King Arthur, if he ever existed (scholars aren’t sure), lived and died some fifteen hundred years ago. After the Bible, his story was the story of the Western world. Before the invention of the printing press, King Arthur’s story had been translated into French, Italian, German, Icelandic, Spanish, Swedish, and Russian, and hand-copied into books all over Europe. By the middle of the 20th century, King Arthur had become the subject of prose, poetry, painting, sculpture, classical music, movies, television programs, toys, board games, a Broadway musical, and innumerable works of historical and literary scholarship. I even know of a housing development where the streets are named after his knights.
But now he has fallen on hard times.
Yesterday I quizzed a 13-year-old boy and his 38-year-old uncle–representing two different generations–as to what they knew about King Arthur. Writers are allowed to do things like this; it would be considered intrusive, coming from your plumber.
The boy first: “Tell me everything you know about King Arthur.”
“Uh… Was he a king of England or someplace? He had some involvement with the U.S.?”
He came up totally blank on the Round Table, Camelot, Merlin, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. He defined the Holy Grail as “a big cup with a lot of jewels on it, and if you drink from it, you live forever.” An interesting response, I’d say.
His uncle did a little better.
“King Arthur… Oh, yeah, with the Knights of the Round Table.” Merlin he identified as “a wizard,” but didn’t make the connection between Merlin and Arthur. He came up empty on Camelot, Guinevere, and Lancelot. “I think I might’ve heard that name, sometime, Sir Lancelot. But I don’t know anything about him.”
So for fifteen hundred years the story of King Arthur was told, and built upon, and retold, and decorated (sometimes almost beyond recognition): it even caught on in Japan.
And now it’s lost. This great treasure of our culture, buried under an avalanche of comic books–no more Prince Valiant comics, I regret to say–and video games, reality TV and truly benighted “music” that shrivels souls. After a millenium and a half, we’ve managed to erase it in a mere two generations. The story came out of one Dark Age to vanish into another.
I don’t believe that man evolved from apes. But a lot of people seem to be working very hard to make apes evolve from man.