Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Arthurian Legend

The title of this post may sound boring and I understand that. But I just finished The Eagle, the concluding volume of Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles.

It's been a while since the ending of a book, and indeed, a series, affected me this deeply. I've never ready anything that had such a sadly happy ending. It wasn't what I expected it to be at all. True, throughout the series Whyte has taken pains to show how the legend of King Arthur may have grown out of historical fact and was exaggerated and twisted into myth over the years. Even still, Whyte paints an ending for Arthur that's brutally tragic.

Yet, even after receiving a wound from which he would never fully recover, Arthur still has enough of the character that made him the King of Britain to see to the welfare of his closest friend, Lancelot and wife, Guinevere, by sending them away to safety in Gaul. There was no betrayal, merely the crumbling of a dream against forces too large to fought with any hope of victory. Whyte leaves Arthur's death in battle to imagination and rumor and the dream of a united Britain falls with Arthur.

Though the story was told from Lancelot's view, I tried to put myself in Arthur's shoes. I can't imagine watching everything in life I worked to build crumbling around me and not having the strength to put things back to rights. I can't imagine the frustration and anger that must accompany knowing that raising my sword against it will be a final act of defiance rather than the stroke of victory. I can't even contemplate what it must feel like to send my wife off to safety with my best and most trusted friend, knowing in my heart she'll never return because it I can't make it safe for her to.


I have an easier time imagining Lancelot's feelings, though I've never seen anything on this scale. To honor his friend's last wishes instead of fighting along side him, no matter how futile the struggle, would be a hard burden to bear for any man. To always be plagued by the lack of knowing how Arthur met his end and wondering if there was anyway he would have met a difference in that final struggle. I never felt more sympathy for Lancelot than when he weeps at hearing the news of Arthur's death through dozens of rumors. Barred from the battle by his king's own wishes and forever damned to live with having outlived the king he was supposed to die to protect.

The things Lancelot did for Arthur (in Whyte's legend) were done out of love for a brother and friend, love that was extended to Guinevere platonically until after Arthur's death. The Book of John, Chapter 15, Verse 13, tells us that there is no greater love than that of a man who will lay down his life for his friends. I've always taken that to mean the sacrifice of dying in place of someone, or dying to save someone. Whyte makes me look at it in an entirely new light.

Is it any different for a man to live his life for someone as opposed to die for someone? I think that's what Whyte's Lancelot did for Arthur, living for him instead of dying for him. Still, it's a heavy burden either way. Whyte captured it perfectly with the final line of the series, written by Lancelot himself, the last of Arthur's Knights Companion still alive.

"I miss them all."

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