Anybody who has seen Disney’s Sword in the Stone has a basic knowledge of the beginnings of the King Arthur legend. Disney adapted The Sword and the Stone from the T.H White novel The Once and Future King, of which The Sword and the Stone is the first segment, telling of Arthur’s childhood and education. I confess I haven’t had the chance to finish The Once and Future King yet, the main reason being I do not own a copy of my own and library trips are sporadic. I will finish it someday but I admit that I am far more drawn to versions of Arthur’s tale penned by women. Label me a feminist if you like but I find that books like Mary Stewart‘s Crystal Cave Saga and Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s Mists of Avalon lend a depth and sense of reality to the legends that I find lacking in the more traditional, classic versions of the tale.
For instance in the medieval tellings there is very little use of geographic place names to give the reader a proper sense of where in Britain the particular scene or action is taking place. I realize that there is probably several reasons for this, the most obvious being that writers had no idea that their work might someday be read by someone unfamiliar with the area but it is still mildly annoying. Another difference I noticed in reading the older tales as compared to those written by more contemporary authors is the role of women in the stories. In the earlier versions little is said of the women beyond their name,physical description, and whose daughter or wife they happen to be. If you go strictly by the more well known legends Arthur’s half sister is wholly evil and never mind her reasons for becoming so. Very people are born evil(with the exception, I believe of some serial killers, but that is an entirely different subject) it is for most people a slippery slope, full of events the full consequences of which may not be fully realized until much later. In some versions Morgan is not Arthur’s villain but rather another woman named Morgause who is Arthur’s aunt,sister of the Lady of the Lake like his mother. In these stories the women are written just as thoroughly written as the men and not the two dimensional paper dolls of the classics. The actions of these women were almost never embarked on with evil intent but often to secure a future for their children or to keep a promise they had made. The older I get and the more versions I read the more I have a hard being angry at “the bad guys”, the more I read the more I find myself hoping that will somehow make another choice, one which might offer them an ending that isn’t the wreck and ruin the legend holds as their fate.
I am about a third of the way through The Mists of Avalon at the moment and it is torture.I know the legend well enough to see the forks in the road where they could have made different choices and even though they never do I find myself carrying the foolish hope that I might be wrong, that maybe they will choose differently. It worse than watching the really badly scary movie whee the teenager goes to see what the strange noise/shadow was and you’re muttering( or if you are like me yelling) ,“don’t go out there alone, call the damn police!” Of course she never listens and almost always dies. I’m not through with the book yelt but the pervading I keep seeing is”the road to ruin is often paved with good intent.”