Arthurian legend is one of the oldest and most
influential traditions in British and American culture. The figure of King
Arthur has a long and complex history which provides an interdisciplinary and
multimedia (literature, painting, and film) context not simply to read rich and
suggestive works of literature, but also to explore how varied cultural “myths”
can be spun around the same central figure to both reflect and transform a
society’s image of itself. For example,
in twelfth century France, Arthurian legend was tailored to endorse hereditary
noble privilege. In the fifteenth century, Malory’s nostalgia for the chivalric
reflects an aristocracy in crisis. The
first Henry Tudor valorized his claim to the English throne by manufacturing a
genealogical connection with King Arthur. Centuries later, King Arthur became an essential model in the construction
of the Victorian gentleman, among other functions, valorizing the ideologies
that idealized Britain’s imperialist ventures.
In World War II, Hitler’s fascination with Arthurian legend was
instrumental in developing his holocaust agenda. As for the present, Las
Vegas hosts the Excalibur hotel. People still reminisce about JFK’s Camelot. An
Internet search of King Arthur reveals an eclectic array of sometimes bizarre
entries. From the commercialized playgrounds of middle America to the
glamorized world of political privilege, to high-tech virtual enclaves,
re-imaginings of the Arthurian world are still alive and well.
will explore the permutations of King Arthur, paying particular attention to
the ideological implications of the retellings.
Primary texts will be accompanied by criticism so that students can
experience, not just the range of primary texts, but also the various critical
The course will begin by addressing the historical
question of Arthur’s origins. This will lay the foundation to ask how this
figure became embroidered and enlarged with the grand legendary framework that
has come down to us as the medieval “Matter of Britain.” The first text will be the Celtic Mabinogion, which suggests many of the
mythic underpinning for Arthurian tradition. After discussing the nature of
oral transmission, we will move through important medieval Latin, French,
German, and English versions.
These discussions of thematic continuities that have
embedded Arthur in the mythic fabric of Western culture will prepare for the
investigation of specific ways medieval traditions intersect with later
re-creations. We will look at the
influence of romance form and chivalric ideology in “scripting” the discourse
used to narrate the actions of such varied figures as the major players of the
“age of exploration,” Victorian empire builders, and American western heroes. We will look at differences between a British
Arthur and an American Arthur, and the distinct cultural attitudes each
reveals. Through film (5-10 minute clips from such popular versions as Excalibur,
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Fisher King, the “Star Wars” trilogy, Camelot, The Sword in the Stone, Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade, King Arthur), we can ask why our culture
continues its fascination with Arthurian retellings, how these retellings are
used, and why the central players in this tradition (Arthur, Lancelot, Guenivere,
Perceval, Merlin, Morgan le Fay) have become such important cultural icons for
the present generation.
PROCEDURE AND REQUIREMENTS: This will be primarily a discussion class,
with some lecturing to offer contextual information. The primary writing will
be done in regular 1-2 page reading response papers (emailed weekly to the
entire class list), and a research project (approx. 12-15 pages). Students will do three oral presentations:
prepared opening remarks for class, a report on a background topic, and a
presentation of the final research project.
Attendance is required.
TEXTS (in order of reading): The Mabinogion; related
sections of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History
of the Kings of Britain ; Chrétien
de Troyes, Yvain; von
Eschenbach, Parzival; Beroul
and Thomas, Tristan and Isolde;
selections from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur;
selections from Tennyson’s Idylls of the
King; Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee
in King Arthur’s Court.