Romancing  The Stone
'King Arthur' by Charles Ernest Butler, Art Renewal Center

Romancing The Stone

This October, Mark Scarbrough, author of "Bookmarked: How The Great Works of Literature F*cked Up My Life," is leading a weekly workshop on Arthurian romances at The Cornwall Library in Cornwall, Conn. We spoke ahead of his first lecture.

Alexander Wilburn: This is the latest in a series of literary seminars you've led. In George Eliot's "Middlemarch" we're talking about social reform and civic duty; when we go to Woolf's "Lighthouse" we talk about women's rights and mental health. Why take us to Camelot?

Mark Scarbrough: I do this incredibly deep-dive podcast "Walking with Dante" and it has developed an international following. So part of it comes from my obsession with the Middle Ages. But Chrétien de Troyes's works are not the high Middle Ages, we're talking about the middle Middle Ages. He's alive right when Henry II has Becket killed. I think my interest in all of this is the giant social upheaval that Europe is going through, entering France with Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose daughter through the King of France is one of Chrétien de Troyes's patrons — so it's all very connected to the growing Holy Roman Empire, the waning Eastern European Empire, or as we say, Byzantium. I think this is an incredible period of social shift. Something like "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight" is so removed from us that it's hard to catch the tonality of it. So we're left with a fog of interpretation. It's very hard to look at something that's almost 900 years old and figure out what the author's stance is. These are works where people had no notion of time as we know it now. It's the cusp of our world but it's still not yet our world.

AW: Where is T.H. White in all of this?

MS: The great populizer. To me, the story of the Arthurian legends is the story of straightening them out. Chrétien de Troyes was the author of the first five romances, and they were very confusing and contradictory. When you get up to Tennyson with "Idylls of the King" and White it becomes much more linear. It's a move from disorder to order, and they're ironing out the contractions. 

AW: I'm going throw out some adaptations, and you give me your first thought. "Camelot" the musical.

MS: My first impression is to laugh. Midcentury gender war.

AW: "The Mists of Avalon."

MS: Oh god… steps over the boundary — transgressive. Such a feminist look at the Arthurian legend.

AW: "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."

MS: First thing that comes to mind is "audacious." It's using Arthur to make this really hyper-strident criticism of American capitalism.

AW: King Arthur flour.

MS: The best.

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