Academic journal article Arthuriana

Restless Arthur: Medieval Romance Still on the Move in Popular Media

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Restless Arthur: Medieval Romance Still on the Move in Popular Media

Article excerpt

In their study of King Arthur in Popular Culture, Elizabeth Sklar and Donald Hoffman include a short essay by Norris J. Lacy, who offers some reactions from his limited experience as a consultant for several Arthur-based, AngloAmerican-produced television documentaries. Lacy is a preeminent Arthurian scholar and co-author of the Arthurian Encyclopedia (1986) and the Arthurian Handbook (1988). He makes the common sense point that, although he was consulted on the script as a kind of editor, the filmmakers did not take his suggestions for preserving literary and historical accuracy: 'It struck me as odd and very unfortunate,' he reflects, 'that a [film] production company would lavish so much attention (and money) on images and then neglect the details.'1 These details run from the scholarly to the personal. Lacy says he was the talking head 'discussing Sir Thomas Malory-hardly my specialty' while another scholar was mis-assigned the discussion on Chretien de Troyes; actor/ narrator Donald Sutherland mispronounces 'Tintagel'; and the producers misspell Norris Lacy's last name as 'Lacey.'2 These malapropistic details are perhaps trumped by the inclusion of a section on armor in the documentary:

The filmmakers, having located an armorer in California, spend a good deal of time interviewing him about the construction of plate armor-hardly an Arthurian subject unless the viewer's idea of the Arthurian age is taken from the film Excalibur or similar cinematic anachronisms.3

Indeed, it might be hard to overestimate the influence of Excalibur for a certain generation of media consumers, film producers, and television documentarians.

In the same pop culture Arthurian collection, Dan Nastali observes that, Avalon, Camelot, the Holy Grail, Excalibur-all have found a place in the popular music of the twentieth century, as have Merlin, Guinevere and other familiar figures,'4 and he provides an exhaustive list of songs and albums that either name or allude to Arthurian themes or persons in their titles or their lyrics. In spite of his lengthy list, however, Nastali concludes that the Arthurian pop music song book is lacking in substance and has added little to the tradition: 'Traditional Arthurian elements, it seems are treated either with too much reverence or with complete disregard.'5 It is in this last point that we pivot toward perhaps the newest offering in the genre of Arthurian pop music, the song 'Restless' by the British band New Order, which was released in the summer of 2015.6 Though the song would never make it into Nastali's discography-neither the title nor the lyrics are explicitly 'of Arthur'-the music video for the song is Arthurian and exemplifies the intersection of 'too much reverence' and 'complete disregard' that Nastali sees as problematic. In this way, the music video confirms that the 'viewer's idea of the Arthurian age is taken from the film Excalibur (1981), rather than its medieval source material.'7 Indeed, New Order's spin on Arthur happily disregards the seminal character roles and plot action, and instead offers a lavish, romantic film aesthetic borrowed from the John Boorman film, Excalibur.

The borrowed aesthetic of the music video signals to the viewer that it operates in an Arthurian universe that finds its origins in late-twentiethcentury popular media, offering a fragmented narrative that assumes familiarity with Arthurian tropes and motifs that, while familiar to medieval scholars, ultimately derive their cultural significance from other works like T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Disney's animated classic The Sword in the Stone, and even Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon series. Boorman's film is the main contributor here, as both the gritty visual aesthetic of the video and the narrative structure mirrors that of Excalibur. For example, Excalibur interweaves three narrative threads: the sword and the stone, the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot love triangle, and the quest for the Holy Grail; 'Restless' does the same, indicating its intertextual relationship with Boorman's film through several visual clues, including most prominently the green sheen of the titular sword. …

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