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 converse.ca 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."

Excalibur
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.

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