Showing posts with label saga. Show all posts
Showing posts with label saga. Show all posts

11 April 2019

Arthur and the Avengers


 by Eve Fisher

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
https://filmreviewonline.com/2019/04/09/avengers-endgame-surprising-reveal-at-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.
Wikipedia
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...


28 February 2013

A Quarrelsome Lot...


by Eve Fisher

As I said before, we're in process of moving, and I am currently off-line until the 1st.  So I thought share with you some notes from a cruise my husband and I took in 2005.  It was called "Voyage of the Vikings" and we took it specifically because it took us to Norway via Greenland and Iceland.  How else, we figured, would we get there?  And let me tell you, both were spectacular.  So much so that I was disappointed in Norway.

Nuuk, Greenland
Nobody warned us about Greenland – how beautiful, how spectacular it was.  Stark mountains, with no trees, little runnels of snow in the crevices.  We went ashore and walked through the town and up a mountain – the rock was bare, grey, rough, lichen-patched, and in between the rocks was moss, so thick it sprang underfoot.  The view was breathtaking – one of the few times I wished I had a camera (in fact I bought one when I got back on ship), especially one mountain that was twin-peaked, and rippling between the peaks was a great curtain of granite.  I could swear I’ve seen it before, and probably have, in a photo or another lifetime.  I wish I could have done more hiking – the rock was so firm and rough underfoot, easy to cling to, and then the lichen…  But we only had until noon to explore.

Nuuk, with Whale
A very nice Danish man took us, for free, on a tour of the town.  Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, about 14,000 population, mostly in cinderblock apartments, many of which have a view of the sea.  It would be a hard place to live in, but also a hard place to leave, too, if you were from there.  So much space, so much hiking and fishing and hunting, all in amazing privacy and, undoubtedly, intimacy, at the top of the world.

Prince Christian Sound, Greenland
And then there was Prince Christian Sound, a fjord along the southwestern coast of Greenland – miles and miles of sharp-tipped mountains, tipped with arrows and points and flames of rock, hundreds of feet high, thin waterfalls falling down from crumbling blue glaciers.  Ice-bergs, white, carved in curves, with neon blue cracks, floated in the water.  The whole thing took about 4-6 hours to go through.  At one point there was a fishing village, of maybe 20 houses, tucked into one of the mini-fjords rivuleting off the main fjord.  So isolated:  to live there would be like living on another planet.


Gullfoss, Iceland
Iceland was amazing, too, and I really hope to go back there some day.  We went on the “Golden Circle” tour, which was all day.  Saw the geysers – Geiser itself, which rarely spouts after an earthquake in the 90’s, and its sister, which spouts every few minutes.  Geiser is THE geyser, from which we get the name. Then to Gullfoss, the Golden Falls – a spectacular glacier-melt waterfall that sent up tremendous veils and clouds of mist, thick as smoke, that fed a huge carpet of thick wet green moss.  And there’s a permanent rainbow – sometimes two – arcing over that green moss, shimmering in the spray.  Iceland’s a fairly dry country (especially when compared to Ireland), and you could tell how dry it is by how rich the moss, grass, ferns, and flowers were along the run and spray of Gullfoss, compared to the brown dry hillocks all around – old lava flows, cooled and crumbling to earth under the deceptive cover of moss and lichen.

Thingfeller (but it really doesn't do it justice)
We also went to Thingvellir National Park; and that landscape was all sweeping mountains, much like western Montana or Wyoming, only drier, barer, darker, sterner.  Snow patches in the heights and, in the distance, a great glacier that stretched for miles between two mountain peaks.  At first you thought it was clouds, but no cloud stays so white, so flat, so still, so perfectly held between two peaks.  And Thingvellir itself – well, it’s pretty obvious why the old Icelanders met there to do their lawgiving.  Great black basalt blocks stacked into pillars, in a long curved natural amphitheater (following one of the major geologic fault lines of the earth, between the European and American plates).  And from Thingvellir you look up at these pillars, and then out, away, at a blue, blue, blue lake, and the long sweep from valley to the tall dark mountains on all sides.  It would take a lot of something – honor, pride, hubris, holiness, justice, certainty – to speak out from there, but if you could summon your voice, I think you’d be listened to.

The old Icelanders were a quarrelsome lot – most humans are – full of blood feuds and exiles and sudden death.  So, in truth, was old Ireland, but it gets less play.  For one thing, the Icelanders wrote theirs down in the sagas, like Burnt Njal, which had their fanciful aspects, but were mostly fairly accurate accounts of who, what, where, how, and why.  Njal was a farmer who, with his wife, really was burnt to death, and his farmstead (not the house, of course) still exists.  The entire tale has no superheroes, and only a little sorcery, and even less deus ex machina.   (It's very good - but get the modern translation, which captures the dry wit.  "Is he home?"  "I don't know, but his axe certainly is," he replied, falling down dead.)

What's interesting is that the Irish have a lot of the same blood as the Icelanders, but in Ireland, the old stories have been transmogrified into myth to a point where it’s almost impossible to disentangle truth from hero-worship.  Cuchulain – who undoubtedly lived as a strong, young warrior of great renown in his own day – was turned into a demi-god of war in epic poems like the Cattle Raid of Cooley, and then transformed even further into Sir Gawain in the original Arthurian Tales, and transformed again, until today old Ireland is thought of as a gentle land of bards and poets, saints and maidens, as opposed to old Iceland, that grim and warring place.

Yet the grimness and fierceness of old Ireland can be seen in the tales of the early Christian Irish monks, with their tremendous asceticism, standing in icy water up to their armpits as they recited the whole Psalter, the war St. Columba started (over a book of the Gospels!) in which hundreds were killed, in the self-imposed exiles to forbidding rocks like Skellig Michael, in St. Bridget, “who never washed her face or her hands.”  

 The Celt is the Celt is the Celt. But it’s all in the telling. Isn't it always?