How 'The Mists of Avalon' Redefined King Arthur from the Female Perspective
King Arthur is a tale that just about everyone knows. Ask Joe Sixpack on the street and he would be able to tell you the basics: peasant boy pulls sword from the stone and becomes king with wizard Merlin by his side, eventually Arthur's most trusted knight Lancelot sleeps with his wife Guinevere, and eventually they seek the Holy Grail in an attempt to heal the fractured kingdom. From Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the character, whether or not he has any historical basis, has been given the classic treatment. And on May 12, director Guy Ritchie is bringing Arthur to the big screen for yet another iteration, this time with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
This movie is a reimagining of the Arthurian tale. In most versions, exemplified by John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon is a ruthless and lustful man that breaks an alliance with Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, in pursuit of Gorlois’s wife Igrayne. Through a charm cast by Merlin, Uther is able to appear as Gorlois and seduces Igrayne, impregnating her with Arthur. But nine months later Merlin takes Arthur and arranges that Uther’s son will have a humble upbringing, as the squire of a Sir Ector. Uther’s magical sword Excalibur, ordained upon him by the Lady of the Lake, which he thrust into a stone just before dying, can only be pulled forth by Arthur, whom unwittingly does so and finds himself appointed the crown. He never knows his parents, and has a relatively uneventful life up until that point.
This isn’t the first time a drastic reshaping of Arthur has been attempted, and it won’t be the last. The last big screen venture was 2004’s King Arthur. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), it starred Clive Owen as Arthur and Keira Knightley as Guinevere. That version demystified the concept, along the lines of Troy, which came out the same year. While Troy removed the literal presence of the gods, King Arthur treats the story as “historically accurate.” Set in 467 A.D., Arthur is a Roman cavalry officer named Artorius Castus who has been fighting the Woads, Native Britons, for 15 years on Hadrian’s Wall. As Roman forces start to leave the country, Arthur has to decide whether or not to leave or defend the Woads against invading Saxons. It’s all relatively grounded and dirty, and ultimately boring. And also very male-centric.
Some versions of the Arthurian legend, however, have chosen to approach it from a different perspective, and the one that set the standard was The Mists of Avalon, with its emphasis on female empowerment. Written by Marion Zimmer Bradley (also known for her Darkover science fiction series) and released in 1983, the fantasy novel chiefly follows Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), the half-sister of Arthur, who in this version is a priestess fighting to save a matriarchal Celtic culture from being overrun by patriarchal Christianity, brought in by the Romans, which threatens to destroy their pagan culture. The other main characters include Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause, and Igraine, whom are usually marginalized but here are front and center while Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table take a back seat.
The book covers the life of Arthur relatively closely to the legend, but with a few tweaks, and the switch in viewpoint alone brings major story alterations. In the usual story, and one that the movie Excalibur follows rather closely, Morgan le Fay grows up to be an apprentice of the wizard Merlin, and becomes an evil sorceress. She seduces Arthur, in a manner not unlike how Uther used a glamor to seduce her mother, and becomes pregnant with Mordred, who goes on to lead a revolution against Arthur. Arthur and Mordred kill themselves in battle, and Arthur instructs one of his men to throw Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake. The Mists of Avalon takes these few female-centric aspects, namely the villainess that is le Fay and the spiritual blessing from the Lady of the Lake, and tightens the mythology while adding an emphasis on the feminine aspects that were already inherent.
From the start this emphasis comes in the form of Avalon itself. Avalon was first introduced in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 work, part legend and part history, Historia regum Britanniae (“The History of the Kings of Britain”). It is traditionally where Excalibur is forged, and where Arthur is taken after he’s mortally wounded in battle during the Battle of Camlann against Mordred. In The Mists of Avalon, Morgaine is taken there by her maternal aunt, Viviane, and raised as a priestess of the Mother Goddess. She learns of the tension between paganism and the rise of Christianity, and through a bit of trickery on her aunt’s part is bedded by her younger brother Arthur whom she hasn’t seen in years. In that way Mordred is conceived, and any blame against Morgaine is taken away.
But it’s not a simple dichotomy of women good, men bad. Not only is there Viviane manipulating things to her own ends, there’s also Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s wife, who is devout in her Christianity to the point of zealotry and is set in opposition against Morgaine. She believes she cannot conceive a child because Arthur has not been able to force the paganism out of the country, while at the same time having a forbidden love for Lancelot. This latter aspect is not unlike the classic depictions of the character, but here it’s taken to an especially self-loathing degree. Things even escalate to the extreme point of Gwenywyfar inviting both Arthur and Lancelot into her bed in a threesome, in a scene that does not shy away from Lancelot touching Arthur in a loving way. Even then she does not conceive (and she is, in fact, the one that is barren because Arthur had earlier had Mordred with Morgaine).
This focus on the female is not only in stark contrast to the canonical takes on the character, namely Monmouth’s and Mallory’s and the precedents they set, but the tertiary takes on the character from antiquity as well. Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, by Chrétien de Troyes, for instance, is a French poem from the 12th century that highly influenced Le Morte D’Arthur and is one of the most defining examples of courtly love. It details Guinevere’s kidnapping by the villain Meleagant, and her saving by Lancelot. As she is the wife of Arthur, Lancelot can only love her from afar. This is one of the hallmarks of courtly love, as it it involves a knight’s yearning for a love that isn’t always reciprocated, so is acted out through noble undertakings like jousting or quests. Here women are just objects.
Similarly, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes the point of view of the titular knight and doesn’t have the most positive perspective on women. Written by an unknown author in the 14th century, it is a Middle English chivalric romance that details Gawain accepting a challenge to chop off the Green Knight’s head as long as Gawain can accept the same a year and a day later. Gawain does so, and the Green Knight picks up his own head and reminds Gawain what will happen next before riding off. A year later Gawain finds himself at the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert. There Bertilak’s wife attempts to seduce Gawain, unsuccessfully, and in the end it’s revealed the Morgan le Fay arranged the whole incident in an attempt to test Arthur and his knights and frighten Guinevere to death. Women especially don’t come out looking great here.
This brings things back around to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a movie that from the previews seems firmly to be focused on the original hero. This is understandable, considering how alternate takes have lessened the character in his own story. Not just versions focusing on the female characters, but divergences like the fondly remembered, if perhaps a bit slight, Merlin mini-series from 1998 starring Sam Neill. Even the aforementioned Clive Owen King Arthur had a subtle subversion in which Guinevere sleeps with Arthur and marries him seemingly as a political choice to unite her clan with a powerful military force, all while secretly longing for a Lancelot (played by Ioan Gruffudd) that dies in battle, eliminating even the possibility of future courtly love.
So in Legend of the Sword, Arthur is robbed of his birthright, raised in a brothel and grows up to be a scoundrel and fighter. He falls into pulling the sword, as usual, but instead of rushing to reclaim his throne appears to following the Joseph Campbellian story structure of refusing the call. He’s reluctant to fight and has to be talked into joining a resistance against Jude Law’s King Vortigern by a character only known as the mage. Played by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, early publicity referred to her as Guinevere but after reshoots that appears to be played down. This is all conjecture, of course, before the movie gets released, but as of now multiple full trailers haven’t emphasized romance at all. Instead the emphasis, brought to life by Ritchie who is known for testosterone-fueled vehicles like Snatch, the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is on ripped male torsos and gruff personalities.
And while this is certainly a valid take, and definitely feels like contemporary sensibilities anachronistically applied to a story set in medieval times in an attempt to update the property and make it more palatable for modern audiences, it does lack a certain nuance. It’s admirable to make Arthur, who to most is nothing more than a name and iconic imagery, into a complex character and the movie around him a character study, albeit a study dressed up in action setpieces, but this feels like the stapling of a familiar and outdated template onto an even older story. It’s Han Solo, basically, but what if Luke Skywalker was Han Solo? And also, what if Leia was played by a supermodel and didn’t even have a name and didn’t get to talk that much?
Alternate takes on old stories have become a little overdone, to the point that it’s a cliche just to suggest doing, say, Hamlet from Yorick’s point of view or what if Ophelia was the real hero. But The Mists of Avalon did it years before it became a trend, and did it well. It took one of the oldest stories in Western Civilization and approached it from a fresh angle, and retroactively gave power to women, but not at the expense of the men. Arthur and his knights are still proactive and powerful and meaningful, but the extra bonus is so are the women now.
Modern writers could learn a lot from The Mists of Avalon and its portrayal of gender equality.
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