Saturday, March 5, 2016

Camelot on the Couch: King Arthur, through the Ages

We first meet King Arthur when he drops out of a tree.  Very Kingly indeed.  But then, this Arthur is a man-child of a King.  He wheedles and then threatens his mentor (Merlyn) like an angry child; indeed, he even has a small tantrum when thwarted. He demands that Merlin obey his whims: "I insist that you remember who I am!" - but Merlin reminds him that he is no longer a child, and that he is expected to behave accordingly: "It is YOU who keeps forgetting who you are!".  Arthur has found his calling, he is King (if you've never seen Disney's "Sword in the Stone", so see it NOW!!!)

 - but he has not yet reached maturity.  Certainly not a cowardly type, he is completely unnerved at the prospect of meeting his bride:  "A warrior who so calm in battle even his armor doesn't rattle, faces a woman petrified with fright? RIGHT!"

 Pictured:  Fearless Warrior, with non-rattling armor

In the opening scenes of the first act, however, Arthur will reach a new stage of personal development: he will meet Guenevere,  fall in love on the spot, and finally own up to his identity as King. For her, he will want "to be Caesar and Solomon".  In one (admittedly, fairly long) scene, Arthur has successfully navigated Stage 5 (Identity vs Role Confusion) and Stage 6 (Intimacy vs Isolation) of the "Eight Ages of Man"*.

 * Chapter 7 of this breathtaking classic: 

The bulk of the play will follow Arthur's attempts, over a period of years, to reform his world; to make the country, and himself, civilized.  A new code of chivalry, "might for right",  a system of civil courts to replace trial by combat - and of course, the Round Table, where Knights will sit and discuss things and make laws. His dream is a a world where "no one will bear arms at all anymore... and that there will really be peace... all borders will disappear...."  In Erikson's terms, this is where he evolves through Stage 7, "Generativity vs Stagnation".  He tries to "establish and guide the next generation", not by fathering a child, but by fathering a civilized nation.

As the play continues, it becomes clear that Arthur is imperfect.  He allows his illegitimate son Mordred to poison the atmosphere, he stands by in helpless confusion as his wife and his best friend find themselves in love.  At moments of crisis he begs to be turned back into a hawk, that he might fly away..... and yet, in the final act, King Arthur blooms into full maturity.  He almost gives in to despair - "It's too late, Lance. The Table is dead. It exists no more....It's the old, uncivilized days come back again. Those dreadful days we all tried to o put to sleep forever."  

At the last moment, however, King Arthur transcends despair and successfully resolves the final conflict, Stage 8, Ego Integrity vs Despair.  He meets a child, Tom of Warwick, who has been inspired by the tales of the Knights of the Round Table - and realizes that all is not lost, that in the future, "...perhaps people will remember how we of Camelot went questing for right and honor and justice. Perhaps one day men will sit around this world as we did once at our table and go questing once more... for right...and honor... and justice."

Pellinore reminds him that there is a battle to be fought, but Arthur has moved beyond spear and lance:

"Battle? I've won my battle, Pelly. Here's my victory! What we did will be remembered."

So say we all, amen.

PS  It isn't mentioned in the play, but "young Sir Tom of Warwick" is intended to represent Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1415-18 - 14 March, 1471),  an English writer, the author or compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur.  From  Wikipedia: " Le Morte d'Arthur was first published in 1485 by William Caxton, and is today perhaps the best-known work of Arthurian literature in English. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source, including T. H. White in his popular The Once and Future King " - which is, of course, the source for our play. 


  1. Yamima, kudos for your entertaining, educational and insightful piece on our very own King Arthur and his young alter ego, Tom of Warwick.

  2. Nice! Thanks, Yamima, for another witty and entertaining blog post. I fear it's the last for Camelot. Judy