I’m sure almost none of us, myself included, have read Historia Brittonum of Annales Cambriae, two of what are considered to be the primary sources of Arthurian Legend. But we’ve heard of a guy named King Arthur, and some knight named Lancelot, and some important lady named Guinevere. How do we know these things if we haven’t read the source from which we have proof of their existence? Well, maybe we’ve read Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. But more realistically, most of us have probably not read that either; or Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King or White’s The Once and Future King even. Ok, say that you have read one of these—it was still an adaptation! A secondary source essentially, and perhaps a stylized, intentionally (partly) fictitious one. It’s more likely that we’ve read Christmas in Camelot (from the Magic Tree House series), or watched Disney’s The Sword and the Stone, or that campy-but-terrific Excalibur, or hey! Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These places, I would argue, are where we derive most of our knowledge of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. We could go on forever about why these tales are so famous, but I’m more interested in why and how they get reproduced so often.
When I originally began this project, I was curious as to why we read. Aside from the story, what is it that keeps us returning to a book? Moreover, why do we keep reworking the same story? In light of some recent survey answers I’ve received, one potential answer we could work with is that books are relatable. If people keep hashing an old story, the story can be passed down through generations, and knowledge of that story becomes a commonality between people of different ages. Ten-year old
John might get the same satisfaction from
The Sword and the Stone as 20-year old Mary gets from her classroom’s reading of Malory, and as their mother who is laughing at the hilarity of the Monty Python crew. This is important for much more than sheer entertainment.
We should consider what is different about all these adaptations, despite the fact that they are, to some degree, the same. The original texts would have been been fairly straightforward historical accounts—not much interpretation or emphasis on style. It would be more like data, or a biography of Arthur’s life. Malory’s mixture of French and English versions of Arthurian myth has become the quintessential text for understanding the legends in prose. People like Tennyson used Le Morte d’Arthur, and turned into poetry, keeping a very serious tone, and adapting it in a way that some people argue, works as an allegory for England’s societal conflicts in the mid-19th century. T.S. Eliot uses the Fischer King (of the Holy Grail myths) as a central figure in The Waste Land. Disney’s Sword and the Stone helped popularize the myths for younger generations by turning it into an animated film. And John Cleese and his buddies made the tales hilarious, though they definitely weren’t funny when they began. (As a side note, have you ever considered how intelligent the Monty Python members really are? Not just as comedians, but as masters of knowledge of world history and literature).
All of these people used the same tales to begin with, but through interpretation and stylistic writing, they changed them entirely. That a story can be used in so many different ways says something about the power of writing to transform. And that each of these iterations has been successful says something about us as readers (or viewers, but I’m considering those “readers” of a different caliber). We’ve probably heard at one time or another that “there are no more original stories anymore” or everyone is just “stealing storylines from ‘better’ writers.” I call shenanigans on that. First of all, there ARE still original stories to be written, but I’ll agree that most archetypal figures and plots have been figured out at this point. Secondly, I think it is AWESOME that authors keep working with texts that have already been produced. Let’s not debate the story, let’s debate how the author interprets and reworks the story, and how those changes adapt the story for a new age (taking into consideration historical events, societal sentiments, etc.). I recently read a comic book in which Superman and Batman were being knighted by King Arthur. The last thing on my mind was “Ugh, this is SO not like what actually happened…” Instead, I get really jazzed about the idea that someone was creative enough to find (or make) connections between King Arthur and Superman. I find it amazing that we can laugh, cry, get angry at, or smile upon a single plotline. Stories are meant to be changed. Whether that means that I as a reader “make the story my own” and give it my own interpretation while reading (one that may different from the author’s intent), or that an author takes a story and writes his own with the original as a guideline. I surely don’t tire of seeing the same story worked out time and time again, provided it is done with a good degree of variance. But I know that this bothers some people. I wonder why?
-What do YOU see as similar and different between the different tales of King Arthur?
-Are repeated storylines a distraction to readers? Are they getting old?
-What is usually your favorite text? An original? An straightforward adaptation/translation? A satire?