The connection between King Arthur and Paganism is simultaneously tenuous and deep.
Current scholarship suggests that Arthur is most likely based on one of the last Roman commanders in Britain, who managed to win a few battles against the invading Saxons and then rule parts of Britain in peace for a short time. He was almost certainly Christian, though Christians wishing to claim Arthur for themselves should remember Ronald Hutton’s observation that Christianity in Dark Ages Britain was as varied as its Paganism had been. The 2004 film King Arthur with Clive Owen and Keira Knightly is probably the closest to this version of Arthur’s story, although it is still highly speculative.
On the other hand, the Arthurian Legend is part of the heritage of Britain and of the English speaking world. It includes characters and tales both newer and older than the historical Arthur (assuming there actually was a historical Arthur). Arthur and the myths associated with him are part of the Western Mystery Tradition, which inspired many of our contemporary magical and Pagan traditions, especially Wicca. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon worked so well in large part because the source material was full of Pagan concepts that just needed to be reframed and reinterpreted for a modern audience.
Over on the Patheos Evangelical channel, John Mark Reynolds has an excellent post on King Arthur titled The Matter of Britain: Cheer Up, We are Doomed. He’s very right when he says “the story is better than any of the books” and he’s very wrong when he says the 1981 film Excalibur is “nearly (but not quite!) unwatchable” (Excalibur is one of my favorite movies of all time, though it is far from perfect). The post is worth reading in its entirety – Reynolds is proof that “Evangelical” need not mean “fundamentalist.”
Here are a couple of key quotes:
At heart, the story of Arthur is about the last chance of civilization and how that chance failed … This moment of peace fails and a British dark age begins … Roman Britain was falling to barbarians, Arthur came and won a great victory, but hope was lost in the end.
This is very Christian and only Christians can tell this truth, because the good news of Jesus makes the truth bearable. Arthur must fail, but Jesus will not fail. The Once and Future King is Jesus and any image of Jesus in this life must die in order to live. We are always losing, goodness fails, beauty is marred, and truth is twisted, but His Kingdom was, is, and is coming. We are losing, but not lost.
This is a Christian reading of Arthur’s story, but it is a reading that is not grounded in the teachings of Jesus or in the Kingdom of God that is in your midst or even within you. It is a reading based in the hopes of a rapture that always disappoints and in an apocalypse that never comes.
But there is a Pagan reading of Arthur’s story that provides real hope.
Yes, Arthur is the Once and Future King. Yes, Damh the Bard is right: “Arthur sleeps now, ready to return.” But Arthur is not returning at some future time to rule in a perfect Camelot forever and ever amen. Arthur will return – and has returned – when he is needed. Arthur returns to inspire great leaders and ordinary people. He adds his power to ours to tip the scales in generationally critical battles. Then he returns to Avalon to do whatever it is that heroes do in the Otherworld, lest we become dependent on him and stop learning and growing ourselves.
The holy grail is in turn a manifestation of one of the earlier Four Hallows of the Tuatha De Danann. They are the Lia Fáil (the Stone of Destiny) which represents sovereignty and the Goddess of Sovereignty. It gives the right to rule, and it expects rulers to rule rightly. The Spear of Lugh represents the strategy and discipline of the warrior. The Sword of Nuada represents the power of the King and the sacrifice of leadership. And the Cauldron of the Dagda represents hospitality and our obligation to care for our families and our guests.
The Four Hallows do not stay in this world forever. They present themselves in times of need and they pour out their blessings. They may present themselves to you. If you are fortunate enough to experience them, say “yes,” give thanks, and then figure out what you’re supposed to do with them. But never think they are yours to keep. Sooner or later they will return to the Otherworld, which is their home. This is true whether we are talking about a stone, a spear, a sword, a cauldron… or a king.
King Arthur stands as a constant reminder that while a savior isn’t coming, we aren’t in this alone. Our Gods are with us, ready to inspire and assist us when we embody and promote Their virtues and values in our lives. Our ancestors are with us, doing what they can to help their line survive and succeed. Even the land itself will rise to fight when threatened, though we must take care to insure that we are on the side of the land and not simply another exploiter.
The comparison of late Roman Britain with contemporary America is closer than I wish it was. Tower Time and the Long Descent are upon us, and while I do not believe there will be a new Dark Age, the era of perpetual progress is over. As Pagans – and as rational people who know a bit of history – we have no false hopes that a king or a messiah (or a president) will show up and fix all our problems. The old world is crumbling and we will have to build a new world in its place.
The good news is that we can do it. Humans are remarkably resilient creatures. We’ve survived ice ages, wars, famines, and plagues, and we’ll survive Tower Time. We will preserve what is most meaningful and helpful, and we will discard ways of living that are harmful and unsustainable – because we must, and because adapting is what we do.
We will not do it alone. We have each other. We our Gods and ancestors. We have the spirits of the land.
And though we will not have him forever, we have a Once and Future King.