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Thursday, August 31, 2017

King Arthur Art

The Death of Arthur, 1823, James Archer
As an artist, imagine being paid to illustrate a story that is about eight-hundred years old, has had numerous authors down through the ages; is of doubtful historic validity; and is mostly made up of medieval folklore. Add to that the fact that the saga has added more new characters over the past five-hundred years than Days of Our Lives. Not only that, but the storyline has more twists and turns and plot potholes than Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Great Pumpkin, and the Easter Bunny combined. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm describing the ancient legend of what might be described as England's George Washington. King Arthur is a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romantics, led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD. The details of Arthur's story are mainly folklore and literary invention, while his actual existence has long been debated and disputed by modern historians.

The Death of Arthur, 1862, John Garrick. The tale was so
familiar there was no need to mention he was a king.
Perhaps the worst aspect of any such a hypothetical illustrating assignment would be that there have been dozens of artists down through the 19th and 20th-centuries who have actually faced such a chore. As might be expected, their work has been uneven. Some, such as Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth built their reputation on the success of their encounter with this legendary monarch. Others, have failed miserably. The Pre-Raphaelites, made a fetish of this Medieval King from whom the Tudor branch of the royal family (and perhaps the Windsors still today) claim to be descended.
The art of Arthur is almost as old as the story of Arthur, the earliest work dating back to about 1300.
King Arthur, 1874,
Julia Margaret Cameron,
used photos to illustrate
Tennyson's poems.
Since there is no conclusive evidence for or against Arthur's historicity, the debate will continue. But what can not be denied is the influence of the figure of Arthur on literature, art, music, and society from the Middle Ages to the present. Though there have been numerous historical novels that try to put Arthur into a sixth-century setting, it is the legendary figure of the late Middle Ages who has most captured the imagination. It is such a figure, the designer of an order of the best knights in the world, that figures in the major versions of the legend from Malory to Tennyson to T. H. White. Cen-tral to the myth is the downfall of Arthur's kingdom. It is undermined in the chron-icle tradition by the treachery of Mordred (said to be Arther's illegitimate son by his step-sister). In the romance tradition that treachery is made possible because of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Gustave Doré's Camelot
for Alfred Tennyson's
Idylls of the King, 1868
Arthur Pendragon was the greatly proph-esized and long awaited man who would be a great king. Everything about Arthur is loaded with elements of mystical intervention and divine predestination, especially his con-ception. In most chronicles, books, and mov-ies, the parents of Arthur are Uther (Uter, Vter, Vther) Pendragon and Igraine (Igerne, Igrayne, Igerna, Ygraine, Ygerna, Ygerne, Eigyr) of Cornwall. (Consistent spelling was not a strong suit in the English language at the time.) However, the main characters of Arthurian legend have remain fairly consis-tent over time--Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Mordred, and a few more. To this mix have been added several others including Vivien, Tristan, Iseuit, and Yvain.

Mordred, Arthur's
final foe, H. J. Ford

Interestingly, Sir Yvain is the only figure in the legendary story of Arthur who actually lived. It is difficult to narrow down all legendary figures. However, Yvain is unique among the Knights of the Round Table in that he is based on a historical figure. He is recorded as some variation of Owain mab Urien, of the kingdom of Rheged. There is little doubt as to the historicity of this man. As for the other Knights of the Round Table, literary scholars can't even agree as to their exact number much less their names. Listing range from twelve to as high as 150. The most commonly mentioned are: King Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Geraint, Percival, Bors the Younger, Lamorak, Kay, Gareth, Bedivere, Gaheris, Tristan, and Galahad. If some are unfamiliar, that's because some were more colorful than others.

Quite likely, no one was more responsible for the resurgence of the popularity of King Arthur than England's Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the late 1800s.
Not only did the British rediscover King Arthur, and his Knights of the Round Table, during the 19th-century, they found the story lent itself to publication, especially in books that were profusely illustrated. Although they were far from the "illustrated novels" we find today, publishers called upon the services of some of the best Illustrators the U.S. and the U.K. had to offer. With the publication of King Arthur of Britain in 1903, came illustrations by the American artist, Howard Pyle (below) with his black and white renderings resembling etchings and woodcuts (by that time both quite out of style).

Pyle's work had a deliberately medieval look in keeping
with the time frame of the story.
By the time another version of King Arthur came along around 1922, color had become an exciting addition to the illustrators tools and skills (below) as seen in the work of another American illustrator, the legendary N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew Wyeth, and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth of my generation. The book was aimed squarely at teen and preteen boys, the author, Sidney Lanier, even went so far as to title his 1880s tome Boy's Book of King Arthur. Reaching wide audiences the flood of King Arthur books providing inspiration for Mark Twain's satiric A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court  published in 1889.

Although to our eyes, Wyeth's illustration appear dated and heavy-handed, to boys growing up in the early 20th-century, their vivid color and dramatic action pictures were often seen as more important than the plot.
With the new century and the surprising popularity of a very old, tortured story, King Arthur found a place not just in boy's literature, but also in poetry, plays, television, and motion pictures. The storyline matured and coalesced with the Alan Lerner's and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical, Camelot, a cautionary tale about fulfilled wishes. King Arthur (Richard Burton) wants to establish a radical system of government based on equality and the rule of law, so temperate that the weather itself would willingly abide by certain restrictions ("Camelot"). Guinevere (Julie Andrews), irked by her arranged marriage, wants her beauty flattered and a great romantic love ("The Simple Joys of Maidenhood"). Lancelot (Robert Goulet) seeks a level of purity so conspicuous that "he could easily work a miracle or two" ("C'est Moi"). Lancelot does, in fact, work a miracle. He raises a jousting opponent from the dead with a prayer, thus catching the eye of Queen Guinevere.

A 20th-century Arthur and Guinevere.
Though fond of her husband, Guinevere is drawn to the kingdom's most eligible bachelor. They inevitably become entangled in a legendary illicit romance. Because Camelot was founded on the principle that crimes, like adultery with the queen, must invariably be punished, Arthur is obliged to order his wife's execution. Her rescue, led by Lancelot and abetted by the early hour at which Arthur scheduled the event, tears Camelot apart. The consequences of irresistible desire extend to every character. Arthur's fling with his half-sister produced Mordred (Roddy McDowell), who would later scheme to depose his father and end the halcyon days of Camelot. Merlin, Arthur's moral and spiritual guide, is seduced away from the Crystal Cave by the spirit, Nimue. The knights who brought order to the kingdom get bored and return to rampant sin and bloodshed. And everyone lives unhappily ever after.


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