The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 45-63
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Faulkner's "Fabulous Immeasurable Camelots":
Absalom, Absalom! and Le Morte Darthur
As the recent volume King Arthur in America by Alan and Barbara Tepa Lupack attests, William Faulkner used the Arthurian legend to articulate many of the major themes and motifs in his works. The Lupacks draw on previous scholarly material while adding their own excellent insights, arguing that Faulkner's Arthurianism, like Joyce and Eliot's, negotiates the pathos of nostalgia for a lost past and provides another branch of mythology to inform a modernist interpretation of twentieth-century life. While immensely illuminating, the Lupacks' work does not, however, purport to be the in-depth analysis that this largely overlooked aspect of Faulkner's writing deserves. 1
Absalom, Absalom! exemplifies Faulkner's multifarious and intricate use of the Arthurian legend and so offers a point of reference for the rest of his oeuvre. In creating an Old South myth of "rise and fall" embodied in the Arthur-like Thomas Sutpen's rise to and loss of power, Absalom, Absalom! represents a retelling of the Arthurian legend, especially as presented by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte Darthur. Though Faulkner's retelling borrows from many Arthurian works, its style, plot, and presentation, balanced between flowery romanticism and earthy realism, establish a direct link to Malory's work. Specifically, Faulkner uses Malory's mythic Camelot to inform his own story of a mythic Old South that collapses [End Page 45] from corruption hidden behind and undermining its gallant and beautiful façade.
Faulkner's attraction to the Arthurian legend developed from his perceiving that its core principles and themes parallel those in his southern context. Two themes peculiar to the Arthurian legend particularly fueled Yoknapatawpha. The first is that of myth development: the legend offers a model of a myth originating in obscure sources that grows into a full-blown narrative almost completely unrelated to those sources. The second is the theme of loss—particularly loss resulting from forces within a nation, family, or individual. And such loss in itself preserves an otherwise nonexistent or fleeting civilization: Camelot's demise, like that of the Old South, immortalized it.
King Arthur's historical moment is the late 400s and early 500s when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded his home island, Britain. Arthur was said to have led forces against the invaders, an irony in light of the fact that many people who would later glorify him were of Saxon stock. Arthur and his followers managed to delay the invasion at times, most notably at Mount Badon, but the Saxons eventually gained control, making the story one of inevitable loss so that any stories concerning it were and are always told in the context of Britain's fall.
The legend of King Arthur originated in historical and pseudo- historical documents of the early Middle Ages. 2 The first mention of the figure later to be identified as Arthur appears in 540 when the monk Gildas, in De exidio et conquestu britanniae, discusses an Ambrosius Aurelianus who defeated the Saxons in an unnamed battle. In 731 Bede repeated Gildas's account in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum. The name Arthur first appeared around 800, in Nennius's Historia brittonum: apparently, Nennius changed "Ambrosius" to "Arthur." Nennius also recorded the much developed and altered myths of Arthur's death and burial. The "Annales Cambriae" list introduces the name, Medraut, anticipating the infamous Mordred. And, in his Gesta regum anglorum (1125), William of Malmesbury further develops the growing myth of Arthur's burial as does Giraldus Cambrensis in his 1195 De principis instruction. 3
From these pseudo-historical accounts and verbal legends, Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1130 composed a narrative of Arthur's entire life and death in The History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey positioned Arthur as the last and greatest of Britain's kings, whose defeat by his nephew, Mordred, marks the end of that civilization. It is in Geoffrey's account that the wizard Merlin first...