Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Date With King Arthur

The last time I presented one of these was almost three years ago. This academic essay also came from the anthropology course I took focusing on myths, rituals, and symbolism. I find myself fascinated with the creation of myth and how it informs us still.

As a child visiting Disneyland for the first time, there were many things I had not expected to encounter when I was there. Growing up in a lower-middle class family, going to Disneyland was not even on our collective radar, but thanks to relatives who worked there, the amazing was made true. Not only did the wonderfully riveting rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain leave me wanting more, but the lively and warmly-approachable costumed characters of Disneyland captivated me in ways I had not been prepared for. I remember even being too timid to approach them myself thinking that the whole experience was too great, and that I was not deserving enough to experience it more intimately. Nevertheless, I was allowed to experience my first trip to Disneyland in ways I will never forget, thanks to the family I had working there who arranged for me to be chosen during a live noon show as "the one who would pull the sword from the stone”—namely, King Arthur.

We all know the Arthurian legend of how a mere squire boy of ancient “Briton” came forth to pull the magical sword “Excalibur” from a rock, and, by doing so, become the King of Camelot. What is not well known, however, is whether there is any truth to this story. Historians have dated the legend to sometime during the European Dark Ages (c. 8th-9th century CE), and we know that written records during this time were sparse. The story has been relegated to myth for lack of better knowledge, though this has not negatively affected the story, how it is told, nor moreover, what it means to those who hear or read about it.

As the myth goes, Arthur, the squire boy, lives in a pre-medieval society full of men and women who are either not fit to wear the titles and positions they cling to, or are bereft of the social leverage and political savvy necessary to receive the honor and prestige they deserve. Within this, there exists an idea of divinely inspired destiny, a kind of divine or "unawakened magic," that exists in the world to help us achieve our higher calling. One can often never fully understand their higher calling until that divine magic has been released through a pivotal action taken by the person in question. That person may not know what that pivotal action is, when it may come during their lives, or whether it is even possible. From the myth, we learn that the surprising pivotal action is the drawing of a fabled sword, Excalibur (believed to have been embedded in the rock by a local court magician and sage named Merlin), that, upon being lifted from the stone, will indicate the next king.

The myth tells how Arthur is successful in completing the task, even after stronger and more experienced men have failed to do so, and is promptly named the new king. Merlin becomes Arthur’s advisor, and the king and his loyal subjects (among whom are the Knights of the Round Table) go on to engage in numerous quests and adventures, not the least of which is a search for the Holy Grail (which may, in fact, place the myth during the time of or prior to the First Crusade, 1095-1099 CE.)

In any case, the summary provided above carries with it a set of symbols which, beyond the fact that there are scant details known about the story historically, qualify it as myth. For one, the Arthur myth focuses on the object of the sword, an object of war, which plays more of a passive role as that which is sought after, and in referring to the summary above, functions as the fulcrum upon which Arthur’s destiny balances. As part of a backstory to the sword’s origins, other versions of the myth have spoken about how the sword was first given to Merlin by a mysterious but benevolent sorceress known only as the Lady of the Lake, who, in turn, had played a role in Merlin’s destiny. Be that as it may, other symbols found in the Arthur myth are the stone itself, magic, loyal subjects (including the knights), the round table (about which the knights assemble in equal relationship to each other), and the idea of kingship or rulership, which taken together mean different things for those who participate in the myth, even by those who are just listening or watching it play out.

Extending from a structuralist perspective, one must see that in order to view the above symbols according to their respective “models of” and “models for” reality, one must use a lens that is focused on the frame of structure rather than the details, as Levi-Strauss suggests in his work, “Structural Anthropology” (164). Bearing this in mind, the sword in the stone (two symbols at once) is a model of reality, representing that strength which is stuck within the stony confines of human inflexibility and faithlessness. The stone from which the sword is drawn is, of course, that very physical representation of human nature that is defined by inflexibility and faithlessness. By separating these two (drawing forth the sword), a model for reality is formed utilizing the freed symbol of the sword as a signifier indicating the release of divine magic, whereby one’s destiny is fulfilled. The loyal subjects (knights) are indicative of those who are a direct side-effect of the aforementioned model for reality, serving to inform those who participate in perpetuating the myth that there are like minds out in the world whose own destinies are dependent on the occurrence of the pivotal event. So too does the round table serve as a model for reality, depicting an idea of equality not exhibited in the times before the sword was drawn from the stone.

Invariably, kingship is the most difficult symbol to qualify as its relevance is no longer easily seen in modern day. Kingship, as displayed in the Arthur myth, can be taken to mean self-empowerment, creation of an identity, and eventually passes on the idea that each person who follows the myth’s structural model (and not its details) will veritably become “kings” or “queens” of their own domains. In essence, the kingship symbolism acts as a “misguided” model of reality, seemingly always in place, but disguised beneath the presiding model of inflexibility that can only be removed by the realization of the model for reality—namely, pulling the sword from the stone.

The myth stresses a structural basis, but also has a "performative" feature not felt unless one acts the myth out oneself. Having performed the act of pulling the sword from the stone at Disneyland, I can attest to the fact that the modern myth’s characteristics emphasize style, occasions, and how the performance is produced over other competing aspects (Lecture, 10/7/03). In performing the myth in both planned and impromptu theatrical capacities time and time again, one gets the sense that the Arthur legend expresses a challenge to authority that is already in place. This potentially flawed idea of never-ending renewal of authority is then tempered by the myth’s assertion that only those renewals permitted by “the powers that be” (e.g. God) are those that will come to pass. After all, not just anyone has the ability to take the sword from the stone!

The Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone presents a model of and a model for reality that depicts both the state of (local) world affairs and how that can be remedied, if possible. What makes it possible is if the one, shall we say, “predestined” to fix the situation comes forth and takes action, often not knowing the consequences of said action, and thus setting into motion a series of events that will make things better in the doing. One can imagine how those who are not predestined to take such actions may, despite the pattern, do so, creating such ideas as the “anti-hero,” or even bolder proclamations such as the “Antichrist.” One would hope, however, that those involved in any fashion with the Arthurian legend would recognize one of its most important lessons: every great and noble act of mankind is carried out by those who are meant to initiate it—and that is reassuring!


Lecture. “Myth: Structure and Meaning.” Professor Hancock. UCSB. Fall, 2003.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. “Structural Anthropology.” Anthropology 116 reader. Ed.
Professor Hancock. Santa Barbara: UCSB. 2003. 162-174.