"Excalibur" and the Legend of King Arthur
"The Dark Ages.
The Land was divided and without a King.
Out of those lost centuries rose a Legend ...
Of the Sorcerer, Merlin,
Of the coming of a King,
Of the Sword of Power":so begins the movie of John Boorman, "Excalibur". Among the many movies dedicated to the legend of King Arthur, the so-called "John Boorman's Excalibur" is undoubtedly one of the best on this issue.
History and legend, reality and fantasy are mingled together in the numerous texts related to this story. It tells of a King who became sovereign of a vast empire, comprehending the entire Europe; after a long and brilliant life, a life of conquests and wise administration of Justice, a life lived with valorous knights, his friends, King Arthur retired in an enchanted island, from which a day he will returns, for to take back the Sword of Power, Excalibur, and for to rule again the world ...
The legend of King Arthur has been written in many ancient texts, grouped in the "Matter of Britain", a collection of books dating from the 900 to the XV century. Among the authors of the "Matter of Britain", Malory is one of the most known. And the screenplay of the movie "Excalibur" was in fact adapted by R. Pallenberg from "Le Morte d'Arthur", written by Malory, the most famous text regarding this legend.
Very little is known about the author of "Le Morte d'Arthur", a man whose life was a mix of reality and legend, as the subject itself of his literary work.
From the studies of G. L. Kittredge, however, something about Malory's life can be reconstructed:
born in the early 1400's, Malory lived at Newbold Revell, the family estate in the Warwickshire.
He had fought among Richard Beauchamp's retinue, the Count of Warwick, in the siege of Calais of 1436; then around 1444, Malory became a member of the Parliament as representative of his county.
Until then Malory therefore lived a life normal for that time; but from around 1450 his life changed radically. From 1450 he lived alternately as a prisoner, a runaway, and a fugitive, marred by terrible and shameful accusations for which he was imprisoned and forgiven several times; but since it is not come down to us any documents relating to processes or convictions against him, it is also possible that the charges against him were in fact false, and then only slander. In 1450 the "Wars of the Roses" (1455-1485) began in England, a fierce dynastic civil war between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. It can be said with certainty that during those times of trouble wars in England, Malory was first by the side of the House of York, but after some times he became a follower of the Lancastrian: he was a great Enemy of the Duke of Buckingham, and a great friend of the Count of Warwick: with his friend, Malory fought for the House of York, in the name of the King Edward IV, and against the Lancastrian Henry VI. But when the Count revolted to the House of York, Malory followed his friend, and therefore the House of Lancaster. Imprisoned again, he was then also excluded from the pardon granted to the Lancastrian Edward VI in 1468. Malory died a few years later, in 1471, and the fact that he was buried at the prison at Newgate suggests that the death reached him right there, between the walls where he wrote his literary work.
The literary work of Malory:
His work survived him, and it was published in 1485 by W. Caxton.
W. Caxton, the first English printer, printed the writings of Malory, but he changed the author's style and prose overall, and he also entitled the work "Le Morte d'Arthur ",a title which has since become common. But in reality, the text covers the entire life of King Arthur, from the tale of Uther, his father, until the death of the King himself: hence the title of Caxton is actually attributable only to the last part of the work.
Originally, Malory divided his work principally into eight tales:
-The story of King Arthur
-The story of the noble Arthur who became emperor with his own strength
-The tale of Sir Lancelot Du Lac
-The tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney
-The book of Sir Tristan de Lione
-The noble tale of the Grail
-The book of Lancelot and Guinevere
-The death of King Arthur
As one can see, Malory wrote in fact eight separated novels, by grouping them in a unique work, thus creating an actual rewriting of the famous medieval cycle of legends that belong to the Matter of Britain: the stories of the magic of Merlin and Morgana, the story of King Arthur, the loves of Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde, the search for the Grail, the adventures of the wandering knights, and so on.
In the work of Malory there is then the transition from the medieval romance to the modern romance: in fact he replaced the structural complexity of the cyclic French romances, in which the various themes alternate each other and are repeated, with a unified and continued prose. Malory's literary work was soon widely known, and became the most famous text on the legend of King Arthur. And also it had the merit of giving a large spread and popularity to the legends about the knights of the round table.
Caxton, in addition to have changed and modified the text, has had also the merit to have preceded his edition by an interesting preface, in which he states and expresses explicitly the purpose, the end, the meaning and the message of the work of Malory:
"I, according to my copy, have done set it in imprint, to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in those days, by which they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke; humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies, with all other estates of what estate or degree they been of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same. Wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the justice and leave the unrighteousness, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown. And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in, but for to give faith and belief that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty: but all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to exercise and follow virtue, by which we may come and attain to good fame and renown in this life(...)"
"Excalibur" the movie:
Despite several changes and additions to the text of Malory, this movie represents in a unified manner and generally faithful to the work, the legend of Arthur from his birth to his death as the entire corpus of these legends (the "Matter of Britain") tells. Therefore, there is not in this movie an attempt to historical research on the legend, like with other movies on this same subject, such as "King Arthur", but there is only and exclusively the legend, devoid of historical speculation and opinions.
Indeed, the merit of Boorman in this movie, which makes it almost unique among the many titles that exist on King Arthur's legend, is to have told this story coming back to its most distant origins, which have their roots in the ancient Celtic world and in its mythology, abandoning and ignoring completely all the subsequent influences belonging to another age; influences that instead are prominent in the text of Malory.
Among the changes, the most important-ones are:
the concept of the "Dragon"; the fact that in the movie it is the betrayal of Lancelot and mainly the betrayal of Guinevere, to cause the weakening of King Arthur, and so the decadence of the Kingdom; for to renew the Kingdom it is so necessary to find the lost Grail, and the Secret of the Grail itself. As someone says, certainly there are been times in which King Arthur repented for having drawn the sword from the stone, but he never renounced his quest.
-The plot of the movie:
The movie can be divided into five parts:
-the story of Uther Pendragon;
-Arthur becoming King, and his conquests;
-the story of Lancelot and Guinevere;
-the decadence of the Kingdom and the quest for the Grail;
-Mordred and the death of King Arthur;
The movie begins telling the last part of the story of Uther Pendragon, the future father of King Arthur: from the end of Uther it will starts the story of King Arthur.
It is night, and a great and fierce battle is fought, by torchlight: it is the war between Uther Pendragon and the Duke of Cornwall: the last battle of Uther to unify all the lands under his dominion.
Soon it appears Merlin, the sorcerer, dressed with his dark black mantle, and with his dragon-staff. He gazes at the great slaughter, and calls Uther, who rides on the field of battle. Uther cries to Merlin, saying "I am the strongest. I am the Chosen-One!", continuing to kill men in great number with his mighty battle-axe. The King asks to Merlin the Sword of Power, Excalibur, promised to him by Merlin himself, the sacred symbol of the unity of kingship. Merlin answers to Uther saying "And you shall have it, but to heal, not to hack". Merlin ask to Uther a truce, but Uther refuses, saying "Talk.Talk is for lovers; I need the sword to be King".
Then Merlin goes to the mysterious Lady of the Lake, who entrusts the sacred sword to him: it is a very magic moment of the movie, and a very beautiful and deep music accompanies this moment, while the sword come out from the waters, in the hand of the Lady of the Lake.
In the next scene, Uther, on the back of his black horse, shows the sacred sword to his last enemy, the Duke of Cornwall, the war being not yet finished, and all warriors are very amazed at the sight of the Sword of Power. Then Merlin says to all of them: "Behold the Sword of Power. Excalibur. Forged when the world was young ... and birds and beasts and flowers were one with men...". Then, instructed by Merlin, Uther says to all: "One Land. One King. That is my peace, Cornwall". The Duke yields to the sword and so also to Uther, and the latter says to the Duke: "The land from here to the sea shall be yours, if you enforce the King's will". The Duke accepts the peace of Uther, and invites the King to his castle, for to feast together their alliance and their recovered unity. At the manor-house, both the King and the Duke make a blood-pact between them, for to seal once again their friendship. But here, among musics and dances, Uther sees Igrayne, the Duke's wife, and he is spellbound by her beauty. The Duke, full of pride for his wife, says to Uther, haughtily, : "You may be King, but no queen of yours could even match her". The enchantment of Uther grows even more, while Igrayne dances as ordained by the Duke.
The Duke sees the desire of Uther, and, enraged, makes and end to the truce. So the war starts again, and the siege of the Duke's castle begins.
Meanwhile, Uther is in search of Merlin, who is enraged for the lust of the King, that has broken the peace, awaited for so long times. But he, nor his warriors, cannot find the sorcerer; instead it is Merlin himself who comes to Uther, during the siege, saying to him: "I have walked my way since the beginning of Time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It is mine to know which and when". Uther asks the help of Merlin, who, full of rage, says to him: "Years to build and moments to ruin, an all for lust". But Uther is deep enchanted by Igrayne, and Merlin agrees to use the magic powers for the king's purpose to seduce her, yet saying: "You will swear by your true kingship: what issues from your lust shall be mine". Uther accepts, and he swears it by Excalibur, and Merlin uses his powers. During the spell, Merlin speaks to the King about the Dragon, saying: "I have awoken the Dragon. Can't you see, all around you, the Dragon's breath?".
Meanwhile, the warriors of Uther withdraw, and the Duke pursues them. Merlin transforms Uther into the semblance of the Duke, and so, riding on the mist ("the Dragon's breath") upon the cliff and the sea, and accompanied by a magic and mysterious music, the King goes to the castle, to Igrayne, who thinks her husband has returned. In reality the Duke dies during the assault. No one recognizes Uther, apart the young Morgana, the daughter of the Duke and Igrayne. This scene ends with the meaningful words of Merlin: "The future has taken root in the present. It is done".
Igrayne gives birth to Arthur, the war is ended, and Uther goes to her for to see his child. When he sees him, he says: "All I know is how to butcher men. From now on, I shall learn to love them. I am weary of battle. I shall stay by his side ... and his mother's". But two crows appear, and then Merlin comes, for to take the child. The sorcerer says: "It's not for you, Uther...hearth and home, wife and child". And Uther answers: "To kill and be King, is that all?", and Merlin: "Perhaps not even that, Uther. No one trusts you for what you have done. You're not the chosen-one. Give me the child, I will protect him". So Merlin takes the child with him, and later Uther pursues him, but the King is ambushed by the remaining warriors of the Duke. Uther dies, but before he thrusts Excalibur into a great stone. Merlin, with the child in his arms, sees all, saying: "he who draws the sword from the stone, he shall be King. Arthur, you are the one".
Then begins the second part of the story. The scene opens with a jousting tournament of warriors, the bests of whom will tries to draws Excalibur from the stone. And at this tournament comes Sir Ector, together with his son Kay and Arthur, who was brought to him by Merlin when he was a child. During the contest, Arthur, searching a sword for Kay, his weapon being stolen, sees Excalibur, and he draws it from the stone. All the knights then gathered around him, amazed for his act, and then also Merlin appears, who reveals to him and to all the knights Arthur's birth. Some of the warriors accept the rule of Arthur and his right to be King, as child of Uther; but many others do not believe in Merlin, and do not recognize Arthur as King, being he furthermore a young man without experience of war.
So the knights part, and a new war begins between the followers of Arthur and the others. Arthur, confused about his own destiny, goes to Merlin, who speaks to him about Kingship and the Dragon.
Arthur then, counselled by Merlin, guides the war against those who do not recognize him as King: Arthur and his followers counter-assault the siege of Leondegrance's castle and finally he wins the war. Furthermore all the knights accept Arthur as King, also Uryens, who was his greatest opponent, and who, recognizing Arthur's value and right, says, in a moving and touching scene: "I am your humble knight ... and I swear allegiance to the courage in your veins ... so strong it is ... its source must be Uther Pendragon. I doubt you no more". Then a great feast is celebrated by all, and Arthur falls in love for Guenevere, the daughter of Leondegrance, in spite of the warnings of Merlin: "I see Guenevere, and a beloved friend who will betray you".
Few years later, Arthur encounters Lancelot, a brilliant knight, and after a combat, he swears his fidelity to the King, becoming his best warriors, his champion. But for to win over Lancelot, Arthur uses the power of Excalibur, and the magic sword is broken; Merlin shocked says: "You have broken what could not be broken. Hope is broken"; and Arthur, shameful, answers: "My proud broke it. My rage broke it. I used Excalibur for to win. I have lost for all time the ancient sword of my Fathers ...whose power was meant to unite all men ... not to serve the vanity of a single man. I am nothing". Arthur throws the sword in the lake, but the Lady of the Lake suddenly appears, and she gives to him the restored Excalibur.
The next scene shows Arthur and all his knights gathered on a hill: after a series of battles in all the four quarters, they have unified all the land. And Arthur says: "The wars are over. One land one King. Now the peace rules". Then appears Merlin, and all the knights and Arthur encircle him, under the red flag of the Dragon. And Merlin, at the centre of that circle, says to all of them: "Look upon this moment. Savor it. Rejoice with great gladness. Remember it, always ... for you are joined by it. You are one under the stars. Remember it well then, this night ... this great victory ... For it is the doom of men that they forget"; and King Arthur says: " Merlin, your wisdom has forged this ring". Then Arthur decides to build the castle of Camelot, to create a Round Table, and to marry Guenevere, saying, not knowing the future: "And the land will have an heir to wield Excalibur".
Then starts the third part of the movie, dedicated to the love of Lancelot and Guenevere, the wife of King Arthur: it is the betrayal against Arthur, by his champion and by his wife.
Speaking with Merlin in his castle, Arthur asks his help: "I need you now, more than ever", but the sorcerer answers: "This is the moment you must face at last, to be King, and alone".
Arthur after finds the two asleep together in the forest, and he thrusts Excalibur between the couple. Lancelot awakens, and at the sight of the sword of power, he flees in shame, crying desperately: "the King without a sword, the Land without a King!".
Meanwhile Merlin, before to leave this world, leads Morgana in a cave, where there are "the coils of the Dragon". But when Arthur abandons Excalibur, Merlin is wounded, and Morgana, having grabbed the "Charm of Making, traps him in a huge crystal.
Then Morgana, with her new magic powers, seduces Arthur taking the form of Guenevere: from Morgana and Arthur Mordred is born.
So it begins the decadence of the Kingdom and the weakening of King Arthur himself: the famines rule the land. Arthur says to his knights that for to renew the Kingdom, the Holy Grail must be founded: "We must find what was lost ... Search the land, the labyrinths of the forests, to the edge of within".
The knights start the quest, many years pass, and many warriors die on the search.
At last, after many difficulties, Parsifal founds the Grail and its secret, afterwards he brought it to King Arthur, who drinks it: he is so healed and renewed.
After the finding of the Grail, there is the last melancholy part of the movie: the war between Arthur and his child Mordred. Arthur goes to Guenevere, who have hidden Excalibur, and after, he starts the gloomy conflict. Merlin, still trapped in the crystal, speaks to the sad King: "You brought me back. Your love brought me back. Back to where you are now... in the land of dreams". Then Merlin goes to Morgana, and he deprives her of the magic powers.
Then there is the epilogue of the movie: Mordred and King Arthur kill each other in the war. The dying Arthur then commands Parsifal to throw the Sword of Power into a pool of calm water, saying: "One day a King will come ... and the sword will rise again". Parsifal throws Excalibur into the pool, and the Lady of the Lake takes it.