King Arthur, as usually written, comes off as either as a flat character, someone whom the author employs as a backdrop to explore the personalities of other characters (Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot), or as unheroic and human, tripped up in the end by the overwhelming burden of his imperfections. Arthur is either a pawn, buffeted by the winds of fate, or so flawed, one has to ask how he was remembered as a hero in the first place. One recent example of this is Starz’s aborted Camelot series, at least the bit I watched, where it is inexplicable that Merlin would come to him as the hero (in a totally deserted castle) and expect anything good to happen. A second is the odd King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, where somehow being raised in a brothel prepares one well to become king.
There is a simple reason for this: it is very hard to synchronize the different aspects of Arthur’s story into a complete whole because the essential, heroic element of Arthur’s story—his defeat of the Saxons for a generation—has been grafted, at both the beginning and the end, to a romantic tale told for reasons having more to do with the medieval authors who were telling the story, and the time in which they were living, than with Arthur. In so doing, his character is incomplete and inexplicable, one who reacts instead of acts, and who never has a say in his own destiny.
Instead, it is Merlin who is the active character. It is he who sets the whole plot in motion, whose behavior acts at times like a ‘get out of jail free card’ for Arthur, who manipulates everybody else, but who is powerless to stop Arthur’s downfall in the end. In the classic Norman/French tale, it is through Merlin’s actions at the beginning of the story that Arthur becomes high king, and because of Merlin’s abandonment at the end of the story that (in rapid succession), Arthur loses his wife, his best friend, his son, and his life.
In the Welsh tales, on the other hand, Arthur is nearly super-human. He may have a few flaws, yes, but he is a ‘hero’ in the classic sense. He takes his men to the Underworld and back again, he finds the 13 treasures of Britain, and he rescues his friends and relations from danger and death. It is these tales, however, that are rarely told in modern fiction. Why is that? Why do authors have an easier time grafting sorcery (of the Merlin and Morgane kind) onto a tale of the gritty, Dark Age Arthur than the mythology that is far older and ‘authentic’ for the period in which Arthur actually lived?
Tell me that story, and I’ll be enthralled …