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Arthur Pendragon, Eco-Warrior

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 5-19 | 10.1353/art.2013.0010

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This essay explores the environmental agendas and ambitions that motivate John Timothy Rothwell, ‘a mad biker chieftain wielding an axe,’ who, claiming to be a ‘post-Thatcher’ King Arthur, changes his name and links his political struggles against the state to myths that mourn the lost original purity of ancient Britain. This article looks backward to authoritarian values his ecocriticism should interrogate.

(LAF and MBS)

What ‘patient labor of mourning’ divides English Heritage’s fantasy of Britain’s medieval origins from the acts of political legitimation of one Arthur Uther Pendragon (born John Timothy Rothwell), a ‘British soldier, the son of a soldier, brought up in army camps and council estates, a truant, a persistent offender, a jack-of-all-trades, a traveler, a mad biker chieftain wielding an axe, who, in a moment of revelation, in a twentieth-century squat,’ claims to be a ‘post-Thatcher’ King Arthur, who changes his name to reflect (create) that reality, and who links his political struggles against the state to myths that mourn the always already lost original purity of ancient Britain, invoking ‘a time, long before history, when the people knew their place in the Universe, not as the centre, but as parts of a greater whole’?1 This is the characterization of Arthur Pendragon offered up in The Trials of Arthur: The Life and Times of a Modern-Day King, the (auto)biography written by Pendragon and Christopher J. Stone. King Arthur (and when we refer to King Arthur in this essay, we are referring to this late twentieth-century return), wearing Druid robes, a crown, and wielding Excalibur, has since the late 1990s been involved in ecological conflicts with such keepers and maintainers of the mythologies of the British past—and British monuments—as English Heritage, Parliament, and even the Monarchy, in his desire to reclaim the sacrality of the land. Ronald Hutton, the University of Bristol historian of neo-paganism, describes Arthur Pendragon as ‘a major figure in modern Druidry’ and deserving of ‘an equally important place in the history of groups concerned with environmental issues and civil rights.’2 Taking as his battle cry John Boorman’s mantra—through Jessie Weston—that ‘the king and the land are one,’3 Arthur Pendragon has set out to reclaim sites like Stonehenge, providing a contesting myth of origin to that supplied by the current trustees, who have fenced off the stones, making what ‘the king’ claims was a place of worship, where men and women communed with the earth, into little more than a museum space catering to the ‘tourist gaze.’4

This essay explores the environmental agendas and ambitions that motivate Pendragon’s engagement with both the Arthurian past and the environment, exploring the imbrications of ecology and cultural heritage, nature and the antique past, in forms of nostalgia that become a means to forge political communities of all kinds, but most particularly, the community of the nation. While we do not claim to be experts on ecocriticism or green cultural studies, we hope to bring our expertise in medievalism to bear on the trope Timothy Morton has called ecomimesis—the techniques through which nature writers speak for and represent nature—to investigate its investments in nostalgia as an expression of ecological nationalism.5 Ecomimesis is an authenticating device, but it is also ‘a pressure point, crystallizing a vast and complex ideological network of beliefs, practices, and processes in and around the idea of the natural world.’6

The ‘patient labor of mourning’ with which we opened is the phrase Bernard Cerquiglini uses to describe the nostalgia of the medieval philologist’s ‘quest for an anterior perfection that is always bygone.’7 This desire for the ‘authentic, first, and original version’ also describes the passion that fuels King Arthur’s self-described ‘mad fantasy.’8 In both his protests and his memoir, King Arthur conjures up an ecomimesis that knits together nature, medievalism, romance, and nostalgia for a lost organic society. It is too easy, however, simply to dismiss King Arthur’s performance as so much nostalgic kitsch. In a 2011 review in postmedieval, Carolyn Dinshaw observes that, by dismissing nostalgia, by failing to theorize it in discussions...

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