[**WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Once And Future #1, especially the ending]
As a self-confessed Arthurian fanatic I was always going to pick up Once and Future by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora, only to see what one of the leading writers of this age would do to put his own twist on a much loved legend. And, it did not disappoint as Gillen seemed to seize upon a much maligned episode of Sir Thomas Malory’s L’Morte d’Arthur and make it a larger source of inspiration in his presentation of the once and future king and Albion’s saviour, Arthur Pendragon.
As the first issue played out, it seems to me that Gillen has taken his main inspiration from the aforementioned L’Morte d’Arthur, although it is clear from the inclusion of the scabbard that he has also sought further afield than this core text, which has been influential on many a writer and film-maker every since its 15th century publication. From TH White’s post WWII collection of novels, Once and Future King, to John Boorman’s Excalibur, the story most people are familiar with is that retold by Malory.
Yes, we are all familiar with Excalibur, but not many know that Arthur was also given with other further gifts, depending on which source texts you read. Alongside Excalibur, in older, Celtic flavoured versions of the legend, Arthur gains not only the scabbard that features in this book, and offered the owner invulnerability, but Arthur also had an equally magical spear, called Rhongomyniad, a product of the much older Welsh tales of The Mabinogion, which also includes a porto-Excalibur like dagger called Carnwennan, as well as a shield too. Indeed, with all of these accoutrements, it’s no wonder he was hard to beat. But, as the legend changed and swirled, like a magical potion in a witch’s cauldron, and simmered down to form the late-Middle Ages tales we now see as the definitive stories of King Arthur, these other weapons were cast aside to streamline Arthur as a sword-wielding English hero, and not the Welsh hero he may well have been. In fact, if you trace the etymology of the name, Excalibur, you could easily trace it to further Celtic Welsh tales where it appears as Caledfwlch. Going further again, it could be argued that the colonising of these Celtic legends, by Geoffrey of Monmouth and others, was an early example of cultural appropriation. What is Wales’ loss has become England’s gain, and it is definitely this English version of Arthur that Gillen is using. Bye, bye, Celtic warlord, hello chivalric Anglicised monarch.
But, back to Once and Future #1 and the scabbard, alongside other references to the Arthurian legend. It is very much a focus of Malory’s own retelling of the legend, and so I’m not surprised it’s included in Once and Future as an important object of desire to be fought over. A scabbard that Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan Le Fey, stole and threw into the lake from which Arthur had once received his sword. Lost for all time? Not in this new take on King Arthur, and a take that grabs on Malory’s second Canto of his epic work and puts it front and centre of his story.
It’s not the only clue that Gillen is using Malory to guide him. After all, much of the action takes place in Cornwall, and in particular Tintagel, the home of Igraine, Arthur’s mother. Add to the mix the Questing Beast – who would pop up from time to time in Malory’s tome like some kind of running joke – beautifully imagined by Dan Mora, a master of magical creatures and characters ever since I found him out on Boom Studios’ Klaus – and all signs seem to point to Le Morte d’Arthur, on the whole.
So, it’s easy to forget that Malory has his young king, upon uniting the British isles, cross the waters and take on the fictitious Emperor Lucius (in ‘The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome’) and invade other countries to extend his empire. That doesn’t sound like the king many know, and it suggests a man with more than peace on his mind. And, as we witness what seem to be a far-right group come together over the grave of Arthur, we are asked to rethink all our understanding of King Arthur, who seems to be reclaimed as a symbol of nationalism and isolation in the same way as the St George’s flag of England has come to be used by real far-right groups across the United Kingdom. It’s a more than clever narrative sleight-of-hand, because it clearly seems to take aim at such groups and their own reimagining of England’s past. It would seem that Arthur is needed now, because of what? Immigration? Brexit? The rise of the right? It’s a bold move on Gillen’s part, but one I can only applaud.
Like any legend, King Arthur can be moulded and forged to mean different things to different creators. Recovering from two world wars, TH White’s Arthur is a pacifist fighting a losing battle against a totalitarian political system sanitised under the propagandist guise of ‘chivalry’, while film versions have had him as anything from a ‘Cockney geezer’ (in the appalling King Arthur directed by Guy Richie) to a Roman officer, left behind as Rome fled to try and defend the fall of its bloated empire. So, why not this too? After all, it’s a simple idea when you consider it. King Arthur is, arguably, Britain’s greatest known legend, but ultimately he is also a symbol of conformity; part of a ruling hereditary monarchy and part of an ongoing, outdated system of sovereignty, nationalism and jingoism. Of course he would mean something akin to this to the far-right. A hero who took up arms against foreign interlopers and didn’t stop at his own boarders. Not too far removed from The Crusades of the Medieval era Malory was writing in. I’m just surprised the far right haven’t done this already. But then, from those I’ve protested against In recent years, I doubt they’ve ever read a book, let alone the legend of King Arthur, our once and future king.
Recommended reading: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, The Mabinogion (authors unknown), TH White’s Once And Future King.