THE END OF THE MYTH

In most variants of the Arthurian myth the king returns to the sea. In all three of the classic epics -Monmouth's History Of The Kings Of Britain, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Arthur is taken to Avalon, the Isle of the Blessed -- after his final battle, there to wait for a time until returning to his kingdom. His is the great story of regeneration and rebirth. It is a story that mirrors the central tenet of Christianity; it also has a strong elemental aspect to it, reflecting the fact that, in nature, death produces life, and vice versa. It should, in theory, be in a strong position to continue indefinitely.

Arthur is portrayed, as Malory says, as rex quondam rexque futurus: The Once And Future King. But is he? Or has the myth come to an end? Is Tintagel, with its kitsch theme-park approach to the legend, really the end of the story? After Tennyson's saccharine treatment of Arthur - in which he has "weakened the august theme and left it in a cul-de-sac" (Ashe, 35) -- have we been left with "King Arthur's Car Park" as his final portrayal? Or will the legend rise again from the tarmac and continue? And is there a parallel to be found between the ultimate fate of Arthur, and the ultimate fate of Tintagel?

The answer is, of course, that the legend continues unabated. Arthur is central to new works of fiction, be they films, poems, or novels. Tennyson merely changed the characteristic of the myth, turning it from pagan to Christian. He made the story respectable for a Victorian audience. However, the trend today is to explore areas of the myth which Tennyson avoided: the pagan aspect has returned strongly (in films such as John Boorman's Excalibur). The "new age" movement is alive and well, with Glastonbury (often considered as the 'true Isle of Avalon') at its heart. Operas such as Gawain and the Green Knight explore peripheries of the legend. Arthur survives, as does the whole idea of Camelot; he will, undoubtedly, continue to do so.

But what of the fate of Tintagel? The castle (or what remains of it) is situated on an piece of land which is surrounded by water on three sides. The island itself will eventually erode (see 'The Geological Aspect' elsewhere on this site) - and when that happens the castle itself will fall. Like Arthur (of whom Bedivere, in the Idylls, says 'from the great deep to the great deep he goes') Tintagel Castle will also return to the sea. Of course, from a geological aspect, this is not the end of the story either. Eventually - although this is really outside of the timescale of myth, or even of mankind -- the rock of which it is built will be itself regenerated. One could say that Arthur's legend will continue to be present for millions of years - although whether there will be anyone around to propagate it as fiction is something of a moot point.

Arthur is the British legend. Ashe tells us that medieval storytellers had three main sources of stories: the Matter of France (i.e. Charlemagne and Roland); the Matter of Rome (the Classics); or the Matter of Britain (Arthur). He was, in many continental minds, what the country stood for. The fact that he has been taken over by commercialism perhaps serves to enhance him. Arthur himself - and his return - becomes a figure of greater importance, even as his legend is tarnished and cheapened. We become increasingly aware that we are not in any sort of golden age. The fact that even our greatest legend - a legend that stands for purity, nobility and chivalry - has been sold down the river is brought home to us. All we can do is stand back from it and await Arthur's return -or at least, the golden age of Camelot.

© Oliver Moor 2001