At some point between the withdrawal of Rome’s legions in 410 CE and the advent of Saxon England in the 6th Century, a Celtic chieftain named Arthur restored a measure of order to Britain. Arthur’s reign occupied a bubble in time, set apart from the chaos that preceded and followed it. Although the mists of time shroud the truth of Arthur’s career, the legends born of that truth still inspire us 1,500 years after his passing. Who cannot admire a king so good, so wise, so honorable, and so humble that his very presence compels the allegiance and obedience of all good people? Such a king is invincible, for no evil thing can overcome him. If Arthur has a fault, it is that he bestows his love too freely and trusts too completely. And in this we find the enduring tragedy of King Arthur. His downfall and the end of his shining kingdom of Camelot came not at the hands of an enemy, but through his beloved bride and his greatest friend. We rejoice with Arthur that he finds in Guenevere a queen of exquisite purity, grace, beauty, wisdom, and kindness, and we rejoice still more when he is joined by Lancelot, the epitome of knightly honor, courage, and fidelity. How it wounds us when Guenevere and Lancelot cannot remain true to their king, but fall to the attraction they have for one another. Their adulterous affair ruins the king and the kingdom with him.
One of many moving interpretations of the Arthurian legend is John Boorman’s film Excalibur, starring Nigel Terry as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, and Nicholas Clay as Lancelot. At the high point of the film, all is well in the kingdom except for the perpetual absence of Lancelot. Because of his attraction for Guenevere, the good knight has exiled himself from court so as to avoid temptation. Everyone in the kingdom seems to understand this, everyone, that is, except the king himself. No one speaks of this matter until one day when Sir Gawain (played by Liam Neeson) takes it upon himself to address this blight on Camelot’s perfection. Gawain accuses the queen of driving Lancelot from the company of Arthur’s knights. Stung at the assault on her honor, Guenevere turns to Arthur and cries, “Will you not champion me?” He replies:
I cannot! I am your King, and I must be your judge in this. Lancelot must do it. He also stands accused. I decree – that at sunrise, two days from now, the champions will meet, and the truth shall be known. For by the law of God, no knight who is false can win in combat with one who is true.
The trial by combat proves Guenevere’s innocence as Lancelot defeats Gawain, but which the secret is exposed Guenevere can no longer hide her attraction. Before long she and Lancelot are indeed lovers, leaving Arthur devastated and bringing about the dissolution of Camelot. Yet in the end Arthur has a chance to restore order by leading his knights in one last, desperate battle against Mordred, his mortal enemy. On the eve of the battle he goes to visit Guenevere, who has turned from her sin and sought a life of holiness in a convent. There she has kept Arthur’s great sword, Excalibur, in hope that one day he will take it up again in the cause of justice. After receiving the sword from her, Arthur bids Guenevere farewell with these words:
I’ve often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future, can be just a man, we might meet. You’d come to me, claim me yours, know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have.
Arthur’s dream is the very dream, and the very promise, of the Holy One of Israel.