THE BLOG
10/19/2012 05:26 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

The Once and Future Arthur: A King for Our Time

King Arthur will be with us again. And just in time.

We are ready to revisit his type of mythological hero.

Next year, the UK division of HarperCollins will bring out a previously unpublished poem, The Fall of Arthur, from none other than J.R.R. Tolkien.

The poem, in alliterative verse, is based on the legend of King Arthur as imagined first by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1143 History of the Kings of Britain and later Thomas Malory in 1463 with his Le Morte d'Arthur.

The tales of noble, yet flawed men who sacrifice themselves for the common good, have had remarkable traction over the centuries.

In the Victorian era, Alfred, Lord Tennyson published Idylls of the King, his cycle of a dozen poems concerning Arthur, his knights and their loves and adventures. It was an elegiac look at Victorian society, at romantic ideals, at ambition and letdown.

John Steinbeck was inspired by Arthurian legends in his novels Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row about camaraderie and social responsibility and his The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, a retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur, was published in 1976.

T.H. White's The Once and Future King, a compilation of the author's earlier works, is yet another retelling of the tales.

And now, Tolkien's new poem will again bring us Arthur, during the final days of his reign as the king battles to save his country.

The legend of Arthur, as enduring as it is, is one that finds greatest resonance during times when society looks for a heroic type, either to represent its wish for some worthy adventure, or it wish to channel its aspirations for the common good into a larger-than-life character.

We are in that time now, which is what Roy H. Williams and I refer to as a "we" cycle, one during which people try to work together, when a sense of community trumps selfish egoism. (Let's forget politics for the moment -- any presidential election years brings out the worst in people, so each one is an aberrance in a particular cycle.)

Roy and I came up with this distinction between a "we" cycle and a "me" cycle for our new book Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future: "Me" and "we" are the equal-but-opposite attractions that pull society's pendulum one way, then the other, in 40-year swings. In a "we" cycle, for example, people believe that society demands conformity for the common good and applauds personal responsibility, small actions, and working together. In a "me" cycle, people demand freedom of expression, big dreams, look-at-me leadership.

We're currently in a "we" cycle, which began in 2003. And we are looking to have a sense of community. The overpaid bankers and brokers, the egomaniacal politicians and pundits are exceptions: Most people want to work together for something better, and the legend of Arthur, with its stories of personal sacrifice in the name of a greater good, resonates with us.

I don't know when Tolkien wrote his poem on Arthur, but that his son Christopher is deciding to publish it now probably says he himself feels it speaks to our current generation, though he might have published it a few years ago, or even in the run-up to our current cycle. So why publish Tolkien's Arthurian poem now and not a few years ago?

It's obvious: we need someone to root for, someone who speaks for all of us, not the one percent or the 47 percent, or the 99 percent: everyone. We're all in this together. Arthur may again inspire us to act.