Famed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s once proposed “three laws of prediction”:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
For the Arthurian cycle, this last law is the most pertinent.
The first literary references to Arthur are from the Historia Brittonum, or The History of the Britons written in the Ninth Century, some 300 years after the events described. This work depicts Arthur as a Romano-British dux bellorum, or war leader, who fought beside the “Kings of Briton” against invading Germanic tribes. The Historia also brings up some of the first fantastical tales about Arthur. For example, Arthur, his men, and his dog, Cabal, hunted a giant boar named Troynt, or Twrch. Besides being supernaturally large and strong, the beast also dripped poison from its bristles. Arthur and his company finally killed the monster by driving it into the sea.
As the stories about Arthur grew, eventually turning into the cycle of tales and legends known as the Matter of Britain, many more fantastic elements were added. Elements such as a shape-shifting Merlin, Arthur being taking to Avalon to sleep until called on to again save England; the super-powerful weapon, Excalibur, being drawn from the stone, and so on.
We can apply Clarke’s Third Law to these various supernatural elements of the stories. For example, the giant boar, Troynt, instead of being of magical origin could be seen as the result of genetic engineering. Excalibur, as a product of advanced metallurgy and weapons’ design, not enchantment. Arthur’s sleep in Avalon as suspended animation, etc.
Many science-fiction writers have laid an advanced science template over the fantastic elements of the legend in their retellings of the Arthur story. The graphic novel Camelot 3000 and Steve White’s books, Legacy and Debt of Ages, are just two examples of this kind of re-exploration of the Arthur mythos. In Camelot 3000 King Arthur awakens from his long sleep and with the help of his reincarnated Knights of the Round Table battle an alien invasion of Britain. In Legacy and Debt of Ages, humans from the far-future use time travel to rescue a wounded Arthur, this time in his guise as a dux bellorum, and transport him into the far-future where he becomes a time-travelling military troubleshooter for this advanced civilization.
In the Uffda Press anthology King of Ages, a collection of short stories re-examine the Arthur legend in a variety of context, including straight-up science fiction stories, such as “Unto His Final Breath” by Mike Morgan: a story about the end of the Universe. “The Siege of Battle-Station Camelot” by Patrick S. Baker where Arthur is a commander of an orbiting battle-station fights interstellar slavers with Merlin as his advising AI. “Arturia” by David W. Landrum is another sci-fi story, that has Arthur as a woman in a love triangle with a male Guinevere and a female Lancelot is a woman.
The Arthur mythos template can be used to express any number of themes, ideas and concepts from love, to war, to politics and in any number of genres from romance, to young adult and, of course, science-fiction.