Scholar of yore

Phillip Boardman

Photo by David Robert

Oxford University Press has published a book that probably won’t find its way into every library. With the $550 price tag for its 1,086 pages, Arthurian Annals is likely to find a very select audience. But its co-author, Arthurian scholar Phil Boardman of Reno, has also written or edited more reasonably priced books—Enduring Legacies/Ancient and Medieval Cultures, The Realms of Arthur, Forgotten Arthurian Poetry and The Legacy of Language/A Tribute to Charlton Laird.

You specialize in Arthur.

Yes, that’s one of the specialties—Chaucer and medieval lit; King Arthur.

You pulled together some poetry about Arthur for a book, Forgotten Arthurian Poetry.

Back in the 1980s, I went to London, and I decided I would try to track down some modern version of the Arthurian stories. I spent several months in a couple of London libraries—Arts Council Poetry Library and the British Library— looking for poems about Arthur or the other knights. So I was pulling together old poems trying to track down modern works, and that ended up growing into a huge project I ended up doing with a guy from Kansas City called the Arthurian Annals, which is a listing, description and a publication history of more than 11,000 Arthurian primary works—that ispoems, novels, plays, operas, comics, computer games.

Why do you think the Arthur legend bewitches us for so long and in so many ways?

I think that’s a complicated question, because it hasn’t always been that popular. It’s been popular certainly in extraordinary measure in the 12th and 13th centuries and again in the 19th and 20th centuries and is continuing now.

What made it speak to those periods?

Well, I think especially the modern period—it’s kind of romantic view of the world, about the relationship of people, both men and women and men to each other—it calls up heroic ideas, but those heroic ideas are couched in a kind of chivalric courtesy, so it’s a very elaborate society that’s pictured in these Arthurian stories. But modern people living in the 20th, 21st century are fascinated by the Middle Ages, for one thing, and they have romantic notions about the Middle Ages and the Arthurian stories play to that. But they also are full of everything else—ideas about honor and warfare, ideas about love, and they’re full of treachery. Almost all aspects of human life are shown in these Arthurian stories.

Does it have anything to say to 2007?

Oh, yes, I believe so. That’s why you keep seeing versions of the stories, and especially the last few years, like—I don’t know if it’s still here, but a couple week ago there was a new film in Reno called The Last Legion. Not a very good film, but this film and the previous film in 2004 called King Arthur, with Keira Knightley and Clive Owen—both are set in Roman times or late-Roman times. And they sort of draw the Arthurian characters out of that Roman world, that sense that there’s a decline in the great civilization of Rome and out of that, people have to find and put together some kind of cultural identity. And that it takes heroes—heroes like Arthur, in this case, or Merlin—to weld together these societies. So I think there’s a lot of interest in that in 2007. The sense that we, as Americans, are in some ways a kind of big empire and that we’ve got lessons to learn from history and Arthur is one of those kind of shadowy characters that’s part historic—that is, people wonder whether there’s much history there … And then of course there’s the Holy Grail stuff in the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code book and film as well.