To my great delight, a reader has taken me to task for having pointed out that Arthur dies at the end of his epic. No! says Barry K. He does not die! He is carried away on the barge, to sleep until England needs him again!
Well, nes and yo. The inscription on Arthur’s grave is indeed REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS (The Once and Future King). What are we to make of this? That some day, when Albion finds herself in mortal peril, the historical King Arthur will appear, Excalibur in hand, to vanquish her foes? It’s a nice thought. But here’s another reading: Some day, when Albion finds herself in mortal peril, the spirit of Arthur, his hero-ness if you will, will reappear in a new body. (Remember: It’s not the light bulb that matters, but the light.) By this reading, Arthur has already reappeared. He did so in the portly guise of Winston Churchill, without whom Albion may very well have gone under in the early days of World War II. As much as we love Arthur, Churchill’s radar installations were probably a more effective weapon against the Luftwaffe than Excalibur would have been.
Here’s the trouble: We hate to see the hero die. Or, we love to see the hero die (which is after all such a noble thing to do), but we don’t want him to die permanently. That’s why we like the phoenix idea so much. Now this works out just fine in the case of gods. Gods (Jesus, Osiris, Baldr, Adonis, Persephone, and countless others) resurrect very nicely, just as the earth dies every winter and come to life again every spring. But human beings really need to stay dead, in order to make room for more human beings. Even heroes. Especially heroes.
And yet, we hate to see the hero die. What’s a poor poet to do? If he kills off the hero, the audience may get upset and lynch him. Look at the way they hounded Conan Doyle until he finally brought Sherlock Holmes back. Imagine what her millions of readers are going to do to Ms. Rowling. I shudder to think of it. Bloody audiences. You have to pander to them so.
So Mallory totes Arthur off on a magical barge, and sets up a headstone with a cheerful epitaph. Tolkien has Bilbo pass the buck to Frodo before sending him off to the never-never-land of Rivendell. The One Ring, recall, has added years to his life, so he goes off to live with the similarly long-lived elves. Even at the end of Lord of the Rings Tolkien can’t bear to see him actually die (or he was afraid of getting lynched) and so he sends him off again. Frodo, of course, still lives, but we are to understand that his hero days are over. Rather than show his death, Tolkien allows him to retire.
Of course, there are heroes and heroes. Arthur must die because he is tragically flawed. He slept with his sister and murdered all those babies. His death is required as a matter of cosmic justice. Harry Potter is not a tragic hero, so technically he could live through the final bout with Voldemort and the world would survive. My contention that he’ll die is, I suppose, predicated on the notion that his particular sort of hero-ness has to do with being also a sacrificial lamb. Hence my suspicion that, like Dumbledore and Jesus and, yes, Arthur, he will die in this world but will continue to live on in some mystical fashion.