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Archive for May, 2011

Of the three recent films about the Ninth Legion in Britain that mysteriously disappeared in the second century, The Last Legion (2007) was the film I was most interested in watching because it took place just prior to the time of King Arthur and was said to provide a link to the Arthurian legend. In that respect, it did not disappoint, and while I think The Eagle was a more intelligent film that raised questions about Rome and its right to occupy Britain, I enjoyed The Last Legion the most. One of my friends said it was more “predictable” than the other films, notably The Centurion, but I feel the film set out to tie the legend to the Roman emperors and successfully did so.

The cast of The Last Legion is more impressive than the other two films. Colin Firth plays the lead role, the soldier who must protect the child emperor after Odaecer of the Goths invades and conquerors Rome. Ben Kingsley plays the wise old man Ambrosinus who has come from Britain seeking Julius Caesar’s lost sword, and the child emperor, Romulus Augustus, is played by Thomas Sangster, who will be known to Arthurian film fans as playing the boy Tristan in Tristan and Isolde with James Franco playing the adult Tristan.

The story begins with mention of the sword of Julius Caesar which is fated to become the sword Excalibur. The boy Romulus Augustus has just been made emperor of Rome. The film is a bit in error timewise by saying it begins in the year 460 when Romulus Augustus reigned from 475-6 (the book the film is based on gets this fact correct–why the change?). The Goths invaded Rome and Romulus was deposed as Caesar after ten short months, although in the film it is the day after Romulus is crowned. The Roman empire then fell with a Goth taking the crown and ruling the empire, while the Eastern (Byzantine empire) would remain in power another ten centuries. History does not state what became of Romulus other than he was sent to live in Campania and then disappears from the historical record. The film takes advantage of this lost information to tie the boy to Britain. But first, he is taken as a prisoner to the Isle of Capri.

General Aurelius is determined to rescue the young emperor, and meanwhile Ambrosinus has come from Britain to Rome to seek the sword of Julius Caesar. It is predictable that the sword will be found on Capri, formerly home to Roman emperors, and then Aurelius, Ambrosianus, Romulus, and a few other companions, including a woman disguised as a male soldier (Colin Firth’s required love interest in the film), manage to escape Capri, make it over the Alps, and eventually reach Britain, where they also discover the remainder of the Ninth Legion (although it would have disappeared three hundred years earlier – the film’s largest historical inaccuracy, while in the book a fictional Twelfth Legion was actually used). Together they join in fighting Vortigyn (the film’s version of Vortigern) and his Saxon mercenaries (in the novel, but not the film, it states that it’s the legendary Battle of Badon Hill where Arthur defeated the Saxons, typically dated to about the year 516).

If you read this article farther, there will be a bit of a spoiler, although any discerning filmgoer will foresee what happens next. Aurelius is typically in legend King Arthur’s uncle, the brother to Uther Pendragon. He is often known as Aurelius Ambrosius, so the film is obviously using a version of Ambrosius for Ben Kingsley’s character. No blood relationship exists between Aurelius, Ambrosinus, or Romulus in the film, but the suggestions behind the familiar legendary names are there. In the film, in Britain there is also a young girl named Igraine who ends up later marrying Romulus, who decides to change his name to Pendragon. Guess who there child is. In the final scene, Merlin (another of Ambrosinus’ names – another big surprise) tells a young Arthur the story of his parents.

The film plays fast and loose with history, but Arthurian works always do, trying to create a historical atmosphere against which the legend could have taken place. I find the way the film links Arthur to Rome to be interesting since Arthur typically claims to be descended from a Roman emperor, although it is usually Magnus Maximus, and in Malory, it is Constantine. Arthur’s lineage also traces back to Rome through, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Brutus from whose name Britain comes. Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, the founder of the Roman empire and one of the survivors who fled when Troy was destroyed (both the costume designer and swordmaster of the film, interestingly, had worked on the film Troy). Romulus, besides being the historical last emperor of Rome, also has a counterpart who is the founder of Rome in ancient legend.

The film has its moments of corniness and exaggerated action, but most films do, and this film at least is trying to be corny in its romantic and adventurous storylines. It is not a great film. I would not even say it is one of the better Arthurian films (it’s questionable whether there has ever been a great Arthurian film), but it succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish, creating an intriguing storyline that ties Rome and Arthurian Britain together, provides some light moments of comedy, and a lot of magic in creating a sense of wonder about how the legend of King Arthur may have happened. If you like a little myth and wonder woven into depictions of Roman Britain, this may be the film you will most enjoy, while if you like gritty realism, The Centurion or The Eagle may be more your style. I’m not sure that one of these films is better than the other–they are just different. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be The Last Legion. If I had to pick one as the best, I would say The Eagle. Interestingly, The Last Legion may be the film least about the Ninth Legion, yet the only one named for it.

For those interested in Arthurian literature, the film is based on an Italian novel of the same name written by Valerio Massimo Manfredi in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005.

In future posts, I will write about more films that tie Arthurian Britain to Rome, but more specifically in the time of Arthur. I’ll note here that Rosemary Sutcliff, author of The Eagle of the Ninth (upon which The Eagle was based) was the first author to create a novel, Sword at Sunset (1959), based upon trying to place King Arthur within his historical post-Roman world, and that effort along with continued archeological efforts, has contributed to this trend to create a more historical depiction in fiction of King Arthur and his world.

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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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What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion has inspired three films in recent years:

Of these three films, I’m afraid The Centurion is the one I find the least interesting. Like the other films, The Centurion is about what happened to the Ninth Legion that seemingly disappeared – although historians now think they were transferred and later destroyed on the continent. How they were destroyed remains lost to history, but authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which the film The Eagle is based upon, have been writing books about it for many years, surmising what may have occurred. Usually the stories suggest the legion went north of the area where Hadrian’s Wall separated the “uncivilized” Britons from the territory the Romans had conquered.

The problem I have with The Centurion is not the suggestions of what may have happened to the Ninth (an interesting historical mystery) but the film’s lack of character development as well as my difficulty with identifying with the main characters. In this film, the Roman legion is led north with the aid of a Brigantes woman who is apparently going to lead them to where they can attack the Picts. Instead, she tricks the Romans and leads them into an ambush (big surprise). The sad thing is that while I just watched this film a few days ago, I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names and I can barely remember the actors’ faces. I know there was a main character Roman, the deceitful native Briton woman, and a bad guy who caused treachery, and a couple of other survivors. Eventually, the Romans who survive the attack and enslavement manage to escape from the Picts who have captured them, and the rest of the film shows their attempts not to be recaptured or killed and to get back to the Roman outposts. The villainy by a fellow Roman is almost a subplot and the overall plot is loose and not in any way complicated. Perhaps the best part of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is the end when the surviving Roman returns, only to have his fellow Romans try to cover up what happened to the legion so its defeat will not make Rome look bad.

What makes this film additionally difficult for me is that because none of the characters were strong enough for me to identify with one of them, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. When the film started, although I knew the Romans would be “the good guys,” I wanted the Picts to win. Why? Because I know I am descended from the Picts through Scottish royalty, while I do not know of any Roman ancestors in my family tree, though I do not doubt I have them, and also because the Picts and other Britons were conquered people whom Rome just felt it was their job and right to conquer and civilize or eliminate. While I did not agree with this philosophy in either The Eagle or The Centurion, at least in The Eagle, the main character played by Tatum Channing is well portrayed as a very loyal Roman who believes in his Roman traditions and duties. I may not agree with what makes him tick, but I understood his motives. The Eagle also raised interesting questions of right and wrong and Channing’s character has a slave who makes it clear that Rome is not in the right, leaving a world of questions for viewers to consider, even while Channing’s character is left staying staunch to what he believes in, too brainwashed into the Roman way to consider what he may have done wrong as a Roman, although I think the film’s viewers realize the film questions who he really is. The Eagle is still somewhat weak in this respect, but far superior to The Centurion.

By comparison, the native Britons are given almost no sympathy in The Centurion. The Brigantes woman who deceives the Romans is insulted by them as being a “she-wolf.” She seems merciless in her desire to destroy the Romans, but her behavior is completely understandable to me despite the Romans thinking ill of her. We are told that she watched the Romans destroy her family, then rape her and cut out her tongue. Despite this information, she is impossible to identify with because she is unable to speak her pain, and similarly, except for one of the Picts telling the Romans what the other Romans did to her, equally the film is unable to speak about who is right and who wrong in this film. In short, it is unfocused and uncertain if it has any agenda or message to share. I know life isn’t always possible to tie into a neat message but the woman becomes so focused on her mission and so unable to display any emotion or human characteristics we can identify with, that while she is the character I felt most sympathy for in the film, she is unable to make a real connection with the viewer, she is unable to speak her pain, and therefore, unable to make the viewer form a bond with her or anyone in the film. And I think the film itself, or its creators, were unsure themselves what if any point the film was supposed to make.

I don’t want to say this film is a mess, but it is a disappointment. It kept my attention due to some of the action as the Picts chased after the Romans, but I had a hard time knowing what to think at the end. Ultimately, I have to say that if the Roman Ninth was slaughtered by the people it was trying to conquer, well, who can blame the Britons for protecting their homeland? I don’t condone killing, but the Romans started the killing in Briton and they got what they deserved.

The film also raises questions for me about King Arthur himself, often depicted as heir to the Romans and of Roman descent, yet considering himself a Briton–and fighting against the Saxons who would conquer him. If he’s of Roman descent, is Arthur a good guy? If he is of Briton descent, then Arthur must see the Saxons as equal to the earlier Roman invaders. More likely, Arthur’s bloodline would have been a mix of Briton and Roman. In the end, did the two races not blend? Were they not allied at the least in their fight against the incoming Saxon invaders?

Eventually in all cultures, the conquerors and the conquered’s great-grandchildren intermingle and hatreds are put aside and forgotten as time marches on. Too bad the great-grandparents couldn’t learn to do that themselves to save a great deal of bloodshed.

I encourage lovers of Arthurian literature interested in the prehistory of the Arthurian legend to watch both The Eagle and The Centurion to understand what Briton would have been like in the Romans’ early years in Britain and how those events shaped the world a historical King Arthur would have been born into. And I’d welcome comments from other viewers.

And if you are interested in reading more about Roman Britain in novel form, I highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel series, including The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset (the first novel to create a historical King Arthur), and especially, I recommend for great reading pleasure Jack Whyte’s novel series The Camulod Chronicles, about Arthur’s Roman ancestors and how they established Camelot as a way to maintain peace in the years when Rome was pulling out of Britain.

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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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Guinevere: On the Eve of Legend
Cheryl Carpinello
Outskirts Press (2009)
ISBN: 9781432737047

Guinevere Comes Alive as Thirteen-Year Old Prospective Bride in Children’s Novel

Guinevere: On the Eve of Legend by Cheryl Carpinello

There is no end to the number of novels being written about the Arthurian legend, and exciting new children’s author Cheryl Carpinello can now be added to the number of writers recreating the legend for new generations with “Guinevere: On the Eve of Legend.” Carpinello has been teaching the Arthurian legend to her high school English classes for nearly twenty years, and now that interest has resulted in her first novel about a young Guinevere, on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, when her life is about to change forever.

The reader is first introduced to Guinevere when she is in the forest hunting rabbits with her seven-year old friend Cedwyn. She is not quite as ladylike as a princess should be, considering she is the daughter of King Leodegrance. Nor is she happy that as her thirteenth birthday approaches, she will be expected to take on a more adult role in the castle and prepare for possible marriage.

Guinevere finds that things get a bit easier when the wizard Merlyn arrives to participate in her birthday celebrations. But King Arthur also comes, and through her father, he makes a proposal she is uncertain is in her best interests.

After a fantastic birthday party and a couple of encounters with a magical beast in the forest, Guinevere starts to accept what her role will be in the future. She also realizes she still has some time left to enjoy her youth, and she is happy that her adult role will allow her young friend, Cedwyn, eventually to fulfill his own dream of becoming a squire and then a knight.

Guinevere: On the Eve of Legend is not a long or complicated story. It is just over one hundred pages, but it is a pleasant reading experience. It does not try to accomplish too much, but rather it is one of those rare books where the author understood that less is more and fully delivers in making each page valuable and interesting. The sighting of a unicorn in the book is an example of this—the delicate handling of the scene leaves the reader as much in awe as Guinevere over the magical beast. Similarly, the illustrations are not elaborate but simple drawings, yet they are magical for what they leave to the reader’s imagination. While the influence of T.H. White can be felt in the novel’s pages, and perhaps a bit of Disney’s film version The Sword in the Stone in the illustrations, Carpinello manages to create a unique and original version of Guinevere’s childhood.

Carpinello is obviously enthusiastic about sharing the Arthurian legend with young readers. Her biography states that “The focus in her writing is on reluctant readers.” I felt she provided enough magic and detail to appeal to readers of all ages, especially in her realistic portrait of Guinevere coming of age. I also appreciated her short, educational section at the book’s end, including a discussion of the King Arthur Legend, a glossary, discussion questions, and some additional reading. The book is suitable for readers, depending on their reluctance or proclivity to read, from about third grade through middle school, although as an adult, I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

Well done all around, “Guinevere: On the Eve of Legend” is a novel sure to win readers’ hearts and add to the many fans of the King Arthur legend. Perhaps best of all, Carpinello is now busy writing “The King’s Ransom,” the first in her prospective “Young Knights of the Round Table” series. To learn more about Cheryl Carpinello and her books visit www.beyondtodayeducator.com

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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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Today, May 1st, May Day, or Beltane as it was known to the ancient Celtic people, is Mordred’s birthday. He is the greatest villain, or perhaps the most misunderstood in Arthurian legend. So in his honor, I am posting Chapter 5 from my book King Arthur’s Children, so we can have a closer look at his true character, or at least, what we may discern about it.

Chapter 5

The Character of Mordred 

            The name of Mordred is synonymous with traitor to those familiar with the Arthurian legends. If ever a cursed figure has existed in literature, it is Mordred, for how can one feel sorry for him when he is the murderer of King Arthur, the greatest, most noble king Britain ever had? Yet Mordred was not always an evil character in the legends. In the Welsh tradition, he was even honorable and admired.

The earliest written source we have for Mordred is the tenth century Annales Cambriae where it states that Arthur and Mordred fell at Camlann in 539, but no mention is made of their relationship or their being on opposite sides. Mordred may only be mentioned as falling with Arthur because he was one of the highest and greatest members of King Arthur’s court.

Sir Mordred

            The Welsh tradition describes Mordred as one of the three kingly knights of Arthur’s court, and it states that no one could deny him anything because of his courtliness. The curious qualities to which his persuasive powers were due were his calmness, mildness, and purity (Guest, Mabinogion, 344). Loomis also states that in a Welsh Triad Mordred is mentioned along with Nasiens, King of Denmark, as “men of such gentle, kindly, and fair words that anyone would be sorry to refuse them anything” (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 146-7). When the Welsh had such nice things to say about Mordred, we can hardly expect him to have become a traitor.

Whether Mordred was actually Arthur’s nephew before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings cannot be determined; in “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” he is mentioned as Arthur’s nephew (Jones, Mabinogion, 140), but this Welsh tale could have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth since it was not written down until the fourteenth century. Furthermore, we must notice that Mordred is described in the above passage as a “kingly” knight, and later he is grouped with the King of Denmark. “Kingly” would seem to mean that Mordred was himself a king, or at least of royal blood. He would be royal if he were the son of Arthur’s sister and King Lot; possibly, he would have even inherited a kingdom upon his father’s death. In some later versions of the legend, he was supposed to inherit Arthur’s throne, as will be further discussed in Chapter 9; therefore, the hint that Mordred may have been a king could be well founded.

Mordred’s ability to persuade people so that none could refuse him may need to be looked at a little more hesitantly. It sounds almost as if he were capable of manipulating people, but this interpretation may be false reading between the lines in an attempt to find sarcasm where it was not intended. Such a negative interpretation was often used by the later romancers in their portraits of Mordred. They may have simply been misinterpreting what the Welsh had said of Mordred, or the person who wrote these Welsh traditions down may have been fusing the Welsh traditions with other more recent concepts of Mordred’s character.

One quality attributed to Mordred that we cannot overlook is his purity. Mordred is perhaps the last character in the legends one would expect to have been pure. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mordred is so far from purity that he is trying to force Guinevere into marriage with him. However, the sin of marrying his father’s wife is a sin Mordred originally seems innocent of having committed since it is not mentioned in any of the earlier Welsh versions of the legend.

One final clue to what may have been Mordred’s true character is that the Welsh Triads give two reasons for the Battle of Camlann. One of these is the blow Gwenhyvar struck to Gwenhwyvach, said to be her sister in “Culhwch and Olwen” (Jones, Mabinogion, 106). The other, surprisingly enough, is the blow Arthur gave to Mordred (Guest, Mabinogion, 343). Here it appears as if Mordred is not even at fault, but rather Arthur! Does this statement mean Mordred is the good guy or on the right side in the battle? This interpretation may seem impossible, but we must keep it in mind because it will need to be further explored when we discuss the Battle of Camlann. Since the passage does not give Arthur’s reason for striking Mordred, it could also be interpreted that Mordred started the trouble and Arthur was merely retaliating.

Although the Welsh tales do depict Mordred as rebelling against Arthur, it is strange that if they were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth, they would have said so many nice things about Mordred which Geoffrey does not credit to Mordred. The writing of the Welsh tales may have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, but they may have also been drawing on independent Welsh traditions from which Geoffrey may have also drawn. Perhaps Geoffrey only borrowed the negative aspects of Mordred’s character, while The Mabinogion presents Mordred as a more rounded and realistic character.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s portrayal of Mordred as completely evil allowed Geoffrey’s successors to exaggerate this wickedness to extremes. Mordred’s character became darkest when the author of the Mort Artu (1205) decided to make him the child of incest. As we have seen, this incestuous birth may have been an almost forgotten tradition about Mordred; however, it also could have been invented to degrade Mordred further. A person born of incest was viewed as being nothing short of a devil by the Christian writers of the Middle Ages; these writers viewed Mordred’s incestuous birth as an act of lust, and through this act of lust, even greater lust was conceived; therefore, Mordred became the most despicable, lustful character in the romances, quickly losing his last good characteristic, his purity.

A few examples of the lustful deeds attributed to Mordred during the Middle Ages can be found in the Huth Merlin and Claris et Laris. In the former, Mordred is so lacking in gratitude toward his host that he seduces the girl who is his host’s amie (Bruce, Evolution vol. 2, 345). Even worse than seducing maidens, in Claris et Laris, Mordred attempts to rape a girl, but she is rescued before he can succeed. Later in the romance, he again attempts to rape a girl, but he is foiled in his attempt when the girl turns out to be a knight in disguise (Bruce, Evolution vol. 2, 271, 273). And of course Mordred is guilty of making attempts against Guinevere, which will be further explored in Chapters 6 and 7.

One reason why all this evil may have been attributed to Mordred could go back to our earlier discussion of his name origins. The Welsh form of Mordred’s name was Medraut or Medrawt, but it was later changed to Mordred, the Mor part of his name suggesting connotations to various European words for the sea. The stories of Mordred’s connection to the sea may have caused writers to believe he had some connection to death, specifically by drowning—hence his rescue from drowning at birth, so they borrowed from this new suggestive meaning in his name to depict him as evil. Of course, it could be that the name change was the result of writers wanting a name that more accurately depicted his already established evil character. In any case, Mordred’s character makes a change for the worse at approximately the same time as his name passes from the form of Medraut to Mordred.

Mordred’s wickedness, rather than growing into a more grotesque depiction, has received more sympathy from modern writers. We now live in an age of psychology where we look at the environment of the child that formed the adult. Consequently, trying to understand Mordred’s villainous behavior has provided him with a degree of sympathy; after all, how can he help hating his father, when that father tried to drown him, and furthermore, he must deal with the knowledge that he is the child of incest?

In some of the modern fiction, Mordred even appears to be regretful of his evil ways prior to the Battle of Camlann. Often he appears to be the victim of fate, trapped in a situation he is unable to avoid (Lacy, Arthurian Encyclopedia, 394). Even when he is not a sympathetic character, some writers depict him as not being completely at fault for the Battle of Camlann. Writers over the centuries, from Sir Thomas Malory to Mary Stewart in her novel The Wicked Day (1983), have arranged a meeting between Arthur and Mordred before the Battle of Camlann. In The Wicked Day, it is decided that Mordred will be king after Arthur’s death and have lands of his own until that time. In both Malory and Stewart, the Battle of Camlann begins during this meeting. While Mordred and Arthur are negotiating, one of their soldiers steps on an adder, which then attacks him; the soldier’s reflex is to draw his sword and kill the snake. The flash of the sword, at the same time Arthur happens to raise his arm, is interpreted by the two armies as the sign to start the battle, and so the wicked day begins. Here Mordred, although desiring the kingdom, was at least trying to make peace with Arthur so there need be no more battles, but it is Mordred and Arthur’s fate to slay each other, as Merlin predicted would happen when Mordred was born.

Occasionally in the modern texts, Mordred is even seen as having a purpose besides his own selfish desires for the throne. In The Mists of Avalon (1982), he is the arm of his mother, Morgan le Fay, sent to punish King Arthur for betraying the Isle of Avalon and forgetting his vows to the Goddess. Although Morgan seems a little fanatical at times in this work, the reader always sympathizes with her and so Mordred comes out on what is viewed as the side of good.

Perhaps the most unusual view of Mordred lies not so much in whether he was a good or an evil person, but in the theory that he, and not Arthur, was the rightful King of Britain, which would give a new understanding to his actions, making them merely an attempt to regain what was rightfully his. This interesting theory will be discussed more fully in Chapter 9. First, let us follow our chronological scheme of study and see what lies behind the tale of Mordred’s abduction of Guinevere since that is generally one of the causes for the Battle of Camlann.

For more information about Mordred or to purchase a copy of King Arthur’s Children, visit www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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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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