Saturday, July 19, 2008
The Arthur Legend as Metaphor for Democratic Politics
I recently saw the 2004 movie King Arthur. I had wanted to see it when I first saw the trailer (I grew up reading the Howard Pyle books, with his illustrations that I spent my youth attempting to emulate) but after the reviews came out, decided not to. However, I had enough hope to add it to my netflix queue (primarily because it featured Clive Owen as King Arthur [sad to say, the later role of Sir Walter Raleigh allowed him to more fully realize a character than did that of a king--or anyway, this king]).

Unfortunately the presence of Owen is really the only reason to watch the whole movie. While I disagree with the New Yorker that the transposition to an earlier, more barbarous age was necessarily wrong, the movie is nonetheless a total mistake, choosing as it does to completely avoid depicting what makes the Arthur legend so compelling. It is also just a bad movie (aside from its subversion of the myth), with zero character development and a meaningless storyline.

Why has the Arthur legend persisted through the centuries? In some ways, I think Arthur is on a par with Jesus as far as personifying and catalyzing a profound cultural change. I suppose this seems somewhat backwards since Arthur was presumably a christian and, no doubt, helped make christianity palatable to the inhabitants of the British isles--if only by demonstrating that it held something of value, aside from the brutal subjection by the Romans. But, I think what Arthur (or the promulgators of the myth), did with christianity was to westernize it--to meld certain British concepts into those of christianity, and to, thereby, create the anglo-saxon ethos--the best of it, anyway (disclaimer--I am not a WASP, nor a christian, and am not promoting their dominion of the world).

How did Arthur do this? And how does the movie betray the myth? The thing that draws us into the legend is not just the battles, the bravery, the loyalty and the honor. It is the principles of egalitarianism, of selflessness, of duty, of sacrifice in service of a cause, of warriors reluctant to go into war, of free will, of romantic love, --and of the sacrifices one makes for a cause, for a nation, for the people, for a friend, for love. And (here's the tie-in) this legend, by informing our values, and by embodying these principles of a free society, becomes a metaphor (if not consciously), for me, and I think for many other Democrats, for the reason we're involved in politics--a metaphor for the principles of progressives, and the attributes we want in our leaders (not for nothing was the Kennedy White House called Camelot, you know).

Arthur embodied, as well, the imperfection of being human--the striving for, the never quite attaining---he is on a human scale. The Arthur legend shows us knights who align with an exalted yet still human leader, not for personal or tribal gain, but for the advancement of shared principles. In the elements of the Arthur legend--the search for a symbol of exaltation, the personal/idealogical conflicts subjugated to a common cause, the soul-searching, the willingness to accept worthy former enemies into the fold--are the elements of politics that makes so many idealistic progressives so passionate, and drives us to volunteer endless hours pounding the pavements, working the polls, raising funds, making GOTV calls.

The movie betrays these elements, these principles, first, by making it about winning--about a fearless leader who prevails over two enemy groups by making common cause with a third enemy with which he shares a common interest. In this, the movie becomes an allegory for the Republicans. Second, it downplays the role and characters of the knights (that is, us) by making them merely loyal buddies who are fierce warriors. In the Arthur legend, the knights are not just followers of Arthur, bound by a pact not of their making, but are individuals of free will who must share the ideology and principles of Arthur in order to make the sacrifices asked of them--and to exemplify the Arthurian values.

(And besides, though this doesn't enter into my neat metaphor, the movie completely denatures the Lancelot/Guinevere aspect of the story, by turning it into a harmless flirtation, rather than an epic drama of desire, love, friendship, sacrifice and self-denial).

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