I have been obsessed with the legends of Merlin and Arthur since I was in primary school. My copy of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s trilogy has had it’s spine broken time and time again till it’s more white than purple. I can name at least 10 knight of the Round Table without including King Arthur. But I’ve always been told that serious academics/historians don’t look at myths and legends. They concentrate on facts and what is provable (clearly those people don’t fully understand the nature of Early Medieval historians like Gildas). So my desire to have a reason to dig into my obsession has alluded me until now.
That’s the wonderful nature of the Public Humanities MA here at Sheffield. When it comes to our dissertation, anything goes so long as it can engage the public and relates back to the Humanities. So I’ve chosen to explore Arthurian legend.
Originally I was all set to look at a single character: Sir Gawain. He’s Arthur’s nephew, the oldest son of Lot of Orkney, and one of the chief knights of the Round Table yet he is slowly disappearing or being divorced from his original character in many contemporary reinterpretations. My plan had been to look at how the character changed and the reasons behind this, e.g. what influence did trends in society have on how Arthurian characters are presented.
That has now changed. It’s amazing what a little research can do. Instead of focusing on how characters can change, I’m looking at exploring themes within Arthurian legend. Or, to be more specific, the theme of family. Not many people realise that Arthur was fostered throughout his childhood (someone had to raise him if Merlin took him from his parents) or that Mordred (the son who killed him) didn’t meet his father until at least an older teenager. In a society where more and more children are cared for by the state, in single-parent families or blended families, this theme is one that still has relevance today.
It is themes such as this that has encouraged me to focus my dissertation around a legend that many people don’t know the whole story of. I’m hoping that by engaging people with lived experiences that chime with the themes, I will be able to place Arthurian legend back in a relevant light, beyond that of a good fantasy story.