The Search for Excalibur in Welty’s “Ladies in Spring”

A literary essay by Lev Butts

In her fiction, Eudora Welty often referenced preexisting artistic works, adding authenticity of her writing and augmenting the themes she worked with.  For example in her story “June Recital” she references such works as Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and the silent film “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.”  In “Moon Lake” she references the novel The Re-Creation of Brian Kent.  While most of the time these works actually exist outside of Welty’s fiction, in “Ladies in Spring,” the protagonist, Dewey Coker, debates going fishing with his father and missing his teacher read from Excalibur, presumably a novel or collection of Arthurian stories for children.  Despite my best efforts, though, I have been unable to locate such a work published before 1955, the year in which Welty published The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories (which collects “The Ladies in Spring). 

This is not to say that I found nothing pertaining to Excalibur in my research.  I have managed to locate a 1909 play entitledExcalibur: An Arthurian Drama by Ralph Adams Cram.  I also found a symphonic poem, Excalibur, composed by Louis Adolphe Coerne in 1931.  Bright Excalibur: A Collection of Poems from Kaleidograph, edited by Whitney and Vaida Montgomery, was published in 1933. Also the pulp magazine Argosy published a short story by Arthur Leo Zagat, “Seven Out of Time,” in which King Arthur must use Excalibur against futuristic monsters.  Unfortunately, none of these seemed quite the sort of thing a schoolteacher might read to her young charges.  However, in 1912, the fifth volume of Our Wonder World, a ten-volume set of stories and educational articles for children, included a collection of King Arthur stories, though “Excalibur” appears nowhere in the title.

All this is rather academic, though, for we don’t necessarily have to know the actual book to understand Welty’s reference.  Clearly the title alludes to Arthurian romance, a mythology very popular in the antebellum South.  Antebellum Southerners preferred to read popular romances such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoeand other tales of medieval knights in armor (Wimsatt 92).  In fact, the stereotypical “Southern gentleman” was very heavily influenced by the knights of old and their code of chivalry (Page 5).  Plantation owners often likened their economics to the feudalism of the Middle Ages (though not with the negative connotations implicit in feudalism today).  Indeed, for the antebellum Southerner, the South represented a return to the golden age of chivalry.

“Ladies in Spring,” however, is set much later, after this “golden age” has fallen and the town of Royal, Mississippi is in the middle of a drought.  Crops are failing, and unless something miraculous happens, many people will go hungry.  Welty’s story, then, bears a close resemblance to the “Holy Grail” myth of Arthurian legend.  According to legend, after his incestuous liaison with his sister, Arthur grew sick.  As Arthur grew weaker, the land began to fail.  This connection between the king and the land appears in Welty’s story through the character of Miss Hattie Purcell.  Besides being the postmistress and social center of the town, Hattie is also the “rainmaker” of the town (Welty 626).  She does this by almost literally becoming one with the land:

Miss Hattie brought rain by sitting a vigil of the necessary duration beside the nearest body of water . . . She made no more sound at it than a man fishing.  But something about the way Miss Hattie’s comfort shoes showed their tips below her skirt and carried a dust of the dry woods on them made her look as though she’d be there forever: longer than they would.  (626)

If Miss Hattie represents Arthur in the story, Dewey, the Royal fisher, represents the Fisher King.  Legends vary about the Fisher King’s role in Arthurian legend.  In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, he is fishing outside the Grail castle when Parzival first encounters the Holy Grail, the chalice that will bring health back to the land (Eschenbach 124).  Just before Hattie brings the rain Dewey catches a fish despite his father’s belief that they’ll catch nothing (Welty 628).   A final reference to the Grail myth appears as Dewey returns to town.  According to legend, once the Grail is found, the land and the king will be reborn.  As they return to Royal, Dewey notices his surroundings take on new colors in the rain: the Baptist church turns “red as a rose,” the Methodist church gets “streaky” and even the citizens of Royal look “like the faces of new people” (632-633).

I don’t know if Excalibur actually exists.  I still suspect it does despite my failure to find it.  Perhaps the value in searching for Excalibur, as in searching for the Holy Grail, lies in the journey itself.

Works Cited

Eschenbach, Wolfram von.  Parzival. Trans. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage.  New York: Vintage 1961.

Page, Thomas Nelson.  The Old South: Essays Social and Political.  New York: Scribners, 1919.

Welty, Eudora.  “Ladies in Spring.”  Stories, Essays, and Memoirs.  Eds. Richard Ford and Michael Kreyling.  New York: LOA, 1998.  625-638.

Wimsatt, Mary Ann.  “Antebellum Fiction.”  The History of Southern Literature.  Eds. Louis D. Rubin et al. Baton Rouge: LSUP, 1985.  92-107.