I’ve just watched King Arthur and it reminded me of how fascinated I used to be with the legend.
It probably stems from watching John Boorman’s film Excalibur when I was quite young. Six or seven maybe.
I think it’s an amazing film. It’s kind of gloriously camp but to a young boy, the ideas it deals with are extremely inspiring – heroism, lust, kinship, kingship etc.
When you start digging around the subject, instead of becoming more real, Arthur somehow recedes even further into the mists of time.
The modern myth I grew up with is just a bastardisation of various interpretations, vague references from early Welsh histories.
Looking for the real Arthur, such as he exists, just reveals a cacophony of blind alleys, tantalising hints and, ultimately, frustration.
Arthur now is as we would like him to be. A heroic figure who will come again in our hour of need.
Which brings me onto a parallel.
The search for what Britain itself is.
I read a good book recently called The Last English King by Julian Rathbone.
This is set in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest.
The descriptions of the Anglo-Saxon way of life are marvellous. They speak a curious kind of British with lots of Danish words thrown in for good measure.
All this changed with the Norman genocide. Britishness became something else entirely. The old ways, as Rathbone terms them, are trampled underfoot by the invaders.
None of this is particularly revelatory and I make no pretensions of modern relevance. But I am fascinated by the way in which we arrived at what we are.
There is still Danish in our language. I can hear it now I’m trying to learn it.
Words or inflections which somehow survived the Normans’ linguistic ravages.
Odd little echoes of another time but at least tangible.
But what of Arthur? Someone who may or may not have existed is one of the world’s most instantly recognisable historical figures.
Which reveals only that, given the chance, humans would always choose to rewrite their history.