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Posts Tagged ‘Gothic’

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.

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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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In my last post I pointed out everything that I thought was wrong with Starz’ Camelot, based solely on watching the first three episodes. Of course, that was a first impression based on only seeing part of the series, and as I suspected, once I got all my preconceived notions out of the way of what the King Arthur story should be, I was ready to focus on and better understand what the series actually was doing right.

Arthur and Morgan in Starz' Camelot

Arthur and Morgan in Starz' Camelot

I remain unimpressed with Merlin, who doesn’t strike me as being very bright for a great wizard. While in episode 4, I do somewhat like that he becomes tormented by Excalibur’s death (he accidentally kills the swordmaker Caliburn and Caliburn’s daughter, Excalibur, then takes the sword and tries to flee, resulting in her drowning by accident and Merlin naming Arthur’s sword for her out of a sense of guilt). Even the program’s explanation for the naming of the sword works for me, but I still don’t think Merlin seems to be very wise (Colin Morgan’s Merlin has more brains in his head I think). Merlin especially doesn’t win any IQ points when in episode 7 he’s dumb enough to let Arthur make another trip to Castle Pendragon to visit Morgan, considering what happened last time, although this time at least they are smart enough to be accompanied by their knights, but not smart enough to leave the women behind.

But what has started to redeem the series for me is episodes 5 & 6, both of which depict justice being given to people by Arthur and Morgan. Here we finally have a hint that Arthur may be capable of becoming a good and wise king–despite his obsession with Guinevere. This Arthur has not yet developed his ideas to the degree that King Arthur does in the musical Camelot of creating a court of justice and understanding that it is not “might is right but might for right,” but there is a start here. In episode 5, Arthur comes upon a man about to be hanged for killing another man. Rather than letting the local villagers carry out their own form of justice, Arthur holds a trial and gets to the heart of the matter, eventually understanding why the man about to be hanged tried to kill another man, and Arthur dispenses justice accordingly. The episode is a bit slow, but it works for depicting Arthur’s slow maturing as a king.

Episode 6 somewhat parallels 5 by showing Morgan dispensing justice. Through manipulation, she has convinced several of the people that she cares about them, more so even than Arthur, and soon she has the people coming to her with their problems and to give them justice. In the first case, she takes on a female King Solomon role. In the Bible, two women come to King Solomon, both claiming the same child is their own, and Solomon solves the dispute by suggesting the child be cut in half. The true mother then agrees to give up the child to the other woman rather than have it killed, a sure sign she loves the child, and consequently, Solomon gives the child to the true mother. In similar fashion, Morgan is presented with a woman who wants to keep her bastard son, but his father is demanding the child go to work with him. In determining who should have “custody,” Morgan offers to buy the child. The man is willing to sell him while the woman is not, resulting in Morgan giving the child to his mother. That Morgan is wise enough to dispense such justice shows that she is shrewd, and she gets to the heart of matter faster than Arthur–the viewer can’t help thinking she’s smarter than Arthur and feeling somewhat sorry for her not to have the throne, instead having to see her untried younger half-brother receive it. But her thirst for power, for reasons that do not exist other than power, make her remain unlikable.

Morgan outdoes herself later when Sybil, a nun from the monastery where Morgan studied, is accused of burning down the monastery and killing another woman’s child. Although Sybil has become Morgan’s ally and right hand, Morgan is forced to dispense justice by burning Sybil’s hand as punishment. This scene is highly effective, both by making Morgan look just to her people, as well as showing how wisely she averts killing Sybil, whom she apparently needs.

In the battle for who is wiser, as evidenced by these two episodes, it is clearly Morgan who is stronger and more qualified to rule, even if she isn’t nicer. Arthur’s chasing after his friend’s wife isn’t all that noble anyway. Nor is the Arthur/Leontes/Guinevere love triangle plot very interesting. Morgan’s evil is far more captivating to watch.

Morgan le Fay studied the Black Arts in a nunnery; painted by Anthony Sandys in 1864

Finally, I’d like to add that I find Sybil a fascinating character. She quickly pushes Vivian to the sidelines so that for several episodes you wonder why Vivian is even in the program as Morgan’s assistant–although she’s integral to the plot in episode 8. I love that Morgan, who is frequently depicted in Arthurian legend, including in Malory, as having been raised in a nunnery where she learned the “black arts,” has her past in that nunnery treated in this series by having a nun of questionable past in the program. In fact, Sybil admits that she did begin the fire, explaining that in the nunnery they still followed some of the old ways, and when church officials were coming to investigate pagan rituals in which girls were “chosen,” she had to burn the nunnery to hide the evidence. (The program hints that Morgan’s witch-like powers have something to do with her participating in such a ceremony.) Evil and pagan doings in nunneries–it’s so very nineteenth century Gothic that I can’t help but love it. I look forward to finding out more about Sybil and Morgan’s nunnery past in future episodes.

So, my opinion of Camelot slowly improved by the time I reached episode 6. I’ve now watched through episode 8 and I like the show more the farther into the series I go. I’ll discuss the last four episodes of Camelot in my next post.

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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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