Athurus alter Christus: King Arthur as Last World Emperor in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

Athurus alter Christus: King Arthur as Last World Emperor in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur March 13, 2023

The Passing of Arthur (1925). Courtesy of MeisterDrucke.


It is remarkable, given the number of centuries that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur reigned as the English-speaking world’s chief Arthurian text, that the concept of the return remained such an important part of Arthur’s story. For what most readers take away from Malory’s treatment of Arthur’s return is how deeply his own skepticism appears to run. On the prospect of Arthur’s return, Malory offers the tart observation, “Yet I will not say that it shall be so; but rather I would say, here in this world he changed his life” (Malory 689). This is generally interpreted to mean that, as far as Malory is concerned, Arthur did in fact die. That being said, it is my opinion that there is more going on under the surface with Malory’s use of the return myth than his apparent skepticism here would suggest.

For, if Malory is so dead-set against the possibility of Arthur’s return, why does he bring it up at all? It is largely accepted that Malory drew heavily upon two English sources for the section of his work that details Arthur’s downfall. The first of these was the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the verse retelling of Geoffrey’s Roman war that we encountered last time. The other is the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, which is, to our eyes, a more familiar take on the story that roots Camelot’s demise in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. Aside from a single reference to Arthur as “rex quondam rexque futurus” (“once and future king”) (Alliterative Morte Arthure l. 4347) at the very end of the Alliterative Morte—a line written by a later scribe who might have been directly quoting Malory himself—neither text contains any reference to Arthur’s potential survival and future return. Given that both had omitted it, Malory could be forgiven for following suit and never mentioning the return.

But he does mention the return. In fact, he goes out his way to do so when his narrative would have flowed much better without it. Why, then, does he do this? I think the answer can be found within Malory’s actual description of return myth itself. This is one of the Morte d’Arthur’s most famous passages and deserves to be quoted in full:

            Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of Our Lord Jesus [been taken] into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the Holy Cross.

Yet I would not say that it shall be so, but rather I would say, here in this world he changed his life. And many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse:

Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus.

[Here lies Arthur, once and future king.]

  (Malory 689)

If we look closely at how Malory describes the prospect of the return, we notice something important. As we have seen throughout this series, Arthur’s return is not viewed as a matter of national redemption, whether for the English or the Welsh. Rather, it is described in primarily religious terms. Even though Malory may be where we get that iconic scene of Morgan le Fay and her attendant queens taking Arthur in a barge to be healed in Avalon, it is not to Morgan that Malory gives credit for Arthur’s healing and survival.

Rather, it is “the will of Our Lord Jesus” that is credited with saving Arthur and taking him “into another place.” This creates the impression that Christ has intervened directly to preserve the king from death for His own divine purposes. This is remarkable in that it links Christ to Arthur’s supernatural survival to an extent quite beyond what any previous text in the Arthurian tradition. Christ Himself now becomes a character—indeed, the decisive character—in the story of Arthur’s future return. And the mere fact that it is “the will of Our Lord Jesus” that saves Arthur from death and makes his return possible tells us that Arthur himself must play an important role in Christ’s own future plans for the world.

The other striking detail about Malory’s version of the return myth is that Arthur’s chief activity when he returns will be to “win the Holy Cross.” This refers to the fact that a relic considered to be the True Cross was lost by the Crusaders to the Muslim forces of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 and, as far as Malory or his contemporaries knew, was still in Muslim hands. But there is something else lying behind Malory’s mention of the Cross. For the True Cross had played a central part in the Last World Emperor’s story since that story was first formulated in the Apocalypse of Methodius, where the connection between the Cross and the Emperor is particularly strong. Pseudo-Methodius had linked the power of the final (albeit Roman) world-empire to the Cross itself, “What sort of person either could or would ever be able to overcome the strength of the Holy Cross or comprehend its power? Thus indeed does the dignity of the Roman Empire possess reverence, mighty through Him who was hanged upon it, our Lord Jesus Christ” (Pseudo-Methodius 9:9).

And that account had the Last World Emperor’s career end in a fateful climax during which “the king shall remove the crown from his head and lay it upon the cross and extend his hands toward heaven and surrender the kingdom of the Christians to his God and Father … And just as the cross is lifted upward into heaven, the King of the Romans will likewise immediately surrender his spirit.” (14.2-6). Thus, there had long been a firm link between the career of the Last Emperor and the future fate of the True Cross. Pseudo-Methodius had already specified that the Last Emperor’s chief opponents would be Muslims and so after 1187 it is understandable that a medieval Christian would expect the Last Emperor to reclaim the Cross by defeating the forces of Islam. This is the subtext of Malory’s claim about the future reclamation of the True Cross.

It is all the more striking that is turns up here, as part of the Arthur return narrative, because of how rarely Arthur has been associated with the Cross previously. Of the major texts of the Arthurian tradition, only the Annales Cambriae had made the association when it asserted that “Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Annales Cambriae 9) at the Battle of Badon. But the Annales Cambriae had first appeared around the tenth century and Malory was writing in the fifteenth, and during that period of time every intervening text had instead adopted the rival suggestion of Nennius that it was an image of the Virgin Mary that Arthur carried in his battles. Thus, Malory’s source for this detail was probably not the Arthurian tradition instead, making it all the more likely that he was drawing from the Last Emperor myth.

What we get from Malory, then, is two main facts about Arthur’s return. One is that it is arranged by Christ for His divine purposes. The other is that it will involve reclaiming the True Cross from the forces of Islam. The latter claim bears the obvious fingerprints of the Last Emperor narrative. But so too does the former. Christians of the fifteenth century, when Malory was writing, had a tendency—one common to Christians of all ages—to see the end of the world as imminent. Thus, talk of God’s plan for the future was also usual talk about His plan for the end of everything. In this context, there is an eschatological undercurrent to Malory’s suggestion that Arthur factors into Christ’s future plans, since most would have expected those plans to be about the end of the current order of things and beginning of the “new heavens and new earth.” The Last Emperor’s chief function in the apocalyptic narrative of the Middle Ages, despite his other roles as utopian monarch and military savior, is to shepherd this transition by bringing an end to the rule of earthly potentates and ushering in—despite the Antichrist’s brief interruption—the direct rule of God on earth. The Last Emperor is thus inherently a figure of the end-times and, to the medieval mind at least, the centerpiece of Christ’s plans for the world’s final days.

Thus, Malory suggests that Arthur will play an important role in the end of days by battling the forces of Islam and upholding the dignity of the True Cross. This is exactly the role that the Apocalypse of Methodius gives to the Last Emperor. Malory even echoes Pseudo-Methodius’s statement that the Emperor will be “he whom men had supposed to be dead and good for nothing” (Pseudo-Methodius 13:11) with his own remark that “some men say … that King Arthur is not dead.” Despite his cloak of skepticism, it is clear that Malory is making a direct identification of King Arthur with the Last World Emperor. Indeed, even when asserting Arthur’s demise, Malory insists that his tomb itself contains the promise that Arthur will reign again as “once and future king,” thereby taking Pseudo-Methodius’s remark that the coming Emperor is “supposed to be dead” quite literally and suggesting that rising from the dead will be a key part of Arthur’s future career. Malory is thus much more explicit in equating Arthur with Christianity’s other messiah than perhaps any other Arthurian writer. Unlike Geoffrey’s dark hints and knotty references to the Tiburtine Sibyl, Malory is refreshingly direct and clear once one has the context to understand him. And he expects that he will be understood on this point. His attribution of his own Arthur return prophecy to “some men in many parts of England” clearly indicates that he believes his own interpretation—that Arthur is the Last Emperor—to be the common and agreed understanding of the Arthur return myth. As it turns out, he had good reason to think this.

For the myth of the Last World Emperor was enjoying something of a vogue in England in Malory’s time. In fact, a form of it was circulating that neatly matches Malory’s description of Arthur’s future return in the Morte d’Arthur. Malory was writing his Morte in the 1460s, during the latter stages of the Wars of the Roses. This same period also saw the circulation of a popular prophecy in ballad form, The Cock in the North, that suggested that a deceased British monarch would rise again to become the Last World Emperor. This prophecy states that “He that is dead and buried in sight / Shall rise again, and live in the land” (Cock of the North ll. 57-58). As the return of this king, “Then shall Troy untrue [England] tremble those days, / For dread of a dead man when they hear him speak” (ll.37-38) and the authority of the nation shall be given to him. He will then reorganize the realm and set the government of England aright—“Then shall the Saxons [the English] chose for themselves a lord / That shall rule them rightfully and bring them under. / A dead man shall make between them an accord” (ll. 53-55)—before setting out for “Syria” (l. 63) and “the city of Babylon” (l. 64) in the Near East. There, the once-dead king shall carry out the Last Emperor’s role by warring with the Muslims around Jerusalem and reclaiming the True Cross: “Fifteen days’ journey from Jerusalem / The holy cross shall be; / That same man shall win that beam [of wood]” (ll. 65-66). After achieving victory for the faith, the dead man shall once more pass away “in God’s law” (l. 75) and be buried in the valley of Jehoshaphat, the traditional site of the Final Judgment.

The parallels between this work and Malory’s own account of Arthur’s return are striking. The Cock in the North does not openly say that Arthur with the risen dead king who is to be the Last Emperor; indeed, Arthur is only briefly namechecked in the poem’s second stanza, which includes a passing reference to “Arthur’s days” (l. 8). But the Last Emperor is to be a former British monarch who has passed away, making Arthur an obvious candidate. The claim for Arthur is strengthened when the poet says of the Emperor, “fortune has granted him victory / From the first time he bore arms; / From only treason or treachery, / Destiny shall not save him” (ll. 69-72), aligning closely with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur as an undefeated war-leader whose conquests are only halted by Mordred’s betrayal.

What is more, the prophecy is written in such a way as to make it sound like something out of Geoffrey’s work; England is called “Troy untrue,” recalling the Britons’ founding myth as found in Nennius, the Annales Cambriae, and Geoffrey’s Historia, while the English are identified only by the archaic name of “Saxons.” The suggestion that England is “Troy untrue”—as opposed to the true descendants of Troy, the Celtic Britons—and the identification of the English with their Saxon forebears who violently seized the Britons’ land seems to indicate a pro-Briton sympathy of the type Geoffrey displayed running through the work and a deliberate attempt by the author to bring to mind Geoffrey’s legendary history. This latter strain would only become more apparent throughout the prophecy’s lifespan; by Elizabeth’s reign, verses had been added promising “The red dragon shall conquer the white dragon” [referring to one of Merlin’s prophecies of Briton restoration] and “The name of the English shall be discarded” (qtd. in Previté-Orton 208). Given the persistent pro-Briton sentiment, the obvious attempts to ape Geoffrey, and the attributes of the dead king, it would be reasonable for a contemporary reader to assume that the Cock in the North prophecy was making the claim that Arthur would soon return as Last World Emperor.

This certainly seems to be what Malory took from it. We cannot know for certain that he was familiar with the Cock in the North prophecy in its various forms but given its popularity in England and the similarities to Malory’s own account of Arthur’s return, it seems highly probable. Most telling is the Cock in the North’s insistence that the Last Emperor’s chief act would be to “win the beam” of the True Cross. This is the only thing that Malory specifies that Arthur will do upon his future return to the world. Two near-contemporary texts both foretelling that a British king would rise from the dead specifically to reclaim the True Cross from the Muslims can hardly be a mere coincidence. Since the Cock in the North prophecy is the earlier of the two texts, the simplest and therefore most likely conclusion is that Malory had knowledge of it and, naturally assuming that it was about Arthur due to the reasons listed above, incorporated it into his own Arthurian text.

This could also explain why Malory’s account seems to show a dependence upon Pseudo-Methodius, whereas Geoffrey had instead drawn from the Tiburtine Sibyl, given that the Cock in the North clearly draws more from the Methodian narrative of the Emperor rather than the Sibylline one. That being said, Malory’s own debt to the Apocalypse of Methodius seems to run too deep to be accounted for only from the scattered references the Cock in the North ballad, something which we shall pick up again a little later. But regardless, it seems almost certain that the Cock in the North, a text about a very British Last World Emperor, was Malory’s major source for his version of Arthur’s future return.

As to why Malory incorporated a popular Last World Emperor text into his own work as a prophecy—however skeptically recounted—of Arthur’s return, he did it because it suited his own purposes for the Morte d’Arthur as a whole. It is not often enough recognized that Malory’s Morte, despite its author’s own unsavory life, is a deeply religious text. Much of what people associate with Malory, the scenes of knightly valor, the quests and the tournaments, the strange innocence of adulterous yet courtly love, find their fullest expression in the Morte’s first half. But things start to change for the work as a whole once the Quest for the Holy Grail begins. There, with the quest’s goal suddenly changed from earthly to heavenly things, the chivalric order of Camelot is revealed to be quite lacking. During the quest, the hermit Nacien interprets a dream of Sir Gawain’s about to mean that “the fellowship of the Round Table … for their sin and their wickedness is black… as much as to say, without good virtues or works” (Malory 542), setting up the theme of the emptiness of worldly chivalry that continues to the end of the work. In the end, it is the otherworldly, asexual Sir Galahad—whose time in the court of Camelot lasts only a single day—who achieves the Grail, not worldly lovers and fighters such as Lancelot and Gawain.

The religious theme gains strength from this point onward as, while the outward shows of worldly chivalry continue, they are revealed to be more and more hollow as the Round Table fractures from within. Finally, after the catastrophe at Camlann, the only form of salvation that still has any value is the spiritual. Arthur is dead—or has found his own kind of spiritual redemption as God’s chosen future emperor—but Lancelot and Guinevere, the two true protagonists of the Morte, find peace and save their souls by giving up on their love and spending the rest of their days in separate monastic orders. After Lancelot’s death as a holy hermit and his entry into Heaven, the remainder of the knights find their salvation in the Holy Land as Crusaders, fighting for the cause of Christ rather than that of an earthly king. In short, everyone who is allowed a good end in the Morte finds it through religion rather than the earthly forms of knighthood and courtesy that had seemingly been celebrated through the first half of the text. Thus the Morte establishes a kind of Augustinian opposition between Camelot, as the City of Man, and the City of God, dramatizing the fading away of the former so that the latter can be established, at least in the personal lives of its protagonists.

Another text that does this same thing, on quite a literal level, is the Last World Emperor narrative, particularly as detailed by the Apocalypse of Methodius. The Last Emperor is, as his name suggests, the last earthly ruler the world shall ever know. His reign is taken up by the passing of the world’s human political order, as represented by himself, and the coming of God’s own rule on earth, as foreshadowed and inaugurated by the Emperor’s laying of his crown upon the True Cross and the Cross’s subsequent ascension to Heaven. Thus, the Last Emperor narrative, especially in its Pseudo-Methodian form, would have had an innate appeal to Malory, who would have seen the parallels between it and his own Arthurian text. It is no surprise, then, that he would seek to incorporate that form of the Last Emperor narrative into his work. Of course, this reasoning makes more sense if Malory knew more of the Methodian account than could be gleamed from the Cock in the North. Fortunately, there is evidence from the Morte itself that Malory knew a more complete form of the Pseudo-Methodian narrative and that evidence comes, fittingly enough, from Malory’s retelling of Geoffrey’s Roman war.

Like Geoffrey, Malory’s account of Arthur’s Roman war has been the source of a number of difficult questions in Arthurian scholarship. The chief of these are why Malory moves the Roman war to the beginning of his account, having it come soon after Arthur’s coronation rather than just before his final battle with Mordred, and why Malory ends the account with Arthur successfully taking the throne as Emperor of Rome when every previous account had Arthur failing at this pivotal objective. As with Geoffrey and the Tiburtine Sibyl, these questions can be resolved if we assume that Malory was familiar with Pseudo-Methodius or some largely faithful descendant and was reshaping his Arthur material to make Arthur more closely accord with the story of the Last Emperor that he found therein.

Explanations for why Malory places the Roman war so early tend to rely upon baseless speculations about Malory not liking the militant version of Arthur that he wrote therein, something that requires us to assume much about Malory that is not in evidence from either his writings or his life. I think a more sensible conclusion can be drawn if we keep Pseudo-Methodius in mind. There, the Emperor’s ascension to the throne and great military victories take place at the beginning of his narrative, before being followed by a period of decline in which the enemies of God exert their influence more and more. As this happens, God also exerts His direct rule over earth more and more while the Emperor diminishes into almost a background character. As outlined above, we can see the same pattern in the Morte d’Arthur, with Camelot starting out strong then collapsing more and more as religious devotion exerts its priority over earthly chivalry. Thus, it makes sense that Arthur should be portrayed at his most active and potent at the beginning of the narrative. And since the Roman war is the pinnacle of Arthur’s military and political success (even with the sour ending of Geoffrey and his successors), it would need to be moved to the beginning of the narrative to fit this general pattern.

This explains why his greatest triumph, like the Emperor’s, is at the beginning of his reign. But this faithfulness to Pseudo-Methodius also provides a reason for the other enduring mystery of this part of the narrative, that is, Malory’s decision to have Arthur be crowned Emperor in Rome. As with Geoffrey, Malory seems very invested in the idea of Arthur as Roman Emperor. Of course, Malory actually makes it happen, meaning that he does not have Geoffrey’s eschatological caution. But I think that this can be explained by the fact that Malory is ultimately trying to do the same thing as Geoffrey; making Arthur’s earthly career a model and foreshadowing of his later eschatological career as the Last Emperor. I think the difference in results can be explained by the fact that (with a few major exceptions) Malory tends to follow his sources fairly closely, unlike Geoffrey who was happy to disregard or reshape a source whenever it suited him. Thus, while Geoffrey may have tinkered with the Tiburtine Sibyl’s prophecy to produce the eschatological promise of Arthur’s return, Malory seems to follow the Pseudo-Methodian format without much deviation. Thus, Arthur becomes Roman Emperor because Malory is exactly modeling his career on that of the Methodian Last Emperor.

Indeed, Arthur’s coronation itself carries this exact connotation. As Malory reports it, “On the day assigned … he was crowned Emperor by the Pope’s hands, with all the sovereignty in the world to wield forever” (Malory 150). There is not only the religious symbolism of the ceremony, with the Pope acting as a stand-in for God while he crowns Arthur, but there is also the promise that Arthur will wield “all the sovereignty of the world” “forever”. Arthur’s emperorship encompasses all of space and time hereafter; it is both universal and everlasting. The only way that his reign can be both of these things is if he is (or will be) the Last World Emperor. After all, the Last Emperor is the only monarch whose rule truly stretches over the whole of the earth in medieval thought. And his reign will last until the end of time, when God assumes direct rule of a new heaven and a new earth, making it as close to forever as a faithful Christian world could grant to a human monarch. Thus, what we have in this scene is the Pope, representing God, investing in Arthur’s reign as Roman Emperor the particular attributes only possessed by the Last Roman Emperor’s own reign in the final days. This is, like the use of the Cock in the North prophecy as the basis of the return myth, an explicit equation of Arthur with the apocalyptic role and mandate of the Last World Emperor.

This notion is further supported by another striking innovation that Malory introduces; in the Morte, the war against the Roman Empire somehow becomes a war against the invading forces of Islam. This is largely unprecedented in the tradition; it is simply not how previous Arthurian texts understood the Roman war. It is true that the Alliterative Morte Arthure had unintentionally opened the door for this by replacing the Roman-allied “King of Syria” found in Geoffrey with a “Sultan of Syria” (“Sowdan of Surry” in the original Middle English, Alliterative Morte, l. 2296) who commands Islamic “Sarazens” (l. 1626) but it had never made much of the Sultan’s religion; his political ties to Rome are far more important to that narrative than his religious affiliation. But Malory adds a religious dimension by not only emphasizing the Islamic faith of Arthur’s opponents but portraying Arthur as a righteous defender of Christianity in his opposition to them.

In one particularly stomach-turning instance of this, Arthur orders the mass slaughter of the Roman forces and their allies, entirely on the grounds that there are Muslims amongst them. Arthur orders his troops to “spare none for gold or silver—for there is little reason to praise a man who would spare those that associate with Saracens—and therefore slay down and spare neither heathen nor Christian” (Malory 137). It is a vile, disgusting act but, unlike Arthur’s other vile and disgusting acts over the course of the Morte, there is no hint that Malory himself disapproves of it. Malory does not even take Arthur to task for his ensuing hypocrisy in murdering the poor soldiers of the army but sparing the rich noblemen (Christian and Muslim alike) who can bribe him with the prospect of ransom. Arthur’s bloodthirstiness toward the Islamic faith is made a mark of his supposed righteousness. If anything, Malory implies that it is Rome that wrong for allying with Muslims and that this is the reason why its current rulers must lose the right to rule the world to Arthur.

This is, unfortunately, in keeping with Malory’s rigid interpretation of Christianity and with the zeal for the Crusades that he shows elsewhere. But it is also keeping in Pseudo-Methodius, which made the Last Emperor the intractable and unyielding opponent of the encroaching forces of Islam. The triumph over the Muslim armies is the primary achievement of the Last Emperor’s reign, just as victory over the Muslim-allied forces of Rome is the primary achievement of Arthur’s. And, just like Arthur, the Emperor’s treatment of his defeated foes is disproportionately savage; he places upon them “yoke upon them seven times greater than their yoke was upon the earth” (Pseudo-Methodius 13.13). Thus, Malory makes Arthur both a reigning Roman Emperor and a vicious opponent of Islam. He has Arthur defeat his Islamic foes in a climactic battle for control of the world. And he gives Arthur a universal and eternal reign as Roman Emperor. All of this directly parallels Pseudo-Methodius’s account of the Last World Emperor. Once again, this is too much to regard as mere coincidence and thus it must be concluded that Malory is deliberately using his account of Arthur’s Roman war to suggest that Arthur himself is the Last Emperor as depicted in the Apocalypse of Methodius.

But, if Malory is working throughout the Morte to present Arthur as the Last World Emperor found in texts such as the Cock in the North and Pseudo-Methodius, as the evidence suggests, why does he then seem so skeptical of the return? To that question, there can be no definitive answer. But perhaps he was not as skeptical as he seemed; Malory at one point appears to even be skeptical of his own skepticism, carefully noting that “Thus of Arthur I find no written in books that have been authorized, nor more for certain about his death have I ever read” (689). A statement like this, along with everything else considered above, implies a greater open-mindedness to the possibility of the return than the infamous statement that “he changed his life” does alone. So too does the fact that Malory immediately follows up the latter statement with the claim that “once and future king” in inscribed on Arthur’s tomb, implying that even death is no hindrance to Arthur’s return. But it was probably wiser and more politically savvy for Malory, even if he was sympathetic to the idea of the return, to distance himself from it. After all, the return myth had already become associated with Welsh nationalism. But hopes for the return of Arthur and of the coming of the Last Emperor had also become a major part of English discontent toward their own reigning monarchs, as the Cock in the North prophecy shows. As Malory was writing, that discontent was already reaching a fever pitch. Soon after his death, it would explode into violence, leading to a bloody change of regime. As a man in prison dependent upon the goodwill of the powers-that-be, Malory probably knew better than to rock the boat any further.

Ironically, it would be that explosion of discontent and the change of regime that followed that would finally put an end to the identification of Arthur with the Last World Emperor. The association of the return with Welsh national restoration—an association missing from authentic Welsh tradition, Geoffrey, and Malory—went from being an outlawed ideology to the national ideology of the English state when the Welsh Tudors took the throne and painted their rule as Arthur’s symbolic second coming. While the Last Emperor myth did not disappear from England—in Elizabeth’s reign we find the publication of a pamphlet named A Most Strange and Wonderfull Prophesie Upon This Troublesome World that foretells the coming of “an worthy conquerour that takes a truce with all the earth, and sets it in a quiete staye” (Cypriano and Vandermers B iii) following the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn—but it would become less politically potent. Meanwhile, Malory’s remarks on Arthur’s return were reinterpreted in light of the now-official nationalist version of the return myth, such that the Morte’s new status as the canonical Arthurian text ironically cemented a version of the return myth that was completely at odds with the Last Emperor interpretation that Malory had so clearly preferred.

Still, while the Arthur return myth today has largely been stripped of its overt connection to the notion of an apocalyptic final world emperor, it is important to remember the idea’s roots. The Arthur return myth, and its continued modern popularity, reminds us of why the Last Emperor narrative held such a firm grip on the medieval mind. The promise of Arthur’s return today represents the desire for unity, the hope that the feuding factionalism and endless infighting that define life today can be overcome and society made whole, and the eternal dream that peace and justice will someday triumph. It owes all of this to the myth of the Last Emperor, even if it has been stripped of that myth’s overtly Christian associations. That the Arthur return myth continues to carry those hopes and dreams demonstrates that both it and the Last Emperor narrative speak to our common need as humans to aspire to a better world.

But the Last World Emperor also serves as a warning. The unity he achieved in his narratives always came at the price of outsiders, whether they were pagan or Muslim. That this was a dangerous message is proven by how Malory used it to introduce a noxious message of religious warfare and hatred into an Arthurian tradition that had, up to that point, been comparatively free of it. This is important to keep in mind, especially given that Arthur in modern times has sometimes become the symbol of a more nativistic and inward-looking form of Britishness—it is this latter development that Once and Future is responding to when it casts him as a villain. The Arthur return myth, like that of the Last Emperor, is just as capable of expressing our worst impulses as it is of giving voice to our highest aspirations.

Like the Last Emperor narrative, the myth of Arthur’s return reveals both the best and the worst about us. By examining the two together, we can see that more clearly. At the same time, we can learn a lesson from them. There is nothing wrong with wanting a better world or hoping for it—indeed, that often seems to be the only thing that moves humanity forward. But we must hold to that hope without letting it become an excuse to exclude others from the society we want to someday see. Utopian visions of the future can only make the world worse if they become excuses for cruelty and hatred in the present day. Because the Last Emperor narrative and the Arthur return myth have the potential to remind us of this important fact, these medieval ideas still hold a great deal of relevance for modern times.


Works Cited

I have, again, for the ease of readability, rendered the archaic English of Malory and the Cock in the North prophecy in a more modern idiom. I have, however, been careful not to change the sense of the passages, and they can be found in their original forms in the works cited below. The translations from Latin texts, such as the Annales Cambriae and the Apocalypse of Methodius are, again, mine. The texts quoted above are:

Annales Cambriae: The C-Text. Ed. Henry W. Gough-Cooper. Welsh Chronicles Research Group, 2015.

Alliterative Morte Arthure. King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Kalamazoo, Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.

Apocalypse of Methodius (Pseudo-Methodius). Apocalypse Pseudo-Methodius | An Alexandrian World Chronicle. Ed. Benjamin Garstad. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Cypriano, John, and Tarquatus Vandermers (Attr.). A Most Strange and Wonderfull Prophesie Upon This Troublesome World. London: A. Jeffes, 1595.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Previté-Orton, C. W. “An Elizabethan Prophecy.” History, New Series 2, no. 8 (January 1918), 207-218.

The Cock in the North. Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Ed. Rossell Hope Robbins. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

In addition, Victoria Flood’s “Henry Tudor and Lancastrian Prophecy in Wales” (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium vol. 34, 2014, pp. 67-86) is an excellent resource on the Cock in the North Prophecy, its origins, and its political impact. It can be found here: Jennifer Forster’s “Anticipating the Apocalypse: An Elizabethan Prophecy” (The Historian vol. 63, no. 3, 2001, pp. 600-617) is a much more expansive examination of A Most Strange and Wonderfull Prophesie that what was possible in the brief mention above. It can be found here:

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