Episode 16 - Excalibur with Bryan Wigmore

Dan Jones

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Merlin's Beard! What better topic to talk about as we enter the springtime and the regeneration of the land than Excalibur and the legend of Arthur, King of the Britons, who is prophesied to restore the land to verdance and glory and who knows much about the average velocity of unladen swallows. But we'll not be focusing on that particular cinematic incarnation of the once and future king. We'll be talking about the operatic 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur, which boldly attempts to condense a significant amount of Thomas Malory's 15th century manuscript, Le Morte d'Arthur, into two and-a-half hours of dreamlike cinema.

Joining us to talk through this is the fantasy author Bryan Wigmore aka @HareBrain, best known for his ongoing fantasy series The Fire Stealers, comprising The Goddess Project (2017), The Empyreus Proof (2018), published by Snowbooks, and the forthcoming third instalment, The Mandala Praxis. With Bryan we discuss Arthur's connection to the land, what the Holy Grail represents, why it appears in the story when it does, and the mysterious figure of the Fisher King. We discuss the explicitly Christian imagery, the use of opera music in the score, the preponderance of Irish accents in a story about the King of the Britons (clue: it was filmed in County Wicklow); the scalable aspect of the Arthurian story, Merlin's pratfalls, and Brian Blessed's head.

We also talk about Bryan's own work and its foundation upon such ancient myths as these; his use of the land and the environment, the question of timing a publication to retain its topicality, and the bones of myth. We also talk about his forthcoming YA fantasy series called Earthwyrms, which leans heavily upon the Arthurian mythos, and we pester him for an update on when The Mandala Praxis will be ready.

Elsewhere, @The Judge throws down her own gauntlet and challenges us to trial by combat, and how that strange aspect of the ancient judiciary came to be, and how the trial by combat we see in such films as Excalibur might work in reality.

We also hear the victorious February 75-word challenge entry from @paranoid marvin, and The Judge's winning entry to the January 300-word writing challenge. Finally, a certain King Of The Britons is perturbed and discombobulated when he is approached by the Lieutenant Bungalow of the Martian space force for a rare interview, courtesy of @AnRoinnUltra.

Next Month
Join us in April when we'll be talking to our very own @Toby Frost about Mervyn Peake's blackly comic and absurdly grotesque seminal fantasy, Titus Groan.

Index
[0:00:00 - 0:52:18] Interview pt 1
[0:52:19 - 0:55:59] Skit 1
[0:56:00 - 1:14:09] The Judge's Corner
[1:14:10 - 1:17:54] Challenge Entries
[1:17:55 - 1:20:22] Skit 2
[1:20:23 - 2:00:44] Interview pt 2
[2:00:45 - 2:02:45] credits and close

Where To Listen
At all your usual podcast outlets, or here - Zencastr Creator Platform
 
Great show, guys, but oh, how I wish I'd been part of it, to put you all right.** You didn't even mention the damn dresses!


** Surely the land is failing because Arthur is ailing, as a result of Morgana's attack on him after coitus and then the lightning blast. (Though admittedly those things happen because he's misused Excalibur, thrusting it into the spine of the dragon, and therefore into Merlin himself -- we see the sword piercing him -- and therefore allowing Morgana to triumph temporarily.) The land recovers as soon as Arthur recovers, before he regains Excalibur, which he can't have until he's once more worthy of it, having recognised his errors. As with the scene at the bridge with Lancelot it has to come to him via the female aspect of the land and of life, which is necessary for completeness but which he's never incorporated properly into Camelot -- the scenes at the round table with women show physical and spiritual degradation of the knights because he's not dealt with what is needed to make the land whole, a unity of male and female energy. His tragedy is he's a warrior king, not a king for a time of peace.
 
Great episode and really interesting discussion. Good work everyone.

I think Phyrebrat is right to watch the film for the images as much as the plot. I actually like the fact that it doesn't quite add up, and that the acting is odd (especially Nicol Williamson as Merlin). I don't think there's one subtext that explains it all: it isn't (just) a pagan/Christian/feminist/etc metaphor and so much the better for it.

There's a tendency in fantasy, with its links to gaming and obsession with worldbuilding, to end up with a situation where you can cast three fireballs per day with a 73% chance of killing a standard orc, who has 14 hit points and so on. I've played and enjoyed Dungeons And Dragons and similar games, but that sense of "rules" feels very anti-fantasy to me (well, anti this kind of fantasy). In a film, where you can go easy on logic in favour of dramatic images, you don't have to be exact, and I think the dreamlike feel of Excalibur works really well.

Incidentally, small pedantic point: Carmina Burana isn't actually used in The Omen, which has its own soundtrack. However, it was used in Only Fools and Horses in connection with Del's son Damian, who reminded Rodney of the Antichrist. So same difference, really.

I always assumed that Arthur's accent was meant to be West Country.
 
TJ, you make a coherent argument. However...

Surely the land is failing because Arthur is ailing, as a result of Morgana's attack on him after coitus and then the lightning blast
The trouble with that is that neither Morgana's "attack" (which is just making a clawing motion and putting him to sleep, as far as I recall) nor the lightning blast are shown to have any particular significance in terms of theme. We don't even know what caused the lightning blast. And because the story skips straight from one to the other, we don't know if the land was starting to fail in the nine months between.

I don't think the film really lends itself to trying to work out a watertight through-line for these elements (as Toby's just said). My guess is that Boorman wanted to include the Wasteland idea, but because this doesn't belong to Arthur but to the Fisher King (and it's not even really explained there in the original texts, perhaps because it was imported from other, earlier myths), he had to bodge things around a bit, and left a lot of the "explanation" to suggestion.

(Incidentally, if anyone's interested in learning the extent to which Boorman is capable of bodging things around, read his screenplay for the Lord of the Rings film we almost got instead of Excalibur.)

As with the scene at the bridge with Lancelot it has to come to him via the female aspect of the land and of life, which is necessary for completeness but which he's never incorporated properly into Camelot
I like that idea.

the scenes at the round table with women show physical and spiritual degradation of the knights because he's not dealt with what is needed to make the land whole, a unity of male and female energy. His tragedy is he's a warrior king, not a king for a time of peace.
I like your last line there. But I don't see the physical and spiritual degradation except that Gawain is somehow bewitched by Morgana. Up to this point Camelot is in a Golden Age, as Arthur says. If there's rot lurking beneath the surface, I don't think it's even hinted at.

Carmina Burana isn't actually used in The Omen,
Was that Dan? I bet it was Dan.
 
I like your last line there. But I don't see the physical and spiritual degradation except that Gawain is somehow bewitched by Morgana. Up to this point Camelot is in a Golden Age, as Arthur says. If there's rot lurking beneath the surface, I don't think it's even hinted at.
Perhaps it's the Puritan in me, but Gawain is surely drunk in that first scene and Perceval seems to be drunk, or on the cusp of it, in the second. OK, it's not quite a bacchanalian scene à la Heliogabalus, but to me there's distinctly a tone in the way the men are portrayed here as the camera pans round that they've slipped from the previous high ideals, because all they're doing now is hanging around drinking and feasting and flirting with women, and Lancelot is the only one still out there fighting the good fight. I think Arthur senses this, hence his questions of Merlin, but he can't rationalise why he feels uneasy.

I'm still holding to the failing land-ailing king idea. Morgana has her hands at his neck (the clawing action is later with the ghost of Merlin) and I see him as being forcibly rendered unconscious rather than simply made to sleep, and perhaps it's just the lighting, but in the chapel scene that follows Arthur to me looks older and drawn, so I thought he was already poorly; the lightning is surely meant to come from Morgana, or the evil that pushes her on, since it's the same as is playing around Cornwall's castle as she gives birth. A pity the priest didn't ask for a blessing for the bleeding land, which would have made my theory watertight! But yes, as Toby says the story isn't entirely coherent, certainly not thematically, and probably better as a spectacle as a result.
 
My understanding was similar to The Judge in respect of the land and Arthur. Things are going so well, and the land flourishes. Then Arthur is betrayed by the man and woman he thought most loyal, and he falls into a depression; and the land with him.

"You and the land are one." he is told, and answers "I am wasting away." just as the land is wasting away. When he drinks from the Grail, the depression lifts and he is reborn, and as he and his knights ride out, it is Springtime all around, and the land is reborn. (btw this scene is very similar to that of King Theoden, who has the spell lifted from him, and immediately rides out to battle).

Oh and I agree with Toby Frost, that I always thought his language sounded West Country, which is the part of the country (along with Tintagel) where Arthur was meant to be from I think?
 
Great episode and really interesting discussion. Good work everyone.

I think Phyrebrat is right to watch the film for the images as much as the plot. I actually like the fact that it doesn't quite add up, and that the acting is odd (especially Nicol Williamson as Merlin). I don't think there's one subtext that explains it all: it isn't (just) a pagan/Christian/feminist/etc metaphor and so much the better for it.

There's a tendency in fantasy, with its links to gaming and obsession with worldbuilding, to end up with a situation where you can cast three fireballs per day with a 73% chance of killing a standard orc, who has 14 hit points and so on. I've played and enjoyed Dungeons And Dragons and similar games, but that sense of "rules" feels very anti-fantasy to me (well, anti this kind of fantasy). In a film, where you can go easy on logic in favour of dramatic images, you don't have to be exact, and I think the dreamlike feel of Excalibur works really well.

Incidentally, small pedantic point: Carmina Burana isn't actually used in The Omen, which has its own soundtrack. However, it was used in Only Fools and Horses in connection with Del's son Damian, who reminded Rodney of the Antichrist. So same difference, really.

I always assumed that Arthur's accent was meant to be West Country.


I remember going back to watch The Omen and wondering what had happened to the 'Old Spice' (or Carling Black Label advert - remember that? )music. Then I realised that after watching Rodney and Damien, I had placed that music into the movie because the setup was so similar.

It's a very easy thing to do , and I bet quite a few people think that piece of music was in The Omen. It's a perfect fit really.
 
Incidentally, small pedantic point: Carmina Burana isn't actually used in The Omen, which has its own soundtrack.
It was, however, if I recall correctly, used in a trailer for The Omen that was shown in movie theaters. Carmina Burana often turns up in movie trailers, when it isn't in the actual soundtrack. It is one of those standbys (the theme music from Restoration is another one) that the folks who put together trailers like to use, because it's so dramatic. In the context of movies or movie trailers, I always think of it as portending either the end of the world, or (as in Excalibur) the rebirth of the world.

I thought the podcast was extremely interesting. A great many good points were made. Although I agree with The Judge that more might have been said--although to discuss everything relevant probably would have made the podcast run too long. There is so much to be unpacked in the movie and the different Arthurian sources it makes use of, it might have been worth a two-part broadcast.

On another note, here is a fun bit of information: the reason everything looks so lush and green is because, in addition to being filmed in Ireland (which one might imagine would be satisfactorily green), there was something they did with the lighting to increase that effect.
 
the reason everything looks so lush and green is because, in addition to being filmed in Ireland (which one might imagine would be satisfactorily green), there was something they did with the lighting to increase that effect.
Yes, I found mention of that in a documentary about the film. A lurid green light is used to suggest magic in places; I think the documentary presenter thought that was because Boorman wanted to tie magic in with nature, though the shade of green used doesn't look very natural to me.
 
As with the scene at the bridge with Lancelot it has to come to him via the female aspect of the land and of life, which is necessary for completeness but which he's never incorporated properly into Camelot -- the scenes at the round table with women show physical and spiritual degradation of the knights because he's not dealt with what is needed to make the land whole, a unity of male and female energy.
I really like this, and it's a shame we didn't get to investigate a female reading of the story.

His tragedy is he's a warrior king, not a king for a time of peace.
IMO this is one of those meta objects within the story. He is a king at a time of peace, but it's tragically fleeting. Isn't that true to life, at an individual level? Arthur is the king and the land, but he's also the individual - and we all live through times of conflict and peace in our own lives, at a local level certainly, and sometimes if you're really unlucky it's scaled up to a real war. But to be king during a time of war is to enact your own sovereignty at a time of conflict, and that can be debilitating, which is what happens to Arthur.

Plus, the fruits of his management of the conflict cause even more devastation in the shape of Mordred, which is kind of like the mark of Cain.

More generally, I'm really happy that this episode has landed so well. Like I said on the show, with these old myths, you can almost dig forever and still never reach the bottom of what's going on. Because everything is dreamlike, everything is up for interpretation, and everything is symbolic.

Re: the music. We have Wagner, Orff, and Trevor Jones, and still somehow we end up at Del Boy and Rodney. Lovely stuff.
 
His tragedy is he's a warrior king, not a king for a time of peace.
He is a king at a time of peace
He's king at a time of peace, but not for a time of peace. He's his father's son.

Plus, the fruits of his management of the conflict cause even more devastation in the shape of Mordred, which is kind of like the mark of Cain.
A lesson to all monarchy. Eradicate the threat when it's still nascent -- don't give it 15-20 years to come to fruition.
 
Regarding my talk, if anyone wants to look further into the issue of trial by combat, especially as it appears in The Last Duel or in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, or the question of treason by an adulterous queen consort, I've given links to my sources with a post in my Chronscast history thread The Chronscast Talks -- the Law and History
 
I'm not sure if this is the right place to mention it, but it does touch on the history of stories, but have you considered a topic on the legal aspects of alteration/editing of stories in film/tv and writing?

Sometimes alterations have taken place in the writer's own lifetime, but sometimes after they have passed on. What is the legal position on just how much a story can be changed? Can the current 'owner' alter it as much as they see fit? And at what point does it cease to be the original author's work and become something new. How much can a title be altered whilst still retaining its original title, and what warnings must a publisher give about changes made.

This can happen for various reasons. Other than old recordings/releases, you can't see a version of Star Wars where Han shoots first. In the news recently there was talk of updating Roald Dahl, Mary Shelley made considerable alterations to Frankenstein after it was first published, and the current thread relating to 'Bedknob and Broomstick' where the aeroplane was changed from 'Spitfire' to 'Valiant' (presumably) in order to 'modernise' the book, but which changed a coherent sentence into one which wasn't. I'm sure there are plenty of other instances, many of which we probably don't even realise, but which seem oddly 'different' to how we remember them.
 
It's not a history matter, though, so as it's not relevant to my legal history talks, I've moved the query to the Chronscast thread.

At some point I'll be doing a talk on contracts as part of the Legal Things We Need To Know About, and the question of editorial amendments post-publication is something I may touch on at that time, because that's what it comes down to, a contractual matter between the copyright holder and the publisher -- and as with most agreements, changes can be made if both parties agree -- with no legal requirements of any kind viz-a-viz the public. The only possible legal complication I can think of is if someone tries to argue that a revised version of, say, a soon-about-to-be-out-of-copyright story creates a new entitlement to copyright which therefore starts afresh. (I've a very vague memory of reading something of the kind, but I imagine it would be given short shrift by the courts.)
 
I'm not sure if this is the right place to mention it, but it does touch on the history of stories, but have you considered a topic on the legal aspects of alteration/editing of stories in film/tv and writing?
This is not anywhere within my domain of actual knowledge, but isn't the alteration of stories granted as part of selling the movie and TV rights to a story?
 

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