The Mists of Avalon (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
The source material for this production was a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Although it has certain characteristics of a best-selling romance novel, the book is a remarkably complex and thoughtful novel which is about, among other things, the myth of Camelot and its fall, as it relates to the modernization of the world. She locates the story in the time of the "real" Arthur, which is to say the period between the Roman occupation and the Saxon dominance.
This is more historical than the usual version of Camelot. Arthur was probably a completely fictional character (see detailed notes), but the earliest "historical" accounts of him place him in this same post-Roman period. The Bretons had Albion more or less to themselves after Rome pulled out, but they had trouble defending themselves against the fierce Picts from the north, who had previously been held at bay by Rome and Hadrian's Wall. As a result, the lairds formed alliances for their own protection, and also imported Saxon mercenaries to help them fight off the Picts. The strategy worked fine, except that the Saxons didn't want to leave when the Pictish threat abated. As a result, the lairds of the Bretons had to band together again, to fight off yet another foreign influence. Arthur, if he existed at all, was not a king. The word "king," as we currently understand it, was meaningless at that time, because there was no kingdom. Arthur, or the historical man who inspired the Arthur legends, was the dux bellorum - the supreme general of the combined army of all the lairds of the Bretons, who led them in their idealistic but ultimately doomed struggle against the Saxons.
As you know, the Saxons basically won the game show, and got to keep some lovely prizes, like England. The Bretons eventually settled in Wales and Brittany, and it is the people of those areas who are the real linguistic and genetic descendants of "Arthur." The Picts essentially ended up with Scotland. That's the broad-brush version. It wasn't that simple, of course. It never is. Both the Picts and the Saxons were subject to various raids by other Germanic and Scandinavian warriors over the years, so the language I am now writing has a doubly Germanic root, first from the Saxons and later from other invaders with their own Germanic tongues. As I'm sure you all know, that whole game only lasted about 400-500 years, at which time the Normans showed up in force, and William the Conqueror become the first Norman King of England after his famous triumph in 1066. Thus, the developing English language lost its uniquely Germanic flavor and was spiced heavily with French salt.
In presenting her version of the story, Miss Bradley laid out the reign of Arthur as the turning point between the old ways and the new, between the end of the old matriarchal culture of the Druids, and the new patriarchal world of the Christians. The Druids, at least in this version, had a central god-concept which represented the power of the universe, known as "the goddess." This would be, more or less, Mother Nature in modern terms. The goddess is represented by priestesses, led by the Lady of the Lake. Inheriting a kingdom torn by religious strife between the two groups, Bradley's version of Arthur reconciled the old ways to the new. Arthur's sister (a good person in this version) was a priestess of the old ways, while Guinevere was a Christian. Big Art declared freedom of worship, and things worked out ... for a while.
There are some fun twists in this version.
In addition to a fresh take on the legend, the production has other positives.
With good source material, good acting, and great visuals, it may be the best project TNT has ever done, and is one of the best projects ever turned out by broadcast TV or basic cable.
I think it does have some limitations. The creators made it into a four-hour mini-series (three hours without commercials). Given a surfeit of characters in the book, that wasn't enough time to develop them. The project might have been better suited to a 13 part Masterpiece Theater, ala I, Claudius. In addition to allowing the expansion of several characters, that tactic also would have allowed them to develop some of the more complex concepts, and the lack of a commercial sponsor would have allowed them to avoid the compromises they had to make for the TV audience. (The original concept was quite pro-pagan and anti-Christian. PBS could have handled that, but basic cable could not, and watered it down.)
Lacking that treatment, I believe the film would have been better as a nice, tight two hour theatrical film with some characters eliminated, less rowing through the mist, and less dancing around the fire. Although it looked beautiful, I fast forwarded through plenty of rowing and dancing in several different scenes, and it would not have been difficult to compress the 183 minutes of actual running time to 120 minutes, especially with some characters consolidated. I found this really draggy as a three-hour film. Three hours was too short for a profound treatment, too long for a snappy entertainment. In addition, a two hour theatrical movie would have been better able to handle the nudity and sensuality inherent in paganism.
But there's no sense quibbling. Maybe PBS will do it someday. For now, enjoy what it is .
| NOTES on the Arthurian legend, from the
afterword to Dancing before the Glass
It is not certain whether there was a historical Arthur. The best two proofs of his existence are as follows:
The two best refutations of these points are:
Arthur is also mentioned in various other works of fiction posing as history. The most important is Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, completed about 1136, which first assembled the written groundwork for the fabulous Arthur later lionized by Malory and the balladeers. Geoffrey described the ancient kingship in more modern terms as if there had been a central king ("Pendragon") ruling over the other kings. In his rendition, Uther Pendragon's death created a power vacuum, and the powerful bishops needed somebody to rally the Britons against the marauding Saxons. They chose the fifteen-year-old Arthur not because he removed a sword stuck in an anvil (that legend came later), but because he was Uther's son, and because he was well respected for his courage, generosity, and innate goodness.
Would that our own age could produce such enlightened selection techniques.
Geoffrey's work was the first written source to give us Mordred, Merlin, Morgana, and Guenevere. Merlin was mentioned by that name, but some of the key elements of Merlin's life were drawn directly from Nennius's story of another boy, Ambrosius, who had allegedly demonstrated astounding precocity in the court of King Vortigern. Geoffrey seems to have concocted his Merlin from a drib of Nennius, a drab of biblical legend, a dash of pagan legend, a smidgen of oral history, and more than a pinch of his own fertile imagination. As Geoffrey recounted the tale, Guenevere and Mordred were the lovers who betrayed Arthur, and they went so far as to sit boldly as king and queen whilst Arthur was on a campaign against Rome. Morgana was simply called Anna without the Morg-, and was identified as the mother of Gawain and Mordred, as well as the wife of King Lot(h). In typically confused fashion, the author couldn't quite decide whether Anna was the sister of Arthur or of King Aurelius (Arthur's uncle), so her son Mordred was either Arthur's nephew or his first cousin. There was no intimation of an incestuous sexual relationship between Arthur and Anna.
Geoffrey's history of the kings of Britain was a valuable source of material for many writers of great distinction, Shakespeare among them. Geoffrey is also a strong candidate for the dishonor of being the single worst historian in the annals of humanity. He presented the obviously fantastical as factual, he couldn't keep his own "facts" straight from page to page, and never considered whether his chronology was plausible. Some suggest that he also told a wee fib about having obtained his facts from a vernacular source book that he claimed to have translated into Latin before it mysteriously disappeared. Most likely he just created a compendium of the oral legends of the day, and made up some of his own details.
There is no historical or pseudo-historical grounding for Lancelot and the Round Table. These elements were not found in Geoffrey's "history," but appeared soon afterward as acknowledged fictional embellishments in works by other authors. The early fabricators of the legend also chose to place twelfth and thirteenth century characters, with pre-Renaissance motivations, into barbaric post-Roman Albion. It was useful for them to invoke a time of dim antiquity because that technique let them introduce spiritual, mythical, and supernatural elements that were demonstrable falsehoods in their own time, but were nonetheless useful to the metaphor. While the authors of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance attempted to locate the story in the time of the "real" Arthur, the world they wrote about was their own, featuring a unified kingdom, chivalry, feudalism, knights-errant, elaborate castles, jousting competitions, the domination of Holy Mother Church, and the conception of courtly love. They also had the characters speak in the High Language of their time, with no attempt to recreate the feel of sixth century life or language.
Most of the legend that we are most familiar with today comes from three major sources: T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Additional minor sources of our common knowledge of Arthur include movies like Camelot and The Sword in the Stone, and scores of French and English poetasters from the twelfth century onward. Even such luminaries as Spenser, Dante, and Milton have added their onions to the Arthurian stew. No two versions agree on all the details. Blatant anachronisms and obvious myths have become commonly accepted parts of the modern conception of Arthur, and the story's sixth century roots have now been almost completely lost. T.H. White really stretched the time paradox in his witty re-telling. He wrote about a sixth century warrior, to make twentieth century points (if you'll recall, Mordred is a pretty thinly-disguised Hitler), and did so with the vocabulary and traditions of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. White has one character (not time-traveling Merlin) refer to an event that happened in 1360, yet Arthur also meets Robin Hood, who is generally placed in the reigns of Richard and John, therefore between 1189 and 1216. Mr. White, consistent with the good-humored tone of his entire piece, conceded that it happened "whenever (it) happened".
Return to the Movie House home page