I used to be quite a fan of Arthurian legend when I was a child, and eight years old me would regularly blow off his homework in order to learn what the knights would do next. As there are so many different versions of the legends and my only resource was the local library several of the legends got a little confused, appearing more than once and with different events and characters mentioned. I was a child though, video games were still mainly infuriating text adventures that rich kids could afford, television was limited to four very basic channels, and girls were icky, so reading about these grand adventures and battles against monsters was a highlight of my week for a time.
At the start of the books Arthur had been a farmboy who pulled a sword from a stone and found out that this made him a king. There was some kerfuffle about him being the illegitimate son of the previous king, Uther, but this wasn’t mentioned again so I didn’t pay much much mind. Arthur is crowned and wants a fair kingdom. He lays out a round table for his parliament so that none may sit at the head of it. He collects the bravest of knights from all around the kingdom, which had at the point up to his rule devolved into warring baronies that didn’t want to welcome a new king. Arthur and his knights go on fabulous quests in between somehow getting these baronies to work together as one kingdom under Arthur’s rule (the barons were apparently so bad that the round table idea didn’t apply to them, I noticed). To a little boy he was a hero. He was strong and always did the right thing (which usually involved hitting the wrong thing very hard) and he was surrounded by other equally heroic people. Oh to have lived back then and held a magic blade, young me thought as he read what he thought of as ancient history at the time.
It was as the legends drew to a close that I saw more in Arthur than I had been lead to believe was there but the sparse and conflicting details available. Only one book held the end of his reign and as I worked my way through that, looking up unfamiliar words as I went, I found the tales stopped being fun and fanciful tales of heroes. They got so much darker than I could have imagined. Merlin, Arthur’s trusted advisor in this telling with no mentioned magical power but plenty of wisdom, withdrew from Arthur and disappeared from the stories completely, taking with him a relic of such power that man should not behold it. Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, got him drunk and had her way with him before giving birth to an heir that seemed to be born and grow to childhood within the night. Arthur banished the two of them but the damage was already done plus they escaped with Excalibur, the sword that would guarantee victory to whoever wielded it. This caused Guinevere, his queen, to distance herself from him and eventually give in to her attraction to Lancelot and the two had an affair. Morgana returned with an army at her back and an adult Mordred (the heir to the throne sired by Arthur) by her side. Arthur gathered his knights to ride out and meet her, presumably at the head of an unmentioned army but not necessarily as they were just that tough. It was during this gathering that he caught Guinevere and Lancelot in bed together.
Arthur was devastated. This was his bride, a woman he loved more than anything else in the kingdom. Her betrayal on its own cut him to the bone, but to do so with Lancelot? Lancelot who had been as a brother to Arthur, a comrade in arms, the person he had come to trust and rely on more since Merlin’s departure? Arthur’s heart was broken while eight year old me was in hogs heaven and waiting to see which of them he ran through with his sword first. And that’s when it happened. Arthur rode out to battle beside his knights anyway. His foes had the sword that spelled certain doom for him and he rode out. He had been betrayed by the woman he loved, betrayed by the man he called brother, abandoned by his oldest advisor, yet still he rode out. He rode out against overwhelming odds to protect those that had done such harm to him, and for the first time I cried my young heart out for something I didn’t even fully understand.
Lancelot, filled with remorse for hurting his king, turned away from Guinevere and headed out to the battle. He fought through the armies until he came across Arthur facing Mordred, just as Mordred struck the killing blow. Lancelot was overcome by grief instantly and, as Mordred put down Excalibur to gloat over Arthurs body, Lancelot killed him with a single blow of his sword. He took Excalibur and placed it in the scabbard on Arthur’s belt, again bestowing the scabbard with the magic to cure any wound when the two were joined. It was here that Lancelot heard the call of the Lady in the Lake, a spectral being who had given Excalibur to Arthur to begin with and had even had a child with Lancelot. She beckoned him to bring Arthur to her, keeping him alive with the scabbard. Lancelot made the journey but Arthur was at deaths door by the time he arrived, and even the scabbard of Excalibur couldn’t keep him alive. He died on the shores of the lake, and eight year old me realised that not every story has a happy ending.
Urged by the Lady, Lancelot hurled Excalibur into the lake, and a hand rose up to catch it before slowly drawing it into the water. A mist overtook the lake and through this otherworldly haze could be seen an island that had never existed on the lake before. Lancelot built a boat and placed Arthur’s body into it before pushing it out onto the lake towards Avalon. It is said that when England faces its darkest hour, Arthur shall return from Avalon and lead us to the light.
I know all of these things are legends, cobbled together from tales of several kings and war chiefs,enhanced as ballads and embellished over the years. I know that just as I know that so many of them have affected the man I grew to be. I know that these tales have been collected so many times and in so many different forms that, even if they were true, the odds of me reading the right one are astoundingly against me. All of this I know, yet there is still an eight year old boy in me that wants to read this as history and not just legend, that wants to believe we’re all capable of selfless nobility to light our darkest hours. I hope I never lose that part of me that cried in the face of that the first time I encountered it.
Let’s raise a glass to the new year and all that waits for us in the future, but never forget to raise another to the past that brought us here.