At this point, nearly everyone seems to have a basic idea of the legend of King Arthur. The ideas of Camelot, the Round Table, and knights driven by the ultimate code of chivalry are widely recognized. Over the centuries, the story has incorporated other elements, like the quest for the Holy Grail that involves the Fisher King and can only be completed by a knight of pure virtue. There’s also the story of Arthur’s nephew/son Mordred, who delivers Arthur’s fatal wound and brings about the end of the Camelot age. And, of course, the adulterous romance of Guinevere and Lancelot.
Arthurian legends have fascinated and entranced for centuries. Aside from being great stories, they illustrate powerful and intensely human emotions like envy, jealousy, love, ambition, and the struggle to maintain virtuous behavior. Arthur the Welsh warlord/prince/king appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century book History of the Kings of Britain, as well as serving as a peripheral character in some of the stories of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh folklore that is still one of the most confusing books I’ve ever read. Sometimes it works well to translate texts from bardic poetry into prose, and other times a lot gets lost in translation.
The Victorians were notoriously obsessed with Arthurian legend, thanks in great part to Tennyson’s poem “Idylls of the King.” There are volumes and volumes of scholarly analysis of the Arthur obsession. I’m not here to write about that this time.
I prefer another of Tennyson’s Arthur-related poems, though I have to admit it’s mostly because I like the way the Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt interpreted it. The Lady of Shalott, especially as interpreted by McKennitt, is a strange combination of matter-of-fact and devastating.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
–From The Lady of Shalott, by Alfred Lord Tennyson