Life Lessons from King Arthur’s Court

I said a few weeks ago that I was in Arthurian Overload. I don’t want anyone to think that it hasn’t been a valuable time roaming through Logres. Indeed, I have learned a lot about life from the chivalrous knights of the Round Table and their various cohorts. Here are some life lessons—mostly drawn from the stupidest things Arthur’s knights ever did.

  1. Check first before you slay someone. It’s just a suggestion, but I can’t remember how many times it “sore repenteth” one knight or another that he slew the knight he most loved in the world. Seriously, check for ID before you cut off someone’s head.
  2. Be careful using other people’s armour. First, it might be enchanted, meaning you might be led into deeds shameful. Second, if someone is trying to kill you for a reason you can’t understand, doubling his strokes when you were just trying to get a deal on pyjama bottoms at the market, it might be because you are wearing some idiot’s shield. So, before you are hewn to pieces, just check to make sure they are really angry at you (or see rule #1, or stop wearing a shield to the market).
  3. Don’t sleep with your siblings. I know. Sounds like pretty basic advice. But in the Arthurian world, people had to be reminded of this from time to time. They could use some time learning the advice of #1: check for ID first. As it turns out, King Arthur’s affair with his sister, the evil faerie Queen Morgana Le Fay, produced Sir Mordred, who commits treachery that leads to Arthur’s downfall. If you didn’t need a reason to avoid incest, that’s a good one.
  4. Don’t sleep with evil faerie queens. See above.
  5. Don’t sleep with your best friend’s wife. When it comes down to it, the collapse of the Round Table stems from the Arthur-Guenivere-Launcelot love triangle. She may well be “the greatest lady of the land,” but don’t do it. It will go bad.
  6. If you sleep with your best friend’s wife, become a better liar. In the end, Launcelot and Guenivere weren’t good at covering their tracks. Result? Inter-continental warfare.
  7. Actually, come to think of it, stop sleeping around. I mean, seriously. These folks are all calling upon “the grace of Jesu” to help them commit murder or orchestrate treason or seduce this lady or that. If you want the grace of Jesu, trying following the path of Jesu. What would Jesu do? He wouldn’t go postal if someone called him a knave.
  8. Give it a day or two. Before you sacrifice your whole life to love, I mean. Left and right people are confessing love to people they just met—or even to men or ladies whose reputations have intrigued them. Give it a few days and see if you really feel the same. To quote a great wise man, “Slow down, Crazy. Slow down.”
  9. If you are forced to marry someone you don’t love, pretend you are going shopping. Men always fall for this. It’s what happened when Guenevere’s step-son/step-nephew (see #3) seized Arthur’s throne and claimed his step-mother/step-aunt as his wife to be. It also helps if you can hire an army, place stores in a tower, and wait out the siege.
  10. Gawain was a jerk. Not always. He did many deeds of fame. But if you want a definition for “churlish,” it is this: mostly pretty awesome when you need someone with courage, but will become insanely vengeful and kill a bunch of people at really awkward times. Sorry fans, I think Gawain was a jerk.
  11. Count to ten before you kill someone. So much knightly blood was spilt while prepubescent blood was boiling. Take a breath, go through a yoga routine, and then decide if it really is a matter to the uttermost.
  12. Just ‘cause someone called you a chicken, doesn’t mean you have to fight with them. Following #11, this little lesson would have prevented many dolorous strokes in the Arthuriad. You can also learn this lesson from watching Back to the Future II.
  13. Eat a balanced breakfast. There is a lot of swooning. Especially in the last few chapters. It might be for sorrow, but it might be an imbalanced nutritional routine. Five to ten vegetable and fruit servings a day will balance blood sugars, build heart health, and increase vitality.
  14. Be careful about women named Isolde. They tend to be very beautiful (as you can tell by the name), and you might get confused and marry the wrong one.
  15. Don’t be born a women in the middle ages. This one is self-explanatory. But do consider being a woman playing a middle ages woman. That can be pretty cool.
  16. It might just be a snake. I don’t want to give away a particularly important part of the Arthurian legend, but it involves an adder, a venomous snake. One appears in a field of battle when the soldiers are really keyed up. A frightened knight draws his sword and beheads the snake, thus signalling the start of a battle that results in 100,000 dead knights. Everyone needs to relax. It might just be a snake.
  17. Watch out for snakes in mystical tales. They tend to play a pretty key role. You may have heard of a few: Adam and Eve, St. Paul, Beowulf, Eustace Scrubbs, Harry Potter… if you see a gorgon or talking serpent or flying dragon or ill-timed python, it’s time to realize you are in one of those kinds of stories. Or, if not, see #16.
  18. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. I agree. King Arthur turns out to be a great conqueror and a terrible king. There must have been some administrative geek or HR guru that could have done the real ruling while Arthur took care of PR. He was great at PR.
  19. Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Actually, I got that from The Princess Bride. But it’s very good advice.
  20. Try forgiveness. It’s true, most of our interpersonal battles will never make it to the level of continental war, as it did in the spite between Gawain and Launcelot. But a little forgiveness can go a long way.
  21. Great tragic tales still end with a smile. You’ll have to read þe olde booke to find that one out!

King Arthur old

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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33 Responses to Life Lessons from King Arthur’s Court

  1. iambicadmonit says:

    I wish I had written this. May I reblog it?

    Under the Mercy, Sørina Higgins http://www.TheOddestInkling.mymiddleearth.com

    >

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  2. jubilare says:

    These were really fun, but I think the last part of 15 and all of 18 were my favorites. 😀

    I love Gawain, but not because I don’t consider him a jerk. He’s just very interesting.

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    • Thanks! Gawain is interesting. I have to read the Gawain & the Green Knight in a good translation. I’ve not read Tolkien’s.

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      • jubilare says:

        It’s a fun story. 🙂

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      • The Gawain of Gawain and the Green Knight is OK, just a little juvenile around Berkilac’s wife. The Gawain of Mallory is a bit of a cad here and there, though for some reason he gets blessed at the bitter end of it all by all the ladies he supposedly did well by (must have been a small group), but the Gawain who ended up with Dame Ragnell was a stand-up guy.

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        • jubilare says:

          I’m not an Arthurian scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so this may be a stupid question, but I wonder if Gawain isn’t a sort of “catch-all” character in the mythos.

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        • Azariah, that’s a great distinction! I look forward to discovering more Gawains.
          Jubilare, your question might be spot on, and has the instinct that there is more going on than at first meets the eye. I just don’t know yet what it is.

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  3. Pingback: Life Lessons from King Arthur’s Court: Reblogged from A Pilgrim in Narnia | The Oddest Inkling

  4. Your list was great and spot-on. I’m you had trouble narrowing it down to just these (I can already think of others, like “If you get injured en-route to a secret rendezvous, go back to bed” and “If you are married to the greatest lady of the land, be a good husband.” Maybe if Kind Arthur hadn’t valued the Knights above Guenivere, none of his downfall would have happened?). And I’m sure there are many more. Did you think of these primarily from Morte D’Arthur?

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  5. Sue Archer says:

    Too funny! This post is amazing, Brenton. And I agree – Arthur would do an excellent job in PR. 🙂

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  6. Amazing. I laughter out loud at number 14, and then it fell into and “Ooohhh…” for number 15. Too funny, all the way through!

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  7. L. Palmer says:

    Before I read the actual legends of King Arthur, I thought it was awesome and swept with romance and chivalry. After I read various versions – Once and Future King, Le Morte D’Arthur, and so on – I realized what a terrible ruler Arthur was, and how ridiculous his knights were. I don’t think it was Mordred’s fault the kingdom fell.

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    • What’s so funny is that C.S. Lewis remains enamoured by Arthur. He uses the myth of Arthur reborn in a time of need in That Hideous Strength.
      But Arthur seems to me a dork, at least in tradition.
      Have you read Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Fionavar Tapestry.” A really intriguing Arthur there.

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Some belated scattered responses.

    Number 7 – “stop sleeping around” – is very apt! Arthur’s incest was, in Malory, unknowing (and, there, with another sister, Morgause) – but could have been avoided by this simple advice. It made me think of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), too, where (spoiler alert!) a certain coupling happily turns out not to be incestuous – but could have been.

    The various treatments of Gawain made me think of some of Lewis’s remarks about the Grail in letters to Fr. Peter Milward, such as “How can an imagined object in one story ‘ be’ an imagined object in another story? ” (9 May 1956), and ” The Grail is in each romance just what that romance exhibits it to be” (26 Sept. 1960). This could be applied to characters as well, notably Gawain, but also Arthur, and so on. As they say on exam papers, ” Discuss”. (Fr. Peter, now 88, has an interesting autobiography online, though the type-face and background colour
    combination takes some getting around: it can be approached via his Wikipedia article.)

    In any case, Gawain and the Green Knight is well worth reading, and, at least in my experience, not impossible to get through in the original in a well-glossed edition (I enjoyed A.C. Cawley’s Everyman ed.).

    As to Arthur, I would recommend John Masefield’s various Arthurs for consideration – in his poetry, in his novel, Badon Parchments (1947), and putting in a very significant appearance in The Midnight Folk.

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    • I am reading Williams’ Arthuriad right now. Even with Lewis’ commentary in my other hand, I’m feeling a bit beat up! So the idea of Masefield’s Arthuriana causes me to twitch a bit. But I will get there!
      Have you read Simon Armitage’s translations into contemporary alliterative verse? I have only scanned, and will have to dig in. He is too focussed, perhaps, on the assonance sometimes, but it is very accessible. That’s his “Gawain and the Green Knight.” I have to find his “Death of King Arthur,” which is newer.
      I say that Gawain is a jerk, but it is really me just yelling at the page. The sheer stupidity of some of Malory’s best characters astounds me.
      I am trying to think about C.S. Lewis’ project of intertextuality more broadly, so it is interesting you mention the Millward letters. He seems very non-Platonic in those letters! I realize as Mythcon approaches and I am to say something about Lewis’ intertextuality, that it is becoming a bit more obscure to me rather than less. But when we read Lewis, we are operating under and assumption of what he is doing. “Oh yes, he did this with X”–X being any one of 300 authors, but particularly the Romantics, the Matter of Britain writer, the early SciFi folk, and the Inklings. I wonder what sort of madness made me think I could say anything!
      But those letters show Lewis’ continued interest in saying, “look at the text, not through the text.”

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        The Masefield’s are not urgent, and are all comparatively easy reading, and (in my experience) mostly variously fun or atmospheric, so not to worry.

        I have not tried the Armitage, though I did enjoy the television film (if not in all particulars) – it might be fun the range back and forth between text and Tolkien’s and Armitage’s translations…

        The Milward letters are enjoyable and fascinating (re)reading – the 22 September 1955 one seems a good example of your summary “look at the text,…”, and it struck me how he seems to have come, in a certain sense, to very much the same conclusion about Malory as Williams along a different path: “to me it means primarily neither the Grail story nor the Lancelot story but precisely the tension and interlocking between the two.”

        “The sheer stupidity of some of Malory’s best characters astounds me.” Yes, in various senses – how are we to read that, aright?

        Best wishes with the Mythcon!

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        • Thanks! And it could be the sheer stupidity of me as reader, perhaps, rather than Malory’s characters. But the knights in shining armour in Malory are less metallic than their fairy tale interpretations. I like that part.
          I hadn’t thought of reading Millward as its own collection. I’ve done that with some others (Penelope and Mary Neylan and Arthur Greeves). I might try that.

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