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King Arthur Sucks.

I wrote a review of The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway, in which I applauded the book for being the first Arthurian adaptation I had read that I didn't despise. I mean, how could I? Despite the book's other problems, it had aliens riding motherfucking dragons!!! Aliens! Dragons! Parallel universes! 

After reading my review, one of my friends asked me why I hate Arthurian legend so much. 

Well. 

Perhaps one of the reasons I liked The Greenstone Grail's take on the Holy Grail myth was because it was so different. Most Arthurian adaptations fall along the same lines. It's the same damn story told almost the same damn way all the time. But The Greenstone Grail took place in modern times, borrowing from the Holy Grail and Arthurian myths without making it so central to the plot that there was no room for other stuff like imagination. 

Say whatever else you want about this book (and believe me, I did), it had imagination. Its main character can dimension-walk in dreams. The Grail itself is an alien artifact created on another planet and locked up on Earth for safekeeping. Magic is a real thing but has significant drawbacks. Magic and science have advanced so far in the alternate universe that they're basically the same thing. Also, aliens riding motherfucking dragons, holy shit. My inner 12-year-old is peeing herself with excitement. 


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That was such a stark change from every other ho-hum fantasy adaptation of Merlin or Arthur and the Holy Grail that it was a relief. 

However, boring adaptations aren't the only reason I hate the Arthurian legends. I just hate Arthur and the entire mythos, period. 

Fuck this guy.

See, most adaptations (that I've seen) glorify the mythos instead of critiquing it. Sort of like how Percy Jackson is the diluted, kid-friendly version of Greek myth without all the incest, murder, rape, and cannibalism. But that makes sense because PJ is for kids. Teen and adult adaptations of the Arthurian legend play all the horrible aspects of the mythos totally straight -- with no serious thought or critique. More boring rise-of-a-hero stories. Blah.

In that vein, most of the stories surrounding King Arthur focus on two characters: Arthur himself, or Merlin. Because, duh, it's called Arthurian myth, and duh, Merlin is a cool guy who does magic and stuff. 

Except that Merlin is a huge asshole in the original stories, trying to raise a shitty little brat (Arthur) into a king. Merlin disguised Arthur's father with magic, allowing him to trick Arthur's mother into believing he was her husband. He raped her, killed her husband, disinherited her daughters, and took the kingdom. All with Merlin's help. 

Merlin is a dick, and I'm tired of reading about him. And frankly, there's only so much you can write about these characters before they stop being interesting. 

Hey, did I mention that there are African and Middle Eastern knights of the Round Table as well? That you probably don't know about because Arthurian legend has been whitewashed and used to glorify Britain's past, white people, and Christians? Sir Morien is a fucking PRINCE, OK? He goes on an epic quest for his father and gets the dude to acknowledge him as his son. Somebody write me a book about that guy.

This guy.

And the supposed villains of Arthurian legend -- namely, Morgana and Mordred 
-- tend to have legitimate grievances against Arthur and Camelot. At the very least, their stories are more interesting by default because they've been adapted less often. Because they aren't so easily shoehorned into the traditional hero's journey narrative the way Arthur's story is, they tend to just get used as villains in that heroic narrative. 
 

In some legends, Morgana is Arthur's ally, a powerful healer and enchantress. The character is at least partially based on a goddess. She's Arthur's half-sister and ally -- at least until he throws her by the wayside after he becomes king. From her perspective, Arthur is a bastard conceived by the man who raped her mother and killed her father, and the only reason she can't be queen is because society is sexist.

Every story that upholds Arthur and Merlin as heroes and Morgana as a villain does a little more to justify a) the rape of Arthur's mother b) the disenfranchisement of women and c) Machiavellian ideals. All while glorifying the supposed "heroic" ideals of chivalry and the Arthurian mythos. 

And then there's Mordred. 

The first Arthurian adaptation I read was I Am Mordred by Nancy Springer. It's an extremely depressing book about Mordred's life -- how he tries to fight his fate his whole life before giving in and becoming the villain that everyone wants him to be. That book is probably what started me off hating King Arthur and all associated legends. 

Even when he's the hero his book cover is terrifying.
Mordred is the son/nephew of Arthur and his half-sister, Morgause. He becomes a knight of Camelot, and eventually reveals that Lancelot is fucking Queen Guinevere. Arthur, great guy that he is, tries to burn his wife at the stake. Lancelot saves her and they escape.

The story gets decidedly Oedipal when Mordred marries his stepmother and lays claim to Arthur's crown. He leads a bunch of other dissatisfied people against Camelot, meets Arthur on the field, and is beginning negotiations when their men attack each other. Mordred and Arthur end up killing each other. 

Apparently this is all foretold because Merlin prophesied some things. Among them being a) Guinevere would destroy Arthur's kingdom, b) he shouldn't sleep with that one hot chick, and c) his son would kill him. Arthur, who never fucking listens to Merlin, a) marries Guinevere, b) bangs a chick who turns out to be his sister, and c) fathers his son-nephew who leads the rebellion that kills him.

Hell, the only reason Mordred even exists in the first place is because Arthur cheats on his wife with his sister. Mordred has no agency in the story; he's a tool by which Arthur learns a deadly lesson. The mythos is all about how Arthur's unkingly behavior and infidelity come back to bite him in the ass. 

And yet -- and yet -- every single fucking Arthur story glorifies Merlin and Arthur. 

Arthur is not some perfect guy. The myths and medieval romances are about a flawed king of an opulent court, macho displays that often come back to haunt people, a code of honor that leaves little room for mercy, and flawed characters -- from whom we're supposed to learn lessons. We are supposed to look up to their good qualities and deplore their bad qualities.

Also, it's the 21st fucking century and I have yet to see an Arthurian adaptation that puts Morgana as a heroine. Even a tragic heroine. Mordred has an adaptation or two where he's painted as the tragic hero or the tragic, well-intentioned villain. Time for Morgana to get in on that. I've read and seen adaptations starring Morgan le Fay, but even the more sympathetic ones are villain origin stories. At best, she's a manipulator; at worst, she's an evil, power-hungry shrew who doesn't know her place.

Some of that may be blamed on religious tensions. Morgana, a witch who is possibly based on a goddess, is a pagan throwback. In the earlier legends, she's Arthur's ally; later, when Christianity was spreading, she becomes a villain. To some extent, the stories have to vilify her because not only is she a powerful woman, she's a powerful pagan woman-witch-enchantress-goddess person. 

But again: 21ST CENTURY, PEOPLE.

Back to The Greenstone Grail. In that story, the Grandir -- the mysterious ruler of worlds -- is a sort of Arthur/Merlin combination. He's a magician and a puppetmaster like Merlin, but a flawed ruler like Arthur. He is the good guy, but his methods are questionable. He sleeps with his sister, like Arthur. The sister-wife, Halme, becomes a major character and a force for good.

I'm a little more excited by The Greenstone Grail than other Arthurian fiction because if the characters line up to their Arthurian counterparts, then our protagonist Nathan is probably the Mordred figure. And it would be kinda nice to see an adaptation where Mordred is the hero rather than the villain.

Comments

  1. That clears it up. =) Actually, I myself am no great fan of the mythos, (though probably not as bothered by it as you.) It is quite worn. But then again, many legends are mined forever for material, and somehow can still be made fresher than the King Arthur saga tends to be. I guess it says something that I always found Excalibur the sword more interesting than the rest of it.

    I've seen the movie called Excalibur, made in the 80's. Weird, and almost a parody of the whole thing. As a kid, I always liked the super watered down kid's cartoon version from Disney, "The Sword in the Stone" and I think that's because again, sword. Plus a sarcastic talking owl that makes fun of people and shit. (Obviously not part of the original story, as far as I know.)

    "First Knight" with Sean Connery had some moments. But I've never liked the whole Lancelot/Guinevere branch of the story, not matter who is telling it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lancelot was a later addition to the myths. I was never a huge fan of that part until I read some of the material in college. Ironically, the affair between them is described in the same chivalric terms/ideals as a sanctioned relationship. It's also described as almost a religious experience for him, and he treats her like this elevated, powerful queen (which I guess she is). Most adaptations make it a bit more...sordid, I suppose.

      Magic swords are cool; I'll agree with you there. :) I know what you mean when you say that other legends have been mined for material and still turn up better and more interesting adaptations than King Arthur does. There's a new King Arthur movie coming out. It looks fun, but extremely generic. I'll still see it because, you know, magic sword and all that.

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