The millennium King Arthur: the commodification of the Arthurian legend in the 20th century
By David Pfanner
Master’s Thesis, Australian National University, 2008
Abstract: The prophesy that King Arthur will return has come true. This legendary icon of Western civilization lives again in the popular culture novels of contemporary and futuristic literature. While the king’s personality has changed little since Malory, the monarch is now often found as a superhero in new world settings: he has become a Celtic space traveller among the stars, a modern politician fighting corruption, a WWII fighter pilot, a battler of aliens, and even returns as a teenage boy.
Wherever he goes, King Arthur encounters a variety of personalised evil opponents from his medieval past as well as futuristic aliens and monsters. The authors and publishers of Arthurian popular culture have commodified the Arthurian legend, turning the king into an Americanised romantic superhero who overcomes his opponents but mostly fails to meet the reality of modern socio-economic challenges.
The king has a limited understanding of what constitutes evil in the modern world so that despite his worthy character as a role model, his grasp of action required to overcome injustice constitutes a major shortcoming. The reasons for this are sought among the authors and publishers that produced these novels, and among the literary critics and the sociological literature focusing on the linkages between literature and society.
Introduction: King Arthur has left Avalon, is alive and is among us now. Future worlds and lands of fantasy will all witness the return of the king as prophesied. This thesis reviews Arthur’s current and future literary reincarnations and asks how he has weathered the centuries since he first came to our attention. The complexity and variety of stories surrounding Arthur’s legend cannot possibly be captured in a brief summary, yet an outline of the major elements of the legend is necessary prior to discussing current versions.
The legendary King Arthur was conceived in a plot engineered by the wizard Merlin whose price demanded the child be given to him for adoption. This was the beginning of a long relationship with Merlin as Arthur’s protector and advisor. The young Arthur first proved his status as King by withdrawing his famous sword Excalibur from an anvil embedded in a large boulder, a sword later claimed from the Lady of the Lake and ultimately returned to her as Arthur lay dying.