Shake Your Boötes: King Arthur, Arctic Adventurism, Werebears

There is a dubious etymology of which I am fond whereby the name of the star Arcturus, in Welsh mouths, partially dissolves into “Arthur”. From such unlikelihoods all manner of speculations arise – not just to do with the legendary king’s connection to bears (let us suppose, for a moment, as we entertain these other improbabilities, that “Arcturus” – the cockstar of Arctophylax – might mean both “Bear guardian” in the sense of one who guards the Bear [i.e., Ursa Major] and that of a “guardian bear”) but also the Arctic. 

Take, for instance, the astonishing 1577 letter from Gerardus Mercator (yes, that Mercator) to John Dee, informing him about an English claim to territory above the Arctic circle based on the fact that, in the sixth century, King Arthur conquered the North Pole. I shit you not. 

Were any of the 19th and 20th-century British polar explorers aware of this story? Is the United Nations? Does the UK have an ancient, competing claim to imminent Arctic territory along with the Russians, Canadians, Norwegians, and Danes? Fascinating as the transmissions of Arthurian material into medieval Scandinavian literature actually were – as with Gunnlaugr Leifsson’s 12th/13th-century translation (and acculturation) of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophecies of Merlin into Old Norse as the Merlínússpá – might there also be a lost cycle of legends in a ruined monastery somewhere: a white coda to the Matter of Britain? Cautionary tales orally transmitted by an indigenous, circumpolarized band that watched from a distance as knights of the Round Table – furs and gut parkas over chainmail – tried to consolidate their grip on the auroral latitudes but ultimately failed to adapt to/endure its hardships and starved/went mad/froze to death on the ice.

As my friend Brendan Bashin-Sullivan and I geeked out about yesterday…

As for bears, I have much more to say on the subject, but it’s sunny in London and my intention to break a 369-day-long alcohol fast at The Seven Stars for Twelfth Night. I will say this much for now: it’s curious, mighty curious, that before Bödvar Bjarki (Beowulf, through a different cultural lens) travelled south from Trondheim (née Uppdales?) to find his fame as champion of champions in the court of King Hrólfr Kraki he first had to pull a sword from a stone in the former den of his cursed werebear father Bjorn that Bödvar’s two older, stronger brothers were unable to remove. Selah. 

One Response to “Shake Your Boötes: King Arthur, Arctic Adventurism, Werebears”

  1. “It astringeth and retaineth the bloud.” | Chamblissian Says:

    […] to Arcturus, which he called Alcameth, one of his fifteen fixed Behenian stars. Apart from its dubious etymological connection to King Arthur, Alcameth is supposed to be good for fevers (I’m triple-vaccinated, but one […]

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