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The King is the Land: Thoughts on Arthur

Nationalism & Arthur
Adolph & the Reich
The Dying King
Diverse Communities
It's one of the most poignant images of the Arthurian mythos: After discovering Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot, Arthur falls into despair. As he falls prey to feelings of guilt and inadequacy, so the kingdom falls prey to blight. Only when the connection is made can the cure - the Quest for the Holy Grail - begin. For Arthur is King by divine right, and is therefore more than just a ruler: the King is the land at a deep spiritual level.

Later, after Arthur's death at the hands of Mordred, the Knights are assured that Arthur will come again, when the land needs him. For he is the Once and Future King...

There are two interesting directions that this myth takes us. One is into the realms of nationalism; the other is into pagan immanence. The two, curiously, are tightly linked, but not in the way you might think.

Nationalism and Arthur

Let us leave for the time being the fact that no-one has conclusively pinned down if, let alone where and when, Arthur lived. The fact that we cannot be sure where Arthur's kingdom was is, ironically, not immediately relevant.

"The King is the Land" defines two things and links them inextricably. One is the other. A simple statement like this is a powerful nationalist slogan. Why? Becuase no-one but the King may rightfully rule. No usurper, no government, no coup has the fundamental right to rule that the King has. And conversely, the King rules over a defined Land; this land, this bit right here - and no-one's taking it away from us.

There's a modern parallel: "Democracy is the American Way" - elegantly binding one scheme of government with a state in such a way as to deny the possibility of a radical shake-up.

A more chilling example of this reverse logic is the way that the Republican party in the US, and to a lesser extent the Conservatives in the UK, have declared themselves to be the parties of Christian Family Values. There's a nasty undertone that if you don't support them, you're a heathen child-molester. And that, of course, immediately associates heathens with child-molesting. Twisted, isn't it?

Despite this sort fo linguistic abuse, these statements are the kind of thing that helps to define a national identity. And in itself, national identity is a good thing; humanity is tribal and we need to know what tribes we belong to.

Adolph and the Reich

Of course it is quite possible to take nationalism too far. Say, for example, to the level that the National Socialists (you know them better as Nazis) took it in the 1930's in Germany.

Germany after the Great War was in a mess. Demilitarised, their infrastructure shattered, their economy reeling, the Germans urgently needed a leader. German self-esteem needed rebuilding; the tribe needed to be reminded who they were. Hitler took this need and built upon it, constructing his huge, impressive Aryan mythology and mobilising the people in great public works (such as the Autobahns). He renamed the tribe: the Reich.

Then things started going wrong. The Aryan mythology painted a great destiny for the Master Race; that destiny could not be shared by others. The Jews and Gypsies were not "us". Dissenters were blocking the glorious destiny of the Germans. Homosexuals were corrupting the youth, twisting the growing saplings of the German forest. None could be tolerated. And so they had to be removed. And of course, with a Destiny, there was justification in expansion.

The Reich had forgotten one critical thing: there is no One Right True and Only Way. And over the course of the Second World War, they were reminded of this by a number of other tribes who felt that, while they may not want to rule the world, they would be damned before they let the Reich rule - or eliminate - them.

What has this to do with Arthur? Simply this: The Reich was the Fuhrer. The King was the Land. That's why he was able to gather so much momentum before it all hit the fan.

The Dying King

Logic is a curious thing. It's all too easy to let subtle implications slip by; personally I blame it on the fact that we're all taught algebra at school and not logic as well. Starhawk uses a nice example in The Spiral Dance: "You could well argue that swans are scorpions simply because neither are horses and both have tails." The algebra suggests that swans are scorpions; the logic tells us otherwise.

In the case of "The King is the Land" flaw is clear: One assumes that only the King is tied to the land.

Remember that the Arthurian mythos occupies a unique position in the transition from pagan to Christian thought. Merlin and the Grail sit on either side of a King who is "neither in this world or the next." Under pagan influence the Land chooses and supports its King; who finally dies for the Land with a promise to return - a Christian motif but a pre-Christian one as well.

Not surprisingly it's the Christian motif that has influenced us the most. Christianity has one savior who dies once for us; all the significance is piled into one figure. This absolves the rest of us: the 1930's Germans are forgiven for not opposing Hitler because he was the Aryan cultural Messiah. This myth: the myth of the Great Man, is a Judeo-Christian one.

The pagan motif embraces the concept of immanent divinity to say that we are all the land. In truth it wasn't Arthur's despair at Guinevere that sickened the land; it was the despair of the whole Round Table, the whole kingdom. As a tribe, they needed a catharsis to purge that despair, and that catharsis was the battle which killed Arthur and Mordred. The dying-king motif is not a one-off event in pagan theologies but repeats when needed.

Diverse Communities

No one person can be everyone. No one family can populate the world. No one tribe can either; a diverse community of tribes - and I use the term loosely - is needed for a healthy society. Living within your tribe is safe and comfortable, but the creative energy, the genius, comes from the interactions, the flux of ideas and people across the boundaries.

I'm looking at the tribes I belong to now, and marvelling at the interactions between them. I'm male (the bloke tribe) and English, married (the family), a goth and roleplayer (social tribes), a pagan, an IT professional, a cyclist and a motorist... I joyously celebrate these identities.

And yet some people will say that I cannot be one thing without hating another. The Reich's error is being reproduced daily: As a cyclist I should hate motorists; as a pagan I should hate Christians. This is psychological fascism and I urge you to reject it. Arthur had no need to make war on his neighbours.

LITTLE GIRL: (Pointing to Azim's tattoos and dark skin) Did God paint you?
AZIM: (Laughing) Did God paint me? Yes, I suppose He did.
AZIM: Because Allah loves wondrous variety.

Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves

Credit: The title image is taken from Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur and was drawn by Aubrey Beardsley.