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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (4) King Arthur, Pt 2: Popular Depictions

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Fragments" of a Medieval Past as "Figurae" into the Present, "Le Morte D'Arthur' (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Fragments” of a Medieval Past as “Figurae” into the Present, “Le Morte D’Arthur’ (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (4) King Arthur, Pt 2: Popular Depictions

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Okay, let’s continue with literary matters medieval and how modern-day fantasists might use some ideas and themes from a 1,000 years ago.

King Arthur.

Merlin & Arthur (from T.H. White's The Once and Future King," art by John Lawrence)

Merlin & Arthur (from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King,” art by John Lawrence)

"The Sword in the Stone" (Walt Disney Films, 1963)

“The Sword in the Stone” (Walt Disney Films, 1963)

Invocation of those two words elicits many kinds of responses, mainly based on how you were introduced to this towering figure in British and French literature.  Last week I provided a text-book historical synopsis on this mythic figure, and today we look at popular depictions.

For animation lovers, Arthur might alternately be a variety of depictions: from “Wart,” the boy who Merlin turns into various creatures before he draws Excalibur from a boulder in Disney’s 1963 animated film, The Sword and the Stone, to the object of a young knight’s Quest for Camelot (1998) to “Artie” in Dreamworks’ Shrek the Third (2007).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Le Morte D'Arthur, James Archer, 1860)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Le Morte D’Arthur, James Archer, 1860)

Mark Twain, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"

Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”

For others of a more literary bent, besides the truly medieval origins of the king in the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court still reads wonderfully well, and the 1949 film adaptation of that work (starring Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming) remains a classic.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate recently published “The Fall of Arthur,” an unfinished poem that began to tell the story of Arthur, Gawain, and Lancelot’s final days against the army of Mordred.

T. H. White, "The Once and Future King" (1966 edition)

T. H. White, “The Once and Future King” (1966 edition)

Of more recent literary vintage, of course — and by that I mean a version of Arthur at a remove from the Middle Ages and one that resonates & influence to this day — Arthur featured as the main character in T.H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King, a cycle of 4 books that collectively canvassed the entire Arthurian legend in a sprawling, imaginative mid-20th Century epic fantasy (The Sword in the Stone, 1938; The Queen of Air and Darkness, 1939; The Ill-Made Knight, 1940; and The Candle in the Wind, 1958).

Marion Zimmer Bradley, "The Mists of Avalon" (1981)

Marion Zimmer Bradley, “The Mists of Avalon” (1981)

White’s work inspired both Disney’s animated approach to the legend, and the subsequent resurgence of interest in the subject spawned interpretations as diverse as Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon), Mary Stewart (The Merlin Trilogy), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising saga),  Rosemary Sutcliffe (Sword at Sunset), Peter David (Knight Life, One Knight Only, Fall of Knight) and Stephen King (The Dark Tower Series).

"Camelot" (1960)

“Camelot” (1960)

For some theater- and film-goers, White’s book will forever be associated with the Kennedy Administration and especially with the Broadway musical Camelot, which featured a stellar cast (including Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere, Robert Goulet as Lancelot, and Roddy McDowall as Mordred).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Excalibur" (1981)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Excalibur” (1981)

In 1967 a live-action film of Camelot adapted that production (starring Richard Harris & Vanessa Redgrave), and cinema has repeatedly offered versions of the Arthur legend, from the brilliant 1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to the haunting 1981 Excalibur that featured Helen Mirren as Guinevere and Liam Neeson as Gawain (which included, to a teenaged me, a somewhat bizarre depiction of Merlin by Nicol Williamson), to Sean Connery as the king in 1995’s First Knight (with Richard Gere as Lancelot, and Julia Ormond as Guinevere).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "King Arthur" (2004)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “King Arthur” (2004)

Finally, in 2004, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced and Antoine Fuqua-directed King Arthur tried to treat the legend in a more historical manner than previous treatments, fixing “Artois Castus” (Clive Owen), Guinevere (Keira Knightly), and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) at the end of the 5th Century, guarding Hadrian’s Wall for the failing Roman Empire against Briton-natives called the Woads (led by a “Merlin” portrayed by Stephen Dillane).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Camelot 3000" (Mike W. Barr, art by Brian Bolland, 12-issue comic book graphic novel, 1982-1985)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Camelot 3000” (Mike W. Barr, art by Brian Bolland, 12-issue comic book graphic novel, 1982-1985)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Prince Valiant" (Hal Foster)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Prince Valiant” (Hal Foster)

For comic-strip and comic-book aficionados, there will always be a favorite strip of mine, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant (which began in 1937 and still continues to this day, albeit under the hand of a variety of different writers and artists).  Then there’s Mike W. Barr & Brian Bolland’s Camelot 3000, a 12-issue series in the early 1980s that returned Arthur in the prophesied “time of England’s greatest need” and blew my teenage mind as I read a story that imaginatively brought back and pitted the Knights of the Round Table against Morgan le Fey in the year 3000. And, more recently, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy was shown to be related to King Arthur, via descent from Mordred.

That’s all for now — but next time, we’ll start looking at the medieval themes within the Arthurian legend that give the king, his knights, court wizard, and enemies such longevity in our imaginations!

Thanks for visiting, and have a great weekend!

A.J.

Next time: An Enduring Legacy — Medieval Themes in the Arthurian Legend

 

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lada Buturovic #

    Dreamland. The  King The chief. The  leader.Hope

    December 5, 2014
  2. Lada Buturovic #

    This is really interesting. This fabulous journey of King Arthur, of this symbol  which  he represents. Very nourishing in thought

    December 7, 2014
    • Thank you, Lady B ! Completely agree, & will be looking at different aspects of Arthur’s legend and legacy in upcoming weeks. Thank you for visiting! Best, A.J.

      December 7, 2014

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