My eyes widened when I read the review in The New York Times. I was on the same page as Aaron Sorkin, writer of some of the most celebrated works of television, film, and Broadway. Well, the “same page” when it came to understanding what was really beneath the centuries old story of King Arthur and Camelot.
A new version of “Camelot” is scheduled to open on Broadway in a few weeks, with its book rewritten by Sorkin. The NYT article said, Sorkin “has made the production one of the most anticipated on Broadway this year...”
A bold decision was made to eliminate the story’s supernatural elements. “That means Merlyn, who in the original is a magician who can remember the future... is now a wise tutor.” Yes! The hocus pocus in the Arthur stories is fun but there are much more serious and contemporary lessons to be drawn from Camelot.
“The most common description of Merlin is that of an elderly wizard with a long white beard, wearing a pointed hat and a flowing costume accented by stars and moons. He’s synonymous with magic and sorcery. But Merlin’s significance was not his ability to conjure or foretell the future. Above all else, this archetypal sorcerer was a mentor and adviser.” That was from my 2011 book, Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table.
Merlin’s real mission was to educate Arthur, to expand his horizons, and prepare him for the challenges ahead. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (from which the play and Disney’s Sword in the Stone were derived), a young Arthur queried, “Would you mind if I asked you a question?” Merlin replied, “It is what I am for.”
The magical part of Merlin wasn’t all fantasy writing, though. It helped tell the story of Arthur’s evolution from roughhousing boy to empathic leader. As a wizard, Merlin didn’t need to bring Arthur to other parts of the world to experience the different religions, cultures, and customs of humankind. Merlin turned him into a badger, fish, hawk, goose, and ant – creatures very different, more ancient, and with much wisdom to impart on the youngster.
The transfigurations into fur, fin, and feather (and bug) were a big part of the Merlin’s mentoring technique, which turned the learning process into adventures. Arthur was immersed in some dangerous places where he had to observe, adapt, and think quickly in his new surroundings. His abilities to react swiftly and smartly weren’t only important; they were essential. Later, as king, Arthur would leverage these experiences not only to better understand and connect with others, but also to win over doubters and adversaries.
Of course, much of the Camelot story revolves around the tortured relationships between King Arthur, Guinevere, his Queen, and Sir Lancelot, his best friend and general. “People think the show is about a love triangle, which of course it is,” said Alan Paul, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company. “But I really think it’s about the birth of democracy…”
Close, but not exactly. First, democracy was created in ancient Athens and second, Arthur wasn’t at all about abdicating in favor of elections. Arthur did, however, form a strategy of Might for Right – a way to channel the power of the knights to enforce his doctrine of fairness. But the people did not react well to what was coercion.
“You will find,” he explained (in The Once and Future King), “that when the kings are bullies who believe in force, the people are bullies too. If I don’t stand for law, I won’t have law among my people. And naturally I want my people to have the new law, because then they are more prosperous, and I am more prosperous in consequence.”
Arthur did something we don’t see often enough in leaders today. He took ownership and had the courage to jump the rails when he saw the strategy failing. Arthur had the right intention with the wrong method. He realized the populace needed to embrace change, rather than have change forced upon them without proper communication. He evolved Might for Right into Equal Justice – the creation of a new civil code to change the very nature of civilization, and the relationship between the government and the governed.
Life’s lessons during the time of Camelot and the Round Table remain relevant because, at the core, they are about the human relationships that connect us, divide us, and drive us forward (or backward) in our various dealings – personal, business, or otherwise. Looking at the past, we can gain the accumulated wisdom from so many people, conflicts, and circumstances. The enduring qualities and complexities of human nature gave us guidance and assurance in the past and will continue to do so in the future.