I have been slowly working my way through reading the entire Prince Valiant comic strip as Fantagraphics brings out each volume in the series. My reviews of Volumes 1-6 can all be found on this blog and reviewers for Volumes 7 & 8 will be forthcoming. One commenter to one of these blogs was kind enough to inform me that there had been a Prince Valiant television series in the 1990s, shown on the Family Channel. Somehow I missed The Legend of Prince Valiant when it aired from 1991-1994, but I was curious to watch it, and now having done so, I can say that it is extremely well-done and its being a cartoon in no way detracts from its value or quality. In fact, after the BBC’s Merlin, I would say it is the best King Arthur television series, far surpassing the 1950s The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, the 1970s Arthur of the Britons, and the 2011 flop Starz’s Camelot (all of which have been reviewed here in blogs). For its character development, story arc, episode plots, and overall entertainment value, The Legend of Prince Valiant deserves high praise.
The series is available on DVD, complete with 65 episodes, plus interviews with some of the writers, creators, Noelle North (the voice of Rowanne), and many other bonus features. Each episode runs 23-24 minutes. The episodes need to be watched in order because of the story arc running through the two seasons, which really makes the series standout from most cartoons and many television series in general.
To describe all the plots and characters in The Legend of Prince Valiant and how the series differs from the Prince Valiant comic strip would take many blogs, and in general, I don’t feel comparisons are always that helpful to make. Television is a different medium than a comic strip so it naturally requires some different adjustments be made. But I think Hal Foster would have been pleased with this show. It is faithful to the spirit of his work while updating the story a bit to the 1990s in terms of themes and content—but all the fun and adventure is there with the themes being a bit more serious in message than in the comic strips. In fact, the Prince Valiant of this series is a bit wiser and gentler and what is required of him on his path to knighthood is more developed than what I remember in Foster’s strip. I also appreciated that Prince Valiant’s haircut was made a bit more modern because sometimes I just shake my head over his girlish looking medieval haircut in the comic strip (and Robert Wagner’s in the 1954 film Prince Valiant).
The storyline mainly follows the beginning episodes of the strip, beginning with Valiant’s father losing his kingdom of Thule and fleeing to the fens of England where Valiant grows up and then begins his journey to Camelot to seek knighthood. Along the way he meets Arn and then Rowanne (a female main character was invented for the series, and she is a welcome addition), and after several episodes, they reach Camelot. From that point, the show deviates from the strip but retains its energy and appeal. Valiant and his two friends seek to become knights, something Valiant achieves first. Most of the episodes are individual adventures, but the characters develop over time and characters from previous episodes keep reappearing. Major moments in the series include Valiant fighting to win back his father’s kingdom, his meeting Aleta and falling in love with her, Mordred plotting against Camelot, and ultimately, King Arthur’s death.
The end of the series left a few things hanging—notably that Valiant and Aleta are engaged but not yet married, and Rowanne’s relationship with Prince Michael and Arn’s feelings for her also. Valiant is named Arthur’s heir—in the strip, his granddaughter is Arthur’s heir. How this series treats King Arthur’s death was a surprise to me, and I won’t give away the details, but I will say that the outcry against Arthur’s death in the BBC series Merlin would not be heard by viewers of this program. While a gentler ending to the legend makes it less effective in my opinion, The Legend of Prince Valiant was a “family” show geared toward younger viewers than was Merlin, so I will forgive it in this respect.
That said, as a family show, The Legend of Prince Valiant has definite appeal to adults, and some of its storylines and themes are quite daring for the program. In fact, in the interviews on the DVD, it’s pointed out that the themes of tolerance, liberty, and others often opposed the morals of Pat Robertson and the 700 Club that owned the Family Channel. The program won awards for its high concept, values, and television writing that “advances the human spirit,” and it deserved them. I wish it had been more of a model for family and cartoon entertainment, had not ended so soon, and had many more followers both in terms of viewers and other shows following its example.
I was also thrilled by the talent employed in the show. Noelle North, who did the voice of Rowanne, also was Slouchy Smurfling on The Smurfs (my favorite cartoon of all-time). Aleta and Valiant’s voices were by the same actors who did the voices of Disney’s title characters in Beauty and the Beast, Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson. Benson especially did a fantastic job, showing all Valiant’s character traits, his voice ranging from soothing and thoughtful to strong-willed and angry. Tim Curry (Sir Gawaine) was the only person doing a voice whose name I knew before watching the series, but all the actors were quite fabulous in their voice work. I also liked that two of the show’s writers, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who are interviewed on the DVD, also worked on the television series Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (one of my all-time favorite television shows, largely because it also has an Arthurian twist to it).
Watching The Legend of Prince Valiant is time and money well-spent and should give any fan of the comic strip or the Arthurian legend weeks or months of satisfying entertainment. I am sure it will not be long before I re-watch the entire series. I only wish there had been more of it.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One, to be released in June 2014. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com