July 13, 2020

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Celtic Legacy, Arthurian Legend, and Their Modern Implications in Once and Future

For the better part of the decade, Kieron Gillen has been one of my favorite writers. He builds unique worlds and spreads himself across genres with an ease that most writers cannot achieve. I’ve always found Gillen to be a very literary kind of writer. I have some trouble explaining exactly what I mean by “literary,” but if pressed, I would start by highlighting that I think Gillen brings a different set of sensibilities to crafting his texts; his approach feels more like that of a novelist. Gillen isn’t unique is this regard, but I would say I think he is exceptionally adept at bringing a novelistic feel to his scripts. And, to be fair, I don’t necessarily think that such an approach makes Gillen’s books inherently better, that it’s some sort of on-face qualification for superior comics. There are exceptional comics writers whose styles differ greatly from a novelist, and there are also writers who try such a method without as much success. What I believe elevates Gillen’s work, though, is that he is exceptionally well suited to his approach.
That entire first paragraph is essentially me trying to say that I think Gillen often writes comics for English majors . . .

What Gillen brings to a book like Once and Future is the time-honored tradition of being able to use history and literature to comment on modern occurrences while still working as an on-face fantasy comic narrative.


The Once and Future art team is equally superb. Both line artist Dan Mora and color artist Tamra Bonvillain show a different depth than some of their previous work for this book. Mora’s work often looks different from book to book – his Klaus work differs from his extensive cover offerings that in turn vary from his work on The Terrifics that also shows different techniques than his Buffy pages. But in Once and Future, he brings a line depth and shading techniques that extend on what he provided on Buffy and that matches Gillen’s dark tone with a grim ambience. And Bonvillain heightens that tone with coloring that highlights Mora’s use of shade. For a book that is set mostly at night in dark, cavernous locations, there is always ample contrast that allows the action to pop. For such a dark book, there is a beautiful sheen to it, almost a glossiness of contrast for a book that feels very textured. Bonvillain, like her art partner Mora, is also a bit of a chameleon. She provided thick, syrupy colors over top of Nick Derrington’s Doom Patrol pencils and brought a much brighter color set for Johnnie Christmas and Angel Catbird.  But for Once and Future, the coloring is even more deliberately muted, allowing Mora’s line art to shine while complementing the overall dark and stormy aesthetic. The team’s choice of such an aesthetic is deliberate, as Gillen crafts a narrative that draws upon myth, history, and politics to comment on modern Britain.

Not Your Father's Arthur. Far more, um external (?) organs.

Once and Future is fundamentally an update of the Arthurian legend for the modern audience. Every five to ten years, some new Arthurian media emerges. Some are classic interpretations, others and modern updates, and most are some combination thereof. Consequently, there are more interpretations of Arthur than can be named, but these interpretations tend to fall into one of two specific categories: those that fundamentally recall and those that purposefully extend. Once and Future falls into the latter category, and Gillen uses the Arthurian myth as an overlay for a satiric commentary.

Arthur - Legend, History, and Literature

To understand the context of Arthur in Once and Future, it’s necessary to provide at least a brief analysis of the alleged historical Arthur. When I use the word “historical” or even “history” in this context, I actually mean the assumed history, the history of the world that birthed Arthur, or even the history of the combined figures who may have gradually become codified into what we know of as Arthur. 

Most scholars agree that an actual “Arthur” never existed, however there are strong arguments that Arthur is some sort of hybrid of multiple legends or the legends of actual historical leaders. While we can’t open a comic to read Arthur’s canonical origin story, it is generally agreed that Arthur originates some time around the fifth or sixth century, between the end of Roman Britain and the full scale arrival of Germanic (Angle, Saxon, Jute) invaders that led to the eventual Germanic conquering of what is now modern day England. The historical Arthur, or the root of the historical Arthur, was likely a British or Romano-British leader, general, or governor. 

Arthur and Celtic Britain - England Before the English

At the heart of Gillen’s story is the dueling conception of British. British, in the context of Arthur, connects with the original ethnic term, Briton, a word sometimes synonymous with inhabitants of Great Britain, but, for our discussion, aligns specifically with the term Celtic Briton or Ancient Briton. The Britons were one of three Celtic groups who inhabited what we now call Britain and who were mostly confined to what we call England and Wales today. The other two Celtic groups on the island were the Gaels, whose stronghold was Ireland, and who would eventually align with the original Celtic inhabitants of what is now Scotland, and the Picts, whose eventual alliance with the Gaels would see their culture subsumed by the early middle ages at the latest.  

(It’s worth noting that, while not nearly a consensus, there is a strong argument that what we call the Celts is really a conflation, and that the peoples we call Celts who came to inhabit Britain and Ireland were not necessarily ethnically connected to neither one another nor the continental Celts, but were merely speakers of similar languages they had inherited over time. I’m not entirely certain about this theory, but it is also somewhat anthropologically relative in that the culture that did emerge in modern day England was assuredly distinct from that of the Anglo Saxons. In other words, the Celtic Britons weren’t Germans. We think.) 

The Celtic world and associated culture is far different than even early modern English culture, which itself was an amalgamation of various German tribal cultures, namely Angles, Saxons, and Jutes with some possible Geatish influence from Scandanavia. It sometimes goes unnoticed, though, because most of our modern references to Celtic culture are confined to Ireland and Scotland (no doubt aided by the Irish-themed, shamrock-laden Boston Celtics or the Scottish football powerhouse, Celtic F.C.), and ancient or historical references often connect to the former Roman territory of Gaul and Julius Caesar’s famous battle guide/propaganda, The Gallic Wars.  

Celtic British culture began to vanish from modern day England after the final Roman withdrawal as Germanic tribes – Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – pressed further and further West. Eventually the Gaels would ally with and culturally subsume the Picts, codifying who would become the Scots, and the proto-English would push the Britons into modern day Wales, which continued to remain sovereign until the 11th century, and Cornwall, which was at one point still bordered Wales, but was eventually cut off and became confined along the south westernmost corner of modern day England before being fully integrated into the eventual English state. 

Celtic culture on the continent, namely Gallo-Roman culture, died out by the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the ascendancy of the Franks as Gaul became Francia. It’s notable that England is one of the only area Gemanic tribes were able to totally dominate linguistically and culturally. In most of their other settlements outside of what we consider to the German world, they mostly assimilated linguistically. The dominance of Vulgar and Church Latin is likely the cause. Even the Vikings and Normans who raided and settled in Ireland assimilated and merged cultures. 

It is from this world that Arthur is born. You can spend hours online sifting through various webpages trying to discern an Arthurian identity. You can speculate about the various historical influences or conflations. But, what matters is whatever Arthur became is a product of late Celtic Briton folklore, born of a world of war with foreign conquerors kept alive in the Celtic strongholds of what is now modern-day Wales and Brittany. Arthurian legends did not seem to be pan-Celtic in that they didn’t co-occur in Scotland or Ireland. Rather, they were a byproduct of a culture on the brink. This notion should be important for a reading of Once and Future.
Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII

Anglo-Flemish School, Arthur, Prince of Wales (Granard portrait) -004.jpg
But as things go, cultures get assimilated and co-opted, and by the early middle ages, Arthur had started to morph into an "English" hero before truly being brought into the fray by Henry VII and the Tudors. Irony notwithstanding, the English Arthur is much more in line with our conception of him and less of a rebel Celtic hero. By the time Geoffrey of Monmouth got a hold of him, the traditional Arthurian accoutrements of Merlin, Guinevere, and Excalibur had arrived. Arthur’s legend entered the realm of proto-fan fiction as Arthurian literature crossed the channel and became incredibly popular in France. French poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote popular Arthurian Romances that tended to relegate Arthur to a supporting role while focusing on the Knights of the Round Table. These French Romances gave us Lancelot, the Grail, Arthur as a cuckold, Gawain, Galahad, and Tristan & Isolde.  

So, yes, Arthurian Legend was the first extended universe.  

Interest in Arthur would wane by the end of the middle ages before a revival in England as part of the 19th century Romantic movement that seized on Arthur’s legend and complexities. Arthur’s status as a triumphant if flawed proto-modern hero and his early mythic origins have made he and his world a continually popular. Every few years, Arthurian adaptations, satires, and allegories emerge that draw on various parts of the legend and extend the story into the future.

Bringing Arthur to Modern Times in Once and Future

Thus the world Gillen and Mora create in Once and Future is one steeped in meta-fiction and meta-history. It's title is of course a reference to T.H. White's The Once and Future King, itself titled in reference to Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. But the original Arthur, whomever he was, emerged before history and literature fully divided, and the notion of metaphor permeated historical accounts. The world we open to in the first issue of the series is seemingly our world, a world in which we have some assumed familiarity with Arthur, but one where we’ve all agreed that it is all myth and legend. That is the world we have to assume for the conceit of the story to work. We have to assume Arthur can’t be real.
Gillen plays with the idea that Arthur is continually re-created and re-imagined, hinting that there are multiple Arthurs. Here, Gillen does not necessarily comment on the historical Arthur, but rather on the power of legend. In Gillen’s world, Arthur exists as a product of the stories. The legend makes the man, not vice versa. The idea of legend and history co-existing, an idea of metaphorical truth is summed up as Duncan, Grandma, and Rose are early on their quest. Struck by the sudden realization of the legends, Rose blurts, “Oh hell, it’s all real,” to which Grandma replies, “It’s not real. It’s just true.” 

Gillen extends this commentary and continues to explain the malleable nature of legends. Sometimes Excalibur is the Sword in the Stone. Sometimes, it’s a gift from the Lady of the Lake. He also hints that there may be more than one Arthur, referring to the one recently revived as “mainly Welsh,” commenting on the way the legend grew and transformed over centuries.  

All of this mythmaking leads into how Once and Future functions as a Brexit critique. Gillen chooses his cast well. Protagionist Duncan McGuire radiates Celtic identify from his name, to his red hair (yes, yes, that is actually a Norse trait, but still), to his Rugby-playing background. And Rose, his newfound partner, Rose, a well-verse English history professor whose ethnic origins stem from English imperialism in India. (I could be mistaken, but I don’t know if Rose’s ethnicity is ever formally clarified, and I don’t want to simply presume her background to be Indian because she is as a brown skinned lady in England, but I think Gillen’s point about immigration and imperialism is rather obvious and pointed). 

What does Britain for the British mean? For this King Arthur, it would mean a Celtic Britian. For the anti-immigration wing of the Brexiteers, it seems to be some vaguely defined concept of British, some amalgamation of a version of whiteness and linguistic connectivity. Who gets to define themselves as British, as English? Great Britain doesn’t have an indigenous people. There aren’t great records of whomever inhabited Britain or Ireland before the arrival of the Celts (if we accept that it was in fact the Celts themselves who arrived, and not merely an importation of culture and language). Regardless of this debate, which is fairly recent in the world of Celtology, whatever emerged in Britain and Ireland was what we consider to be the insular Celtic culture and language, and it was by all means distinct from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon culture it came into contact with.  

Across the world, though, the history of the British Empire, and European colonists as a whole, is one of conquest and subjugation of indigenous peoples. And, not excusing any colonialism, the history of Europe itself is one of conquest and subjugation, though usually not as brutal as what was reserved for Indigenous Peoples. Geographic constrictions on inhabitable and farmable Europe necessitated this nomadic-cum-conqueror culture, and certainly tribal warfare, conquest, empire, and monarchy were by no means unique to Europeans.  

Consequently, there is a fair debate about what role Celtic culture may have played in any of the colonization efforts. It’s kind of messy. England kicked off their colonials in the New World roughly 100 years before the Act of Union made Scotland and England one kingdom. Wales existed within the English realm and would not achieve a degree of sovereignty until 1998. Thus, it’s hard to refer to any concept of Celtic colonization in the Age of Imperialism. There were certain Scottish settlements in the Americas, and Welsh and Irish certainly emigrated as a result of English and British imperialism, often as indentured servants (along with a good number of Scots as well). In Ireland at least, this relative lack of any colonial past, along with a near millennium's subjugation to the will of the English, the near forced extinction of the Irish language, religious intolerance, and genocidal implications of the Great Famine has caused a newfound solidarity (particularly with Irish-speaking people) with or as indigenous people. There is also a custom in Ireland for Irish speakers to say “I have Irish” instead of “I speak Irish.” 

But the Celtic identity in England proper is nowhere near as strong as it in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland, or even compared to the Celtic presence in Cornwall or across the channel in Brittany. In Once and Future, we're presented with an updated version of the Messianic Arthur, a relatively recent introduction into Arthurian canon. The notion as explained in Once and Future is that King Arthur is destined to return in England's "darkest hour." The debate, though, is just how his return will coincide with said darkest hour. Does it precipitate it, and thus is Arthur a harbinger of doom. Or, does it square with the messiah angle, allowing Arthur to save the Britons if only from themselves.

Blood (and Soil) 

Here Gillen codifies the elements of neo-Fascist motivation for Missy and her Arthur revivalists, thereby skewering the notions of ethnocentric traditionalism clung to by the Far Right. Underpinning Fascist and Nativist Populist rhetoric is a an association between a people and the land they inhabit (or deserve to inhabit). The Nazi concept, "blood and soil," has become a rallying cry for white nationalists. Occasionally, there are divine connections, as if God had willed the land to a particular people. Uniting Arthur, himself some godly presence, with the land clearly identifies such an objective.

Every iteration of Fascism attempts to elevate the traditional as a call to the "good old days" of past glories. It's inherently monarchic, even if it doesn't present itself that way, because it draws upon the same ideas used to legitimize a monarch - the control of land as the determinant factor for power and leadership, a sense of prescribed duty to said land or nation and the leader by default. Consequently, it's incredibly easy to merge legends into Fascist canon. That Gillen himself asserts the bond negates the entire concept, almost lampooning the connection by casting the noble King Arthur not as a divine savior, but as a tyrannical, ultra-violent, undead grotesque.

Further Reading
Most of my knowledge of Arthur and Celtic legend comes from an affinity for the Knights of the Round Table in my youth and some of my college English classes, especially Dr. Wright's Arthurian Literature (a class I regrettably did not put maximum effort into, as was my nature in college).

But I did read some Arthurian lit as a kid (thanks to Disney's The Sword and the Stone), and I eventually made my way through a good amount of the reading I didn't do for Dr. Wright in the first place.

If you're interested in more Arthur, the must reads are probably:
Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory
Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes (Particularly "Yvain, the Knight of the Lion)
The Once and Future King by T.H. White

If you're curious about other updates or modern Arthurian interpretations and usages:
Small World by David Lodge
The Mage Trilogy by Matt Wagner

And if this glorified term paper wasn't enough for you, and you want to analyze Arthur some more, I came across a wonderful column called Arthurian Annotations by Oliver MacNamee while I was fact checking a reference.


Once and Future Volume 1: The King is Undead
Writer - Kieron Gillen
Line Artist - Dan Mora
Color Artist - Tamra Bonvillain
Letterer - Ed Dukeshire