The Cinematic Poetry of King Arthur

March 25, 2018 Updated: April 1, 2018    

Yet another King Arthur incarnation. “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” filmed by director Guy Ritchie in 2017 will air on HBO March 25 to April 1. It is a testament to the staying power of the legendary King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot that Ritchie, who is known for crime and mystery films not for fantasy or adventure films, decided to take on the storied topic.

Yet, Ritchie’s choice is also not surprising. The Western imagination can never seem to escape Arthur, nor does it seem to want to. Even the 17th-century English poet John Milton, famous for his epic “Paradise Lost,” at one time planned to make his great epic Arthurian rather than biblical. Outside of religious or spiritual beliefs, no set of stories seems to resonate so vividly, or cinematically, if you will, across the English-speaking world as those of King Arthur. The fact that historians still debate whether or not a real King Arthur even existed is largely irrelevant. He exists in our hearts and minds without a doubt.

British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” is a long retelling of the Arthurian legend. There is no rhyming, but Tennyson returns to the alliterative tradition of Old and Middle English, so virtually every line has words with repeated beginning sounds, like “waging war,” “heathen host,” and “petty princedoms.” There is also the use of iambic pentameter, which is most enchanting perhaps in the last line (emphasis added): “Their KING and HEAD, and MADE a REALM, and REIGNED.” Note that “ere” means before.

Excerpted from ‘Idylls of the King’

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

For many a petty king ere Arthur came
Ruled in this isle, and ever waging war
Each upon other, wasted all the land;
And still from time to time the heathen host
Swarmed overseas, and harried what was left.
And so there grew great tracts of wilderness,
Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
But man was less and less, till Arthur came.
For first Aurelius lived and fought and died,
And after him King Uther fought and died,
But either failed to make the kingdom one.
And after these King Arthur for a space,
And through the puissance of his Table Round,
Drew all their petty princedoms under him.
Their king and head, and made a realm, and reigned.

King Arthur Inspires New Poetry

See how modern poets still treat Arthur as a serious subject. Keith Robson, 69, of England, writes subtly and suggestively about an Uncle Arthur. Lastly, I drew upon my real visit to the ruins of Tintagel Castle in England, thought to be King Arthur’s birthplace, to write this ballad. 

The Clockwork Butterfly

By Keith Robson

When I was a child, and my dreams were of gold
I always believed everything I was told,
My faith was implicit, my innocence pure
And magic existed, of that I was sure.
My old uncle Arthur was always in bed
His twinkling eyes sunken into his head,
He told me his stories of dragons and elves
That lived in the books on his library shelves.

On the table that stood at the foot of his bed
Was an old leather box colored purple and red,
And the lid was embroidered in threads of maroon
With the soft shining face of the man in the moon.
I asked him to show me what rested inside
And he said ‘Press the button, and open it wide!’,
Then up from the box, with a deep whirring sigh
Rose a magic mechanical gold butterfly.

It fluttered its wings as it gently spun round
Its beauty serene in the absence of sound,
And I was entranced by its magical flight
As it bathed in the flame of the candle’s soft light.
As I lay in my bed with my head in a dream
I still could imagine the butterfly’s gleam,
So I made up my mind to go back the next day
To watch the gold butterfly flutter and play.

But when I got there, the old house was in gloom
My old uncle Arthur was gone from his room,
And even though mother had tried to explain
I never did see uncle Arthur again.
That night I slept soundly, in dreams of delight
At the dawn I awoke to the morning’s first light,
And there on my desk, by the side of my bed
Was an old leather box colored purple and red…

Visiting the Ruins of Tintagel Castle

By Evan Mantyk

I wandered through a forest deep
in Cornish countryside
And thought I saw some elves asleep
And giants run to hide.

The branches gnarled like magic wands,
Green velvet moss on trees,
The ivy cloaked around the ponds,
Soft rocks bejeweled the streams.

I wandered further out to where
The hedges walled the roads,
The open hills go rolling there
As on the tongue roll odes.

Then smash the ocean hits the land
And pounds upon the coast,
I see a battle vast expands
And shakes my earthly post.

The Force of Man stands tall and proud
Filled up with stubborn rock,
Draped in a grassy battle shroud,
O’er eons, taking stock.

The Force of Nature peers right back,
So endless, flat, and deep.
An earthquake or a tidal attack
May make Man’s fatal sleep.

What’s speckled on the battlefield
Midst stairways, bridges, paths?
The people small try not to yield
To war’s long grinding wrath.

They’re pushing onward on their way
With virtue in their hearts,
Creating beauty every day,
Each waking, playing parts.

Gray castle like gray rock outcrop,
Confronting timeless sea,
Here, perched upon green mountain top,
King Arthur came to be.

Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and president of the Society of Classical Poets.
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