This is an article I wrote more than 20 years ago for the Journal of the Pendragon Society (Vol XXIX, No. 1); I hope to follow up on some of the themes and ideas in this piece in later essays and YouTube videos.
The popularity of Arthur arises from diverse sources; there is the historical aspect, the mythological, the cultural, the psychological, and the literary. There seems little hope of ever discovering the ‘true’ Arthur, in the sense of identifying him conclusively with a real past individual, and what difference would such a discovery make? In terms of the continuing interest in Arthur it may perhaps be better for his identity to be untold, even if somehow known.
The human race may be moving into its most significant era, with our economy and technology threatening our survival and the survival of most higher forms of life on the planet. As a society we must become more responsible and mature, or we shall most likely perish. It is in this context that the future of Arthur may be decided.
There seems to have been a general rise in interest in Arthur since World War Ii, and over roughly the same period there has developed the ‘New Age’ movement. I do not think this is a coincidence. The ‘New Age’ philosophies represent a widespread search for a more spiritual view of life than that provided by the materialistic hegemony of modern capitalism. The appeals of Arthurian myth to such a search are obvious: not only is there the quest for the Holy Grail (the pursuit of truth) and the construction of Camelot (the foundation of Utopia), but the whole background to the stories is significant. The Arthurian myths are set in a world suffering from decline – the collapse of Rome and the barbarian invasions – and in this picture Arthur and his knights heroes of cultural renewal.
At a time of crises and transformation everything becomes uncertain. When social norms change, the sense of what is sane and meaningful disappear, so that everything seems crazy and futile. It becomes difficult to act rationally, as the consequences of behaviour are less predictable. Myths can help to guide individuals and society in such times by serving as a model. Obviously, it is important to choose a good model, otherwise problems may be increased rather than overcome.
There are limitless directions in which our society can develop, but if it is to continue for more than the next fifty years then the path it must choose is only one of a limited number. The Arthurian myths can provide us with a model that corresponds to one of the positive directions our society can take.
What the world needs to become is unified (that is to exist as a single society rather than a multitude of squabbling countries) and to become just (that is to function in an egalitarian and co-operative way rather than an elitist and exploitative manner). Legends attribute Arthur with the unification of the British kingdoms against the Saxon tribes, and the establishment of a rule that was based on justice and equality. Furthermore, the tragic events that bring down Arthur can serve as a warning, may urge us to find a way to learn from history rather than to continue repeating it.
Of course, the Arthurian mythology could be interpreted quite differently, and (mis)used to back a nationalistic, conservative, authoritarian and regressive ideology. This would bring doom to Arthur, for he flourishes only while we live; the end of our species will see the death of all our myths.