King Arthur In Music


It has been said time and time again that history has a way of repeating itself. This is no  different in the modern era, where a vast number of historical references can be made in many different forms. Whether it be an actual event, a small reference, comparing the contemporary world to that of older times, or even having it be a theme in some form of media, history is always around us. Music is a very important and meaningful way to get a message or a story out, especially since popular music today is so lyrical and story oriented.  In combination with that, the stories of King Arthur continuously make comebacks and can appear in seemingly random ways, just like Merlin does in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. What better way to send a message and tell a story about such an intricate legend than by putting it in music

There have been many Arthurian based musical works throughout the years, but it all started with what would be considered a masterpiece of the 1600s, a semi-opera by Harry Purcell. Though this was the first more significant Arthurian musical piece, there is not much about it because it was such a long time ago and was not considered as important as visual art was in that time period. Music did not become an important aspect in culture until the 1800s, where the focus in society switched from being primarily visual, such as paintings, tapestry, and sculptures , to being more aurally oriented. Once musical practices began growing at rapid paces, it is no surprise that the Arthurian tropes did as well. This can be traced to more recent times, where an entire musical was based off of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in 1991, which included such intricate effects, it was well beyond its time. An example of this is when the green knight’s head gets cut off by Gawain, just as the tale goes, it showed the decapitated figure still singing with his head on the ground (Barber). This is impressive in itself, as not many tales stay true to the original after they have been interpreted. The stories being narrated by these pieces were primarily emotion and love oriented, just as most of the stories regarding King Arthur are. That is also because love is one of the most universal feelings and can be understood no matter where you go, so the hope there was to spread the legends of King Arthur by making the stories relatable, just as what most musicians attempt to do. They try to tell their own stories, but relate to the audience as well so that they have a connection and are more likely to be heard.

Heather Dale does a wonderful job at making Arthurian tales come to life in the world of contemporary audiences. She is an artist that has a tendency to create entire albums based around medieval legends, including two King Arthur ones. In the liner notes of one of her these albums from 1999, The Trial of Lancelot, Dale places a letter briefly explaining the album and why she made it, with different summaries and excerpts of stories that coincide with her songs. In one of those introductory letters, Dale explains that the reason she chooses the stories, music, and lyrics she utilizes is because, “the emotions we all deal with at some point in our lives’ make the legends, not just the music, meaningful” (Howey). Just as was stated before, her songs take the Arthurian legends and interpret  them in such a way that it efficiently depicts the tales while still remaining relevant and allowing her audience to have a connection with it. This connection from the legend to the emotion to the audience will implant the Arthurian legacy she tries to convey into the minds of listeners.

While conveying these stories, Dale has a very intricate way of portraying each tale and character. She uses different instrumentation and vocal inflictions as well as emphasizing different words and phrases to portray each character and the situation they are in given the story of the song. Though her main use of instrumentation includes the classic electric guitar, drums, and piano, the primary focus is on the vocals.  These are typical loud, heavy rock instruments that a listener would expect to overpower the message and sound of the lyrics and voice, the instruments in her songs tend to compliment it as opposed to fighting it, thus creating an aural focal point on what she is saying. A wonderful example of this is in her portrayals of Morgan La Fay, more specifically, in the song “Prodigal Son”. In the lyrics that are supposed to be from Morgan’s point of view, there are multiple rhetorical questions which represent her sarcasm and sass, but in a way this is supposed to be used against the listener to actually make them feel sympathy for her (Howey). The lyrics go on to say “God, they raised you up like Jesus Christ and then they branded me the whore. They say when you get desperate, well you’d do anything for pride. And I’ve got your little secret dear, I’ve carried it inside.” This is Morgan talking about Arthur and how she gave birth to Mordred, their child together out of incest.  The music furthers this concept, as it is slower in tempo and quieter, even in the chorus.

This particular set of lyrics is very peculiar in that it does exactly what Dale had mentioned about making the legends meaningful. In the modem culture, it takes quite a lot for men to be shot down and given a bad reputation because they’re looked upon as the backbone of society. Meanwhile, women have a tendency to be oversexualized and automatically shamed for any sexual act, just like they are objects to be gawked at and not actual people. The men are considered to be heroes. In this instance, Morgan became labeled as the whore while King Arthur became one of the most renowned rulers and heroes of the world, when he was the one that got her pregnant. Even in works that date as far back as Malory, Morgan is made out to be the villain, especially when she teams up with her counterparts of Avalon in an attempt to win Lancelot over. Though the song is focused on an Arthurian tale, modem day women can relate to it just as much, if not more due to this consistent theme in culture.

In another of her songs called “The Trial Of Lancelot” from the album with the same name, Dale uses a very interesting format in the song, that almost parallels the format of the search for the Holy Grail story in Malory. In this song,  the story of it is that Lancelot is being confronted about his love for Guinevere  and each of the knights from the round table have their tum at speaking, each coming full circle into Lancelot responding with a variation of the lyric “And Lancelot, his head held high, said ‘I’m tried for love of Guinevere. My crime was love.”‘ (Howey).  The format of this, rotating between the individual knights can be observed to be how the search for the Grail went in Malory, in that it rotated between the individual knights stories. However, in a more contemporary analysis, the repetition of the theme of his love of Guinevere can directly be observed to represent his loyalty to her. He’s loyal to that saying and keeps going back to it, no matter what the other knights say. This is just like how he continued to run back to Guinevere, even after multiple occurrences that could have broken them apart, such as both Elaines in Malory and in the same book, when the ladies of Avalon tried to get to him. In his right mind, he remained loyal to Guinevere throughout, with the exception of a few times of confusion and outside influences in which he did not know he was breaching his loyalty.

Another song of importance Dale has created would be “Mordred’s Lullaby”. This song may even be able to be considered a counterpart to “Prodigal Son”, as it is told from Morgan’s point of view as well. This song has a very interesting format as well, as the repetition of the word “loyalty” can be heard throughout the piece, but primarily in between verses, where she is essentially telling him that he is living proof of Arthur’s betrayal to Guinevere. This can be observed in the lyric “And you will  expose his puppeteer behavior for you are the proof of how he betrayed her loyalty”. This leads into the repetition of the term “loyalty” ending in “loyalty only to me”, which ironically is prefaced by the line in the second verse of “But you’ll always follow the voices beneath”. The theme of loyalty is repeated in the background vocals as well. (Howey).  This can be analyzed in such a way as that the song really is a Lullaby written by Morgan for Mordred, with an enchanting charm in the background  so it implants the idea into his head early that he will be loyal to Morgan and assist her in getting revenge. She makes this theme evident in the verse “My only son, each day you grow older. Each moment I’m watching my vengeance unfold. The child of my vibe, the flesh of my soul, will die in returning the birthright he stole”.

In relation to Arthurian texts, this verse where she tells him the fate of his eventual death by a fight with Arthur, upon assisting Morgan’s revenge directly correlates to Malory’s works once more, as both Mordred and Arthur receive death based on a battle they had, where Mordred was stabbed, but before his death, managed to deliver a fatal wound to Arthur, thus completing Morgan’s wishes in the song. Going back to “Prodigal Son”, this act could possibly be out of sheer jealousy and a broken heart because of his betrayal. He ended up being the hero and she was the maleficent one, so it would be safe to assume she had a bit of an emotional attachment to this idea of getting revenge. In the present day, the concept of being hurt and wanting to get revenge is very common, especially in music. Though it has nothing to do with Arthurian legends that we know of, Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” is a prime example of this where the lyrics to the chorus are “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up four wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats. I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, slashed a hole in all four tires. Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats”. The concept of broken hearts causing jealousy and retaliation is something everyone can relate to, and by implanting this into a song, Dale creates a more meaningful tale out of this part of Arthurian legend by connecting  it to a contemporary feeling.

In addition to concept albums, such as the ones Dale has, there have been other means utilized to make Arthur a prominent character in music. One of these is the use of simple comparisons of modem day people to medieval ones. This can be easily seen in the Arthurian legend inspired song written by David Crosby, but performed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1969 titled “”Guinnevere”. In this song, a comparison is made between a present day woman and the title character of Guinevere (Yee). One of the most interesting verses in the song contains the lyrics “Guinnevere drew pentagrams, like yours my lady, like yours, late at night when she thought that no one was watching at all, on the wall”. This is a complete polar opposite from the first and third verses where the comparison lies in physical beauty such as her eyes and hair. This digs deeper into the depths of inner demons that the character faces. Though in none of the Arthurian stories that were covered in class did Guinevere take to drawing pentagrams on a wall, this can be compared to her affair with Lancelot. In modem society, pentagrams would definitely be considered a sin, on top of a Satanic ritual. If the lady Crosby is describing does it when no one is watching, she is trying to hide something, just as Guinevere in Arthurian legend tried to hide her affection for Lancelot. The narrator of the song clearly knows she does it though, which is a reflection of the assumption that mostly everyone in Camelot knew about the affair, but no one really acknowledged it. While this is different in today’s’ culture, where either of these acts would certainly cause some retaliation,  it draws upon the fears of something different. Especially  in 1969 when the song was written, it was the beginning stages of the “hippie era” and the idea of rebirth in the country. This was met with quite a lot of skepticism. In medieval times, an affair among royalty is considered a terrible act and would be considered just as bad as the counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s to some people, or even more recently, the technological age. Though, that is generally more accepted.

Moving back into the 1990’s, pop icon Cyndi Lauper took to incorporating Arthurian legend in her music with the song “Sisters of Avalon”. While Crosby’s piece has a more melancholy tone to it, Lauper’s song is a typical catchy pop tune with an upbeat, happy groove. This composition has a feminist theme to it with a celebration of women and their power (Yee). While it isn’t much lyrically, musically this song, especially when combined with the music video, brings up some complex motives to compare to Arthurian legends. The song begins with a very mystical, chant-like repetition of “hey”, which is a common usage in pop songs, though the tones in this one arc rather darker and more mysterious, which is how the ladies of Avalon are usually portrayed.  This repeats multiple times throughout the song, giving it a ritualistic vibe that can radiate through anyone’s soul.

The music video even furthers this concept in its imagery and locations. In it, Lauper is seen wearing a black dress, which adds to the mysterious tone the song gives off. Black is also a color directly related to evil and malice. As stated before, the ladies of Avalon are known to be quite mischievous, especially in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. In this, Morgan Le Fay, the most commonly known Avalon resident, ends up torturing and holding prisoners hostage, sometimes just for her own enjoyment.  Also in the music video, there are spontaneous clips of the band in front of what seem like natural disasters among other catastrophes. Some may speculate that this compares the ladies of Avalon to the daughters of Eve who have the power to create mass destruction (Yee). If this is so, it furthers the concept of the magic Avalon holds, in addition to their evilness. Some of the clips, however resemble some scenes from The Wizard Of Oz, which would hint at the fact that they got transported to Avalon, which is in an unknown area, just like what happened to Dorothy when her house got blown away by a tornado.  Because no one can really give Avalon an exact location, it would make sense to have the location in the music video for ‘”Sisters of Avalon” be relatively neutral and unknown, which also adds to the mystery of it all.

In today’s’ culture, the concept of feminism and the empowerment of women is greatly prominent, which Avalon could be a great example of. Cyndi Lauper helps further this point as she is one of the most powerful and well known female artists in the music industry, so she has been a role model to other females everywhere, showing them that women can do whatever they put their mind to and be successful at it. In the legends, the ladies of Avalon have quite a lot of power and don’t really depend on men for their well being. They actually sometimes liked to hold men hostage and have power over them in more ways than one. While today this may seem a bit extreme, the concept is still there. Women are constantly being discriminated against and being shown, especially by the media, that they are the victims and they don’t matter unless they look a certain way that is almost impossible to obtain and still be healthy and they can never be as good as any man. There are a few role models today, such as Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor, or some might even say Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, that are pushing those boundaries and leading women in to knowing that they can be powerful as well. Cyndi Lauper did just that, and in a really odd way, so did the girls of Avalon.

Fast forward to just four years ago in 2010 where The Band Perry had their first big hit with the song “If l Die Young”, and Arthurian legend in song and music videos makes a gargantuan comeback as the song topped the charts. This song both lyrically and in its music video tells the tale in a contemporary way of the Lady of Shallot, which in Malory’s works can be related to Lancelot and the second Elaine readers come across who literally died of a broken heart after Lancelot left her (Yee). This song also brings up some growing concerns on suicide and death at a young age, including the malleability of young people’s minds.

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