Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

South African Camelot

Today at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch we started off by discussing some of the problems of the country. Every day there is news of more political scandals and more corruption. The rich robbing the poor on a grand scale in the VBS bank scandal. Racism is making a comeback on a grand scale too, especially after being deliberately and assiduously promoted by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

There’s the story of land reform. One day our President is going around handing out title deeds to people and telling them how important and valuable they are, and the next day he is saying how expropriating land without compensation will solve all our problems, thus rendering the title deeds worthless. And expropriating land without compensation will make it much easier for the government to hand it over to foreign mining companies in places like Xolobeni.

And at this point David Levey asked why we weren’t talking about books, and I thought that it was actually a good lead in to a book I have just been reading, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the original Inklings literary discussion group, many of whom were very interested in the mythos of King Arthur. They incorporated elements of the Arthurian legends into their own writing. There are echoes of it in C.S. Lewis’s novels, especially in That Hideous Strength. Charles Williams retold many of the stories in his poetry. Much of their work on this topic was collected here: Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso.

Roger Lancelyn Green retells many of the stories in prose, for children. They have been retold many times, by many authors, in both prose and poetry. Since they are told for children there is no critical apparatus: no footnotes or cross-reference or explanations. Such explanations as are needed are incorporated into the text. But Green tells the stories in such a way as to bring out more clearly the Inklings’ take on them. One of the things that many of the Inklings emphasised was the distinction between Britain and Logres.

King Arthur’s adventures did not end when he had defeated the Saxons and brought peace to Britain: for though he had set up the realm of Logres — the land of true good and piety, nobleness and right living — the evil was always breaking in to attack the good. It would need many books to tell the story of every adventure that befell during his reign — that brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages…

And that is where I see a parallel with South Africa. In the mid-1990s we experienced a brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages. Apartheid, like the Saxons, had been driven out. “And the Saxons throughout the whole of Britain, and in Scotland also, fled away in their ships, or else swore to be King Arthur’s loyal subjects.”

In this way peace came to the whole island for a great many years: though still there were robbers and outlaws, cruel knights and evil magicians dwelling in the depths of forests and deep among the mountains, ever ready to break the peace and stain the realm of Logres in one wicked way or another.

The evil that threatened Logres was not merely external. It came from within. The Realm of Logres was set in the land of Britain, and Britain kept breaking through and threatening Logres. And so we read of the magic of Nimue and Morgana le Fay, how Nimue buries Merlin, and Morgana le Fay provokes fights between friends. The whole story is a kind of analogy of South Africa, where in 1994 we had a brief glimpse of our Logres, but even during the glimpses it was tainted with evil. How Jacob Zuma, who was once a loyal knight of the Round Table, became a usurper, and allowed evil to flourish. Could Winnie Mandela be cast in the role of Morgana le Fay, or perhaps the cap would fit Victoria Geoghegan better.

It’s not, of course, an allegory of South Africa, but there are many symbolic analogies, and one could probably find similar analogies to life in other countries as well. Maybe this is why the stories of King Arthur are told and retold, because they have an almost universal appeal and applicability.

Another version I have also been re-reading is The Quest of the Holy Grail. It concentrates on only one aspect of the mythos, the quest of the Grail. It’s also full of medieval moralising. Perhaps that’s why I prefer Green’s version — his modern moralising is more to my taste. But maybe I ought to heed the medieval moralising as well. The modern one deals with sins I am more aware of in others, the medieval one makes me feel uncomfortable because it reminds me of sins that I am more aware of in myself.

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