Welcome

Welcome to Visualizing Camelot, an exhibition based on a portion of our Arthurian collection. By revealing the diverse ways that the stories of Camelot have been imagined, reimagined, and visualized—both in high culture (paintings, drawings, illustrated books) and in popular culture (film, toys, games, comic books, cartoons, dishware, product names, business logos)—the exhibition confirms the broad impact of the Arthurian legends and confirms their ongoing relevance.

For more than forty-five years, we have studied those legends, written and lectured about them, and collected thousands of books and other items on the subject—so many, in fact, that a young visitor to our home once remarked: “I’ve never seen a house with a theme before.”

Part of the fascination with the Arthurian legends lies in the frequency and the variety of the ways in which they appear throughout western culture. That frequency and variety allow us to explore not only literature from the Middle Ages to the present but also art, music, film, popular culture—some aspects of which we have introduced into this exhibition.

A story with its origins in the Middle Ages and its focus on a king and the nobles of his court might seem to have little relevance to the modern world, especially to western Europe and North America, where democratic values and ideals prevail. Yet just the opposite is true. The tales surrounding King Arthur and the knights and ladies of Camelot remain vital and relevant; and, as they are retold, they are adapted to the concerns of each succeeding age.

Whether Arthur actually existed—whether he was king or military leader, a historical figure or legendary hero—does not, in some sense, matter at all. Although Arthur is the focal point, the legends are in fact a complex of narratives with a wide array of stories and a large cast of characters. Within that complex are numerous tales that are great in their own right—tales of Arthur’s birth; of the Sword in the Stone and the sword from the Lady of the Lake; of Sir Gawain and his brothers, especially the noble and tragic Sir Gareth; of the Quest for the Holy Grail, which is achieved sometimes by Sir Percival and sometimes by Sir Galahad; of the magic of Merlin and of Morgan le Fay; of Mordred’s betrayal; of Arthur’s last battle; of Bedivere’s returning of Excalibur to the waters whence it came; and of Arthur’s final journey to the Isle of Avalon. There are also stories of love, like the celebrated and tragic loves of Lancelot and Guinevere and of Tristan and Isolt; the love of Elaine of Astolat, who dies because Lancelot does not return her affection; and the story of Merlin, the wisest man in the world who becomes a fool for love. There are even tales of the return of Arthur or Merlin to the modern world, and, thanks to the genius of Mark Twain, tales in which that pattern is reversed so that contemporary characters travel back to Arthur’s court.

To be sure, the cast of Arthurian characters is broad; and over the centuries, the adventures that writers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers have conceived for them are even broader. That is because the legends afford opportunities for exploring all manner of human striving and foible. As William Caxton observed in his preface to the first printed edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485), the story of Arthur is all-encompassing. It contains examples of chivalry, courtesy, kindness, friendship, courage, love, affection, cowardice, murder, and hatred—examples of both virtue and sin—that suggest the range of human emotions, the values, the engagement with reality, and universal appeal of the legends.

The “great” tradition” of Arthurian literature in England and America works began in the fifteenth century with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which has been the source, directly or indirectly, for most of the later Arthurian literature and art. Among the many writers whom Malory influenced was Alfred Tennyson, who wrote The Idylls of the King and a number of shorter Arthurian poems, including “Sir Galahad,” which epitomized a moral view of chivalry, perhaps best expressed in the lines in which Tennyson’s Galahad says, “My strength is as the strength of ten / Because my heart is pure.” This “moral chivalry” inspired the notion that Arthur and his knights could be models for modern youth to follow and led to many retellings of the legends directed at boys and girls.

And in the twentieth century, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which had its source primarily in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, spurred numerous reworkings such as the play and film Camelot and the Disney animated film The Sword in the Stone. Another important Arthurian influencer was Mark Twain, whose Connecticut Yankee parodied both Malory and Tennyson, even as it offered new ways for American writers and artists to advance the legends they popularized and present them to an American audience.

The list of authors who reinterpreted or retold the Arthurian stories in one or more of their works is indeed extensive and includes John Dryden, Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, T. H. White, Kazuo Ishiguro, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Howard Pyle, Sara Teasdale, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, John Steinbeck, Thomas Berger, Walker Percy—and many more.

Among the artists who have treated the legend are William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jessie King, Noel Laura Nisbet, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Gustav Doré, George Frederick Watts, Aubrey Beardsley, Dan Beard, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Edwin Austin Abbey, H. J. Ford, Lancelot Speed, Russell Flint, Arthur Rackham, David Jones, Anna-Marie Ferguson—and, again, many more.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the legends’ popularity and endurance is the values they embody. The stories of Camelot are very much about codes—codes of loyalty to family, to king, to brother knights; codes of chivalry and honor; codes of religion and ethics; codes of love. Especially in an age when so many of our leaders have lost their moral compass and many citizens have abandoned their idealism, the tales of men and women doing their best to live up to these sometimes conflicting codes have a special resonance. By visualizing Camelot, we can reanimate a magical place where King Arthur sought peace, not war; where a fellowship of knights (including a few foreign ones) sat as equals at the Round Table; and where women played as vital a role as the men in the Arthurian story. Those lessons could serve us well in our own politics and culture today.

 

Alan Lupack
Barbara Tepa Lupack