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Posts Tagged ‘Celts’

The end of the fabulous BBC series Merlin caused a lot of ruckus among fans when Arthur died. I was very surprised by this reaction and the outcry that Arthur would die, though it mostly came from people who knew nothing about the Arthurian legend. Among those who do know the legend, there were many comments all over the Internet about how the series was not that good anyway, and several people compared it unfavorably to the British ITV series Arthur of the Britons, which aired in Britain from 1972-1973 for two seasons. When I read these comparisons, I thought “Arthur of the Britons? Why have I never heard of this television show?”

Arthur_of_the_Britons_coverI quickly looked it up and found that I could watch the entire series of twenty-four episodes for free on YouTube, so I immediately set to it, and almost as immediately, I was glad it was on YouTube where I could watch it for free because I sure wouldn’t have wanted to pay for it. I can only think that all these people singing this show’s praises and claiming it was superior to Merlin were remembering watching it as children and the impact it had on them. Unfortunately, it does not hold up well today.

Do I dare compare Arthur of the Britons to Merlin? One complaint about Merlin was how it had little to do with the legend, but Arthur of the Britons cannot claim to be any more about the legend. Here are just a few of the differences between the shows:

Merlin
* Set in a fictional kingdom of Albion
* Includes most Arthurian characters, including Arthur, Merlin, Uther, Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Morgana, and Mordred. Of course, many of them are greatly reinterpreted.
* Arthur’s father is Uther
* Magic is a key part of the series.
* The show has an arc focused on the role of magic at Camelot and the Old Religion vs. Camelot’s secular order.
* A series finale after five successful seasons.
 

Arthur of the Britons

* Set in post-Roman Britain
* Includes only Arthur, Kai, and Mark of Cornwall
* Arthur was raised by Lud, who also raised Kai—we can assume Arthur’s father is Uther Pendragon, but there is no mention of Uther. That said, in the legend, Arthur does have a foster-father, though his name is Sir Ector and he is Kai’s father.
* The show is historical and realistic.
* There is no arc, other than attempts to fight or make peace with the Saxons. There is little in the way of plot from one episode that leads to the next, making each episode more like a short story while Merlin is more like a novel, and therefore, more of a complete and unified work.
* No series finale since the show was cancelled after two seasons.

The two series are very different and not really that comparable as a result. I give Arthur of the Britons credit for its historical efforts, but even these efforts are rather weak. Merlin, of course, has the advantages of advanced technology and special effects, although those are not a requirement of a good program. Character development and plot are of far greater value, and those two elements are what are most lacking in Arthur of the Britons.

The series has no real plot. We know that the Romans have left Britain, Arthur is the leader of the Celts, and he is fighting against the invading Saxons. What little plot exists concerns him trying to band the other Celts together to fight the Saxons and also to make peace with the Jutes to aid in the fight with the Saxons, and later, to make peace with the Saxons. There are some smaller storylines, such as that of Rowena, the daughter of the King of the Jutes, whom Arthur feels some attraction for, but she only appears in a few episodes in the second season. Even the individual episodes are weak on plot. Part of that flaw is the result of each episode being only about twenty-five minutes long, while Merlin episodes are closer to forty-five minutes so there is more room for plot and character development. The lack of plot in many of the Arthur of the Britons episodes is very apparent, especially in the first season where little happens in an episode. In one episode, “The Challenge,” all that happens is Kai and Arthur physically fight with each other while everyone else looks on. The episode goes on and on and is downright boring. In fact, many of the episodes are boring, although during the second season, the scripts improved and the plots became more like plots, though they remained simple.

The lack of character development in the series is another major problem. In the series’ first episode, Arthur calls together the other Celt leaders to try to form an alliance and get them to follow him. We are not told why Arthur is the leader—he is never called “king” which is probably in keeping with the series’ efforts to be historical. He is rather a chieftain. It is never clear why, however, he is the leader. Arthur has been raised by Lud, himself a warrior. His foster-brother, Kai, is not Lud’s son but simply also raised by him. Kai is actually a Saxon. No explanation is given for how or why Lud decided to raise Kai (or Arthur for that matter), although in a couple of episodes Kai’s loyalty is called into question or he is seen as a traitor by the Saxon people. Lud’s own past is not told or explained at all. Nothing is said of Arthur’s parentage. (If I missed any of these points, I plead boredom as the reason.)

None of the characters really develop as the series continues. The only character who is in any way dynamic is Mark of Cornwall, played by Brian Blessed, who at least tries to change from being the boisterous, wild, tough leader he is. The episodes he appears in are some of the best since he livens up an otherwise often quiet and dull storyline.

I do appreciate the show’s efforts for historical accuracy or at least historical atmosphere. The series was likely based in the research of the last couple of decades prior to its airing, including archeology digs at Cadbury and an effort to distance Arthur from the High Middle Ages and set him back in post-Roman Britain of the fifth and sixth centuries. Unfortunately, I think the effort to be historical ended up being demeaning to the Celts so that it seemed like they had nothing at all. Not once is a castle depicted in any episode, yet the Romans must have left behind villas, stone walls, etc. not to mention what the Britons would have built before the Romans came. We know the Britons had hill forts, but where are they? Only small villages are depicted and these only have wooden walls around them no higher than six feet tall, when they have walls at all. How could any leader protect anything in these flimsy settlements? A group of warring Celts would at least build a fort to protect themselves and their property. And the population of Britain is grossly underestimated—probably the result of the program’s low budget and small cast numbers, but even when there are battles and skirmishes, it never looks like more than twenty people are fighting one another, and not a single village shown could possibly have more than one hundred people living in it. There are no depictions of London or any other major city of the time.

One complaint I had about Merlin was that the concept of the Old Religion was never fully developed or clear, but Arthur of the Britons makes even less of an effort to consider religion or be historical about it. There are a few characters who become Christians, but it is not clear if Arthur and his people are Christian or pagan. At times, Arthur refers to “the gods” but there is a Christian cross on his shield, and when he considers marriage in the last episode he wants the “abbot” sent for. Perhaps, the television show was trying to walk a fine line when it came to religion—or was it just bad writing? I think it had to be bad writing because at least the character Rolf is shown as converting to Christianity so religion was not taboo for the series.

Some of the comments I saw online about why people liked the show had to do with how handsome Michael Gothard (Kai) was. Another compared Arthur and Kai to rock stars of the time with their haircuts. By 1970s standards, maybe these men were attractive, but rock star haircuts are hardly historical, and I was especially surprised by Rowena’s short, cropped haircut. I can’t honestly say that anyone in the program stood out as attractive looking enough to warrant a cult-following for the show.

We all have favorite television shows that when we watch them years later no longer hold their charm for us. I can only think that Arthur of the Britons is one of those and any preference for it is based in nostalgia. Despite Merlin’s faults, it survived for five seasons, long enough to have a series finale and have countless fans disappointed that it was ending. I could find no reason for why Arthur of the Britons was cancelled, but regardless, cancelled it was, so I doubt it was much of a hit when it first aired. In fact, the quality of the first season is so poor I’m surprised it had a second season, but even the improved storylines of the second season could not save it.

Those looking for a historical version of the Arthurian legend will be the most likely to enjoy this series, and it does have its moments, but despite the faults of the more recent film King Arthur, it is probably a better historical depiction of the period that also has some entertainment value. Still, we can only hope that the great historical King Arthur film or series is yet to come because we’ve had nothing but B films so far. (Even though Camelot is my favorite movie, it is not a perfect Arthurian film since it is lacking in many of the plot elements and stories, but that’s another blog.)

ITV produced several other programs in the 1950s-1970s, including The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which I have written about on this blog previously. It is a bit more comical of a series, but far superior in its plots and its efforts. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot is a series I would watch again. I’m afraid Arthur of the Britons is not.

There is actually very little information to be found online about Arthur of the Britons. The best site appears to be at Wikipedia for those who want to learn more about the series, and all the episodes are currently available at YouTube.

Merlin remains, in my opinion, the best Arthurian television series ever made. That said, I have not seen the Prince Valiant cartoon series, which I have heard good things about and plan to watch in the near future, so stay tuned.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Today, I’ve asked author Nicole Evelina to be my guest and let me interview her about the novel for which she is currently seeking a publisher, titled Guinevere of Northgallis.

Author Nicole Evelina

Nicole Evelina is a writer from the Midwest. Guinevere of Northgallis is her first novel and is part of an anticipated trilogy. Nicole has spent the last 12 years researching Arthurian legend, Celtic Britain and the various peoples, cultures and religious practices that shaped the country after the withdrawal of Rome. She is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society.

Nicole holds a B.A. in English and M.A. in media communications, as well as accreditation from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), a distinction that tests writing and communications skill, and is held by only 8,000 people worldwide.

Tyler: Welcome, Nicole. As a writer of Arthurian novels myself (I plan to publish King Arthur’s Legacy in the fall of 2013), I’m excited for the opportunity to talk to you today. First, will you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the Arthurian legend and what made you decide to write novels about it?

Nicole: I’ve been a fan of Arthurian legend since I was a little girl. While most other kids had Disney princesses as idols, I had the queens, kings, and knights of Arthurian legend. I was so enamored with Guinevere that I wanted to take her name as my confirmation name, but the nuns wouldn’t let me because there’s no St. Guinevere.

How I came to write about it is kind of a funny story. I’d been avoiding reading The Mists of Avalon because everyone told me “don’t read that book if you like Guinevere.” Well, my freshman year of college, a friend gave it to me as a Christmas gift. As predicted, I hated Marion Zimmer Bradley’s portrayal of Guinevere, but loved the book overall, especially Avalon. Shortly thereafter, I read Parke Godwin’s Beloved Exile, which tells what happened to Guinevere after Arthur dies. His premise didn’t really resonate with me, but it got me wondering what did happen to her. You don’t hear much about that. Inspired by the two books, I started thinking about what Guinevere’s real story was, and then one autumn morning—I can still tell you the date—she walked into my head and told me she wanted to tell her side of things. That’s how Guinevere of Northgallis was born.

Tyler: Was Guinevere of Northgallis the first novel you wrote or did you write or attempt to write other novels about it?

Nicole: It is my first novel. I’ve been writing and re-writing it on and off (more off than on) for 13 years now, so it’s gone through several iterations and really has been several different books in that time. Prior to writing it, I wrote some short stories, but they were mostly fantasy and never really went anywhere.

Tyler: The Arthurian legend is rich with characters, and of course, after Arthur, Guinevere might arguably be the most important one, but many authors such as Persia Woolley, Nancy McKenzie, and Rosalind Miles have already devoted several books to Guinevere. What made you think you had something new or original to say?

Nicole: You’re right that several other authors have covered this territory. But my Guinevere is very different, mainly because of where I’ve placed her in history. She’s not a meek Christian wallflower like in previous legend. She’s a pagan Celt who was taught to fight by her mother, a noblewoman from the land of the Picts. Although living in Britain, Guinevere was raised in her mother’s matriarchal ways, so she’s a strong, smart woman who will stand up for what she believes in and fight for it, with her tongue or with her sword, as appropriate. But despite all of that feministic rhetoric, women were pawns during that time period and the strong ones were rare, so you’ll see the consequences of her unique outlook as well.

Also, while my story has elements of fantasy, it’s also very historically grounded. Guinevere lives in a time period (approximately 480-530 A.D.) that was in the throes of transition, both politically and religiously, so my books also deal with that upheaval. The transition from paganism to Christianity is central to the story, as is the shifting political landscape, as the Britons struggle to organize themselves after the withdrawal of Rome and fight against the encroaching influences of the Saxons and Picts.

Tyler: You must have had a lot to say since you plan to write an entire trilogy. Can you tell us a little about why you decided to write a trilogy rather than just one book, and give us a little overview of what the books will cover—is it Guinevere’s entire life story?

Nicole: Originally, I thought it was going to be just one huge book. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft of the first book that I realized it needed to be a trilogy, just for page count, if nothing else. The story begins when Guinevere is 11 and will encompass her entire life, before she meets Arthur, her time with him and her life after the fall of Camelot. That’s roughly how the books are divided.

Tyler: What do you find the most fun about rewriting the Arthurian legend?

Nicole: The fun part is how the characters come alive for me. They talk in my head and sometimes when I’m writing, they do things I didn’t expect or plan for. I love seeing the legend take on its own life through them. The most rewarding part is knowing this is a legend written in a way that will speak to people of our time—a way of preserving it as a living story that continues, rather than being a dusty, moldering tale from another time.

Tyler: I think we can break Arthurian novels down into two categories—fantasy and historical, and then there are books like my own that try to include a little of both—I would consider my novels historical fantasy. What genre would best define yours?

Nicole: Historical fantasy is probably best. I’ve tried to be very true to the time period, but I can’t imagine Arthurian legend without a little magic, so there’s an element of fantasy to it as well. But it’s not high fantasy by any means. The magic is more subtle, and is, I think, in keeping with the beliefs of the Celtic people.

Tyler: I know you’ve done extensive research in writing your novels. Will you tell us a little about your process and how you decided what to include?

Nicole: At the beginning, my process was to read anything I could get my hands on about Arthurian legend and the Celts—to really get the lay of the land, so to speak. Once the story started forming into an actual plot in my head, I was able to get more specific and research the elements that I knew would directly affect my characters. I must confess that my research still isn’t done; it probably won’t be until the last book hits the shelves because I’m always finding some new detail to verify. I do additional research as I come to the main plot elements of each book. For example, I’m getting ready to research the Holy Grail in-depth because that’s the part of the second book I’m on now. I’ll do more research into the tribes of the Gododdin and the Picts when I get ready to start book 3 because that’s where most of that book takes place. So much research, so little time!

Tyler: I know you’ve also visited England. How did that visit influence your research and your vision for the novels?

Nicole: England is such an amazing country. I was fortunate to visit about six months after I started writing the first book, so knowing the land has been extremely helpful. It’s completely different being there and feeling the energy of the places than just reading about them. I actually picked my location of Camelot based on an area I came to know very well. Oddly enough, I haven’t been to most of the places in the first book, but I’m planning to take a tour of south-western England next June that will remedy that!

Tyler: With so many Arthurian novels already published, what pitfalls do you see for writers of Arthurian literature? Did you fear being influenced too much by other writers who had already published their stories?

Nicole: There’s always the fear that you’ll be influenced by someone else. But in way, it’s a good thing because it forces you to really look at what you’re writing from a new perspective and really make things your own. One way I’ve tried to shield myself is that I haven’t read any other Arthurian fiction that deals with Guinevere since I decided I was going to write my own story. By that time I had seen enough of what was out there to know what’s unique and what is not, but there’s been enough time distance that I don’t have to worry about replicating someone else’s work.

One pitfall of writing in Arthurian tradition is that there isn’t a lot of source material out there for the Celts. If other writers have done their research (which they clearly have), you’re going to have some overlap in ideas. For example, Marion Zimmer Bradley did really great research into the beliefs and rituals of the Druids and the possibilities for Avalon. You can’t change something like that drastically without it becoming inauthentic, but you can look at it from another angle and try to add to what’s already been done.

Tyler: Thank you again, Nicole for joining me. I wish you much success with finding a publisher for Guinevere of Northgallis and its sequels. Before we go, tell us a little about how to find more information about you online. What is your blog or website, and what more can readers learn there about you, your books, and the Arthurian legend?

Nicole: My web site is http://nicoleevelina.com. From there you can read my blog, which is updated weekly, learn about my books and connect with me on social media sites like Twitter and Pinterest. My site also has an extensive research list and a playlist section where you can see what music has influenced Guinevere’s story. I blog mostly about Celtic history, Arthurian legend and writing, but as I get farther into the publishing process, I’ll keep all my readers updated on that as well.

Thank you for having me, Tyler, and for your well wishes. It has been a pleasure.

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The recent film The Eagle raises many interesting questions about how we are to interpret it, and perhaps best of all, it provides a glimpse into Roman Britain and the outlying territories above Hadrian’s Wall that I haven’t seen depicted previously in film. While the film depicts Britain in the mid-second century, about three centuries before the time of King Arthur, it provides a fascinating look into the Britain the Romans would have experienced.

The movie is based upon the book The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliff, best known to Arthurian enthusiasts as the author of Sword at Sunset (1963), the first Arthurian novel to have treated King Arthur from a historically accurate perspective. Sword at Sunset is also part of the Eagle of the Ninth book series, all connected by the Aquila Family dolphin ring, although Sword at Sunset is only very loosely connected.

The film and book’s main character, Marcus, is a Roman soldier stationed in Britain who wants to know what became of his father, who led the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The legion was never heard from again, but Marcus hears rumors that the Eagle standard of the legion has been seen north of the wall and is being used in pagan ceremonies.

Of course, Marcus wants to know what became of his father and to reclaim the Eagle. I won’t give away any more of the plot. What interests me is how Marcus is the commander of a fort that is attacked by the local Britons, who yell about how the Romans have raped their daughters and stolen their land. Marcus never for a second considers that Rome is at fault. He simply does his duty as a Roman soldier. Later, on his quest to regain the Eagle, Marcus is accompanied by Esca, a slave and the son to the late King of the Brigantes. Marcus’ uncle warns him that Esca is a Briton so he will betray him on the journey, but Marcus has Esca accompany him anyway and Esca appears loyal, at least at first. Later, the two will encounter the Seal people, a term Sutcliff uses in her novel.

What is fascinating about the film is the depiction of the local Britons. The Seal people are fictional largely because so little is known about the local people of Britain in Roman times, who were mostly Celts and Picts. Wikipedia does a good job of discussing the film and the issues with depicting the native people at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eagle_(2011_film) The confusion and difficulties of pinning down the Celtic peoples of Great Britain is understandable, considering how many different tribes there were as evidenced in the list at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Celtic_tribes#Great_Britain

I admit I haven’t read the novel, which was actually written for children, but the film definitely made me want to read the entire series and reread Sword at Sunset. I was surprised by the film’s lack of a politically correct or multicultural message—I don’t expect a book written in 1954 would have a politically correct tone, however, so perhaps the filmmakers decided to be true to the book. In any case, Marcus never thinks that he or Rome is in the wrong for how they have treated the native peoples of Britain. Although Marcus and Esca become friends of a sort, and Marcus does save Esca’s life early in the film, otherwise he does not show any great tendency to be sympathetic toward those who were conquered, and he is not in any way a dynamic character who has a new understanding about the situation in Britain.

Equally fascinating is the depiction of the native peoples. It is difficult to imagine such a “primitive” way of life as they experience compared to Rome, which we can perhaps more closely relate to. And I know “primitive” is a judgmental term, but their life is so vastly remote from ours today. In truth, my sympathies lay more with the native Britons who have been conquered and even betrayed by their own people. Of course, you don’t want Marcus or Esca to be killed, but I found it difficult to have my sympathies with them.

In the end, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It was more an interesting look into the mind of a Roman than one where I could identify with any character, and in that way, because I had no emotional reaction to the film, I felt like it somewhat failed to do its job.

It would be interesting to read all of Sutcliff’s series and how the stories link to Arthur, who is more Roman than Briton in most versions of the legend. In a film adaptation, one would expect a more politically correct and sympathetic view of the native Britons, but at the same time, perhaps I appreciate the film more for not taking that route which would be a modern twist and not one Marcus or the Romans themselves probably would have considered taking.

The Eagle may not be a perfect film, but the actors do an excellent job; both actors playing Marcus and Esca are completely believable in their roles; whatever faults the film has are due to the screenplay, or perhaps the original novel. The story opens up many questions about right and wrong while creating an imaginative, yet as historical as possible, depiction of what second century Britain may have been like. Altogether I give this film 4 out of 5 stars and remain with mixed feelings about it.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, I’d love to hear your comments.

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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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