Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Once But Never Again King - Two Modern Imaginings of the Arthur Mythos

A look at two works who ask the question - what if King Arthur was a dickhead, and someone to be kept from returning to aid the realm at all costs?

King Arthur has... a complicated place in our modern imagination about mythology. Even more than many of the things we retell, his canon of works is cobbled together from a lot of different sources, different times and different places, long before we get anywhere close to the modern era. He occupies a strange position between myth and reality, with the constant lingering wonder... was he a historical figure at all? Was he purely myth? Was he something in between? His stories, and those of the knights and wizards and fairies and ladies around him have been told and retold in Welsh and English and French throughout the centuries, and occupy a very particular set of places in various national consciousnesses. Speaking purely for England, the general consciousness line of belief (or at least awareness of the story) is that he sleeps, and will rise once again when the nation is in peril.

This presumes that a warrior king from the arse end of the dark ages would continue to be useful in countering future peril, which may have been a reasonable belief at the inception of the myths, but is a rather more dubious one when examined critically, or just pedantically, by the modern reader and reteller.

Which is exactly what's being done in Perilous Times by Thomas D. Lee, and Once & Future, a comic series by Kieron Gillen, with art by Dan Mora and colours by Tamra Bonvillain. While they come at the problem from two very different angles, these are both works that wonder if Arthur... might not be the solution to our problems after all, and think about exactly what causes people to think he would be any help, and what sort of peril prompts people to think "oh, if only Arthur were here, he'd solve it". Both particularly dwell on the Saxons, as well as concepts of race and belonging to the realm, with Once & Future particularly having an interest in the idea of "purity" and identity, and what it means to a modern audience as well as to an ancient king. Both are also primarily interested in Arthur as a figure in English mythology - though very aware of his roots in Welsh stories, as well as later French tales - and in the modern English consciousness.

In Perilous Times, we follow Sir Kay, newly resurrected because of peril to the realm, a state that has happened numerous times since his original burial, for various levels of threat, as well as the also-resurrected and somewhat antagonistic Lancelot. We also follow Mariam, a near future eco-protester, who understands the world the knights have risen into, blighted by climate change and corporate greed, and who desperately wants to solve the problems of the world around her, but feels powerless to affect the necessary change. There's a running theme through the story of people absolutely failing to work together, no matter that it serves their best interests, and at times, this is used as motivation for bringing Arthur back - after all, he was a great uniter of men, could he not rally the disparate forces to work together against their problems? But it is left to those who knew him best, Lancelot and Kay, to be the voices constantly pushing back on this idea. We don't need Arthur, not just yet. He might be difficult. He might make it worse. He might not be the man we need, not now, not for the moment. They carry unease through much of the story, reluctance to deal with him as a complex, real, deeply flawed man, in the face of many other people's idealisation of him as simply a myth.

In Once & Future, which is, as yet, unfinished, we take a somewhat different tack. Our historian protagonist learns, rather abruptly, that his family have long been charged with defending the land from incursions of various avatars from stories, which these days mostly resolves into his grandmother and an excess of weaponry kicking fictional ass. They learn that a group of... neonazi racists, let's be honest about it, want to bring back Arthur as a tool for ethnic cleansing, and it is their job to stop this at all costs, because the stories are Bad News, and Arthur doubly so.

One of the things they both address really well, albeit in different ways, is ideas about diversity and "foreignness" and what that means in the past and the present. For Perilous Times, this means having a black Sir Kay as a viewpoint character (as well as Mariam for our modern view) and getting his internal monologue commentary on modern racial divisions, and his thoughts on how that compared to his own time, his Numidian heritage, and differing conceptualisations about it. It doesn't come up frequently, but getting it from Kay's perspective gives us a valuable source which - in narrative - is an irrefutably knowledgeable one, and when he says "the racism is worse now, as well as different", the narrative has to believe him. He's lived through a lot of British history, so we have to accept that he knows what he's on about, as far as the story goes. It's a nice way to bring in the author's presumed knowledge about historical views on race (given his academic focus is on Arthurian myth, I'm going to assume he's coming from a place of a lot more expertise than I could possibly have here), giving it both in-story authority but also making it feel a natural introduction into the text. 

For Once & Future, it's handled a bit more... on the nose. A group of people try to summon Arthur back. Why? They want him to rid England of the people they consider undesirable and too foreign. However, in the act of doing so, they are killed... because Arthur sees in them Saxon blood, and considers them to be the invaders, the foreigners, the problem. This is all part of a plot by someone with a lot more knowledge about how these things work than her unwitting racist stooges, but it's a very blunt intro into a lot of what the series is about - people want to use Arthur, whether ideologically or, in this case, literally, to reinforce their own notions of the idealised England. But he, someone with his own cultural context, beliefs and prejudices, simply does not conform. Not because he isn't prejudiced, simply that his prejudices are different, based on different concerns, and... well... a lot more enacted with the bloody sword the moment he rocks up.

The Arthur of Perilous Times is used just as much by those around him, and has just as many of his own prejudices to bring to the table. The secret corporate overlords of this near future want him as a convenient rallying point for the racist factions of England, and he is entirely willing to play that part, when his ego is tended to and the right persuasions are put into his ear. He has no issue with Kay as a black man - he is far more bothered by Kay as his elder brother figure and the man who seems to think he knows better than Arthur - but he is absolutely happy to serve as a racist figurehead, or doesn't particularly care that he is doing so, because he cares about other things entirely.

So what unites them here is the twin ideas of Arthur as a) someone whose own notions of what matters, who the enemy is, are very detached from our modern ones but b) someone nonetheless around whom those modern ones are catalysed, and potentially c) someone who can be used to further modern racism, regardless of his own views and context. And so, in both stories, Arthur is the problem, but Arthur is also a maguffin and an unwitting patsy for the plots around him.

And this is, I think, what makes both such interesting stories, because even as they overturn the idea of Arthur as shining knight and saviour, they play into the stories we have, and connect this modern inversion very closely to the originals. In Once & Future, both Merlin and Nimue (or at least, someone from the modern world who has stepped into the role of Nimue) are involved in guiding Arthur to their own ends, and in Perilous Times, it's Nimue who exists as someone who has lived in both past and present, alongside modern powerful men - so both stories link in to Arthur's susceptibility to seduction and thus distraction and persuasion.

In this, they are both perfect examples of retellings - or reimaginings - by taking something there in the original stories, and using it as the fulcrum through which to shift everything else in the tale. It grounds a lot of the wider-ranging changes by keeping them ideologically and thematically always tied back to something original, and means that they do always feel like they are reimagining something we are familiar with, rather than simply using the semblance to do something entirely unconnected.

And, like a lot of fiction, they use the past and the future to talk about the present. By being a perennial figure in British myth, Arthur is an ideal vessel for this sort of concern. His continued links with the very vague notion of "threats to the realm" makes him infinitely repurposeable for examining modern issues, and equally so for examining how he might be misused or unsuited to the problems. That modern Britain is experiencing an increasing wave of xenophobia and insularity makes it an excellent moment to choose to ask whether Arthur is really the person we want to hope for to solve our problems, and also to re-examine ourselves and the lies that make up the ideologies that fuel these hatreds - the very man who could be imagined as wanting what they want, could just as equally turn around and view them as the enemy they consider others to be. So, instead, these are two stories that hold up Arthur as an emblem of the rot, of the way that patriotism, nationalism, and hyperawareness of "threat" to the realm recur. They show us instead that even in his own stories, he wasn't the perfect king. He was flawed, he always has been flawed, and so, the idea that he can save us is just as broken - we are reaching back to an imagined saviour who wasn't what we conceive him to be, to be again the king he never was.

In many ways, these two stories are doing what a lot of our Greek mythology retellings claim, but fail to achieve - genuinely making us look at a figure from the past and re-examine why they're the hero. To do this, they choose to take that step further away in their setting and in their trappings, but that doesn't mean they aren't still thematically tied to them. They achieve a more interesting conclusion by being willing to change more.

This isn't to say they're both great stories - Perilous Times particularly has some issues in terms of pacing, humour and worldbuilding that do not always make it a brilliant read - but they do both contain the kernel of a really interesting idea, and one that bears examining further.


Thomas D. Lee, Perilous Times, [Orbit, 2023]
Kieron Gillen, Once & Future, [Boom! Studios, ongoing]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea