Friday, March 30, 2012

Messing with the Once and Future King

Sometimes I think reinventing classics is an unnecessary and arrogant way of putting one's own personal stamp on an icon, or take advantage of the brand to line one's pockets. Hollywood loves to do this with just about everything. Sometimes though, it is refreshing to have a new approach to an old standard. I feel that way about Christopher Nolan's Batman, and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood.

There are plenty of iconic, legendary characters out there to unearth, rewrite, revisit, parody, etc. However, depending on the character, there are some staunch scholars that do not like having their icon messed with. A good example recently would be the cry of outrage by Star Wars fans over George Lucas's editing of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars in 1997. The theatrical release in 1977 has Han Solo shooting Greedo the bounty hunter first.


Han Solo, although a Sci-Fi icon, is not truly a legendary character, in the true sense of the word. There are epic characters, true legends, whose origins are so far removed that sometimes it is difficult to truly state whether they are fiction, or actually existed in some form. Beowulf, Achilles and Agamemnon, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Roland, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Robin Hood are all good examples. Even characters from more modern American tales can fit this category, like John Henry, Paul Bunyon, and Mike Fink.

Then of course, there is Arthur.

King Arthur of Camelot, the heroic, tragic, legendary defender of England, and chivalry. Tales of Arthur can be traced back as far as 828 as recorded in Historia Brittonum. Since then, Arthur has been elevated to mythic status as a medieval Christian hero, defender of Britain from pagan evils, and leader during the "good old days" when England was at peace in a simpler time.

and things were animated cell by cell

This brings me to The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. Since the earliest known record of Arthur places him as a real person in 6th century England, Bernard Cornwell writes his trilogy placing Arthur in that time period as accurately as one can. Beginning with The Winter King, Cornwell builds the time period, narrating it through the first person experience of a third party. The narrator is Derfel of Cadarn and is based on Sir Bedivere.

This Arthur in this setting is not the romantic, chivalrous Christian hero that Arthurian scholars and fans would expect. The world Cornwell has dropped him in is brutal,and unforgiving, with very different priorities, customs and beliefs that all contribute to how the character behaves. He is a warrior, a reluctant king who finds himself in the midst of invasion and political conflict and comes out a legend.

 This Arthur is not perfect. The character is portrayed as a normal man, full of hopes and dreams, one that makes mistakes, and one susceptible to lusts, and deception. This Arthur is all of those, plus he is portrayed as indifferent to religion (Christian or pagan), but heroic all the same.

Those are pretty large changes to the Arthurian legends formed through hundreds of years of folklore, Christian interpretation, and popular novellas. However, there is more. The beloved character Lancelot has a complete makeover.  Instead of a chivalrous, heroic, moral knight in shining armor, as the name Lancelot has come to be synonymous with, Cornwell has turned the character on its head. This Lancelot is cruel, deceptive, a coward who pays minstrels to sing of his chivalry, glory, and heroism which comes as all undeserved. This Lancelot is a revenge seeking opportunist. Cornwell gives all of Lancelot's legendary attributes to his version of Galahad, who is portrayed as Lancelot's half brother.

These differences, of course, have made the Romantic Arthurian fanbase very angry. They behave very much like comicbook fans discussing changes in continuity. However, fans of historic fiction, and realism have nothing but praise for this brilliant reworking of the classic characters and legends.

The sheer amount of folklore gave Cornwell many characters and events to work into this historical time period. He does pretty well. Arthur, of course, is there, as is Merlin, Derfel/Bedivere, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Mordred, Morgan le Fey, Nimue, Kay, Culhwch, Owain, Tristan and Isolde, Sagramor, Pellinore, Bors, and Balin. These characters don't always match up to their folklore counterparts, but they all make appearances, just as classic Arthur story lines make appearances. The grail quest, Tristan and Isolde, and the round table bear no resemblance to the folklore, and mirror mostly what would happen in real life in 800 AD instead of idyllic romantic tales.

These books are well written, exciting, and interesting; not just for historical fiction buffs either. Even if you are one of these Arthur purists, credit must be given to Cornwell for using the characters so well. This trilogy, for me, is like an Elseworlds tale published by DC comics. Everyone knows who Superman is, but things get interesting when you place this iconic character in the USSR, or the wild west, or in the middle of the Congo raised by apes. It may not be true to the canonical Superman, but these stories sure are cool. I feel Cornwell's trilogy about Arthur is like that. Even though it may not be true to the Arthurian legends that fans and scholars venerate, the story is still good, and it's fun to find where he has put the iconic characters, and how he approaches the classic tales.

No comments:

Post a Comment