sigune: (KING Arthur)
King Arthur (2004)
directed by Antoine Fuqua


I have watched this film three times now: once in the cinema, then once on DVD because I intended to write a review that in the end never materialised, and once more last week because I was reading an excellent Arthurian novel with a historical approach and I wanted to compare it to the film. On neither of these three occasions I was impressed.

King Arthur, a Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle, promises to delve into the historical origins of Arthurian legend. Its claims are that Arthur was a Romano-British military commander and that the Knights of the Round Table were Sarmatian auxiliaries. So far, so good: the origins of Arthur are usually situated around the retreat of Rome from Britain, and knightly warfare did actually borrow quite a bit from the Sarmatian and Scythian way of fighting with lances on horseback, a technique Gaulish and German cavalry did not practise.

The essence of the plot is not so bad either. Arthur, son of a Roman father and a British mother, dreams of Rome, a city he idealises as civilised, tolerant, just and peaceful. His retreat as an army commander is imminent and he looks forward to leaving Britain behind. As the action unfurls, however, Arthur learns that Rome is not at all what he imagines it to be. It has burnt his beloved teacher Pelagius as a heretic. It has been torturing indigenous Britons in the name of the True Faith. It treats non-Romans like slaves. And it demands absolute service without giving anything in return.

As Arthur is rudely awakened from his Roman dream, he learns to appreciate his mother’s country. He chooses the well-being of the Britons over Rome’s orders and decides to start protecting Britons over Roman citizens. Faced with a Saxon invasion, he finally joins forces with the painted people from beyond the wall whom, until then, he has spent his life fighting.

So why does this film not work for me?
Read more... )
sigune: (Medea)
A few months ago, I received a package in the mail. It came all the way from the States and contained a 104-year-old book – a 1906 reprint of an Edwardian bestseller. The amazing [ profile] _vocalion_’s amazing SO had spotted it at a book mall, “sandwiched between Cajun Cookery and How to Clean Most Everything”, as she tells me, and rescued it. I am very grateful that he did so, because I did not know either the book or its author, and as it turns out, Uther & Igraine holds a few surprises.

Uther & Igraine (1903)
Warwick Deeping

It had been a while since I had last read a baroque Victorian novel, and it seems that I had all but forgotten what it is like. Reading the first few pages of Deeping’s prose was a little like receiving a blow to the head. I was dizzy with the overwrought imagery. Here is a taste:

“A wind cried restlessly amid the trees, gusty at intervals, but tuning its mood to a desolate and constant moan. There was an expression of despair on the face of the west. The woods were full of a vague woe, and of troubled breathing. The trees seemed to sway to one another, to fling strange words with a tossing of hair, and outstretched hands. The furze in the valley – swept and harrowed – undulated like a green lagoon.”

Mr Deeping (1877-1950), it is clear, likes his Aesthetes. He harnesses the worst affectations and most artificial phrasing of Wilde and Swinburne to write a romance novel. He adds positively lethal doses of alliteration and superfluous adjectives to the mix. In fact, his writing reminds me painfully of my own prose style :P. To do myself justice, I don’t insist on using “panier” when I could write “basket”, or “potage” instead of “soup”. Deeping does. As soon as I got used to it, I actually found his pedantry funny and went along with it.

Uther & Igraine is pure historical romance. When I say “historical”, I mean it in the widest possible sense. The story is set in what looks like post-Roman Britain, but the author adds all sorts of elements that evoke chivalry and courtly love and do not match the timeframe at all. Everything in this novel serves the romance. Characterisation, historicity and background: they are all (mostly cardboard) props to decorate the stage on which the Passionate and True Love of Uther and Igraine is shown. But if you can accept the novel for what it is, it is quite an enjoyable read, and much less silly than many of its modern counterparts.

“The true love of Uther and Igraine”? You heard it right. Read more... )

To show how much fun I had reading this book, I doodled three characters while on the train. Please note that Morgan is not Morgan le Fay – she is Morgan la Blanche, who does not seem to have a counterpart in the source legend (or not that I can see).

sigune: (Prince Arthur)
Merlin Season One

Merlin Season Two

I discovered the BBC series Merlin when it was already halfway Season Two. The first episode I saw, The Sins of the Father, immediately made me curious for more. I ordered the first box set and liked that well enough to get the second one, too. Now, while all Merlin fans are anxiously awaiting Season Three, I’d like to share a few thoughts. Those thoughts are a mixed bag, really. That is because on the one hand, I find Merlin very enjoyable, but on the other, I find it rather disappointing. I guess the mixture of shortcomings and enjoyment qualify it as something of a guilty pleasure.

minor spoilers ahead )

For future issues of the Review (in random order):

Gillian Bradshaw’s Down the Long Wind trilogy
Der rote Ritter by Adolf Muschg
Chauvel & Lereculey’s Arthur series
Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
Merlin, the 1998 mini-series
Kaamelott Livre VI, the M6 series
The Winter Prince by Elizabeth E. Wein
Uther & Igraine by Warwick Deeping
sigune: (Gauvain (Kaamelott))
While on a trip to London in the late 1990s - I was in the middle of my First Arthurian Wave - I discovered Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy. I bought all three books in one go. The first two had just appeared in paperback; my copy of the third volume is a hardback I found in a second-hand store. Especially for the Arthurian Review, I went back to my mismatched set, to find out whether it is really the exciting series I thought it was back when I was about twenty :-)...

The Warlord Chronicles:
The Winter King
Enemy of God (1996)
Excalibur (1997)
Bernard Cornwell

A short while ago, asked by a friend whether I thought the HBO series Rome worthwhile, I made the following observation: there are essentially two approaches to historical fiction. The first assumes that people of the past were much like ourselves, with values and thought processes that do not differ all that much from our own. The second assumes that there is a wide gap between modern life and thought and that of the ancients. In his Arthurian trilogy, Bernard Cornwell clearly adheres to the latter approach. And let me assure you that he does it really well.

I don’t know how historically accurate or plausible Cornwell’s depiction of the late fifth, early sixth century in Britain is - because I have a natural tendency towards approach number one, whether or not that is justified - but he certainly succeeds in constructing a coherent and convincing Arthurian world. It is a savage place, ravaged by war and disease, by strife between rivalling warlords and competition between different religions. Ruled by superstition and oaths, it is a fairly alien world that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Arthurian society as we see it in medieval romances. There is lots of spitting to avert evil and scores of lice torment our heroes. There are Druids who perform atrocious rituals, sorcerers who style their hairdos with dung, hundreds of heads are lopped off, the skins of virgins are used as shield covers and magic invariably involves the use of blood, body parts, urine or faeces. Recipes are brought to you by Merlin and Nimue, mostly, and you are kindly advised not to try them at home. Now, one thing that distinguishes Cornwell’s treatment of magic from similar scenarios by other writers is that he leaves it up to the reader to determine whether or not all the crazy business with pee, poo and human sacrifices actually produces the least result. The line between the supernatural and the coincidental is never clearly drawn, a choice that allows Cornwell to have sorcerers without drifting off into the realm of fantasy and the all-too-improbable. The result is that magic in the Warlord Chronicles is actually plausible - even if I do remain sceptical about the spells :-).

Actually, the Warlord Chronicles contain quite a few story elements that have the potential of giving me allergic reactions. It has barbarous rituals and a society that seems barely civilised. It has a violent conflict between Pagans and Christians. It proposes a ‘realistic’ look at a society about which we know too little to make accurate assumptions. It uses medieval French and English names of Arthurian characters like Galahad, Agloval and Dagonet (what's with the Dagonet thing? He appears in the King Arthur movie too) and mixes them with old Welsh names like Hygwydd and Emrys and Mynydd Baddon. But reading this trilogy did not give me a rash. The books are skilfully written and well-plotted; the story simply took me along and it worked. I enjoyed it when I first read it more than ten years ago, and despite having become much more critical since, I had a great time rereading it. Read more... )

For future issues of the Review (in random order):

Gillian Bradshaw’s Down the Long Wind trilogy
Der rote Ritter by Adolf Muschg
Chauvel & Lereculey’s Arthur series
Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
Merlin, the BBC series
Merlin, the 1998 mini-series
Kaamelott Livre VI, the M6 series
The Winter Prince by Elizabeth E. Wein
Uther & Igraine by Warwick Deeping
sigune: (Sorry Lancelot)
I sort of promised this review to [ profile] todayiamadaisy after reading her own review of a book in which the heroine is clearly supposed to be very likeable, but only comes off as horribly irritating. So be warned: here be sporking.

I have been sitting on this review for a while because I feel a bit mean saying such bad things about a book. But though I tried, I really couldn’t find anything nice to say about it. It is very simply one of the most irritating and worst-written novels I have ever read. Then again, it is the work of a best-selling author, so a lot of people must like this kind of book. It’s all a matter of personal preference, I suppose. And, goodness, you don't have to agree with what I say. But I can't honestly recommend this book to you.

Guenevere. The Queen of the Summer Country (1999)
Rosalind Miles

I confess: I am an ardent feminist. I am not the least bit ashamed about it either. I have a keen interest in gender roles, which has not only determined the direction of my academic work, but also tends to inform my fictional writing. That is why, against my better judgement, I sometimes pick up books like Guenevere. The Queen of the Summer Country. It is one of those novels that promises a feminist retelling of a favourite legend. The author, Rosalind Miles, kindly informs us on her website that she has a PhD in English literature, adores Shakespeare, and has written widely on gender-related subjects. Unfortunately, this only goes to show that love of Shakespeare, a fascination with gender issues and a literary doctorate do not a good novel make.

Miles’ heroine Guenevere is born the heir to the throne of the Summer Country. The Summer Country is a bit of an anomaly in Britain – being the only remaining kingdom that is still a matriarchy. Guenevere’s mother (whose name we don’t find out until Arthur suggests that Gwen could name her first-born daughter after her) is a mighty ruler who, like all the women of the Summer Country, can extend her “thigh-friendship” (I kid you not) to any man, and any number of men, she likes. She has a favourite consort/King who is her champion in battle (because the queens of the Summer Country are warriors, but they seem to leave the fighting to men these days). The Queen has a Round Table, at which all her knights/lovers have a seat. So that’s that. Lucky Gwen: she is going to inherit all this, and her mother’s lovers are already giving her Bambi eyes.

HOWEVER. One day, at a tournament, the powerful Queen of the Summer Country is happily flitting about and flirting, when she is kicked to death by a horse possessed by the evil Merlin. Merlin, you see, hates women. Why, I have no idea. He is a Druid and supposedly in favour of the Old Religon. In any case, the Queen Without a Name is dead and so the throne passes on to young Guenevere. It is at that moment that we discover that the Great Queen has never bothered to teach her daughter anything except how to dress well. This is particularly unfortunate as all the men of the court (besides the queen, no other woman holds any function of importance whatsoever), apart from one bard and one particularly good-looking knight, immediately start conspiring to rid the kingdom of its matriarchal system. Guenevere’s father, Leogrance [sic], wishes her to marry her Evil Uncle Malgaunt, who declares he will teach her a woman’s proper place. Read more... )

One of these days, I will review an excellent Guinevere novel. Because it actually can be done right.

Things I ought to review sooner or later (read/viewed recently):

Gillian Bradshaw’s Down the Long Wind trilogy
Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles trilogy
Der rote Ritter by Adolf Muschg
Chauvel & Lereculey’s Arthur series
Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
Merlin, the BBC series
Merlin, the 1998 mini-series
sigune: (Gauvain (Kaamelott))
Though I am always a little reluctant to read interpretations of characters I am writing myself - it is so easy to get influenced, especially by good writers - I have read a number of Arthurian stories these last few months, just to get my hand (head?) in again. It has been fun. Most of the time, at least *g*. I thought I would write a few short reviews, by way of keeping a record of my Arthurian reading. Of course I will be paying special attention to how Gawain is treated.

Here is review number one:

Idylls of the Queen (1982)
Phyllis Ann Karr

“When Patrise put his head down on the table beside me and started groaning and twitching, my first thought was: and they call me the churl of this court.”

That is how Sir Kay starts his tale. Queen Guinevere hosts a dinner party at which one of the guests is murdered with a poisoned apple. The kinsmen of Sir Patrise, the unfortunate victim, accuse the Queen herself of the crime. The lady will be burnt at the stake unless someone proves her innocence by vanquishing Patrise’s kin in a joust. Alas! Sir Lancelot, the Queen’s champion, is away from court! And Sir Kay, the one knight who is free - and willing - to take up her cause, happens to be better at using his wits than at using weapons. So he sets out to unmask the killer by looking for someone with a motive and an opportunity to poison the bowl of fruit.

Idylls of the Queen is a kind of Arthurian detective novel, with the unlikely duo of Sir Kay the Seneschal and Sir Mordred as his sidekick setting off to discover the why and wherefore of the poisoning of Sir Patrise of Ireland. If you have read Malory and/or books based on him, the murder mystery is not especially exciting. The murder of Sir Patrise is an incident in the Morte d’Arthur, and Karr does not deviate from the murderer and motive as revealed there. The exciting part of her book is that she uses the poisoning as a starting-point for an exploration of the Arthurian court, its intrigues and main actors.

As Kay and Mordred, two outsiders, go around questioning knights and ladies, they uncover rather more unsavoury histories than they would have liked - all of them Malory’s, but now seen through the eyes of Phyllis Ann Karr. Karr’s own interpretation and the way in which it twists Malory’s plot (and several conventions of medieval romances) will not perhaps strike those who are unfamiliar with the Morte. But for them, too, the interaction between Kay and Mordred, each with their own reasons for wanting to track down the murderer, is reason enough to read Idylls of the Queen. Malory adepts, however, should consider themselves warned: Karr’s book does not share the Morte’s sympathies. Malory’s favourite knights do not come out looking good, and those Malory does not show in a positive light are the heroes of Idylls of the Queen.

Which brings us to…

Which Gawain?

Sir Gawaine of Orkney

Handsome, broad-shouldered and blond, with an unscathed face despite his having fought many a battle. In his forties and slowly going white.

Low. Kay and Mordred send him off to find Lancelot. There is a lot of talk about him, though.

Absolutely sweet, in a knightly sort of way. Kay reflects that it looks as though Queen Morgause and King Lot spent all the virtues they had to give on their firstborn son, so that unfortunately there weren’t any left for the other three.
Basically, Karr’s Gawain is the opposite of Malory’s. He is very courteous, patient, protective, honourable, honest, modest, unassuming, decent - well, see Kay’s comment about the virtues. In this novel, we get a pre-Malory Gawain in a Malory setting. A particularly delicious characterization of Gawain comes from Mordred: he says his elder brother “believes in Heaven, but not in Hell”.


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