Sorry I haven't posted in a while. I've been trying to focus on editing my novel, and been in a bit of a funk. But I'm back, at least for a little while.
So, what's the subject of today's review? One of my recent favorites, the second entry in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series, The Bloody Red Baron (Anno Dracula 1918), and the novella attached to the new edition, Vampire Romance (Anno Dracula 1923).
A little background before I delve into these wonderful pieces of processed wood-pulp and ink. The world of Anno Dracula is a cross between alternate-history and literary/pop-culture mega-crossover. It’s like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with vampires.
The alt-history aspect comes with a change to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. In this world, instead of being driven back to Transylvania by Jonathan Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, and co., Dracula kills or turns Stoker’s protagonists, marries Queen Victoria, and brings vampires out of hiding. The first book, Anno Dracula, deals with a fictionalized version of the Jack the Ripper killings, eventually culminating in Dracula being ousted from the British throne.
Our first book for this review, The Bloody Red Baron, picks up in 1918. Apparently, after traipsing around Europe for a while, Dracula joined up with Kaiser Wilhelm II, and is now serving as Supreme Commander of the militaries of the Central Powers.
The plot centers around two groups of specialized, largely vampire pilots – the Allied Condor Squadron, and Germany’s Jagdgeschwader Eins (literally, JG1, or “Fighter Wing 1”). As mentioned before, both groups consist largely (or entirely) of vampires – the Allies because vampires are better suited to night flying, and Germany for… other reasons. I’ll just mention that there are several scientists at JG1’s base of operations.
Now, here’s the first reason you should probably buy the latest edition – the annotations. Kim Newman populates his books with characters taken from everything from novels and movies to comic books, as well as other references to such works. But, because most of us aren’t well versed in early 20th century pop culture, the 2012 edition comes with helpful annotations in the back, for those of us who feel like finding the source materials. It adds a whole layer to the experience being able to understand the references.
The second reason you should go out an buy this book is the other subject of this review, the novella Vampire Romance.
Unlike Bloody Red Baron’s war story plot, Vampire Romance is a straight-up mystery, isolated countryside house and everything.
In this story, Lady Worplesdon (Aunt Agatha of P.G. Wodenhouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories), has called a meeting of several elder vampires to decide who shall be the new ruler of the vampires, now that [Spoiler Alert] Dracula has been imprisoned since the end of the War [End Spoiler Alert]. What most of the attendees don’t know is that the somewhat infamous criminal known only as “The Crook” (no, seriously), is going to be at the meeting.
But, you say, if it’s a mystery, why is it called Vampire Romance?
Well, that’s because of the semi-sub plot to the novella, told from the perspective of a teenage girl who lives at Mildew Manor, where the meeting is being held, and unfortunately I can’t remember her name off the top of my head. But she’s obsessed with vampires, so much so that she actually believes she’s destined to be turned. She believes her and her destined vampire lover must be spiritually/psychically connected, with her as his resurrected love from before he was turned. When the vampires finally show up, she tries to guess which one is her destined vampire.
And which one does she decide will turn her? The pretty teenage boy, whom she hasn’t even talked to once.
That’s right – Vampire Romance is a riff on Twilight. And it is glorious.
Honestly, if for no other reason, you should by The Bloody Red Baron just to read Vampire Romance.
The only downside is that there are no annotations for Vampire Romance, which gets annoying when the vampires start to show up. Yes, I get that the Japanese vampire with the katana is straight out of anime, but I don’t know which one!
So, to sum up – buy this book. By Anno Dracula. Read them, if for no other reason than to see how good vampires are written.
Well, May is at an end, as is my look at various versions of the King Arthur Legend. There's been a bit of schedule slippage, but that's becoming a bit of a theme here.
Anyway, today I'll be looking at John Boorman's 1981 film, Excalibur.
I'm just going to come out and say it - I love this movie. The characters, the soundtrack, the costumes and props - everything. Which is a bit odd, as it's a fairly direct adaptation of Le Morte d'Arthur, which I've already stated my opinion of. But I can actually explain why I like this movie, despite the source material - the big complaints I had about the book? They're either absent or altered enough to make them more palatable.
Let's start with my big complaint - Lancelot. In Malory's book, any of his flaws are glossed over. Even when, on the Grail quest, his feelings for Guinevere prevent him from finding the grail, this isn't treated as a major flaw in his character. Instead, it just demonstrates how it makes him a great knight, with the whole courtly love thing. Here, those same feelings drive his inner conflict - his love for Guinevere against his loyalty to Arthur. This causes him to spend as much time as possible away from Camelot, lest he do something he'll regret, and in a quasi-dream sequence, Lancelot ends up stabbing himself.
Even the fact that he's "the best knight ever" isn't treated with the same kind of reverence. Yes, it's acknowledged, but that doesn't diminish the other knights. Lancelot himself initially treats his superiority as more of a curse than a blessing - after all, how can he serve a king that he could easily defeat?
My second complaint about Le Morte d'Arthur was the character of Galahad. This issue is nicely solved by him not being included in the film. Instead, the central character of the Grail quest portion moves to Percival, and the reasons I especially like this were mentioned in my review of the book.
The third issue I had with Malory's book was Tristram and Iseult. Neither of these characters appears in the film. Instead, the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere is used, with all the soap-opera undertones it deserves, and actually leads nicely into the Grail quest.
Now that we've covered those aspects that might have detracted from the movie, I feel like mentioning a few things about the movie itself that I particularly enjoyed.
First, the costumes. Namely, the armor, and what it implies about the setting. The film begins with Uther's ascension to the throne, which he gains by being the biggest and strongest warrior in the land (minor note - the words 'England' or 'Briton are never mentioned in the film, only "the land"). Being a barbaric time, the knights dress in dark, crude looking armor, covered in spikes or rivets. It's brutal armor for a brutal time.
That starts to change when Lancelot appears, bringing things like honor and chivalry into the story. Lancelot, unlike the other knights at the time, wears the kind of armor you'd expect from stories about King Arthur - well made, well fitted, and polished to mirror shine. It's quickly adopted by all the other knights, and sort of symbolizes the ideal and ideals of Camelot at their height.
When the Grail quest plot takes over, the armor begins changing again. It's still the same style as before, but with Arthur and the land suffering, it becomes more tarnished. By the time Percival finds the grail, his armor has a coating of dirt and mud, showing how everything's begun falling apart. It's especially symbolic, because in order to finally reach the grail, Percival has to strip himself of his armor to avoid drowning.
In contrast to Arthur's knights, those who serve Mordred (many of whom used to serve Arthur) wear armor reminiscent of the earlier part of the film.
The other big thing that helps the film is the soundtrack. The film's an epic, deserving a suitably epic score. Fitting, then, that a number of songs are from the works of Richard Wagner. Pieces of note are the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde for Lancelot and Guinevere, the Overture to Parsifal for Percival's quest, and Siegfried's Funeral March for Arthur's journey to Avalon. Also, the repeated use of O Fortuna as Arthur and his knights ride into battle is just awesome.
That's not to say the film doesn't have its flaws, the biggest being the lack of a cohesive plot. Yes, it's about Arthur's rise and fall, but it covers a period of about 60 years. And much like with Le Morte d'Arthur, the focus shifts from one character to another, moving from Uther, to Arthur, to Lancelot, to Percival, and back to Arthur again. It can get a bit confusing.
Some of the casting doesn't help either. It's not that the actors are bad, it's just that, with the exception of children, the same actors play the same characters throughout the movie. While Nigel Terry does an all right job playing Arthur as an older man, it's hard to accept him as a teenager when he first appears. The same goes for Paul Geoffrey as Percival - when Lancelot calls him "boy", I have to wonder who he's talking to.
Still, this is probably the best film interpretation of the King Arthur story I've ever seen. It's inspiring, exciting, sweet, and tragic.
So we’re coming to the end of Arthur month. I’ve had some schedule slips, but still managed to keep up with semi-regular posting, so that’s good. I began May with a review of White’s The Sword in the Stone, one of the defining versions of the King Arthur story, and now I’m going to discuss the defining work of Arthurian fiction.
That’s right – Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
I’m going to begin with a bit of background about the work itself before discussing how I feel about it.
Le Morte d’Arthur is the first work to collect all the Arthurian stories into a single publication. Until it’s publication in the late 15th century, the various stories of King Arthur and his knights existed as several separate works. Malory (whomever he may be, as there is some debate as to his identity) collected many of these and combined them into a single narrative. The three main sources used were the French Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle, the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthur, and the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur, with the French sources being the main ones.
Unlike Malory’s sources though, Morte d’Arthur is a work of prose, rather than poetry. This has to do with English literary tradition – poetry is for comedic works (i.e. those with happy endings), while prose is for tragedies (i.e. works with sad endings).
Malory’s work is also divided into eight parts, each part focusing on a single set of related stories in a particular period of Arthur’s reign.
But enough about the book, let’s get down to my opinion of it.
I wanted to like this book, I really did. It started out promisingly enough, covering the end of Uther’s reign and the conception of Arthur, and then moving on to cover Arthur’s early campaigns against other British kings, as well as the King of France and the Roman Emperor. Then, the focus shifted to Arthur’s knights and their various adventures, which was good, because it gave each of them a time to shine.
And then Lancelot showed up. Oh, how I came to hate Lancelot. Throughout the book, Malory constantly praises Lancelot, talking about how great and noble he was, and how much better he was than all the other knights.
It got worse when Tristram showed up. Tristram is, to put it simply, Lancelot-light. His story, from his prowess as a knight to his relationship with his queen, is basically a practice run for Lancelot’s later tale. Only here, rather than there being some potential for conflict over Tristram running off with the wife of his lord, said lord (King Mark of Cornwall) is presented as being evil because he wants revenge on those who betrayed him. It’s really hard for me to be angry at a guy who wants to get back at his wife and right-hand man when they’ve been having an affair and run off with each other. No, I don’t care that “they’re in love”, they should at least feel conflicted about it, and Mark’s men should be on his side. That’s right – Mark finds Tristram and Isode after they’ve run off, and plans on attacking them, when one of his knights tells him that Mark is the one in the wrong.
On top of that, there are at least two characters I liked way more in Tristram’s story – Sir Dinadan and Sir Palamedes. Dinadan I liked because he seems to be the only one with any amount of common sense, understanding that ‘courtly love’ is probably a bad idea, because it tends to lead to more bad than good. In his own words:
“God defend me… for the joy of love is too short, and the sorrow thereof is duras [affliction] over long” (book X, ch. 56).
On top of that, Dinadan is the apparently the only knight who can identify his fellow knights by their faces, rather than needing to see their sigils.
Palamedes, on the other hand, I like because he’s actually a sympathetic character. Palamedes, much like Tristram, is in love with Isode, and, in the tradition of courtly love, dedicates just about everything he does to her. But Iseult only has eyes for Tristram, and won’t give Palamedes the time of day. He sums up his experience in a wonderful bit when he’s confronted by Tristram, acting like the stereotypic jock who finds out some skinny nerd’s been looking at his girlfriend:
“Sir, I have done you no treason,” said Sir Palamedes, “for love is free for all men, and though I have loved your lady, she is my lady as well as yours. Howbeit that I have wrong if any wrong be, for ye rejoice [enjoy] her and have your desire of her; and so had I never, nor never am like to have, and yet shall I love her to the uttermost days of my life as well as ye.” (book X, ch. 86)
That single passage is far more moving than anything Lancelot or Tristram says in defense of their own intercessions. Palamedes is the guy who, despite doing everything he can, never gets the girl. As tragic as that is, it’s far more interesting than Tristram, because there’s absolutely no conflict in his and Isode’s relationship once Mark is out of the way.
I’d hoped my enjoyment of the story would pick up once I’d finished with Tristram, as the next part was the episodic quest for the Holy Grail. But I was wrong, because this is where the third and final character I despised was introduced: Galahad. My hatred for him began almost immediately, as all he did was pull a sword from a stone and sit in a chair to get proclaimed “greatest knight ever” (again, I don’t care that the stone had an inscription saying that only “the best knight of the world” could pull it – that’s something that has to be earned). And then, throughout the quest for the Grail, Galahad is constantly praised, in detriment to the other knights. Yes, he defeated several evil knights without killing them, but that doesn’t make him better, especially when no other knight has been criticized for killing his enemies.
But it’s what happens when the Grail is actually found that pisses me off the most. Galahad, Percival, and Bors all get to the castle where the Grail is kept, and Galahad literally ascends into Heaven afterwards.
Of the three of them, Percival is the one who most needed to find the Grail, because he’s the one who came closest to getting it before, only to fail at a critical moment. After that, finding the Grail again becomes a quest for redemption on Percival’s part, not just a hunt for treasure.
The remainder of the text focuses almost exclusively on the activities of Lancelot, much to my dismay. We have the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere moving from “almost affair” to “full-blown adultery”, and yet again I’m supposed to side with Lancelot because the relationship is secret and therefore doesn’t bring shame on Arthur. The affair is eventually exposed though, and there’s a whole series of events that eventually lead to Arthur going to war with Lancelot. And during this time, pretty much everyone (including Arthur’s knights and the Pope) want Arthur and Lancelot to make up. The only one opposed to this is Gawain, mostly because Lancelot killed three of his brothers, two of which weren’t even armed at the time. And even Gawain eventually comes around, for seemingly no reason.
There’s a minor divergence from Lancelot, as the plot focuses on the conflict between Mordred and Arthur, ending in their deaths. A little bit of time is spent covering the activities of some characters in the aftermath, namely Guinevere and Bedivere, and then the focus moves back to Lancelot. Hooray.
He spends the rest of his life living as a monk, dragging his friends along because apparently anything Lancelot does is automatically cool, and when he dies, it’s implied that he’s become a saint. That’s right – the man most responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of a lot of people and the downfall of King Arthur and Camelot, who had a known adulterer, becomes a saint.
So, what are my final thoughts?
Screw this book.
It took be over a year to finish this thing, for reasons that should by now be obvious – I kept getting angry at the narrative and had to put the book down. I’m not bothered by the constant explaining, because, again, the book was written in the 15th century. Still, I wish the inherit ambiguity wasn’t shoved out of the way in favor of presenting more flawless protagonists – Tristram and Isode, Lancelot and Guinevere, both pairs are in relationships that are morally questionable at best, but we can’t allow that to muddy the waters because they’re the protagonists, even though there’s an early story about a morally grey knight – Sir Balin, who kills the Lady of the Lake, makes the Dolorous Stroke, and kills his own brother.
If you really feel like reading Le Morte d’Arthur, I’d suggest reading everything up to Lancelot’s appearance, skipping to the tale of Sir Gareth, a few bits of the Grail Quest, and perhaps the final book, the Death of Arthur. You might miss out on a few bits, but you’ll be less infuriated by the blatant favoritism towards certain characters.
In February of 2011, just a few months before HBO would premier their dark fantasy drama series Game of Thrones, the Starz network premiered a similar show – a quisi-historical dark fantasy reinterpretation of the Arthur legend, with the simple title of Camelot.
The series, unlike several of the other takes on the story of King Arthur, is at least somewhat faithful to the source material, hitting many of the more well-known bits of Arthurian lore, but also tended to put its own spin on them: Morgan is one of Arthur’s principle enemies, but is Uther’s daughter, not Igraine’s; Arthur does pull a sword from a stone to prove his legitimacy as king, but it’s the Sword of Mars, and he never wields it; Arthur and Guinevere are in a love triangle, but the third member is Guinevere’s husband Leontes.
The darkest of these twists is probably the origin of Excalibur: the sword does come from a girl in a lake, but she was on the lake because Merlin was chasing her to get the sword. Merlin uses his powers to freeze the lake; the girl falls into the water, and ends up trapped under the ice. She uses the sword to break through, but ends up drowning anyway.
Yeah, this series can get pretty dark.
I’ll be honest – this is one of my favorite retellings of the Arthur story. The characters and their conflicting motivations are great. Arthur, Merlin, and the other protagonists want to “make a better world”, but have to face the difficulties inherent in attempting such a thing, from hostile foreign powers to their own subjects reluctance for change. Morgan, our antagonist, wants what she sees as her birthright, namely Uther’s throne, and is willing to do just about anything to get it.
A great example of how both parties deal with similar situations can be seen in the episode “Justice” (ep. 5). Arthur and co. are faced with determining a murderer’s motivation, as a means of demonstrating how Camelot is different, and arguably better than what the people have known. Meanwhile, Morgan is building a power base with the merchants and town leaders, manipulating them into believing that only she can protect them from the dangerous forces infesting the land, namely by one of her allies framing a mercenary for attacking her. The big difference here is in how both sides carry out their justice – Arthur carries out a trial with a jury, while Morgan just throws the ‘guilty’ man to the mob.
My favorite character in the series is Merlin, played by Joseph Fiennes. He’s mysterious, but obviously has a dark past, and is cryptic as hell. Prime example – Igraine points out that he seemingly hasn’t aged since he took baby Arthur from her, about twenty years ago. She asks him how that’s possible. Merlin’s answer? “It’s not.”
I love it.
Plus, there’s the fact that, unlike the Merlin in King Arthur or A Dream of Eagles, he actually has magical powers, but unlike in Merlin, he has a great reason not to use them – 1) they’re dangerously addictive, and 2) they extract a toll on his body, and could kill him if he isn’t careful. That’s a much better reason than ‘it’s illegal’, especially given how often BBC’s Merlin uses magic.
But I also liked Eva Green as Morgan. Her goals are understandable, and she’s willing to try just about anything to achieve them, from allying with one of her father’s old enemies to making deals with possibly demonic entities. She also understands how to properly scheme and play at politics. This is what Cersei Lannister should be like.
The first season covered everything from Uther’s death and Arthur’s coronation to the Battle of Bardon Pass (presumably based on Mount Badon) and the conception of Mordred. The Round Table was just being devised, and Merlin decided that it was time for him to leave Camelot.
Sadly, that’s all anyone’s likely to see of this story. At the end of June 2011, just weeks after the season finale aired, Starz decided not to renew the series for another season. I don’t know the details behind this decision, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the people in charge at Starz got a bit shaky over potentially competing with HBO’s Game of Thrones. So Camelot has been relegated to the pile of ‘what could have been’ programs. But at least we got ten reasonably good episodes out of it.
Before I get into this week's book, I'd like to talk a bit about the author, Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell is a fairly prolific writer of historical fiction, with a primary focus on British history (given that he was born there, that's hardly surprising). He's written novels about everything from a reconstruction of Stonehenge in 2000 BC, to a quest for the Holy Grail during the Hundred Years' War, to an as-yet unfinished series about two soldiers in the American Civil War, but he's probably best known as the writer of the Richard Sharpe books. If you've never heard of him, look up his catalogue online - I'm sure you'll probably find something of his you'll like.
Anyway, on to the book - The Winter King, book one of Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles
Much like Jack Whyte's Dream of Eagles series, The Warlord Chronicles tells the story of Arthur's rise and fall in a reasonably historically accurate setting - in this case, Britain during the Saxon invasion of the late-5th to early-6th centuries. But unlike with Whyte's novels, Cornwell spends the series discussing Arthur's life when he's having the most impact, rather than on the events leading up to Arthur's prominence.
The series is framed as the memoirs of a monk named Derfel Cadarn, who is writing down the story of Arthur for the queen of the kingdom where Derfel's monastery happens to be located. The queen has grown up hearing tales about Arthur, and wants to hear them from someone who was actually there. And often enough, the real thing doesn't quite live up to the stories. I love the parts where the narrative shifts back to the frame, where the queen essentially tells Derfel that he's telling the story wrong - it's a bit like in the movie The Princess Bride. And all Derfel can tell her is "Well, that's how it happened. Sorry to disappoint you." It's almost like Cornwell is confronting the audience and saying "This is my version of Arthur, and you don't get to tell me how to write it."
In Cornwell's version, Arthur isn't the king. He isn't even royalty. He's the warlord of the British kingdom of Dumnonia, and guardian of the rightful king, Uther's grandson Mordred. But, since Mordred is still too young to rule, Arthur is more-or-less in charge of things. On top of ensuring that his nephew lives to inherit the crown, and that there's a crown to inherit, Arthur's also set a personal goal - unite the British kingdoms and drive out the Saxon invaders. It doesn't help that Arthur is a pagan and that there are several Christian leaders within Dumnonia plotting against him.
And there's another element that makes me prefer Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles to Whyte's Dream of Eagles - the issue of religion in post-Roman Britain, which in turn probably stems from the differences between Cornwell's Dumnonia and Whyte's Camulod.
Camulod is distinctly Roman in feel - the characters are either Roman soldiers or raised and trained by Roman soldiers. Camulod isn't a mixing of Roman and British into something new - it's an attempt to hold on to the Roman world after Rome has abandoned Britain. Because of this, just about every character is a Christian. There might be a few non-Christians around, but there's no real mention of religion.
Dumnonia, as well as the rest of Cornwell's Britain, is a different story. There's Christians, of course, but also a wide range of pagan religions - the native British gods, the male-only Roman-imported warrior cult of Mithras, the female-centric Cult of Isis, not to mention Saxon paganism. The underlying conflict between these two camps creates great tension - how can the Britons be united when their beliefs are so fundamentally different? And this helps to make Cornwell's setting feel more real to me - Dumnonia fuses elements left by the Romans with those native to Britain to create something completely new.
Cornwell also has some character interpretations that I especially like, namely Lancelot. In most stories, Lancelot is the great hero, the best of Arthur's warriors, the one everyone admires. Here, he's a coward, mean, and a bit of a fop. And after reading Le Mort d'Arthur, I really like seeing Lancelot taken down a peg or two. Derfel admits that he's biased against Lancelot, but several other characters share his distaste for the man. But Cornwell also manages to redeem a few characters that I'd grown to hate in other sources, like Galahad. Again, I quickly grew to despise Galahad in Le Mort d'Arthur, but this version of Galahad is probably how he was intended to come off - a brave, friendly, forgiving warrior. Galahad is also one of the few nice Christians - while a devote believer, he doesn't try to force his beliefs on his pagan friends. Yeah, he's essentially a Token Enemy Minority character, but it's probably necessary to show that most Christians in the series aren't all that bad.
So there're my thoughts on The Winter King. I'm currently reading the sequel, Enemy of God, and thoroughly enjoying it. If you want to read a 'historical' version of Arthur, but don't want something as depressingly grounded as Dream of Eagles, I'd highly recommend it.
Much like with the pairing of BBC's Merlin with T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, this movie has a lot in common with Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series - they're both presented as historically accurate retellings of the King Arthur legend. But while Whyte's books are at least entertaining, this week's movie isn't anywhere near entertaining.
This week, I'll look at the 2004 film King Arthur
Where to begin? Well, as mentioned above, this movie was promoted at "The True Story Behind the Legend". While some of the bits presented here are based on real people or early versions of the Arthur stories, there's a lot that's either made up, or just plain wrong. So, to make this fun, I'll be keeping score: every time the creators get a fact right or have something historically plausible, they'll get a point; every time they get something wrong, they'll lose a point. Let's see how they do.
Let's start with the initial set-up. Here, Arthur is a Roman commander stationed at Hadrian's Wall in AD 467. (-1 point right off the bat - the Romans pretty much abandoned Britain in AD 410). The knights, however, are Sarmatians enlisted to serve as cavalry (+1 point - the Sarmatians did serve in the Roman military). While the knights are pagans, Arthur is a Christian and a disciple of the recently declared heretic Bishop Pelagius (+1 point - Pelagius was a real bishop, and believed to have been born in Britain). Pelagius' ideas about free will and equality have led to Arthur forming the round table, as it makes represents equality among his men (0 points - Pelagius' teachings have nothing to do with equality or the kind of freedom Arthur espouses, but the idea of the round table was to avoid offending Arthur's barons by implying superiority/inferiority). The Bishop Germanus comes to Arthur and the knights to send them on one final mission before they'll be given their freedom - go north and rescue the Pope's godson from the invading Saxons (-2 points - Germanus died around AD 448, only visiting Britain in AD 429, and the Saxons had already started settling in southern Britain). The big problem with this is that the territory beyond Hadrian's Wall is controlled by the "Woads", natives of Britain under the leadership of Merlin.
There's the set-up. Point total: -1. Not a good start.
Now we'll go with the characters. I'll only talk about a few of them, for reasons I'll explain later.
The big one is obviously Arthur. He's presented as the son of a Roman commander and a Celtic woman (-1 point - Uther is traditionally the son of Emperor Constantine III, who was supposed to also have been King of the Britons. Mythical British history is weird). Like the fictional presentation of Pelagius, he's very forward-thinking, espousing things like freedom and equality. I'd take off a point for that, but as mentioned above, part of the round table was to imply some amount of equality. And I've already pointed out how the basis for him having these ideas is wrong, so taking off more points for the same error would just be mean. And unlike a lot of heroes, he actually demonstrates his beliefs, rather than only talking about them. I like this, if only because it shows why Arthur is such a good leader, rather than just telling the audience he is.
Next up is Guinevere. Oh, Guinevere. In this version, she's the warrior-woman of the Woads (-2 points - 1 because she's traditionally the daughter of Leodegrance, one of Arthur's earliest supporters, and another because in one of the oldest sources, she's the Roman, while Arthur is the native Briton). Now to be fair, there is some historical basis for warrior women leading native tribes of Briton, such as Boudica (+1 point, if only for imagination). Too bad Guinevere isn't one of them. I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason they made this decision was to get Kiera Knightly into a leather bra. And yes, I know they gave her digital breast surgery for the American movie poster. No, I don't understand why.
Then there's Lancelot. He's Arthur's right-hand man, and the top Sarmatian. That's about all that differentiates him from the other knights. He's a good fighter, dual-wielding short swords (0 points - there is a knight associated with carrying two swords, but it isn't Lancelot). There's maybe some hint of attraction between him and Guinevere, but it never comes to anything (-1 point, for pretty obvious reasons). On a semi-related note, Lancelot shouldn't even be in this movie, if it's "The True Story" of King Arthur (-1 point - Lancelot was first mentioned by French poet Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century).
The final character I'll devote any real time to is Merlin. In this film, he's the leader of the Woads, and initially Arthur's enemy (-1 point - in almost every other rendition, Merlin is indirectly responsible for Arthur's birth, and plays a major role in his early years as advisor and protector). Apart from maybe being a shaman, there's nothing all that magical about Merlin here (-1 point - do I even have to explain why?). And, much like Lancelot, Merlin wasn't introduced to the Arthurian mythos until much later (0 points - the original version of Merlin was a composite of two semi-real people: legendary Welsh prophet and madman Myrddin Wyllt and legendary King of the Britons Ambrosius Aurelianus).
And now a few quick notes on various other characters, because they aren't developed/important enough to deserve full paragraphs of their own. The rest of the knights barely have any characterization at all. Bors has a lot of children (-1 point - he was celibate in the old stories); Tristan has a hawk and wields a scimitar; Dagonet sacrifices himself to save the others; Gawain and Galahad are, apart from hair color, indistinguishable from each other.
The Saxons are lead by the historical warlord Cerdic and his son Cynric (-1 point - 1 because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Cerdic as landing in Hampshire, and another because it also records it as happening in AD 495, but +1 for using real Saxon leaders). To the filmmakers' credit, at least they picked a great actor to play Cerdic: Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (you'd probably know him best as Will Turner's father from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies or Dr. Erik Selvig from Thor and The Avengers). Skarsgård does a good job of making Cerdic menacing, but not cartoonishly evil. It'd be easy to take lines like "Finally, a man worth killing" and make it sound stupid. Skarsgård doesn't cackle the line - he almost growls it. His Cerdic is a warrior in search of a challenge, not a monster out for blood. Though I'd still like to know how he ended up so far north - they're coming from northern Germany, not Scandinavia.
So, that's the characters. Final score: -7, bringing the combined score to -8. That's over 8 instances of historical inaccuracies, and I didn't even go that far into the details. "The True Story Behind the Legend." Right.
I mentioned in my review of Sword in the Stone that I enjoy two general interpretations of the King Arthur story, which can be summarized as "magical fantastic fiction" and "gritty historical fiction". That's not to say that any story about the characters in the Arthurian legends must be either one or the other - those two just serve as the points on the scale. It's like a litmus test: a novel or move can be anywhere between the two. The Sword in the Stone happens to be pretty far on the fantastic side, with a few potentially aggravating bits of realism.
And this week's subject is on the opposite end of the scale, brining the story of Arthur firmly into the real world.
Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series.
Unlike many interpretations of the King Arthur story, Jack Whyte's A Dream of Eagles series (published as the Camulod Chronicles in the US) focuses more on the story behind Arthur - the origins of Merlin, Excalibur, and Uther. The story of the forging of Excalibur, the birth of Arthur, and the eventual fall of Camulod are told over the course of six books, (or to be more accurate, nine, as the fifth and sixth books were both split into two books, and there's also a stand-alone novel retelling the third book from another character's perspective). Sadly, I only ever read through The Fort at River's Bend, which is either the fifth book out of nine, or the first half of the fifth of six books.
I'd give a summation of the books I've read, but it's been years since I read them, and you could probably find better summaries online with a little effort. But I can give a vague, general overview of the books.
The first two, The Skystone and The Singing Sword, are told from the perspective of Publius Varrus, Arthur's great-grandfather, Roman legionary, and the forger of Excalibur. He, along with his friend and former commanding officer Caius Britannicus form what eventually becomes Camulod, the basis for the Camelot of legend.
The next three or four (depending on whether you consider The Sorcerer one book or two), The Eagles' Brood, The Saxon Shore, The Fort at River's Bend (part 1 of The Sorcerer) and Metamorphosis (part 2 of The Sorcerer), are all told by Caius Merlyn Britannicus, grandson of Caius Britannicus and cousin once-removed of Uther Pendragon. These cover the rise and fall of Uther, the establishment of Camulod as a regional power, and Arthur's youth and eventual coronation.
As mentioned before, Whyte sets the story of Arthur's origins firmly against a well researched historical background. Real historical locations and groups are mentioned, such as the abandoned fortress of Mediobogdum (the eponymous fort at the river's bend) and the Legio XX Valeria Victrix (Caius' and Varrus' legion in Britain). Things like the conflict over the teachings of Pelagius are brought up and impact the characters. Tactics like the use of cavalry and the development of the British longbow are included. These books are the most historically accurate renditions of life in post-Roman Britain I've ever read.
Unfortunately, this can be a major down side. Whyte's focus on historical accuracy potentially drains any sense of magic from the narrative. Excalibur isn't special because it's magical - it's just made of special metal. Merlyn doesn't have any special powers, except perhaps for having the occasional maybe-prophetic dream. Apart from that, there's not the slightest hint of anything magical in the series. And without the sense of magic, what is there to differentiate this from any other piece of historical fiction? Is it even about King Arthur anymore?
That being said, the characters are all well developed and act like real people. Example (WARNING - Spoiler for The Eagles' Brood): when Merlyn regains his memory after the death of his lover, he has every reason to believe Uther was her murderer. In response, he goes after his cousin with every intention of killing him, despite the fact that they're practically brothers. Similarly, not everyone who has a negative view of the protagonists is a villain. Again, in Eagles' Brood, it's made clear that, to the people between Camulod and Cornwall, there's effectively no difference between Uther and Gorlois. And the same goes for the antagonists. Merlyn befriends one of the men who later kills Uther, and Vortigern is presented as simply doing what he has to in order to protect his kingdom, namely hiring Saxon mercenaries.
Still, probably the biggest detractor of these novels is their length. These books are looong, anywhere from just over 350 pages to over 700 pages, and these are the paperbacks. Even Fort at River's Bend, which is only half of the original book, clocks in at 480 pages. A good chunk of this stems from Whyte's either inability or unwillingness to compress certain events. While this means the characters become well established, it also means the plot drags a bit. It takes two books, over 700 pages, for Excalibur to be forged. While I understand Whyte wanting to take time to build up the foundation of what would become Camulod, I still think he could have easily combined Skystone and Singing Sword into a single volume without loosing much.
So, what are my final thoughts? Well, this is definitely one of the better "realistic" renditions of the Arthur legend. If you're a fan of early late antiquity or early medieval history, you'll probably get a kick out of this. But if you're looking for knights in shining armor, you're way off track.