The King Must Die: “Excalibur” and the Sacrifice of the Monarch

Myths about the king who dies to save/replenish the land abound in all cultures. The king, in these stories, does not just rule; he is married to the land in a symbiotic relationship.  His power comes from the land, and he protects the land. To gain that power, he must prove his worth—even if he is the son of the prior king. DNA is not enough. The land must acknowledge him in some way.

And ultimately, he will be required to sacrifice himself for his land and people. The mark of the rightful king is always this: he does not seek rulership for personal gain, but so he may be of service to his people and his land. His willingness to sacrifice his own needs to the greater good will be tested. He may even be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, that of his own life.

What he may not do is use his position for his own benefit. The ruler who puts his own needs and desires ahead of his people, the man who lets his passions or vices rule him instead of ruling objectively, fairly, and with compassion, becomes a tyrant. The land no longer has a king, and everyone suffers. This is what happened when Arthur’s father, King Uther, let lust and greed control him and thereby lost his kingdom, which then devolved into war between various petty kings.

John Boorman’s iconic and beautifully strange “Excalibur” is built around this theme. Boorman knows the Arthur mythos well, keeping details such as having Perceval (instead of the later, Christian-Victorian hero Galahad) be the one to find the Grail, and showing us a glimpse of the Three Queens, the Triple Goddess, who bear Arthur’s body off to Avalon.

Although Nigel Terry as Arthur is often upstaged by Nicol Williamson’s manic performance as Merlin, his evolution from reluctant hero to mature king is measured and thoughtful. When he first meets Lancelot and cannot defeat him in fair combat, Arthur cheats; he calls upon the power of Excalibur to win. But the sword that should have been unbreakable shatters as Arthur delivers the telling blow. Filled with shame, Arthur exclaims to Merlin, “My pride broke it. My rage broke it! This excellent knight, who fought with fairness and grace, was meant to win. I used Excalibur to change that verdict. I’ve lost, for all time, the ancient sword of my fathers, whose power was meant to unite all men… not to serve the vanity of a single man. I am . . . nothing.” Arthur is guilty of pride and wrath, and also envy of the best knight in the world.

Confessing his sins, his fall into error, is the right thing to do. As Merlin has told him, the single most important attribute of a knight is honesty; “When a man lies, he murders part of the world.” Arthur tells the truth, humbling himself, and the Lady of the Lake, the spirit of the land, restores Excalibur to him.

But as with most of us, Arthur will have to learn the lesson again. When Guinevere betrays him with Lancelot, Arthur lets his anger and pride and envy rule him once more. He thrusts Excalibur into the ground, and walks away. This rejection of his proper role causes both Arthur and the land to fall ill.

He apparently does some heavy thinking as he lies on his sickbed, however. When Perceval finds the Grail and brings it to Arthur to drink from, the healed king’s first words are “I have lived through others for far too long. Lancelot carried my honor, and Guenevere, my guilt. Mordred bore my sins. My knights have fought my causes. Now, my brother, I shall be king.” Arthur realizes he has been guilty of another sin, sloth, which is the avoidance of one’s right work. He takes full responsibility at last. He and his knights ride forth, and as he passes the land blooms once more.

Before his final battle with Mordred, in which he will lay down his life to keep his people safe, he visits Guenevere, now residing in a nunnery. He forgives her, and then offers her an apology of his own: “I was not born to live a man’s life, but to be the stuff of future memory. The fellowship was a brief beginning; a fair time that cannot be forgotten. And because it will not be forgotten, that fair time may come again.” He finally understands his role as the  once and future king. He is now able to be not just honest, but compassionate towards others.

Guenevere, also accepting that there are forces at work beyond the demands of marriage, brings out Excalibur, which she has kept all this time, and returns it to Arthur. As he turns to go, Arthur says to her, “I have often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man . . . that we may meet, and you will come to me and claim me as yours, and know that I am your husband.” He smiles gently, wryly. “It is a dream I have . . . ” a dream he willingly, if not without regret, has sacrificed to the greater good, as the true king must.

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