King Arthur and Social Revolution
This blog post came, and could only have come, out of two weeks’ feverish studying washed down by two hours’ decent television. The best I can hope is that it will jog the imagination.
It’s exam season, and I’ve an interest in such stuff anyway, so I’ve had my head full of the Russian Revolution lately, and Trotsky’s writings, and Lenin being hard-as-nails. As a result I’m seeing fuel for Marxist social dissections everywhere I look. I’m telling you: read Trotsky, he tunes you.
Maybe it’s only because I was tuned in or preoccupied (or obsessed), or maybe other people noticed this too.
I was watching an opening double bill of Camelot the other night. It’s a The Tudors– style take on the Arthur legends (I think it’s by the same company), so it’s got a bit of blood and boobage as well as every so often introducing a familiar element of the old story in a novel way, so you kind of go “Aaaaaah, that’s cool, that’s clever”. Awful olde Ynglishe accents mixed with modern Americanized dialogue. Makes you laugh sometimes but I’ll be watching it the odd time, with enjoyment.
Anyway, the Merlin in this take on the story is bald. So as to have some nice artsy sepia flashback-sex, they left in the story about Merlin magically changing King Uther’s face so he can ride Ygraine- the bit where people kind of go “Woah, dodge” when they read the old medieval versions. So we learn about Merlin setting all this up, then taking Arthur off his parents to be raised and educated by humble decent people. So Arthur, when he learns the truth, is all why did you do this to me?, petulant like all teenage fantasy heroes. Anyway, Merlin in response gets kind of a fanatic glint in his eye. He explains he’s been planning all this for ages so that he can put a good guy on the English throne rather than a barbarian like Uther.
Throughout the double bill Merlin was pushing Arthur further and further to fulfil this role. Arthur’s biological Ma is all horrified when Merlin sends the lad off to risk his life getting the sword out of the stone- but again, that fanatical glint in his eye answers all questions. He wants to put in power a real national monarch, ending the patchwork of squabbling barbarian thugs that’s in power now: in the service of this ideal he’s the mover and shaker, because people aren’t going to do it on their own. When the moment comes when people will get off their arses and do it, the preparations have to be in place, forces mobilized and leadership established. If people get hurt, then in the long run so what? So they give him this edgy, slightly alarming, unscrupulous characterisation.
Merlin in all his many forms has always been (A) slightly scary and (B) he’s always had an agenda. He’s a Gandalf prototype, the main difference being he’s never been as nice. Gandalf, riding around Middle-Earth with “tidings”, marshalling resistance to the Dark Lord, spending days and nights in the saddle, raging inwardly against the spinelessness and the sell-outs of the free peoples’ leadership, somehow manages to retain all the geniality and occasional mild grumpiness (“Fool of a took!”) of a calm, aging Oxford philologist. Not so Merlin.
Philip Reeve has a brilliant novel called Here Lies Arthur where Merlin is a dodgy spin-doctor for a brutal warlord. But here, too, Merlin has an agenda: he wants to create a strong king- it doesn’t matter who- to unite the Britons and defend against the invading Saxons. Merlin overlooks the reality of Arthur and because he never takes his eyes from the prize, he turns shit into gold, leaving us with the myth we know today.
“…throughout his life [he] was led and dominated to an exceptional extent by a single thought and a single aim. This overwhelming sense of service to an idea accounted for the simplicity and modesty of demeanour which all remarked in him… he set an example of austerity and impersonality… His immense learning, his analytical skill, his outstanding intellectual power in the marshalling of fact and argument were displayed without much concern for the subtler alternations of light and shade; everything was clear-cut, brilliant, decisive.”
That’s not a quote from Philip Reeves’ novel, which has a far more readable style. It’s from E.H. Carr’s excellent The Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a description of Lenin, not Merlin, who didn’t (so far as sources indicate) participate in the Russian Revolution. But the quotation could serve for both, couldn’t it?
Now, let me stress that I’m not pure stupid: I could go on for thousands of words and still not manage to paint Merlin as anything but the crudest, most unconvincing caricature of Lenin. None of the medieval poets sing about the Arthurian Terror (for the sake of pedantry and politics I must add that if an attempt to impose a national native monarchy on post-Roman Britain was a reality, such a Terror must have been carried out). We know a lot more facts about Lenin and have a lot more cartoonish associations with Merlin, and a frivolous comparison seems maybe dangerously naive. I’m not trying to do that so don’t start saying, so Arthur is like Stalin? And is Robin Hood Hitler? –No. I’m making two points, both of which are slightly related to Lenin and to Merlin.
The first is that the Arthur myth represents Revolution. Malory’s 15th-century Arthur covered the whole story in the trappings of the later Middle Ages (tournaments all over the shop), making it all about the dying virtues of knighthood and chivalry. But Camelot, which puts the story back into a visually well-realized dark-ages Britain, reminds us it’s a story of social conflict.
There are local magnates you can barely call “kings”, scrapping for power in a vacuum, and a visionary like Merlin sets up some lad as a legitimate, “noble”, all-round-good-guy “King of the Britons”. This marks a bold attempt to force a historical transition between a disintegrated, tribalistic slave-society and a centralized, feudalistic monarchy. Tribalism to Feudalism. Arthur’s quest is a clear example of class war, of revolution.
This is a progressive step; when the monarchy rises above the nobles, it can begin collecting taxes and building a nation-state. It’s still obviously a shithole for most of the people living under it, of course, who have to shovel muck all day while shitting themselves over war, disease, famine and eternal torture in hell if they don’t obey the rules. But historically, it’s a step forward- stability, unity, the king’s peace and resulting prosperity. Power passes to the King’s administrators, to merchants and guilds- and eventually to the state and the capitalist class- and sometime soon, I fervently hope, to the democratic control of the working class. At every step of the way, you need bald, grumpy, slightly scary Merlins to shove things along.
My second point: Merlin bears no special relation to Lenin. They are simply examples of the same archetype. Archetypal characters present themselves in stories, but they have social and historical roots, which is why they recur so often. Lenin, for instance, is often compared to the French Revolutionary Robespierre. So is any austere Marxist type.
Merlin’s is a character that has echoed across many centuries and has never fundamentally changed. Whatever the original Merlin-figure was like, if there was one, the archetype is eternally true. A real Merlin, in whatever century he walked, whether he was a priest or a druid or a folk-wizard, must have been at heart a revolutionary agitator- a bitter and humourless, driven intellectual kept from straying from his weary path by an inspiring, almost incomprehensible dedication.
Note: I’m talking about revolutionary cadres, not the clinical psychopaths and opportunists who have masqueraded as revolutionaries from time to time. Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially through the clouds of biased or ignorant history, which is which, what was necessary, what was… too much. If you want to comment on this post, feel free to start a boring discussion about all that…
So drink a toast tonight for all the slightly scary men and women who were there to give society a shove when it needed it. Pray we have them when we need them.
 Archetype: that’s like stereotype, only FUCKIN EXTREEEEEEME!!!