Showing posts with label King Arthur. Show all posts
Showing posts with label King Arthur. Show all posts

26 April 2024

King Arthur and Vince McMahon?

 My current Audible listen is Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. It's the earliest complete telling of the King Arthur legend in the English language. Written near the end of the Hundred Years War (just in time for the Wars of the Roses! Oh, those whacky Norman monarchs!), Malory, of whom there is little known, renders the tale of the legendary king as a treatise on the Chivalric Code. It's also a transitional time for the English language. Gone is the bizarre Anglo-Saxon tongue of Beowulf. By now, poet and royal in-law Geoffrey Chaucer has normalized writing literature in English. (The Normans, originally Vikings who became French, considered Anglo-Saxon a degenerate tongue in their early days. Henry IV decided an English court should speak English. I know. Radical.) But Malory's Middle English looks like Shakespeare trying to forge new entries into The Canterbury Tales. However, after the most recent reading of a Knight of the Round Table going out and doing feats of daring-do, I can only hear one phrase as I start a new section.



Strange, isn't it? That sounds like something more out of the movie A Knight's Tale (with Chaucer as a character and a 90s rock soundtrack) than a Norman coopting of a Saxon forgery of a Welsh legend originally based on the life of a warrior from the waning days of Rome. Malory tells a familiar tale of Uther Pendragon taking an enemy's wife, Igraine, and conceiving Arthur, who is raised in secret, pulls Excalibur from a stone, then conquers all Britain and Ireland before marching down to Rome to give the Emperor Lucius what-for. (Historians will note that was actually the Vandals and the Visigoths, not Graham Chapman and the Monty Python troupe.) And then we get into the Knights of the Table Round, of which Malory says there are about 150. And each one goes out to fight whomever they will fight. Sometimes, they run afoul of Arthur's incestuous sister, Morgan Le Fay, and fight each other. In listening, I noticed knights will be the hero in one book, the villain in another, and sidekick in yet another. Doesn't that sound like WWE?

Le Morte d'Arthur is episodic and tends to repeat itself. It's not the post-World War II spiking of the ball for England like TH White's The Once and Future King (and by extension, the musical Camelot), which followed more modern storytelling. Nor is it the more complex, feminist reworking that is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which has more in common with Dune than Malory, aside from the characters. No, these tales were not meant to be a single novel or play like Shakespeare in his day or even today's ten-episode streamers. Nor was it intended for the elite few who could read. Like Homer before him, Malory and Chaucer wrote for their stories to be read piece by piece to the masses, who didn't really care about which god slept with which goddess or... Well... Let's just say Greek and Roman mythology is less complicated than Phonecian. (Moloch? Seriously?) No, the masses gravitate toward action. Fight scenes. Heroes with a code. Damsels in distress. (Though these days, the damsels often come armed with brains or weapons or both and usually cause or relieve distress more often than be in it.) They want adventure.

Heroes and villains. Like pro wrestling. And the heroes swap places. One chapter Sir Tristram is the boldest knight, save Lancelot. The next, he's dumped his damsel for another and off living like a Duke in Brittany, earning several knights' enmity. But wait. A rival to Arthur has kidnapped or killed one of the knights of the Round Table. Or Morgan Le Fay (who also switches sides a lot) has hexed one of our heroes. Another knight comes in to save the day, but he needs help. "Oh, um, Trist? Why don't we settle this with a joust a Pentecost. I could really use a hand right now." 

Even Lancelot becomes the villain eventually. Many of the knights lust after Queen Guinevere. Lance actually does something about it. It's the precursor to pro wrestling. Andre the Giant is the good guy. Then he's not when he battles Hulk Hogan. Roddy Piper is a heel. Then he's the wise old man of wrestling. (Also, a guy with really cool sunglasses that expose capitalism's faults. I'd have thought $200 for a non-prescription pair of Oakleys was a hint, but that's a couple of other columns.)

Malory, I've come to realize, was a pulp writer. So was, to some extent, Shakespeare, but he wrote long, (usually coherent) plays. (And someone should have let him completely rewrite Edward III. Is it really his canon if he's the obvious script doctor on a polished turd? I digress.)

Even Dickens and Twain wrote this way early on. The Pickwick Papers aren't so much a novel as a serialized forerunner to Freaks and Geeks minus the MST3K cameos. Even Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two of the most influential American novels ever written, read like a newspaper serial or, to our modern eyes, a streaming program. But unlike Dickens and Twain, who spent a fair bit of time fleshing out even their most one-dimensional characters, Malory has simple good guys and bad guys who are interchangeable. It was Twain, White, Bradley, and a host of movie directors and novelists who gave the various knights deeper motivations. Read The Mists of Avalon, and you wonder why Merlin didn't get smacked around by an angry Morgan Le Fay. 

Malory picked up where Chaucer left off in terms of language, bridging the gap between the nascent Middle English of the Plantagenet Era and Elizabethan style we see in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. But Chaucer was writing a cross-section of English society that would inspire later classics, including Dan Simmons's classic Hyperion. Malory wants you to throw some popcorn in the microwave (or it's 15th century equivalent, in a pan over an open fire.) Or maybe, since Arthur was pilfered from the Welsh, stick the Orville Redenbacher in the popty ping. (Which remains my favorite Welsh slang of all time.)

And besides, if it weren't for Lance, Gawain, and Gallahad, we'd have never had Holmes, Phillip Marlowe, or Jim Rockford. 

Or WWE Raw

27 March 2024

The Matter of Arthur

I’m not quite sure why Rosemary Sutcliff floated into my periphery, recently - I saw her name somewhere, obviously - but as soon as it happened, I immediately went out and found her Arthurian historical, Sword at Sunset, which had fallen off my radar in the interval of fifty years, and read it again.  If you’re not familiar with the book, it reimagines the legend of Arthur much the way Mary Renault does with the mythological Theseus in The King Must Die, as an actual historical person, not a demigod.     

Arthur is, of course, the “Matter of Britain,” a story every English schoolchild once knew by heart.  The basic lineaments were around long before Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur, in the 15th century, going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 12th.  I’m more concerned with the modern iterations.  Leaving aside Prince Valiant, no disrespect, Hal Foster’s draftsmanship is astonishing, but he positions the Round Table in some sort of fairytale medieval period; excuse me, but no.  That puts Arthur some time after the Norman Conquest, which just doesn’t fly.  The better guess lines up with Rosemary Sutcliff and Bernard Cornwell, who place the historical Arthur after the fall of Roman Britain, the withdrawal of the legions to Gaul, around 400 AD.  Then come the Saxons, raiding across the North Sea, and the Picts, from beyond Hadrian’s Wall.  Arthur would appear to be the last hope of civilization and order, fighting a losing battle against the darkness.  

The version most of us know is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which is the source material for Camelot.  I saw the Broadway-bound tryout.  (Back in the day, the big shows would work the kinks out on the road.  They’d open in Toronto, and then circle through Boston, Philadelphia, and DC, before they got to New York.)  The production of Camelot in Boston ran, as I remember, four hours.  They cut at least an hour, after that.  For my money, I would have watched Richard Burton for six hours.  He made Arthur tragic in a way I’d never even considered.  I thought the story was about Lancelot and Guinevere.  Not that Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet were chopped liver, but when Burton was on stage, every other character was a walk-on.  I wore out the original cast LP, and it reduced me to tears every time I listened to it.  

Camelot is somewhere in that Neverland along with Prince Valiant.  It’s a backlot fantasy, it doesn’t have the smell of smoky hearths and scorched meat, unwashed bodies in thick fur cloaks, blood and bowels and rape, but there’s a counter-narrative to both: Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart, The Mists of Avalon and The Crystal Cave, which feminize the story, in the one case, and foreground the otherworldly or magical, in the second, but these are mirror narratives, the female principle (in myth, at least) a correlative of sorcery.  

Robert Warshow wrote a famous essay about the Western, in which he said there were only X archetypes, of plot, and character.  And we could haul in Joseph Campbell, or Robert Graves, or Jung, but the arc of the hero bends in similar ways.  A friend of mine was leaving Excalibur, and he overheard a young person say to their date, “It’s just like Star Wars.”  

We draw the sword from the stone, and our fate is foretold.  There’s no escaping it. 

11 April 2019

Arthur and the Avengers

I watched PBS' Secrets of the Dead:  King Arthur's Lost Kingdom, a couple of weeks ago, and loved it.

Now I'm an Arthurian enthusiast, which is a polite term for freaking fan!  I've read as many of the patchwork of legends and stories and (barely) histories of King Arthur as I could get my hands on, from the Historia Brittonum (around 828 CE) the Annales Cambriae (to sum it up:  Battle of Badon, Arthur v. Medraut a/k/a Mordred and a 21 year later rematch at the Strife of Camlann) to T. H. White's brilliant The Once and Future King (which invented the whole idea of Merlin living backwards) and many, many more.

The development and complexity of King Arthur's court at Camelot, his knights and their adventures, the increasing romance and chivalry combined with constant warfare and strange witches and magicians, the astounding character of Merlin, the literally bewitching Morgan le Fay and the fairly boring Guinevere (adultery and constant rescues - not my style.  Although I have to admire the aftermath in Tennyson's Guinevere, which has one of the saddest lines in all of poetry:  "Will no one tell the king I love him though too late?"),,,  The Arthurian legend is so old, so multi-cultural, and written over time by so many authors, that is perhaps one of the greatest legends in all of history, with immense mysteries, tangles, and knots that have never been solved, and perhaps cannot be solved.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.jpg
But that's not what I want to talk about right now.  I want to talk about the Marvel Universe.

Just the other day I saw a press conference, surrounding by a lot of trailers, for the new Avengers movie, Avengers:  Endgame.  Now I can't be the first to have noticed that everyone in the entire Marvel Universe is apparently turning up in what were stand-alone comics/movies, and there are more and more of them all the time.
NOTE: And before that, in everyone else's comic books. I remember Batman and Superman duking it out, at least on the cover. (I was never into either of them. My personal favorite comic book as a teen was Killraven, but that's another story.) 
The Fantastic Four have hosted the Hulk, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and the Silver Surfer. The Avengers originally consisted of Ant-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the Wasp.  That changed over time, and by the time we get to the first movie version we have Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye joining forces to save the universe.  I remember when the first four all had their own comic strips. Now they work together. The next movie - more superheros! The Guardians of the Galaxy! Black Panther! Scarlet Witch! Falcon! Winter Soldier! God only knows how many more superheroes are going to join in the latest one.

Image result for avengers endgame junket photo
Avengers: Endgame Junket Press Conference
Now at a certain point I was muttering things like, How in the world does each one get a line, much less a whole action sequence, much less a whole backstory?  I kept thinking about an old Doonesbury - "Jim, I got 46 other stars here. Next!")

Yes, I know, obsessive comicons know each and every character and their backstory, future story, occasional love interest(s), quirks, foibles, weaknesses.  I have sat in a van with a bunch of college students who discussed when/how Superman's cape changed for four hours.  So I get that.  But still, 16 superheros out to save the universe still seems like a lot, compared to the old days (yes, I'm getting old and nostalgic) when one - or at most four - were all that was needed to save Gotham, the planet, the universe, and whatever else was out there.

But wait!  It finally occurred to me that the Arthurian universe is exactly the same!  Not in armor or superhuman powers.  But in the fact that over the long, long, centuries and multiplicity of writers, every hero from almost every European culture got included in the Legend.  So here are some highlights from the major players:

Arthur Tapestry in The Cloisters, New York
King Arthur begins as straight Briton legend and moves on to become the Great King.  But his wife, Guinevere, is Welsh, according to the medieval Welsh Triads.  Her name in Welsh, Gwenhwyfar (or Gwenhwyvar), can be translated as "The White Enchantress", which would indicate that somewhere along the line, she had a story of her own.  And old one.  And perhaps - since Arthur as Christian king goes back to the Historia Brittonum, when he carried an image of St. Mary on his shoulders (or on his shield) - it could be a record of the Christian Briton King marrying the Welsh Pagan Princess.

We'll get into Guinevere's fling with Lancelot in a minute, because there are a lot more Welsh Pagan Princesses out there, including Morgan Le Fay.  She and Morgause are Arthur's older half-sisters.  Morgan is a witch, and (before some later legends made her evil) was Merlin's ally and friend.  She's also one of the ladies who take the dying Arthur to the Isle of Avalon, where he is waiting for his time to come back to save Briton.  (Note to Arthur:  Brexit needs you now.)

Morgause is much more problematic from the get-go.  Oh, the hell with political correctness:  she's a villain.  Married to Lot, the King of Orkney (one of the northernmost islands of Britain, and a far piece from Wales or Cornwall), they have four sons:  Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth, all of whom become knights of the Round Table, most of them heroic.  She also has a fifth son with her half-brother, King Arthur, under circumstances that allowed them both to declare they didn't know their relationship at the time.  This story-line is proof, BTW, that
(1) Alcohol and darkness are a very old plot device to make sure the wrong people end up bedding each other and
(2) In the great sagas, ignorance never equals innocence.  Or at least, not freedom from consequences.  That fifth son is Mordred, who will eventually come to Camelot and destroy it.

Gawain and the Green Knight
illustration from original ms.
But Gawain is a noble knight, one of the great heroes of the Arthurian sagas.  Pure Celt, but is he British?  There are indications that Gawain was co-opted from the early Welsh superhero Gwalchmei.  Or it could also be  - as Sir Bors says in White's The Once and Future King, "I suppose, they would have pronounced it Cuchullain in the North? You can't tell with ancient languages." Cuchullainn is, of course, the great Irish superhero of the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley").  Either way, there's a definite crossover.  Gawain stars in many adventures of his own, the best being Gawain and the Green Knight.
There's nothing quite like a green giant showing up at Camelot at Christmastime, demanding - as a boon - a beheading contest with a knight.  Gawain takes him up on it, and after being beheaded, the Giant picks up his head and demands that Gawain show up at his castle to reciprocate.  Adventures ensue.  It's one hell of a tale.  Among others, Dorothy Sayers and J. R. R. Tolkein did wonderful translations of it.  
Kay is one of the oldest characters in the legends.  Arthur's foster-brother and seneschal, i.e., steward, he's kind of the Arthurian Hulk/Bruce Bannon:  sometimes he's boorish, violent, rude, and sometimes he's a great warrior. He has superhuman powers: no one is able to brave fire or water like him, he can go nine days and nine nights without the need to breathe or to sleep, he can grow as "tall as the tallest tree in the forest if he pleased" and has the ability to radiate supernatural heat from his hands.

Meanwhile, Lancelot is probably a then-modernization (yes, every age has always thought we're the most modern on the planet, and we've always been right) of a tale that has been told for millennia:  A royal infant, stolen by a water fairy (du Lac), grows up, and is presented to the world of warriors at a tournament (war games), where he fights three consecutive days in three different disguises, wins every time, and later, he rescues the queen (or princess) from a prison.  The love affair with Guinevere is a later addition, probably was introduced in the 12th century, perhaps at Eleanor of Aquitaine's Court at Poitiers (well known as the haven for troubadors), where they practically invented romantic love.

Sir Percival, a/k/a Parsifal, is the original Questor for the Holy Grail.  Chrétien de Troyes wrote his saga (while on the First Crusade, apparently), basing it (he said) on an older manuscript belonging to his patron, Philip I Count of Flanders.  The original manuscript is the first mention not only of Percival, but the Quest, and the Fisher King (which is a whole, mysterious, and beautiful legend in and of itself).

But the true Grail hero is, of course, Sir Galahad - the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine.  Some people think that Sir Galahad comes from legends of the Cistercian or other monastic orders (although I'd say he sounds more like a Knight Templar), with his absolute virtue and great martial skills.  "My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure" (Tennyson, Idylls of the King).  Galahad is the greatest knight, the purest knight, and he is the one who not only sees the Grail but is accepted by the Grail:  he gets to take it to heaven and neither ever come back.  (Sorry, Dan Brown.)

And Merlin.  Merlin Ambrosius, in Welsh Myrddin, enchanter, wizard, conceived by a demon, born of a woman, who sees the future, who perhaps goes mad, who lives backwards in time, who knows what will happen and cannot stop it, who has superhuman powers, and who is seduced and locked away by a woman, Nimue...  There are many traditions about him, and each author chose only a few. 

And that is only a handful of a huge, multi-national, multi-ethnic cast, with powers that range from simple military ability to supernatural powers.  Each new writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, Thomas Mallory, Tennyson, Charles Williams, T. H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and on and on and on have added a new layer, and often new characters to the Arthurian Universe.  See the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and King Arthur and the Holy Grail, for a nice combination of starter sites.  Oh, and read the books.

Sadly, imho, most of the movies about Camelot and Arthur have been pretty lame.  Mostly because, instead of embracing its richness and complexity, they try to contain the entire King Arthur story in 2 hours.  No, no, no.  What we need is a Peter Jackson version.  Three, four movies at the very least, maybe endlessly, like the Star Wars saga, the Star Trek saga, the Marvel Universe saga.  It would be wonderful...