Thursday, January 12, 2012

Keeping History and Legend Alive

BBC's Merlin series

Happy New Year to everyone. Hope your various celebrations were enjoyable, sweet and wine-filled. My holidays were also filled with history and magic.

The past week, I have been watching the recent BBC series, Merlin, for which I obtained a copy of season one at the local library. After the first episode of this show, my first reaction was – “What a complete load of rubbish. I can’t believe how they have butchered my beloved Arthurian tales.”

John Boorman's
Excalibur
Ok, I didn’t say ‘beloved’, though, for me the Arthurian cycle is indeed sacred ground. It should not be meddled with lightly. However, like many a good book, sometimes the initial chapters can be slow or misleading, disappointing even. So, I pressed on and watched another couple episodes. I realized that, despite the completely inaccurate setting (Camelot as a late medieval castle), the unfortunate character of Uther Pendragon (I much prefer Marion Zimmer Bradley or Jack Whyte’s versions of the man), and the anachronistic dialogue among other things (Guinevere is a servant!), the show actually focuses on some important themes. Richer is the Arthurian cycle for the entwined destinies of Merlin and Arthur, the opposing forces of paganism and Christianity, ideals of kingship and knighthood and even elements of the magical that add to the legend. Merlin has all of these, the show’s faults notwithstanding.

If you can look past the show’s appearance, it can be quite gripping. Though I much preferred the setting of the late 90’s version of Merlin, with Sam Neill,  I now look forward to the next episode of this new Merlin and find it hard to watch only one. Now that I am over my Arthurian purist’s prejudice, I am reminded of other television series that also meddled with favourite bits of history and legend. Certainly, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and Xena: Warrior Princess are at the top of the list. Those two shows were chock full of anachronism and cheese but they also tapped the deep-rooted archtypes of ancient tradition and storytelling which appeal to us on quite another level of consciousness. Ancient tradition is often a part of the very fibre of our being.

Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo as
Xena and Hercules
I think that it has become absolutely necessary for tales from Greek mythology, Arthurian tradition or others to be retold and given fresh new garb every so often, for successive generations. That is how the tales endure, how they remain relevant as the years go by. The clothing may be different than the original period in question but the essential messages, the human strife, remain the same. Indeed, new life is given to them, new interest created. I’ve said it before that there is nothing wrong with a Hollywood version of history, even if some things are inaccurate – if interest is sparked, then people will read up on something more and as a result find out what is fact and what is fiction, and where the two live amiably side by side.

Manuscript page of Chr├ętien de Troyes'
Yvain or Le Chevalier au Lion
As for the Arthurian tradition, let us not forget that even Chr├ętien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory reinvented the Arthurian cycle, setting it not in the immediate post-Roman world of Dark Age Britain, written about by Nennius or Aneirin, but rather in the courtly world of 12th century Aquitaine and the shiny armour world of 15th century England. Every generation has its perspective and a language that appeals to that perspective. If adapting the telling of these tales in media to speak to the current generation is what keeps history and legend alive, then that is a good and honourable thing.
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