It is a pity there’s no reason to believe King Arthur actually existed. True, there was a sixth-century monk called Gildas The Wise who penned a wordy jeremiad that mentions a battle at a place called Mount Badon where the Celtic remnant of Roman Britain stemmed the tsunami of Anglo-Saxon invasion. It is also true that, long afterwards, Welsh monks with well-developed imaginations placed at Mount Badon one of the twelve victories they ascribed to Arthur. If you think that adds up to evidence for a historical Arthur, you probably also think that Saddam Hussein supported Al Qaeda.
Of course, not necessarily existing is no barrier to being influential, as critics of the Ontological Argument sometimes discover. Imaginative folk of every era since Late Antiquity have peered back into the Age of Arthur and summoned the mythical monarch from the fifth-century mists, calling into the old world to redress the balance of the new. The monks of medieval Glastonbury felt they had solid evidence that Arthur would one day return and put old England to rights when, in 1184, they discovered a lead coffin allegedly containing the king’s bones. It was inscribed with his name and the motto “rex quondam rexque futurus.” Some 300 years later a Warwickshire country gentleman called Malory, in jail awaiting trial on a long list of charges including affray, deer-stealing, and carrying off a neighbor’s wife, wrote a long and eloquent account of King Arthur and the Round Table, lamenting in marginal notes to his manuscript that the age of chivalry was dead and that knights no longer had the noble souls they had of old.
Later poets, too, have found ideals to feed their fancies at the court of the once and future king. The opera of Purcell and Dryden, King Arthur: The British Worthy, is as insubstantial as spun sugar, but no less pleasingly sweet. Alfred Lord Tennyson, gentleman-poet, sought high moral rectitude at the Round Table and found it in Sir Galahad, whose strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure. (Did anyone less pure-hearted, one wonders, try to warn the old boy about his earlier line, “‘The curse has come upon me,’ cried the Lady of Shalott”?) In living memory, Charles Williams found in the Arthur stories a mystical means to understanding the coinherence of human and divine life.
And then there is Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I loathe this book. Instead of parting the curtains of time to catch sight of Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye, Mr. Twain sends there a cocksure moron of his own era, a nineteenth-century firearms manufacturer yclept Hank Morgan, who turns the armored knights into sandwich-board men advertising soap and, as a final gesture, mows down rank on rank of mounted men-at-arms using an electric fence and a nest of machine guns. The message is: Whatever happens, we have got the Gatling gun and they have not. Mr. Twain (yes, I know it is a nom de plume) is no more imaginative in this book than the creators of the Flintstones, who assimilated even the Neolithic to the contemporary suburb, a habitat as specialized in its own way as that of any dinosaur, and therefore ultimately just as fragile.
What is more, Hank Morgan’s is the sort of mechanical machismo which gives masculinity a bad name. Until his time, men in love with speed needed to develop “good hands” and a lasting relationship with a horse, an animal with more mind of its own than a supermarket trolley, willing when treated well but tricky if bullied. They could not simply pull a metal throttle and blast off into the sunset. Chivalry, as the etymology of the word suggests, involves not only strength but also the gentleness necessary for equestrian manipulation. For Arthur and his knights, manliness was more than force.
Which is why, when I describe the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from Mount Riley in New Zealand as a masculine wine, I do not mean merely that it knocks your socks off. It is a constant surprise that New Zealanders can make from this variety of grape, so evanescent when the French turn it into Pouilly-Fumé, a wine so muscular in character. The Mount Riley Sauvignon Blanc is bright and clear, the color of pale straw. It is strong and fresh; it is not sweet, but it is not unsubtle. It made me think of the taste of peaches with the sugars taken out. I detected also hints of pepper, such as you sometimes encounter in kiwifruit. A glass or two with a hot fish stew could help redress the balance of your world.