Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Victorian Era Arthurian Revival

The story of King Arthur and his exploits have drawn attention in every era. Sir Thomas Malory, in Le Morte D'Arthur defined the image of the legendary post-Roman general as the chivalric king, head of the Round Table, and seeker of "graal" (later, even, to be confirmed as the Holy Grail) during the Middle Ages. This same code of chivalry and romantic love would be darkened by addition of the story of Sir Tristan and Isolde. In modern times, the legend has become fodder for science fiction authors positing Arthur's legendary second coming and for neo-pagans expressing their popular sentimentality about pre-Christian Celtic culture.

But Queen Victoria's reign saw an explosion of interest in the Arthurian legend. In our current appraisal of the myth, what isn't owed to Monty Python or Disney is owed to the Victorians (and even they owe to the Victorians). It was the rise of the novel in the 1800s that provided us with a more readable account of his exploits, while epic poetry caught more profound imaginations. At the same time, artists burned their impressions of the Knights of the Round into our collective imaginations.

The single most important person in the this revival, the figure at the centre of the storm, was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson's Idylls of the King, an epic poem, served as the true spark igniting the public interest. A likely explanation as to why, over and above Tennyson's obvious skill as a poet, was his veiled subject matter: the recently deceased Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and arguably the true mover behind the Crown. Though the Idylls were started before Albert's death, their emphasis grew as a eulogy to him, looking back on his co-reign as a golden age for the Empire and his death as its dissolution. So strong was Tennyson's tribute that critics often referred to his work as "Idylls of the Prince Consort" or "Le Morte D'Albert"... A critique that Tennyson’s dedication of the Idylls to the Prince did nothing to dissuade:
These to His Memory—since he held them dear,
Perchance as finding there unconsciously
Some image of himself—I dedicate,
I dedicate, I consecrate with tears—
These Idylls.

Looking at it from the perspective of Tennyson's work, it is easy to see at least one of the reasons there was such a revival of Arthuriana in the 1800s and early 1900s. The British Empire marked an era that was England's greatest since Queen Elizabeth I, and it would be natural to draw parallels to King Arthur's mythic reign in Camelot. It was yet a justification for empire -"Arthur was great, and we shall be greater still!" - while being an ideal to live up too, as the Victorian era was not so golden for all peoples. Arthur's quest for the Grail hearkened back to Blake's famous poem Jerusalem (made into a hymn by Hubert Parry) which served as a rallying cry for the temperance, workers, and suffragette movements:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Also, the Idylls provided, along with a proclamation of Victorian culture, a vision of the Romantic love that same society stifled. Pursuing this ideal was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; a union of painters, sculptors, and writers begun by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sir John Everett Millais, and William Holden Hunt. The goal of the "PRB" was to buck the conventions of art imposed by The Royal Academy. They felt that the subject was to control the artist, not the other way around, and that any subject should be one worth painting. Therein, their paintings tend towards the hyper-detailed, colourful, and fantastic. More often than not, their work portrayed Romantic figures, in both senses of the word, and fewer figures are more romantic than those of the Round Table. Three scenes dominate the PRB's Arthurian cycle: The Lady of Shalott (who was cursed not to look out of her window, but did when she saw Lancelot), Tristan and Isolde, and King Arthur's funerary rites. While the PRB and their imitators did paint other Arthurian scenes, one notices a significant continuity between their favoured subjects, and their various other paintings of Ophelia (from Hamlet), nymphs, Greek deities, and certain Biblical scenes.

An associate of the PRB was William Morris, a designer who spearheaded the British Arts and Crafts Movement during the Victorian era. Rather than finding his inspiration in industrialization, he sought it in an idealistic Middle Ages, and for it became a celebrated figure. Besides his designs and the designs of his firm Morris and Co., Morris sought a society modeled on his idealistic medaevalism, and established several artistic collectives based on the guild system. A firm socialist, he expounded upon his own ideas in two fiction novels - News from Nowhere, set in a Utopian 2001, and The Well at the World's End - as well as copious political tracts and essays.

Arthuriana was not simply limited to the British with dreams of Empire and desire for a more Romantic time. American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote a 4-book children's adaptation of Le Morte D'Arthur. Entitled The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, The Story of Lancelot and his Companions, and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur, they present another romantic vision of the past intended to serve modern purposes. The books themselves are peppered with moral messages intended to build strong youth, and as a whole, the prosperous kingdom of Camelot is meant to represent America at the turn of the century: a land of promise and prosperity, of nobility. Every new place is more wonderful than the last, every new person more beautiful and comely than the previous. This was the land of hope and glory that a burgeoning world power was fast becoming. Conspicuous in their absence are any classes beneath the nobility; the serfs, the "freemen", the slaves.

But almost single-handedly, Mark Twain rips Arthurian romance apart. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court sees can-do American industrialist Hank Morgan get an awful bump on his head and wake up in Olde England. There he soon becomes The Boss (after some judicial use of scientific "magic") and brings the 500s into the 1900s. Twain uses this to bring on a scathing critique of Monarchy, aristocracy, established Church, (especially the Roman Catholic Church) and many more social ills. One particularly memorable incident sees Arthur, King of the Britons, sold into slavery. Where the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses are ignored in the romantic visions, they are front and centre in Twain's novel. But while Hank Morgan constantly notes that the simple-minded Olde English are a product of their times, it is easy enough to see that Hank is a product of his: uncritiqued is industrialization. Not long into the novel, The Boss has billboards on every knight and ads painted on every venerable stone wall.

Expanding an empire is to walk a thin line. Growth and decay comes hand-in-hand, and that quest for order and power is the exact thing that leads to stagnation and corruption. By retreating into myths of the Arthurian Age, the Victorians were able both to assuage their anxiety over the path of imperialism – the golden age simultaneously rising and declining – and to critique it.


Jessica Maybury said...

This is great! You've just given me a whole scope for a story that I'd never considered before. Thank you :)

Jha said...

Great stuff, Cory! I was hoping for more analysis on "why Arthurian revival?" as you touched on in the final paragraph - it sounds deeply intriguing and fascinating (but then, you know me). Might you write some more on the topic?

nataniabarron said...

This is one of my favorite topics, as you might know. I've a thing for steampunk, and much of that comes from my studies of Arthuriana through the years which, as you pointed out, brought me to the Victorians. There's a sort of two-way process going on that is just so cool: the Victorians looking to the Middle Ages, and our current culture looking to the Victorians. We're all adding and subtracting, critiquing and romanticizing. Fascinating!

Cory Gross said...

Natania, indeed! I do find it kind of interesting how we idealize the Victorians while they idealized the Middle Ages.

Jha, this is admitedly going to be a light month in terms of deep commentary. It's a bit of an intellectual break after my trip and everything.

Jessica, I'm glad I can help! ^_^