Authenticity, canon and Arthur

I like the TV series Merlin (last reviewed here) which has a young Merlin working as Prince Arthur’s servant while secretly using magic to protect him and Camelot (secret because King Uther sees magic the way much of the Marvel Universe sees mutants—a devastating threat to be kept out of his realm). But twice now people who don’t like the show have told me they don’t think it’s good because it doesn’t follow the old legends correctly.
I find this almost funny. It might make sense if we were discussing the Trojan War (where Homer is still, thousands of years later, the definitive account) or Oz (where there is an acknowledged canon of books) but there’s no definitive version of Arthur. Mallory’s La Morte D’Arthur is certainly the launching pad for most later Arthurian writing—if they’re coming up with a variation, it’s going to be on Mallory’s version of the legend (this includes Once and Future King, Idylls of the King and Camelot 3000 to give you some examples).
Even given that, Mallory isn’t definitive. He reworked material from multiple earlier versions, such as the Vulgate and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Chretien’s Arthurian works. And they, in turn, were working on an earlier level of myth and folklore going back to the Celts and any possible Arthurian historical figure.
So if we’re talking “stick to the facts” we’d be confining ourselves to the most likely historical version, a Roman-trained Celtic warlord with maybe some magic thrown in. Anything else is just an amendation (and that’s not even considering some of the wilder Celtic tales such as Culhwch and Olwen, which is very different from anything in the more familiar tradition).
It’s the same with vampires. I’m sure there are people who prefer the days when Dracula (movie or TV) defined vampires rather than Anne Rice, Vampire: The Masquerade or (inevitably, I think) Twilight. Stephen King, for example, has stated that any vampire romance sucks by definition as vampires can never be anything but killers.
But practically speaking, Bram Stoker and other 1800s horror writers reworked vampirism as much as later writers reworked them. The classic European vampire lay in its coffin, got out to feed, went back to the coffin. No witty banter, no seduction (though Roma tradition portrayed them as highly sexed), no elaborate schemes or trips to England.
If someone tried to do the legend and got it wrong, or made arbitrary changes, that’s one thing. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance, ignores the actual Grail legends in favor of the crackpot Holy Blood, Holy Grail theory (I’m not sure he’s even read any Grail material). He’s wrong on multiple points and it’s easy to spot the errors.
But I’m perfectly fine with reworking, changing details or changing the big picture as Merlin does. The idea there’s some standard of Arthurian authenticity (aside from personal taste) is nonsense. Which may be one reason we’ve had so many great adaptations of legend.
There is one other aspect of Arthurian authenticity another friend of mine brought up. I’ll get to that tomorrow.


Filed under Reading, TV, Writing

2 responses to “Authenticity, canon and Arthur

  1. Pingback: Authentic Witches | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Mythos and misunderstanding (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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