King Arthur in America

Lupack, Alan and Barbara Tepa Lupack. King Arthur in America. Cambridge & Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1999. ISBN 0-85991-543-3, hc, $75.00.

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(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 38:4 (#229) in April 2001.)

Reviewed by Edith L. Crowe

Much has been written discussing the pervasive influence that the Matter of Britain has had upon both producers and consumers of creative works. Entire books have been devoted to its verbal and visual interpretation the last two centuries. Retelling the mythos in a modern fantasy novel has become practically a cottage industry (or in the case of The Mists of Avalon, something more on the scale of a multinational conglomerate). More than one critical eyebrow might be raised at the prospect of yet another examination of Arthurian influence. What could it possibly say that hasn’t been said? In the case of King Arthur in America (a Mythopoeic Scholarship Award finalist last year) the answer is “quite a bit.”

The authors have wisely chosen to wade into the vast sea of Arthurian material with the lifeline a specific theme, and not simply to look generally at its influence on American literature and popular culture. Their more focused intention is, as they indicate in the preface, “… to resolve a paradox: the tremendous appeal of the Arthurian legends in America, where they are even more popular than in Britain.” The paradox, of course, that at first glance the Arthurian mythos is based on values that are antithetical to those of the USA — a monarchy and an aristocracy based on inheritance. Although their theme is fairly specific, they cast a wide net — chronologically from as early as 1807 through fantasy novels of the 1990s; and from such canonically blessed authors as Faulkner and Fitzgerald to popular literature and culture of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along the way, they identify a number of techniques used by American authors to “democratize” the Matter of Britain.

One of the most pervasive is to relegate Arthur himself to the background in favor of secondary or peripheral characters, or of original characters placed into an Arthurian setting. The idea of Camelot as ideal society is more important than the figure of the King, and more in keeping with the “American Dream.” The Knights of the Round Table, who had to earn their place by doing perilous deeds and protecting the weak, can be turned into a meritocracy with little effort. The figure of Galahad was particularly attractive to Americans because his position was due less to his birth than to his innate moral qualities. The Grail Quest was also a popular theme, particularly in the nineteenth century; it is easy to see the attractiveness of this motif in a nation built by immigrants and pioneers. The more cynical twentieth century found the themes of the Fisher King and the Waste Land more to the point.

Three of the book’s eight chapters are devoted to Arthurian themes in the work of authors prominent in the canon of mainstream literature. Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner share a chapter, while Steinbeck has a chapter all to himself. King Arthur and John Steinbeck might not have been an obvious combination to many readers before the posthumous publication of his The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. The Lupacks state that this unfinished retelling of Malory had the “potential” of ranking with Tennyson and White as “High-points of Arthurian literature” had Steinbeck finished it. Steinbeck’s letters make it clear that the Matter of Britain, particularly as presented by Malory, seized hold of his imagination at an early age. They discuss Steinbeck’s lesser-known first novel, Cup of Gold, with its Grail Quest theme, and Arthurian themes in his better-known novels. Another chapter, “Contemporary Novelists,” is actually devoted to nine *mainstream* novelists exclusively. Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex is included; in the others the Arthurian symbolism is less obvious, but usually convincing.

The last chapter, “The Arthurian Tradition in American Popular Culture,” includes fantasy-ghetto novelists. Their works are not analyzed as novels, however. A single chapter is hardly the place for such analysis, which has been done at length elsewhere. Instead, they are used as examples of the pervasiveness of Arthurian material in American popular culture, along with a plethora of other cultural products. In addition to the more obvious and well-known books and films (including numerous versions of A Connecticut Yankee), the authors discuss television (up to the recent Merlin mini-series), comic books, advertising, Deepak Chopra, and even art, such as the stained-glass windows at Princeton University’s Chapel and murals for the Boston Public Library.

Ending the book this way frames the material nicely, because the first three chapters (the most interesting to this reviewer) do the same for the culture of nineteenth-century America. Here the authors perform a great service by bringing to light, and discussing at some length, many early novels, poems and plays which were popular in their day but now obscure — in some cases deservedly so, in others a casualty of changing tastes or other factors. The earliest example mentioned is a pamphlet of 1807 (using the figure of Merlin as prophet to make a political point). Some of the works discussed are by literary lights such as Hawthorne and Twain (A Connecticut Yankee is treated extensively), but the more obscure are among the most intriguing. They include J. Dunbar Hylton’s 1887 poem Arteloise, which features a sword-wielding “maiden knight” named Griselda; Sallie Bridges, a proponent of women’s rights and social reform who translated Arthurian themes into contemporary settings in a way that seems remarkably modern; and Cian of the Chariots (1898) by William S. Babcock, “the first American historical novel to deal with the Arthurian legends.”

Two chapters deal with the impact of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in America, each covering a different reaction. “On both sides of the Atlantic, there were those who found the British laureate’s poems too pompous and his moralizing too tempting a target.” Not surprisingly, one reaction was parody, exemplified by Twain but by no means limited to him. Max Adeler’s novelette-length story, “The Fortunate Island,” for example, predated *A Connecticut Yankee* and has many similarities to it; it may well have given Twain a number of ideas for his own novel. Nor do the Tupacks limit themselves to literature. The opposite pole was occupied by those who took Tennyson’s moral values to heart, and even translated them into everyday life. Chapter Three is largely an account of a nineteenth-century movement, spearheaded by Protestant ministers and child welfare workers, which saw the formation of a number of clubs based on Americanized versions of Arthurian ideals of chivalry and morality. They were largely an attempt to deal with what was dubbed by the minister William Byron Forbush “the boy problem.” This was defined as the tendency of adolescent males, whose “passions and independence” outran their judgment, to devote themselves to “crazy plans and harmful deeds.” At the height of the movement, hundreds of thousands of young people belonged to Forbush’s Knights of King Arthur (and its eventual girls’ equivalent, the Queens of Avalon), as well as such other groups as Perry Edwards Powell’s Knights of the Holy Grail, and the Knighthood of Youth clubs founded by the National Child Welfare Association. The same chapter notes the impact of the rather bowdlerized versions of the Arthurian legends written specifically for youth by such authors as Sidney Lanier and Howard Pyle.

Throughout this journey through the highways and byways of American literary and popular culture, the authors never lose sight of their purpose, presenting many persuasive examples of how the Matter of Britain was molded to fit the ideals and sensibilities of a new democracy — born in rebellion against the very monarchy the Arthurian legends celebrate. Readers will find much of value, from a new look at familiar works to the unearthing of many now-obscure but intriguing older examples worth further study. The writing achieves the supremely difficult feat of combining rigor and readability. An extensive (thirty pages) bibliography, footnotes, and index add to its scholarly value.

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