The Betrayal of Arthur and the scent of disdain


About five years ago, when I was first thinking about the story that became Dark Jenny, I began looking for books that dealt in a critical and scholarly way with the meaning of Arthurian stories. I’d read the basic, classic fiction texts–Le Morte d’Arthur, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Once and Future King, The Mists of Avalon, The Wicked Day–but I wanted to understand what about these stories kept them in society’s consciousness for over a thousand years. This lead me to Sara Douglass’ The Betrayal of Arthur.

Finding the book in a local used bookstore was utter serendipity, since it’s never been officially released in the U.S. Douglass, a noted Australian fantasy author (The Axis trilogy), is also a scholar and brings both perspectives to bear on the Arthurian tales. She traces them from the eariest oral traditions up to the present (or rather, 1999 when the book was pubished). As her title implies she sees betrayal as the central theme, but not in the simple way you might expect. She acknowledges the Lancelot/Guinevere duplicity, but sees it as just one more example of a life sunken in perfidy. From the moment of conception–Uther Pendragon raping Ygerna, whether by deception or force–Arthur’s life is doomed. Sexual betrayal becomes the central theme. She explains why the various eras have responded to Arthur, how and why they’ve changed it to suit their times, and what it means to them.

I was so fascinated by all this the first time I read the book that I missed what is actually a sizable undercurrent: her utter contempt for anyone since T.H. White who has dared to write about Arthur. From Marion Zimmer Bradley to Rosemary Sutcliffe, she implies that these authors simply lack the capacity to understand the material with which they’re working.

On her web page, she devotes a fair bit of space to describing the process behind this book. Even here, her disdain for modern versions of the story is plain:

“Firstly (and uncomfortably for our modern age which doesn’t like such things), the Arthurian legend as it was developed in the medieval period was a moralistic tragedy…Secondly (and this is bound to be an unpopular theme), Arthur failed because he was himself a flawed king and man.”

There are other examples, but if the disdain is so thick it comes through in the author’s own web page synopsis, you can imagine how it permeates the book.

And that annoys me, both because I’ve written my own “Arthurian” novel, and because despite being a modern fantasy author, I feel quite capable of understanding any aspect of folklore or mythology that interests me. I have no doubt Ms.Douglass would dislike Dark Jenny for several reasons (that I can’t go into because they’re spoilers). But the elephant in the room that she seems to miss is that we (contemporary authors) are doing the same thing Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory and TH White did in their times: creating Arthurian tales for our audiences. We may not recite ballads around campfires, or perform with lutes for royalty, but we know our readers as well as those great storytellers of the past knew theirs. In a thousand years, who knows which current works will be held up alongside Malory, et.al.? Bradley certainly seems well on the way to standing the test of time.

In the conclusion of her webpage synopsis, Ms. Douglass says, “The Betrayal of Arthur is not a sop to popular culture, expectations or needs.” No kidding. It remains, for me, a classic and a crucial step in the development of Dark Jenny. I wish it didn’t also, after my recent re-read, leave such a sour aftertaste.

Posted on by Alex in criticism, Dark Jenny, King Arthur, Sara Douglass

2 Responses to The Betrayal of Arthur and the scent of disdain

  1. Aarti

    Is this the same Sara Douglass who writes those books about the Greek gods? I might be wrong but I vaguely associate her name with a series of novels revolving around those larger-than-life characters.

    It's interesting she is so dismissive of newer interpretations of the legend of King Arthur, most of which I find far more interesting than the medieval interpretations because they *do* present Arthur as flawed. However, in this post, it seems to imply that Arthur is flawed because he is a product of rape, whereas more modern authors present him as flawed for other reasons- whether through hubris, fate or whatever else- and perhaps I'm showing myself as being very modern, but I vastly prefer those interpretations.

  2. Alex Bledsoe

    Hey, Aarti, thanks for commenting.

    I probably oversimplified Douglass' argument, but at the same time saying "Arthur is flawed because he is a product of rape" is not entirely wrong, either. She implies that his conception colored everything else that happened to him (in the minds of the people who first wrote down his story), although she puts plenty of blame for his eventual fall on his own conduct. Her point (as I see it) is that his own conduct, while a product of his free will, is also (and contradictorily) inevitable given the circumstances of his conception.

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