I discussed Oedipus in prior lessons but it is necessary to keep referring to him. I do
want to mention, as well, that the references I have made to his myth are drawn from
And so, on to Arthur!
In other lessons, I said that Arthur was a Welsh Celt. The best known tales of his
kingship are from Geoffrey of Monmouth‟s The History of the Kings of Britain (circa
1136), Sir Thomas Malory‟s Le Morte d'Arthur, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson‟s Idylls of
the King. However, Arthur‟s tale is much older and he is mentioned in the Welsh tales
of The Mabinogion, pre-Christian Celtic myth. These latter tales would have been
told orally before being written down circa 1060-1200 CE.
As with the older myths we have examined, Arthur has variant tales; the best known
are filtered through Christian scribes and storytellers who made the Celtic Arthur into
a Christian King of Briton. He could have very well been a historical figure, but his
life and deeds are shrouded by time.
A KING IS A KING IS A KING IS A KING . . .
• Although Oedipus and Arthur are removed from each other by a couple of
thousand years, they are much closer than casual reader might suspect.
• Both are kings, of course, but they are both “Corn Kings,” mortals who give
their lives or sacrifice some part of themselves in order to benefit their
constituents. In fact, the fertility of the land is bound to the well-being of the
king and when he suffers, the land becomes infertile. “Corn,” in this case,
does not refer to specifically maize, but grain in general: no fertility = no
grain, no crops, and people go hungry.
• Arthur is also a Fisher King, but that is another myth/legend and we will not
go into this due to time constraints! However, Fisher Kings were keepers of
the grail. The 1991 movie The Fisher King is based on this theme—if you
have a chance, watch it!
For our purposes, it is Arthur‟s archetypal attributes and his relationsip to
Oedipus that are the important issues. Oedipus and Arthur share some aspects
with other heroes, but they also share some aspects that are not so widely
Common aspects with other heroes:
1. Special child—Oedipus‟s “special” attribute, however was not positive! He was
destined for greatness, but also for sorrow.
2. Was not raised by biological parents; Oedipus and Arthur are not of godly
descent, but both are of kingly descent.
3. Fate plays an important role in their lives.
4. Arthur has sidekicks, but Oedipus does not.
5. Tragic flaw.
Oedipus and Arthur have things in common, though, that other heroes we have
examined do not share.
As in the myth of Perseus, Arthur
receives magical or supernatural gifts
to help him.
Like Theseus, Arthur proves his
rightful lineage via a sword and a
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
• I discussed the similarities of the
two kings in videos: here, I want
to elaborate on some of them—
particularly, why their kingdoms
fell into plague and pestilence.
• In Sophocles tales, the cause of
Thebes‟ blight is obvious to the
readers: we are privy to Oedipus‟
past and present. We know that
he has killed his father and
married his mother.
Oedipus saved by the shepherd
As the action in the tale progresses, Jocasta
realizes that the prophecy has come to be;
Tiresias has known it from the beginning. They
both caution Oedipus to withdraw from his
quest, but he continues.
But just as Oedipus was fated to live, fated to kill
his father, fated to defeat the sphinx,, and fated to
marry his mother, he is also fated to continue his
He is also dedicated to ending the plight of his
people; this cannot be accomplished if the evil
existing with the kingdom is not recognized and
abolished. His actions are a combination of
hubris (resisting advice from Tiresias) to
selflessness (wanting to end the blight). The
question remains thaf IF he had known it would
lead to his downfall, would he had continued?
Oedipus and the Sphinx
It is necessary for Oedipus to make
restitution for his actions—it does not
matter if he committed them knowingly
The only way that this can be done is
to offer a sacrifice; in this
case, Oedipus doe not kill himself, but
blinks himself with Jocasta‟s brooches.
He must then wander, blind and
Oedipus‟ blindness is a physical and
symbolic manifestation of his prior
state of ignorance and metaphorical
blindness; now that he clearly sees his
transgressions, it is more than he can
• Oedipus is a Corn King: sometimes a mortal king (but can be a deity) whose
well-being is intimately entwined with the land. When the king is healthy and
guiltless, the land is fertile and productive. If/when the king is unhealthy and
riddled with evil (for lack of a better word—”evil” is usually defined by intent,
and neither Oedipus or Arthur knowingly committed incest), the land and the
• We see these same aspects in the myths of Inanna, Ishtar, and
Persephone—when these goddesses are in the underworld, the land is
infertile. Prometheus is also a type of Corn King; he willingly gives himself in
sacrifice to give fire to his offspring, men (women came later).
• Both Oedipus and Arthur embark on a quest to discover the sources of the
blights on their lands. Oedipus seeks knowledge and Arthur seeks the
Grail—he seeks it by proxy via his knights, but he institutes the quest.
Oedipus also relies on others to help him, i.e. Tiresias.
• Oedipus‟ quest comes to fruition when he finds that he did, indeed, commit
the acts foretold before his birth. The only way to end plight of Thebes is for
him to propitiate his “sin.” It is ironic that he blinds himself with implements
belonging to his mother/wife instead of harming himself with a sword.
• His wandering is, in essence and reality, banishment from his people and
country—the people whom he sought to help. He is also to be denied proper
burial, which means that his soul cannot reach Hades, which, in turn, means
he will change from a wandering physical entity to a lost, wandering soul.
• Arthur‟s quest is, of course, to find the Grail; this will restore balance to the
kingdom. (Note: the grail is not necessarily the cup from Jesus last supper: it
could be a plate or dish.) However, matters are not so simple: there must still
be a sacrifice.
• Like Oedipus, one of Arthur‟s misdoings was to conceive a child with a cloes
family member; his half-sister, Morgana. It does not matter if he were tricked
or not: the “sin” was still committed.
• But again, matters are not so simple! Arthur‟s actions have allowed sin to
enter his kingdom in other ways, and though the evidence is there, Arthur
cannot (or refuses) to see it.
• Tennyson‟s Idylls of the King is rife with symbolism, and one story is often an
analogy for other “things” also occurring.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A FOOL
• Oedipus has a wise man, Tiresias, give him counsel; in Idylls, it is a fool who
most clearly sees what is going on. The concept of a wise fool is also seen
in King Lear, but that is altogether another tale! But before the
fool, Dagonet, makes some comments, there is already the understanding
that matters have gone downhill. In the section “The Last Tournament,” the
knights are gathered:
And most of these were mute, some angered, one
Murmuring, 'All courtesy is dead,' and one,
'The glory of our Round Table is no more.„
• (Sorry, there are no line numbers on the versions I found, so I cannot guide
you to the specific spots for quotes.)
Dagonet, the fool or jester, loves Arthur, but is
not blind to his faults or of the nefarious deeds
going on in the kingdom.
In “The Last Tournament,” Dagonet speaks to
Tristan. Although the romance of Tristan and
Isolde is highly romanticized, in Tennyson‟s
account of Arthurian legend, their love is
forbidden because Isolde is married to King
Mark; the affair between her and Tristan is
adultery. Dagonet‟s words about the affair apply
not only to Tristan, but also to Guinevere's affair
Arthur has turned a blind eye to both of the
• And little Dagonet on the morrow morn,
High over all the yellowing Autumn-tide,
Danced like a withered leaf before the
Then Tristram saying, 'Why skip ye
so, Sir Fool?'
Wheeled round on either heel, Dagonet
'Belike for lack of wiser company;
Or being fool, and seeing too much wit
Makes the world rotten, why, belike I skip
To know myself the wisest knight of all.'
In this passage, Dagonet sets
himself up as the “wisest knight”
because he is cognizant of what
is happening in the kingdom.
[Dagonet] Made answer, 'I had liefer
Skip to the broken music of my brains
Than any broken music thou canst
Then Tristram, waiting for the quip to
'Good now, what music have I
And little Dagonet, skipping, 'Arthur, the
For when thou playest that air with
Thou makest broken music with thy
Her daintier namesake down in
And so thou breakest Arthur's music too.'
'Save for that broken music in thy
brains, [. . .]
• Tristan questions the fool and
Dagonet makes it known that he
aware of Tristan‟s affair. He
compares it with “broken music”:
the land and the people lack
harmony. Even worse, because
Arthur says or does nothing, he
is out of sync.
And Dagonet answered, 'Ay, and when the land
Was freed, and the Queen false, ye set yourself
To babble about him, all to show your wit—
And whether he were King by courtesy,
Or King by right—and so went harping down
The black king's highway, got so far, and grew
So witty that ye played at ducks and drakes
With Arthur's vows on the great lake of fire. [. . .]
And then we skip.' 'Lo, fool,' he [Tristan] said, 'ye
Fool's treason: is the King thy brother fool?'
Then little Dagonet clapt his hands and shrilled,
'Ay, ay, my brother fool, the king of fools!
Conceits himself as God that he can make
Figs out of thistles, silk from bristles, milk
From burning spurge, honey from hornet-combs,
And men from beasts—Long live the king of fools!'
• In these passages, Dagonet
states that Guinivere is “false,”
that Arthur is hubristic, thinking
himself as “God.” Arthur has
become the “king of fools.
At this point, Arthur‟s realization of the
corruption in the kingdom is not
enough; as in the tale of
Oedipus, there must be a sacrifice
made so that the land can right itself.
As the king, Arthur is the sacrifice; the
shedding of his blood will rejuvenate
the land and order can be restored.
Fate is kinder to Arthur than it is to
Oedipus: Arthur is dealt a mortal blow
by his son, Mordred, but is
subsequently carried away to Avalon.
Arthur is a Christlike figure who dies
for the good of his people but who also
has the promise of resurrection;
Oedipus has no such promise.
AND SO ON . . .
• I discuss Luke and Anakin Skywalker in a video, but the tales of Oedipus and
Arthur are represented in other modern tales, as well; the more traditional
quest of the hero is almost omnipresent.
• I do want to emphasize a commonality between Oedipus, Arthur, and the
Skywalkers, though: these tales all contatin a battle between father and son.
In Perseus‟ tale, there is not a father/son conflict, but there is a
grandfather/grandson conflict. In myth (especially Greek), we consistently
see these types of conflicts: Kronos kills Uranus and Zeus kills Kronos.
Zeus‟ forestalls being overthrown by eating Metis, but Apollo makes a
thwarted attempt to overcome Zeus. I am not going to into the “reason” for
this myth, but I am going to ask you to theorize on the why of its existence!
• Enough. I have more to say, but I am going to stop.
Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg. n.d. Web.
1 Nov. 2013. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/610>.