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  • Ideology and Racial Myth in Purcell’s King Arthur and Arne’s Alfred
  • Ken McLeod

Myths enable people to locate themselves in time and space and form the basis for ideologies which, providing a moral validation for attitudes and activities, bind a society together. In Bronislaw Malinowski’s terms, myth “supplies a retrospective pattern of moral values, sociological order, and magical belief, the function of which is to strengthen tradition and endow it with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, better, more supernatural reality of initial events” (122). In short, myths provide images of societal and political order and narratives of national identity, which have been used by governments to sanction power and influence public opinion. In the project of developing a coherent national identity during the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the English stage witnessed a proliferation of musical dramas based on classical myths, which attempted to instill a sense of a harmonious state and united national image. Crucial to this project was the visible establishment of a domestic ideology of English identity and superiority. Consequently many musico-theatrical works from this period laid a critical foundation for the national concept of England itself and the place of self and ‘other’ within its emergent imagined community.

The political and social upheavals which followed in the wake of the Civil War and Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 heightened the need to ground English racial identity. Accordingly, two competing myths of the origin of English people emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Each was a vehicle to promote racial identity but also simultaneously served to validate contrasting political agendas. The first myth, which had been dominant since the twelfth century, centered on the somewhat fantastical legend of King Arthur and located the origins of the early inhabitants of Britain in the [End Page 83] city of Troy. In its use of the heroic, larger than life figure of Arthur, this myth supported a political allegory aimed at reinforcing the power and divine rights of the monarchy. The second myth of origin, centered on King Alfred, claimed a greater historical grounding and asserted a Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon origin of Englishmen. This myth more actively promoted a notion of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority and grounded an increasingly widespread desire for a limited monarchy. The transition to the Teutonic myth began in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in response to a variety of political developments including partisan parliamentary politics, the Hanoverian succession, and England’s general rise in imperial status. Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) and Thomas Arne’s Alfred (1740) represent the most successful musical manifestations of this transition in political and racial thinking. The political allegories of these works have been considered at length elsewhere; however, the racial implications of the respective stories and the relationship of racial mythology to these allegories have not received serious consideration.1

The Trojan myth of national origin was chiefly propagated by a Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). The History begins with a biography of Brutus, grandson of Venus’s son, Aeneas of Troy.2 Held responsible for his father’s death in a hunting accident, Brutus was banished from his Italian homeland. After a lengthy journey and many courageous deeds, Brutus, and a faithful band of followers, finally arrived in a land known as Albion. The region, which purportedly contained only a few giants, was subsequently renamed Britain, the inhabitants Britons, and their language British, in honor of their leader, Brutus (MacDougall 8).

After recounting the deeds and the succession of British kings over several hundred years, the climax of Geoffrey’s History is achieved with the ascendancy of King Arthur. Allegedly crowned king at age fifteen, Arthur was a ruler of unparalleled heroism. He was supposedly responsible for the unification of Britain by subduing the Saxons—single handedly killing 470 in one battle alone. He also was acclaimed as an unabashed seeker of empire—the conqueror of Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Aquitaine, and Normandy (Curley 10).

In spite of some criticism over its lack of historical grounding, Geoffrey’s History...


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