The Once and Future Course

When I started my job, there was only one medieval course on the books: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I was to be the only medievalist, and in fact, even more than that. My job description was technically “Medieval and Renaissance Non-Dramatic Literature,” which meant that we had two Shakespeareans, but I could have Spenser. So in my first few years, I designed courses that fit my interests and Cal Poly’s needs. The Epic. Myth as Literature. Arthurian Romance.
Now that we’re shifting from quarters (which has the advantage of more, if shorter, classes), I find myself facing down my last King Arthur class. Poor Arthur didn’t make the cut to conversion. That’s a hazard at a school with only one medievalist—there are a number of courses that no one teaches but me, and if I’m teaching fewer courses, well….
This makes me pretty sad, but I’ve had a good run.  King Arthur is a subject, a whole field, really, that doesn’t get old. It’s an incredibly productive mythos in Western literature.  From 9th century histories to this summer’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it’s still alive and well in our imaginations, and for good reason.

It starts with magic—with Merlin helping the impassioned King Uther in to another man’s bed, in a move that curries favor and power, but banks it.  Merlin is patient and can wait for Arthur to grow up. In the middle, there’s the rise of Arthur and the Round Table, from his pulling the sword from the stone, to the establishment of his court of champions, all the iconic episodes of which have been told and retold. Perhaps the peak is the unifying (but ruinous for Camelot) Quest for the Holy Grail. And finally, the fall of Camelot, set in motion by the love affair of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
You can see why it’s productive.  It’s bloody brilliant, really. First, the life of Arthur is mythically heroic. I mean he fits the model of so many heroes in world literature, with his supernatural birth, his noble roots but obscure upbringing, and so many other mythic traits.  He is an epic hero in the truest sense.
And then he establishes a court. Several of his knights have their own iconic adventures—Gawain with the Green Knight, Percival and the Grail, Tristan and his tragic love for Iseut.  From a marketing standpoint alone, that’s gold.  Arthur has 150 knights.  Their tales could go on forever.
And the Grail thing.  Just think how productive that has been. We use it as a generic magical object now; it’s the Kleenex of questing objects. It was also a quest that united all the court—everyone went. But not everyone came back, and only a few got close to achieving it. A quest like that is like the Expendables franchise—a greatest hits roster, made for fans who will go nuts to see them all together.
And the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. We don’t even need Arthur anymore. He’s just the center of the circle, holding the tales together. His knights and now even his wife have moved on, but they’d have been nothing without him.

As I teach this course one last time, I’ll focus on that center of gravity that Arthur represents.  And who knows, maybe one day in the future, I’ll work him back in to the curriculum.

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