Myth and the 'Now' Part Nine: The Tale of Arthur
Myth brings something out of nothing via a set of two poles, between which is a spectrum of points:
Pole # 1
Close to Pole # 1
Equidistant from either Pole
Close to Pole # 2
Pole # 2
This abstract scale is then personified as the great archetypes:
The Wise Old Man
The Comic Companion
The Warrior Companion
The Female Companion
The Shadow Protagonist
At first, in myths such as the creation stories told in cultures all over the world, these figures are strange, inhuman, often giant or animal-like - great eagles, or roosters, or dragons and so on. Events take place which seem unnatural or full of a kind of dark symbolism that we can scarcely grasp: sons destroy fathers, creatures consume themselves, things shatter or melt or burn, and from these remnants further things are made.
Then we begin to see figures that resemble us in some distant way: humankind’s first ancestors, or god-like but humanoid forms - mighty, remote, opulent. Odin sits in his silver-roofed hall; Adam and Eve dwell in Paradise; the world’s first people partake of Dreamtime.
There’s a bridge that is built, then, to lands with which we have more familiarity: Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge reaches Midgard or Earth; Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden into a harder, more recognisable world; demigods like Hercules appear.
As we move outward from this core of mythic tales, we encounter what Northrop Frye called Romances - not love stories, but grand epics about heroic larger-than-life figures moving through landscapes that we might identify but which are still populated by and saturated with the ‘supernatural’. And here we observe another interesting thing: the rough-hewn or primal archetypes we glimpsed in myth are at this level more distinct.
As an example of this, let’s take a look at one of the most familiar Romances, the story of King Arthur and his Knights at the Round Table. If we are correct in our analysis, we should see quite quickly that certain of the seven great figures above now take on a defined and particular form.
We’re all familiar with the basic story of Arthur, the son of King Uther Pendragon who is raised by another family, taking his rightful place as king when, as a boy, he is able to pull a sword from an anvil set in stone. He is counselled by Merlin the magician, marries Guinevere, is nearly betrayed by his sister Morgan le Fay, takes into his order of knights the warrior Launcelot (who establishes himself as the greatest knight in all the world by his virtue, loyalty, and bravery) and who is eventually undone by his own son, Mordred, who mortally wounds him, all as Merlin prophesied.
All of that is perfectly well-known from stories we have either been told in childhood or seen on movie screens in one form or another for generations.
Did you spot the archetypes?
Arthur, the obvious Protagonist, moves from being the orphan boy, through various challenges, to become king, counselled by Merlin the Wise Old Man.
Lancelot is the Warrior Companion, emerging from darkness to become a Knight of the Round Table - but his relationship with Guinevere, the Female Companion, dooms the whole Epic structure of the story into a tragic form: instead of rescuing the hollow Female Companion from her submergence, as occurs in many other tales (and which gives us the basic form of the love story in literature) he succumbs to temptation and is demoted.
Arthur’s sister, the Antagonist Morgan le Fay, tricks Arthur into becoming the father of the Shadow Protagonist Mordred, who eventually slays him, in echoes of the father-murdering son motif from myth.
Almost all the Seven Character Archetypes are there. The pattern of action they engage in together shapes the story as a whole into a Tragedy with powerful Epic ramifications. The tale of Arthur is no longer a ‘myth’: the figures in it are much more recognisably human, their motivations and actions much more commonplace, the outcomes more predictable. But this is nevertheless an outer circle around the primal truths of myth and not that far removed from it: Arthur is the personification of the point equidistant between two extremes, pulled hither and thither by them, first upward through trials towards kingship, then downward towards death by deception and betrayal; Lancelot as a personification of the height of nobility falls in the end from that height due to the pull of the partly-void Female Companion.
The only archetype not clearly present is the Comic Companion. This figure never emerges in the initial Arthurian tales, but always makes it into the later Disney versions in some way. Comedy is, as this sequence of archetypes has it, close to Wisdom - Comic Companions are often close to the Wise Old Men in fiction, chosen or at least smiled upon by them: to reach a point so close to the pole of Light means that triumph is close. This is one reason why Comic Companions almost always have something to do with the final victory of the Protagonist; it’s also perhaps why there is no clear personification in these stories, because Arthur doesn’t ultimately succeed - his Quest for the Holy Grail falls short, and his tale turns dark, with only the brightest of hopes, that he will return in the time of the kingdom’s greatest need, as an echo of it.
In the supernatural Logres of Arthurian Britain, we have in fact been entertained by a movement of figures across a stage haunted by the mythic imagery and motifs behind and under it: a high-born boy has been taken and hidden by a wise old man, to be revealed as a figure of power and destiny at the right moment; a grand and noble man has fallen; a hollow queen has pulled him away from perfection; a corrupt and unnatural birth has resulted in the collapse of a divine dream, leading to the beginnings of a more prosaic world.
Legend, that band of stories around the core of Myth, has in effect retold the same tales but using figures more clearly ‘human’, less god-like or monstrous.
This ‘re-telling’ business continues when we look at the next layer of fiction.