Alas!: A Reflection on 9/11

Immersed as I am in Malory’s Roman War account, it suggests a context for reflection on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Stepping aside from the current moment in this literary itinerary to Rome, I think ahead to the end of Arthur’s reign in Malory’s story.  There one finds an acute sense of grief that, like 9/11, is at once intensely personal and intensely national. Camelot is torn apart by factionalism, and the sense of security once created by the fellowship is now in tatters.

‘Jesu Mercy! seyde the Kynge, ‘what ar all my nobles knyghtes becom? Alas, that ever I shulde see this doleful day!’

As we did during 9/11, we also find in Malory’s version of the destruction of Camelot a concomitant rising to the occasion of noble souls. Sir Lucan has been mortally wounded and yet, with his last strength, he endeavors to save the dying King Arthur. In so doing, Lucan himself is claimed by death:

‘Alas,’ seyde the kynge, ‘this is to me a full hevy sight, to see this noble deuke dye for my sake . . . Alas, that he wolde nat complayne hym, for hys harte was so sette to helpe me. Now Jesu have mercy upon hys soule!’ Than Sir Bedwere wepte for the deth of his brother.

In our recollection of 9/11, as in our reading of the destruction of Camelot, we were transfixed by the enormity of the devastation and the overwhelming sense that the world as we knew it was irrevocably torn asunder. And in many ways, most especially in the realm of the personal, it was. Our beloved will not come home again. In the Arthurian story, this sense of individual death and the larger devastation of a nation is searing. (See Karen Cherawatuk’s and Kevin Whetter’s collection of essays, The Arthurian Way of Death.)

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the Roman War account, Arthur’s journey to Rome is never fully completed: while he is campaigning across the Continent, Mordred’s factional maneuvering breaks out at home. Arthur returns to a nation in the grip of civil war, a crisis that undoes both his reign and his life. In this older version of the Arthurian legend, there is no love triangle between Lancelot and Guenevere and, indeed, no character of Lancelot at all. The end of the Roman War story is the end of Arthur’s kingdom.

By the time of Malory’s 15th century version, the French Arthurian stories–with the adulterous affair of Lancelot and Guenevere–had become a central part of the mythology, and Malory interweaves them into his story, shifting this relationship to a central place in the destruction of the realm. In Malory’s tale, Arthur completes his Roman War campaign victorious, returning home to a unified Britain; the famed destruction of Camelot is postponed. But when it comes at last, it synthesizes personal infidelity and political infidelity.

Either way, the end of Arthur’s reign does come. But while the ideals upon which he based his  model of governance are shattered, it is not the end, quite, of the “nation.” As N. R. Kleinfeld of The New York Times recently wrote in a reflection on 9/11:

Art Spiegelman's cover of The New Yorker, Sept. 12, 2001

There has been a chasm between expectations and reality . . . the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown. So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes and passes some more.

Similarly, Arthur’s realm is succeeded by that of his kinsman Constantine (not the Roman emperor of the same name). Marking the death of Arthur as occurring in 542, Geoffrey of Monmouth proceeds to tell the deeds of Constantine’s reign and of the twin fracturing forces of Saxon invasions and civil strife. In Malory, the focus shifts from this world altogether: as Arthur is taken away to Avalon, he speaks against the hope for a political solution to such strife, abjuring the hope that had been placed in him personally. In this, he expresses the medieval Christian view that the promises of this world are transitory:

‘Comfort thyself,’ seyde the kynge, ‘and do as well as thou mayest, for in me ys no truste for to truste in.’

In this statement, Arthur cautions against the overdetermination of his kingship and acknowledges that he is, in the end, one man. From here, though it seemed impossible to conceive during the “Day of Destiny” when civil war broke apart the Table Rounde, the knights do continue, either as monks or, as in Caxton’s printed version, as Crusaders. I suspect that it may have been the more ideological printer, William Caxton, who attached the Crusades ending to Malory’s tale, and, in that regard, Caxton shares a rhetorical sensibility we have seen post-9/11, one that has provided the rationale for a Crusader-like war in the Middle East.

And yet, despite all, the body politic lurches forward, though beset by foreign threats and internal strife, perceived or real. Ten years after 9/11, a day in which I, too, was aboard a trans-continental flight from the east coast, we have somehow managed to stumble forward, amid a sense of personal grief and a more acute awareness of national fragility.

It is this, perhaps, that the Arthurian legend speaks to most powerfully—not so much the grand, large-scale ideals, but the way in which these larger-than-life figures and epic endeavors—the conquest of Rome, no less—are fleeting and, in some ways, delusional, ultimately as transitory as a single, bodily life. The death of Arthur is perhaps just that—the death of Arthur: not of England, or of Idealism, or The American Way of Life As We Know It.

Malory tells us that, according to some of his sources, inscribed on Arthur’s gravestone is the following epithet:

“Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King.”

But Malory himself refuses to speculate on what mystical or political promise that might hold, adding a line that—in our popular contemporary version of the legend—is typically left out. Malory writes:

Yet I woll not say that it shall be so, but rather I wolde sey, here in this wordle, he changed hys life.

Malory means simply this: Arthur has died.

Geoffrey’s account of the Roman War is set in the larger historical context of the full trajectory of the kings of Celtic Britain, before the eventual overwriting of the native Briton culture with that of the Saxons and Angles and the emergence of “Angle-land,” what would eventually become “England.” Geoffrey concludes his long narrative of the rise and falls of the Celtic kings with this elegiac warning:

Having degenerated from the nobility they had enjoyed as Britons, the Welsh never again regained the kingship of the island. They instead foolishly persisted in their quarrels with the Saxons or among themselves and were hence constantly engaged in foreign wars or civil unrest (217, Michael Faletra edition).

The Arthurian story is, in this sense, as much about the stubborn persistence of human factionalism (and the potential for personal sacrifice within that chaos) in 1565 when Malory wrote his ‘grete boke’ as it was in the late 12th century when Geoffrey wrote his “History,” as it was in the time–real or imagined–of Arthur in post-Roman, 6th century Britain when he undertook the conquest of Rome.  As much as it is in 2011.

Alas.

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