Monday, 4 May 2009

Group Reading: The Once and Future King

Based on medieval Arthurian legends, The Once and Future King is a twentieth-century version of young Arthur's quest for the sword Excalibur and his claim to the throne of England. Including many well-known and much-loved episodes with Merlyn, the sorcerer; Morgan La Fay, the witch; and knights jousting and hounds engaged in the hunt, White's novel adds to the lore surrounding the person of King Arthur.

Quartet of novels by T.H. White, published in a single volume in 1958. The quartet comprises The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness--first published as The Witch in the Wood (1939)--The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (published in the composite volume, 1958). The series is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur's birth to the end of his reign, and is based largely on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur. After White's death, a conclusion to The Once and Future King was found among his papers; it was published in 1977 as The Book of Merlyn.

The Once and Future King defies classification. Is it for children, or for adults? Is it fantasy or a psychological novel? In its great range, it encompasses poetry and farce, comedy and tragedy -and sudden flights of schoolboy humour. White's footnote to Malory' (his own phrase) resulted in the last major retelling of the story based on Malory's Morte DarthurWhite's story of Arthur begins with his enfances', set in an imaginary medieval England, but it is far removed from the conventional historical novel. White was writing in wartime England, a country increasingly absorbed by a need to find an antidote to war. Through the medium of the Arthurian story he found his own voice, his unique contribution to keeping alive the flame of civilisation. Malory's chivalric virtues are rejected in favour of White's own twentieth-century values; the love affair of Lancelot and Guenever is interpreted in terms of modern psychology. The books which eventually made up The Once and Future Kingof 1958 appeared in distinctly different editions
In discussing these, we need to look at some of the ways in which White drew on his own personal experience at a deep psychological level, while also incorporating into his story material inspired by his antiquarian pursuits and by his years as a schoolmaster. White's use of historical material, and the relationship of The Once and Future King to the Morte Darthur


One of the most fascinating figures in the Welsh mythology and the Arthurian legend is Merlin, the great wizard, prophet and adviser to several kings, including King Arthur.
Name Merlin.Myrddin (Welsh).Merlinus (Latin).
Emrys (Welsh), Ambrosius (Latin);
Merlin Ambrosius.Merlin Calidonius.

Historia regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain", c. 1137) andthe Vita Merlini ("Life of Merlin", c. 1152) were written by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Roman de Brut ("Story of Brutus") was written by Wace, c. 1155.
Brut was written by Layamon, c. 1200.
Merlin was written by Robert de Boron, c. 1200.
Vulgate Merlin or Prose Merlin was adaptation of Boron's Merlin, c. 1210.
Suite de Merlin was part of Post Vulgate Cycle, c. 1240.
Le Morte d'Arthur was written by Thomas Malory, 1469.
Historia Brittonum was written by Nennius (9th century).

"In dark age Britain we have to recognize various adverse factor, such as the loss and destruction of manuscripts by invading armies; the character of the early material, oral rather than written; the decline of learning and even literacy among the Welsh monks who might have kept reliable records. The whole period is plunged in obscurity from the same causes. People who were certainly real and important are no better attested."

Since we don't have the necessary fifth and sixth century records, it's impossible to say absolutely that Merlin did or did not exist.

- From Tennyson's "Idylls"

The pale blood of the wizard at her touch

Took gayer colours, like an opal warmed.

She blamed herself for telling hearsay tales:

She shook from fear, and for her fault she wept

Of petulancy; she called him lord and liege,

Her seer, her bard, her silver star of eve,

Her God, her Merlin, the one passionate love

Of her whole life; and ever overhead

Bellowed the tempest, and the rotten branch

Snapt in the rushing of the river-rain
Above them; and in change of glare and gloom

Her eyes and neck glittering went and came;

Till now the storm, its burst of passion spent,

Moaning and calling out of other lands,

Had left the ravaged woodland yet once more

To peace; and what should not have been had been,

For Merlin, overtalked and overworn,

Had yielded, told her all the charm, and slept.

Legendary Roots - Possible Merlins
Transformation of Celtic Mythology in Arthurian Legend
There may have been a real Merlin, such as the one Nikolai Tolstoy describes in Quest for Merlin: "...Merlin was indeed an historical figure, living in what are now the lowlands of Scotland at the end of the sixth century authentic prophet, most likely a druid surviving in a pagan enclave of the north."The Merlin prototype may have been a Celtic druid named Lailoken who gained second sight after he went mad and escaped society to live in the forest.
A poem from A.D. 600 describes a Welsh prophet named Myrddin
The 9th century monk Nennius, described as "inventive" in his history writing, wrote about Merlin, a fatherless Ambrosius, and prophesies. Despite Nennius' lack of reliability, he is a source for us today because Nennius used fifth century sources that are no longer extant.
In Math The Son of Mathonwy, from the classic collection of Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion, Gwydion, a bard and magician, performs love spells and uses cunning to protect and help an infant boy. While some see this Gwydion trickster as Arthur, others see in him as Merlin. Passages from Nennius' History(
Sections on Vortigern include the following prophecy referred to in Part I of the Merlin television mini-series: "You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose." The child was Ambrose.ORB -- Sub-Roman Britain: An Introduction Following barbarian raids, troop withdrawals from Britain ordered by Magnus Maximus in A.D. 383, Stilicho in 402, and Constantine III in 407, the Roman administration elected three tyrants: Marcus, Gratian, and Constantine. However, we have little information from the actual time period -- three dates and the writing of Gildas and St. Patrick, who rarely writes about Britain.
In A.D. 540, Gildas wrote De Excidio Britanniae ("The Ruin of Britain") which includes an historical explanation. This site's translated passages mention Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
In 1138, combining Nennius' history and Welsh tradition about a bard named Myrddin, Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his Historia Regum Britanniae, which traces the British kings to the great-grandson of Aeneas, Trojan hero and legendary founder of Rome. In about A.D. 1150, Geoffrey also wrote a Vita Merlini. Merlin: Texts, Images, Basic Information(Merlin) Apparently worried that the Anglo-Norman audience would take offense at the similarity between the name Merdinus and merde, Geoffrey changed the prophet's name. Geoffrey's Merlin helps Uther Pendragon and moves the stones to Stonehenge from Ireland. Geoffrey also wrote a Prophecies of Merlin which he later incorporated into his History.

Merlin is best known as the wizard featured in Arthurian legend. The standard depiction of the character first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and is based on an amalgamation of previous historical and legendary figures. Geoffrey combined existing stories of Myrddin Wyllt (Merlinus Caledonensis), a northern madman with no connection to King Arthur, with tales of Aurelius Ambrosius to form the composite figure he called Merlin Ambrosius.
Geoffrey's rendering of the character was immediately popular; later writers expanded the account to produce a fuller image of the wizard. Merlin's traditional biography casts him as born of mortal woman, sired by an incubus, the non-human wellspring from whom he inherits his supernatural powers and abilities. Merlin matures to an ascendant sagehood and engineers the birth of Arthur through magic and intrigue. Later, Merlin serves as the king's advisor until he is bewitched and imprisoned by the Lady of the Lake.)
Katharine Mary Briggs (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, p.440. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
(Katharine Mary Briggs (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, p.440. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73467-X

Geoffrey's composite Merlin is based primarily on Myrddin Wyllt, also called Merlinus Caledonensis, and Aurelius Ambrosius, a mostly fictionalized version of the historical war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. The former had nothing to do with Arthur and flourished after the Arthurian period. According to lore he was a bard driven mad after witnessing the horrors of war, who fled civilization to become a wildman of the woods in the 6th century. Geoffrey had this individual in mind when he wrote his earliest surviving work, the Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he claimed were the actual words of the legendary madman. Medievalist Gaston Paris suggested he altered the name to "Merlinus" rather than the standard romanization "Merdinus" to avoid a resemblance to the vulgar French word merde, meaning "excrement".
Geoffrey's Prophetiae do not reveal much about Merlin's background. When he included the prophet in his next work, Historia Regum Britanniae, he supplemented the characterization by attributing to him stories about Aurelius Ambrosius, taken from Nennius' Historia Brittonum. According to Nennius, Ambrosius was discovered when the British king Vortigern was trying to erect a tower. The tower always collapsed before completion, and his wise men told him the only solution was to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a "child born without a father". Ambrosius was rumored to be such a child, but when brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the tower's collapse: below the foundation was a lake containing two dragons who destroyed the tower by fighting. Geoffrey retells this story in Historia Regum Britanniæ with some embellishments, and gives the fatherless child the name of the prophetic bard, Merlin. He keeps this new figure separate from Aurelius Ambrosius, and to disguise his changing of Nennius, he simply states that Ambrosius was another name for Merlin. He goes on to add new episodes that tie Merlin into the story of King Arthur and his predecessors.
Geoffrey dealt with Merlin again in his third work, Vita Merlini. He based the Vita on stories of the original 6th century Myrddin. Though set long after his timeframe for the life of "Merlin Ambrosius," he tries to assert the characters are the same with references to King Arthur and his death as told in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
Merlinus Caledonensis, or Myrddin Wyllt
The earliest (pre-12th century) Welsh poems concerning the Myrddin legend present him as a madman living a wretched existence in the Caledonian Forest, ruminating on his former existence and the disaster that brought him low: the death of his lord Gwenddoleu, whom he served as bard. The allusions in these poems serve to sketch out the events of the Battle of Arfderydd, where Riderch Hael, King of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) slaughtered the forces of Gwenddoleu, and Myrddin went mad watching this defeat. The Annales Cambriae date this battle to AD 573 and name Gwenddoleu's adversaries as the sons of Eliffer, presumably Gwrgi and Peredur.
Some early references name the madman as "Lailoken"; this name especially used in the hagiography of Saint Kentigern. A version of this legend is preserved in a late 15th century manuscript, in a story called Lailoken and Kentigern. In this narrative, Kentigern meets in a deserted place with the naked, hairy madman Lailoken, also called Merlynum or "Merlin", who declares that he has been condemned for his sins to wander in the company of beasts. He adds that he had been the cause for the deaths of all of the persons killed in the battle fought "on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok." Having told his story, the madman leaps up and flees from the presence of the saint back into the wilderness. He appears several times more in the narrative until at last he asks Kentigern for the sacrament, prophesying that he was about to die a triple death. After some hesitation, the saint grants the madman's wish, and later that day the shepherds of King Meldred capture him, beat him with clubs, then cast him into the River Tweed where his body is pierced by a stake, thus fulfilling his prophecy.
Welsh literature has many examples of a prophetic literature, predicting the military victory of all of the Brythonic peoples of Great Britain who will join together and drive the English – and later the Normans – back into the sea. Some of these works were claimed to be the prophecies of Myrddin; some were not, as for example the Armes Prydein. This wild prophetic Merlin was also treated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini which looks like a close adaptation of a number of Myrddin poems.
Geoffrey's account of Merlin Ambrosius' early life in the Historia Regum Britanniae is based on the story of Ambrosius in the Historia Brittonum. He adds his own embellishments to the tale, which he sets in Carmarthen (Welsh: Caerfyrddin). While Nennius' Ambrosius eventually reveals himself to be the son of a Roman consul, Geoffrey's Merlin is begotten on a king's daughter by an incubus. The story of Vortigern's tower is essentially the same; the underground dragons, one white and one red, represent the Saxons and the British, and their final battle is a portent of things to come.
At this point Geoffrey inserts a long section of Merlin's prophecies, taken from his earlier Prophetiae Merlini. He tells only two further tales of the character; in the first, Merlin creates Stonehenge as a burial place for Aurelius Ambrosius. In the second, Merlin's magic enables Uther Pendragon to enter into Tintagel in disguise and father his son Arthur on his enemy's wife, Igraine. These episodes appear in many later adaptations of Geoffrey's account.
Several decades later the poet Robert de Boron retold this material in his poem Merlin. Only a few lines of the poem have survived, but a prose retelling became popular and was later incorporated into two other romances. In Robert's account Merlin is begotten by a devil on a virgin as an intended Antichrist. This plot is thwarted when the expectant mother informs her confessor Blaise of her predicament; they immediately baptize the boy at birth, thus freeing him from the power of Satan. The demonic legacy invests Merlin with a preternatural knowledge of the past and present, which is supplemented by God, who gives the boy a prophetic knowledge of the future.
Robert de Boron lays great emphasis on Merlin's power to shapeshift, on his joking personality and on his connection to the Holy Grail. This text introduces Merlin's master Blaise, who is pictured as writing down Merlin's deeds, explaining how they came to be known and preserved. Robert was inspired by Wace's Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia. Robert's poem was rewritten in prose in the 12th century as the Estoire de Merlin, also called the Vulgate or Prose Merlin. It was originally attached to a cycle of prose versions of Robert's poems, which tells the story of the Holy Grail; brought from the Middle East to Britain by followers of Joseph of Arimathea, and eventually recovered by Arthur's knight Percival. The Prose Merlin was detached from that shorter cycle to serve as a sort of prequel to the vast Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate Cycle. The authors of that work expanded it with the Vulgate Suite du Merlin (Vulgate Merlin Continuation), which described King Arthur's early adventures. The Prose Merlin was also used as a prequel to the later Post-Vulgate Cycle, the authors of which added their own continuation, the Huth Merlin or Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin. These works were adapted and translated into several other languages; the Post-Vulgate Suite was the inspiration for the early parts of Sir Thomas Malory's English language Le Morte d'Arthur.
Many later medieval works also deal with the Merlin legend. For example, The Prophecies of Merlin contains long prophecies of Merlin (mostly concerned with 13th century Italian politics), some by his ghost after his death. The prophecies are interspersed with episodes relating Merlin's deeds and with various Arthurian adventures in which Merlin does not appear at all. The earliest English verse romance concerning Merlin is Arthour and Merlin, which drew from chronicles and the French Lancelot-Grail.
As the Arthurian mythos was retold and embellished, Merlin's prophetic aspects were sometimes de-emphasized in favor of portraying Merlin as a wizard and elder advisor to Arthur. On the other hand in Lancelot-Grail it is said that Merlin was never baptized and never did any good in his life, only evil. Medieval Arthurian tales abound in inconsistencies. In the Lancelot-Grail and later accounts Merlin's eventual downfall came from his lusting after a woman named Nimue (or Ninive, in some versions of the legend), one of the maidens serving the Lady of the Lake, who coaxed his magical secrets from him before turning her new powers against her master and trapping him in an enchanted prison (variously described as a cave, a large rock, an invisible tower, etc.) This is unfortunate for Arthur, who has lost his greatest counselor.

The Book of Merlyn is an Arthurian fantasy book written by T. H. White. It is the conclusion of The Once and Future King, but it was published separately and

Plot summary

The book opens as King Arthur prepares himself for his final battle. Merlyn reappears to complete Arthur's education and discover the cause of wars. As he did in The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn again demonstrates ethics and politics to Arthur by transforming him into various animals.
The last chapter of the book takes place only hours before the final battle between King Arthur and his son and nephew Mordred. Arthur does not want to fight after everything that he has learned from Merlyn. He makes a deal with Mordred to split England in half. Mordred accepts. During the making of this deal, a snake comes upon one of Mordred's soldiers. The soldier draws his sword. The opposing side, unaware of the snake, takes this as an act of betrayal. Arthur's troops attack Mordred's, and both Arthur and Mordred die in the battle that follows.
Guenever joins a convent, and remains there till death. Lancelot becomes a hermit and dies a hermit. His last miracle was making the room that he died in smell like heaven.
[edit] Concept & CreationWhite was inspired to write this book upon determining that the key theme of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is to find an "antidote for war". Rather than containing a distinct plot, this book reads more like a discourse on war and human nature.[1]
Originally submitted for publication in 1941, due to wartime paper shortages, White was unable to convince his publisher to include The Book of Merlyn as part of the collected edition of The Once and Future King (which was first published in its entirety in 1958).[1] Perhaps this is also due to this book's philosophical and plot-light nature.
He nevertheless managed to salvage parts of this rejected text. While revising The Sword in the Stone for the collected edition, he adapted scenes from The Book of Merlyn. The unfortunate consequence is that parts of The Book of Merlyn appear to be rehashing things White has already covered earlier in the collected version of The Once and Future King.
[edit] Rediscovery & PublicationThe Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin purchased the bulk of White's personal papers and manuscripts between 1967 and 1969. The original manuscript for The Book of Merlyn was discovered amongst this collection, and was prepared for publication by the University of Texas Press in 1977.

Townsend Warner, Sylvia (1978). "The Story of the Book". in White T.H.. The Book of Merlyn. London: Fontana/Collins. ISBN 0-00-615725-4.
This magical account of King Arthur's last night on earth spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list following its publication in 1977. Even in addressing the profound issues of war and peace, The Book of Merlyn retains the life and sparkle for which White is known. The tale brings Arthur full circle, an ending, White wrote, that "will turn my completed epic into a perfect fruit, 'rounded off and bright and done.'"
More details

The book of Merlyn: the unpublished conclusion to The once and future king

By Terence Hanbury White.

Edition: 6, reprint, illustratedPublished by University of Texas Press, 1988ISBN 029270769X, 9780292707696137 pages

T.H. White: The Once and Future King

T.H. White's The Once and Future King is easily the most accessible Arthurian work of the 20th century. It appeals to audiences of all ages and to readers on many different levels. Its use of humor and anachronistic references help ground the reader in the subject matter in a way that no one before or since has accomplished.

The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy novel written by T. H. White. It was first published in 1958 and is mostly a composite of earlier works.
The title comes from the supposed inscription of the marker over King Arthur's grave: HIC IACET ARTORIVS REX QVONDAM REXQVE FVTVRVS — "Here lies Arthur, the once and future king."

The Once and Future King is a tetralogy consisting of four previously published works: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.

T. H. White uses The Once and Future King as his own personal view of the ideal society. The book, most of which "takes place on the isle of Gramarye," chronicles the raising and education of King Arthur, his rule as a king, and the romance between his best knight Sir Lancelot and his Queen Guinevere (which he spells Guenever). It ends immediately before Arthur's final battle against his illegitimate soOne often quoted passage from the book is the story which the badger calls his "dissertation," a retelling of the Creation story from Genesis.
Plot summary
The story starts in the last years of the rule of king Uther Pendragon.

The Sword in the Stone chronicles Arthur's raising by his foster father Sir Ector, his rivalry and friendship with his foster brother Kay, and his initial training by Merlyn, a wizard who lives through time backwards. Merlyn, knowing the boy's destiny, teaches Arthur (known as "Wart") what it means to be a good king by turning him into various kinds of animals: fish, hawk, ant, owl, goose, and badger. Each of the transformations is meant to teach Wart a lesson, which will prepare him for his future life.
In fact, Merlyn instills in Arthur the concept that the only justifiable reason for war is to prevent another from going to war then, and that contemporary human governments and powerful people exemplify the worst aspects of the rule of Might.
The Queen of Air and Darkness, White sets the stage for Arthur's demise by introducing the Orkney clan and detailing Arthur's seduction by their mother, his half-sister Morgause. While the young king suppresses initial rebellions, Merlyn leads him to envision a means of harnessing potentially destructive Might for the cause of Right: the Round Table.
The Ill-Made Knight, shifts focus from King Arthur to the story of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever's forbidden love and its effect on Elaine, the mother of Lancelot's son, and the King.
The Candle in the Wind unites these narrative threads by telling how Mordred's hatred of his father and Agravaine's hatred of Sir Lancelot caused the eventual downfall of King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Lancelot, and the entire ideal kingdom of Camelot.n Mordred. Though White admits his book's source material is loosely derived from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), he creates a personal reinterpretation of the epic events, filling them with renewed meaning for a world enduring the Second World War.
The book begins as a quite light-hearted account of the young Arthur's adventures, Merlyn's incompetence at magic, and King Pellinore's interminable search for the Questing Beast. Parts of The Sword in the Stone read almost as a parody of the traditional Arthurian legend by virtue of White's prose style, which relies heavily on anachronisms. However, the tale gradually becomes darker until Ill-Made Knight loses much of the original humor and The Candle in the Wind is mirthless.

In the first book, The Sword in the Stone
We see Arthur's education at the hands of Merlyn, a learned but frazzled character who is living backwards. (Thus, he already knows what's going to happen; he strives, therefore, to impart on his subject the importance of doing right.) Arthur is here called the Wart, a nickname given him by his foster brother, Kay, son of Sir Ector, lord of a castle in the Forest Sauvage. As a student of Merlyn, Wart encounters three different kinds of governments--feudalism in his daily life with Ector, totalitarianism in his time as an ant, and anarchy in his time as a goose. As always, Merlyn's point is that knowledge is power. One of the prime lessons of this education is that a goose (or any winged animal) can see beyond boundaries on land. In other words, a man's worth is not only based on how much land and property he has; also, a government is not nearly as important as its leader.

Wart's adventures continue with Merlyn and with Kay until the fateful day of the tourney, at which Wart pulls the Sword from the Stone.
Arthur the King faces many troubles right away, including a strong claim from Lot, King of Orkney. His wife, Morgause, is the subject of the second book,

The Queen of Air and Darkness (originally The Witch in the Wood). The sons of Orkney, Gawain foremost among them, cause no end of trouble for Arthur and Lancelot throughout the last three books.

The Ill-Made Knight, the third book, is concerned mainly with Lancelot, who is portrayed by White as being amazingly ugly though competent in arms. Despite this ugliness (and probably because of this competence), Guinevere falls in love with him. The book ends with their at-long-last tryst.

In the last book, The Candle in the Wind, Arthur becomes the main character again. His past comes back to haunt him as Mordred arrives in Camelot. The bastard uses the Lancelot-Guinevere affair to his advantage in breaking apart the Round Table.

The book ends
with Arthur telling the story to a young man named Tom on the eve of the Battle of Camlann. Overall, the book has a different feel from other Arthurian tellings. These books have humor, chiefly in the form of Merlyn and of King Pellinore, whose efforts in hunting the Questing Beast and at fighting Sir Grummore Grummersom are shot through with gentle and broad humor.

Finally, there is the theme of war.
White, a pacifist, fills his hero, Arthur, with a war-weariness and a determination to do what is right: "Might for Right." From the very beginning, Arthur has to fight to keep what he has earned. He fends off challenges from Lot and from outsiders; he tries to keep his Round Table intact in the face of a serious challenge from Mordred and the sons of Orkney; he tries to keep his kingdom intact by fighting for his very life against Mordred and his growing number of allies.

He fights, fights, fights. His tone at the end of the fourth book, in the chat with young Tom, is one of acceptance of his fate. However, even weighed down by the knowledge of certain death, he finds the strength to encourage young Tom to survive the battle and tell the story.
Now, since The Once and Future King ends on the eve of the Battle of Camlann, the book has no mention of what eventually happened to Arthur. T.H. White wrote The Book of Merlyn to tell that story. Left out of the set by the publishers, this book was published in its own right several years later. In it, Merlyn returns to Arthur and returns Arthur to happier days, when he visited the ants and geese and came face to face with the war-crazed ants and the happy-go-lucky geese. Buoyed by this return to the innocence of his youth, Arthur intends to ask Mordred for a truce.

But fate intervenes: Echoing Malory, White has a snake cause the fateful, final battle. We see the end of Arthur and of Lancelot and Guinevere. We see the end of an era. But we see the future, too, and it is filled with hope.
This condemnation of the evils of war is a vast departure from the Welsh war songs that began the story of Arthur. As the 20th century winds down, we see many more departures from the common theme. Two of the greatest and most successful departures are written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart.

Characterisation in the work
Perhaps most striking about White's work is how he reinterprets the traditional Arthurian characters, often giving them motivations or traits more complex or even contradictory to those in earlier versions of the legend. For example:
Arthur is a well-intentioned king as trained by Merlyn, but it seems that his greatest flaw is his inability to adapt once Merlyn leaves him: he comes off as well-meaning yet rather ineffectual Lancelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romantic legends but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of that lot. He is also a sadist, a trait he represses, but which leads to bouts of self-loathing. He seeks to overcome his flaws through full devotion towards becoming Arthur's greatest knight Merlyn lives through time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger It is also interesting to note that White allows Thomas Malory to have a cameo appearance towards the end of the final book. Also of note is White's treatment of historical characters and kings as mythological within this world that he creates. In addition, due to his living backwards, Merlyn makes many anachronistic allusions to events in more recent times; of note are references to the Second World War, telegraphs, tanks, and "an Austrian who … plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos" (i.e. Hitler).
Usage of Political Ideals
Underscoring the story of Arthur's life, from his youth and education to the end of his reign, is a well thought out commentary on how mankind should govern itself, written in the context of the Second World War. The political stand points are totalitarianism, communism, anarchy, and socialism.
When Arthur first ascends to the throne, the country is ruled by what he calls Fort Mayne, or the rule of the strongest. The barons and nobles ride around the countryside doing whatever they wish--being unpleasant, exploitative, and sometimes murderous. Despite the ongoing question of whether humanity is naturally evil, through most of the book King Arthur is optimistic that there is a means to curb humanity's tendency toward violence and cruelty. The latter three parts of the book show the progression of his search for a solution. His first solution to the rule of power is to crush it with power ("Might is Right"). As a young king, he conquers rival barons in a war in which Arthur dispenses with gentlemanly protocols so as to force the barons to experience the horrors of war firsthand. However, this is clearly not a permanent solution, but merely perpetuates the problem.
His next move is to channel power into something worthy. He reinvents Chivalry, and forms the Round Table, making it a goal for his knights to use their Might to rescue maidens and right wrongs ("Might for Right"). However, this solution does not last for long. Once all the wrongs are righted, and England settles into a golden period of peace and lawfulness, the knights grow bored, and things at court start to go badly. Pettiness and squabbling arise, and society stagnates. This is what Merlyn calls "Games-Mania": the knights become caught up in Jousting and Tourneys, to the point that vicious rivalries are established, especially the Orkney-Lancelot one. A better solution is needed.
Arthur's next move is to seek the solution from outside the mundane world. He sends his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail — aiming their power toward God instead of toward worldly things ("Might for God"). This, however, is a failure, too, because any knight who achieves the quest is perfect, and thus no longer suitable to live in an imperfect world. The other knights who fail are for a time positively affected by the quest (Sir Lancelot in particular), but it does not take long for them to fall back into their old ways. In addition, many knights who fail the quest (Gawaine) feel humiliated by Lancelot and Galahad, and many good knights end up dying in the quest for the Grail.
Arthur's final solution as king is to formalise power: he reinvents Civil Law ("Right is Right"). Instead of power being wielded by the knights, it now belongs to the state. An example of this would be the replacing of trial-by-battle with trial by jury. This solution comes back to bite Arthur when the affair between Guinevere and Launcelot is exposed: adhering to his new law means that he must punish his beloved wife and his best friend, by banishing Lancelot and burning Guinevere. However, he knows that Lancelot will rescue her, and Lancelot does indeed end up rescuing Guinevere and they escape to his castle together. However, in the process he unintentionally kills the unarmed Gaheris and Gareth.
Almost everyone considered Gareth the "best" or most "knightly" of the Orkneys; he was knighted by Lancelot, and his brother Gawaine loved him. When Lancelot kills Gareth and Gaheris while they are unarmed during the rescue of Guinevere, not recognising them in his fury, Gawaine flies into a rage and Arthur into deep depression. Gawaine tells Arthur he has no choice but to go to war with Lancelot so Gawaine can extract vengeance.
The book ends with Arthur, weary and aged, in his field pavilion on the eve of the final battle between his knights and Mordred's Thrashers. He reflects upon where he has gone wrong, and whether humans can ever learn to renounce violence. Before going forth, Arthur charges a young page (Malory) with keeping alive his legend and his ideals until a better day.
This is where The Book of Merlyn fits in: Arthur is taken to Merlyn's cave, where he meets many of his old friends from The Sword in the Stone — animals with whom he has spent time. He then spends some time as an ant, and as a goose, experiencing the structure of their societies. The ant is a fiercely territorial animal, with a rigidly structured life. The goose, on the other hand, is free, without any boundaries or borders, flying where it wants. Arthur spends an idyllic few days as a goose, before he is dragged back to Merlyn's cave. He realises that boundaries, which don't actually exist, but are purely mental constructs in human minds, are the real cause of the strife in the world, and that humanity should do away with them if he wants to achieve a successful and peaceful society.
Film, television and theatrical adaptations
Walt Disney made an adaptation of The Sword in the Stone in 1963. This movie reflects more the sense of humour of Disney's team of animators than White. The movie adds a more comical side to the original story, including song and dance, as in most Walt Disney films. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical Camelot (which was made into a movie in 1967) is also based on The Once and Future King, and features White's idea of having Thomas Malory make a cameo appearance at the end. Warner Bros. has announced that they will be releasing a film adaption with Kenneth Lonergan directing. also lists the title "The Once and Future King (2008)," but refers to a story about an Australian farmer who could possibly be an heir to the throne of England.

T.H. White

"Who so Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England."

Terence Hanbury White (29 May 1906–17 January 1964) was an English author best known for his sequence of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King, first published together in 1958.
Born 29 May 1906(1906-05-29)Bombay, India Died 17 January 1964 (aged 57)Piraeus, Athens Occupation Writer Genres Fantasy InfluencesThomas Malory, J. R. R. Tolkien[1] InfluencedGregory Maguire, Ed McBain, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling
White was born in Bombay, India, the son of Garrick Hansbury White, an Indian police superintendent, and Constance White.[2] Terence White had a discordant childhood, with an alcoholic father and an emotionally frigid mother, and his parents separated when Terence was fourteen.[3][4] White went to Cheltenham College, a public school, and Queens' College, Cambridge, where he was tutored by the scholar and occasional author L. J. Potts. Potts became a lifelong friend and correspondent, and White later referred to him as "the great literary influence in my life."[3] While at Queens' College, White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (without reading it),[5] and graduated in 1928 with a first-class degree in English.[2]
White then taught at Stowe School, Buckinghamshire, for four years. In 1936 he published England Have My Bones, a well-received memoir about a year spent in England. The same year, he left Stowe and lived in a workman's cottage, where he wrote and "revert[ed] to a feral state", engaging in falconry, hunting, and fishing.[6][2] White also became interested in aviation, partly to conquer his fear of heights.[citation needed] White wrote to a friend that in autumn 1937, "I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognisable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book."[5] The novel, which White described as "a preface to Malory",[5] was titled The Sword in the Stone and told the story of the boyhood of King Arthur. White was also influenced by Freudian psychology and his lifelong involvement in natural history. The Sword in the Stone was well-reviewed and was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.[2]
In February 1939, White moved to Doolistown, Ireland, where he lived out the international crisis and the Second World War itself as a de facto conscientious objector.[7] It was in Ireland that he wrote most of what would later become The Once and Future King; two sequels to The Sword and the Stone were published during this time: The Witch in the Wood (later retitled The Queen of Air and Darkness) in 1939, and The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. The version of The Sword in the Stone included in The Once and Future King differs in several respects from the earlier version. It is darker, and some critics prefer the earlier version. White's indirect experience of the war had a profound effect on these tales of King Arthur, which include commentaries on war and human nature in the form of a heroic narrative.
In 1946, White settled in Alderney, one of the smaller Channel Islands, where he lived for the rest of his life.[6] The same year, White published Mistress Masham's Repose, a children's book in which a young girl discovers a group of Lilliputians (the tiny people in Swift's Gulliver's Travels) living near her house. In 1947, he published The Elephant and the Kangaroo, in which a repetition of Noah's Flood occurs in Ireland. In the early 1950s White published two non-fiction books: The Age of Scandal (1950), a collection of essays about 18th-century England, and The Goshawk (1951), an account of White's attempt to train a hawk in the traditional art of falconry. In 1954 White translated and edited The Book of Beasts, an English translation of a medieval bestiary originally written in Latin.
In 1958 White completed the fourth book of The Once and Future King sequence, The Candle in the Wind, though it was first published with the other three parts and has never been published separately. The Broadway musical Camelot was based on The Once and Future King, as was the animated film The Sword in the Stone.
He died on 17 January 1964 aboard ship in Piraeus, Greece (Athens, Greece) of a heart ailment, en route to Alderney from a lecture tour in the United States.[2]
He is buried in First Cemetery of Athens. In 1977 The Book of Merlyn, a conclusion to The Once and Future King, was published posthumously.
Personal lifeAccording to Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography, White was "a homosexual and a sado-masochist."[6] He came close to marrying several times but had no enduring romantic relationships, and wrote in his diaries that "It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them."[6] White was also an agnostic,[8] and towards the end of his life a heavy drinker.[3][9]
InfluenceScience-fiction writer Michael Moorcock enjoyed White's The Once and Future King, and was especially influenced by the underpinnings of realism in his work.[10] Moorcock eventually engaged in a "wonderful correspondence" with White, and later recalled that "White [gave] me some very good advice on how to write".[10][11] J. K. Rowling has said that T. H. White's writing strongly influenced the Harry Potter books; several critics have compared Rowling's character Albus Dumbledore to White's absent-minded Merlyn,[12][13] and Rowling herself has described White's Wart as "Harry's spiritual ancestor."[14] Gregory Maguire was influenced by "White's ability to be intellectually broadminded, to be comic, to be poetic, and to be fantastic" in the writing of his 1995 novel Wicked,[15] and crime fiction writer Ed McBain also cited White as an influence.[16]
Selected bibliography
England Have My Bones (1936)

The Once and Future King /The Sword in the Stone (1938)

The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, originally titled The Witch in the Wood)

The Ill-Made Knight (1940)

The Candle in the Wind (1958)

Mistress Masham's Repose (1946)
The Elephant and the Kangaroo (1947)

The Age of Scandal (1950)

The Goshawk (1951)

The Book of Beasts (translator, 1954)

The Book of Merlyn (1977)
1 Attebery, Brian (1980). The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin. Bloomington: Indiana University. ISBN 0-2533-5665-2.

2 "T. H. White Dead; Novelist was 57" (fee required), The New York Times, 1964-01-18. Retrieved on 2008-02-10.

3 c Craig, Patricia. "Lives and letters," The Times Literary Supplement, 1989-04-07. p. 362.

4 Annan, Noel. "Character: The White-Garnett Letters and T. H. White" (book review), The New York Review of Books 11.8, 1968-11-07. Retrieved on 2008-02-13.
5 Gallix, Francois, ed (1982). Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence Between T. H. White and L. J. Potts. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-3991-2693-7. p. 93-95. (Reprinted here.)

6 Allen, Walter. "Lucky In Art Unlucky In Life" (fee required), The New York Times, 1968-04-21. Retrieved on 2008-02-10.

7 "The Importance of The Second World War to T. H. White's "Once and Future King"". Retrieved on 2008-04-30.

8 Wilson, A. N. "World of books: The knights with right on their side", The Telegraph, 2006-06-03. Retrieved on 2008-02-10.

9 Cantwell, Mary. "Books of the Times: Letters to a Friend" (book review), The New York Times, 1982-09-10. Retrieved on 2008-02-13.

10 Hudson, Patrick. "Fifty Percent Fiction: Michael Moorcock" (interview), The Zone, 2001-2002. Retrieved on 2008-02-10.

11 Klaw, Rick. "Michael Moorcock serves up sword and sorcery with a new Elric adventure", Sci Fi Weekly, 2001-04-02. Retrieved on 2008-02-10.
12 "Real Wizards: The Search for Harry's Ancestors". (2001). Retrieved on 2007-06-01.

13 Evelyn M Perry. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Novel". Retrieved on 2007-06-01. 14 "JK (JOANNE KATHLEEN) ROWLING (1966-)". Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved on 2007-10-08.

15 Nolan, Tom. "Gregory Maguire Brews Another Wicked Mix of Historical Fiction & Timeless Myth", Bookselling This Week, 2003-09-16. Retrieved on 2008-02-10.

16 "What Authors Influenced You?", Retrieved on 2007-07-10.
Warner, Sylvia Townsend (1967). T. H. White: A Biography. New York: Viking.
The Sword in the Stone is a novel by T. H. White, published in 1938, initially a stand-alone work but now the first part of a tetralogy The Once and Future King.

Walt Disney Productions adapted the story to an animated film, and the BBC adapted it to radio.

The novel is about a young boy named Wart who befriends a magician named Merlyn. As we suspect all along, but only find out for sure at the end, Wart is actually the future King Arthur. The title refers to a sword that was magically embedded in a stone so that only the future, true-born king of England would be able to remove it.
The premise is that Arthur's youth, not dealt with in Malory, was a time when he was tutored by Merlyn to prepare him for the use of power and royal life. Merlyn magically turns Wart into various animals at times. He also has more human adventures, at one point meeting the outlaw Robin Hood, (who is referred to in the novel as Robin Wood). The setting is loosely based on medieval England, and in places it incorporates White's considerable knowledge of medieval culture (as in relation to hunting, falconry and jousting). However it makes no attempt at consistent historical accuracy, and incorporates some obvious anachronisms (aided by the concept that Merlyn lives backwards in time rather than forwards, unlike everyone else).
The version appearing in 1959 in the tetralogy was substantially revised, partly to incorporate events and themes that White had originally intended to cover in a fifth volume (which was finally published after his death, as The Book of Merlyn). To this end, the revised version includes several new episodes, including a pacifist passage in which Arthur is transformed into a wild goose that flies so high as to not be able to perceive national boundaries. It leaves out some of the episodes that had appeared in the original (notably Merlyn's battle with Madam Mim which appeared in the Disney film). Many critics considered that the revised version was actually inferior to the original. Publishers tended to use the original version when it was published independently of the tetralogy; both versions are still in print.
The reasons White made these revisions are open to speculation. The Sword in the Stone, although it includes some serious themes, is to some extent a rather whimsical fantasy of Merry England. Its connection with the classical Arthurian legend was actually rather limited, although what it did take from the Arthurian legend was accurate. It was awkward to treat this as the first part of a more serious treatment of the Arthurian legend. It is also possible that White felt in a darker mood after the Second World War. It has also been said that due to wartime censorship, the publishers did not want to print some of White's more strident Anti-War sentiments (which are very prevalent in "The Book of Merlyn"). White is an example, along with Jerome K. Jerome and Compton Mackenzie, of a serious writer who became best remembered for a comical work .
Walt Disney Productions made an animated movie adaptation of The Sword in the Stone, first released on December 25, 1963 by Buena Vista Distribution. Like most Disney films, it is based on the general plot of the original story, but much of the substance of the story is considerably changed.
A BBC radio adaptation in 1982 starred Michael Hordern as Merlyn. Hordern had already starred as another great literary wizard, Tolkien's Gandalf, in the BBC's 1981 radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Greald of Wales on the Finding of King Arthur's Tomb

This page contains a translation of the writings of Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) on the discovery of King Arthur's tomb and remains. Arthur was the national hero of the Welsh, who spent many centuries struggling against the incursion of England. In the early 1060s, Harold of Wessex (later King of England in 1066) became the first English ruler to subjugate Wales. The Welsh rose up periodically throughout the High Middle Ages, often raiding the Marches (the English territories on the Welsh border), even after Wales was officially incorporated into England in 1284 under King Edward I. King Arthur was a symbol of Welsh resistance to English oppression, for according to tradition Arthur had fought against invading Germanic tribes on behalf of the Romano-Celtic ancestors of the Welsh. Arthur, said to have been slain at the Battle of Camlann, was supposedly taken to the enchanted Isle of Avalon for the healing of his wounds, so that one day he could return and rally his countrymen to repel the English once and for all. The alleged discovery of Arthur's tomb, then, was propaganda that the English could use against the Welsh, proving to them definitively that their savior was permanently deceased and would never return to liberate them.
Gerald's life
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin) was born in Manorbier, in southern Wales, to an aristocratic family primarily of Anglo-Norman descent, but with some local Welsh blood as well. He spent his adult life as a cleric, and from his writings we learn that he had a passion for ecclesiastical reform that was matched only by his passion for personal advancement in Church offices. Ultimately he grew bitter that he was never promoted as far as he would have liked, which he believed was the result of prejudice against his Welsh heritage.
Gerald's writing on the discovery of Arthur's tomb
Gerald was a prolific writer throughout his career. Today he is best known for his historical and ethnographic writings, in works such as Topographia Hibernica (The Topography of Ireland), Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland), and Descriptio Kambriae (The Description of Wales). In two of his lesser-known works we find his accounts of the discovery of King Arthur's tomb. A brief description of each is given below:
On the Instruction of Princes -- This work exists in only one manuscript, Cotton MS Julius B. xiii. Although it is chiefly a didactic treatise about the virtues required in a good prince, it is also a vehicle for political commentary; for instance, Gerald uses the work to criticize King Henry II and his sons, an indication of his growing hostility toward the English kings.

1 Mirror of the Church -- This text also exists in one manuscript, the highly damaged Cotton MS Tiberius B. xiii. Here Gerald rails against the excesses of monasteries: ambition, wealth, departure from the observance of their rules, etc.

2 Essentially, in this work Gerald "scathe[s] with no sparing hand the monastic degeneracy of his times."

3 A note on the translations by John William Sutton
Brackets in the translation represent my own editorial interjections. I use parentheses to help render some of Gerald's complicated Latin syntax into readable English.

The Discovery of the Tomb of King ArthurfromLiber de Principis Instructione[On the Instruction of Princes]

The memory of Arthur, the celebrated king of the Britons, should not be concealed. In his age, he was a distinguished patron, generous donor, and a splendid supporter of the renowned monastery of Glastonbury; they praise him greatly in their annals. Indeed, more than all other churches of his realm he prized the Glastonbury church of Holy Mary, mother of God, and sponsored it with greater devotion by far than he did for the rest. When that man went forth for war, depicted on the inside part of his shield was the image of the Blessed Virgin, so that he would always have her before his eyes in battle, and whenever he found himself in a dangerous encounter he was accustomed to kiss her feet with the greatest devotion. Although legends had fabricated something fantastical about his demise (that he had not suffered death, and was conveyed, as if by a spirit, to a distant place), his body was discovered at Glastonbury, in our own times, hidden very deep in the earth in an oak-hollow, between two stone pyramids that were erected long ago in that holy place. The tomb was sealed up with astonishing tokens, like some sort of miracle. The body was then conveyed into the church with honor, and properly committed to a marble tomb. A lead cross was placed under the stone, not above as is usual in our times, but instead fastened to the underside. I have seen this cross, and have traced the engraved letters -- not visible and facing outward, but rather turned inwardly toward the stone. It read: "Here lies entombed King Arthur, with Guenevere his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon." Many remarkable things come to mind regarding this. For instance, he had two wives, of whom the last was buried with him. Her bones were discovered with her husband's, though separated in such a way that two-thirds of the sepulcher, namely the part nearer the top, was believed to contain the bones of the husband, and then one-third, toward the bottom, separately contained the bones of his wife -- wherein was also discovered a yellow lock of feminine hair, entirely intact and pristine in color, which a certain monk eagerly seized in hand and lifted out; immediately the whole thing crumbled to dust. Indeed, there had been some evidence from the records that the body might be found there, and some from the lettering carved on the pyramids (although that was mostly obliterated by excessive antiquity), and also some that came from the visions and revelations made by good men and the devout. But the clearest evidence came when King Henry II of England explained the whole matter to the monks (as he had heard it from an aged British poet): how they would find the body deep down, namely more than 16 feet into the earth, and not in a stone tomb but in an oak-hollow. The body had been placed so deep, and was so well concealed, that it could not be found by the Saxons who conquered the island after the king's death -- those whom he had battled with so much exertion while he was alive, and whom he had nearly annihilated. And so because of this the lettering on the cross -- the confirmation of the truth -- had been inscribed on the reverse side, turned toward the stone, so that it would conceal the tomb at that time and yet at some moment or occasion could ultimately divulge what it contained. What is now called Glastonbury was, in antiquity, called the Isle of Avalon; it is like an island because it is entirely hemmed in by swamps. In British4 it is called Inis Avallon, that is, insula pomifera [Latin: "The Island of Apples"5]. This is because the apple, which is called aval in the British tongue, was once abundant in that place. Morgan, a noble matron, mistress and patroness of those regions, and also King Arthur's kinswoman by blood, brought Arthur to the island now called Glastonbury for the healing of his wounds after the Battle of Camlann. Moreover, the island had once been called in British Inis Gutrin, that is, insula vitrea [Latin: "The Island of Glass"]; from this name, the invading Saxons afterwards called this place Glastingeburi, for glas in their language means vitrum [Latin: "glass"], and buri stands for castrum [Latin: "castle"] or civitas [Latin: "city"]. It should be noted also that the bones of Arthur's body that they discovered were so large that the poet's verse seems to ring true: "Bones excavated from tombs are reckoned enormous."6 Indeed, his shin-bone, which the abbot showed to us, was placed near the shin of the tallest man of the region; then it was fixed to the ground against the man's foot, and it extended substantially more than three inches above his knee. And the skull was broad and huge, as if he were a monster or prodigy, to the extent that the space between the eyebrows and the eye-sockets amply encompassed the breadth of one's palm. Moreover, ten or more wounds were visible on that skull, all of which had healed into scars except one, greater than the rest, which had made a large cleft -- this seems to have been the lethal one.

The Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur from Speculum Ecclesiae[Mirror of the Church]

Cap. VIII.

Regarding the monk who, at the discovery of the tomb of Arthur, pulled out a lock of women's hair with his hand, and quite shamelessly accelerated its ruin.
Furthermore, in our times, while Henry II was ruling England, the tomb of the renowned Arthur was searched for meticulously in Glastonbury Abbey; this was done at the instruction of the king and under the supervision of the abbot of that place, Henry, who was later transferred to Worcester Cathedral. With much effort the tomb was excavated in the holy burial-ground that had been dedicated by Saint Dunstan; it was found between two tall, emblazoned pyramids, erected long ago in memory of Arthur. Though his body and bones had been reduced to dust, they were conveyed from below into the air, and to a more dignified place. A lock of female hair -- blond and beautiful, twisted and braided with astonishing skill -- was discovered in the same tomb, evidently from Arthur's wife, who was buried in the same place as her husband.7 [Standing among the crowd is a monk who sees the lock of hair.] So that he could seize the lock before all others, he hurled himself headlong into the lowest depths of the cavity. Then the aforementioned monk, that insolent spectator, no less impudent than imprudent, descended into the depths -- the depths symbolize the infernal realm, which cannot be sated. Thus the monk thought to pull it out with his hand, to take hold of the lock of hair before all others -- evidence of his shameless mind, for women's hair entangles the weak-willed, while strong souls avoid it. Hair, of course, is said to be incorruptible, for it has no flesh in it, nor any moisture mixed with it. Nevertheless, as he held it in his hand, having raised it up in order to inspect it (many watched intently and in amazement), it crumbled into the thinnest dust; miraculously it disintegrated, as if reduced to granules. [There are a few words missing here.] For it demonstrated that all things are transitory, and all worldly beauty is for our vain eyes to gaze upon, for performing illicit sensual acts, or for our moments that are susceptible to vanity -- indeed, as the philosopher said, "the spendor of beauty is swift, passing, changeable, and more fleeting than the flowers of spring."8
Cap. IX.
Regarding the bones lying intact in the tomb of King Arthur, discovered at Glastonbury in our times, and about the many things relating to these remarkable circumstances.
Furthermore, tales are regularly reported and fabricated about King Arthur and his uncertain end, with the British peoples even now contending foolishly that he is still alive. True and accurate information has been sought out, so the legends have finally been extinguished; the truth about this matter should be revealed plainly, so here I have endeavored to add something to the indisputable facts that have been disclosed. After the Battle of Camlann . . . [A number of words are missing.] And so, after Arthur had been mortally wounded there, his body was taken to the Isle of Avalon, which is now called Glastonbury, by a noble matron and kinswoman named Morgan; afterwards the remains were buried, according to her direction, in the holy burial-ground. As a result of this, the Britons and their poets have been concocting legends that a certain fantastic goddess, also called Morgan, carried off the body of Arthur to the Isle of Avalon for the healing of his wounds. When his wounds have healed, the strong and powerful king will return to rule the Britons (or so the Britons suppose), as he did before. Thus they still await him, just as the Jews, deceived by even greater stupidity, misfortune, and faithlessness, likewise await their Messiah. It is significant . . . [Two sentences or so are highly damaged.] Truly it is called Avalon, either from the British word aval9 , which means pomum [Latin: "apple"10], because apples and apple trees abound in that place; or, from the name Vallo, once the ruler of of that territory.11 Likewise, long ago the place was usually called in British Inis Gutrin, that is, insula vitrea [Latin: "The Island of Glass"], evidently on account of the river, most like glass in color, that flows around the marshes. Because of this, it was later called Glastonia in the language of the Saxons who seized this land, since glas in English or in Saxon means vitrum [Latin: "glass"]. It is clear from this, therefore, why it was called an island, why it was called Avalon, and why it was called Glastonia; it is also clear how the fantastic goddess Morgan was contrived by poets. It is also notable that . . . [Several words are missing, obscuring the meaning of the first part of the sentence.] from the letters inscribed on it, yet nearly all, however, was destroyed by antiquity. The abbot had the best evidence from the aforementioned King Henry, for the king had said many times, as he had heard from the historical tales of the Britons and from their poets, that Arthur was buried between two pyramids that were erected in the holy burial-ground. These were very deep, on account of the Saxons (whom he had subdued often and expelled from the Island of Britain, and whom his evil nephew Mordred had later called back against him), who endeavored to occupy the whole island again after his death; so their fear was that Saxons might despoil him in death through the wickedness of their vengeful spirit. A broad stone was unearthed during the excavating at the tomb, about seven feet . . . [A couple of words are missing.] a lead cross was fastened -- not to the outer part of the stone, but rather to the underside (no doubt as a result of their fears about the Saxons). It had these words inscribed on it: "Here lies entombed King Arthur, on the Isle of Avalon, with Guenevere his second wife." Now when they had extracted this cross from the stone, the aforementioned Abbot Henry showed it to me; I examined it, and read the words. The cross was fastened to the underside the stone, and, moreover, the engraved part of the cross was turned toward the stone, so that it would be better concealed. Remarkable indeed was the industry and exquisite prudence of the men of that era, who, by all their exertions, wished to hide forever the body of so great a man, their lord, and the patron of that region, from the danger of sudden disturbance. Moreover, they took care that -- at some time in the future when their tribulations had ceased -- the evidence of the letters inscribed on the cross could be made public.
Cap. X.
The renowned King Arthur was a patron of Glastonbury Abbey. [Enough words are missing that the rest of this chapter heading is indecipherable.]
[The beginning of the sentence is lost.] . . . had proposed, thus Arthur's body was discovered not in a marble tomb, not cut from rock or Parian stone, as was fitting for so distinguished a king, but rather in wood, in oak that was hollowed out for this purpose, and 16 feet or more deep in the earth; this was certainly on account of haste rather than proper ceremony for the burial of so great a prince, driven as they were by a time of urgent distress. When the body was discovered according to the directions indicated by King Henry, the aforementioned abbot had an extraordinary marble tomb made for the remains, as was fitting for an excellent patron of that place, for indeed, he had prized that church more than all the rest in his kingdom, and had enriched it with large and numerous lands. And for that reason it was not undeserved, but just and by the judgment of God, who rewards all good deeds not only in heaven, but also on earth and in this life. [The end is very defective.] . . . and the authentic body of Arthur . . . to be buried properly . . .

1 Warner, pp. x-xi.
2 Brewer, p. xiv.
3 Brewer, p. viii.
Liber de Principis Instructione
4 By "British" he means a very early form of Welsh. This was the native language of the Romanized Celtic peoples who inhabited the island before the coming of the Germanic tribes; these Celtic peoples were displaced and driven west into what is now called Wales.
5 The Latin words pomum ("fruit") and pomifer ("fruit-bearing") refer to fruit in general, but here they are translating the Welsh word that specifically means "apple."
6 Thorpe, p. 283 (n. 637), notes that this line is from Virgil's Georgics, I.497.
Speculum Ecclesiae
7 There is only one manuscript for this text (Cotton MS Tiberius B. xiii, on which Brewer's edition is based), and it is very defective; consequently, some words and even some entire sentences are lost. I have attempted to give a sense of what is missing, using brackets for my textual commentary; parentheses, again, are reserved for sorting out some of Gerald's convoluted Latin syntax.
8 This quotation has not been identified.
9 By "British" he means a very early form of Welsh. This was the native language of the Romanized Celtic peoples who inhabited the island before the coming of the Germanic tribes; these Celtic peoples were displaced and driven west into what is now called Wales.
10 The Latin words pomum ("fruit") and pomifer ("fruit-bearing") refer to fruit in general, but here they are translating the Welsh word that specifically means "apple."
11 Thorpe, p. 286 (n. 649), writes that "[n]othing is known of this Vallo, although folklorists have taken him up."

Brewer, J.S., ed. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, scilicet, Speculum Ecclesiae. Rolls Series, no. 21, vol. 4. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1873. Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1964. Pp. 47-51.
Thorpe, Lewis, trans. The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, United Kingdom: Penguin Books Ltd, 1978.
Warner, George F., ed. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, Vol. VIII, De Principis Instructione Liber. Rolls Series, no. 21, vol. 8. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1891. Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1964. Pp. 126-29.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

King Arthur: The Stuff of Future Memory-Arthurian Legends told in Popular Pictures and Movies

In the case of Arthur's authenticity it can only be a relative concept. There is not much historical truth to rely on and we have little knowledge of the development of the Arthurian legend in the early stages. Criticising Arthurian films as portraits of a certain era in history seems rather useless, because over the centuries the legend has proven it is a timeless story, applicable and adaptable to every age. Over time it has been used and enjoyed by many people, pagans as well as christians, conservatives as well as hippies, and it has been subject to both low and hight art. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the legend does not contain one single message, but many being both incredibly rich and versatile.
There are on the other hand some elements in the Arturian tradition that can not be pushed aside if one wants to (re)tell the main story (and not use the Arthurian court merely as background for a new or other hero). The adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere for instance can hardly be denied. I have tried to analyse the way popular movies deal with the Arthurian tradition.

Arthur and his knights riding back to Camelot (from Lancelot du Lac, French, early fourteenth century)
Introduction: King Arthur's longevity
The real Arthur, if there ever was such a person, was definitely not a king. That is just about the only indisputable fact about the historical Arthur scholars can agree on. Some early sources speak of him as a warlord. There is not much else, no truth to rely on. But there are a lot of people who like to believe in him as historical figure, and there are others who will tell you he is just a legend. The historical Arthur, or the illusion of historical truth has been an important characteristic of the Arthurian legends through the ages. In other words: if there had not been so many believers, the legends would not be as impressive as they are now. Nowadays it is still quite interesting for writers to play with the historical illusion; the name king Arthur has an authentic ring to it.
The fact that we know so little about Arthur and the dark ages he came from is one of the reasons why, after fifteen centuries of changes to and repetitions of the story, he is still alive and well in our popular and even more serious culture.

King Arthur and king Ban plan a tournament as queen Guinevere and courtiers watchca 1300Bibliothèque Nationale, fr. 95, f. 291

There is not just one true version of the legend either, because we know very little of the origins of the myth. The story was part of the oral Celtic tradition, must have been told and retold before it was written down and most of these early versions have perished in time. The Round Table was not mentioned until the 12th century, by Wace, who also gave Arthur's sword the name Excalibur. And a couple of decades later Crétien de Troyes introduced Lancelot as Queen Guinevere's lover and Perceval as the grail hero. In later chronicles Perceval is surpassed by the perfect knight Galahad.
That is another reason for Arthur's longevity: his court is always open to new heroes and the ideal background for new story-lines. Like Lancelot, Perceval and Galahad, Merlin and Tristan were also drawn to his court at different times in the Middle Ages. An example of a modern hero that joins the Camelot court is Prince Valiant, the main character of Hal Foster's cartoons, published in several American Sunday papers from 1937 to 1971.

Prince Valiant dreaming of his beloved AletaIn: Hal Foster's Prince Valiant

Medieval Arthurian legends(Chrétien de Troyes, the Vulgate Cycle and Thomas Malory)
As far as the medieval Arthurian stories (from the 12th until the 15th century) is concerned, one can make a rough distinction between two types: The first one is the episodic novel in verse, in which the hero often starts his quest from Arthur's court and returns there after his mission is completed, which usually does not take more than two years. Chrétien de Troyes poems have been imitated widely in medieval Europe, but have never been surpassed, partly because the imitators lacked his subtle use of irony and mystification. In his courtly vision the love between Lancelot and Guinevere was not yet burdened with guilt and the Grail was not yet the cup of Christ.
The second type is the chronicle in prose, in which the rise and fall of the kingdom is depicted. This is where the celebration of courtly love is overruled by Christian ethics. The story does not evolve around one or two heroes, but is a mixture of many different story-lines, all tied together, not unlike modern soap operas. There is however one difference, the Arthurian chronicles actually have a point to them; the events lead up to the death of Arthur and the decay of civilisation, triggered by sins like adultery and incest(Adam and Eve). We are left with some hope though: Arthur is carried away to the isle of Avalon and rumour has it that he will return.
The most important Arthurian chronicle of the thirteenth century is the Lancelot en Prose, also called the Vulgate Cycle. Supernatural phenomena are present in both the poems, in which the fantasy of the old Celtic fairy-tales is still recognisable, and the chronicles, in which the wondrous world has a more Christian connotation. The last of the medieval Arthurian writers is Thomas Malory, whose Morte D' Artur seems like one big rèsume of all the previous writings about king Arthur and his knights. His work is usually the starting point for modern Anglo-Saxon versions of the legend.

Lancelot Crosses the Swordbridge and Lancelot imprisonned in Gorre (from Lancelot du Lac,
French, early fourteenth century)

In many different versions of the legend Lancelot crosses the swordbridge in pursuit of Guinevere who is abducted by an evil knight, Meleagrant. In Chrétiens Chevalier de la Charette it shows how far he is willing to go in the name of love. In the Vulgate Cycle it is embedded in many other adventures and Lancelots love of Guinevere is tainted with guilt.
Malory mentions the abduction in his Morte Dartur, but not the swordbridge, either because he was in a hurry to tell the story and left out lots of details or because he thought crossing a bridge as sharp as a razorblade was just too improbable. The abduction of the queen is still part of the action in several modern versions of the legend, with a little imagination one can even detect a faint echo of the swordbridge story in the movie First Knight.

Galeholt watches the lovers (Lancelot and Guinevere) first kiss as the seneschal and ladies 1315, Pierpont Morgan Library 805, f.

Chrétien de Troyes (While reading the summaries below keep in mind that the original stories were written in Old French and in verse)
Chevalier de la Charette (Knight of the Cart)
"Meleagant seizes Queen Guinevere and takes her to Gorre, his fathers country. Kay attempts to save her, but fails miserably. Gawain sets out for the rescue. On the way he meets a nameless knight who is very eager to retrieve the Queen. A dwarf invites both knights to ride a cart (a very shameful thing in those days) in order to reach their goal, and where Gawain refuses, the nameless knights only hesitates for a few seconds before he mounts the cart.
Gawain and the nameless knight part at a crossroad. Gawain will try to reach Gorre through the underwaterbridge, the other knight heads for the swordbridge. After a lot of delays the knight reaches the swordbridge and crosses it although it is sharp as a razor.
The knight arrives in Gorre and agrees to fight Meleagant. Queen Guinevere recognises him as Lancelot. When he is about to win the duel, it is postponed. Afterwards the queen treats him as if he has failed her. Lancelot has no idea what he has done wrong. With an aching heart he rides on to find Gawain, but is attacked by Meleagants men.
Only after rumour has it that Lancelot is dead, Guinevere is sorry about giving him the cool treatment. She forgives him the short hesitation before mounting the cart, which was the reason for her animosity. When Lancelot turns up again, the lovers enjoy a passionate night together.
Meleagant accuses the queen of adultery with Kaye, but it is Lancelot who defends her honour. Again the duel is stopped when Lancelot has the upper hand. They agree to fight again in one years time at king Arthurs court.
Treacherous Meleagant tricks Lancelot into a tower from which there is no escape." (Chrétien left the story unfinished at this point, but it was continued by Godefroi de Leigni). "Lancelot escapes from the tower and reaches king Arthurs court just in time for the duel. He finally defeats Meleagant."
In Chrétiens stories (written between 1170 and 1190) there is always a tension between "amour" and "chevalerie". In Erec et Enide the hero Erec gets preoccupied by his love for Enide to such an extent he forgets his knightly duties. In the end it is Enide who helps him to get his act together.
In Chevalier au Lion it is the other way around. Yvain is so busy to be a good knight that he forgets his lady Laudine. When she denies him her love because of that, Yvain goes mad. He has to do a lot of good deeds to be worthy of his ladies pardon.
Chevalier de la Charette the "amour" is dominant. During the course of the adventure Lancelot frees a lot of prisoners, but it is just a side-effect. His main objective is Guinevere, his love for her is perfect, and it has to be, even a few seconds of doubt are reprehensible.
It is doubtful wether Chrétien agreed with this ideal of courtly love. He was obligated to reflect the ideas of his maecenas, in this case Marie de Champagne. The humorous undertone in his writing might have been his way to put the extremeties of the court into perspective.
In his last poem Chrétien introduces another element: spirituality. There are two heroes: Gawain whose adventure is more or less "traditional", and Perceval:
Conte du Graal"Perceval grows up in the woods, because his mother does not want him to die on the battlefield like his older brothers. But when he meets a couple of knights in the forest, he decides to be a knight himself. As a very naive and ignorant boy he sets out to find king Arthurs court.
During the course of his adventures his noble descent becomes apparent. Perceval does heroic deeds and falls in love, but the perfect balance between "amour" and "chevalerie" does not mark the end of his path. He is destined for higher purposes and arrives at the castle of the Fisher King. The castle is surrounded by a waste-land and the Fisher King is wounded in the lower part of the body.
Perceval witnesses a procession in which a girl carries a radiating grail. He fails to ask about the grail and thus fails to heal the Fisher King. His failure is connected with an earlier sin against his mother. It is clear that Perceval has to do penance and find the way to God before he can be worthy."
Chrétien left this story unfinished as well, the grail still a mystery. And his contemporaries were probably just as keen to know what ending he had in mind as we are nowadays. Four different continuations were written in the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the grail was soon to be associated with the cup of Christ in the chronicles such as the Vulgate Cycle.

Vulgate Cycle
While reading the summaries, do not forget the original story is an immense and chaotic tangle of narrative threads, written in Old French. The writers wrote the story as a chronicle, as factual history, which of course it is not. The technique of waving narrative threads together, often called "entrelacement", also gave the reader the illusion of reality.
The Lancelot en Prose is a comprehensive trilogy (Lancelot Propre, La Queste del Saint Graal and La Mort de Roi Artu), which was written between 1215 and 1230. It was copied often, by hand, a real monk's work (but by that time the secular prductions were mostly done by craftsmen in proffesional workshops). In most manuscripts the Lancelot trilogy was preceded by two other stories: L'Estoire del Saint Graal and Merlin. This compilation is often called the Vulgate Cycle: L'Estoire del Saint Graal:"About the descendants of Joseph of Arimathea, who take the Holy Grail (the cup of Christ) with them to Britain, where they build the Grail-castle, in which the long line of Fisher Kings will live, as the keepers of the Grail."
Vulgate Merlin:" The devil's son Merlin (but his mother is a true Christian and therefore the child is not evil) is Uther Pendragon's confidant and advises the construction of a Round Table. One seat at the table, the Perilous Seat, is meant for a chosen knight, and until this knight arrives nobody is to be seated there, for this person will surely die.
Uther develops a raging passion for Ygraine, the wife of the Duke of Gorlois. With the aid of Merlin's magic Uther makes love to Ygraine and thus Arthur is conceived. The child grows up as stepbrother to Kay. His descent remains a secret until Arthur is the only one capable of drawing the sword from the stone. He is crowned king and has to fight a lot of battles against the Saxons and rebellious vassals. Merlin's advice and magic are on his side.
Arthur marries Guinevere and her father gives him the Round Table as a marriage-gift. Merlin falls in love with the fairy Niniane and teaches her all his magic. But when she is fully-qualified, she locks him up in a tower from which there is no escape."
Lancelot Propre:" Niniane raises the infant Lancelot in her realm beneath a lake, that is why his name is Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake). As a young man he receives knighthood at king Arthur's court and falls in love with Guinevere the moment he sees her. He rides out, has adventures and meets his best friend Galehout, who initiates the first rendezvous between Lancelot an Guinevere." During one of his adventures Lancelot is captured by the fairy Morgan, Arthur's half-sister. Several knights of the Round Table undertake quests to find him, but to no avail. Galehout is convinced his friend is dead and dies from sorrow. Morgan's magic can not extinguish Lancelot's love for Guinevere. When she understands it is no use, she lets him go.
Meanwhile Guinevere has been captured by Meleagant and Lancelot sets out to find her. (This is an adaptation of Chrétien's Conte du Graal with a couple of alterations: Lancelot is naturally no longer the "Fair Unknown", the nameless knight; and the lovers passion is no longer a celebration of courtly love, but burdened with guilt). "Lancelot's mission is accomplished.
The knights of the Round Table are regularly on the road, often just to find each other. Lancelot roams the country. Once again he becomes Morgan's prisoner and this time he is locked up for more than two years. To kill the time he paints murals, in which he depicts his love story with Guinevere. One day he sees a rose in the garden which is more beautiful than all the other roses and therefore reminds him of his lady and gives him the strength to break the bars of his prison and escape. He is just in time to join the expedition to Europe that king Arthur undertakes to beat the Romans."
La Queste del Saint Graal:"During the feast of Whitsun Galahad comes to the court, sits in the Perilous Seat and proves he will be the best knight of all times by drawing a sword from a stone. That night the Holy Grail appears before the court, to disappear as quickly as it came. Gawain swears to reveal the secret of the Grail and the all the knights of the Round Table follow his example.
Soon it becomes clear that the Grail is not their destiny. The knights wander through the country, but the only adventures they have, are duels with each other, because they do not recognise each other before it is too late.
Lancelot comes close to the Grail, but he is not the one because of his adulterous sins. Only Perceval, Bors and Galahad are admitted to the Grail service for which Christ appears. In the end Galahad is the only one who is initiated in the secrets of the Holy Grail. He dies in ecstasy. Bors is the only one to return and tell the tale, because Perceval dies as well."
La Mort le Roi Artu:"At court Lancelot and Guinevere are subject to a lot of gossip. Arthur ignores the accusations until Morgan shows him the murals Lancelot made during his imprisonment. Guinevere is convicted to burn at the stake, but is saved just in time by Lancelot. In the process he kills Gawain's three brothers.
Arthur's army besieges Lancelot at his castle, but when they are facing each other directly Lancelot refuses to defend himself. Arthur is touched. After months of war the pope acts as a mediator and both sides agree to a compromise. Guinevere is restored to favour and Lancelot withdraws himself to France.
Gawain however is still after revenge for the death of his brothers and Arthur leads his troops to France. Lancelot defeats Gawain in a duel, and the latter will eventually die from his wounds.
Meanwhile in Britain Mordred (at the end of Lancelot Propre it turned out that he was not Gawain's youngest brother but the child of Arthur and his halfsister Morgan) has pronounced himself king and besieges Guinevere, who has fled to London.
The armies of Arthur and Mordred slaughter each other at Salisbury. Arthur kills Mordred but is mortally wounded himself. He orders Excalibur to be thrown into the lake. A hand rises up from the water to receive the sword. Morgan arrives by ship to take Arthur to Avalon.Lancelot avenges Arthur on Mordred's sons. As a recluse Lancelot finally finds himself at peace with God."
TheVulgate Cycle would be one of the sources for Malory's Morte Dartur.
Thomas Malory
The popularity of the Arthurian stories faded slowly in the fourteenth century, but it was not until the end of the fifteenth century that the English knight Thomas Malory wrote his magnum opus: Morte D' Artur.
Malory was not an innovator like Chrétien or the authors of the Lancelot en Prose (which was Malory's main source, but certainly not the only one). His work is one big recapitulation of the medieval stories concerning king Arthur.
Malory paid no heed to pictorial details and tedious descriptions, he was in it for the action. At times his work reads like a long and hyperactive enumeration of battles, tournaments and duels.
The Morte D' Artur can be divided in three parts:
The first part deals with Arthur who draws the sword from the stone, becomes king, establishes the Round Table and fights the Romans in France, and with the deeds of the knights of the Round Table, especially Lancelot and Gareth. Merlins part in the events is minimised.
Part two deals mainly with the adventures of Tristan, also a character from the Celtic tradition. In the verse romances of the twelfth century he makes name as the perfect lover of Isolde (Ysolt, Yseut, Isoude). In the Tristan en Prose (ca. 1230) he appears at king Arthur's court for the first time and this was Malory's main source. Malory concentrates on Tristan's deeds as a knight, rather than the sad and passionate story of the lovers.
In part three the Grail quest with Galahad as the hero is quickly told. And then it is time for Malory's best work: the treachery at the court, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and the last battle in which Arthur and Mordred kill each other. Especially touching is the ending (which can not be found in the Lancelot en Prose), when Lancelot and Guinevere meet for one last time after Arthur's death. He wants to ask her to marry him, but she has devoted her life to God, and inspires him to do the same.

Pre-Raphaelite images of the middle ages
The poet Tennyson and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in the 19th century were depending heavily on Malory for their Arthurian inspiration. The death of Arthur and his passing to Avalon, the flawless grail-knight Galahad, mysterious ladies and the attainment of the Holy Grail were amongst the favourite subjects of the Pre-Raphaelites. (See: La Mort D'Arthur, Archer (1860); The last sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Burne-Jones (1881-91); The Attainment of the Holy Grail, Burne Jones, Stanmore Hall tapestry executed by William Morris & Co. 1898-9; Galahad, Watts (1860); "I am half sick of shadows" said the lady of Shalott, Waterhouse (1860); Sanc Grael, Rossetti (1864).
Tennyson idealised king Arthur as the perfect king and husband and put Guinevere on trial for her fling with Lancelot. Where Tennyson judged with reason on Arthur's side, the Pre-Raphaelites on the other hand seemed to admire Guinevere for her enigmatic qualities.
One of the moving spirits behind the brotherhood, William Morris, wrote a poem The Defence of Guenevere and painted her as the typical Pre-Raphaelite woman: sensual beauties with long, dark, waving hair and melancholy eyes. The model for this Guinevere was his wife Jane Morris. Juicy detail is that William had to endure his wife's adultery with his friend and Pre-Raphaelite brother, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for years to come. An Arthurian love triangle in real life.

James Archer, La Mort D'Arthur, oil painting 1850

In 1862 William Morris got the commission for the stained glass windows for Harden Grange. He choose to depict the Tristan story (based on Malory), but with the emphasis on the love story rather than Tristans many achievements as a knight. In this case the sympathy goes entirely to the lovers Tristan and Isolde. The deceived husband, king Mark, is the bad guy. William asked several Pre-Raphaelite brothers to design the panels, amongst them Date Gabriel Rossetti. (Images of the Tristan stained glass windows).
The influence of 19th century Pre-Raphaelite art on popular movies was not that big until two decades ago. Hollywood adventure movies, especially in the first half of this century, were mostly inspired by late 19th century pulp narratives and simplified adaptations of the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and his successors.
The rise of Fantasy as a filmgenre in the late seventies and eighties brought the need for coherent secondary worlds, and that is exactly how the Pre-Raphaelites depicted the Middle Ages, as an idealised romantic time, a coherent world of fantasy. It is hard for me to say how far this influence goes in general, but the Pre-Raphaelite connection is certainly visible in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981).
And the ideal Pre-Raphaelite woman seems to have a lot of features in common with the standard type of medieval queens, princesses and maidens in popular films. Whether it is Guinevere Excalibur, Lady Marian in Robin Hood (Reynolds, 1991), Linet in Sword of the Valiant (Weeks, 1982) or Guinevere in First Knight (Zucker, 1995) they all look like Jane Morris: sensual, enigmatic, long dark hair and melancholy eyes.

Julia Ormond as Guinevere in First Knight

William Morris, Queen Guinevere
(also called La Belle Iseult), oil painting 1858

Swashbucklers at the Round Table
Amongst the popular Arthurian movies are the big Hollywood productions of the 1950s and 60s and recently First Knight (Zucker, 1995), and John Boormans Excalibur (1981), which was also produced in Hollywood for a large audience. The legends surrounding king Arthur fit perfectly into the scheme of popular adventure narratives because most of the Arthurian heroes are excellent embodiments of the light in the darkness, the hero on a quest, who gains a name and a girl and brings prosperity to the society he lives in. This scheme was used for hundreds of adventure movies that were produced in Hollywood since the 1920s, in the
so-called Swashbuckler-genre, featuring heroes like Ivanhoe and Dick Turpin. And every generation has its own Robin Hood: who has always been Swashbuckler number one.

Errol Flyn "King of the Swashbucklers" kissing Olivia de Haviland; in Robin Hood (1938, Curtiz)

It is quite surprising that no Arthurian stories were used until the 1950s (apart from a few silent movies and adaptations of Mark Twain's parody A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Apart from some technical reasons (widescreen, bigger budgets), this can be ascribed to some unwelcome themes that travelled with the legend since medieval times. The inevitable downfall of the kingdom, the incest between Arthur and his (half)sister Morgan le Fay, the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere and the central role of supernatural phenomena all go against the conventions of the Swashbuckler-genre.
In the 1950s two Hollywood studios dealt with these problems in a way that had been used since medieval times, by simply introducing a new hero to king Arthur's court. This resulted in two quite successful movies: Prince Valiant (1954, Hathaway), who was already famous in the United States through the cartoons, and the lesser Black Knight (1954, Garnett) which is usually described as an Arthurian Western. In both films Camelot is merely the background for the adventure.

Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner in Prince Valiant

The Knights of the Round Table (1953, Thorpe) differs from these two because the writers based their script directly on the chronicles of Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth. But in this film the incest is not mentioned, Lancelot and Guinevere suffer without relief and the supernatural Holy Grail is only used to give the film an upbeat ending. Those omissions did not pay off; the story was still far too gloomy and tragic for a Swashbuckler.
After the 1950s the Swashbuckler-genre evolved dramatically. In the 60s Lancelot and Guinevere actually get their moment of joy in a movie that is not surprisingly titled Lancelot and Guinevere (1963, Wilde). The Adventure-heroes had to learn to ironise their own status in order to survive in the 1970s and 80s. This irony made it for instance possible that Indiana Jones and his father share the same woman in Indiana Jones and the last Crusade (1989, Spielberg). And the rise of Fantasy as a filmgenre made the supernatural acceptable, mildly used in the Hollywood (and Swashbuckler) blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, Reynolds).
Knights of the Round Table, summary
Director: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Anne Crawford, Maureen Swanson, Felix Aylmer, Stanley Baker and Mel Ferrer. 1953, MGM
(Watching the film on a television set is not a good idea. It was the first MGM production in Cinemascope and the cinema is the only place to enjoy the wide panoramic view on the scenes that were shot partly in Ireland and Cornwall.)
"King Uther has died. Both Arthur and Mordred (here Mordred is the lover of Arthur's sister Morgan) want to be his successor. Mordred has tyranny in mind, Arthur intends to be a king for the people and has Merlin on his side, who is his counsellor rather than a magician. Arthur draws Excalibur from the stone, but Mordred refuses to give in.
Lancelot, the son of the French king Ban of Benwick, is looking for king Arthur, the only lord he wants to serve. In a forest he meets the young lady Elaine. When he is ambushed (by Mordred's men who are waiting for Arthur) a knight comes to his aid. Lancelot does not like to be helped and challenges the knight. After a long and undecided duel the knight turns out to be Arthur. Lancelot offers him his service, and so does young Perceval, who comes to pick up his sister Elaine.
Lancelot joins Arthur on his way to the council at the ring of stones (Stonehenge). There Mordred tries to kill Arthur, but Lancelot saves him. The war is on. After his victory Arthur establishes the Round Table. But soon after he gets into conflict with Lancelot, who does not want him to pardon Mordred and Morgan.
Guinevere is to marry Arthur, but on the way to Camelot she is captured by an evil knight. It is Lancelot (as a nameless knight) who saves her and orders the evil knight (who will be one of his companions later on) to bring her to Camelot in safety. After the wedding the knights are to pay homage to their king and queen. Lancelot reappears and is the first to kneel before them. Arthur makes him the champion of the queen.
Lancelot and Guinevere feel deeply for each other, but do not consume their passion. Instead Lancelot marries Elaine to silence the gossip about him and the queen, and he takes his bride away from the court. Gawain and Gareth are Lancelot's loyal companions: Gawain watches over Elaine, while Lancelot and Gareth are out fighting the Picts. Perceval visits them and talks about his quest for the Holy Grail. Elaine dies after giving birth to a son: Galahad.
Mordred and Morgan are responsible for the death of Merlin and a plot to get Lancelot back to Camelot and Guinevere. Lancelot pretends to have lost his feelings for her and flirts openly with lady Vivien. The queen is hurt by this and visits his chambers late at night. When Mordred's men (amongst them Agravaine) are banging on the door and all is lost, she sees proof of Lancelot's love for her. They kiss for the first and last time, right before Lancelot kills Agravaine and his men and brings the queen to safety.
King Arthur has to judge his best friend and wife, but does not give in to Mordred's demand to have them killed. Instead Lancelot is banished to France and Guinevere has to retreat in a convent. The union of the Round Table falls apart and Mordred finds support to challenge Arthur again.
Once again the civil war rages over the country and Arthur is mortally wounded. It is Lancelot who throws Excalibur into the lake and then kills Mordred. Afterwards Lancelot and Perceval enter the ruins of Camelot. Perceval has a vision of the Holy Grail and hears a heavenly voice that tells him Lancelot will be forgiven for his sins and Lancelot's son, Galahad, will be the most accomplished knight ever."
The wedding in Knights of the Round Table

First Knight
The success of this Robin Hood (Reynolds, 1991, see the menu on the left under Swashbuclers) paved the way for a revival of the Middle Ages in Hollywood (Rob Roy and Braveheart also came out in 1995) and it gave the Arthurian legend a new change. However, First Knight is in the light of the cinematographic developments mentioned earlier a huge disappointment. The producers avoided all risks and the result is a visually and technically overwhelming, but in every other respect half-hearted, picture. The way Lancelot is introduced, seems to indicate that they wanted to bring a new hero to the court, but it is also the old Lancelot of the chronicles whose feelings for the queen are condemned. And there is the Swashbuckler Lancelot who has to get his girl in the end to secure a happy ending.
To solve the problems that this mixture of the traditional legend and the conventions of the Swashbuckler-genre bring about, Arthur has to be killed without hope on his return. The bier that floats on the water reminds the audience of the traditional voyage to Avalon, but then a burning arrow discards all hope.
And the kingdom does not fall: Lancelot will be the new king, with lady Guinevere on his side. This is also necessary because Camelot is, once again, depicted as the ideal American society. At one point Arthur delivers a speech that could easily be interpreted as a plea for the American intervention policy. Malagant is, in contrast, a very plain villain: just bad, nothing else.
Sean Connery (king Arthur) and Julia Ormond (Guinevere)

First Knight sticks to the old Swashbuckler conventions by not allowing any miracles to happen. Adultery is also "not done" and therefore Guinevere is still a virgin at the end of the movie. And because these romantic developments are taken very seriously, there is not much room for a light sense of humour or irony, which is essential to a modern Swashbuckler movie.
The emphasis on the triangle Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot leaves little space for side-kicks. Apart John Gielgud in a supporting role as Guinevere's counselor, there is only room for minor characters like Ralph, Peter and Marc. The knights of the round table are as colourless as their uniform outfit suggests. The use of colour is on the other hand very effective in the depiction of the different cities and the development of Guinevere, from innocence, to Queen, to confusion about her feelings for Arthur and Lancelot.
In 1991 Robin Hood already suffered from a father complex, and here Lancelots desire for freedom is explained (negatively) by a childhood trauma. The introduction of this bit of "obvious" psychology is very abrupt, almost clumsy. Right after Lancelot starts talking about "the walls burning down" the scriptwriters or editors made a significant mistake: Guinevere talks about the fire in the church although she has no way of knowing about it.

Richard Gere (Lancelot) and Julia Ormond (Guinevere)

There are some interesting moments during the battle for Leonesse. Lancelot throws off the suffocating helmet and fights much better on foot than on a horse like a true knight is supposed to. That is probably what the film should have done: free itself from all those suffocating cinematic and moral conventions.
Also they should have looked beyond Malory (the most obvious source for popular retellings of the legend) and find that the story they came up with had a lot in common with the original Lancelot-story of Chrétien de Troyes: the episodic adventure, a so-called "Fair Unknown" as a hero and the abduction plot. What the film lacks in comparison to Chrétien is a coherent vision on love and adultery, a magic environment and a subtle sense of irony.
The question what First Knight is like can only be answered in terms of what it is not. The movie is far too heavy-laden to be a true Swashbuckler. It is not really an episodic adventure because of Arthur's part in the story. It is clearly not an adaptation of the Arthurian chronicles to the screen. And most importantly, it lacks the sense of irony of the Chrétiens original twelfth century story and the sense of humour of a true Swashbuckler. What is left? Well, it is a slick movie, and it can be entertaining if you are in the mood for mindless action and romance.
First Knight, summary
Director: Jerry Zucker.
Starring: Sean Connery, Julia Ormond, Richard Gere.
Story: Lorne Cameron, David Hoselton, William Nicholson.
Screenplay: William Nicholson. 1995 Columbia Pictures
"Lancelot fights for money in a village, he defeats two challengers. The same village is burnt down by Malagant and his men. The villagers arrive in Leonesse en are welcomed by Guinevere and her counsellor Oswald, who reminds her of king Arthur's marriage proposal. She decides to give Arthur a yes because she admires him.
On the way to Camelot the party from Leonesse is attacked by Malagant's men. Guinevere has to beat an attacker off her carriage, before she can jump off herself. Three men pursue her through the forest, but Lancelot appears and saves her. He makes advances, but she does not give in. He predicts she will ask him to kiss her before her wedding day. Guinevere is welcomed to Camelot in great style.
Lancelot runs the gauntlet during the festivities in Camelot. His prize is a kiss from the queen-to-be. She does not want to and he solves the awkward situation by saying he does not want the kiss out of fear to loose his heart to such a lovely lady. Arthur explains the ideal of the Round Table to Lancelot: "in serving each other we become free". Lancelot says he does not need anyone.
Arthur tells Guinevere he would protect Leonesse even if she does not want to marry him. But she wants to, say she loves him and knows just one way of loving: "with body, heart and soul". That is how he likes it: "love as warm as sunlight".
A gathering of the knights of the Round Table, one seat is empty. It used to seat for Malagant, who enters and claims Leonesse. Arthur and Guinevere refuse to give in to his demands. That buys them war.
Malagants men seize Guinevere from Camelot, with the help of a clever construction of a boat, some pulley's, a lot of rope and a couple of horses. Lancelot pursues them. Malagant holds Guinevere captive in a ruin. Lancelot pretends to be Arthur's messenger and saves her for the second time.
In the forest they come closer to each other. He has a flash-back of his childhood trauma: his parents were killed in a church which was burned by robbers. With all this sensitivity in the air he comes closer to seducing her, but when they are about to kiss, Arthur's men arrive. Arthur is grateful for the rescue and wants to make Lancelot a knight of the Round Table, and so happens even though the knights are protesting. Guinevere can not change Lancelot's mind about this. He stays because of her.
The marriage ceremony is performed. A messenger arrives to bring the news of Malagant taking Leonesse. Arthur leads his army to Leonesse and to victory. Lancelot cries out when he sees the church-gate barricaded and is reminded again of his trauma, but the people of Leonnesse are all right. A little boy asks Lancelot: 'Can I go home now?' Lancelot cries behind a hedge.
Back in Camelot Lancelot tells Guinevere he truly believes in the ideals of the Round Table and that he can serve the cause best by leaving. Now she tries to convince him otherwise. He stays with his decision, but takes her in his arms when she says he owes her a kiss. Arthur enters and witnesses the passionate embrace. Guinevere tries to convince Arthur of her love for him, but has to admit she loves Lancelot in a different way. Arthur says his dream is broken. Lancelot and Guinevere will be judged in public.
Lancelot kneels in front of the king and states the queen is innocence. Suddenly Malagant's men pop up to take over Camelot. Arthur pretends to give in to Malagant's demands, but calls upon the people to defend themselves against the tyranny.
The knights of the Round Table, the people of Camelot and Lancelot defeat the villains. Malagant dies on the throne he desired, killed by Lancelot with Arthur's sword.
Guinevere cries at Arthur's death-bed. Lancelot arrives and Arthur calls him his first knight. Lancelot will inherit Camelot and Arthur asks him to take care of Guinevere. Arthur tells Guinevere he now feels the sunlight, because it shines in her eyes. And then he dies. Arthur's bier is set afloat in the water and a burning arrow initiates the cremation."

John Boorman intended to visualise the whole legend on the screen, and so he did. His biggest problem was how to compress the story into the length of a normal movie. But he did not reduce his sources. He actually used many bits and pieces of different versions of the legend and fused them together. Narrative elements from Chrétien de Troyes, Malory, Tennyson, T.S. Elliot, T.H. White and even the old Tristan romances are recognisable in Excalibur, as well as Pre-Raphaelite and Wagnerian images. The speed of the action and the density of visual symbols make it almost impossible for an audience to comprehend the movie on an intellectual level, and that is not what Boorman aims at. He forces his viewers to surrender, to let go and travel with the flow of the legend, to comprehend with the innate capability to understand myth. That is also connected with one of the themes in Excalibur: the birth of ratio out of the unconsciousness. King Uther is unable to master his instincts, rapes Ygraine and thus fathers Arthur, who reigns twenty years later with reason on his side. Camelot is the achievement of rational judgement in contrast to Uther's unbound passion. But Camelot is built on the foundations of Merlin's power and his magic is part of the unconsciousness. These two, ratio and unconsciousness, must be in balance.
But Arthur puts reason over love. According to his own laws he must be king before husband and therefore he can not defend Guinevere's honour when she is accused of adultery. Guinevere turns to Lancelot and their love flowers, even if it is just for a brief moment. When Arthur sees his wife in the arms of his best friend, he freaks and loses the sword Excalibur, his connection to the powers of the unconsciousness: Merlin and the lady of the lake.

The lovers in the forest
But the downfall of the kingdom is also indirectly caused by Uther's (male) lust. Morgana sees how he rapes her mother Ygraine and knows that Uther and Merlin are responsible for the death of her father. She dedicates her life to revenge, steals the "charm of making" from Merlin and cheats her halfbrother Arthur into a one-night stand to become pregnant of Mordred, who will eventually kill his father.
Arthur becomes numb and his kingdom a waste land. It is Perceval on the quest for the Holy Grail who finds the answer, a concept that derives from the old Celtic tradition: "the king and the land are one". And it is Guinevere who has kept the sword for her husband, which re-establishes his contact with Merlin, even though it is just in a dream.
At this stage both Merlin and Arthur become aware of the role they will have for future generations. Arthur knows that he: "was not born to lead a man's life, but to be the stuff of future memory". And Merlin has ceased to exist in reality, but is present in our unconsciousness: "a dream to some, a nightmare to others".
So here we have the whole story, in a very compressed form that is. Some critics have stated that Excalibur rattles through the legend, but by doing so they underestimate Boorman's ability to tell stories with images and symbols and the way he lets the story run on different levels simultaneously. Excalibur is a highly entertaining story, but also an advanced interpretation of the legend, a particular vision on myth in general. The overwhelming speed and density of the action will lead the audience, like Arthur and Merlin, to understand the longing for a lost golden age and the "dream of what could be".
Excalibur, summary and further analysis
Orion - Warner Brothers, 1981.
Cast: Nigel Terry (Arthur), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Cherie Lunghi (Guinevere), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot) Paul Geoffrey (Perceval).
Scenario: Rospo Pallenberg, John Boorman.
Director of Photography: Alex Thomson.
Production Designer: Anthony Pratt.
Editor: John Merritt.
Music and musical director: Trevor Jones -extracts from: Carl Orff, O fortuna from Carmina Burana; Richard Wagner, prelude to Parsifal, prelude to Tristan and Isolde and the Funeral March from The Ring.
(In the beginning there is a lot of fire, battle and chaos. The human race is still in a sort of unconscious state. The sword comes to bring order, but paradoxically it comes from a deeper unconscious force, hidden beneath the lake.)
Merlin brings Uther to the lake, where he receives the sword Excalibur, which is given to him by the Lady of the Lake, a hand rising from the water. The power of the sword will make him king. Merlin pressures Uther to make a deal with his main opponent, the duke of Cornwall. But when Uther sees Cornwall's wife Ygraine dancing, his lust takes over once again. Merlin is disappointed, but uses his magic "charm of making" so that Uther takes on the outer shape of Cornwall, which enables him to make love to Ygraine, while the real Cornwall dies in battle.(Actually Cornwall dies because a couple of black birds fly in his way, not a coincidence I presume).The daughter of the duke of Cornwall and Ygraine, Morgana, knows what has really happened.
Nine months later Merlin demands what Uther promised him, the fruit of his lust, the baby Arthur. Merlin walks into the woods and Uther chases him to get the child back. But the king is ambushed. With his last bit of strength Uther drives Excalibur into a stone and dies. Merlin then predicts that: "he who draws the sword from the stone shall be king".
(Uther driving the sword in the stone is not in any of the old stories, usually Excalibur and the sword in the stone are not one and the same. But this had a lot of advantages for the movie, most notably: it saved time. Now it was very easy to keep the sword as a central point and skip twenty years in the story, by fading to black and then showing the same shot in a different season and with a whole tournament site built around the sword in the stone.)
Twenty year old Arthur, his stepfather Ector and stepbrother Kay arrive at the scene. Kay will fight in the tournament, Arthur is his squire. He who defeats all the others earns the right to an attempt to draw the sword and become king. Leondegrance wins, but fails to draw the sword. The festivities go on, Arthur has forgotten Kay's sword. He runs back to the tent, but the sword is stolen. He stumbles upon the sword in the stone and draws it out. Afterwards he does it again with one hand. Merlin appears and proclaims that he is Uther's son. But the knights, with the exception of Leondegrance, are not willing to accept such a young squire as their king.
Arthur spends the night in the forest where Merlin explains to him what being a king is all about: "You will be the land and the land will be you."
(Here Boorman tries to catch the spirit of the first book of T. H. White's The Once and Future King, where Arthur is educated by Merlin, in a single sequence. In the book Merlin changes young Arthur into all kinds of animals, here they are just crawling around, as part of the dragon.) The next day Arthur and his companions come to the aid of Leondegrance whose castle is being attacked by the other knights. Arthur fights smartly and bravely. One of his opponents, Uriëns, refuses to accept him as king, even when Arthur points Excalibur to his throat, because he is just a squire. Arthur hands him Excalibur and asks Uriëns to make him knight and let him be his king, and so it happens. During the festivities afterwards Arthur meets Leondegrance's daughter Guinevere. Merlin tries to forewarn him about Lancelot and Guinevere's treason, but Arthur only has eyes for Guinevere.
(This scene is a good example of the different layers of meaning that Boorman works with. Guinevere offers Arthur a cookie which is made according to a very old and secret recipe. Merlin says to Arthur: "Looking at the cake is like looking at the future, until you've tasted it you don't know what it's like, and then of course, it's too late." Arthur takes a bite, still preoccupied by Guinevere who is dancing, and then of course it is too late. Apart from the fact that this is a very comical exchange of words and glances as well as a wise truth, it is also an introduction to the next scene where Lancelot appears for the first time. But there is more: the dialogue actually tells the audience a lot about Merlin. He can look into the future, but this does not help him or Arthur any further. And apart form the future, the cake stands for something else as well, as Guinevere says: "a very old and secret ingredient", which is love. This human emotion is so old and secret that even Merlin can not comprehend it. Love will be his downfall as we learn later on.)
A couple of years later Arthur is angry because one man defeats his best knights. He decides to fight the duel himself. The knight introduces himself as Lancelot. When Arthur is about to loose the fight he abuses the powers of Excalibur to go at Lancelot. The sword breaks, but his remorse about his dumb pride, brings the lady of the lake to mend it. Lancelot will be Arthur's first knight.
Again some time has passed. Arthur and his knights celebrate victory in their last big battle. The land is one, peace and prosperity reign. By intervention of Merlin the knights form a circle, which inspires Arthur to establish the Round Table.
Lancelot comes to take Guinevere to her marriage with Arthur. He explains to her that he will love no other but her, his queen and his best friends wife. The marriage is celebrated in a Christian atmosphere. In the background Merlin meets Morgana who tells him she is a creature like him. Merlin says: "The days of our kind are numbered. The one god comes to drive out the many gods."
(Here Boorman uses the principle of "crosscutting" (jumping between two scenes, in this case the marriage and Merlin's conversation with Morgana) to enhance the contrast between christianity and druidism. He used the same technique with the scenes of Uther making violent love to Ygraine and Cornwall dying, and will use it a couple of times more.)
Lancelot meets the naive Perceval in a forest and takes him to Camelot where he can become a kitchen boy.During a banquet Morgana whispers in Gawain's ear, who then speaks up and accuses Guinevere of keeping Lancelot from the court because she desires him. Arthur decides that Gawain has to back up these words in combat against the queen's champion. Guinevere is disappointed that Arthur does not defend her himself, as a king he has to be her judge, and he is king before husband.Lancelot stays in the forest again, haunted by sorrow and pain, because in his heart he is guilty of wanting Guinevere. At night he dreams of a fight with himself and as he wakes up he finds his own sword stuck in his side.When Lancelot does not show up for the duel, Arthur is forced to knight the kitchen boy Perceval, the only one brave enough to stand up for the queen. Lancelot gets there just in time and defeats Gawain, although the wound in his side causes him heavy pains.
(There is a lot happening at the same time here. The later grail hero Perceval is introduced and through his eyes we see the absolute high of Arthur's reign and the "city of silver and gold" Camelot. There is also a comical intermezzo of Perceval bumping into Merlin. The introduction is important because later on the two main characters, Arthur and Merlin, will be out of sight and Perceval has to take over. Seen in this light it is probably not coincidental that Perceval looks so much like Arthur. By interlacing these events Boorman once again saves time, also by having Perceval step in for Lancelot. This is something that happens all the time in the medieval stories, one knight stepping in for the other, and the other one showing up just in time to fight his own battle. So Boorman quite brilliantly uses a medieval narrative concept to solve the cinematic problem of having only a restricted amount of time on the screen. By interlacing the events Boorman also gives the movie a natural flow. In fact the medieval chronicle writers used similar techniques.)
Lancelot's wound seems fatal until Arthur orders Merlin to heal him. When asked Merlin (who seems to doze of a lot, almost ready to leave this world) answers that truth is the highest quality for a knight. It causes Lancelot to run to the forest again, but this time Guinevere comes after him and they have their moment of pure love together.Merlin says farewell to Arthur and points him in the direction of the lovers. When Arthur finds them sleeping innocently and naked, he despairs and drives Excalibur between them in the earth. At the same time Merlin is with Morgana in the cave of the dragon, the heart of his power. When Arthur thrusts the sword into the earth, the spine of the dragon, the cave shakes and Morgana is able to catch Merlin off guard. She worms the secret of the "charm of making" out of him and uses it to lock him in a crystal for eternity.
The lovers in the forest are an allusion to the early Tristan romances. Which becomes clear when Arthur plays the role of king Mark finding the lovers in the forest and leaving his mark. The meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere is filmed as an extremely innocent moment, their nakedness is pure rather than sexual and the lovers look like Adam and Eve in paradise before the fall of men.Interesting is the fact that Merlin defines the cave of the dragon as a place where all things meet their opposite: "the future and the past, desire and regret, knowledge and oblivion". But when Morgana says "love", one would expect Merlin to answer "hate", but he just says: "O yes". That leads to the conclusion that love carries the opposites within itself. Apart from the idyll in the forest, love seems to be a destructive force in the movie. Uther's love for Ygraine is more like lust and greed, wanting to have it all, and Morgana uses it to avenge her father on Merlin and Arthur, Uther's son. Arthur is not capable of loving Guinevere totally because he is king first. Lancelot and Guinevere are the only ones meeting on equal terms, for no other reason than love itself. In the medieval stories the adultery is depicted as courtly (Chrétien) as well as sinful (Vulgate cycle) (see "Legends" in the menu on the left), and this tension has been present in the Arthurian tradition ever since. Where Tennyson condemns Guinevere in the 19th century, William Morris comes to her defence (see "Pre-Raphaelites" in the menu on the left. Boorman does not seem to take a clear stand in this discussion, he just shows the incredible force of love, and maybe gives us a hint by having Arthur say he would like to be "just a man" and meet Guinevere again. Love can flower only when the lovers are equals. Here the influence of Carl Gustav Jung is notable, who thought that power is the natural enemy of pure love. And there are a lot of power struggles going on in the story.)
Morgana bewitches Arthur, makes him think he is sleeping with Guinevere, while he is in fact fathering Mordred, Morgana's son. The birth is a black mass in which Morgana is midwife and mother simultaneously. At the same time Arthur and his knights are in church. A priest prays for protection against Morgana and her unholy child. Arthur is struck by lightning. (I am not sure what this means, whether it is God condemning Arthur, or what?)
The land is in need, the people are suffering. Arthur is weak, but calls on his knights to find the Grail to save the country. Ten years later Perceval is still looking for the Grail. He rides through the Waste Land, finds young Mordred and follows him to Morgana's place. There are a lot of (very) dead knights hanging from a tree. Morgana tries to seduce Perceval to serve her instead of the cause. Perceval resists the temptation and is hung in the tree along side the corpses. He has a vision of the Grail castle, brightly lit. From the light a voice asks him the questions: "What is the secret of the Grail? Whom does it serve?" But Perceval panics and flees. When he falls from the bridge to the castle, he falls from the tree as well, because the spurs of the knight hanging above him cut the rope.Eight years later Mordred had grown up and comes to Camelot to demand the throne of his father. Arthur, still very weak refuses and Mordred declares war.In the forest Perceval watches from behind a tree how Mordred and his men slaughter Uriëns. Before he dies Uriëns still finds the strength to tell Perceval never tot give up the quest. Perceval is desperate but continues and meets Lancelot, who has gone mad. Lancelot leads a group of emaciated people in anger, who beat Perceval into a stream.Under water Perceval relieves himself of his armour. "I can't give up hope Lancelot," he says when he comes up, "it's all I've got." Once again he has the vision of the Grail Castle and the bright light, but this time (he is naked and pure) he crosses the bridge without hesitation and answers the questions. Arthur himself is the Grail-king and the secret he has lost is that the king and the land are one.
Perceval has Arthur drink form the cup and reveals the secret the king has lost. Arthur awakes from his lethargy and rides out with his faithful knights. The land flourishes as well, and blossoms again.
(Here the Grail is not the christian Holy Grail, Boorman returns to the old Celtic notion of the king being responsible for the fertility of the land.)
Arthur visits Guinevere in a monastery. He forgives and asks forgiveness and she returns Excalibur, which she has kept safe after the episode in the forest, to him.On the night before the battle Arthur has a vision of Merlin. This frees Merlin from his imprisonment. As a "dream-body" he walks into Mordred's camp and finds Morgana in her tent. He gets her to use the "charm of making". The effort costs her the beauty and youth she managed to maintain all those years. When Mordred finds her as an old woman he strangles her.The fog released by the "charm of making" is in the advantage of Arthur's army because they are the minority. Their bravery and the return of Lancelot to Arthur's ranks keeps the armies in balance and they destroy each other. Arthur forgives Lancelot before the latter dies of the old wound in his side.
Arthur kills Mordred, but is fatally wounded himself. He orders Perceval to throw Excalibur into the lake. Perceval fails the first time. The second time the hand of the Lady of the Lake appears to catch the sword. When Perceval returns to Arthur, the king has already been taken on a boat by three priestesses (and is heading for Avalon, I presume).
The end.
(Boorman, like Jung and Joseph Campbell, believes that every great myth marks a turning point in the history of mankind. And in his conception of the Arthurian story it is interpreted as the coming of consciousness. Uther's world is chaos, disorder, an entanglement of unbound emotions.In contrast Arthur's world is orderly, his laws are rational. However, Arthur's Camelot is still connected with the powers of the unconscious through Merlin and Excalibur. For a while these two, ratio and the unconscious, are in balance and the result of this union is the golden age of Camelot.But this golden age is not to last. Merlin, the representative of the unconscious, seems to get tired and the events, which he can not control, lead to disharmony. Arthur is unable to deal with his emotions when he finds Lancelot and Guinevere together and contributes to Merlin's final imprisonment by thrusting Excalibur into the spine of the dragon. Ratio and the unconscious are separated and the result is a Waste Land.On this level the Waste Land also symbolises the modern, rational world in which we live in (like in T. S. Elliot's poem). It is as if Boorman is telling us we should be much more aware of the unconscious in order to be in harmony with ourselves and the world we live in. And where is the unconscious to be found? According to Jung (and others) we should study our dreams, which is exactly what Arthur does, he wakes Merlin by dreaming of him. And from that moment on Merlin is "a dream to some and a nightmare to others" and his magic is accessible to all.)
A lot more could be said about the movie. Different angles of looking at it will result in different interpretations, which by no means have to contradict each other, but will just prove how rich Excalibur really is.