An Arthurian Affair

For many of my interests, I can pinpoint starting dates. I can tell you when and how they drew me in–in some cases, I even remember who else was there at the time. But with stories that center on magic, I have no clue.

Sure, I loved fairy tales and was entranced by Disney fairy tales on film, like Snow White, Cinderella and especially–I mean, did you see the prince fight that dragon?–Sleeping Beauty, but I don’t associate any big moment of discovery with such things. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t find magical tales intriguing.

Unknown-8Of course the primo magic tale, a epic about love and honor and trust and betrayal, is Camelot. I love it, but I can’t tell you when it captured my imagination.

My earliest memory of it is hearing about the Broadway production, which had an amazing cast–Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot.  But I was very young, and that memory is fuzzy.

I don’t recall actually hearing the music until many years after that production closed. I was in high school, already seriously a fan of the Arthurian legends.  As an adult, I’ve seen the show live three times–once in Atlanta, starring Rock Hudson as Arthur, and twice in Charlotte with Robert Goulet in the lead, not long before Goulet died.  I remember thinking Goulet’s voice was wasted on Arthur’s songs, which had been written with the non-singing Burton in mind.

I admit this isn’t my usual kind of story.  Good does not win out in the end.  Camelot falls, and Arthur dies.  And yet…

There’s something about this story of people who want to wield “might for right,” who aspire to create a land in which everyone can be safe, and who battle personal demons that threaten it all.  It just draws me right in every time.  As it has been drawing other people in for centuries. The sheer number of adaptations testifies to the story’s enduring appeal.

imagesIt all started, of course, with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which I admit I’ve never read.  I tried and found it tedious.  Now that I’m older and possibly, we hope, more mature, I might react differently, as I did with Wuthering Heights.  But hey, so many books, so little time, and I’ve never gone back to it.  If you follow such things, you know Malory was inspired by the then-prevalent tradition of courtly love, with illicit passion usually left unsatisfied because of various obstacles, like, oh, marriage.

Unknown-5My first book of Arthurian legends arrived the Christmas I was in third grade–so I must’ve been hooked on all of it by then, even if I don’t remember how my fascination began.  At left is the cover of the edition I have.

That was also the year I got a picture book of The Iliad & The Odyssey, which I figured was because I’d checked the D’Aulaires’ book on Greek mythology out of the school library multiple times.

That much, I remember, but I have no clue what inspired my parents to pick up the Arthurian.  Regardless, I devoured it and looked around for more.

UnknownSome years later, someone got the bright idea of making Camelot into a movie.  Richard Harris, who may’ve already had a singing career going at that point, played Arthur, with Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and Franco Nero as Lancelot.  The singing, frankly, did not seem as good to me as it was on the original cast recording, but, oh, the look of that film!

They built a castle for it.  The costumes were amazing, rich and lavish and, well, courtly.  Right down to the plate armor.  The acting pulled me in–and still does when the movie comes on TV.

Unknown-4Somehow seeing the movie led me to discover that the story was based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  So of course I had to hunt up the book, no small feat when living in a small town that had only the campus bookstore and the town library.  I think the library was able to get it from another branch.  I devoured it and bought my own copy, which I still have, as soon as I got the chance.

Unknown-12Also (loosely) based on this book was Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, which I loved when I was in grade school. The young Arthur, known as Wart, was very appealing, and I still have a soft spot for Merlin’s owl, Archimedes. As you can see from the artwork, this was animated in a cartoon style and played for laughs.

I’m not as fond of it now, preferring to have my Arthurian legends played straight, but the boy enjoyed it when he was small.

Of course there are a number of books, from picture books to novels, based on the story of King Arthur.  Tolkien had a go at the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sherilynn Kenyon wrote two time-travel, magic, alternate-dimension novels, Sword of Darkness and Knight of Darkness, about the Lords of Avalon.  I loved them. There hasn’t been a book lately, but I think there may be some graphic novels.

Camelot_3000_1There were also a couple of comic books.  Camelot 3000 was a 12-issue miniseries from DC Comics set in a futuristic, spacefaring society.  I forget the exact details, but the premise was the reincarnation of Arthur and his knights.  The miniseries is now available in a one-volume edition.

Unknown-13Then there was King Arthur and the Knights of Justice, which was also an animated TV series about a team of high school football players magically transported to Camelot.  They became knights and battled evil.

I don’t know whether the comic book came first or the TV series did, but I thought both were kind of clever.  They were a kid-friendly introduction to Camelot.

200734And of course there’ve been many, many movies and books with Arthurian themes.  One of my favorites is The Forever King by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy.  It also uses reincarnation to bring Arthur and his knights (and their enemies) into the modern world.

I’ve always had a weakness for Percival, the Grail Knight, and he figures heavily in this series. I liked the modern spin on the story.  There are, I think, three books about these characters, but my favorite is the first one.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgOne of the first series in Harlequin’s now-defunct Luna line was Arthurian.  It launched with Sarah Zettel’s In Camelot’s Shadow, which was based on the legend of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady.  I liked the lady’s backstory and the knight’s gallantry and was drawn into the Dark Ages world Zettel created.

There were also great action sequences and plenty of derring-do.  So of course the series was tailor-made for me.

Zettel has released the series with new covers.  The one pictured at right is the original.

John Steinbeck also wrote an Arthurian novel. I bought it but, perhaps because I have painful memories of reading Of Mice and Men from high school, have never managed to read it. I did read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is more a debunking of the whole magic business in favor of technology.  Obviously not in the traditional vein, it was still interesting.

Unknown-2The late Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote The Mists of Avalon, a look at the Camelot legend through the eyes of the women in the realm.  Many of Bradley’s other books are out of print, but this one has been going strong since its publication in 1987.  It was also adapted into a TV miniseries starring Julianna Margulies, Anjelica Huston and Michael Vartan, among others.

There were several related books, but I’ve read only this one, which I loved.

91erjpx7ITL._SL1500_There have also been a couple of TV adaptions of Arthurian legends. Starz ran one called Camelot for one season.

We don’t have Starz, so I didn’t get to see it.  It looked very interesting.  Arthur was still very young, and Morgan le Fay was a power in the realm.

Unknown-1More successful was Merlin, a BBC import that ran for five seasons.  It turned the standard dynamic on its head, making Merlin a young wizard in the court of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon.  Arthur and Merlin were friends, more on equal footing than the usual mentoring relationship allowed.

The show also featured Santiago Cabrera, now buckling swashes in The Musketeers, as Lancelot.  Folr some reason it never resonated with me, but it clearly did with others.

Sam Neill starred in a miniseries about Merlin that I’ve never managed to see all the way through.

Sometime in the early 1980s, HBO filmed a stage production with Richard Harris reprising his role as Arthur.  I remember watching it, and I understand it’s available on DVD now.

Unknown-3Then there are movies, of course.  The most recent, King Arthur, with Clive Owen as Arthur, Keira Knightley as Guinevere and Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, took some liberties with history–or so it seemed to me (they didn’t bother me enough for me to go check)–but offered an interesting take on the knights as Sarmatian horsemen from Europe forced to serve in the Roman army.

The movie has lots of action, an appealing group of knights with superb camaraderie and internal conflict for Arthur, a Roman soldier trying to figure out his purpose in life.

Unknown-10A 1980s production, Excalibur, offered a visually lush and more traditional interpretation of the legend, complete with the sword-in-the-stone bit.  It starred at young Helen Mirren as Morgan le Fay and Nicol Williamson as Merlin.  The Wagnerian score seemed to go very well with it.

Unknown-6Also lush and well acted was First Knight. It starred Sean Connery as Arthur, Julia Ormond as a spunky and engaging Guinevere, and Richard Gere as a drifter named Lancelot who also possessed amazing battle skills.  Ben Cross, best known for Chariots of Fire, played the villain, Malagant.

Camelot is a fairytale city, more medieval than Dark Ages, and the costumes and sets are gorgeous. This one hasn’t held me the way some others did, but there are moments in it I always enjoy when it comes on TV.  The battle scene at the end is fabulous.  Highlander fans might enjoy seeing Valentine Pelka as one of the knights.

Considering that this is just a small sample–and we haven’t touched on the vast range of nonfiction about King Arthur, it’s obvious this story has lasting appeal.  I’m sure there are many other books and movies people could suggest.  So please do.

Is there an adaptation of the King Arthur legend that you enjoy but don’t see listed here?  Of the ones listed here, do you have a favorite?  If you like the Arthurian legends, what draws you to them? If you’re not into books about King Arthur, you have a favorite book or movie about knights?

 

 

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Comments

39 Comments

  • Amy Conley says:

    Is he coming to In.

  • Jane says:

    Hello Nancy,
    I did enjoy Clive Owen’s King Arthur movie and Starz’s Camelot, but did not really care for Arthur on that show. I don’t know if you heard, but Guy Ritchie is directing a reboot of King Arthur. He’s planning for a six movie franchise. Charlie Hunnam’s going to play Arthur.

    • Jane, I saw one episode during a free sample weekend, and Arthur was too tentative for my taste, but I thought maybe they were going to bring him along.

      I hadn’t heard about the Guy Ritchie project. Thanks for the tip! I looked up Charlie Hunnam, and he seems like an interesting choice.

  • Amy Conley says:

    Nancy, I’m sitting laughing at your question about being into King Authur. I had three cats, the recently deceased Merlin came first and he just passed away, at the age of 13. Next came Queen Guinevere, she actually belongs to grandson #1, but 3 months after he got her, he got leukemia and couldn’t be around the litter, so over to Mammaw and Pappaw’s. 2 years ago I heard a meowing under the ramp in our garage. The sat a filthy dirty cat with very long hair. Since we were suffering through a snowstorm at the time, I brought it in and headed straight to the bathroom since I could see the fleas already. After a very long bath woth clea shampoo and hair conditioner so we didn’t have tons of tangles. As soon as I got this cat wet it became clear, this was just a kitten, maybe 4 months old, but he had so much hair, he looked twice the size he was. He became Lancalot. Unfortunately someone took him. Leaving us with just Gweenie, and she’s definitely the Queen.

    I don’t know when I became intrested to Authur and the Knights of the Round Table, probably around 8 or 9 years old after reading about the Salem Witch Trials. I became facinated with magic, and Merlin was, to me, the master of anyone with any sort of magical powers.

    • Amy, sounds like you are really into King Arthur! I love those cat names, and I’m so sorry someone stole your cat. How awful!

      I agree that Merlin is the ultimate wizard, though Gandalf has sort of supplanted him in recent years.

  • Helen says:

    Nancy

    Two of my favourites you have listed The Sword and the Stone I have watched that many times with my children and grandchildren and still love it and First Knight I do love that movie sadly I have not read any of the books related to King Arthur maybe one day 🙂

    Have Fun
    Helen

    • Helen, I think The Sword in the Stone is a great introduction to King Arthur for that age group. As for not having read any of the books, we all know there’s only so much time. We have to read what appeals to us most.

  • Mary Preston says:

    “The Once and Future King” by T.H.White is a great favourite. My daughter introduced this book to me.

  • Nancy, what an interesting post! I discovered the Arthurian stories in some old 1930s annuals for girls that my mother won as school prizes. Remember being absolutely captivated by the stories when I discovered these books under the house when I was in primary school. But my goodness, it’s sad!

    I remember being absolutely captivated by Camelot. Here’s a bit of trivia you probably don’t know. John Truscott, the designer, was an Aussie who won an Oscar for his work on that film (he also designed the interior for the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne). And there’s a street just around the corner from me called Truscott Street in his honour! He really brought the other-worldly aspects of the place out, didn’t he?

    • Anna, thanks! How interesting about the school books. I would have loved to see those.

      How interesting about John Truscott! Yes, I thought he was brilliant. Is the street named for him? I took swimming lessons from a guy named Truscott in high school.

      • Yes, it is. Isn’t that cool? It’s a very short street leading to a park and then the shops are on the other side and I walk up it most days. As a result, I know most of the people there and I go to their street party even if I don’t live in that particular street. Always get a buzz to think it’s named after the designer!

  • Shannon says:

    I remember reading some of these. I didn’t see many of the movies until I was in the city; living in northern Idaho most theaters were 1-2 hours away. Midnight movies on TV were great.

    My love affair with Arthur and Camelot came after Mary Stewart’s series. Her Merlin was a wonderfully complex character.

    • Shannon, I have those books. I love them! But I totally forgot them when I was putting this together. I looked at my bookshelf but didn’t see them, maybe because they’re on the back row of double-shelved books. :-/

  • sandyg265 says:

    The Forever King is my favorite book featuring King Arthur. First Knight is my favorite movie. Hard not to like a movie with Sean Connery in it.

  • Nancy –

    What a wonderful trip down memory lane. I remember seeing Camelot the movie first – and falling in love with everything – the kingdom based on the vision of its young king and the democratic round table. I will always remember the wedding scene with the beautiful gown and all those candles. Loved the music as well.

    I read Mists of Avalon and thoroughly enjoyed that book. I believe I still have it in the house somewhere. Loved First Night as well. I haven’t been moved by the other incarnations of the legend. I saw the Starz series but lost interest mid way through. Same with Merilin which ran on Fox maybe? Got bored with it.

    Fortunately, it’s the perfect legend with mysticism and magic, strong characters, gallant knights, a fight for right versus wrong – it’ll most likely be remade again and again until it’s done right. 🙂

    • Donna, thanks! I love that music, too, and I remember all the candles in that wedding scene.

      I suspect a lot of people didn’t glom onto the Starz series, or else there would’ve been a second season. I don’t remember which network ran Merlin. I wanted to like it, but it was a bit too different for my taste.

  • flchen1 says:

    How fun, Nancy! The two that I remember making the biggest impression on me where The Once and Future King and Mists of Avalon–those were ones I remember really occupying my thoughts even days or months after I’d finished reading the books 🙂

  • Deb says:

    Nancy, great post today!
    I have always been fascinated by King Arthur and Excalibur and all. I read a couple of Mary Stewart’s books about Merlin and King Arthur. She can be hard to read, but the stories were good.
    I have seen FIRST KNIGHT and CAMELOT. The singing wasn’t the greatest in the movie and I still don’t understand why they didn’t cast Julie Andrews or Robert Goulet. There are just no voices like theirs. I remember staying up late with my sister and my dad to watch the movie.
    I saw CAMELOT as a musical play at my college when the drama department put on a production of it.
    One last note, my students read 3 short passages early in the year about The Golden Knight, Sir Gawain, and Arthur, the true king of England.

    • Thanks, Deb! I love those Mary Stewart books. I can’t believe I forgot them when I was doing the post, but most of my books are double-shelved, so I didn’t see them when I went out to the bookcase to jog my memory.

      I have to agree about the singing in the movie. I suspect they figured Goulet and Andrews were too old for closeups on the big screen. I thought all the actors were good, but the singing was not as amazing. That’s why I prefer the original cast recording to the movie soundtrack.

      How cool that your students read those excerpt! The dh used to teach a class on Tolkien, so he has read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

  • Fun post, Nancy. I’m not an expert on all things Arthurian, but I do enjoy stories set in that world. I enjoyed the one season of Camelot and also the King Arthur movie with Clive Owen. I also enjoyed Meg Cabot’s Avalon High, a retelling of the legend set in a modern high school setting.

  • catslady says:

    I’ve read some of these and seen some of these too and always enjoyed them. First Knight is one of my favorites – it’s has my favorite kiss (Richard Gere and Julia Ormond). I love the possibilities in these stories!

    • Catslady, I think you hit on something with your reference to the potential in these stories. There’s lots of room for interpretation in ways that still use the core concept.

  • Fun topic, Nancy! I’m definitely old school when it comes to Camelot. I loved the original Broadway soundtrack and listened to it hundreds of times. Richard Burton was phenomenal! And then in high school, we performed the play. I was just in the chorus, but it was so fun to sing those songs. (I got to wear one of those pointy lady-in-waiting hats with the filmy chiffon streaming off the tip. If only Guinevere had broken her leg. I was ready to take center stage!)

    • Kate, I’m sure you would’ve been a marvelous Guinevere. If you have a photo of yourself in the hat, I would love to see it onetime.

      I didn’t realize you could sing. How did I miss that?

  • Cassondra says:

    Hi Nancy,

    My favorite is the Clive Owen/Keira Knightley version of the movie. It’s the first one that ever made me do a fist pump and resonated so much with me that I tend to want to say, “no, that’s not a legend, that was real,” which of course is the reaction the movie makers are always after.

    I’m sort of sorry they didn’t set that up as a franchise and leave room for sequels, though maybe it’s a good thing, as sequels so often ruin the whole thing.

    Some of the ones you listed would absolutely not appeal because I don’t like any films where the dragon dies really. I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, and that’s part of the reason. I know that story well, and how it ends, and I’m going to have to work myself into the state of mind to manage it.

    • Cassondra, I think it’s as well there are no sequels. As with GalaxyQuest, I think a sequel would fall flat. And, like you, I can name many film sequels that have.

      Dragon? I don’t think most of these involve dragons.

      • Cassondra Murray says:

        You mentioned that in one of them, one of the knights kills a dragon. :0)

        That’s not one for me.

  • Caren Crane says:

    Oh, Nancy, you know how I love Arthurian legend! For me, the hardcore stuff started with The Once and Future King. After devouring that, I quickly moved on to Mary Stewart’s fabulous Arthurian saga: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. Sadly, Stewart sort of ruined me for other Arthurian tales. I don’t know if it was because I was at just the right age (probably 12 or 13) when I read them, but no one ever compared to her.

    I tried The Mists Of Avalan, but gave it up as a sad and not-as-good retelling. Forget “Le Morte d’Arthur.” Ack! Dry as dust.

    Movie-wise, though, Excalibur came out when I was a teenager, so I adored it. I watched it dozens of times, since it was on serious repeat on HBO and Showtime in 1982! I never saw First Knight until recently, but I thought it was very well done. Even though Richard Gere is not the tallest Lancelot in the world. 😀

    • Caren, I love the Mary Stewart series, too, but I’d forgotten about them. Thanks to double-shelving, I didn’t see them when I scoped out my books to write this post.

      Excalibur is very lavish. I think much of the score may be slightly adapted Wagner.

  • Mozette says:

    Arthurian Legands… aaww… who doesn’t love these?

    Well, I had the great privilege of going on The Brittania tour of Trafalgar’s around the UK, Scotland and Wales back in 1997, and they told us all about King Arthur and his men, the Knights of the Round Table and The Tor (where it was, where it was snatched… and where they think it is now!). Also, they think they have found the absolute, original Sword in the Stone in the forest where Merlin left it in a stone.

    But he didn’t leave it with the hilt sticking out – oh no, that would be too easy to find! – he encased the entire sword in a boulder so nobody could behold it’s beauty, nor fall to its bewitching power of a blade made by the Dragon’s Breath with the inscription: ‘Keep me close, toss me aside.’ on the other side is: ‘Whoever pullth me from this stone be the bornright King of All England.’… and Arthur was.

  • Wonderful post, Nancy. I’ve been a fan of the Arthur stories for as long as I can remember. I have some lovely volumes of Arthurian legends we bought when I lived in England. I’ve read The Once and Future King more times than I can count. And I haven’t thought of the Excalibur film in years. I LOVE that movie. And yes, the score is for the most part music from Wagner’s Ring cycle.

    I do like the Clive Owen version as well.