On Arthurian Musings

On a bulletin board I frequent there has recently been some discussion of Merlin, the BBC series of which NBC recently finished broadcasting its first season.

In Merlin, the titular wizard is anything but a wizard. He’s teenaged. He has powers, but he’s untrained in them. The use of magic is forbidden in the lands of Camelot, and the ruler of Camelot, Uther Pendragon, will put to death anyone who uses magic. Merlin works both as an assistant to Gaius, the court physician, and to Arthur, the prince and heir apparent, as his personal servant. It’s a different take on the Arthurian mythos; Paul Gadzikowski, writer/artist of the Arthur, King of Time and Space webcomic, described it as “Smallville 500.” That’s not far off.

Yet, in this discussion thread, people seemed not to get that. Why is everyone young? Why does the BBC use color-blind casting? Why is the series anachronistic? Because… that’s what the series is supposed to be, maybe?

There’s no “right” when it comes to King Arthur. Welsh mythology, religious histories, Anglo-Saxon chronicles, French and German romances — all of these tell stories of Arthur and his world, and almost none of them work together. Some stories aren’t finished, some don’t even make sense.

Recently, my Arthurian interest re-ignited by Merlin, I’ve been reading The Lancelot-Grail Reader, a collection of extracts from the massive Vulgate Cycle, a French romance. Reading The History of the Holy Grail, what stands out is how little sense it makes. On its own terms, it’s fine. But to expect the story to conform to history and geography is asking for insanity. Saracens in the first century CE? Saracens with giant mosques in Camelot? Sailing from Egypt to Britain overnight? And chronologically, it’s an absolute mess. Yet, it tells an interesting story. That’s the key.

Yes, there are some broad ideas that we generally think of when we think “Arthurian.” But there’s also a lot of flexibility. To someone like Geoffrey of Monmouth or the nameless authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Arthur’s time was historical to them. To someone like Chretien de Troyes or the authors of the Vulgate Cycle, Arthur’s realm was the grounding for other stories, perhaps even unrelated stories, much like how the Post-Vulgate absorbed the story of Tristan and Isolde into the Arthurian world.

What matters, at least to me, isn’t the fidelity to the source material. Yes, Merlin‘s Gaius could be named Blaise, but how many people would really know that, in some of the legends, Merlin’s mentor was a priest named Blaise? What matters is if I’m entertained. And Merlin does that for me. I don’t really care about the color-blind casting the BBC uses these days. I don’t care about the anachronistic use of crossbows. These are just trappings, and they don’t alter the story.

Discussions like this one on Merlin at TrekBBS make me wonder if people have even read any of the original material. 🙂

In other Arthurian news, Bryan Singer is attached to Warners’ remake of Excalibur. Interestingly, Warren Ellis is working on an Arthurian treatment and script for Warners — entitled “Excalibur.”

Could these be the same projects? This post at Slashfilm suggests they are, with some interesting evidence that isn’t there on Ellis’ site anymore. Newsarama, however, says they’re not the same. CinemaBlend splits the difference.

Personally, I’m practically salivating here at the thought of Singer directing an Ellis Arthurian script. 🙂

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

2 thoughts on “On Arthurian Musings

  1. Paul, I wasn’t picking on you, I promise. 🙂

    Actually, until yesterday morning, I didn’t know that Merlin’s mentor’s name was Blaise. Seriously.

    Rather, I was railing against the “Merlin’s not an old fart!” crowd that I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s a little… frustrating. Just accept the story on its merits or not is my feeling. Which, by the way, is my feeling about the new Star Trek film. Accept it on its merits, not whether it keeps fidelity with the past forty-odd years.

    And the Lancelot-Grail Reader is interesting. I’ve read Quest, thanks to the standalone translation of that, but History was surprising, especially the faux-Biblical tone it adopts.

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