Moviemaking and the Mythological Framework of Walker Percy's Lancelot

By Wilhelm, Arthur W. | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Moviemaking and the Mythological Framework of Walker Percy's Lancelot


Wilhelm, Arthur W., The Southern Literary Journal


Novelist Walker Percy frequently acknowledged his indebtedness to movies. In a 1980 interview Percy stated that if he were starting over, he might like to make movies. He explained that the filmmaker shares with the novelist "the freedom to swing an intellectual cat," the freedom to do anything he likes (Conversations 197). A 1977 interview that appeared in connection with the publication of Lancelot, Percy's fourth novel, also revealed the novelist's fascination with movies and filmmaking. In this interview, Percy admitted that as a young medical student at Columbia University he often went to the movies to get away from the grind of medical school and sometimes declined the invitations of his uncle, William Alexander Percy, downtown to the opera. He opted instead to take in a movie at Loew's State on 181st Street or at the R.K.O. Coliseum on 183rd Street. He somewhat wryly described his "misspent youth while going to medical school" as "four years in the movies in Washington Heights" (Conversations 148).

Percy's symbolic and thematic use of movies, movie stars, and moviegoing in his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), has received considerable critical attention from Lewis A. Lawson, Martin Luschei, Max Webb, and Jac Tharpe. Several studies have also called attention to the important role that movies play in Lancelot, notably Lewis A. Lawson's "Moviemaking in Percy's Lancelot," John Bugge's "Merlin and the Movies in Walker Percy's Lancelot," and Pamela Freshney's "The Moviegoer and Lancelot: The Movies as Literary Symbol." Lawson's study argues that the narrative structure of Lancelot is based on the thesis of the German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer's Textbook of Medical Psychology that "the thinking process of the human being is like the cinematographcial apparatus, the `mind screen' is like film screen" (80). Thus, according to Lawson, "[when] Kretschmer's thesis is applied to the images of Lance's narration, they become a `movie' about a mind sinking into schizophrenia" (80). Freshney makes the point that Percy uses the same symbol, the movies, to function in "two nearly opposite ways in The Moviegoer and Lancelot" (727).

The hero and first-person narrator of Lancelot is Lancelot ("Lance") Andrewes Lamar, an alienated Southerner of good family who is caught, like John Binkerson ("Binx") Bolling, the indiscriminate moviegoing protagonist of The Moviegoer, in the rut ofeverydayness. Lance tells his story to a silent auditor named Father John (also referred to as Percival), a former college friend who now appears to be both a priest and a psychiatrist. Lance is incarcerated in a narrow cell in a "nuthouse" or "Center for Aberrant Behavior" in New Orleans. After a year of silence, he has chosen to tell his story to Percival in an effort to determine what went wrong. A failed lawyer, a former Rhodes scholar, and an ex-football star, Lance is also a failed knight, a modern-day madman responsible for the murders of his wife, Margot, her lover--the film-director Jacoby--and two film stars--Raine Robinette and Troy Dana.

In his twisted, fragmented recollection of the events leading up to the multiple murders, Lance tells Percival how he met and married his second wife, Margot, a wealthy West Texan whose money helped to restore Belle Isle, his ancestral plantation home on River Road. He recalls how, shortly after his marriage to Margot, he found himself living in a restored pigeonnier apart from the main house. Having lost interest in her restoration projects, Margot became interested in acting and moviemaking, while Lance fell into a rut of watching TV, listening to the news, drinking bourbon, and rereading Raymond Chandler detective novels. He remembers that the accidental discovery of Margot's infidelity jolted him out of his "old life's cowpath" and triggered a quest which he identifies as a quest for evil. Dubbing himself the Knight of the Unholy Grail, Lance identifies himself with Lancelot du Lac of Arthurian legend. …

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