November 23, 2003 | Graham

Camelot and Sherwood Forest

I usen’t to be classed as a baby boomer at all. That explosion used to end in 1955. Now it has crept up a notch and spreads to those born as late as 1960. In truth, these things cannot be defined with mathematical precision. When you look at my habits and expectations I am as much a Gen Xer as a boomer, but there is one thing that does define a genuine boomer – they can tell you what they were doing when they heard that JFK was killed. I was in the Caribbean.
Sounds exotic, and it is, but not as exotic as it sounds. I was a migrant in the days when people migrated through things, not over them, because the usual mode of transport was ship, not aeroplane. As a five year old I and my family traveled to Australia from Canada through both of the greatest canals of the world – the Panama and the Suez – working against the spin of the earth. Before my sixth birthday I had only the Pacific Ocean between me and my first circumnavigation of the globe when we arrived in Sydney.
On the deck of the P & O Liner The Oronsay (model in the Queensland Museum)) people were talking quietly in huddles on the 22nd November 1963. I was too young to know who Kennedy was, but not too young to recognize significance. That was the end of “Camelot”, as it came to be called – that brief romantic (and in my view illusory) vision of a renewed New World where concepts like right and wrong still counted, framed by a handsome democratically elected King and Queen. The King now lay in his own blood. Not slain by the hand of his bastard son in the gothically convoluted manner of the Arthurian legend, but nevertheless slain and with enough flavours of the failings of the human condition for it not to be completely dissimilar.
Camelot was also the Lerner and Lowe stage musical, based on T H White’s novel The Once and Future King. It first played in December 1960, almost synchronously with Kennedy’s election. The novel, not the movie, was complex, exploring the balance between idealism and human frailty. Human frailty Kennedy had in aces. But he also inherited the fundamental paradigm shift of the novel. He inherited a world where might was still tenuously right, and attempted to change it to one where “right was might”. This was the Rooseveltian America, and the spirit behind the foundation of the United Nations, and more importantly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document at this stage still only twelve years old.
Camelot didn’t die with Kennedy, nor did he invent it. It infuses the United State view of the world, particularly its popular culture and is the basis of what some call “American Exceptionalism”.
When George Bush first used the term “crusade” I doubt he had a lexicographer’s sense of where it had been. I bet he was using it in the way you might refer to “caped crusaders”. But of course the word has a wider provenance than that and in fact plugs into the heart of the Arthurian myth. Not only does it refer to the quest to retake the Holy Land, but it refers to a quest for spiritual purity, and it refers to the journey of the individual soul. It is ultimately Nietzschean and Promethean – individual, self-motivating man against the rest, but with a recognition of ultimate human fallibility and decline. What makes “caped crusaders” ultimately no more than comic book is that there is never any possibility that they will do other than prevail. Real crusaders live with the reality that only through death can they meet perfection.
Bush is the heir of Kennedy. He even draws many of his votes from the same areas and the same demographics. And Kennedy was the heir of many before him. Bush is not truly a conservative, because, again to some extent like Kennedy, he lacks a sense of mortality and inherent human weakness, which is the mark of the true conservative, and the true King Arthur.
Today the opposite of Camelot is not Mordred. Today the opposite of Camelot is Sherwood Forest. Where Camelot is the belief that grace can descend from on high and be bestowed on us by our betters, Sherwood Forest is class solidarity. It is the belief that taking from others can be right if by doing so we lay claim to our own equality with anyone. That our poverty and powerlessness are caused by others’ exploitation and we have a right to redress it. Sherwood Forest legitimizes acts of violence committed against those only tenuously connected to the oppressor.
When it comes to Iraq what we are seeing in Western Countries is a debate centred around the two paradigms of our civilization – Camelot and Sherwood Forest. We in Australia generally fall on the Sherwood Forest side of the divide. Along with many Australians I winced at all the Nolan Ned Kellies stepping out of their dunnies at the opening of the Olympics, but I am a Camelotian minority in this country which sings Waltzing Matilda, a story about an itinerant thief, as its unofficial anthem.
I am surprised that more of us aren’t out there covertly barracking for Saddam Hussein. Certainly the arguments over Iraq are not about the pragmatics of what has happened. Instead, we are using Iraq as the latest backdrop for the ceaseless arguments between the individualists and the collectivists. There are those who say that the US brought it on itself, as they might justify Robin of Locksley’s rape and pillage of a friar on the basis that he once said mass for King John. Then there are those who believe that laying a lance in rest and slaughtering a few dragons can bring peace not just to Iraq but to the whole Middle East.
In fact, neither side is right. Nor should either side be right. Political reality is held in tension by these two sets of beliefs. At the end of The Once and Future King Arthur is strapping on his armour to go out and fight his last battle. Ominously the sound of the new fangled cannon is heard in the wind. Sometimes it is more noble to have tried and died in the event than not to have tried at all. The Kennedy legend tells us that this is true. Bin Laden, Hussein and their fatwas say this is true. What they do is ask of us the question – what is it you are prepared to do for your country, and what does it stand for anymore?

Posted by Graham at 9:22 pm | Comments Off on Camelot and Sherwood Forest |
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