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When I was very young, under 10, my mother, who often read to us out loud and was incredibly good at it, read us the legend of King Arthur as told in The Sword and the Stone and The Once and Future King. There isn't anyone who does not respond in a powerful way to the legend of Arthur and we were no exception. I remember her reading it to us so clearly because it was the first time I can remember seriously disagreeing with my mother and being vocal about it.
I loved the idea of Arthur, a man light years ahead of his time, a man of honor and justice and vision who was a warrior who's goal for his people was peace and prosperity. Arthur was my literary hero and I can remember hoping with all my heart that he really existed in that long ago time because I so wanted him to be real. When we got to the part where Arthur was betrayed by Lancelot and Guinevere, the two people he loved most, I remember feeling so angry, at them, at their selfishness, their weakness, and their willingness to be the cause of Arthur's dream coming unraveled like a cheap sweater. I said as much to my mother who was absolutely appalled at my reaction.
“They were in love,” she said to me. “They both loved Arthur, but their love for each other was just so powerful. I can't believe you don't see how impossible it was for them.” My mother is a romantic.
I didn't say anything at the time, but I was thinking plenty. I was thinking that there are some things that are far bigger than the needs and desires of two people and that it would have been nice if they had exercised a little self control. My brothers agreed with me.
When I was in 3rd grade my teacher had us do a little play about Arthur and Camelot – minus the adultery, of course. She wanted me to play Guinevere but I flatly refused. As far as I was concerned, she might as well have been asking me to play Adolf Hitler or Jack the Ripper. I wanted to be one of the Knights of the Round Table, but we had plenty of boys to take those roles. There was a part of the play where the knights go on one knee before Arthur and swear their loyalty to him. I even remember the line spoken by Sir Gawain, “We offer you our lives in your service and our swords in defense of your kingdom, Lord, as long as we walk upon this earth and have the strength to wield them.” I loved that line and was jealous every time I heard it in rehearsal. Because I wouldn't be Guinevere I was relegated to playing one of her ladies in waiting, who generally just stood around looking helpless and doing nothing useful. One day after rehearsal my teacher took me aside and asked me if I had a problem with the girl playing Guinevere because evidently, I was looking at her like I wanted to skewer her on a broadsword. I didn't have a problem with the poor girl, of course, I had a problem with Guinevere, which I told my teacher. She told me to try and control my disgust with the queen because standing behind her looking as if I wanted to throttle her with the Holy Grail just wasn't working. I complied.
All this was brought back to me recently when my son, Chuck, and I were watching the newest telling of the tale of Camelot that is currently on cable television. Because we don't have regular television we end up streaming this kind of thing online, which means that I could pause the program to tell Chuck the story of my childhood take on the story. I told him that in retrospect I could see that it was the first time I was able to totally disagree with my mother and stand my ground. I was a quiet, timid little girl and my mother was never quiet or timid in her entire life. Prior to Arthur and Camelot, I just disagreed and kept my mouth shut. I guess my righteous indignation made me brave. It was one of those moments in childhood when you realize how different you are from your parent and establish your individuality within yourself in a real way. To me, the fact that Lancelot and Guinevere couldn't keep their hands off each other and were willing to betray Arthur and risk destroying his dream and causing a war made them weak, selfish, and stupid. To my mother, nothing was bigger than their love for each other and that made them tragic victims. Neither of us ever changed our minds on the issue and I know that my attitude was a disappointment to her, mostly because she told me so. I loved my mother and I didn't relish being a disappointment, but I never backed down or pretended that I agreed with her. It was an ethical issue big enough in my consciousness to make me stand fast. I used this story to make a point with Chuck, that I wanted him to always feel free to be himself even if that meant not agreeing with me on issues that define his values. This made Chuck laugh.
“I promise you, Mom, I have never had any problem being me and never felt that you wanted me to be anyone but who I am. That said, I have to say that sometimes I think you may actually look too much at the big picture.”
“Not when it really counts,” I countered. “If it came down to a choice between Arthur and Camelot and you and your brother and sister, I'd have no problem telling Arthur what he could do with his sword and his stone.” I know my priorities.
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