Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
“Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Not too long ago, I volunteered to serve in a 9-day long School of Christian Leadership. Desiring a break from being a facilitator, I subtly hinted to the organizers that I wanted to help out in logistics instead. Just turn my brain off, do some manual labour, and reconnect with Jesus, you know? My plan worked a little too well, and I found myself in charge of logistics, because Our Lord has a strange sense of humour. But regardless, it turned out to be an extremely fruitful experience for me.
Running things behind the scenes, I was privileged to be able to view the participants from a distance, as opposed to being in the thick of things as a facilitator or a participant. I saw my friends grow in their love for Jesus, the deepening of their faith and their desire to respond to His call in their lives. And being removed from the situation, supporting them through work and prayer, I was prompted to examine my own life and ask: how much of what I did as a Christian leader was truly for God’s glory, and how much was for my own? It was a difficult question to face, but through time spent in Eucharistic Adoration, God led me to examine my life through a story, specifically the tale of my boyhood hero: Arthur, the Once and Future King.
Why did this story appeal to me so much as a lad? As the eldest son and the eldest child in my family, I often had to figure things out for myself, and I did not always rise to the task. My older male cousins took pleasure in keeping me clueless and out of the loop, just as Arthur had been at the mercy of his step-brother, Kay. So I knew what a lonely, well-meaning little boy would do if he suddenly found out he was a king. He’d try to create a world where everyone would be welcome, where no one would be lonely, because then he wouldn’t be lonely. And he probably had just the right mix of compassion and arrogance to believe that he could pull it off as well.
And he came so close, didn’t he? I loved reading about how he gathered heroes like Lancelot into the Knights of the Round Table, tried his best to defend the defenseless, and loved his Queen Guinevere with all his heart. Good ideals and noble dreams…
But of course, however noble they may be, our dreams are often not God’s dreams, and it always moved me how the boy who wanted to heal the world ended his life a broken man – broken heart, broken dreams, broken everything. C.S. Lewis identifies the central theme of Malory’s text as Repentance, a turning again to the Lord. Arthur’s kingdom was built on the strength of men, and as such, failed by their weaknesses. It is only when we dream God’s dream that we ask for God’s strength.
“What we want is to see the Round Table sibi relictus, falling back from the peak that failed to reach heaven and so abandoned to those tendencies within it which must work its destruction. […] it is surely too harsh to say with Professor Vinaver that Launcelot repents not of his sins against God but of having brought all he loved to earthly ruin. It is in such a tragic glass that most men, especially Englishmen, first see their sins with clarity.” – C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature
“For in me is no trust for to trust in:” These are humbling words for a king to say. To put aside his savior complex and admit that he is not the savior. I think at the end of his life, Arthur too had to realize his need to repent. One of the genius strokes of the writer Malory is that he seldom makes value judgments on the actions of his characters, even when they seem rather horrific. Take for example, Arthur’s attempt to recreate Herod’s murder of innocent children, all in a bid to preserve his power:
“THEN King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him [that] should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all […] and all were put in a ship to the sea […] So many lords and barons of this realm were displeased, for their children were so lost” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
The wholesale slaughter of innocent children, by our great hero-king nonetheless, described in the most matter-of-fact way possible. But perhaps Malory does not judge because he knows that even the best of men have this darkness within them. I guess sometimes in fighting for our own dreams, we end up taking drastic measures to ensure their success. Malory, who describes himself as a ‘knight-prisoner’ imprisoned on charges of burglary and rape (which some theorize in that time to mean adultery), would have understood this well.
Viewed in this context, Arthur’s request for Bedivere to ‘pray for his soul’ becomes a lot more significant than it would appear on the surface. While Bedivere looks to his earthly king for guidance, Arthur reminds him that in the end, they have only one true king – Jesus Christ. For those of us who are called to be Christian leaders, perhaps the call is always to recognize where we are in need of healing, and bring those places to Jesus, so that in turn, we can bring those we shepherd to Him as well, and not to ourselves. I’ve once heard that a sure sign of a shepherd is that he is wounded for the sake of his sheep. But perhaps that wounding is necessary in order to humble them, to allow their hearts to break for what breaks the heart of Jesus. As another king who sometimes struggled to do the right thing put it, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
The Arthurian legend is a beautiful story, not least because it shows us our darker natures while simultaneously appealing to our better ones. For me, it has shown me how I had been wandering dangerously close to the path of self-righteousness, and encourages me to continually surrender to the Lord on a daily basis. And maybe, just maybe, one day the final word left by Malory on the Once and Future King could be said of me too, by He who is the greatest Storyteller of them all:
“YET some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu [been taken] into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus (Here lies Arthur, who was king once, and will be king again.)” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
© 2017 Christ Centered Convo/Garrett Christopher Ng