The Stuff of Legends Myth?: King Arthur's passion and heroism have inspired generations, that's for certain. So what if his existance is still in doubt.

September 23, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

For a really famous guy, he's got a peculiar bio.

Professional experience: Pulls sword out of stone, creams the Saxons, rules as once and future king.

Hobbies: Heavy metal, courtly love, hanging with the guys, heroic quests.

Personal: Separates from Guinevere after her fling with Lancelot; permanently estranged from illegitimate son, Mordred; spends a little too much time with a sorcerer named Merlin.

If King Arthur were alive today, he'd undoubtedly be labeled an obsessive-compulsive (give up on the Grail already, sire) from a dysfunctional family. Yet 1,500 years after his legend was born in sixth century Britain, Arthur retains his grip on our collective psyche. Scholar Joseph Campbell calls it the central myth of Western civilization.

"The story has touched innumerable peoples' lives and continues to be of absolute fascination," says Ruth E. Hamilton, curator of "The Many Realms of King Arthur," a traveling exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that opens today at the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Thought to have been an epic Celtic hero who did battle with Germanic invaders, Arthur's existence has not been definitively proved despite exhaustive research. While certain scholars get marooned on this mystery, it doesn't really matter to untold "keen amateurs." For them, it is enough to plumb for personal resonance a timeless story about a knight's quest, his tragic love for Guinevere and the downfall of his kingdom.

If anything, the resilient, all-encompassing myth of Arthur speaks to a human need for an ethical framework.

Author and illustrator Hudson Talbott, who has retold Arthurian legends in a highly regarded series for children, finds personal guidance in the tale.

"The part that certainly appeals to me on a personal level is really the deepest, and in some ways the most concealed element of it, which is about self-revelation, and bringing one's self to the highest goals, represented by the search for the Holy Grail," Talbott says. "It's really about the search for [a Holy Grail] in our life; finding the spiritual within yourself."

Despite the myth's tragic conclusion, "the story is really about hope," Hamilton adds. "I think that people want to feel that if you do your part, if you try to be part of a community, if you do something, that in fact you can make a difference and that [all is not] total darkness."

The Pratt show, drawn from collections at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the New York Public Library, traces Arthurian legend from its origins in the early Middle Ages to the present. Illustrations from classic Arthurian works and lively narrative explore Arthur's mesmerizing hold over countries, centuries and a profusion of art forms as diverse as Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," comic books, the recent film "First Knight" and video games.

Eleven years ago, when Hamilton, a Medievalist fascinated by the Middle Ages' influence on the modern world, first planned what was a precursor to the current show, she sought to explain Arthur's pervasive influence.

Why did tales of the knights of the Round Table spawn study units in school? Why did accounts of Arthur and his court appear in Hebrew and Tagalog as well as in English? Why did the sword in the stone and quest for the Holy Grail inspire works of musical theater, prose, poetry and film?

In the Middle Ages, tales of Charlemagne and the "Song of Roland" were nearly as popular, Hamilton notes, but, "We don't have Sean Connery playing Charlemagne, and we don't have Monty Python spoofing the 'Song of Roland.' "

Something for everyone

The answer lies in part in the "story's plot and characters," Hamilton writes in the exhibit catalog. "The plot has something for everyone: action, adventure, love, magic, spirituality, betrayal, hope. The characters are all too human, yet they inspire us and provide us with models to emulate."

The Arthurian legend's staying power lies in its flexibility as well, Hamilton says. The story changes to meet the needs of different eras. The legend's cast of characters -- Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Merlin, Gawaine, Morgan le Fay are some of the best known -- are added as needed by authors who also contribute thousands of subplots and story spinoffs.

In its earliest forms, Arthur was a "story for guys about guys, about fighting" in the Middle Ages. Come the 12th century, women aristocrats demanded that the story be leavened with a tale of forbidden love. During the Renaissance, Tudor monarchs claimed a right to the throne as descendants of Arthur.

Tennyson, in the 19th century, used Arthur to talk about problems confronting Victorian society. During the heyday of plantation society in the Deep South, gentlemen emulated the chivalrous behavior of knights of yore.

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