Earlier today, Starz announced their plans for Camelot, a ten-part series that offers a new version of the Arthurian Legend. As someone who studied a great deal of medieval literature in my undergraduate career, even writing my honours thesis on the relationship between the medieval romance (Malory’s Le Morte Darthur) and science fiction (in the form of Battlestar Galactica), this is intriguing to me. I am always happy to see my academic interests crossing into my critical pursuits, and so I am very much looking forward to seeing how Camelot comes together.
However, I first heard this news through Twitter, where the gist was “modern retelling of Arthurian legend” without any further details – Twitter is wonderful, but it’s also vague, so I sought out the press release to get more information. However, when I was reading that press release, a few alarms went off in my head which I feel need to be addressed. First and foremost, Starz claims that this will offer ”a wholly original approach to the timeless Arthurian legend,” which is the sort of statement that makes me raise an eyebrow. Shortly after, I discovered the passage that truly makes me apprehensive about this series:
“Camelot” will be based on Thomas Malory’s 15th century book,” Le Morte d’Arthur” – still considered the definitive work on the subject. But that’s only a starting point; “Camelot” will weave authenticity into a modern telling of the Arthur legends that is relatable to contemporary audiences.
What’s funny is that, based on the way this information is being reported, I had presumed that this would be a “contemporization” of the Arthurian Legend, placing it within a 21st century setting similar to how NBC’s Kings transplanted biblical stories into more contemporary political and social structures. However, based on this claim from the press release and the fact that the series will shoot in Ireland, it seems as if the “modern telling” and “contemporary audiences” points refer to the story rather than the setting, which is actually far more problematic for me.
A few years ago, I wrote a paper for a seminar on the Arthurian legend where I investigated the reasons that the most defining qualities of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (there’s all sorts of disagreement on the spelling, so I just stick with what I know) have never appeared in adaptations of the text. For those who don’t know, Malory’s text is a sprawling tome which has no clear central narrative, which is why no one is crazy enough to try to adapt the book “as is.” However, while some films have claimed to use the text as a source, they do so in a highly selective fashion: rather than trying to capture the essence of the text, which focuses on chivalry and honour within the context of Arthur’s kingdom, they tend to take plot elements and characters and craft a more linear and more “modern” story of love and loss. The paper was fairly short, and unable to cover the breadth of the subject of Arthurian adaptations, but I’ll post it after the jump anyways in case anyone is really interested in the subject at hand.
However, I think Camelot represents the perfect example of the way in which Malory is used within adaptations of the Arthurian legend. They evoke the name because it is, in fact, still considered the definitive work on the subject, which offers the adaptation a certain degree of legitimacy. The problem is that they admit that Malory is just a starting point in the same sentence, and then go on to pretty much state that they are only using Malory for the strands of “authenticity” that they will work into a “modern” and “relatable” tale of, most likely, melodramatic investigations of adultery and heroism, a reductive translation of Malory’s story.
Television as a medium is more capable than film of capturing the qualities which make the Morte a fascinating text, capable of giving attention to the substantial range of characters and even potentially being able to bring stories considered tangential to the “main narrative” to life in ways which are impossible in the more linear model of feature filmmaking. I think if someone really sat down and decided to tackle Malory’s text as a serialized, non-linear narrative, there is the potential for a sprawling and epic investigation of the value of chivalry, honour, kinship and morality within a complex series of events which challenge those values.
However, while HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s somewhat-medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, seems driven by writers focusing on the televisual qualities of the text at hand, it seems like Camelot is being conceived in a way which suggests that there is something about Malory’s text which is emphatically not modern, and which is entirely unrelatable to audiences. As such, it isn’t really an adaptation of Malory at all, but rather an interpretation of Malory’s basic plot – likely focused on the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere – within a modern context (probably similar to The Tudors, as the projects share some producers).
What emerges may well be an entertaining television series, but I can’t help but feel that it will be missing the point: if you’re going to bring the Arthurian Legend to life in our modern television era, and if you’re going to claim Malory as a source, this is a fantastic opportunity to tackle the elements of the text which made it definitive and have largely been lost in subsequent reimaginings. Instead, their goal seems to be the same old attempt to make something old hip and relevant by ignoring what made it so interesting at the time and instead looking at what is popular or trendy within popular culture – I’d be glad to be proven wrong, but somehow I think that I’m still going to be waiting for the Malorian adaptation that is truly possible in this day and age.
After the jump, my paper entitled “Attempted Screenplay: The Honour of Le Morte Darthur and the Failure of Film Adaptations,” if you want to read more about the unique qualities of Malory’s text that present a challenge to would-be adaptations.
The Honour of Le Morte Darthur and the Failure of Film Adaptations
Whenever a piece of literature is adapted into a new medium, there are considerable challenges. There is no escaping the fact that a book is fundamentally different from a film or a television series, and certain parts of a text are bound to be lost on the silver screen. However, there is something very unique about Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur that makes it both an attractive source and an especially difficult challenge for potential adaptations. Kevin J. Harty, a pioneer of Arthurian film studies, believes that considering “the great literary influence, the length, the scope, and, most importantly, the rich tapestry of incidents,…Sir Thomas Malory’s great work would seem a natural source for film adaptations of the Arthurian legend” (136). While some films have used Malory as a direct source, including 1958’s Knights of the Round Table and John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur, Harty acknowledges that those familiar with Malory’s text are “often left to imagine whether that source is ‘reel’ or imagined” (136). While there are a multitude of reasons why these two films failed to live up to Malory’s text, including a certain level of cinematic ignorance, Harty’s characterization of Malory’s text underestimates the challenge facing a filmmaker attempting to adapt Le Morte Darthur.
While Malory’s text has many elements which do make it ideal for film adaptation, the qualities which define it as the definitive medieval romantic text complicate this scenario. D.S. Brewer observes that “the Morte Darthur, whatever it is, is not a novel, with the typical novel’s unity and naturalism. It is a complex, layered structure of great fascination, with its own internal laws” (4). By bringing attention to unique qualities of Malory’s text, Brewer hits upon some of the reasons why adaptations of the text have ultimately failed to live up to certain standards. Central to the text is a theme of honour absent from modern society, one which is Malory’s own contribution to the legend. Malory’s story is not original, but it is within these sorts of inventive elements that Le Morte Darthur becomes his text independent of his sources. While many of the editing decisions required to bring Malory’s text to film are logical, they also eliminate the foundational elements of chivalric honour within the Morte; the elimination of this sense of honour sends ripple effects through the remainder of the story, complicating even the central narrative filmmakers desire to maintain. While a proper film adaptation of Le Morte Darthur is not impossible, it is only with a deft hand and a greater understanding of what makes Malory’s text definitive that potential auteurs will do this story justice.
There is no value in simply badgering the existing adaptations of Le Morte Darthur, but there is value in understanding the general pattern these films take. The two most definitive films are Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table, released in 1953, and John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, a more recent example of a purported adaptation of Malory’s work. While both of these films provide credits to Malory’s text as a source, they make no attempt to include the entirety of Le Morte Darthur within their running times. Both films are cut down in such a fashion as to centralize the love triangle between Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, and its connection to Arthur’s reign as King. These cuts are not made out of spite to the material, but rather “purely in the interest of compressing the narrative to film length” (Williams 14). This is unavoidable, and there is no expectation from this essay or any other that the only proper way to adapt Malory is to include every single story. However, creating a more linear narrative means that certain tales which have a greater importance to thematic concerns are often ignored due to being largely tangential to the adultery at the story’s center. While they may not feature any of the three romantic leads in a prominent role, these tales nonetheless provide important information regarding the makeup of Arthur’s court, the social expectations of chivalry, and an understanding of honour unique to Malory’s text.
While it may be subtle to modern readers disconnected from the concept of chivalry, D.S. Brewer argues that honour “may be the strongest single motivating force in the society Malory creates” (25). There is a need for special emphasis on the final word in this passage: it is important to remember that Malory did create many aspects of this world, even if the text relates to common themes and stories. Honour, specifically, is one theme that Malory emphasizes in the text which is not instantly recognizable based on contemporary morals or ethics. The Pentecostal Oath defines this honour, as much as it is capable of being defined, and is Malory’s own creation outside of his sources. Based on the Oath, Arthur
“charged them never to do outrage nother murder, and always to flee treason, also by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy upon him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forefeiture of their worship and lordship of king Arthur for evermore: and always to do ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen succour…also that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no love ne for no world goods. So unto this were all knights sworn of the Round Table, both young and old.” (75)
This passage outlines the principles of chivalry, and at various points throughout Malory’s text these concepts are integral to understanding the actions characters take. However, Malory is not proposing a simple path to honour and chivalry; rather, he is setting a standard by which the events of the remainder of the text will be judged and compared. The Oath is somewhat contradictory and difficult to follow, but that is precisely the point: it is the fallibility of the Oath and of Malory’s principles of knighthood which gives meaning to the text’s key narratives. Malory’s sense of honour does not exist to be lorded over Le Morte Darthur, but rather to be questioned and dissected by its narrative.
The question of honour and the concepts of the Pentecostal Oath have yet to be featured in an adaptation of Le Morte Darthur, largely due to its introduction within portions of the text which are considered fairly tangential. Divided into a series of tales with separate narratives and often separate sets of characters, the text does not contain a central narrative which is easily followed through every single page. The tales appear so disconnected that Eugene Vinaver, an extremely prominent Malory scholar, argued that the Morte is actually not a single text, but rather a series of eight tales which relate to the same subject. Vinaver, in short, believed that Malory’s task was “unraveling the ‘interlaced’ plot threads of the French sources to produce relatively brief, independent, whole tales” (Kelly 85). Ultimately, however, the various stories which compose Le Morte Darthur are connected to the remainder of the text, and the unity of the text is fairly certain. However, its impact on film adaptations is irreversible, as any challenge to the text’s unity can lead filmmakers to cut sections or tales from the text in their editing process. The problem with this process is that the key theme of honour so important to Malory’s text is established and questioned within two sections, ‘The Tale of Balyn’ and the ‘Tale of Sir Trystrams,’ which are particularly tangential and wrapped up within this question of unity. The propensity for film adaptations to ignore these sections is one of the key reasons for their ineffectiveness at addressing the complexity of Le Morte Darthur.
Located within “The Tale of King Arthur,” Malory’s ‘The Tale of Balyn’ tells the story of two brothers who do not appear in the remainder of the text; based on this alone, this episode is unlikely to be featured in film adaptations. However, this seemingly tangential episode is actually a microcosm of the principles and themes which will play a pivotal role in the remainder of the text. Janet Jesmok argues that Balyn functions in a way which “confounds the system, undermining the reader’s ability to trust the text” (25). When Balyn, a knight of Arthur’s court, beheads the Lady of the Lake, Arthur’s reaction reflects the transgressive nature of this deed:
“For what cause soever you had…ye sholde have forborne in my presence. Therefore thynke nat the contrary: ye shall repente hit, for such another despite had I nevir in my courte. Therefore withdraw you oute of my courte in all the haste that ye may.” (41)
Up until this stage of the Morte, the image of Arthur’s court within the text was fairly idyllic; however, Balyn’s transgression forces Arthur to make an important decision regarding the reputation of his kingdom. His decision to banish Balyn is not based on the action he committed, but rather that this action took place within Arthur’s own court. The limitations of this sense of honour become much clearer in this moment, as Arthur’s internal struggle seems far from black and white. Brewer argues that reputation plays a key role in the quest for honour, as Arthur “can remain apparently ignorant and need do nothing” (30). Here, however, he is not ignorant, and is forced to make a difficult decision to maintain his reputation. This characterization of Arthur is integral to understanding his decisions later in the text, when he is faced with the treason of Lancelot and Guenevere. Arthur’s concern lies with not only his personal honour, but with the honour of knighthood that Malory has established; Balyn’s journey is predicated on this question of honour, and it becomes a central tenet of Malory’s text.
However, ‘The Tale of Balyn’ is a fairly short tangent compared to the epic ‘Tale of Sir Trystrams’ which spans over a third of Le Morte Darthur. Despite representing a considerable portion of the text, this section represents a series of distinct narrative challenges. Even in its introduction, these concerns become clear: “Here begynnyth the fyrste book of syr trystrams de lyones, and who was his fadir and his modyr, and how he was borne and fostyrd, and how he was made knight of kynge marke of cornuayle” (229). The narrative suddenly shifts to a different setting, a new set of characters, and goes back in time compared to the tale which preceded it. However, this apparent disconnection from the key narrative ignores the types of thematic connections seen within ‘Trystrams.’ Serving as a bridge between the early portions of the text and its conclusion, this tale furthers this investigation into honour and chivalry within Arthur’s court which began in ‘The Tale of Balyn.’ One of its most important contributions to the text is the emergence of Palomides, a character which Dorsey Armstrong believes “challenges the idealized homogeny of Arthurian identity” (30). On the one hand, within the ‘Trystrams,’ “all manner of knyghtes were adrad of sir Palomydes…so that [day] sir Palomydes had grete worship” (239). However, Palomides is also a Saracen, and this religious otherness leads Palomides to convert to Christianity and renounce his preexisting belief system. By introducing the question of religion into the honour system he created, Malory demonstrates that Arthur’s Round Table is not all-inclusive, and that there are prejudices and social unrest within this system.
Unsurprisingly, these two episodes have been removed from film adaptations of Le Morte Darthur: a search of the Internet Movie Database shows that Balin has only appeared in a single episode of the short-lived “The Adventures of Sir Lancelot” television series which aired in the 1950s, and Palomides does not appear in either Knights of the Round Table or Excalibur. However, their removal comes at the cost of the question of honour which is integral to the remainder of Malory’s text. The introduction and investigation of Malorian chivalry is, as Brewer notes, one of the most important additions Malory made to these stories. While these stories may not seem related to the main narrative, Brewer observes that
“the connected narrative sequence weaves patterns whose effects come from events which are held in memory by the reader, and which thus interact as it were out of time…the ethical ideal, the High Order of Knighthood, is instituted in the first section and is an implicit basis for all that occurs later” (21).
By excising these two sections, the question of honour becomes lost to a desire to maintain a greater clarity. The irony, of course, is that the loss of this important theme actually makes the remainder of Malory’s text far more confusing. These investigations into Arthur’s concern over reputation and the introduction of a Saracen into the Round Table are not isolated incidents, but rather forms part of a foundational narrative for the remainder of the text. Without the introduction the unique sense of honour which drives the text forward, film adaptations face a considerable challenge to continue to represent the truly definitive nature of Malory’s text.
Considering the circumstances, then, Malory’s “Noble Tale of the Sankgreal” becomes an extremely difficult section for film adaptations of Le Morte Darthur to reconcile. While the “Sankgreal” is defined by a religious pilgrimage, it serves less to emphasize the Christian qualities of knighthood and more to question and investigate the level to which certain knights have lived up to those qualities. The various hermits and guides the knights encounter question their chivalry, their honour, and remind readers of the preceding tales which did the same. One recluse, speaking to Percival, makes this connection quite directly:
“For all the worlde, crystenyd and hethyn, reparyth unto the Rounde Table, and whan they ar chosyn to be of the felyship of the Rounde Table they thynke hemselff more flessed and more in worship than they had gotyn half the worlde” (541)
What this passage emphasizes is that this journey is a test of chivalry not just in the sense of its individuals but also the question of honour raised by Malory himself. Despite the challenges to honour seen within ‘Balyn’ and “Trystrams”, Arthur knows that his Round Table is at its peak when the Grail Quest begins, but he also acknowledges that it will be broken: “I am sure at this quest of the Sankegreall shall all ye of the Rownde Table departe, and nevyr shall I se you agayne holé togydirs” (520). What follows is a substantial deconstruction of many of Arthur’s most prominent knights, specifically Lancelot. At the conclusion of the “Sangkreal,” Arthur’s fellowship has been broken not only due to physical loss but also due to the questions raised within the tale itself.
The problem, of course, is that this presentation of the “Sankgreal” is only possible if the question of honour has remained central to the text; without it, film adaptations turn to unique and ultimately non-Malorian representations of the tale. In Knights of the Round Table, the Grail Quest is removed entirely in favour of the Grail serving as a specter of hope at the film’s conclusion. This positive representation of the grail obviously differs from the “Sangkreal,” where it signals the beginning of the end of Arthurian honour. Similarly, John Boorman’s use of the Grail Quest within Excalibur takes on a far different meaning than the one found within Le Morte Darthur. Within the film, the quest is repurposed to serve as a solution to, as opposed to an acknowledgement of, the impurity of Arthur’s Round Table. With Arthur’s kingdom faced with physical desolation and decay, “the grail is the central symbol of a murkily defined pagan fertility ritual” (Harty 20) which can rejuvenate the land. Boorman’s decision to disconnect the Grail from its Christian context redefines it as something which better serves his narrative and plays an important role within his film.
While Excalibur claims to be an adaptation of Le Morte Darthur, this solution fundamentally misconstrues this pivotal element of Malory’s text. Most importantly, the characterization of Arthur’s role within the Grail Quest is fundamentally different within Boorman’s film, as Norris Lacy notes: “Instead of being a pawn, albeit a key one, in the quest ordained by God, he is central to the quest in every sense” (Lacy 127). Within Malory, Arthur bids farewell to his knights knowing many will die, and takes no active role in the events that follow. While drafting a larger role for Arthur may make for a more cinematic storyline, it also personalizes what for Malory was an investigation of the honour of an entire society. It does not help that “Boorman is highly original in his conception, but is far less successful in his execution” (Lacy 129); it may be a new idea, but critical conception appears to consider it a failed experiment. Kevin Harty also notes that while Boorman attempts to define a Grail for more contemporary audiences, the result is “an attained Grail – foreign in its conception to that in Malory – that proves ineffectual” (139). Malory’s “Noble Tale of the Sangkreal” works because of its dependence on a principle of honour which was consistently presented throughout the rest of the Morte. While his efforts may be admirable, Boorman is unable to overcome the absence of this complex narrative process in order to craft a Grail Quest fitting of an adapted Le Morte Darthur.
While the “Sangkreal” is an important part of Le Morte Darthur, the final tale of Malory’s text is perhaps its most definitive, and its most dependent on the question of honour. The relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere it the central tenet of most Arthurian adaptations, and within Malory’s text their story is interconnected with the question of honour. The tragedy found within the “Morte Arthure” is not the titular death of Arthur, but rather that “through the love that [Lancelot] and Guenevere loved together was the best fellowship of knights in the world destroyed” (Brewer 25). It is in their relationship, and its ramifications, that the question of honour becomes paramount. Arthur, with Mordred and Aggravayne telling him of the adulterous reality, still wishes it not to be true:
“the king was full lothe that such a noyse sulde be uppon Sir Launcelot and his quene: for the kynge had a demyng of hit, but he wold nat here thereoff, for sir Launcelot had done so much for hym and for the quene so many types that wyre you well the kynge loved him passyngly well.” (674)
Arthur seems alarmingly passive about the act of adultery in terms of its personal effect on his marriage, and is much more concerned about how this will effect Lancelot’s reputation and thus the reputation of honour. This concern for reputation is, not coincidentally, the same concern Arthur showed within the ‘Tale of Balyn,’ and emphasizes that this is not an internal affair for Arthur. While treason may be defined as an act of defiance to Arthur’s rule, the threat to the question of honour and knighthood is what will destroy the fellowship as opposed its impact on Arthur’s personal feelings. This is an important distinction Malory makes, and one which is fundamental to the question of honour within the text.
There is no greater example of the pervasiveness of honour within Arthur’s mindset than his decision, after the adultery is revealed, to burn Guenevere at the stake for treason. This is an extreme action, and it is fairly shocking to see Arthur willing to punish his own wife in this way. He makes this decision against the will of Gawain, who expresses his desire for Arthur to show caution: “My lorde Arthure, I wolde counceyle you nat to be over hasty, but that ye wolde put hit in respite, thus jougemente of my lady the quene, for many causis” (682). Arthur, however, resigns himself to the decision, believing that to do otherwise would be to accept dishonour to his court and to fully acknowledge the weaknesses of the Pentecostal Oath. It is not out of personal spite towards Lancelot, or towards Guenevere, but rather that “Arthur’s function is to draw together the various systems into one fellowship” (Brewer 30). Arthur’s attempt to maintain fellowship and honour only further divides his kingdom, as Lancelot’s murderous rescue of Guenevere leads to his feud with Gawain over Gareth’s death and opens the door for Mordred’s rebellion. It is not that this is a tragedy for Arthur personally, or for Lancelot and Guenevere; rather, the tragedy of Le Morte Darthur is that the very system Arthur seeks to protect is going to fail as a result of these actions. In an attempt to protect and reclaim honour, Arthur sets into motion the very events which would lead to his death and also the death of the honour which defines his reign and defines Le Morte Darthur.
This complex and nuanced conclusion to Malory’s text is the most effective section of Le Morte Darthur, but it is a section which has never been properly adapted to film. While Excalibur and Knights of the Round Table may claim to be tragedies, they present simplistic and straightforward scenes which lack the depth of Malory’s implementation. On the one hand, this was inevitable: Brewer has expressed concern that “if modern definitions of tragedy cannot encompass [The Morte], so much the worse for their effectiveness” (31). However, these films simply do not have the content required to build to such a complex tragedy: their simplification of Malory’s concept of honour will inevitably reduce the impact of their conclusions. Knights of the Round Table kills Arthur, but actually allows Lancelot to survive and reign in Arthur’s stead. While this obviously flies in the face of Malory, the importance here is that it is a personal conclusion as opposed a collective one. Boorman’s Excalibur ends with the tragic deaths of Arthur and Lancelot, but the tragedy of society has already been solved upon their death: Percival, the only surviving central knight in the story, will live on in a world which has been saved by the Grail Quest. Left without the capacity to represent the key tragedy of Le Morte Darthur, the creative license of the writers and directors takes over. While this is understandable, the emphasis on the personal over the societal within the story’s conclusion is something that demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Malory’s narrative.
Therein lies the problem in studying adaptations of Malory’s work: inevitably, all of them are not actually adaptations of Le Morte Darthur. They all take creative licenses, and it is expected that they may not even resemble Malory’s text by the end of it. The real question, however, is why this is an inevitability; Malory’s themes and characters are not foreign to modern society, and the Arthurian Legend has certainly remained relevant. However, what D.S. Brewer has identified is that the central theme of honour is not something common within modern society. Malory crafted a unique and specific sense of honour which is tested and questioned throughout his text before becoming the central question of its conclusion. It provides an explanation for Le Morte Darthur’s structure, including the relevance of its tangential tales, as well as a purpose for the Grail Quest outside of its Christian meaning. Kenneth Hodges argues that “Le Morte Darthur is a better book if it is read with an appreciation of the differences among the knights and the consequences of their adventures” (156). Honour provides this window into Malory’s world, and without an understanding of this fundamental principle Le Morte Darthur becomes less original and less interesting.
John Boorman and Raymond Thorpe had every right to change Malory’s text and present their own retelling of the Arthurian legend. For the purposes of cinematic presentation, getting rid of tangential tales unrelated to main characters and presenting a different and less complicated conclusion makes perfect sense and is no different than Malory’s treatment of his sources. However, what they have proven in their films is that adapting Le Morte Darthur is not easy, owing to the text’s sprawling narrative and central elements which are not common in modern society. While there are certainly elements of the text within both Boorman and Thorpe’s films, their decision to remove Malory’s concept of honour strips away much of what makes his text definitive. What went onto the silver screen was not Malory’s story, but rather films inspired by Malory, putting their own spin on the Arthurian legend while using Malory as a foundation. This does not make them bad films, but it does render them suspect as adaptations. To this date, there has not been a film that has managed to adapt Le Morte Darthur and maintain its definitive qualities; however, if a filmmaker comes along with a sense of crafting and presenting an order of knighthood unique in its belief in honour above all, a rewarding and complicated adaptation of Malory’s text could emerge, and the director in charge will bestow a new level of honour onto the realm of Arthurian cinema.
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Kelly, R.L. “‘The Tale of Balin’ Reconsidered.” Speculum 54.1 (1979): 85-99.
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