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King Arthur and the Need for Knights

Posted on Sunday, May 19, 2024
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by David P. Deavel
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pentecost

For most Christians, today is the Feast of Pentecost. This Old Testament feast is also a New Testament feast, for it was during this feast in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit was sent down on the eleven apostles (Judas having hanged himself) gathered around Mary, the Lord’s mother, in prayer. It is often known as the birthday of the Christian Church. There is much to learn from this event as told in the Acts of the Apostles. Yet this writer is thinking about King Arthur and his knights. For the tales of Arthur give us a vision, if incomplete as all are, of the attempt to live out Christian faith and duty in this world of wonders and betrayal.  

Is this connection between Pentecost and Camelot odd? Maybe. Inappropriate? Not at all. The tales of this legendary king (many historians think him purely legend and not historical) are shot through with mythical and fantastic elements in the medieval chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the poetic stories of Chrètien de Troyes and Thomas Malory. Nevertheless, they are Christian tales of a Christian king. And according to those tales, the time when the Knights of the Round Table came together and events really started happening was at the feast of Pentecost.

There is something deeply appropriate about this. For if the Church was born at Pentecost, it is a fighting thing—a “Church militant” as the old phrase goes. St. Paul speaks in military terms to the Christians of Ephesus about their taking up the “helmet of salvation” and “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Everyone knows that life is a fight. Christianity tells us further that our fights, though often seemingly against mere flesh and blood, are truly spiritual.

Part of the reason I have been thinking about this connection is that this spring, one of the main books my fourth-grade son read for school was King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green. Green was himself a Christian humanist of the old variety, a student at Oxford of C. S. Lewis and eventually a close friend and fellow writer who was part of that immortal gathering of Christian writers and scholars centered around Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien known as the Inklings. It was Green who suggested that Lewis title his famous children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. It was Green who took a vacation in Greece with Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, shortly before the latter died of cancer. And it was Green who, along with Lewis’s literary executor Walter Hooper, wrote one of the early biographies of the great man.   

That Green was particularly close to his former teacher was no doubt due to the fact that the two shared Christian faith, a love of great literature, and the willingness to write for young people. Like Lewis, Green had no disdain for children’s books. In addition to biographies of Lewis, Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie, and others, Green wrote a couple dozen books for children, mostly retellings of myths and legends of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and England.

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, first published in 1953, has been in print ever since, for it is a beautiful rendition of the tales in English wrought into a single narrative of a “fixed pattern,” which Green described in his author’s note as “Arthur’s Kingdom, the Realm of Logres, the model of chivalry and right striving against the barbarism and evil which surrounded and at length engulfed it.” As Green has the wizard Merlin tell it, Arthur’s own role is to be the steward of a “land of blessing, God’s Kingdom upon earth, which Arthur shall show you for a little space before the darkness falls again.”   

Set around the time of the invasions of Britain by the Angles and Saxons in the sixth century A. D., Arthur sets out to rebuild the destroyed churches first off and to make the land a place of honor. No doubt some Christians will see the requirements of honor leading to many, many fights and slayings in these tales as sub-Christian. But the tales are good models for us when taken seriously if not always literally. Christian duty is, after all the duty to fight for what is good and right at all times—even if we are not obliged today to cut off any literal heads or run a sword through our enemies.  

And what can be taken both literally and seriously is the duty to fight with fairness and a sense of mercy and justice, rules which are ever-present in these tales. Many of them center around the failures of a particular knight or knights to show mercy or to forgive others. Others have to do with the duty to keep one’s word at all cost or to protect the weak and the innocent. Still others deal with the necessity of keeping marital vows. (Green has toned down some of the sexual elements of the stories without losing the main points of fidelity.)

These stories, particularly in the hand of a master storyteller such as Green, can still captivate both children and adults. I know, for since I knew my son had to read the book for school and I wanted to read it too, we decided to read the 384 pages of the Puffin Classics edition aloud to each other—and any other members of the family who happened within earshot.

One reason that great works of literature should be read by each new generation is that these tales introduce and reinforce foundational moral lessons of a life well lived. The stories of Arthur inspire the desire to be true knights, fighters for goodness, truth, and Christian faith where we are. For the fourth grader, the pure desire to do what is right is mixed with the excitement of swords, magic, and battles. For the adult, the allegory is foremost. There may be many battles ahead of us, but we too need to rebuild the churches and seek out whatever quests are given to us by God. What we need is God’s Spirit to fight truly in the country we live in, a place that can be, with God’s grace,  a land of blessing just as much as Britain when Arthur and his knights rode. We can ask for that Holy Spirit as we gather together today on Pentecost just as those knights of old did.

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on X (Twitter) @davidpdeavel.

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Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
30 days ago

This is a very good , thoughtful, thought provoking article David. I am 73, raised as a Catholic, I consider myself an open minded Catholic. By open minded Catholic I mean I consider possibilities ( same goes with political beliefs – I describe myself as an open minded Reagan Conservative ) Considering possibilities is very different than the other definition of open minded that has to do with the anything goes outlook on life. I am a conservative because I most definitely believe in rules, laws, standards, – anything goes defines the liberal attitude – and I am not part of that corrupt stuff at all. A police detective needs to be open minded, so do the good , honest doctors who are truly interested in finding out the cause of an illness and finding a cure for it. A fire inspector needs to be open minded in order to determine how a fire started. Those are just three examples of the sort of open mindedness that are sensible and necessary. It is very good that Mary was mentioned in the Pentecost , the first Pentecost circumstances, the significance of Mary in the birth of the Christian Church is of great importance. The King Arthur comparison is interesting, I agree that if something is going to help develop good character, living by a code of conduct, and will help with defending freedom and civilization then it has some merit. In the spirit of everything that encourages , Honor, Honest, Integrity, Courage and Loyalty – with respect for the values of Faith, Family and Freedom . Let Truth and the teaching of Christ , and the spirit found in the Declaration of Independence guide us all on the right course ..

Ed
Ed
28 days ago

There are many parallels to draw to modern times. They can serve as a reminder of what the round table stood for and can be an inspiration to Christians everywhere to stand.

Kathy Patterson
Kathy Patterson
30 days ago

Check out this article in regards to King Arthur, Christianity, the Pentacost and today’s need. Share with Karli.

The favorites
The favorites
30 days ago

So a gay wizard hangs out with a small boy and teaches him how to be a king.
‘I bet the Catholic Church loves this book lol

Kent
Kent
30 days ago

Look at this

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