[(essay date fall 2005) In the following essay, Poe presents an overview of the history of the Arthur legend, from its origins in sixth century fact through to its divergent contemporary incarnations.]
I don't remember reading or hearing tales of King Arthur when I was a child. My introduction to the story came when I was a young teenager listening to an album from the Broadway show Camelot. I played the record over and over, captivated not only by the pristine quality of Julie Andrews' voice but also by the perplexing lyrics of the songs she and the other characters sang. I could not understand why someone like Guinevere, who had it all, as far as I could reason, would be conniving and manipulative. Why was she teasing the knights into fighting over her? Wasn't she married to King Arthur who loved her truly and deeply? I wanted her to be loving and faithful as well as beautiful and elegantly dressed (as she appeared on the album cover). Perhaps I had pieced the story together incorrectly; surely I was misunderstanding something here.
I have been trying to figure out the Arthurian legend ever since. I dipped into it via anthologies as an undergraduate English major but took the full plunge as a graduate student. When allowed to research anything I wanted in a children's literature course, I chose the Arthurian legend. I read everything the university and public libraries owned that related to King Arthur. My readings took me to children's and young adult literature as well as adult classics and popular literature. In my reading of fiction and nonfiction for both children and adults, I discovered that the Arthurian legend is truly a tale for all ages.
It is a tale for all historical ages because it has survived through the centuries as an intriguing legend. Arthur figures as a legend because his existence is an intricate fusion of fact and fiction that preserves and bolsters the national spirit of a people. Although the Arthurian legend has served this function in Britain for over 1500 years, interest in Arthur has not been limited to the British. People of all nationalities have been fascinated by the legend's stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Sir Tristram and Iseolot, Merlin the Magician, Galahad and the search for the Holy Grail, and the mysterious passing of Arthur. Curiosity about the reality of an historical Arthur, the growth of his legend, and the literary development of his story remains high among scholars as well as general readers.
According to the legend, King Arthur lived during the 6th century, stopped various British kings from fighting among themselves, united them against outside invaders, and caused a twenty-year peace to settle over Britain. Arthurian historians, such as Geoffrey Ashe, have found evidence proving this part of the legend to be true. There really was a period in the 6th century when a great man...