Maps of Meaning – The Once and Future King

Hello and welcome back to Maps of Meaning, Heavy Blog’s column exploring the ties between metal and literature! Hey, it didn’t take two years for me to write

4 years ago

Hello and welcome back to Maps of Meaning, Heavy Blog’s column exploring the ties between metal and literature! Hey, it didn’t take two years for me to write another entry this time around. Progress! Anyway, in case you don’t remember exactly what this column is about, it’s where I (alongside a few guests here and there) can explore the intersection of my two biggest passions: metal and literature. We’ll look at how classic books and literary genres have influenced metal and, in some rare cases, how metal did the opposite. In our last installments, we looked at Tolkien’s legendarium (because where else were we going to start?) and then at Moorcock’s The Eternal Champion. It was fun! It was wordy! Go read those posts.

This time around, we are digging deeper and earlier into the Western canon (we promise that we’ll explore non-Western literature in the future) and going back to what is arguably one of the sources of the entire damn fantasy canon: King Arthur. In fact, these tales go further back than most people are aware of today; in their most original and primal form, they come to us from Welsh and Breton accounts. But the Arthurian myth we know today also comes to us through France and a whole other tradition of story-telling, namely the Arthurian Romances. A lot to take in, right? I agree, which is why we’ll start with a length introduction into the history of the Arthurian myth. Fortunately, I won’t have to spend much time on the story itself as I assume it is thoroughly etched into your brain. Young king, sword in the stone, Merlin, Mordred, Lancelot, Guinevere, the lot of them are all almost spells, by who’s name I can conjure a whole tale from out of thin air.

Thus, after exploring the historicity of these tales, we’ll turn our attention to metal and its use of the Arthurian myth. We’ll focus on the idea most accentuated in metal’s treatment of the Arthurian myth, the “Return of the King” (sounds familiar? Yeah, Tolkien drew immense inspiration, and even some plot points, from Arthurian myth. We’ll touch on that as well). Finally, we’ll briefly touch on the idea of the dis/re enchantment of the world and how Arthur prefigures into the desire for a more magical world expressed in many of metal’s songs about his myth. OK, sounds like a plan? Let’s get to it!

A “Brief” History of the Arthurian Literary Universe

The origins of the Arthurian myth comes to us from Welsh and Breton oral traditions. Springing forth (or, at least, first recorded) in the early Middle Ages, as early as the fall of Rome itself, these cultures described much of what would later be interwoven into the modern Arthurian myth. However, the image of Arthur in these tales is quite different to the Arthur we recognize today; much of the story (including the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the Grail, and more) would only come to us through the lens of the High Middle Ages and even the 19th and early 20th century.

In the 6th century for example, Arthur is mentioned in Y Gododdin (The Gododdin), attributed to 6th-century poet Aneirin. There, and in many other earlier references to Arthur, we don’t get a lot of detail. Arthur is a brave king and a mighty warrior who protects the lands from intrusion (be it monsters or the more mundane Saxons) while performing various deeds of valor. It is only later, in the 12th century, that more details begin to appear. First, what is now called the Mabinogion, was collected from oral traditions. These tales serve today as the Welsh “national epic”, equal to the Kalevala or the Ramayana, although Wales’ case is unique since it is not today independent (hopefully this statement ages poorly and it will be one day). By the by, the Mabinogion is a strange, wonderful, and under-read collection of folk tales and myths; I think the Kalevala is the only other folk collections I’ve read that approaches it in sheer bizarreness and quality.

Another source for these earlier images of Arthur comes to us from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written in the 1130s. Collected/written at the same approximate time as the Mabinogion, this work deftly incorporates Arthur into the canon of the Britons, a canon unto which it also welds the Anglo-Saxons and what would, later on, become the English monarchy. The Historia Regum Britanniae pretended to be a historical book (even though we now know most of it was invention) and Arthur is described there accordingly: there are many battles, political machinations, and strife but no magical deeds beyond Arthur’s “evacuation” to Avalon, there to recover from his wounds until he might return again.

Monmouth’s account however does give us some of the most important parts of the Arthurian myth, parts which will capture metal’s imagination; it is the first instance of Mordred (here called Modredus), who marries Guenhuuara (Guinevere) when Arthur is absent and usurps his throne. It is in Monmouth’s account that Mordred first wounds Arthur mortally before dying himself, “sentencing” the king to retreat beyond the world and await his return. While this piece of the story existed in earlier versions of it as well, namely the Welsh ones, Monmouth’s account is the most popular earlier account of the idea of “return of the king”, which will feature prominently in metal’s treatment of the story alongside Mordred, Excalibur, Merlin and the rest of it.

But here’s where things get complicated because much of King Arthur’s figure as we know it today actually comes to us from the French canon and not the Breton/Welsh/English one. Arthur or, rather, his knights and Guinevere, were central characters of the Arthurian Romances. These stories were a part of a wider campaign by the Church to mollify and rein in the power of the nobility, operating through a wide campaign of cultural and political instruments to create a new figure of the knight. This is where we get the idea of chivalry, of an honor code which binds knights and also where we get ideas like the honorable knight errant, jousting tournaments (which will reach a fever pitch of popularity in England and Northern France in the 13th-14th centuries) and the “knight-in-love”. All of these ideas served to paint a less brutal, less wilder, and more subservient knight, depicting the proper knight as an important, but obedient, servant of Christ.

The Arthurian romances, the most famous of which are probably Tristan and Iseult, Perceval, the Story of the Grail and Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart the last two of which were written by Chrétien de Troyes, the French poet. In these tales, we are introduced to many of the staples of current Arthurian myth, namely the knight on a quest for love (Tristan), the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot (and Lancelot as a character himself), and the quest for the Holy Grail and the Fisher King (Perceval). These tales also feature a much diminished (to the point of cuckoldry in the tale of Lancelot) Arthur. He is a kinder, more passive, weaker king though his glory and prestige are untouched. But the brave knight, the Christian wanderer, the romantic in love, is the hero of the tale, replacing the brutal, effective, and betrayed figure of early Arthurian myths.

All of these versions, and especially the Romance tales, were then collected in the ambitious Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory. This is, in fact, the main source through which we access the Arthurian myth, for several reasons. First, it appeared in English, making it easier for the predominantly Anglo-Saxon writers and researchers to use it to revive the Arthurian myth as part of Romanticism and the Gothic Revival (more on that soon). Secondly, it was one of the first printed books, circulated heavily in 1485 when it was published by one William Caxton. These two facts mean that, on top of the early Breton and Welsh roots and the French re-interpretation of this myth, we have Malory’s own view on things. He re-contextualized the Christian undertones of the Arthurian romances back into their English context, finally creating the god-fearing, mighty warrior, destined King Arthur which stands tall in our collective memory.

However, we have one (actually two) more stops to make before we can start talking about metal. You see, at the end of the Middle Ages, interest in the Arthurian myth declined. It was simply no longer the moment for brave knight smitten with love; culture was dominated by other tales as it entered the Renaissance and, after it, the Early Modern Era. These tales are too many to recount but very few of them featured wise kings, brave knights, or star-crossed lovers. In fact, plenty of them made ridicule of these figures (think of King Lear or Don Quixote), using the legendary figures of old as markers of excess and delusion. This is not to say that Arthur was forgotten entirely; a few tales and publications crept up here in there. But, just as example of Arthur’s decline, Malory’s book would be published in 1634 for the last time in 200 (!) years.

Which brings us right smack dab into the 19th century where the Romanticist movement, alongside the so-called Gothic Revival and medievalism, brought King Arthur roaring back into the public interest. We’ve written a lot about the Romanticist movement on the blog, since it is of key interest and important to metal, but it bears repeating that this movement sought a new figure of the hero, one grounded in individualism, will to power, and personal genius. Arthur was perfect for this interest, as were Pereceval and Lancelot. These were all powerful men, coming to us from the veil of the past which was so glamorized by the Romanticist to tell us tales of personal perseverance, the betrayal of lesser, petty men (Mordred) and monsters of old. These tales were also drenched in the melancholy, sense of lost glory, and faint hope for the future (as the king will one day return) which the Romanticist simply adored. Of course, this was all grounded in the politics and economics of the 19th century, where many were losing hope but also glimpsing it in the form of the rebellions of 1848 and other events, but the canvas is too short to go into those details here.

Instead, let us delay briefly on the most major work of Arthurian revival in the 19th century: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. This work by one of the most accomplished and skilled Victorian poets, reforged Arthur into a character perfect for the sensibilities and mores of the general European public. Arthur was portrayed as the ultimate man, trying to create God’s perfect kingdom here on earth and, naturally, failing. He fails due to the betrayal of not only Mordred but also the tragic betrayal of his one true love, Guinevere. Through-out, the tone is of a world lost, of what could have been, a perfect metaphor for the striving, reaching, and, ultimately, doomed to failure world that was mid-Victorian Britain (from the perspective of Tennyson of course. Not a word about the colonies). In fact, the work often verges on the allegorical, drawing sharp comparisons to then-contemporary politics.

Tennyson served as a way-station, translating Malory’s work (which saw publication once again in 1816) into the modern era. Many of the writers which would follow would take the same approach. Chief among them an unparalleled, in my eyes at least, was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Simply put, this is one of the best fantasy books ever written. It depicts the tales of Merlin, Pelinore, Lancelot and Arthur with a sharp wit and humor (from which we get the image of the scatter-brained and messy Merlin) and an eye for the different characters that is unparalleled. It also continues, in true Arthurian tradition, the relationship between the story and politics, charging it with many sentiments that only make sense in a post-World War II world.

There were other works in the 20th century translating Arthur’s prominence in the 19th century into the 20th (namely Mists of Avalon but this is the last time I’m going to mention that book here; Google it and its author’s biography and then read another book) but out of all of those, this is the one that most etched itself into our collective memory. Don’t believe me? Well, this was the book on which Disney’s The Sword in the Stone is based, probably the single largest event leading to the popularity of the Arthurian myth in the 20th century. It also helps that the books ideas about hope, war, violence, honor, and love correlate very nicely with those of metal (which we are about to get, honest) and that, yes, it is my favorite iteration of Arthurian myth.

So. Here we are. Over a thousand years of evolution have led us to this point, the late 20th and 21 century, where metal is about to take up the mantle and tell us, once again, the story of Arthur, his wizard, his sword, and his knight. As I eluded to above, it’s interesting to note that the Arthurian myth was always told in relation the political climates in which it was released. Thus, it morphed from folk, local tales of Welsh and Breton heritage into a historical bit of propaganda, tying the Anglo-Saxons to the land of their conquest. Then, it morphed again to fit the narrative of chivalry and romance that the Church, and elements inside feudal culture, wanted to paint of the knight and the king. Then, it was revived in the 19th century to fit concepts of gender, power, and philosophy as part of the Romantic movement. And, lastly, it received post-World War tones under the hands of T.H. White.

Thus, the “only” question which remains is: which sort of politics does metal infuse King Arthur with? Let’s take a look.

Return of the King!

OK, so let’s get the obvious bit out of the way; yes, Tolkien’s Aragorn was informed by and referenced King Arthur. Even more than that, if you go back to The Silmarillion, you will find many common points of comparison, including adventures over the sea, a returning race of immortal beings, and more that were drawn from Celtic and Welsh mythology. And That Is OK, of course! Originality is overrated and drawing inspiration from stories is completely fine. The more interesting question to ask, and one which is pertinent to our inquiry here, is why were those specific themes chosen, not only by Tolkien but by a whole swath of the fantasy landscape of the 20th century, metal songwriters among them?

Funnily enough, that answer is almost reversed when you look at Tolkien and metal. For the former, the myth of the returning king is one which perfectly fit Tolkien’s Christian morality and “metaphysical history”. Yes, even though C.S. Lewis is more well known for his use of fantasy as Christian allegory (“the lion dies and then resurrects, get it? Too subtle?”), Tolkien also found his fantasy to have roots in the religious. He was opposed to direct and overt allegory, but he saw fantasy (or “myth-making”, as he preferred to see and call it, as reported by Lewis himself) as a way for humanity to glimpse something of the perfection of Heaven and God. Indeed, Tolkien’s Catholicism and Lewis’s Anglicanism would be a wedge that would cool their friendship later in their life. It takes two to tango, as they say, so we can assume that Tolkien’s religiosity was a big part of his life.

OK, OK, this isn’t a Tolkien post, although we could probably spin-off another one right here. But suffice it to say that the image of the returning king is an alluring one for such a Christian; is Jesus himself not a king who is set to return to save us all? By contrast, when metal thinks of the return of the king, it sees it in the opposite light. After all, Christianity is mainstream and metal is all about rebellion, as superficial a rebellion as that might often be. So, what better way to rebel than by “reclaiming” King Arthur’s motif of the return from Avalon for the pagan roots that the story has had for over a thousand years? Thus, metal taps the same kind of allegorical well that uses Arthur’s powerful image to discuss the ties between the past and the future (The Once and Future King), to evoke the idea of loss and of hope, of a world in decline, from the opposite direction? Gone is Tolkien’s mournfully corrupt secular, disenchanted world and, in its place, Christainity is now that which has robbed the world of its magic and Arthur’s return shall see it brought back again.

Let’s look at some music and see how this comes to life, shall we? As good a track as any to start from is “Return of the King” (see what I did there?) from Bruce Dickinson‘s magisterial The Chemical Wedding.  Appearing on the expanded edition of said album, the track is another powerful exploration of Dickinson’s fabled voice and song-writing capabilities, adding itself to what is one of heavy metal’s best, and most underrated, releases. What’s more, if we look at its lyrics, we can see all of the principles discussed above; as you read them, see how Dickinson (and Adrian Smith, who has writing credits for this track) weaves in pagan ideas like Beltane, stone circles, and sun and moon worship, and ties their resurgence to Arthur’s return:

A 100 years of toil and pain
To pull a stone upright again
Up routed from its mountain home
Taken to this sacred circle

Is there a secret in the stones?
A message in the hills
Is there a secret in the stones?
A message long ago

I know the king will come again
From the shadow to the sun
Burning hillsides with the Beltane fires
I know the king will come again
When all that glitters turns to rust
Uther Pendragon standing fast beside you

Those last few lines are the best part of this. “When all that glitters turn to rust”, that is when all of the superficial grandeur of Christianity and modern life which seems like gold fades way, Arthur, with his father Uther, shall stand beside you. As someone from Britain, there’s that sort of eternal belief in the old faith in these lyrics, the idea of a nation stretching back into fog-filled past. And, in a sense, it’s not wrong; these stories have literally been in circulation for over a millennia. But there’s a deeper promise at play here; remember, Arthur is supposed to return during England’s darkest hour to save it from destruction. What is this darkness that the song evokes? What is the “shadow” from which Arthur comes to bring forth the sun?

For Dickinson, we can only speculate. Whether it is Christianity’s choke-holds, as many modern day pagans see it, on the British people’s history or something more nebulous and “anti-modern” in Dickinson’s writing (a sentiment he has been known to weave into his music elsewhere) we can only speculate and point to Arthur’s use here as sort of modern revival panacea, a catch-all for a post-post modernist revival of “the good old days” of magic and adventure. But this is, of course, not the only example Arthur’s religious overtones and themes in metal. Coming full circle, we can return to Tolkien’s “side of things” and explore an example of Arthur’s religiosity in metal as a Christian story. That example is Grave Digger‘s “Excalibur”, from the album of the same name.

Interestingly enough, the first “proper” track on this album, “Pendragon”, could lead us to believe that Grave Digger are going for the same pagan reading of Arthur as exhibited by Dickinson. It focus on his last name, Pendragon, and equates him to the mythical saurian over and over again, replete with pagan references to stars, fire, and night. But “Excalibur”, the track right after, is decidedly more Christian. It evokes the symbology of “the return”, which is, after all, perhaps the Christian symbol, as the return of Christ is a topic which has played a major part of any Christian faith since Christ himself prophesied it.

But it also does one more interesting thing: it ties Arthur’s virtue to his divinity. Taking a page directly from the Arthurian romances which, just to remind you, were all about tying knightly virtue with godliness, “Excalibur” creates a melange between morality, blood, royalty and divinity. This mix would be immediately recognizable to a late medieval reader, since it is this exact same conceptual bond that the Church (in the case of chivalry) and the monarchy (in the case of divine right) were spending so much of their cultural capital to create:

Unknown heir
Orphaned page
A King to be
Come his Age
For God’s sake

Sword in Stone
Release will
Bring the Throne
For the Chosen One

The Almighty will point out
The only royal blood in the crowd

Sword of the kings
Take me on your wings
Back where I belong

Bound to fail
Noble Heart
Bound to gain
Challenge your faith!

Sword in Stone
Release it
Ascend the Throne and
Take the crown

The Almighty now throws the dice
Arthur the man without a vice

Precious Sword
Arthur’s hand
He deserves
To rule the land
Lead Britannia

“The Almighty will point out / The only royal blood in the crowd” is an incredibly interesting line which really captures the entire perspective on Arthur’s story as a tale of monarchical privilege. Interestingly enough, this is where more modern influences, inherited from Malory, T.H. White and Tennyson, can be detected. If you recall, the late medieval versions of the story actually moved the focus away from Arthur himself and on to this knights, painting Arthur as a passive, effeminate, and ineffective king (even if he was still prestigious and to be respected). Here, and elsewhere in modern iterations of the story, Arthur is returned to the central and fully glorious role he played in the earlier versions of the story. While the rest of the album includes stories about Lancelot, Percival, and Tristan (in that regard being more in line with the Arthurian romances), Grave Digger’s Excalibur is still a modern work, influenced by the striking image of the victorious, always-returning king.

Which begs the question, here at the end of this section, of how it came to pass that modern works of all things re-oriented the Arthurian story around a king? We’d expect that the 19th and 20th century, when the French Revolution was already concluded (Tennyson wrote his Idylls starting 1859, after the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy) would be more inimical to the idea of a returning, glorious king. To that, I can offer four explanations, though this is fertile ground for further discussion. First, both Tennyson and T.H. White (and Tolkien, of course) were British. During the period, and well into the 20th century, the idea of “King and Country” was still very much in force. I don’t have the space here to go into the complex cultural relations between the British imperial/colonial project and the monarchy but it was definitely there and, unlike the rest of Europe where the idea of absolute monarchy was steadily declining from the start of the 19th century onward, the power and prestige of the British crown was still very much in place (and, one could argue, is still very much in place today).

The second point is a sort of extension of the first: Arthur became an inherently British story. Remember that much of Arthur’s popularity was in France, his origin in Welsh and Breton stories notwithstanding. This has a few explanations (like national boundaries not existing in the Middle Ages, the fact that Bretons shared blood and heritage with many French localities in the north of the country, and more) but the fact remains that Arthur’s “Britishness” (as evinced in Grave Digger’s song by the way) is very much a modern concept, again in keeping with the British imperial project. If you were a Victorian poet (or, indeed, a post World War II poet, as The Once and Future King was published in 1958) appealing to the idea of a declining British nation which desperately needed a returning king to restore it seemed incredibly natural and appropriate.

The last reason, and one which might explain the current popularity of Arthur (where restoration of British supremacy are inherently tied to racist and fascist ideas), is that Arthur is far enough away in the past for his tale to be both generic enough to be constantly relevant and safe enough to tell. How weird would it be if Tennyson wrote about Charles I for example, who’s memory in the 19th century as a scourge (and a martyr, depends how far on the right you were) was very much alive? Or if T.H. White chose William of Orange for example as the returning king from beyond the mists of time?

Arthur, up until this day, his primacy in being the foretold king, so tradition definitely plays a rule. But he’s also safe; no on remembers what his actual ideals were (if, indeed, there ever was a King Arthur), no one has stakes in his fights. The marauding Anglo-Saxons are gone. Wales has been part of the Union for just about five hundred years. King Arthur has become a faceless, a-political vessel into which fantasy, yearning, honor, magic, and hope can be poured into. Increasingly, it became a non-political statement to use Arthur in your story, even as monarchy was on the decline all around you. It was just a good story, devoid of any real-world baggage to way it down.

Fourthly, it is exactly the declining power and popularity of the monarchical ideal in the real world that enabled King Arthur to return in his full glory. When kings were still walking around the earth and wielding great power (which is a lot sooner than you think it is, by the way), when they still commanded such a central part in art and in culture, writing a story about a returning, conquering king seemed, perhaps, a bit gauche? And being more serious, it seemed charged with meaning, with allegiance, with reference to an actual object walking around there in the real world. Perhaps kings, in their old-school sense of warrior knights chosen by God (an idea that would ultimately die in World War II but which was on the decline for about two centuries prior to that) needed to fade from the world for them to return?

After all, if glorious, sword-wielding, wound-healing kings are still around, what need for Arthur to return? But in a less romantic world, where all the good things about kingship have faded from the world (never you mind that kings were never good) there suddenly formed an ideological, cultural, and aesthetic vacuum into which something needed to be poured. And when you reach out a hand into the proverbial collective unconsciousness to fill a king shaped vacuum, what else would you draw first from that primordial stone but the somewhat neglected, but still sharp, sword of Arthur’s narrative?

A Past and Future Secret

But maybe in this last point we can detect a sneaky, penultimate, fifth reason for Arthur’s resurgence in the modern era and that is not just the decline of the monarchical ideal but also of the enchanted world itself. As we rush headlong into our technocratic future, many have pointed out that capitalism’s need to catalog and rationalize everything it sees (so it may be better sold, extracted, and exploited) is robbing us of magic. I have written elsewhere at length about this idea but suffice it to say here that, for many living today and especially for writers and poets, there is a deep sense of tragedy involved with the day to day disenchantment of our lives. Coming full circle, we can perhaps return (get it) to Tolkien and the very last words which close off his Silmarillion:

Here ends the Silmarillion; and if it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and If any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.

This idea of the decline of the world, of its passage from “the high and the beautiful” to “darkness and ruin” is one which inherently resonates with the Arthurian myth of Arthur’s return. From a glorious past and into a wretched, magic-less, grey present, Arthur returns to rekindle the light in our eyes, to rekindle our belief in the magical and the honorable. This is bad politics, let me be clear. It’s bad to aggrandize monarchies, one of the most oppressive political structures ever invented. And it’s bad to aggrandize a fantastical future instead of focusing on how we can make the present better. But it is also an inherently moving group of ideas and aesthetics which is hard to deny. As a story, it works incredibly well, because it taps into the discontent a lot of us feel towards the current state of things and our (somewhat childish, I will admit) desire that magic was real, that true honor did exist, and that knights were, in fact, chivalrous heroes who protected everyone from harm (and not, you know, ruthless, exploitative, brutal landlords).

This duality, this longing for a brighter, magical future and a deep sadness for the correct state of things, this yearning for a kinder, more honorable world, is perhaps captured in music, and in metal, nowhere better than on Blind Guardian‘s “A Past and Future Secret”. The album it comes from, Imaginations from the Other Side, is Arthurian in general; its concept bears a lot of references to Arthurian myth. A different version of this post focused mainly on it (and the excellent “Morderd’s Song”) but this song in particular is incredibly relevant to this, our last point on this version of the post. It just does so much to capture that sadness for a world that never existed and the desire that it might come to pass again and free us all from our suffering, even as we know that such a thing can never happen. It communicates these ideas in its mournful guitars and, more than anything, through Hansi Kürsch’s amazing and heartfelt vocals. It is with this track, and its lyrics, that I leave you. Farewell, readers! Perhaps we shall meet again, in Avalon.

Oh, I haven’t been here for a while
In blindness and decay
The circle’s been closed, now

My song of the end
My song of the end
I’ve seen it all

Listen crowd
I’ll tell you everything
Though I have to say
I don’t know much
Talking about
A past and future secret
Most called him once
And future king
Far back in the past
I saw his ending
Long before it started
I knew his name
He’s the one who took the sword
Out of the stone
It’s how that ancient tale began
(I hear it in the cold winds)

My song of the end
My song of the end
My song of the end
(I had seen it in my dreams)
My song of the end
(I can’t stop the darkening clouds)

I feel cold
When I cry out for the dark
Take him back to Avalon
Swell on for a new age
So long sleep well my friend
Take him back to Avalon
I will wait and guard
The future king’s crown

My song of the end
It was nice but now it’s gone
My song of the end
It was fixed the whole time
My song of the end
I saw it all
Eden Kupermintz

Published 4 years ago