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Archive for August, 2020

Prince Valiant’s story continues in these two volumes produced by Fantagraphics. This time, they are solely the work of John Cullen Murphy, Hal Foster’s successor, other than the 2000th installment of the strip in Volume 20, which summarizes the key points of Valiant’s story and was drawn by Foster. The years of these volumes run from 1975-1978. I’ll summarize a few of the highlights here. But be forewarned there are some spoilers.

As this cover shows, Aleta always steals in the show in the Prince Valiant strip.

Volume 20 includes more of Prince Arn, Valiant’s son, who has become one of my favorite characters as we have watched him grow up. Here he meets twin princes, one of whom ends up murdering the other.

Aleta, Valiant’s wife, is another favorite character of mine. This time she and Valiant return to the Misty Isles, and on the way, Hashida the Sorcerer falls in love with her, kidnaps her, and hypnotizes her. Of course, Valiant rescues her, but Aleta won’t let him kill Hashida, explaining to him that if he kills everyone who loves her, he’ll decimate the male population.

Aleta’s banished sister, Helene, figures in the story also. Years ago, her husband plotted against Aleta. Now the husband is killed in a gambling fight and she is taken as a prize by the winner, so Valiant has to rescue her also.

Finally, Arn is sent to Camelot to begin to learn statecraft so he is ready someday to be a king.

In addition, a short but interesting essay is included at the end of Volume 20 by Michael Dean about stereotypical racial characters in the Valiant strip, particularly a very short segment in which a moneylender’s depiction led to an outcry by Jewish readers that he was a stereotype, even though the strip did not name him as a Jew. While Murphy was writing the strip at this time, Foster saw fit to respond with an apology. The essay mentions that in earlier strips Foster was sensitive to depictions of Jewish characters, but also that a larger study of racism and stereotypes in Foster needs to be made—something I agree with, for there are a lot of stereotypical racial characters in the strip, but at the same time, the strip is partly a product of its time and also has the problem of being very wide-reaching in allowing Valiant to travel over most of the known world at the time and consequently to come into contact with people from many different lands, some of whom have to be villains and some decent people to add interest to the plots. That is an oversimplification so I hope someone will write an in-depth article or book on racism in the strip.

John Cullen Murphy’s art work perfectly captures the style Foster created for the script.

Volume 21 begins with an interesting article about the “historicity” of Prince Valiant, which discusses the strip’s connection to the Arthurian legend and gives a fair overview of the development of the Arthurian legend and its sources while noting that Foster made reference to many events such as the quest for the Holy Grail and the love story of Tristan and Iseult while going off into Valiant’s own stories rather than focusing on the Arthurian ones. What is important and interesting here is how hard Foster tried to be historical, clearly setting the strip in the fifth and sixth centuries in the time when the Roman Empire had fallen and before the rise of the high Middle Ages. In fact, Foster was writing one of the earliest versions of Arthurian fiction that tried to be historical rather than being simply romance, although a few Arthurian novels predate it such as W. Barnard Faraday’s Pendragon (1930).

While there are several stories in Volume 21, for me the best were Valiant’s daughter Karen’s desire to become a warrior queen, and then the story of how Arn travels to Thule and reunites with Lydia, daughter of King Haakon, whom he has fallen in love with. Sadly, Lydia dies in a tragic accident, leaving Arn mourning. I trust Arn will find love in a future volume—there are even hints by the end of this one that he will. Meanwhile, Arn grown a mustache, showing us he is now fully grown.

The upcoming Volume 22 promises to return us more closely to the Arthurian plot as Arthur’s half-brother Mordred plots to usurp the throne. Stay tuned for more.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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While many people seem to have enjoyed Cursed, those of us who are diehard Arthurian legend fans approached it with skepticism and little hope of anything good, and we were not wrong. Cursed is little short of a travesty—for many reasons. Spoiler alert if you read farther.

Cursed is at best a mediocre fantasy series. As an Arthurian fantasy, it is a disaster. There are so many things wrong with this show that I am not going to waste my time listing all of them. I thought it was terrible from the first episode, and I was ready to quit, but when others told me they had gotten through the whole thing and enjoyed it, I decided to keep watching. There were a couple of decent episodes, but the overall concept of the show is basically insulting to anyone who loves the Arthurian legend like I do. I have read well over 100 Arthurian novels, have written five of my own, as well as one nonfiction Arthurian book, and have watched every TV show and movie possible about the Arthurian legend. Many of those books, TV shows, and movies have been discussed at this blog for the last decade. In my opinion, the lowest of the low is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but Cursed comes in second, even edging out the Starz Camelot TV series.

Lily Newmark (left) as Pym and Katherine Langford as Nimue. Pym is one of the few entertaining characters in the show even though she’s completely not Arthurian. Langford does a good job as Nimue–too bad she didn’t have a better script to work from.

Here’s a short and far from complete list of what’s wrong with this show:

  • The characters’ backstories are obliterated
  • Uther Pendragon is illegitimate and not Arthur’s father, which destroys Arthur’s backstory
  • The Weeping Monk is Lancelot—this will likely be explained in Season 2 if Netflix continues the series (hopefully it won’t)—but it completely removes all of Lancelot’s backstory, including his being raised by the Lady of the Lake
  • Merlin has a fictional backstory of having lived for centuries, which isn’t in keeping with the legend
  • Merlin claims to have known Charlemagne, which is completely unhistorical since Charlemagne lived three hundred years after King Arthur
  • Uther is said to be King of England, but there is no England at this time—it’s Britain. It became England after the Anglo-Saxons conquered the country, which happened after the time of Arthur
  • The Sword of Power is just a cheesy name—just call it Excalibur already
  • Gawain is not the Green Knight—the Green Knight is his adversary historically
  • Many of the characters have little if anything to do with the characters whose names they bear in Arthurian legend. A good website explaining the Arthurian versions of the characters is https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/cursed-characters-explained-arthurian-names-references. In any case, it feels like the creators of this show just picked names to give to people regardless of their origins.

I could go on, but like I said, life is too short. The show did do a couple of things right:

  • I like that Morgana is in a nunnery when she is first introduced
  • I liked the references to Celtic myth—e.g., Ceridwen’s cauldron—and to historical people like Queen Boudicca

But the number one reason this show fails so abysmally is that it can’t decide just what it is—history or fantasy or even a plausible mix of both. Traditionally since the twelfth century when the Arthurian legends first became popular in written form, the legend’s retellings have fallen into two primary categories: chronicles and romances. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is an example of a chronicle. Chronicles at least pretend to be telling historical, realistic tales of British history. Romances began with Chretien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Cart and his other works. These works tend to be less interested in claiming King Arthur is historical and instead focusing on romances between the characters and on magic.

This division between chronicle and romance has continued into modern Arthurian fiction. We have more fantastical works like T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which would be considered romance or fantasy fiction, and we have works like Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, which tries to create a historical King Arthur, making it part of the chronicles tradition.

The multicultural fey

At times, given the strong propensity for magic in the Arthurian legend, modern authors try to create relatively realistic and historical works—especially in recent decades as interest in the search for the historical King Arthur has grown—while throwing in just a pinch of magic. Novelists have tried overall to depict Arthur in his historical period in the decades after the Romans left Britain and just before the Saxons took over the majority of what is England today. This period is roughly 410 A.D (the year the Romans left Britain) and 539 A.D. (the year Arthur traditionally died at the Battle of Camlann). Most novels try to maintain this time period, and even the fantasy novels tone down the magic, trying to make it feel plausible or tying it to Pagan religious traditions. Books fitting into this category would include Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and my own Children of Arthur series, which I describe as historical fantasy. In such cases, the authors makes a lot of effort to be historical in terms of dates and historical people included, while at the same time having a little magic for the excitement of the plot.

I am fine with playing a little fast and loose with the Arthurian legend because it is set in a period we do not know enough about historically to determine if Arthur was real or not, and consequently, authors can use artistic license. This is a true benefit of the legend that has allowed it continually to reinvent itself for centuries. However, there comes the point where it can be over the top. Giant magical snakes the size of castles in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword are one example.

In Cursed, the over-the-top historical distortions leave me appalled and almost completely unable to suspend disbelief. One example is the way the Catholic Church is treated in the series. The Pope and his followers are completely corrupt and intent on stamping out not just Pagan religions but the “fey” or fairies. The problem with this is that in Arthurian times, the Celtic Church still held sway and the Catholic Church had not acquired the power over Britain that it would by the end of the sixth century. Furthermore, the Church would not have had an army of Paladins as depicted in the film. This is just yet another cliché about the corrupt Church, which is constantly attacked in the media today, never giving any credit to the many good things it did in the Middle Ages or in modern times. Also problematic is that in some scenes, one wonders if the show is set in Britain or in Africa. I am all for multicultural casts in stories with modern settings, but this “blackwashing” of history does a disservice to people of all colors. It is not historically accurate. It is as much an insult to people of British descent who value their culture as was John Wayne being cast as Genghis Khan was an insult to Asians. I understand the pendulum is swinging the other way now, and perhaps this is warranted, but it gives a very distorted and unrealistic view of history that ultimately does a disservice. Any perversion of history is ultimately detrimental to the human race in understanding its own past. Granted, many of the members of the multicultural cast are fey in the show, but Arthur is not fey. He is not even the son of Uther Pendragon in the film. Perhaps a second season will explain how he will justifiably become king, but right now, his presence in Britain is a confusion. I am sure many will disagree with me on this point. As I said, I am all for multicultural programs. I am just not for distorting history.

In short, Cursed does not at all pretend to be in any way depicting a historical Britain. When it does drop historical references to the “King of England” and Queen Boudicca and Charlemagne—it just seems to make a bigger mess by being anachronistic. Then it creates a bunch of characters who are not in the legend at all, and it plays fast and loose with the traditional characters until they are not recognizable as their Arthurian counterparts.

The BBC’s Merlin TV series was far more successful than Cursed, although I know it had its critics, because it did not pretend to be working within the time frame of British history. It took our Arthurian characters and placed them in a fictional land called Albion (granted, a historical name for England). It never referenced Christianity or any past moments in British history. Even the Old Religion that Uther was fighting against was kept vague enough to be clearly fantasy and not any legitimate Celtic religion. Merlin also better developed its characters. It was lighter in tone and allowed you to get to know the characters. Cursed has so much action and bloodshed all over the place there is hardly time to get to know anyone.

Finally, what is most lacking in Cursed is any sort of spiritual or moral element. No one in this show has any vision of what they are fighting for. There is no belief in restoring peace and order to Britain. There is no sense of creating a land of justice. There is not even mourning for the good old days of the Roman Empire or even the pre-Roman Celtic days. At one point, there is a passing reference to the Holy Grail, but what does that mean to the show? We are given no clue. There is no religious element—the Church is utterly corrupt, but we don’t know why. We don’t understand why the Church is against the fey. Most importantly, no one seems intent on being a good person. I can’t imagine one person in this show would go on a quest for the Holy Grail. I think they’d all laugh at it. There is no sincerity and no reverence for what the legend is based on. Even Merlin is a drunk. At its roots, the Arthurian legend is a deeply spiritual body of work. It is about using might for right. It is about overcoming your sins and cleansing and purifying your soul. It is about following the impossible dream. At the end of the traditional legend, Lancelot becomes a monk. Cursed turns this on its head by making him into a murderous monk from the outset. It is sacrilegious. It is cheap. It is disgusting. It is insulting.

Left to right, the Weeping Monk (Lancelot), Nimue, and Arthur

Sadly, no great Arthurian film has yet been made. My favorite remains the 1967 Camelot based on the Broadway musical and loosely based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Besides the fact that I love musicals, it is my favorite because I feel it is the film that gets most to the heart of the deep spiritual and philosophical message that the Arthurian legend tries to portray. Excalibur (1981) also has its good points and is one of the closest in telling a complete version of the legend, although Arthur is a bit too cheesy for me. Perhaps Knights of the Round Table (1953) comes closest to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which is the true epitome of the legend—both the culmination of the medieval versions and the work that everything since has built from, consciously or not. And I only gave Knights of the Round Table 3 out of 5 stars when I reviewed it at my blog because it is overly morally cleaned up for a 1950s audience, but the magic, the spirituality, and the adventure is all there. By comparison to Cursed, it is near-perfection.

At the end of the day, Cursed will be forgotten beside these stronger shows. Cursed is just a fantasy that stole a bunch of Arthurian names and a magical sword for its own purposes—which can only be to make money for Netflix, because it doesn’t seem to aim for anything higher despite all the hype that it’s a feminist retelling of the legend—as if there haven’t been countless retellings from the female characters’ points of view—anyone ever heard of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Persia Woolley, Rosalind Miles, Nancy McKenzie, or Nicole Evelina’s novels? Cursed doesn’t care about creating strong female characters unless it means ratings for Netflix. It only uses Arthurian names for publicity. I cannot call it real Arthuriana. Consequently, I give it a D+. If it commits the travesty of continuing into a second season, it deserves a D- unless major efforts are made to redeem it. Had it been simply a fantasy series and it had changed its characters names to be non-Arthurian—because most viewers wouldn’t have realized it was Arthurian anyway—I’d have given it a C. After all, it does work as a fantasy, albeit a violent, amoral one.

Hollywood and Netflix, you can do better.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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