It’s kind of impossible to grow up in America and not know anything about King Arthur. The romantic tales of this king, his knights of the round table, his queen, and his adviser, Merlin, are woven into our pop-culture psyches, even if a lot of the attempts to tell this story are lacking.
Like this King Arthur movie —
I saw this film in the theater in 2004, and was so deeply disappointed, and outright horrified, by this clumsy and ignorant movie, I drove home in a haze, asking my husband over and over, “How could anyone make a movie so DUMB??”
A few months ago, King Arthur was playing on Starz, and since eleven years had passed since I’d seen it, and the movie was close to the end, I tuned in to watch the finale. Greg and I were having supper, and I was in a good mood, and thought perhaps, being older and wiser now, there might have been merits to the film the 24-year-old version of me had missed.
Nope. Absolutely not. If anything, the movie was even sillier and more ridiculous than I remembered. I watched the big final battle, which is followed by Arthur’s wedding with Guinevere, and I was carping like a fishwife the whole time about what a lump of steaming stupid this movie is.
My husband nodded along like, “Yeah, honey, you tell our TV where to shove it, playing this moronic movie that you chose to watch.”
Cause Greg always has my back like that.
I never watched the Starz TV series Camelot because King Arthur was so bad. And nine years before King Arthur, there was the equally silly 1995 film First Knight.
The battle and fighting scenes in First Knight are as pathetic and full of dumb as the ones in King Arthur. Also, Sean Connery as King Arthur makes me want to barf. I know a lot of people think Sean Connery is total hotness, but I’ve never been one of those people. I don’t find him attractive, not when he was a young James Bond, and not in his silver years.
Richard Gere is another actor who just doesn’t do it for me. I tolerate him, I love the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, but not because Richard Gere turns on my swoony oh-my-gosh-he’s-so-cute switch. Granted, Richard Gere doesn’t leave me as cold as Sean Connery does, but he’s not much better. I look at both of these men and think, Ew. Please go away. Why couldn’t I be looking at Russell Crowe right now?
Which begs the question — why do I own a copy of First Knight, which is about as dippy a movie as Hollywood can create, when the film stars two actors I don’t care for?
Well, that is simple — I have a massive crush on Julia Ormond, and she is totally gorgeous in First Knight —
She plays Guinevere, the Lady of Lyoness, and I can stare at Julia Ormond in this movie for hours on end. In fact, while I was in college, I had one of those little TVs with a VCR, and I used to stay up all night writing papers, playing this movie over and over. I love the music, and I love Julia Ormond in period dress.
Regardless of the crappy films Hollywood keeps making about King Arthur, it will always be one of those stories that exerts a powerful pull over me, like the combined gravity of the sun and moon creating a spring tide. Arthur is the summoning force, and I am the ocean, always in sway.
Mark of the Pterren is a King Arthur retelling. I think this is the first time I’ve ever admitted such a thing on my blog, though I’ve hashed this out with my husband for years. He’s listened to me spend hours and hours discussing King Arthur, and how Mark of the Pterren is my chance to share a King Arthur tale in a sci-fi novel.
Anyone who has read Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems should know that the King Arthur story played into that novel as well. Carver Greyson would be Arthur. His late wife would be Guinevere. Anyone who’s read the novel can guess who Lancelot was. These are the things that happen when writers love something so much — they pay homage to the stories that move them.
My favorite King Arthur novel is The Road to Avalon.
Published in 1988, I first read this book as a teenager in 1994 or 1995. I found it at the public library, one night while I was doing my Gollum routine, crouching in the shadows in the back of the room, pulling out books one by one in search of a precious. I rarely do this anymore, since searching bookshelves is a time-consuming activity, but every once in a while, my inner Gollum surfaces, and I have to seek out a bookshelf and read every title, or gaze at their covers and jackets.
I’ve read The Once and Future King, The Mists of Avalon, and this week, I read parts of Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. (Not Malory’s original work, but the Keith Baines rendition.)
But no King Arthur story can ever match the love I have for The Road to Avalon. This is a pre-romance Arthur. Before he was sidelined and weakened by all the silly Grail Quest stories and idiot-king-the-cuckold stories and all the other junk that was piled on over the centuries.
The central plot of The Road to Avalon is taken from Malory’s tales from Le Morte d’Arthur. But whereas Arthur is an utter fool in Le Morte, in The Road to Avalon, Arthur is a great warrior. Lancelot is his brave and mighty friend, and Guinevere loves Arthur and Lancelot both.
But in The Road to Avalon, Arthur’s true love isn’t Guinevere, but Morgan, the woman who is usually slandered in Arthur tales (especially in the tales after Malory’s).
I also think The Road to Avalon is much more feminist and pro-women-power than The Mists of Avalon, and that is saying a lot.
When I see Julia Ormond in First Knight, with her wild brown hair and period dress, my mind says, “Oooo, look, it’s Morgan from The Road to Avalon.”
And when I see Russell Crowe in Gladiator —
My mind says, “Oooooo, look, it’s King Arthur in The Road to Avalon.”
Because if there really was an Arthur in Britain’s history who led men into battle, the guy was a total badass. The stories that depict him as old, ineffectual, an idiot cuckold, or anything else but a warrior are absolutely moronic, in my opinion.
If Arthur ever truly existed, this man became legend because he knew how to bring it on a battlefield. Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, Morgan, Modred/Mordred, Uther Pendragon, Igraine, Kay/Cai, Galahad, even throwing Tristan and Isolde into the mix — all of those people came into Arthur’s story later. What historical documents exist (and this is debatable, with some historians saying there is no reliable proof that there was ever a war leader named Arthur) — the oldest texts say nothing of magical monsters, wizards, adultery, a search for the Holy Grail, or a sword in a stone or a lake.
For me, it doesn’t matter if there really was an Arthur or not. A war leader, a king — whatever his true title might have been, he can exist or not exist in history, because nothing can erase the fact that the legend of King Arthur is here to stay. As long as there are humans alive on this earth, King Arthur will be alive along with us.
And boy am I glad for that.
Because the beauty of the best King Arthur tales is the question of what happens when three people who love each other get mixed up with adultery. When the law says two of them are married, and sex with a third person is illegal. When all three of them would die for each other, but an affair still means someone is going to get hurt.
That’s my fascination with Arthur. As a writer, I’m drawn the most powerfully to same-sex friendships and love stories, and the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere story has both. A powerful same-sex friendship (not only with Arthur and Lancelot, but all of the Knights of the Round Table), and a powerful love story. But unlike a Twilight-esque love triangle (which features Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, and Jacob the Werewolf) — in King Arthur, the love flows all ways, not just from Arthur and Lancelot toward Guinvevere, but from the two men to each other.
Arthur and Lancelot’s love for each other played a role in my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves — in female form. While Alistair and Zach can be seen as a Lancelot/Arthur pairing (Alistair would be Lancelot, Zach would be Arthur) — the friendships between Jimmy and Noelle, and Kim and Cadence, are much more dominant in the story.
I didn’t sit down to write that book thinking, “Hmmm… maybe I should write a female version of Arthur and Lancelot,” but my subconscious sure did. As I worked on editing Mark of the Pterren this week, facing again and again how I have altered the tales of King Arthur into my own narrative, the truth of how intertwined my psyche is with King Arthur in regards to even my first book — which has nothing to do with swordfighting or adultery — was obvious.
I’m never going to be able to escape King Arthur, and I’m okay with that. Friendship, loyalty, love, and war — I’ll probably never write a book where those aren’t the central themes of my tale.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a woman who read my second novel and absolutely loved Carver Greyson. When she said his name, she clapped a hand over her heart and looked up at the sky with a huge, swoony, oh-Carver! sigh. I thought about how happy that made me, since Carver is one version of King Arthur. Mark of the Pterren is another. Except Mark of the Pterren is a far more involved retelling, probably the biggest one I will ever do. It scares me and thrills me, especially right now, as the book goes through its second round of beta-reader edits, and my rejection emails from literary agents come in. Hope springs eternal though, so even if Mark of the Pterren is a wash, and the only people brave enough to ever crack open that story are my friends and friends of my friends, I still have my next book to think of, and my next, and my next. At some point, one of them will be “it” — the one that attracts interest.
In the meantime, tomorrow — Saturday, May 2 — is my 35th birthday, and I’ll be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day at Maria’s Bookshop here in Durango. From 1-3 p.m., I’ll be hanging out with other local authors, sharing titles of my favorite books, so if you’re in town, come on by! It should be a really great day!