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Archive for the ‘Morgan le Fay’ Category

Merlin has ended, and unlike King Arthur, it doesn’t seem likely that it will be the once and future TV show, despite countless fans on Facebook and across the Internet trying to convince the producers to continue it.

And as much as I love this show, I’m glad it has ended gracefully, before it “jumped the shark,” before it was cancelled without an ending.

Merlin310_2289The series finale offered few surprises in my opinion, but that is because we have heard the tale of King Arthur so many times before, and despite the original elements of the series, which often seriously diverged from the legend, I doubt any viewer who knows the Arthurian legend would have been content with any other ending than Arthur sailing off to Avalon.

It’s unlikely anyone will read this blog who didn’t see the episode, so I won’t summarize the plot here, but go watch the last two episodes of the series if you haven’t already.

For me, this series had a serious amount of content that needed resolving in this final episode. The strength of this storyline throughout has been the prohibition of magic in Albion, imposed by Uther and then by Arthur, and how Merlin has successfully kept secret his identity as a sorcerer from everyone, while trying to aid others with magic and often fighting those with magic who sought to harm Arthur, most notably Morgana. The series has done a tremendous job of highlighting this tension throughout, and in the last two seasons especially, we have seen Merlin come into his own, slowly using his powers and even revealing himself to his enemies before destroying them. And despite my earlier blog about the Old Religion and magic and the inconsistencies that exist in its treatment in the series, what has mattered most to the storyline has been how Merlin reconciles his magic with his relationship with Arthur, as Arthur’s servant in greater ways than Arthur knows.

And the series reconciles this issue with great ease and class. In the final episode, Merlin appears as a sorcerer, identity unknown to all except Gaius, at the Battle of Camlann, using his power to defeat the enemy, and having everyone realize a sorcerer has saved the day for Camelot, even Arthur admitting that the sorcerer won the battle. But Merlin cannot save Arthur from being slain by Mordred. Surprisingly, Arthur lingers for a couple of days after Mordred runs him through with a sword, while when Arthur stabs Mordred, he dies immediately.

Now Merlin must figure out how to save Arthur before Morgana can find him, and because he was slain with a sword forged in the dragon’s breath, he can only be saved if brought to Avalon, a journey that requires secrecy and a couple of days’ journey, allowing Arthur and Merlin to have the discussion they have put off all these years.

Merlin, in despair, tells Arthur how upset he is that he could not save him which leads to his revelation that he has magic and is a sorcerer. The result is Arthur’s initial disbelief, then anger that he has been lied to, even wanting Merlin to leave him, and finally, Arthur’s understanding of why Merlin kept his powers a secret, and of the great help Merlin has always been to him.

I admit, at this point, when Arthur tells Merlin he has something to tell him that he never told him before, I thought the show was going to give into the “Merthur” fans and have Arthur tell Merlin he loves him. It was for me a bit of an uncomfortable moment, for the Merthur fans (those who want to see a gay relationship between Arthur and Merlin) have not been too far off—Merlin’s closeted magic can easily serve as a commentary on closeted gay people within our own society who are unappreciated and unjustly considered to be deviant—but the show gracefully skirts these undertones (which may or may not be intentional—I’ll leave it up to each viewer to decide) by having Arthur simply say, “Thank you.” And thank you is enough for Merlin, and that moment is enough to resolve the show’s greatest tension. It is a powerful moment. Perhaps one of the very best in television history.

What happens next is not so surprising. Morgana makes one last attempt to kill Arthur, but Merlin successfully kills her, slaying her with Excalibur, a dragon breath forged sword just like the one she created to kill Arthur. To some extent, I found Morgana’s death scene anti-climactic, and more disappointing for me is that Morgana and Arthur did not reconcile in the end, for in the traditional legend, it is Morgana who comes to Arthur when he is dying to take him to Avalon. Morgana truly got the short end of the stick in this show—I almost wanted her to win in the end—she’s a great character who deserved redemption of some sort and the reconciliation of the Old Religion with Camelot—but perhaps that was too much to expect, too much happiness for what is basically a tale of tragedy.

Not only does Morgana not take Arthur to Avalon, but nor are there the traditional three other queens who accompany her, and there is no Sir Bedivere to tell Arthur to throw the sword into the lake. Merlin takes on all these roles. Merlin tosses the sword back in the lake and the hand reaches up to grab it. The dragon arrives and tells Merlin not to despair for all has happened as it should and Arthur is the once and future king who will return in Albion’s hour of greatest need, and then Arthur is placed in a boat and floats off to Avalon.

As for Albion, the throne passes to Guinevere. I don’t really want to know what happens next because it will be inferior to whatever came before. I had hoped we’d learn that Guinevere was at least pregnant with Arthur’s child, but no such hint. I imagine she’ll end up marrying Sir Leon since he’s at her side proclaiming her queen.

And then we see Merlin as an old man walking along the shore by the lake, and suddenly, a bus passes, a jarring moment letting us know that Merlin still waits for Arthur’s return, but also one that makes Albion appear to be part of our real world and not a fantasy kingdom. I’ve always believed the show intentionally created a fictional world, including fictional neighboring kingdoms, so it would not be caught up in the issues of depicting a sixth century, historical Britain. So I found this modern moment jarring, as well as the references in the last few episodes to Saxons, without any explanation of who they were. Albion is not England nor Britain, yet the show ends on this odd note trying to connect the two. I’d have been fine without that final scene.

My qualms with the series overall are few, however. Long ago I stated it was the best Arthurian TV series ever made, far surpassing the short-lived 2011 Starz Camelot series that was a complete disaster, or even the fun 1950s British The Adventures of Sir Lancelot series. Is it perfect? No. There has yet to be a perfect Arthurian film or television program, but Merlin gets an A- for effort. Finally, I think Colin Morgan has proven himself to be a great actor in this series and I hope it leads to big things for him—just not another Merlin series. Please, I understand the fans’ demands, but don’t destroy Merlin with a spin-off or sequel series. Like with Gone with the Wind, we need to leave well enough alone. Let there be many other Arthurian TV shows and films and books—I hope there shall never be an end to them. Just let Merlin be the great TV show it was without degrading it. Congratulations to the writers, producers, and cast for ending it well.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He is currently working on a series of novels about Arthur’s descendants. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Llacheu is Arthur’s son in the earliest Welsh legends and the only of the three sons mentioned in Welsh tradition–Amr and Gwydre being the others–who made it into the later continental romances.

A strange tradition also exists that Llacheu may have been killed by Sir Kay. The following is a passage discussing this possibility from my book King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, which contains a much longer discussion of Llacheu and is available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

            The French, however, when they learned the Welsh tradition that Arthur had a son, either ignored or did not know his true place in the legends and simply let their imaginations run wild (Bruce, “Arthuriana,” 184). It may be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s responsibility that Arthur’s sons disappeared from later versions of the legends; The History of the Kings of Britain was so popular that it firmly placed a structure on the way the tale would be told from then on, and since Geoffrey did not give Arthur any sons, his successors avoided creating sons for Arthur. And if writers had added sons to the legend, they would have had to come up with explanations for why these sons did not succeed their father. However, the fact that Llacheu does appear in romances written after Geoffrey of Monmouth is a clear indication that the French writers had some knowledge (however limited it may have been) of the Welsh traditions from Breton traditions, independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Bruce, “Arthuriana,” 179).

One aspect of Llacheu’s story the French appear to have added was his illegitimacy through his mother Lisanor, a woman who is probably completely fictional. More importantly, the French and their followers created a whole new death story for Llacheu that has come down to us in two different, but closely related versions.

In all of these versions, Llacheu is slain by Sir Kay. Several scholars have suggested that the source for Kay’s murdering Llacheu was Llacheu and Kay’s names being mentioned together in The Black Book of Caermarthen as follows:

Unless it were God who accomplished it,

Cai’s death were unattainable.

Cai the fair and Llachau,

they performed battles

before the pain of blue spears [ended the conflict].

(Bromwich, Arthur of the Welsh, 43)

The two warriors may have fallen together in battle, but Bruce and other scholars believe it is evident from the way the names are coupled that Kay was not Llacheu’s slayer in Welsh tradition (Bruce, “Arthuriana,” 184). Kay seems to have been accused of murdering Llacheu, much as the mention of Arthur and Mordred falling together at Camlann in the Annales Cambriae may have been interpreted as Mordred revolting against Arthur.

In his Studies in the Arthurian Legend, John Rhys gives one version of Llacheu’s murder which he takes from the second part of the Welsh version of the Grail, the Seint Greal. In this version, Llacheu seeks adventure and fights a giant named Logrin, who has proven himself one of King Arthur’s cruelest foes and allows no one to live in the same country with him. Llacheu succeeds in killing the giant and then lies down on the giant’s body and falls asleep. Kay then rides up, discovers this strange sight, and beheads Llacheu and the giant. He then returns to court, claiming he slew the giant. The court makes much of him, but soon his treachery is known and hostility grows between Arthur and Kay, causing Kay to flee to his own castle (61).

Another version of this story occurs in the Perlesvaus, a French work of the early thirteenth century. Here everything occurs as in the last story up to where Kay kills Llacheu. This time, Kay cuts off both the giant and Llacheu’s heads and brings Llacheu’s body, along with the giant’s head, back to court, claiming he killed the giant who had killed Llacheu. Later a damsel comes to court with a coffer containing Llacheu’s head, and she tells the story of his death. Guinevere recognizes the head as having belonged to her son from a scar that is on it; the sight of it causes her to die of grief (Bruce, “Arthuriana,” 182).

Caitlin and John Matthews, in the The Arthurian Book of Days (1990), give a version of the tale that makes Kay look more like a victim than a murderer; however, they do not give their source. It appears in the entry for March 15, as follows:

 

Arthur sat in solemn justice to hear the defence of his foster brother. Kay stammered his sorry tale:  “Upon my last quest I encountered a giant who made me play a beheading game. I knew the way of it, I thought, since Gawain’s contest those many Christmases ago. Instead of himself, the giant sent forth against me a knight who acquitted himself nobly, but I overcame him and struck off his head. It was not till the helmet was off that I saw it was Loholt, and that I had been tricked into treachery. Until the ending of my life, I repent that stroke.” (45-6)

Here Morgain interrupts to relate that the giant is the brother of King Arthur’s enemy, King Rhitta, and that this event is the sorrow she foretold.

And since Kay had been shamed by such a trick, Arthur forgave him before all, though Guinevere was less forgiving. (45-6)

Since Caitlin and John Matthews do not give a source for this version of Llachue’s death, it seems logical to assume that they were merely rewriting the tale as it appeared in the Perlesvaus since Kay’s motive for murdering Llacheu is not expressed in that work; furthermore, they also added in the detail of Gawain playing a beheading game, an event that occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late fourteenth century Middle English work; the Matthews reinterpret the tale by giving Kay a form of motivation for killing Llacheu, which makes Llacheu’s murder more plausible.

In the two earlier versions, Kay is clearly an intended murderer, rather than a victim of someone else’s evil deeds. This depiction of Kay is surprising since in the Welsh tales he usually appears as the greatest, or at least one of the greatest of Arthur’s warriors, plus his loyal subject, friend, and foster-brother. However, Kay is sometimes depicted as being touchy toward Arthur as at the end of “Culwch and Olwen,” where a hint of some discord between Arthur and Kay exists, although it seems unlikely that in the Welsh tradition Kay would have stooped to murdering Arthur’s son; therefore, the story of Llacheu’s murder is probably of continental origin.

 

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Knights of the Round Table – movie poster

I remember seeing advertisements for Knights of the Round Table being shown on TV when I was a kid, but I never got the chance to watch it. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get the chance because it’s surprisingly a rather distorted version of the Arthurian legend in many ways. Still, when I stumbled across it the other day, I watched it with interest.

First, let me say I’m a sucker for these old movies. Just that it is shot in Technicolor makes it beautiful in many places. There is a lot of color and pageantry, and I give it credit for being, to the best of my knowledge, the first film to try to tell the entire Arthurian story. Previously, King Arthur in Hollywood had been mostly limited to remakes of A Connecticut Yankee.

But in telling the full story, the studio must have felt they had to clean up the story. I mean, even if 1950s audiences, not to mention the movie censors, could get past Guinevere and Lancelot’s adultery, they certainly couldn’t accept Mordred being a child of incest and killing his father.

So some rather big changes had to be made. First of all, Mordred replaces King Lot of Orkney as Morgan le Fay’s ally. I was never quite clear in the film if he is her husband or just her lover, but they are obviously a couple and King Arthur’s primary enemies. The film begins with Morgan, Mordred, Arthur, and Merlin meeting to determine who will rule Britain upon Uther Pendragon’s death. Morgan believes she deserves the throne as Uther’s only legitimate child, but Merlin has Arthur draw the sword from the stone, thus leading to his being proclaimed king. Mordred and Morgan aren’t too happy about this decision and cause plenty of trouble before they finally agree to Arthur’s rule, which he achieves largely through battle and the help of Sir Lancelot, making Lancelot and Mordred enemies.

Arthur is soon pushed to the side of the story in favor of Lancelot. Although the movie is called Knights of the Round Table, the other knights get very little attention, except for Percival, who is on a quest for the Holy Grail. He meets Lancelot early in the film and tells Lancelot of his quest. In the same scene, Percival’s sister, Elaine, meets Lancelot and falls in love with him, and eventually, she is married to Lancelot, after Merlin realizes Lancelot and Guinevere have begun to have feelings for one another so it would be best to have him away from court.

I won’t give away all of the plot, and there’s not much to give away if you know the Arthurian legend, but I do need to discuss the end a bit. I do give the film some points for a stab at historical accuracy since it sets the film at the time soon after the Romans have left. That said, I think John Wayne had a stab in writing the script since upon first meeting, Lancelot says to Percival, “Declare thyself, Cowboy.” I think he should have changed “Cowboy” to “Pilgrim”—it would have been funnier.

The Holy Grail legend has always been an oddball part of the Arthurian story in my opinion, and it definitely is here. At one point, Percival comes to Lancelot’s castle to tell him the Holy Grail appeared at court, which I thought a shame, since the filmgoers never get to see the Holy Grail’s appearance in that scene, but it does lead to the knights going off to seek the Grail. At about this time, Elaine also has a dream about their son. Elaine dies soon after Galahad is born. Later the child Galahad is sent to be raised at Camelot.

And then Camelot begins to fall. After Elaine’s death, Lancelot becomes interested in Lady Vivian. Guinevere accuses him of trying to humiliate her in front of the court by making eyes at Vivian. While they are arguing alone, their enemies find them and accuse them of adultery. They manage to escape without any dramatic attempts at burning at the stake (a disappointment)—no dramatic “Guinevere” song for this movie like in “Camelot.” Things go as expected, leading to Arthur being slain by Mordred. Then Lancelot fights and kills Mordred.

The magic at the end of throwing the sword into the lake is missing because no hand rises up to catch it, but we are left with Lancelot and Percival going together to Camelot to see the Round Table in ruins. The film ends with a vision of the Grail, and Lancelot finding comfort in hearing that someday Galahad will achieve it. (A strange twist since Galahad usually achieves the Grail before Camelot falls.)

I certainly don’t think this film as entertaining as Prince Valiant or Lancelot and Guinevere (Sword of Lancelot) which followed in the next decade, although it does have its moments. People familiar with the legend will perhaps find it mostly entertaining for the fun of picking apart the changes made in the film from the usual legend and try to guess why such changes were made. (The opening credits claim the film is based on Malory, but it’s very loosely based.)

The cast has some big names—Robert Taylor as Lancelot and Ava Gardner as Guinevere, among others, but I have never felt very impressed by Robert Taylor. For me, Franco Nero is the best Lancelot. Ava Gardner is beautiful as always, but she just doesn’t have the role to make her acting skills stand out in this film.

If you’re an Arthurian enthusiast, you’ll want to watch the film, although on a scale of 1-5, I probably wouldn’t give it more than a 3. You can still catch it in reruns on TV or buy the video, or watch online at Amazon Instant Video. For more information on the film, check out IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045966/ or Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_of_the_Round_Table_%28film%29

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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In one word, my answer is sadly, “No.” A couple of months ago, I published a glowing review of Ravens of Avalon which I thought had redeemed the series for me, and I also liked Priestess of Avalon quite a bit, but I just could not get very attached to Sword of Avalon.

Sword of AvalonInitially, I was excited about reading this book. After all, it was going to tell me how Excalibur came to be, and I thought we would be making progress in the series. One aspect of this series I don’t understand is that there is no progression to the books. They are written to jump about in time. Priestess of Avalon takes place in the third century, then Ancestors of Avalon is centuries earlier, then Ravens of Avalon is set in the first century, and now Sword of Avalon takes place around 1,000 B.C. I just don’t get it. What’s the point of all this jumping around? Why wasn’t the sword then in Ravens or Priestess? There’s no real overarching plan to this series. I keep thinking each successive book should move chronologically forward, bringing us up to The Mists of Avalon, but there is no such plan. And I keep hoping for a sequel to The Mists of Avalon—I want to know what happened to Morgan le Fay, but no satisfaction there either.

But I was excited to read this book when I saw that part of the story would take place in Greece a generation or two after the Trojan War. I thought, “Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote The Firebrand about the Fall of Troy, and after The Mists of Avalon, it’s my favorite of her books. Will Diana Paxson connect the stories, maybe play off the interesting twist at the end of The Firebrand that Cassandra lived and had children—so that maybe she is also an Ancestor of Avalon? But no—no such connection.

Instead, there’s a boy named Mikantor who is saved by the Lady of Avalon during the burning of a village in Britain. She must hide Mikantor because he’s heir to the sacred kings descended from Atlantis, placing this books timeline after Ancestors. That’s basically the story. There’s also a bad guy named Galid, a chieftain who suspects Mikantor is alive and wants him dead. When Mikantor is a young man, he is kidnapped by pirates and ends up in Greece where he befriends the man who will one day make Excalibur. Together they will return to Britain. You can guess what happens when they do.

Galid is one of the least inspired villains I have ever experienced. Other than one or two successful dramatic scenes, there was nothing about this book that interested me. I found myself struggling to get through it. Every time I sat down, I tried to get back into it but after five or ten pages I was bored. The last couple of hundred pages, I could do nothing more than skim through and just read the dialogue, to see how it would all turn out, which was quite predictable.

I hate to say it, but Marion Zimmer Bradley is dead. So is this series. I hope this book has put it to rest so Marion can rest in peace. The Mists of Avalon was a tremendous achievement that changed modern Arthurian fiction—in fact, it is my all time favorite novel, which is saying a lot since I love Dickens, Trollope, Galsworthy and so many other great authors—but even though a couple of the other books in this series have been enjoyable, none of them are really very relevant to Arthurian fiction. I respect Paxson as a writer because I know she has skill from what she showed in a couple of the books, but I can only thinks she is just as bored with this series as her readers. No one will ever write another The Mists of Avalon, so it’s time to accept that and move on. Since it’s been three years since this book was published, I’m hoping Paxson and her publishers have realized that too.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

The Title Card for the colored episodes of "The Adventures of Sir Lancelot"

Back in January, I posted on the 1950s British TV series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. I’ve now finished watching the series and I enjoyed it a great deal. It has a bit of humor and some wonderful sets and costumes. Furthermore, I think William Russell made a very good Sir Lancelot, and he actually is quite handsome and debonair, or at least, he grows on you and grew into the role as the series continued. In the first episode, the swordplay was laughable, but it improved throughout. Also, King Arthur was originally played by Bruce Seton in the first episode, but he looked old and doddering and was quickly replaced by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who is a tall and fairly commanding yet likable Arthur. I was disappointed there was no love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, but it was a 1950s TV show, so innocence was important for television, I guess. I also was disappointed that there was nothing that suggested a connection from one episode to another, no overarching storyline or character motivations or desires to keep the story progressing. You could have watched any episode after the first one in any order and it would make no difference.

About halfway through the series, it became colorized, and the color really was splendid because it made the costumes stand out. Some of the costumes look a bit too effeminate for Lancelot to wear, but there’s no accounting for medieval—or 1950s TV versions of medieval—fashion.

Overall, I would give the series a B, or 4 out of 5 stars. I would rank it below the Merlin TV series, but it is far above the Starz’ Camelot series. (See previous posts to my blog for discussions of both series.)

It would be tedious to discuss all thirty episodes, but here are comments on a few of the episodes that are most notable, particularly those that borrow from Arthurian tradition:

Knight’s Choice: This episode is interesting because Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s traitor sister, is included. She was apparently previously banished from Camelot for trying to murder her brother Arthur. Now she hopes to return if she can get her son to be chosen as knight for an opening among the Round Table’s fellowship. Interestingly, Morgan’s son is named Rupert, not Mordred. Arthur agrees to let him compete with the other potential knights. Another contender is Sir Balin, whose father was squire to King Pel. (King Pel is most likely King Pellinore, and Sir Balin is found in Malory, although this episode has no other links to Malory, and I have no idea why Morgan’s son is named Rupert, unless it was to distance the show from Mordred and the incestuous twist—after all if Guinevere and Lancelot’s love is forbidden on 1950 television, incest surely won’t be approved. That said, it isn’t stated who Rupert’s father is). This episode also has a sort of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court twist when Merlin finds a way to delay the battle enough for an eclipse to take place, which will thwart Morgan’s plan to have her son win in battle over Balin by flashing light in his eye with a mirror. In the end, Rupert doesn’t get to join the Round Table—I guess that means he can’t stir up trouble—perhaps although eventually the series ended, this Camelot, then, did not fall.

The Thieves: Another episode drawing on Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee is X in which Arthur and Lancelot disguise themselves as ex-convicts to learn what chances these men have of earning a living.

The Shepherd’s War: This episode stands out because Sir Lancelot has been held a prisoner and grown a beard—the only time Russell sports a beard in the series. Although, throughout the series, Sir Kay, who comes off as a buffoon, sports a ridiculously fake mustache.

Sir Crustabread: This episode plays off the tale of Sir Gareth who plays a kitchen boy and goes off to rescue a maiden; the same concept was used in the first episode when Sir Lancelot found Brian, his squire, who was a kitchen boy. In this episode, Lancelot is mistaken by Lynette of Accolon, as a baker. He ends up being belittled by her as he rides with her to rescue her sister. When all is said and done, Lancelot saves the day and reveals his true identity, then kisses Lynette on the cheek—she says she’ll never wash it again.

Finally, the colored episodes trimmed down the theme song, which could be compared to songs like the theme to “Davy, Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier.” The theme song actually grew on me after watching all these episodes and I found myself singing it around the house:

Now listen to my story, oh listen while I sing.

Of days of old in England when Arthur was the king.

Of Merlin the Magician, and Guinevere the Queen.

And Lancelot, the bravest knight the world has ever seen.

In days of old, when knights were bold,

This story’s told of Lancelot.

In days of old, when knights were bold,

This story’s told of Lancelot.

If you want the second verse, you’ll have to watch the series for yourself.

A complete episode guide to the series can be found at: http://ctva.biz/UK/ITC/SirLancelot.htm

I will post on last blog about this series in the weeks to come.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Prince Valiant Vol. 1 hal Foster

Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938 by Hal Foster

Because it’s the 75th anniversary of the Prince Valiant comic strip this month, I thought I would summarize and review the first volume of the series, now reprinted by Fantagraphics Book, which covers the first two years of the series in print. Fantagraphics is planning to reprint hopefully the entire series, but so far the first five have been released (the 5th is coming in March actually).

The Prince Valiant strip is subtitled “In the Days of King Arthur” and consequently some people have been skeptical about whether it really belongs in the Arthurian canon. In truth, it is often marginal as Valiant goes off on adventures on the Continent, far from King Arthur’s court, but Camelot remains home base throughout the series. Following is a summary of what occurs in this first volume. I usually don’t like to give away full plots, but since this volume is the beginning of the story, it’s important to clarify just how much of the strip is relevant to King Arthur.

The story begins with the King of Thule and his family being forced to flee from their country. They go to Britain, fighting the locals to land on the shore. At this time, Prince Valiant is just a boy. He looks to be between about ages six and eight in the strip. King Arthur, to keep the peace, allows the King and his faithful followers to settle in the Fens, a marshy area where the people live on islands in a swamp and make their way through the swamps on boats and rafts. Lizard type monsters are also hiding in the Fens.

Valiant grows up in this environment until he approaches manhood. One day, after fighting one of the monster lizards, Valiant sees a mysterious light far off in the Fens and is determined to find its source. In the process Valiant is attacked by a monster who turns out to be a “huge misshapen man, horrible in his deformities.” Valiant wounds the man but then cares for him and takes him home to his mother, who turns out to be the witch Horrit (the first time she is mentioned her name is Horrid, but Hal Foster must have decided to change the spelling in subsequent strips). This meeting is significant because Horrit makes a prophecy that will haunt Valiant for the rest of his life.

As the witch makes her prophecy, Val gazes into the fire and becomes dreamy until he has visions of castles and armies, knights in armor, and then a king and queen, whom the witch says is “Stupid Arthur and his flighty wench, Guinevere.” She goes on to prophesy, “And you will confront the unicorn, the dragon and the griffon, black men and yellow. You will have high adventure, but nowhere do I see happiness and contentment,” and she tells him already his greatest sorrow awaits him.

Valiant leaves the witch to discover his greatest sorrow—that his mother has died. After grieving, Valiant decides it’s time to set off to seek his fortune. Soon after, he meets Sir Lancelot and his squire, and when the squire is rude to him, Valiant pulls him off his horse and beats him to give him a lesson. Lancelot is good natured but stops the fight and then rides off with his squire. The incident makes Valiant determined to become a knight. Eventually, Valiant finds a horse, learns to ride, and then saves Sir Gawain from another knight who attacks Gawain. Soon Valiant and Gawain have formed a lasting friendship.

Gawain takes Valiant to Camelot where two conspirators soon after decide to kidnap Gawain and hold him for ransom. They trick Valiant and Gawain to visiting the Castle of Ereiwold where Gawain is captured and becomes a prisoner. Of course, Valiant eventually rescues him. After the rescue, however, Gawain gets wounded in a fight with another knight, and Val has to take his place to go on his first quest to rescue the fair maid Ilene’s parents, who are being held prisoner in their castle by an ogre.

Once he sneaks into the castle, Val soon realizes the ogre is a fake with makeup to make him look frightening. Val decides to use fear, the same weapon, to conquer the ogre, disguising himself and appearing like a flying demon in the castle’s hall. In time, Val defeats the ogre and his men, and he rescues Ilene’s parents.

Val is in love with Ilene by this point, but she is already betrothed to the King of Ord. Val wants to stay and fight for Ilene, but Gawain has gotten in trouble again, kidnapped by Morgan le Fey, half-sister of King Arthur. Val goes off to rescue his friend, making the mistake of confronting Morgan le Fey, who puts him under a spell, but in time, he realizes his food is drugged and he quits eating so he’s in his right mind. Then he is able to escape from the castle. Val goes to Merlin, who works his own spell to scare Morgan le Fey into freeing Gawain.

Gawain is freed in time for Val to be invited to a tournament to celebrate the marriage of Prince Arn of Ord and Ilene. Val is determined to challenge Arn, but the challenge occurs on a bridge, resulting in Arn falling and nearly drowning and Val saving him. They plan to fight again nevertheless, but when they begin, a Viking raid occurs and instead, they become allies against their enemies. Before the battle with the Vikings, Arn gives Val the famous Singing Sword, which bears a charm and of course helps him to defeat his enemies. Despite his success, Val is captured by his enemies and he and Ilene are taken over the sea, while hoping Arn will rescue them. In time, Val and Ilene are separated and Ilene ends up on a ship that sinks, leaving Val and Arn heartbroken.

Once Val and Arn return to Camelot, Lancelot tells them they are fortunate Ilene drowned because now they are friends whereas otherwise there always would have been strife between them and Ilene would have blamed herself as the cause of it all.

To deal with his grief, Val returns home to the Fens. As this first volume ends, Val overcomes his grief and decides it’s time he lead his father’s people to return and re-conquer Thule, but before they can act on their plan, a major Saxon invasion threatens England. Val returns to Camelot to fight beside the Knights of the Round Table.

In addition to the strip itself, which is in its brightest glorious color because it’s reprinted directly from Foster’s colored plates, there is an essay in the back by Kim Thompson about the reproduction of Prince Valiant and the various plates, which is quite interesting to read, and even mentions a few of the more gruesome scenes in the story that were censored out. The book also contains a biographical essay about Hal Foster and an interesting interview with Foster.

The plot of Prince Valiant is more like a soap opera in terms of its cliffhangers at the end of most strips and its constant continuation with no end in mind. Foster reputedly was usually ahead in creating the strip by several weeks, but one wonders if he ever imagined when it began that the strip could run not only for many years but many decades and encompass all of Prince Valiant’s life basically. He had no need to plot it in a specific direction, yet there are still certain arching points to the story, including the prophecy that Valiant can never know happiness and the basics of the King Arthur story as well.

For people still uncertain whether they would enjoy Prince Valiant, I recommend getting a copy of this first volume and trying it out; then you can determine whether you want to continue to read the successive volumes, which would be quite a time commitment, but there are far worse ways to spend your time than with Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur.

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Marion Zimmer Bradley’s vision of Avalon continues through Diana Paxson’s pen in another prequel to The Mists of Avalon.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Ravens of Avalon by Diana L. PaxsonI have had mixed feelings about this series, as have many readers. The Mists of Avalon is my favorite Arthurian novel of all time, perhaps my favorite novel of all time, and after thirty years since its publication, it is doubtless a classic that has heavily influenced the numerous writers of Arthuriana who have followed. That said, the rest of the series really adds nothing to Arthurian literature because the novels are all prequels about Avalon. I found both The Forest House and Lady of Avalon to be boring and disappointing, but Priestess of Avalon, about the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, was fairly enjoyable and even moving in places. Then Ancestors of Avalon had a plot that seemed to be going nowhere despite an intriguing opening as it traced the flight from Atlantis to the new Avalon. I ended up skimming a good part of it, and it paled in comparison to Stephen Lawhead’s Atlantis depiction in Taliesin. Therefore, it took me nearly two years to get around to reading the next book in the Avalon series, Ravens of Avalon.

Before I read this book, I made the mistake of reading the reviews at Amazon, including complaints that the characters were dull and flat, and that may be why I had difficulty getting through the first hundred pages. I don’t think the characters are dull or flat, but I think some people probably had a hard time getting into the book because the cast of characters is a bit overwhelming—there are pages of them in the listing at the front of the book, and most of them have names with strange spellings that make it difficult to keep track of them. However, really there are only a few characters you need to keep track of—Lhiannon the priestess, Ardanos, the priest she loves, Boudica, and Boudica’s later husband Prasutagos.

Once I sat down and focused on the book, I found myself unable to put it down. Ravens of Avalon has redeemed the series for me and now makes me anxious to read Sword of Avalon. Also, it should be noted that if anyone else wants to read this series, there is no order in which to read it. Priestess of Avalon takes place around 300 A.D. while Ravens of Avalon takes place around 40-60 A.D. and Sword of Avalon, although I have not read it, takes place at the end of the Iron Age and deals with descendants of ancient Troy apparently. All the novels are prequels to The Mists of Avalon—I wish Paxson would consider a sequel because I want to know what happened to Morgan le Fay after the book ended.

Ravens of Avalon retells the story of the iconic and historic Queen Boudica of Britain. The basics of her story are well known. The Romans raped her and her daughters, causing her to seek revenge by raising an army against the Romans, an army eventually defeated. A difficulty many historical novelists have is that the reader already knows how the story is going to turn out; even though I knew Boudica would die in the end, I kept reading, wanting to know how Paxson would twist the ending. The end is tragic; Paxson does not change it in any surprising way, but she makes Boudica come alive and for the reader to understand and follow her motivations.

The details of Boudica’s life and what led to her battling the Romans is largely lost to history, but Paxson does an admirable job of depicting what could have been Boudica’s life as she is schooled on Avalon, and she eventually settles for life being a queen, through a dynastic marriage, rather than being a priestess. Her marriage is especially well-depicted as she gets to know a husband who seems standoffish at first until their story becomes a great love story.

Of course, Avalon is sort of the spectacle of the novel, and the powers of the priests and priestesses are impressive and fascinating as they engage in magic, including raising mists to hide themselves from the Romans, or have visions of the future, or feel the spirit of a goddess enter them to aid them in battle. I am usually a sucker for this kind of magical realism, the possibility that the Druids knew how to use their minds in ways we have since forgotten.

I was very moved especially by Boudica’s dialogues with herself or with the Raven or the goddess who enters her as she tries to understand her need to battle the Romans and what it will all mean and that in the end it is for the greater good. One passage in particular struck me:

*

“Men are no different from any other creature,” said the Raven. “When one group is stronger they conquer, and when they weaken, another comes and feeds on them in turn. Conflict and competition are necessary. The fury passes through like a great fire, burning weakness away, and in its light the essence is revealed. The strongest in both groups survive. Blood and spirit are blended and what grows from them is stronger still.”

“Is this the only way?” Boudica cried.

“This is the way you must follow now,” came the reply. “Britannia is a mingling of many bloods already, from peoples that strove against each other as they came to these shores. In time more will come and today’s victor will fail, leaving his own strength in the land.”

“That is a hard teaching,” Boudica said.

“It is my truth—the Raven’s Way. One way or another the cycle must continue. The balance must be maintained. And there is more than one kind of victory…”

*

I’m a sucker for a passage like this as well, and it points to the most significant thing I have learned from my fascination with genealogy. The Raven states that “Britannia is a mingling of many bloods,” and nothing could be more true. I have traced my British ancestors more closely than any others back throughout the Middle Ages, and in one ancestor, Thomas Dudley (1576-1653), the second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a descendant of the Barons Dudley and King Edward III of England, I can trace my family tree back to ancestors from every country in Europe, as well as back to ancient Egypt, China, India, Persia, etc. The truth then is that race does not matter. As the Raven above says, the blood is mixed from those who strove against each other. I am descended from both William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson who fought each other at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and from both Celtic Britons and Saxons who settled in Britain—in fact, I can claim descent from King Caratacus of Britain, whose rebellion against Rome precedes Boudica’s and is depicted in Ravens of Avalon. I may upset some by taking this a step farther, but in a thousand years, people who died on September 11th will have descendants also descended from some of the terrorists who led the attacks. It is the way of the world, we intermarry until race and anger are forgotten. In fact, race does not really exist.

Whether you agree with my reasons for enjoying Ravens of Avalon, or you simply like stories of Avalon or druids or Roman and British history, I think Ravens of Avalon is well worth taking the time to read. After The Mists of Avalon, it is the best in the series. I have no doubt that Queen Boudica will live in my thoughts for a long time to come.

My review of Sword of Avalon will be forthcoming.

For more on Arthurian genealogy, visit www.ChildrenofArthur.com

________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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I have probably forgotten more Arthurian novels than I can count, so while I know there are dozens if not hundreds out there, and I’ve read a fair number of them, I’ve tried to pick the novels that have remained in my head for years, and those I see as extremely significant in shaping the legend in new ways even if I didn’t particularly enjoy them. Placing them in an appropriate order was also difficult. I’d be interested in hearing from readers whether they feel I left any significant books off the list or if they feel I should have placed them in a different order since I spent many hours debating this list and most I think could be considered classics of modern Arthurian fiction today, or at least of significant influence.

10. The Coming of the King (1988) by Nikolai Tolstoy. This book was supposed to be the first in a trilogy of books about Merlin, but Tolstoy never published the rest of the series, or wrote it perhaps. And admittedly, it was not a well-written or engaging novel, but Tolstoy did a superb job at trying to recreate the Welsh world that Merlin and Arthur would have lived within. He was obviously influenced by The Mabinogion, and is one of the few novelists who has used those most ancient of Arthurian legends as his primary source. It is worth a read for that reason alone and hopefully future novelists will come along to give us authentic feeling Welsh Arthurian worlds in the future.

9. The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. I’ve always felt this novel was highly overrated and its writing style less than engaging, but it’s influence on the great musical Camelot which in turn inspired John F. Kennedy and is my all-time favorite film and musical makes it worth mentioning. Its merits lie in its humor, its fantasy, and its presentation of Arthur as a child, which also inspired Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. White is also the first novelist to suggest homosexual attraction as having a role in the legend, particularly in the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle.

8. King Arthur’s Daughter (1978) by Vera Chapman. I believe this was the first novel where a child of Arthur, and a girl at that, plays a significant role in the storyline. Many other novels of Arthur’s children, and especially daughters, would follow and other novels suggesting that Arthur’s descendants live to the present day. This young adult novel is engaging and fun for all ages.

7. The Road to Avalon (1989) by Joan Wolf. Contains a love story between Arthur and Morgan, but also, it contains an interesting twist on the Fall of Camelot. Overall, this was one I couldn’t put down and thoroughly enjoyed. It’s historical and fast-paced and has an interesting take on Mordred and Constantine.

6. Merlin Novels (1970-1983) by Mary Stewart. More than any other novelist, Mary Stewart brought Arthurian fiction into fashion. Her three Merlin novels (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment) and The Wicked Day about Camelot’s Fall were a wonderful historical rendering of Arthurian times told from Merlin’s point of view. I read these books as a teenager twenty-five years ago, and there are scenes from them that are still vivid in my head. I reread very few books, but these would definitely be books to read time and again. (But avoid Stewart’s later pseudo-Arthurian novel The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)—boring.)

5. The Pendragon Cycle (1987-1989) by Stephen Lawhead. The first three novels of this series Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur are phenomenal books—I read all three in a week. Lawhead’s other three novels are a bit disappointing but don’t miss the beginning of the series. They begin in Atlantis and then follow characters to Britain and build toward the reign of King Arthur. The story is engaging and captivating throughout. Other novelists have also linked the Arthurian legend to Avalon, but none in such an entertaining and complete way.

4. The Camulod Chronicles (1992-2000) by Jack Whyte. Whyte went farther than any other novelist in trying to recreate the Roman world in the decades before King Arthur. He depicts how Camelot was founded by Arthur’s ancestors in the time when the Romans were departing and brings the story up to Arthur’s birth. I could not put these books down and read each one—they’re all around 500 or more pages, within a few days. There are six novels altogether, but Whyte also wrote Uther, and the two Golden Eagle novels about Lancelot, which were disappointing by comparison.

3. Sword at Sunset (1963) by Rosemary Sutcliff. This book is the grandmother of modern Arthurian fiction. It is the first historical treatment of the Arthurian legend depicting King Arthur not as a fantasy figure but trying to place him in his historical context as a war leader. I found the book rather boring, actually, but many people have enjoyed it and its importance cannot be denied. Sutcliff was also the first novelist to create a child other than Mordred for Arthur (a daughter actually, even predating King Arthur’s Daughter, although the daughter dies as an infant).

2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain. I’m not a huge Mark Twain fan, but this book is brilliantly written. In my opinion it leaves Huckleberry Finn in the dust. It is one of the first “time travel” novels in literature while also serving as a social commentary on nineteenth century America. More than any other Arthurian work, it has been retold in plays and films and spinoffs. But while many of the versions of it, ranging from Spacemen to baseball playing boys in King Arthur’s court are silly, the book itself is fascinating. Hank Morgan is truly one of the great characters of literature.

1. The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. No doubt, The Mists of Avalon is the best known modern Arthurian novel but it is fully deserving of that designation. Bradley took the legend to new lengths by retelling the story from the woman’s point of view and introducing the Celtic religion and its aspects into the novel to an extent not previously done in Arthurian fiction. As a novelist myself, this book had a huge impact on me, both in my writing and my spiritual beliefs. It’s one of those books that stays with you for life, and it may well be my all-time favorite novel.

Remember, I would love to hear about your favorite Arthurian novels!

________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The Wandering Jew may not be a well-known figure to readers of Arthurian literature, but as a significant legend, he was bound to get involved with the Arthurian legend eventually.

For readers not familiar with the Wandering Jew, one of my personal favorite literary characters, here’s a little background information.

Gustave Dore The Wandering Jew

Gustave Dore's The Wandering Jew

In most versions of the legend, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to allow Christ to rest on His way to the cross. Christ punished Ahasuerus by forcing him to wander the earth without death or any form of rest until Christ’s return on the final Judgment Day. Usually, this cursed condition is interpreted to mean that Christ will eventually redeem Ahasuerus who will have atoned for his sins by his prolonged wandering. As he wanders the globe, the Wandering Jew remarkably appears without explanation at the sites of great historical events such as the sack of Rome, the crusades, the fall of Constantinople, and decisive Napoleonic battles; these appearances at great events suggest that the Jew may have supernatural powers that allow him to appear wherever he chooses and that he might also be involved in manipulating such events. The Jew’s constant wandering is enhanced by his fear that Christians will learn his true identity, so he must continually move from place to place so he is not identified and thus mistreated.

The Wandering Jew’s literary origins date back to the Middle Ages. The first recorded reference in England of the Wandering Jew was in 1228 in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Alban’s, entitled Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover. Among the other medieval depictions of him, the most notable appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” where an old man must wander the earth until he can find someone willing to exchange youth for his old age. The Wandering Jew’s popularity in literature increased during the seventeenth century. He is given the name of Ahasuerus in an anonymous German pamphlet of 1602 entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem juden mit Namen Ahasverus; Ahasuerus would become the favored name for the Jew, although Matthew Paris also wrote a story in the seventeenth century, naming the Jew Cartaphilus. Occasional other mentions of him appeared throughout literature but his popularity really caught on in the nineteenth century following his appearance in Matthew Lewis’s 1795 Gothic novel The Monk.

Romantic and Victorian literature is filled with mentions of the Wandering Jew, or characters who obviously owe a debt to the Wandering Jew for their own wandering and extended lives, including Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). The legend of the vampire, and especially Bram Stoker’s depiction of Dracula (1897), is also indebted to the Wandering Jew.

Given the Wandering Jew’s popularity in the nineteenth century, it only stands to reason that he should end up in the Arthurian legend. The connection occurred when Richard Wagner introduced a female Wandering Jew figure in his opera Parsifal (1882). Although this woman named Kundry is not stated to be the Wandering Jew specifically, she clearly is based in his legend’s origins. Kundry is a wild and unpredictable woman who helps the Grail Knights periodically. Later she is transformed into a temptress by the evil wizard Klingsor, who calls her various names including Herodias (the woman who danced for Herod in exchange for John the Baptist’s head, implying she may be cursed to wander for that deed). Finally, when the Grail is revealed, she sinks lifeless to the ground, the curse finally lifted.

Wagner’s version of the Wandering Jew would later inspire author Susan Shwartz to write a novel The Grail of Hearts (1993), which is dedicated to Kundry’s story, including a scene set in biblical times explaining how she received her curse.

The Grail of Hearts Susan Shwarz

The Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz

In addition, characters based on the Wandering Jew, or at least similar to the character because they equally have extended lives include Merlin and Morgan le Fay, King Arthur and the Fisher King, all of whom appear to live on well past their normal lifespans.

My interest in the Gothic and the Wandering Jew have resulted in my upcoming book The Gothic Wanderer which will explore wanderer figures in more detail and which I hope to publish in 2012. Meanwhile, I’m sure we have not heard the last of the Wandering Jew in Arthurian literature.

________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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After several posts on Camelot, which I have to admit is pretty much a flop and I can see why it was cancelled after its first season, it’s time for me to admit that I love Merlin. It is probably my favorite show on television right now, and I suspect it is the best Arthurian television series ever made.

When I first heard about Merlin in 2009 before it began to premiere, I was excited but skeptical, and the first few episodes did not convince me to like the show, but I kept watching.

I had several initial reservations about the program, including:

  • A talking dragon: Seriously! I was expecting cheesiness to result, but instead the show slowly built up the relationship between Merlin and the dragon until the dragon came to play a pivotal role and by the end of the second season was intriguing because of its past and its connection to the old religion.
  • An African American playing Guinevere: No offense intended, but what is she doing in Camelot? And what is Guinevere doing as a servant? And yet, the actress playing her grows on you until you think she’s quite cute and you root for her and Arthur as they fall in love.
  • Merlin himself: Colin Morgan looks like a clutsy boy in the beginning. Where is Merlin’s long beard and robe? Shouldn’t he be older than Arthur? Why do we need a slapstick cheese Merlin instead of a great wizard to awe us? And yet, Colin Morgan is a phenomenal actor–the more I watch him, the more he impresses me.
  • Morgana: For the first several episodes I wondered why she was even in the show. Her role seemed to be pointless and she was tossed in just because she was in the legend. But boy was I wrong. She is an integral part of the program and one of the most intriguing characters, and the actress playing her does a better job even than Eva Green does playing her counterpart on Camelot–although better writing has something to do with that.

I was wrong on all of these points. By the sixth episode or so, I knew I would keep watching. By the second season I was a fan, and now having watched the third season, I am hooked and eagerly awaiting the fourth season and thrilled to know that a fifth season is planned. I’ll go so far as to say that Merlin is my favorite show in a decade–since The Lost World was cancelled.

Merlin succeeds by steady and careful pacing and plotting. Yes, there are some borderline cheesy episodes, such as the troll who farts and marries Uther, and slapstick moments where Arthur throws things at Merlin, but overall, this series succeeds by slowly developing the characters, revealing new things about them, and aligning itself closely yet distantly enough to the Arthurian legend to keep the magic alive without having to worry about historical accuracy because of its fantasy kingdom setting. Camelot is the capital of a kingdom named Albion surrounded by several other countries–they are pseudo-historical, but there is no mention of Britain or France or a time period to make us expect the show is actually historical. At the same time, all the great Arthurian characters are here: Arthur, Uther, Merlin, Morgana, Guinevere, Mordred, Lancelot, Gawain, Percival, often with new twists and development.

In future posts, I’ll analyze some of the splendid ways Merlin plays with the Arthurian legend, but for now, it’s sufficient for me to say: Two Thumbs Up!

________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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