The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

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Arthur’s Eternal Triangle

Assessing the Problem

The “Eternal Triangle” gets its name from its reliable omnipresence as a romantic trope.  Two men love the same woman, or two women love the same man; and the two may themselves be friends.

Triangle illustration (Pixabay)There’s endless fuel for drama here.  As Wikipedia observes, “The term ‘love triangle’ generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved.”  As a result, some kind of resolution seems to be needed.  (In the Western tradition, at least, simply setting up a menage à trois isn’t generally regarded as an option.)

Typically, a storyteller resolves the situation by having one “leg” of the triangle win out.  It’s easier to do this if the third party, the one left out, is painted as undesirable or disreputable—they deserve to lose.  But, on the other hand, the dramatic effect is heightened when the competing persons are each worthy of respect.  Thus Aragorn says of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings:  “Few other griefs among the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.”  (Return of the King, V.8, “The Houses of Healing)

We’ve touched lightly before on the central role of the Eternal Triangle in the Arthurian tales.  One of the reasons we continue to be fascinated with the Arthuriad is the unresolvable romance at its center.  Typically we like and admire all three characters—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot.  But there seems to be no way to bring about a happy ending for everybody.  This part of the tragedy tends to preoccupy modern audiences more than the political or social tragedy of the fall of Camelot; it’s more personal.

The ways in which various authors have tried to manage the matter thus provides a useful survey of ways to address a romantic triangle generally.

Tragedy

Camelot movie posterOne perfectly viable option is to give up the idea of a happy ending and treat the story as an unresolvable tragedy.  This is how the basic Arthurian story works in Malory.  T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) follows the same path.  White’s sympathy for all three characters is evident.  But he doesn’t allow them an easy out.  The story concludes as a tragedy—and a very good one.  I believe the musical Camelot (1960), based on White, follows a similar course:  no romance survives the ending.

The thoroughly weird movie Excalibur (1981) also follows Malory in this respect and accepts the tragic ending.  Lancelot dies.  Arthur, of course, dies too—or at least sails off to Avalon; as usual, whether Arthur will actually return in some fashion remains a mystery.  (In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), Arthur is mentioned as residing with other luminaries on the paradisiacal planet Venus, awaiting his return at the Second Coming.)  Guinevere joins a nunnery, as per the basic legend.  The characters are disposed of, but no romance remains.

There is, however, a curious scene toward the end of Excalibur, at about 1:59, in which Arthur visits Guinevere in her nunnery, just before the final battle.  She says she loved him as a king, sometimes as a husband.  He says that someday, when he has finished his kingly duty of making a myth that will inspire later generations, he likes to think that he could come back to her, to meet her merely as a man.  She nods.  The scene hints that the romance might somehow be resolved after their deaths.  We’ll consider that idea further below.

Taliessin Through Logres coverBut the distinction between Arthur’s roles as king and as husband also illustrates a different approach:  one can write the story in such a way that Arthur transcends romance.  This seems to have been Charles Williams’ view in his uncompleted essay The Figure of Arthur (published in 1974 in the combined volume Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; Arthurian Torso).  In Williams’ view of the myth, Arthur “was not to love, in that kind, at all” (p. 230).  Arthur may be destined purely to serve as a model of the Good King, not to fall in love.

Yet the romancers continue to treat Arthur’s and Guinevere’s marriage as a love story.  The triangle is not so easily disposed of.

Saving a Romance

First Knight (movie) - Arthur, Guinevere, LancelotIf we do want a genuine romance, one way is to give Lancelot and Guinevere a happy ending, and essentially write off Arthur.  We see this in First Knight (1995).  Arthur, played by the redoubtable Sean Connery, seems genuinely fond of Guinevere (Julia Ormond).  But he’s much older than she is (Connery was 65 at the time, Ormond 30).  Lancelot (Richard Gere), much nearer her age, plays his usual role in rescuing Guinevere from various distresses.  When Arthur dies, he commends Guinevere to Lancelot’s care.  At the conclusion, contrary to the usual storyline, those two seem free to pair off, giving the audience the qualified satisfaction of a fulfilled romance.  (Exactly what would have happened to the polity of Camelot in this alternate Arthurian history isn’t discussed.)

Another way is to dodge the issue entirely by simply leaving Lancelot out of the triangle.  King Arthur (2004) depicts Arthur and Guinevere as true lovers, what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”  After adventures, heroic last stands, and the arrival of The Cavalry, the movie ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere.  Lancelot is in the band of knights, but he doesn’t yet have a crush on Guinevere, or vice versa; so we have the rare case where the Arthur-Guinevere relationship is preserved.  It’s a conventional happy ending, but it requires a considerable departure from the basic Arthurian story.

Arthur’s Alternative

A different way to resolve the triangle is to add a fourth party, who can take over the member of the triangle who’s left behind.  I’ve seen a couple of cases where the author gives Arthur an alternative love, letting Lancelot and Guinevere fall where they may.  Ideally, the alternative is really Arthur’s first love, predating the whole Guinevere-Lancelot thing.  Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988) has Arthur growing up with a strong and admirable girl named Morgan—a complete rewrite of Morgan le Fay, who usually serves as a villain.  Arthur falls in love with this Morgan, and she with him.  Things look bright until, just after pledging their troth, they discover that Morgan is actually his half-aunt, too closely related for marriage.  Oops.

Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere is a political necessity; it’s not a betrayal, because he cannot marry Morgan.  In this version, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar) is a not-especially-likable nonentity, who finds her love with Bedwyr (or Bedivere), a historically earlier version of Lancelot.  While the story cleaves close enough to the myth to prohibit a really happy ending, Arthur does at least find his true love, of sorts, with Morgan.

Mary Jo Putney takes a more romantic tack with her short story Avalon (1998).  This time “Morgana” is identified with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious personage frequently depicted as giving Arthur Excalibur.  She dwells in Avalon, a faerie realm set apart from the mundane world.  In this story, Arthur sleeps with Morgana at the beginning, long before his political marriage to Guinevere, and returns to her at the end, at his “death.”  But he can be healed in Avalon, as some of the older tales suggest, and thus survives to a genuine “happy ever after” with Morgana.

The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve saved for last this powerful and daunting trilogy (1984-86) by Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication.  Kay’s approach is unique:  he takes up the tragedy head-on, but offers a strange kind of hope at the end.

Fionavar Trilogy covers (Tor)

Five college students from our world are transported to another universe, Fionavar, which is said to be the first or most fundamental of all worlds—a little like Roger Zelazny’s Amber.  To win the battle against evil in Fionavar, they must summon “The Warrior.  Who always dies, and is not allowed to rest” (Summer Tree, p. 123).  He fights in many worlds, because of “a great wrong done at the very beginning of his days,” but can only be called at darkest need, by magic, by his secret name.  This Warrior is Arthur, and his secret name (rather unexpectedly) is “Childslayer”—based on an episode from Malory (Chapter I.XXVII) that is usually omitted from an Arthurian tale, in which the young Arthur, panicked at discovering that Mordred has been born, orders a whole set of newborns sent off in a ship to their deaths, rather like Herod.

It’s revealed in the second volume, The Wandering Fire, that one of the five students, Jennifer Lowell, is actually a reincarnation of Guinevere.  Moreover, it becomes necessary to summon Lancelot, as well, awakened from an enchanted sleep.  These three have met and fought the Dark heroically in many worlds, but always suffering in their doomed triangular relationship, as a punishment for their several sins (Arthur here is guilty of an even worse crime than his betrayal by the other two).  All three love each other; “making all the angles equal, shaped most perfectly for grief” (Wandering Fire, p. 122).  Indeed, theirs is the “[s]addest story of all the long tales told” (Wandering Fire, p. 187).

Kay doesn’t blink the tragedy.  It would be an understatement to say that there’s enormous suffering and sorrow in this story.  But there is astonishing moral and physical courage and heroism as well—as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And Kay stresses (in his idiosyncratic way) the factor of free will in the “weaving” of the universe.  Even the fate of Arthur and his companions is not forever foredoomed.

Once the threat to Fionavar has been vanquished, a new way opens.  All three of them can leave the worlds forever, together, and fight no more.  In the most Tolkien-like moment of the story, the three sail off into eternity, rising along what Tolkien called the Straight Road into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 332).

The scene is so moving that one hardly notices Kay has not actually resolved the romantic triangle at all.  Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are surely worthy of Paradise—but we have no clue as to who ends up with whom.  Is the only way to resolve this triangle to transcend it to some conclusion beyond mortal comprehension?

Lancelot’s Alternative?

I want to mention one possibility that I haven’t seen tried in a modern story (although, in the innumerable variations on the Arthuriad, it’s quite possible that there’s an instance out there).  Instead of coming up with an alternative for Arthur, one might try presenting an alternative for Lancelot, allowing Arthur and Guinevere to come back together as true lovers—perhaps sadder and wiser after what, in such a plot, would be a temporary breach of faith among the three of them.

The concept can in fact be found in a very old source:  Williams mentions a French lay called Lanval (ca. 1170-1215), in which a Lancelot-equivalent, desired by the queen, ends up himself riding off to Avalon with a fairy mistress.  But this is a quite different version of the Arthurian story.  Is there an opening for a Lancelot-mate in the more canonical range of variations?

Lancelot and ElaineThere’s Elaine.  In Malory, Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and tricks him into sleeping with her thinking she’s Guinevere.  Their son is Galahad, and in Malory they actually live together for some time as man and wife.  Could something be made of this?

White’s Once and Future King treats Elaine as a weak and helpless character, hardly worthy of Lancelot.  But she could easily be amped up to modern standards as a stronger individual.  If Guinevere can be a Celtic warrior maid or a Canadian college student, Elaine could certainly be revised to an inventive author’s taste.  Her relationship with Lancelot need not be the failed, one-sided romance depicted by White; she could become Lancelot’s real love.

Actually, there’s an interesting hint in The Fionavar Tapestry.  A seemingly pointless side story concerns a kind of Luthien-figure, the supernally beautiful elf Leyse of the Swan Mark.  She meets Lancelot briefly in the woods and falls in love with him—but of course he’s otherwise occupied.  Leyse then herself sails off into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 233).  It occurred to me that the name “Leyse” faintly resembles “Elaine”; and in preparing this post, I noticed her description on Wikipedia specifically refers to Elaine—although not necessarily the same Elaine (there are several characters by that name in the Arthuriad).  If she too ends up in the West, the Isles of the Blest, or whatever unearthly paradise Kay’s world accommodates—is it conceivable that she provides a quadrilateral solution to the Eternal Triangle?

There always seem to be more possibilities to be explored—which is what makes this myth so fruitful.

Arthurian Variations (Part I)

A Multitude of Arthurs

Sword in stone, in forestA few months ago I mentioned that the tales of King Arthur and his court—the Arthuriad—make up one of the most adaptable mythologies of all.  We can take a look at some of these variations (Part I), and follow up by considering what makes these legends so endlessly fascinating and malleable (Part II).

Wikipedia hosts two separate pages that enumerate versions of the Arthuriad:  List of works based on Arthurian legends and List of media based on Arthurian legend.  Tendrils of the Arthurian tree reach into such distant nooks as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which relies centrally on the Grail legend.

And new branches keep sprouting:  a new film version is coming out from Warner Bros. in 2017.  Even Tolkien worked on one, which I blush to admit I haven’t read:  The Fall of Arthur (composed in the 1930s, published 2013).  The introduction to my copy of The Mabinogion sums it up:  Arthur “is at the centre of British story.”  (Tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, p. xxv.)

History of the Myth

The Arthuriad grew from many sources.  A number of originally unconnected legends were gradually brought together under one roof—one reason there’s such a plenitude of material in the legendry.  A few brief mentions of Arthur in medieval histories gave rise to tales and poems in England, in France, and in Wales.  Writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory assembled these various tales into more or less connected narratives.

The resulting mythology is the central part of the “Matter of Britain”—one of the three subjects that the medievals considered of paramount importance for literary development, along with the “Matter of France” (tales of Charlemagne and his court) and the “Matter of Rome” (the ancient myths that focused on the Trojan War and its ramifications).

It would take a scholarly treatise to deal with this history, not a blog post, even if I were qualified to write such an account.  Here I just want to note a few of the more interesting variations I’ve come across.

The High Road and the Low Road

I like to divide treatments of the Arthuriad into “high road” and “low road” versions.  On the high road we find the kind of setting that we usually think of in connection with the mythical Round Table:  knights in plate mail, ladies in silks and satins, magic from Merlin to the Green Knight round every corner.  This is Malory’s version, which reflected the customs and cultural level of Malory’s own time, rather than the historical setting in which Arthur was supposed to be placed.

The low road takes us to adaptations that hew more closely to actual history.  Here the writer seeks to make an Arthurian chronicle compatible with what we know of the real fifth or sixth century.  Magic and mysticism are minimized, and naturalistic explanations may be given for paranatural features of the original legends, such as the Sword in the Stone.  Contemporary retellings generally prefer the low road, grittier and less idealized than the plate-mail versions.

On the High Road

The high-fantasy Arthur is exemplified by Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), which holds a central place:  to quote Charles Williams in The Figure of Arthur (p. 246), “it is Malory’s book which is for English readers the record book of Arthur and of the Grail.”  Traditional versions, particularly in the movies, tend to track Malory—at least in part, because no single novel or movie can possibly touch on the vast trove of material in Le Morte d’Arthur.

The trouble is that Malory is hard to read.  The language is archaic, and the mode of storytelling is far removed from contemporary styles.  Malory spends inordinate amounts of time on things like catalogues of knights at a tournament, and less than we would expect on characters’ thoughts and motivations.  We are thus inclined to search for a version more accessible to the modern reader.

The Once and Future King book coverA leading candidate is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  I grew up with White and still think of his as the canonical version.  It generated two popular movies—Lerner & Loewe’s musical “Camelot,” and Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.”

Personally, I’m not pleased with either of those dramatic offspring.  The treatment of the main characters in “Camelot”is terrible (at least in the movie version), and “The Sword in the Stone” is Disneyfied in the bad sense, written down and trivialized.

There’s a different problem with the book itself:  The Once and Future King is very nearly a spoof of the Arthuriad.  White does a very good job with the main characters, but he fills the book with deliberate anachronisms and doesn’t take the actual quests and missions of the knights very seriously.  He keeps poking fun at Malory’s text.  The spoofery is often justified, and generally good fun.  But it does make White’s fanciful “high road” version a secondary rendering—parasitic, in a sense, on the original—and not really a good candidate for a ‘centric’ version.  (Not to mention the oddity of Part V, the “Book of Merlyn,” which was not published until after White’s death and conflicts in tone and substance, to my mind, with the main novel.)

John Steinbeck began a treatment that can be found under the title The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  This might have been a candidate for a canonical modern version, if Steinbeck had ever completed it.  The book starts as a quasi-translation of Malory, but starts to develop more independently as it goes along.  It didn’t get very far, however, before Steinbeck abandoned it—perhaps because he hadn’t decided whether to keep diverging from his source material.

First Knight movie posterOn the screen, the 1995 film “First Knight,” with Sean Connery and Richard Gere, may be the best modern example of the high-road approach.  The main plot of the story is the tragic love story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, though in this iteration Lancelot and Guinevere are left alive and apparently free to marry at Arthur’s death—an example of how those who favor romantic happy endings try to sort out the central romantic triangle.  Along with some gritty realism, the film does give us an idealized Camelot, shown more straightforwardly than in most modern adaptations.

On the Low Road

1981’s “Excalibur” may have started the trend toward more realistic versions in the movies.  Based purely on Malory, according to Wikipedia, the movie includes more explicit violence and more primitive settings than in “First Knight” or “Camelot.”  Nonetheless, “Excalibur” does incorporate the Grail theme and the mystical notion of the Fisher-King.

King Arthur movie posterA more recent example of the low-road movie is “King Arthur.”  Here Arthur is a Roman warleader, upholding the last of the fading Roman civilization in Britain, and Guinevere is a Celtic warrior maiden.  In this version, Lancelot dies (without real romantic entanglement) and the movie ends with Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage, stopping short of all the difficult tragic material later in the legend.

On the book side, the low road may be represented by Mary Stewart’s quintet that begins with The Crystal Cave.  In one classic example of a non-magical explanation for a traditional scene, Merlin leaves the sword Caliburn for many years in a cave where dripping water gradually deposits a limestone crust over the blade, from which Arthur breaks it free when he recovers the sword—a neat nod to Malory’s magical sword in the stone.

More Exotic Variants

It really gets interesting when authors start tugging and pulling at the legend to develop stories that depart more strikingly from the Malory-based legends.

Road to Avalon coverOne of my favorites is The Road to Avalon (1988), by Joan Wolf.  This novel takes a low-road approach, with almost nothing in the way of magic or the paranormal.  Here again Arthur is primarily a warleader, Comes Brittaniarum.  But he is also fiercely dedicated to preserving against barbarism the civilized culture represented by Rome—an aspect we shall have occasion to revisit.

Arthur’s task is to unite the British people against the Saxons.  (These Saxons are the invading enemy at this time, but they’ve become the defenders against barbarism by the time of King Alfred, and the underdogs by Robin Hood’s period.  British history is complicated.)

Wolf’s character treatment is what’s most interesting.  Here Morgan (usually “Morgan le Fay,” portrayed as a dangerous fairy or sorceress) is the female lead and Arthur’s real true love.  Gwenhwyfar is sympathetic, if a little shallow, but she never did have much more than a dynastic connection with Arthur, which makes her unfaithfulness with Bedwyr (this version’s Lancelot) more palatable.  In other words, the traditional romantic triangle is skewed—to the good, in this case.

In Wolf,  Mordred, usually the arch-enemy, is a likable boy; Agravaine is the real villain.  There’s a Round Table, for the right reason (to make those who sit at it equals, with no “head of the table” precedence).  But there are no knights in the plate-mail sense.  Religion hardly plays a role, much less the Grail.  But the story is very satisfying, and is followed by two sequels, one set in the generation after Arthur and the other taking up the life of Alfred.

There are lots more.  Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a feminist version, again with Morgaine as the heroine.  Stephen Lawhead’s five-book Pendragon Cycle starts out in Atlantis—from which we can see how eccentric the plotline has become.  The Last Legion (both book and movie) again stress the Roman connection, with the last emperor of Rome traveling to Britain to found the dynasty that will produce Arthur.  And of course, in the slapstick comedy category, we have Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Future King

I’ve seen surprisingly few stories that build on the tradition of Arthur as the “once and future king”—rex quondam rexque futurus.  Arthur is supposed to return; but the tales generally leave him ambiguously ensconced in Avalon.  In C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, we do see a revived Merlin in the present day, and we’re told in Perelandra that Arthur waits on Venus to come back to Earth for a final battle—but we don’t see that in the stories.

Tim Powers’ oddball The Drawing of the Dark has an eccentric return for Arthur—focusing mostly on beer.  Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry promotes a resolution of the Arthurian tragedy that takes place in another world, but draws in characters from our contemporary world.  I remember fondly, for some reason, a 1970 children’s book by Tom McGowen, Sir MacHinery, in which an experimental robot is perceived by a group of present-day Scottish Brownies as an armored knight—the crate is stenciled MACHINERY—where the inventor happens to bear the name Simon Arthur Smith.

But I haven’t run across as many stories about the return of Arthur as one might expect.  Some interesting potential there . . .

The Next Step

This spate of examples illustrates the wide range of variations to which the Arthurian legends are susceptible.  What makes them so adaptable, and so attractive to storytellers of all kinds?  We’ll take those questions up in the next episode.

The Malleability of Myth

Our stories are always built on other stories.  We draw not only on real life, but on all the other tales, tropes, and archetypes that we’ve encountered.

Some of those stories are especially powerful.  They express patterns that seem particularly meaningful to us.  Tolkien and Lewis called these “myth”—not in the sense of something false,  a “lie breathed through silver,” but in the sense of something fundamental.

Some mythologies are works of imagination:  the Greek or Norse gods, Superman, Star Wars.  Some may be built on elements of truth:  the fall of Troy, King Arthur.  Some may be literally true, though we can select parts of the overall story and express them in imaginative terms—for example, the tales of the American Revolution (Hamilton or 1776,) or what Lewis called the Christian myth (The Prince of Egypt, The Nativity Story).

Whatever their sources, all these tales make up a reservoir of plots, characters, themes, and locales on which authors draw—our cultural inheritance.  In his famous essay On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien described it this way:  “Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits . . .”  (Pp. 26-27 as reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine, 1966); p. 10 in this online reproduction of the full text.)

A good storyteller does not simply repeat a story verbatim.  We give it our own spin or flavor.  In doing so, we draw from the Cauldron elements from all sorts of other tales.  As they say, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”

This is true even when we purport to be retelling an existing story.  The great tales tend to be open to reshaping.  But how far can we go with this sort of adaptation, and still claim to be retelling the original tale?  How much stretching and twisting can a given story take before it becomes something else altogether?

 

The best example may be the Arthuriad, the mythology of the Arthurian tales.  But that’s so large a subject that it deserves a discussion of its own.  A more manageable example is the story of Robin Hood.

One thing that helps us feel free to adapt is the lack of a single, “canonical” original version of the story.  Any presentation of The Lord of the Rings—the movie, for example—will be judged against Tolkien’s book.  But there is no unique original source for Robin Hood.  The earliest sources are a variety of medieval ballads, according to Wikipedia’s extensive discussion.

Cover, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adventures of Robin HoodWhen I went in search of a standard version of the Robin Hood tale for my children’s library, there was no single obvious choice.  There is an influential Howard Pyle version, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood—I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s written in an invented antique English idiom that might not be ideally accessible to young people.  I ended up with Roger Lancelyn Green’s 1956 The Adventures of Robin Hood, which struck me as a good, middle-of-the-road retelling on which to start a young person.

 

There are enough different elements in the Robin Hood story to allow for a range of  interpretations.  On the surface, there’s the sheer romance of a band of rough but virtuous rogues living cheerfully in the forest:  the “Merry Men” theme. There is the legendary adept or quasi-superhero element:  Best Bowman Ever.  (At least, “best” until you get to Katniss Everdeen, Hawkeye, (Green) Arrow, and other successors — all of whom owe something to the Robin Hood archetype.)

There are also political themes.  The conflict between underdog Saxons and Norman aristocrats got tossed into the Cauldron in the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia.  More specifically, Robin is often seen as defending the absent Richard the Lionhearted against Prince John’s machinations.  And of course one can focus on the economic aspect, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and make Robin a hero of the 99% against the 1%.  The tale generally includes a strong romantic element as well.

We can see how these elements can be differently mixed in some of the movie versions, all of which are fairly successful.

 

Poster, Errol Flynn, Adventures of Robin HoodIn the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Robin is good-humored and high-spirited.  Merriment abounds; the dashing Robin treats much of the action almost frivolously—“Where’s your love of fights, risk, adventure?”  He fights with a smile, like John Carter.  Marian says:  “he’s brave and he’s reckless, and yet he’s gentle and kind.”  In keeping with this light touch, much of the soundtrack music has an antic air.  Robin is an expert bowman, of course; we see this especially in the tournament/trap sequence (which seems to have been too frivolous to be used in the later movies, below).

The plot gives us Saxons versus Normans, with Robin a Saxon nobleman (though he had traditionally been portrayed as a yeoman).  In this version, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fat fool; the villains are Prince John and Guy of Gisborne.  Richard is a noble and honorable king, though he has to be reminded of his homeland duties by Robin.  His return is protracted, and the politics is internal.  Robin (and Marian) speak for one England, not Normans against Saxons, under the one true king.  The climactic battle scene is essentially a civil war—John’s supporters against Richard’s.

Maid Marian is a pampered Londoner, a royal ward, though she comes over to Robin’s side promptly when he shows her the sufferings of the poor.  As usual, there is a competitor for her hand—in this case, Guy.  This Marian is not an action heroine.  She arranges the plan to save Robin from hanging after his capture, but it’s his men who execute the rescue.  The love story is a central thread, and the film ends with Robin and Marian rushing off from the celebration together.

 

Poster, Kevin Costner, Robin Hood - Prince of ThievesRobin Hood:  Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner (1991), presents a more serious treatment.  Wikipedia describes it, accurately, as a “romantic action adventure.”  The Merry Men angle appears only vestigially, befitting Costner’s somewhat dour screen presence.  The Expert Archer trope certainly makes its appearance, as Robin makes progressively more unlikely bowshots to save the day.

Costner’s Robin is again an aristocrat, allying himself with the downtrodden when he returns from the Crusades.  (The notion that Robin had been on crusade with Richard is unusual:  he is usually seen as being driven to outlawry while Richard is away.)  We have the traditional Saxon-Norman conflict, complicated by throwing in a batch of wild-card Celts as well.  But the ethnic or class difference is not prominent; it is expressed primarily as a revolt against the weirdly evil and almost demented Sheriff of Nottingham.  Curiously, Prince John is not mentioned at all.  But King Richard does make an appearance at the very end, to bless the romance.  (In an entertaining nod to film history, Richard is played by Sean Connery, who had himself played Robin Hood in 1976’s Robin and Marian.)

Prince of Thieves leans heavily on the romance.  Marian, a local aristocrat, was acquainted with Robin when they were children—she despised him.  She takes a shine to him, however, after Robin returns to find the Sheriff has murdered Robin’s father.  Here it is the Sheriff who has designs on Marian’s virtue.  The romantic drama rides on Michael Kamen’s epic score for the music—with a main theme so good that Disney has come to use it as the generic musical cue for Disney’s logo.

 

Poster, Russell Crowe, Robin HoodThe most recent movie version is called simply Robin Hood, directed in 2010 by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe.

Crowe’s Robin is serious-to-grim; no frivolous japes here.  Like Costner’s version, Crowe’s is returning from the Crusades with Richard.  But this Robin is a common archer, not a nobleman.  He does some fancy shooting, but he spends more time swordfighting.  In the climactic battle, he leads a more traditional cavalry charge—and on a beach, not in a forest.  (He does, however, deliver the final coup de grace to Godfrey the villain with a bowshot.)

This film’s whole atmosphere is more cynical than in either of the two versions described above.  For example, where Errol Flynn’s Robin gives King Richard some home truths and is honored for it, Crowe’s Robin gets put in the stocks for giving Richard an honest evaluation, even though Richard specifically asked for honesty.  The movie makes a few more nods to actual history, in the relationships of John, Richard, and Walter Marshal—though with a few minor tweaks, such as an imaginary French invasion.  (The Wikipedia page lists several criticisms on the history.)  Richard is killed near the beginning, in France, rather than returning triumphantly to England.  The focus is more on international politics than in the two preceding versions:  the big final battle here is against the French.

For most of the story, this Robin doesn’t live in the forest.  Nor is he precisely an outlaw, though he and his friends do stop one shipment of grain as “men of the hood.”  Rather, his central role is as a somewhat anachronistic voice for democracy.  Robin’s father Thomas Longstride was a “visionary” who believed in raising up all people; the repeated slogan is “Rise, and rise again, until lambs become lions.”  Thomas wrote a charter of rights, signed even by barons.   In one of the few nods to the Merry Men, these rights include the right for each man “to be as merry as he can”—a livelier form of “the pursuit of happiness.”  There’s a reference to “liberty by law,” as opposed to the despotism of a “strongman” tyrant.  Marion too, though she’s a lady, is shown doing mundane chores alongside the farmers (Robin originally mistakes her for a farm girl).

In this version, the Sheriff is practically a nonentity.  John and the character representing Guy, who has mutated into “Godfrey,” are the villains.  Here John is a much more ambiguous character, rising to an almost heroic role at the climax.  But he then throws that role away by refusing to sign the Magna Carta—a historically dubious twist—and condemning Robin.

The romance element is also strong here, though to some extent it takes a back seat to politics (Wikipedia describes the movie as an “epic historical war film”).  Robin finds himself pretending to be the deceased Sir Robert of “Loxley” on his return to England.  At the real Robert’s father’s insistence, he steps into Robert’s shoes—including becoming (for public relations purposes) “husband” to Robert’s wife Marion.  This puts us somewhere in the region of the “Marriage Before Romance” trope, and allows for some endearing scenes as the two begin to fall for each other.

Marion herself is stronger and more assertive here than either of her film predecessors above (harking back to Green’s description of Marian as an “expert fighter,” p. 222).  She’s competent with sword and bow work; she frees her villagers; she even joins the final battle, in an Eowyn-style armor disguise.  At the same time, she still needs to be rescued occasionally, and is again pursued by unwanted romantic attention from the Sheriff.

In place of the usual happy ending, Robin is finally declared an outlaw at the very end—riding off into the sunset, as it were, as a perennial spirit of rebellion.  “And so the legend begins,” a title tells us.

 

As noted above, my view is that all of these movie treatments work, despite their varied treatments of Robin’s character, his martial prowess, the political angles, the villains, and the romance.  They all seem to be acceptable ways of telling the Robin Hood story.  One can appreciate the same tale rendered in a number of different ways, mutually inconsistent in their details, but able to coexist in the viewer’s mind.

On the other hand, there are limits to this variability.

The Robin Hood subgenre also offers an example of distorting the underlying myth too far — stretching the rubber band till it breaks.  Robin McKinley’s novel The Outlaws of Sherwood tries so hard to avoid the usual tropes that, in my estimation, it fails as a Robin Hood story.

 

Cover, Robin McKinley, Outlaws of SherwoodMcKinley’s Robin is anything but merry—he’s a gloomy, plodding yeoman forest ranger.  The Norman-Saxon conflict is active, but Robin has no political awareness at all; he has to be chivvied into revolt by Marian and Much the miller’s son, who handle most of the overall strategy.  Adding insult to injury, he can’t hit the broad side of the barn with an arrow.  All the fancy shooting is done by others, including Marian.  This is a pleasant nod to female action-hero equality, but leaves our image of Robin himself sadly lacking.

About the only thing McKinley’s Robin is good at is provisioning a comfortable forest home for his followers and their families.  You might say he makes a fine quartermaster, but he’s hardly a leader.

The political themes are muted.  Guy and the Sheriff are the villains, and larger national or international issues are not prominent.  Richard the Lionheart does appear, to receive the main characters’ fealty and thus end their outlawry, though he then takes them to the Crusades as a sort of penance.

The Robin-and-Marian romance is integral to the story, but it proceeds in slower and more complex ways than in the movies.  Robin is hesitant and tongue-tied, the opposite of the dashing Errol Flynn.  Only when Marian is injured, after taking Robin’s place in the famous tournament, does he admit to loving her.

McKinley is aware of the way in which authors construct tales in different shapes as they draw their preferred elements from the Cauldron of Story.  She notes in an afterword that “[m]any people have strong ideas about who Robin was and what he was like; and a lot of our ideas are as incompatible with each other as they are with history” (p. 277).  Her version has its points; but to my mind, it stretches the main themes and tropes too far to be a satisfactory iteration of the Robin Hood legend.

 

We can adapt a myth in any number of ways, but not infinitely many.  There are boundaries that must be observed if the story is to remain recognizable at all.  A story seems to have an “essence,” and violating that essence makes it into something different.  The something different may be valuable in itself; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to adapt familiar bits from the Cauldron of Story into a new tale.  But that—of course—is another story.