• Medieval Soaps Gone Wrong: A Look at Camelot (2011)


    Single Issue IX


    Medieval Soaps Gone Wrong:
    A Look at Camelot (2011)

    (Part of the "From Text To Film" series of articles)


    Airing for a single season in 2011, Camelot is a historical-fantasy epic set in the earliest days of King Arthurís reign in Britain. The series follows Arthurís discovery that he is the son of King Uther, and his ascendance and struggles to be respected as a young and inexperienced king. The series is obviously based on Arthurian legends, and therefore draws from the characters set down in those legends. Joining Arthur in this series is two of the more notable characters from the Arthurian mythos: Merlin and Morgan. Merlin served King Uther before his death, and now serves as the sorcerer of Camelot and protector of Arthur as he guides the young king to bring Camelot into a new age. Morgan, on the other hand, is the half-sister of Arthur who believes that she is the rightful heir of the kingdom on the death of Uther, and will use anyone and anything, including magic, to obtain it. In addition to these three, there are a myriad of other characters. Gawain, a rogue warrior who joins Arthur in order to train Arthurís small military. Igraine, widow of Uther and birth mother of Arthur and stepmother of Morgan, who desperately tries to mend the problems between the two. Kay, Arthurís brother and warrior of the court, who does whatever he can to help the young Arthur maintain his position. Then of course there is Guinevere, wife of Leontes, a soldier of Arthur, who finds herself torn between her love and her new King. There are many other characters as well, each fulfilling a role in the series and a representative of Arthurian legend. Everyone is involved in a conflict that threatens to tear apart the kingdom, a civil war between the Pendragon siblings, that is inevitably coming.


    At its outset, the producers of Camelot has many clear materials available to them to use in constructing this retelling of the legend. Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round table has been written and re-written over the course of over a thousand years from a variety of authors and interpretations. The sources can be somewhat divided between two types: historical, and fiction. The historical sources are those written by Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman historians that use the legend of Arthur as an actual history, and part of British heritage. Of course, the problem emerges that these authors are describing an era of Britain that is clouded with doubt in regards to any king named Arthur, making it incredibly difficult to really name these works as primary sources for the topic. Nonetheless, there are numerous sources that do cite Arthur as having been a real king, but many of these sources draw upon each other, and over the span of a few hundred years, casting further doubt on their authenticity. Among these works is the Historia Brittonum, commonly attributed to the work of a monk named Nennius. Written sometime in the ninth century, Nennius only briefly mentions Arthur, and is described as victorious in all his campaigns. Another historical source source that mentions King Arthur in passing is the Annales Cambriae. While perhaps an indicator of the authenticity of Arthur, the source also documents, just before the Arthur entry, of a bishop who was supposedly 350 years old. There are of course many other pseudo-historical sources, but the most well known one comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouthís History of the Kingís of Britain chronicles the lives and reigns of the kings of Britain. There is also Henry of Huntingdon, whose Historia Anglorum gives a broad overview of British history from the beginning to Henryís time. Finally, William of Malmesbury and his Chronicle of the Kings of Britain also adds somewhat to the history of Arthur.


    Along with the sources that claim to offer historical evidence of the king, there are also a large amount of other sources associated with Arthur or his knights that the producers used or could have used in the making of Camelot. These sources can generally be seen as the more romanticized versions of the King Arthur legend, and come from a variety of periods in post-Roman and medieval England, and even non-English sources. One of the earliest possible references about Arthur come from Y Gododdin written by the Welsh poet, Aneirin. Another comes from the priest Layamon, responsible for a poem known as Brut, which is an epic poem that chronicles the history of Britain and contains a substantial section concerning Arthur. Non-British sources, of which there are many, come from all throughout medieval Europe. One of the most notable of these sources come from France; the numerous works of French poet Chrťtien de Troyes and the later Vulgate Cycle, a series of volumes that contributes to the story by discussing the quest for the Holy Grail and the romance of the knight Lancelot and Guinevere. Finally, there is Le Morte DíArthur, the compilation by Thomas Malory that has arguably ensured that the Arthurian legends survived into the modern day.


    There are of course many sources that the producers of Camelot could have utilized in the production of the show, but watching the series leads to the conclusion that the source mostly utilized appears to be Le Morte DíArthur, at least for the very first episode. In the series, Arthur is not a proper son of Uther Pendragon but rather a bastard between Uther and a woman named Igraine, whom Uther desired greatly to sleep with despite her being married to one of Utherís enemies. This is accomplished by Merlin transforming Uther to appear like Igraineís husband. The resulting baby, Arthur, is then taken by Merlin into the countryside to be raised by a family, unaware of who he truly is, something which was clearly taken from the second chapter of Le Morte DíArthur. The series also incorporates the Battle of Mount Badon, a battle viewed as a real event in British history, but sometimes attributed to Arthurís command. In the series, the battle is between Arthur and about a dozen of his warriors against several hundred raiders who are assaulting the mountain as it is a major pass into the realm of Arthur. These raiders have pledged their allegiance to Morgan, Arthurís enemy in the show. In ďhistoricalĒ terms, however, the battle was between hundreds of warriors with hundreds falling, not dozens, in which Arthur emerged victorious against the enemy, the Anglo-Saxons.Arthurís losses alone are attributed to be four hundred and forty men lost. In fairness, the production probably could not have handled shooting such a large battle, but in terms of what it meant in the chronicles of Britain it just does not seem to be as defining for Arthur in the show. The show also utilizes Le Morte DíArthur in part by showing, somewhat, the incestuous sex that results in Mordred, the foe of Arthur in many of the stories. The difference, however, is in Le Morte DíArthur, it is Arthurís half-sister Morgause who bears Mordred by Arthur, the two unaware of their relationship. In the show, Morgan, Arthurís half-sister, uses magic to pretend to be Guinevere and sleep with Arthur, much the same way as Uther impregnated Igraine, in order to produce a royal heir that could challenge Arthur sometime in the future. The show, unfortunately, ends immediately after the revelation that Guinevere was Morgan, so this never comes to pass. There are also several other notable changes, such as how Arthur pulled the sword from the stone as well as how Arthur came to acquire Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake; neither of the subjects draw from any obvious sources.


    Outside of this shallow similarity between the show and the legends, there is in actuality very little that the producers actually use in making Camelot. Most of the showís story and backstory appears to be completely made up, with little to no relation to the source material. For example, King Lot, an ally of Arthur in many of the stories, is instead an ally and lover of Morgan and an enemy to the young Arthur in the series, and in fact dies very early in the series. In the stories, heís also Arthurís brother-in-law, married to Morgause, Arthurís step-sister. Through this pairing also comes Gawain, one of Arthurís knights in the sources. In the series, Gawain is older than Arthur, and is in fact the man that Arthur must rely on to train his small army. There are other, more minor changes, but perhaps one of the biggest changes from the series is the complete absence of Lancelot. There is no Lancelot to become a knight of Arthurís, nor a chance for that character to steal Guinevere and begin a war between Lancelot and Arthur. There is a character, Leontes, who does fulfill the role of Lancelot to a point, in that he is the lover of Guinevere. But instead of Leontes stealing Guinevere, Arthur steals Guinevere from Leontes.


    The impact on the series from the choices of the producers is evident almost from the beginning. The almost complete disregard for the source material leads to the series being a shallow interpretation of the Arthurian myths, especially when compared to other retellings such as Merlin; even movies such King Arthur appear to base more on the sources than the series. It is obvious that the producers intended to make the story their own, but unfortunately the effort was in vain as the series fell short in several key areas. The unfortunate fact about Camelot is that it simply did not achieve enough success to be renewed for more seasons. It ends almost as quickly as it begins, and just when the show started to really delve into the legendary aspect of the myths. This has led to the show, through some fault of its own, becoming an incredibly shallow and dull retelling of the Arthurian myths. This means that sources that cover Lancelot extensively, such as a significant portion of the Vulgate Cycle, are never utilized by the producers to add to the story. There is no Holy Grail either, not even alluded to in the series, meaning that source material for the subject is noticeably absent from a large portion of the legend of Arthur. Many if not most of the noted Knights of the Round Table are conspicuously absent. This is of course because there is no Round Table either; the series never proceeded that far, nor are there any knights at all. Mordred, a central character to King Arthurís life and fate, is only alluded to in the series, but is never physically present as they never proceeded that far into the story. Most of the few characters that do make it into the series are underwhelming or so completely unlike their legendary counterparts that it is unreasonable to even try to compare them.



    Sources:


    Aneurin, and William Rees. "Y Goddodin." Y Goddodin. March 30, 2009. Accessed April 20, 2014. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9842/9842-h/9842-h.htm.


    Chibnall, Chris, and Michael Hirst, writers. "Camelot." In Camelot. Starz. April 01, 2011.


    Huntingdon, Henry, and Diana E. Greenway. Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People. Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1996.


    Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.


    Malmesbury, William, J. A. Giles, and John Sharpe. Chronicle of the Kings of England; from the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen. London: J.G. Bohn, 1847.


    Malory, Thomas, and William Caxton. "Le Morte D'Arthur." Le Morte D'Arthur. November 06, 2009. Accessed April 20, 2014. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1251/1251-h/1251-h.htm.


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    Review:

    Iíll try to keep the review brief to avoid being too repetitive. Honestly there is not much to say in the way of positives for this show. The best part about the show would have to be Joseph Fiennes as Merlin and Eva Green as Morgana. By far their acting blows away the rest of the main cast, but I feel like their talents are squandered on a meandering script. They do their best, but ultimately it is not enough. The production values are decent though I think the filming style makes it look cheaper than it should have been, and it is clear they took liberties with some of the technology and other things in regards to the time period they set it in. The production values are unfortunately not as good as other Starz offerings such as Black Sails or Da Vinciís Demons, and while it came earlier than either of those two shows it came out around the same time as Spartacus so Iím not sure there is much of an excuse there. The music (especially the opening theme) is also solid, but that is a relatively minor positive for this show.


    In terms of outright negatives, I would say perhaps the biggest travesty is the casting of Arthur. While the actor is in no way terrible, he is simply not kingly enough for me to believe. Like if I were living in this time period, I would probably be rooting for Morgana...He is that poor at convincing me that he is worthy of ruling Camelot. If that was the point as he is NOT really a true king at the beginning and we are supposed to see him grow, then I get that. But we donít see him grow much over the course of the only season, and the script makes him more like an angsty and whiny teenager than someone who is supposed to become the King. He DOES get better throughout the course of the season, for sure, but it is simply too little too late by the end. The show also managed to turn the story of Camelot into a boring mess, which is disappointing. If you remember my review of Texas Rising, I made a similar complaint. If you manage to make a story such as that of Arthur and Camelot boring, then you have made a big mistake. Compounding this problem is one key event in the show; the Battle of Mount Baden. Hilariously boring, and really the only action in the show. I feel it also came far too early for the series as well. There are other issues with pacing as well as overall story (soap opera elements such as stealing Guinevere) but I find these are not as important as the main two I have mentioned above.


    Now it is possible that those errors were going to be corrected in future seasons, but we did not get those. As it stands, we can only really judge this series based on these ten episodes. Itís a shame, as I believe there was a lot of potential in this series, and perhaps it came along a little too early for Starz to really understand itís potential. They and the producers failed to capitalize on what should have been a good story and really take advantage of the talent they did have. Itís unfortunate that it has all gone to waste, as this could have been a good series for showing the foundation of Camelot that is known in the myths. Overall, I would not recommend this series really to anyone unless you have some time to kill, but even then it is not really worth purchasing for even that. This is basically a poorly made historical fiction sprinkled with soap opera elements, and it is incredibly disappointing.


    5/10
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Gigantus's Avatar
      Gigantus -
      Eva Green and Ralph Fiennes were awesome but they simply were not enough to lift the series enough out of the abyss. 5\10 is fair.

      Great stuff about the background and sources.
    1. Gen. Chris's Avatar
      Gen. Chris -
      Indeed. It's pretty frustrating that their talents were so wasted. They and the main guy also had scheduling conflicts which basically ruled out a second season.

      I'm not one to be a conspiracy theorist but when your three main leads happen to get scheduling conflicts, I feel they probably did it on purpose to get out of doing a second season.
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      I enjoyed the combination of your analysis of the sources and your review of the show. You comment on the twisting of history. I don't necessarily object when the makers of a historical-fantasy make up or change characters and events (of course, I respect the fact that others see this differently). People have been doing that with King Arthur's story for a long time, as you showed when you commented on pseudo-historical sources. When I write After Action Reports in the Writers' Study, I sometimes use historical characters and events and give them my own twist; I don't see this as a bad thing, necessarily. And yet ... you have convinced me that there were missed opportunities here. A wider range of Arthurian sources could have generated more ideas for the show. It sounds like a more historical presentation of the Battle of Mount Badon could have been more enjoyable television.
    1. Admiral Van Tromp's Avatar
      Admiral Van Tromp -
      I generally agree with your review, but I have to say I enjoyed some of the twists on the traditional legend, especially those around Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake. The Battle was a disaster in terms of scale, but I remember it as somewhat entertaining (watched the show years ago). I agree that Morgana and Merlin's performances stand out from the rest.

      Anyways, 5/10 is a fair score.
    1. Gen. Chris's Avatar
      Gen. Chris -
      Perhaps I was being a bit unfair about the twists. I suppose a straight retelling would have been boring and possibly derivative. HOWEVER, I don't think they pulled off quite what they were trying to do.
    1. NorseThing's Avatar
      NorseThing -
      I do not know if you are right or wrong with your information, but I just have ordered it up from Netflix. Thanks to your review, I am interested in giving it a try. I previously had passed on it. The future of my life in marital bliss may rest on your shoulders.
    1. Gen. Chris's Avatar
      Gen. Chris -
      Ah well after finishing my review of this I actually donated my copy because it is very unlikely that I will ever watch it again. It just doesn't hold a candle to the later Starz shows.