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Sir Lancelot

Sir Lancelot by Dorothy Haas (1958)
Based on the live-action television series.
Hardcover. Illustrated by Helmuth Wegner.
Whitman Books/Western Publishing Company

I wrote several blog posts earlier this year about the 1950s television series, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Not until I found the television series on Amazon last year did I ever get to watch it, but I’ve been familiar with the series since the late 1990s when I found in an antique shop a copy of the Big Little Book Sir Lancelot by Dorothy Haas, a tie-in with the television series, although not including the “Adventures” part of the name.

Having watched the television series, I decided to go back and read the book. Many of my readers will remember the Big Little Books series which was printed in the 1950s-1980s and popular during my childhood. The books have text on the left side and an illustration on the right hand page. They run between 200 and 300 pages – this book is 276 pages. This book is the only one I know of based on a television series, while most of the books were based on comic strips such as Mickey Mouse, Popeye, or the Pink Panther, superheroes like The Fantastic Four or The Incredible Hulk or popular culture movie characters like Tarzan and the Lone Ranger. I’ve always been fond of Big Little Books and still have a collection of several from my childhood.

The story of Sir Lancelot is not a repeat of any of the television episodes, but its plot is typical of the the TV series. Sir Lancelot and his squire Brian are at a tournament where Lancelot is defeated by a mysterious knight. Soon they are on an adventure when King Arthur sends Lancelot to investigate some raids in the Duke of Albemarle’s land. It turns out the duke has died and his son Garth is now the duke, but the Girth of Garth, a special belt signifying clan leadership, has gone missing. Lancelot and Brian must determine who the raiders are and get back the belt. In the process, they participate in a battle and Brian is attacked by a boar. Of course, all ends happily. There is some slight humor in the story but nothing about it is remarkable.

Surprisingly, no effort was made in the book’s illustrations to make Lancelot on the cover or the interior illustrations look anything like the series star William Russell. Nor does Brian look like his television counterpart. None of the illustrations really stands out, though they lack the cartoon look of most Big Little Books, and are colored in simple shading of one color each of blue, green, or yellow (By comparison, the earliest Big Little Books had fully colored cartoon illustrations and later versions were just black and white drawings). It’s also curious that the series ran from 1956-1957 but the book was not published until 1958.

Sir Lancelot is far from a great addition to Arthurian literature; it is a fun little, or should I say Big Little book, to read, but it’s also a rare case where the television series was better than the book. Despite the book’s flatness, author Dorothy Haas has had a very successful career as an author and editor and this was one of her first books. You can find out more about her at: http://www.illinoisauthors.org/authors/Dorothy_Haas. Among her other works were two Wizard of Oz books in the 1980s.

If you search online, you might be able to find a used copy of Sir Lancelot and the television series is available and worth watching.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

The Title Card for the colored episodes of "The Adventures of Sir Lancelot"

Back in January, I posted on the 1950s British TV series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. I’ve now finished watching the series and I enjoyed it a great deal. It has a bit of humor and some wonderful sets and costumes. Furthermore, I think William Russell made a very good Sir Lancelot, and he actually is quite handsome and debonair, or at least, he grows on you and grew into the role as the series continued. In the first episode, the swordplay was laughable, but it improved throughout. Also, King Arthur was originally played by Bruce Seton in the first episode, but he looked old and doddering and was quickly replaced by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who is a tall and fairly commanding yet likable Arthur. I was disappointed there was no love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, but it was a 1950s TV show, so innocence was important for television, I guess. I also was disappointed that there was nothing that suggested a connection from one episode to another, no overarching storyline or character motivations or desires to keep the story progressing. You could have watched any episode after the first one in any order and it would make no difference.

About halfway through the series, it became colorized, and the color really was splendid because it made the costumes stand out. Some of the costumes look a bit too effeminate for Lancelot to wear, but there’s no accounting for medieval—or 1950s TV versions of medieval—fashion.

Overall, I would give the series a B, or 4 out of 5 stars. I would rank it below the Merlin TV series, but it is far above the Starz’ Camelot series. (See previous posts to my blog for discussions of both series.)

It would be tedious to discuss all thirty episodes, but here are comments on a few of the episodes that are most notable, particularly those that borrow from Arthurian tradition:

Knight’s Choice: This episode is interesting because Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s traitor sister, is included. She was apparently previously banished from Camelot for trying to murder her brother Arthur. Now she hopes to return if she can get her son to be chosen as knight for an opening among the Round Table’s fellowship. Interestingly, Morgan’s son is named Rupert, not Mordred. Arthur agrees to let him compete with the other potential knights. Another contender is Sir Balin, whose father was squire to King Pel. (King Pel is most likely King Pellinore, and Sir Balin is found in Malory, although this episode has no other links to Malory, and I have no idea why Morgan’s son is named Rupert, unless it was to distance the show from Mordred and the incestuous twist—after all if Guinevere and Lancelot’s love is forbidden on 1950 television, incest surely won’t be approved. That said, it isn’t stated who Rupert’s father is). This episode also has a sort of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court twist when Merlin finds a way to delay the battle enough for an eclipse to take place, which will thwart Morgan’s plan to have her son win in battle over Balin by flashing light in his eye with a mirror. In the end, Rupert doesn’t get to join the Round Table—I guess that means he can’t stir up trouble—perhaps although eventually the series ended, this Camelot, then, did not fall.

The Thieves: Another episode drawing on Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee is X in which Arthur and Lancelot disguise themselves as ex-convicts to learn what chances these men have of earning a living.

The Shepherd’s War: This episode stands out because Sir Lancelot has been held a prisoner and grown a beard—the only time Russell sports a beard in the series. Although, throughout the series, Sir Kay, who comes off as a buffoon, sports a ridiculously fake mustache.

Sir Crustabread: This episode plays off the tale of Sir Gareth who plays a kitchen boy and goes off to rescue a maiden; the same concept was used in the first episode when Sir Lancelot found Brian, his squire, who was a kitchen boy. In this episode, Lancelot is mistaken by Lynette of Accolon, as a baker. He ends up being belittled by her as he rides with her to rescue her sister. When all is said and done, Lancelot saves the day and reveals his true identity, then kisses Lynette on the cheek—she says she’ll never wash it again.

Finally, the colored episodes trimmed down the theme song, which could be compared to songs like the theme to “Davy, Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier.” The theme song actually grew on me after watching all these episodes and I found myself singing it around the house:

Now listen to my story, oh listen while I sing.

Of days of old in England when Arthur was the king.

Of Merlin the Magician, and Guinevere the Queen.

And Lancelot, the bravest knight the world has ever seen.

In days of old, when knights were bold,

This story’s told of Lancelot.

In days of old, when knights were bold,

This story’s told of Lancelot.

If you want the second verse, you’ll have to watch the series for yourself.

A complete episode guide to the series can be found at: http://ctva.biz/UK/ITC/SirLancelot.htm

I will post on last blog about this series in the weeks to come.

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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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I first learned about the British television show The Adventures of Sir Lancelot back in 1999 when I found the TV show tie-in Whitman Big Little book in an antique shop. I didn’t think I would ever have the opportunity to watch the program, so I was surprised to discover it on Amazon recently; of course, I had to order the complete 3-DVD series.

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot - 3 DVD set

The program is well worth watching, in some ways being more, and in a few ways less, than I expected, but overall, for 1950s television, it stands up well. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot aired on the ITV network from 1956-1958 for thirty episodes and nearly half of the later episodes were actually in color—the first British television show to be in color, which speaks well for its popularity. It was also one of the few British television shows ever to be shown in the U.S. on a major network—first on NBC and then it moved to ABC. The series starred William Russell as Sir Lancelot and includes other apparently well-known British actors of the time, although I had never heard of any of them.

The sets/castles are well done considering they were made in television’s infancy. Apparently, the producers wanted to be historically accurate in recreating the Arthurian legend, so they recreated a fourteenth century Britain, an entire pre-Norman Conquest Village, and filmed at Allington Castle in rural Kent to provide grand visuals. At least, that’s what the back of the DVD states. Actually, the program is not all that historically accurate. It’s time period is unclear, but it seems to be set in the sixth century since in episode 10, Lancelot encounters the last Roman outpost in Britain whose members have held out for generations after the fall of Rome. The costumes and castles are of a much later medieval period as is usually to be expected. The television series Camelot is actually more accurate in its historical context, but the desire to be historically accurate for the series is important in itself since the 1950s is when interest in the historical Arthur really became significant during that decade, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, the first historical novel about King Arthur, was not published until 1963.

The sword fights are poor and very fake looking, especially in the first few episodes, and the battle scenes, which are few, usually have only half-a-dozen people laying siege to a castle. There are no grand and epic battle scenes with a gigantic cast. But if one can overlook these minor flaws of the production and its time period and expect a series of fun TV sitcom 1950s style episodes, a person can find much to enjoy in the show. William Russell makes a pretty fine Lancelot—perhaps he’s not a heartthrob, but he’s clever and a bit of a comedian without falling into corniness. He is not the lover of Guinevere, although they definitely check each other out when he arrives at Camelot in the first season. I imagine the 1950s television codes weren’t ready for adultery on television yet. (I’ve only watched the first ten episodes so far and will post again when I finish watching the series to see whether this changes.)

The producers who wanted to be historical must have also wished to be realistic. Magic does not exist in this Camelot. Merlin is clearly a fraud, and although he may have everyone else at Camelot fooled, Lancelot right away realizes how Merlin uses tricks to make things happen, using simple technology such as mirrors and invisible ink to make his magic work, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, without Merlin being the villain here.

One reviewer at Amazon asked whether the writers and producers did any research into the legend. The answer is a definite yes. Although none of the episodes follow Malory or other writers’ storylines directly, it is clear there is familiarity with many of the stories, such as that of Sir Gareth being a kitchen boy, since Lancelot’s squire Brian begins as a kitchen boy. The King Mark and Sir Tristram plot is also referenced in episode 6 “Sir Bliant” without the adultery plot woven into it. Other plot elements in different episodes also make it clear the familiar stories of Camelot were modified to fit the program.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by this television show, and while I don’t like it as much as Merlin, the writing is better than Camelot. It may not have high aspirations for recreating an accurate or fantastic Arthurian world, but The Adventures of Sir Lancelot succeeds at what it sets out to do, and it provides some light entertainment. I give it four out of five stars.

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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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