their existing government with Camelot? Something made their habit of self-government overcome the Norman invaders, not the other way around. And if I were a superstitious man, I would even ask whether the promise of Arthur's return in England's hour of greatest peril was not fulfilled in 1940."

"Gad, sir, you bring a tear to my eye. 'Tis a mighty, moving tale. And now look at it. There lies the king, shorn of his majesty."

"I wonder what caused this fate?"

"Perchance the decision to make him the second-century Roman cavalry commander Lucius Artorius Castus. Or possibly turning the Knights of the Round Table into Ukrainian mercenaries. Oh, and was it possibly a mistake to make Guinevere into a leather-strap-clad flirt who, ye critic Roger of Ebert says, 'fits right into the current appetite for women action heroes who are essentially honorary men, all except for the squishy parts'? Something of the 'White Phantom' was definitely lost here -- uh, even before they also discarded her pivotal love affair with Lancelot."

"But surely your cherished legend is itself the product of total artistic licence," replied Lord Quibble. "Scholars tell us the origins of the mystical elements grafted onto this obscure Celtic chieftain lie in pagan fertility myths. All that business about the Fisher King, the lance streaming blood. Even Excalibur is a bit, well, phallic. Plus Arthur's a classic Ur-myth hero. The Christian elements were added later."

"True," agreed Sir Perceiving. "But not unsuitably. It grew as it did, and endured as it has, not phantastically but because it spoke to something deep in our souls. It became a tale of the redemption of human nature, not its abolition, a universal tale of longing, loss and recovery; of the impossibility of human perfection transcended by the possibility of human hope. It's Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere we identify with, and all the other knights stumbling through wild adventures never getting a step nearer the Grail, failing, being humiliated, but somehow getting up again and getting back on the horse. Not that prig Galahad, even though he gets to see the Grail. You couldn't have a beer with that guy. It's a perfect story about the human condition. Why mess with it?"

"But the thing is, modern Hollywood must question, transvalue, subvert."

"Oh. I thought that was Mordred's job."

A long silence ensued.

"It really is a bit of a mess," said Sir Prisde at last. "Who shall bring this sad news to the mighty keep of Boxe Offyce?"

"How about Sir Losealot?"

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson