Monday, September 22, 2008

Merlin, myth and reality...

I am a big fan of the Arthurian legend. DId I say big fan? I mean huge huge HUGE fan. It's the courtly love. It's the fighting. It's the nobility. It's Lancelot and Guinevere, and Gawain and the Green Knight, and the search for the Holy Grail and the tragedy of Mordred, and... well I could go on, but you've probably got the picture by now.

I suspect Roger Lancelyn Green had a lot to do with my original interest in Arthur (he certainly was the reason I love Robin Hood), but the fascination was cemented when I read TH White's classic The Once and Future King. It's got all the classic ingredients of Arthurian legend: Merlin takes the baby Arthur to be brought up by Sir Ector so that no one knows who he is. England is thus without a king until Arthur accidentally pulls a sword out of a stone and discovers his true inheritance. He then goes about setting up his famous round table, marries Guinevere, spends most of the story ignoring the fact that Guinevere is shagging his best mate Lancelot, and eventually faces up to the fact he's got it all wrong just before his last battle, where he dies defeating Mordred.

There was a lot I didn't understand when I read it as a kid (the whole Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur love triangle I found quite baffling frankly), I was fired up by the stories (particularly the ones of Arthur's youth when Merlin teaches him politics by making him visit various parts of the animal kingdom), and I particularly loved Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast.

My love affair with Arthur was cemented when I studied Tennyson for A level...

So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Those lines from Morte d'Arthur still make my spine tingle.

It was further enhanced by reading Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur at university - on which TH White based his version of the tale. In fact it's probably fair to say that the majority of modern interpretations come to us via Malory.

As a result I am always keen to read/watch new interpretations of the story.

I think my favourite film version is probably John Boorman's Excalibur, which is nightmarish and mesmerising, with powerful performances from all the cast, but though it was a very different take on it, I also enjoyed the recent version with Clive Owen.

The trouble of course with anyone doing any version of the Arthurian tale it has been so done to death, it's almost impossible to give it a different twist.

So I was really intrigued by the new version the BBC are putting out on Saturday nights for the next few weeks. The adverts looked good, it's a teenage Merlin which is interesting and yet...

I have to say I approached this with some trepidation. The Beeb have done fantastically well with Dr Who in the teatime slot and Merlin is produced by Julie Gardner, which is good news, but Robin Hood, another mythological character has been (in my view) utterly ruined by the absolutely dire modern version which has seen Maid Marian killed (twice), Alan a Dale turn traitor and Richard Armitage's Guy of Gisborne to be far more sexy then Robin himself, who seems a bit of a wuss to me.

I was further put off by reading Richard Wilson being quoted as saying this is a hip version of the Arthurian tale. Good god. Does it haveto be hip? I'm all for it appealing to modern children and firing them up the way TH White did me, but hip? For fuck's sake. The Arthurian legend is part of the fabric of our cultural history. It doesn't need to be hip.

Another negative was the discovery that in this version Merlin and Arthur are the same age, and that Uther is still alive. Sorry? Part of the story surely is the orphan brought up without his parents. And how can Merlin who rescued Arthur as a baby be the same age as teenage Arthur?

I'm not such a purist that I mind the story being reintepreted, if by doing so you throw an interesting light on something we all know, or you have something new to say. But surely in myth there are some givens about how the story goes. And in this instance the story goes: Uther used magic to pretend he was Igraine's husband, seduced her, begot Arthur on her, and then was later killed in battle, so Merlin spirited Arthur away to keep him safe. You can go to Tintagel if you don't believe me. One of the things that really irritates the fuck out of me about modern interpretations of stories we know and love, is that the writers always seem to think they KNOW better. (You only need to watch the Tudors to realize that actually, no they don't).

So... Merlin with Uther alive in. No. Does not compute.

However, I DO think it is quite an interesting idea to bring Merlin and Arthur together as young boys, particularly as this Arthur is so extremely unlikeable, which is quite a neat subversion of the myth. I'm tickled to see that Morgana is Uther's ward (presumably to water down the incestuous side of the story - though it is his half sister Morgause who's the mother of Mordred, not Morgan le Fay as if often thought), and it was also a neat twist to have Guinevere as the servant (though technically she is King Leodegrance's daughter). Of course it's a bit of a sop to our go getting times - wanna be famous? You can be! - that Guinevere says she'll never be queen and Merlin tells her she can be, she just has to change her destiny.

Despite my reservations vis a vis Uther, I did actually really enjoy this. The main characters were all pretty good, though I found Anthony Head's Uther a little lacklustre, and I enjoyed Richard Wilson no end. Not sure I was all that wowed by the dragon (again WHERE in Arthurian legend is there a prophesying dragon, hmm?), but I liked the tussling between Arthur and Merlin, and there was one incredibly chilling scene at the end which really raised this above the norm.

So I'll certainly be giving it another look, and hoping that in their quest to make it different the makers of Merlin don't forget the core of the story.

Legends and myths have a purpose, to remind us where we've come from and who we are. The Arthurian myth, with it's nobility and sense of purpose, is aspirational in the sense that it shows us who we can be, and is also very human in the sense that Arthur's weaknesses are ultimately his undoing. When I reread TH White recently I was struck (as I hadn't been as a child) how completely of its time it was - White was writing during much of the book during World War II, so a lot of notions about fighting (Might versus Right) make their way into the book, and Arthur experiences the full horrors of communism in his time in the ant kingdom. TH White used the Arthurian myth to hold up a candle to his own world and expose its frailties. I rather hope the makers of Merlin, have done the same.


Stephen said...

I hope that you have read Chr├ętien de Troyes 12th Century Arthurian writings, the primary source for Malory. Best in the original French verse but can be hard work at times; Penguin publish an excellent and very readable prose translation.

Jane Henry said...

Actually I haven't - well I've read bits when I was a student. Had a mad Middle English lecturer who used to read from Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach in a very peculiar accent. I always wondered how they KNEW how people spoke in tham thar days... I didn't know there was a good translation. Will try and look it up. Ta.

I should have also said but thought the post might get too high falutin, I DO have a soft spot for those troubadour boys also...