An Epic Hero for Modern Times
In about 1470, Thomas Malory finished Morte d' Arthur, the
first of the many legends written about King Arthur. Even in modern
times, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are a favorite
subject in movies, books, and plays. Often times this is so because the
Medieval Period in general, and King Arthur in particular, have an air
of mystery, romance, fantasy, and adventure that are popular themes in
all times and cultures. I compared Malory's Morte d' Arthur with
Camelot, a movie produced in 1967 that stars Richard Harris as King
Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere.
Camelot covers the period in Arthur's life from when he meets
his future wife Guenevere to the beginning of his siege against Sir
Lancelot's castle in France. The short excerpt of Morte d' Arthur tells
of how King Arthur abandons his assault on Lancelot to defend
Camelot and all of England from Mordred. Because Camelot seems to
immediately precede Morte d' Arthur and there is no overlap in the
story, the way the plot is handled in each work cannot be debated. I
will however, discuss the mood, tone, and characterization of a few
key figures in the two works.
One difference in character that I found was that in the
introduction to Morte d' Arthur, Mordred is referred to as King
Arthurs nephew. Later in the text, when Arthur and Mordred are
fighting (p. 96, para.1) it says, ". . . so he smote his father King Arthur
with his sword holden in both hands, upon the side of the head . . ."
In Camelot, Mordred is Arthur's illegitimate son, although he keeps
this a secret. This possibly explains the contradiction of Mordred's
position in the two pieces. Another difference in the two works was
that in Camelot, Mordred tells Arthur, "I despise the sword, loathe the
spear, and I detest horses." Yet in Morte d' Arthur Mordred and
Arthur fight and before Arthur kills him, Mordred wounds Arthur
badly. In Malory's work, I got the feeling that Mordred was a big,
burly, knight that loved a good fight. Yet in Camelot, Mordred is a
devilish-looking, puny, scheming, young man who turns down
Arthur's offer of knighthood because he's just not "that type." Mordred
turns the knights against each other which destroys the Round Table
and brings King Arthur's entire world crashing down around his ears.
The mood and tone of Camelot and Morte d' Arthur are very
different in most parts. The majority of Camelot is cheerful, bright,
and hopeful as Arthur creates a new society of "might for right." Only
towards the end of the movie when the viewer is overcome with a
sense of sadness and impending catastrophe does the mood change to
one of fatalistic tragedy. One cannot help but wonder about the part
that fate played in the society where the legends of King Arthur were
created. Like Romeo and Juliet, written about 120 years after Morte
d' Arthur, which is filled with references to "starcrossed lovers,"
Camelot and Morte d' Arthur could be examined from the standpoint
of fate in regards to character actions. Had Lancelot not decided to
come to Camelot to join the Round Table, and Mordred had never
been told that Arthur was his father, Camelot may have never been
The excerpt of Morte d' Arthur is a more mysterious, magical,
and perhaps realistic view of the Medieval period than Camelot.
However, both works provide a glimpse back into the world of one of
the favorite "epic heroes" of modern times.