Once upon a time- that’s how fairytales begin. Or it might begin, in a kingdom far, far away. In days of old when knights were bold… but how old is old in a time when last season’s clothes are absurd antiques and doubts are cast not just on the courage of those bold knights but on everything else as well? The jury is out but the evidence is that they were anything but gentle, and the average modern football hooligan probably has more courtesy and honour. After all, even in today’s allegedly lawless times, it’s not considered honourable or even legal to strike the head from another man’s shoulders. There are some, I admit who practically beg for such treatment but I doubt politicians have ever been popular; the high king’s advisors have ever been known as lickspittles and toadies, and are so today whatever names they bear.
The age of chivalry was in fact a brutal one but pictures are painted and poems penned that portray it in the glowing pink light of artificial nostalgia. But that romantic world has grown brighter than the shadowy one that was real. We don’t want to know about the sweat and the dung, the short brutish nasty lives; we want mysterious ladies in gowns of floating silks. We want a hero whose armour shines and whose sword is never red with the blood of the innocent or of the incidental casualty. We want those rules that can never be kept, to have been kept: a code of impossible honour, a world of justices and joys. And we seek it not in our world now for we know deep down it can never be. So we seek it in the past: an ancient shining past where our dreams might once have been true. Atlantis and Camelot are both children of the same yearning dreams.
There is a Jewish proverb, better a live dog than a dead lion, and it sums up the kind of practicality we have deep down and yet are somehow ashamed of. Running from a defeat is never seen as sensible, practical or even right; we prefer death-or-glory stands to the canny retreat. In cinema, literature and in our view of history, our preference is always for the glorious defeat, the captain going down with the sinking ship, the king dying on a bloody battlefield surrounded by the slaughtered heaps of his faithful bodyguard. We don’t laud those who saw which way the wind was blowing and left before disaster struck; it’s not memorable, it’s not honourable and it certainly isn’t romantic! History and literature are littered with the bodies of lovers who said, “If I can’t have you, then I shall have nothing.” A myriad Miss Havishams wander the corridors of our consciousness, clad in wedding rags and one silk slipper like an elderly Cinderella who never got to go to the ball in the first place. We don’t applaud those who survived, moved on, thrived and found new love. The star-crossed lovers are not Darby and Joan, celebrating sixty years of happy marriage. No, they are the teenage Romeo and Juliet who died at their own hands rather than lose that one bright moment of perfection.
Let’s face it, when it isn’t us, we adore tragedy. I hesitate to say it but that’s why piles of flowers and teddies materialise at the site of an untimely death. That’s why Diana will always hold a place that Camilla never can. Live fast, die young- one way to achieve a kind of cheap immortality. Surviving, moving on, rebuilding simply don’t hold the same glamour. Rags to riches stories only really appeal because secretly we all hope for an equally meteoric fall back to rags. We say. “Oh how nice,” but I’m not sure how often we mean it. There’s almost always a secret shiver of spite and jealousy that quibbles, “Why them? Why not me? I’m as good as they are.” It feels better when we can say from a safe distance from a tragedy, “What a shame! Oh how sad!”
Arthur lies sleeping, our once-and-future king, but we should take great care we never wake him. There’s too much blood-and-guts reality in the true Arthur for us to stomach these days. We’ve grown beyond true monarchy. I’d rather we had our rough approximation of democracy than have the tyranny of the old kings back and tarnish and fray our romantic visions of the past.
But we need heroes- no I shall go further and say we are desperate for heroes. And so we try and create them out of what material we think best: film stars, models, TV celebrities, pop and rock stars, and God forgive us all, footballers. And they fail us and we vilify them for merely being ordinary fallible venial human beings. They disappoint us and yet we create more.
Are there any real heroes left? Any lantern-jawed Lancelots left to charm and enthral us, fallible enough to be likeable but heroic enough to still command our respect and even our love? There are worthy men and women, heroic ones even but they lack that certain something, that magic ingredient that makes them special like Arthur, Gawain, Percival and dear old Lancelot. So I shall have to create my own heroes, spinning them out of my own yearnings and dreams like gold from spun straw. Arthur can live again, a modern Arthur born of this our real world but with some of the glitter and glamour of the Round Table, and his knights and ladies can dance their graceful steps around him. We all need heroes, but these days I prefer to make my own. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a pattern. It isn’t like painting by numbers or knitting. It’s more like freestyle climbing- massive risk taking, surges of adrenaline that might rocket fuel an elephant and the sense when you’ve completed it that you have done something hardly anyone else can do. I admit that failure doesn’t result in a plummet to the death but emotionally it can feel a little like that. And at the end of that creation process, there stands blinking in the sunshine a shiny newborn hero, fresh for a new world but with ancient genes that stretch back into the oldest memory, the oldest stories. We’ve all changed since our first ancestors told tales round the fire at night-so why not the hero too? Because there is something eternal and unchanging about an archetype- the hero simply adapts and grows with the generations but remains in all essentials the dream we all dream: the Hero.