I would have a witty intro blurb, but Judge Mike Pinsky already took my joke.
"On second thought, let's not go to Camelot. It is a silly place."—King Arthur
It is a strange coincidence that I embark on this review of A&E's documentary on the legends of Camelot only a few days after reading Umberto Eco's witty parody of travel tales, Baudolino, in which a group of clever liars in the Middle Ages kickstart the story of the Holy Grail for the benefit of future treasure-hunters. Or is it more of a coincidence that I also just watched (for the benefit of my loyal DVD Verdict readers) an unrelated and overlong travelogue (Secrets of the Da Vinci Code) on the currently hip theories about the "hidden truth" behind the Grail legends. Should I even mention last week's Tony wins for Spamalot?
What is it about the tales surrounding the Holy Grail, particularly the
legends of King Arthur and his knights, that keep popping up with such
persistence? Arthur legends have an apocalyptic tone to them: once upon a time,
there was a golden age, now lost. And one day that golden age may return. Many
cultures have these, and even the Arthur legends, usually attached to England,
are not exclusive to that island. French and German writers have also felt an
affinity for those bygone days of chivalric heroism.
Hosted by Leonard Nimoy, this brief episode of the A&E television series Ancient Mysteries focuses on the origins of the Arthur legend. Apparently organized by subject (but in truth quite meandering), Camelot covers what little is known about the real Arthurian period, the embellishments of authors from Geoffrey of Monmouth (the first known writer of Arthur's story in 1138) to Thomas Mallory to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and comments by literary scholars on the significance of the Camelot tales in their respective historical incarnations. For those who know next to nothing about the background to the Arthurian mythos, this documentary might be an entertaining place to start.
But to anybody who has done any research into this area in the past (as I have), Camelot is often thinly developed and misleading. The code of chivalry that underpins Arthur's world is explained in sketchy fashion, but the concept of "courtly love," crucial to understanding many late-medieval quest tales (which the Arthurian cycle is stuffed with), is far more complex in its gender politics than you will hear reported during this documentary.
And the Holy Grail? Well, some mention is made here of Chrétien de Troyes, who is credited with introducing the Grail quest to the Arthurian cycle, but not of his sources (mostly Celtic legends like the Mabinogion). Or that Parsifal (or Perceval in Chrétien's version) is the one who finds the Grail. Or that the French Chrétien's Arthurian stories seem set more in Brittany than Britain. Or that his Grail was a dish. Never mind that some traditions (followed by Chrétien's literary successor, Wolfram von Eschenbach) hold that the Grail was a stone that fell from heaven.
Nope, the only version of the Grail story you will hear Nimoy discuss is Thomas Mallory's account, in which Galahad finds the cup of Christ in Siege Perilous. No mention is made that this is Mallory's invention. The audience is left to assume that the story was always this way.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. There is some interesting commentary by the various scholars (including Bonnie Wheeler, whose scholarship I usually find more helpful than this) about how the various incarnations of the legend reflected the politics of their times. For example, Mallory wrote in the turmoil following the War of the Roses, and his Le Morte d'Arthur bemoans the loss of chivalric tradition in that chaotic age. Tennyson feared the coming of modernism, preferring a more pastoral golden age. I was hoping for more insights like this, but they tended to appear sporadically between bits of the more popular Arthurian legends: the Round Table, Lancelot and Guinevere, the Grail quest.
Camelot may be a fine way to spend an hour in front of your television set, if you catch it on A&E. But there are more authoritative and accurate sources on which to spend your money.
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