Friday, 05 October 2012

'Merlin', 'Camelot' and Why Aithusa saved Morganna

I've been waiting for an inspiring enough topic to pitch me back into blogging, and there is a kind of comfort in that the one that came along is a continuation of a favourite I've previously developed: adaptations of the story of King Arthur. I have been following two recently, Camelot, a cinema-scale epic featuring Joseph Fiennes (as Merlin) and Eva Green (Morgen), and the British series Merlin, a lighter adaptation with mostly unknown actors, which I've mentioned before. Specifically, Merlin has struck me as bad on so many levels that I'm fascinated by what the source of its appeal is. It certainly has both interested and moved me more than Camelot, despite the latter's stylistic superiority and impressive cast.

Some ideas of how these two compare might already be apparent from the short descriptions given above. Camelot, with its seeming Game of Thrones/Rome ambitions, is violent, sexual, dark, clearly adult-oriented. Its textures and style suggest an appeal to historical resonance, if not accuracy, and it includes in its narrative (one feels it sometimes revels in) the more disturbing aspects of the story that have been boiled into it over the ages. Merlin, on the other hand, has a flat, cartoonish feel and a soundtrack reminiscent of the Gummy Bears. It clearly doesn't take its historical resonance too seriously and has cleaned up the story (so far) of its more uncomfortable elements in what I can only guess is an attempt at being child-friendly. And yet, I have found myself watching it almost compulsively while Camelot seemed to drag on endlessly.

The chiefly characterizing feature of Merlin is that it is a story about the characters' Becoming before Camelot's Golden Age, as if this angle had never been taken before. Actually the mythic resonance of the story lies precisely in the fact that it is built on an inescapable trajectory, and the art of the majority of retellings lies not in the depiction of What Happens but in How They Got There. Even the focus on Merlin as the central character is not new. What is new is that this telling offers Merlin, not as the bearded magical mentor, but as a youth himself, a kind of magical parallel to Arthur's Becoming. A dragon's prophecy that Arthur and Merlin are 'two sides of a coin' anchors the point of this angle. Even so, this twist might have worked against the series if the relationship between the two boys had not been written with such a bitter-sweet charm. Since magic has been outlawed and demonized, Merlin has to hide his gifts whilst simultaneously protecting the boy he gradually grows to believe in and alone bearing the burden that he and Arthur are the foundations to the kingdom that is to come. This alteration to the tale regarding the persecution of those with magic and Merlin's youth is a simple one and combines in Merlin his traditional role of guide and protector to Arthur with an adolescent vulnerability that is appealing on many levels. More importantly it adds a tension to the story that has a high emotional factor; not only is there the danger to Merlin should his nature be discovered, but there is the painful question of Arthur's reaction to the discovery of Merlin's identity. While there is little art in the transparent dialogue between the two boys, their mutual affection actually comes through with a touching fragility. It is clear that Arthur values, is even dependent on, Merlin's friendship, and that Merlin has a painful need for Arthur's acceptance. This is the kind of emotional effectiveness, even subtlety, that is missing from Camelot, where there are no narrative quirks that enable an access to the humanity behind the underwhelming given of Arthur's goodness.

The third significant factor figuring in Merlin is Morganna, based on the staple-Arthuriana character Morgan Le Fay. Morgan Le Fay is another area where Camelot disappoints. Here, as elsewhere, she is conniving, envious, boringly malevolent. Merlin originally seemed to figure her as something more complex; the ward of King Uther (Arthur's father) with a sincere affection for Arthur, Merlin and Guinivere, and a fierce sense of justice, especially regarding Uther's oppression of magic. However, this character became increasingly dark, eventually becoming simply annoyingly malicious. That was my assessment until the surprising end of Series 4, where after a formidable battle, she is inexplicably healed by a white infant dragon called Aithusa, a creature that was previously identified to Merlin as an omen of good for Camelot. Why did Aithusa heal Morganna?

Morgan Le Fay is often called the antagonist of King Arthur and his knights, but actually her legend is far more complicated. Her appearances in Arthurian legend date back to some of the earliest sources, which also identify her as both Arthur's sister and a Fay (a way of saying she was 'of Fairy', meaning she has a link to magic) from the beginning, but of all the characters most traditionally associated with the legend, her character has coalesced around the most contradictory roles. The most nefarious deeds ascribed to her include trying to kill Arthur, sending monstrous warriors to test the knights of the Round Table and attempts at exposing Guinevere's adultery, but, oddly, she also appears as an ally, a gifted healer, one of the queens who receive Arthur's body after his death, and strongly associated with the magical island of Avalon, mostly a good place. She is a truly enigmatic figure, whose very human motivations seem complicated and deepened by her link to a mysterious mysticism. Al this means that she is actually the most unpredictable character in retellings, and affords the most space for thematic exploration. It's therefore really annoying to me that few retellings have exploited this potential, preferring to depict her as uninterestingly evil, a vain, often over-sexualized sorceress with an irredeemable lust for power and undiluted hostility towards Arthur. A prominent exception is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which she is a central character, and which brilliantly combines all her contradictory, traditional roles in what adds up to a truly complex and sympathetic character, in my opinion thereby fulfilling the height of her tantalizing potential. Morgan Le Fay is Arthur's half-sister and the female counterpart to Merlin, and her relationship to magic and political power often says loads about the depiction of women in the narrative. As such her presence has always, for me, highlighted a potent tension between a female mysticism and male chivalry that I think is inherent in the story (a dualism with heavy qualifiers, but, I think, one that ultimately holds). In any case, she has always been far more appealing to me than Guinevere, who cannot seem to escape definition through her relationships to her husband (Arthur) and her lover, (Lancelot).

Aithusa's healing of Morganna in Merlin gestures enticingly to the contradictions embedded in Morgan's legend. These contradictions may have happened accidentally, but, as in Bradley's version, they have enriched the story and acquired an integrity of their own, so that in seeing the vacillations of human behaviour in them, they can enable us to envision the sheer voluptuousness of human complexity. As a story about Becomings, will the series attempt to account for the traditional roles played by this mysterious figure? I would love to see Merlin's decisions complicated not by Morganna's power, but by her, for want of a better word, goodness.

Of course, this is not to say that the series doesn't have an awful lot to be desired. But to me, it has effectively accomplished that which begins good art, interesting the emotions.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Good, the Short and the Scary

There is a widely-believed myth that short stories are kind of easy-for-idiots versions of novels - easier and faster to write because they are shorter in length. A frequently suggested solution to my writer's block is to take a step back and write short stories for a while, until I refine my 'voice' and can get into the serious business of writing novels.

I'm not a short story writer. The short story is a particular aesthetic form with conventions, cliches and genius-requirements of its very own, quite distinct from novel writing. An easy way to distinguish the two is that short stories tend to be denser in meaning, and less dense than poetry. Bottom line: it takes a particular kind of writer to master the short story.

Of course I believe that we no more really live in an age that appreciates the short story any more than we are in an age in which poetry is the literature of the day. I wonder why that is. Even people who read widely tend to avoid anthologies of short stories.

When I was in school and frequented libraries I loved one kind of short story, the horror. I devoured anthologies of short horror tales, some classics like the American gothics of Edgar Allen Poe, but more often the more modern tales. I think horror tales are particularly suited to the short story form. Not because they ought to finish quickly, but because there is a kind of formula to the effect of the uncanny that roughly follows the strict, tricky limitations of the short story. When I read horror anthologies I read them for their cleverness, not for their scariness. Many good ones were written for children. Some excellent ones even made me laugh. The best horror tales made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with sheer delight in their ingenuity, their wit and elegance, and these are are qualities highly important for good short story writing. They require a great deal of intelligence to enable one to work with creativity and style within the strictness of the form.

Tuesday, 09 March 2010

Alice in Fantasyland?

Humbly bearing in mind my maximum readership of two, as well as the fact that I write these pseudo-academic ramblings mostly for my own satisfaction, I shouldn't have to begin by making this point again, but I will. The essay writer's imperative to begin with the assumption that one's readers are completely unfamiliar with one's subject is too deeply etched within me:

I am not a story purist. When I approach retellings of stories, or re-imaginings, and, especially, film adaptations...of previously known tales, I don't dislike deviations from the original simply because they are deviations. It is true that I always enjoy spotting the deviations, and pointing them out to less-than-enthusiastic friends, but that doesn't mean I disapprove of them per se. My approval depends on several factors, among the most important: what they accomplish (or fail to accomplish), and how they facilitate dialogue across mediums (film and novel) and/or generations.

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was a toss-up for me. Let me state for the record that I enjoyed it. I like Fantasy, and that is what the movie has turned the Alice books into. The Alice books are certainly not Fantasy stories, but Dream tales, and the difference between the genres of Fantasy and Dream is a crucial one, but I'll get to that. Right now I want to state my central observation, which is that in converting the genre the film has essentially sacrificed the most striking value of the books: their peculiarity. And in return it has given us a story so generic that we can, as my sister aptly stated, predict exactly how the story will go simply by looking at the movie poster. Which is not to say the film-makers have done a bad job. A good story told before, even many many many...many many many many times still a good story.

In terms of genre the one family trait that Dream and Fantasy share is their unreality...their offer of the avowedly impossible. And in both genres, the key to their impossible visions may lie in psychology...but that is where they part ways. Because if Dream is a map of the subconscious, then Fantasy is most certainly closer to the conscious, systematically resolving the unconscious impulses that do not tally with the conscious notions of the morally (meaning socially) acceptable. What sets Fantasy so far from the Dream tale is that its writers are strictly constrained by structure and above all, by morality. Fantasy stories are profoundly moral. Dream tales carry no such restriction. They can be whimsical, and idiosyncratically so, without relying on myth to give resonance to their visions.

The Alice books have the distinction of being the first children's tales that were written without the intention of trying to teach children something, which, in the strict socio-cultural context of Victorian England, was a big deal. If anything the books parody that most ubiquitous trait of children's literature, didacticism, with particular glee. If there is one theme that is continuous in the books, it inheres in the recurrent image of various characters assuming authority over Alice and attempting to teach her something, or reprimanding her, while Alice notes that they speak pure nonsense. Such exchanges provide abundant plays on language, with rhymes and maxims turned upside down and inside out. And they are truly dream tales, which accounts for an almost complete absence of a plot. Therein lies the fun of the Alice books, their wit, and most importantly, their uniqueness.

Despite my admiration, however, the Alice books do leave me unsatisfied on one count: they do not move one emotionally. Why should they? They were written to amuse, and so they do, and in a way that has become iconic worldwide. But it seems that even more than a hundred years later, we still cannot fathom the value of telling a story simply to amuse kids.Oh no. We love the imagery that the Alice books provide, but let's give it a plot: a hero, a quest, a battle, and thus give it that one thing that it seems to be sorely lacking: a message. In other words let's make it into something completely different from what it is, a fantasy, and moreover of a kind that is as common as it is predictable.

Monday, 08 March 2010

Erika in the Painting

My collection of stories, in both cinematic and novel form, is extensive. And numbered among them are many films and books that I dislike in their entirety, for whatever the reason. Yet I would not pass up the chance to buy them if I could rewind time, and that's because there's a very particular reason behind my acquisition of every book and DVD I've ever bought.

I process stories in fragments, in terms of the individual frames of a film, or passages in a book. I also judge stories in terms of their wholeness, but very few have passed on that score. Most frequently, I find myself arrested by one scene where beauty, eloquence, and transcendent vision converge in a two-hour film that is otherwise pure crap. I would never pass up the opportunity to acquire such a film. That one scene may be the key to the conception of something beyond the banality of the story in which it is trapped.

The movie that has inspired this tirade is not to be ranked with such overwhelmingly sullied gems, however. The 1990 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The Witches", starring Anjelica Huston, has always been one of my favourite fantasy pictures of all time. While the opening sequence possesses the true thrust of the movie's captivating mystique, the second half is mostly saved by the elegant evil of Anjelica Huston's exotic performance.

Yet there is one scene in this movie that has stayed with me since the first time I ever watched it, and has remained as haunting as ever as I watch it now with the jaded, penetrating eyes of the literary scholar: Luke's grandmother is telling the story of how her friend Erika was stolen by witches. Not long after her friend's disappearance, she recalls coming to Erika's house:

The return to the time of a grandmother's childhood in Norway is both locked within the frame of a lost time and evocatively embodied before us. The tense specter of a child's unexplained disappearance is unstated and in every detail present. Then comes that moment of chilling strangeness when our tense separateness from fantasy dissolves in the full apprehension of a fairy-tale evil. Luke's grandmother relates the scene in the voice that is key to the enchantment at work:

"Then that day, while Erika's mother was pouring the coffee, her father came walking towards us. It was as though he had seen a ghost...His face was all twisted up as he walked towards the painting behind me. if it always had been there...was Erika...locked in the painting...gazing at us..."

The scene as described is not overtly penetrating. But experienced in its form - something to do with the captured face of a child that could never exist anywhere but in the suffering of the eerie torment of being locked in a painting, in the composition of the figures, and the lulling chill of the voice of the grandmother and the spare chimes of a sweetly insistent score - few cinematic moments have struck me like this one.

In my book, Erika in the Painting is one of the few truly perfect accomplishments of cinematic story-telling. It will stay with me always as a reminder of the essence of fairy-tale...the apprehension of pure a melody at the shrill edges of the dark side of music.

Friday, 12 February 2010

King Arthurs and Their Stories

I recently started watching the series “Merlin”, which has pitched me back into one of my favourite subjects: the stories of King Arthur, sometimes called Arthuriana or The Arthurian Cycle in academic contexts.

Let me state for the record that I have not always been a great fan of these stories, which has always been distinctly out of character, since I have tended to fall on the sword-and-sorcery side of aesthetic pleasure, of which the Arthurian tales are considered the epitome, since before I can remember. Puzzling over this recently has led me to the realization that despite containing all my childhood favourite ingredients for a story – magic, sword-play, mythic beasts and ladies in smashing outfits – the Arthurian stories never appealed to me because I’d never been able to tap into a female connection to the story, an absolute necessity for my enjoyment of a tale. Two discoveries led to my conversion: the first was of Morgan Le Fey, at last a female character I could root for, and secondly, the astounding thematic space afforded by the mythic nature of the tales, which I did not have the sophistication to appreciate as a child. I should explain what I mean by 'thematic space', while I hope that my meaning of 'myth' will speak for itself.

There is no definitive source for the all the elements linked to the Arthurian stories, no ‘original’ text from which it derives its fundamental material. J.R.R. Tolkien compared its formulation to the steady brewing of a soup over centuries of story-telling, involving participants of various kinds – story-tellers, legend-bearers and some bits of history – all of which have added to the mix. What it is now is a collection of associated tales and a family of characters and events in endless variations occasioned by innumerable retellings. Its central significance, holding the lot together, lies in the rise and fall of a golden age, the age of King Arthur. Less to the abstract, King Arthur’s reign has come to represent an idealized Britain, situated and sustained within the ahistorical boundaries of mythic time.

To date, the tale has come to assume the following ‘core’ formulation: Arthur unites the factions of Britain and reigns over a stable and flourishing kingdom. In this he is either aided or opposed by the established characters in the Arthurian cycles, Merlin the wizard, Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and of course his trusty Knights of the Round Table. The key themes underlying Arthur's success are unity and brotherhood, symbolized in the literary device of the Round Table. The fall of the kingdom coincides with the affair of Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, and his First Knight and dearest friend, Lancelot, which unravels the fabric of brotherhood and thus destabilizes the kingdom (symbolized in the fidelity between King and Queen and between King and Knight). Hence many retellings (and it should be stressed that all tellings of the Arthurian tales are retellings) reduces the tale to these elements. These are the bare bones of the tale as they have evolved; no matter what archetypes are evoked by the characters in each telling, heroic king, tragic knight, doomed lover, selfish seductress or suppressed female, the tale always ends the same, and that is what enables the story’s mythic function.

But what is fun about the Arthurian stories is that so many additional elements, complex and compelling in themselves, have been boiled into the mix that there is an almost limitless possibility of themes that can be played out, so that the story is at once always familiar, always mythic, and yet always delightfully different, always able to yield new and rich stories.

End of Part 1.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

On Austen's Clues

Clueless, the 1995 Alicia Silverstone fluff-fest, was based on Jane Austen’s Emma; surprising, but apt you must allow. I never cease to enjoy the expression that comes over people’s faces when I share this piece of trivia, whether they be lit-buffs/Austen fans or just plain Clueless haters.

Let me first note that there has been a long tradition since Clueless for fluffing down various canonical works into teen-aimed flicks, which may or may not have been sparked off by the movie. Most people do not know that Clueless is based on a Jane Austen novel, and it was never marketed that way, not is it ever mentioned. That Ten Things I Hate About You is a version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is better known. Less witty modernizations of canonical works are even more publicized, like the dreadful She’s the Man starring Amanda Byrnes, a lamentably predictable excuse for Twelfth Night. Clueless may not be as witty as Ten Things or even as stylish as Cruel Intentions, but I think it certainly shares more with Emma than any of the ones I’ve mentioned, and that sheds some interesting light on the work of Miss Austen, particularly as the relationship between Clueless and Emma is so seldom thought of.

Cher Horowitz is the ostensible contemporary take on Emma Woodhouse, in characterization if not social location; after all modern day Beverly Hills is hardly the most pleasing equivalent for the classes Austen wrote about, who though wealthy and privileged (and not always that) were not really glamorous. Both heroines are blessed with good looks, affluence and social superiority, and marked with the same flaws, although Cher’s vanity and self-regard is less advertised than Emma’s. Both fancy themselves as instrumental in the matchmaking of a teaching figure (Miss Geist in Clueless, Miss Taylor in Emma) with someone else, which inspires an ostensibly well-intentioned pageant of good deeds (and I do mean pageant) which inevitably go wrong. Both have to learn that the inherent flaw in their good deeds is the vanity which underlies them all, and that they are not as socially competent as they had thought themselves (in a word, clueless). Both end up with the one person who is able to criticise them (Josh in Clueless, Mr Knightley in Emma), symbolizing their arrival at humility and self-knowledge.

Why then, is Clueless such a fluff-fest, and Emma a canonical work? What stopped the many that don’t and didn’t know where the plot blueprint for Clueless came from, from applauding the movie the way many received Austen’s works and still do? Is the dressing up really that important? Surely if one has profound significance then the other should too?

I suppose the answer in part does have much to do with the dressing, or the fluffing down. Jane Austen was praised not only for her use of irony and wit but also for her keen observation of a society that she represented very well, all of which in Clueless is naturally dismissed. Consequently the meticulous representation of the manners, propriety, hypocrisies and virtues of a small slice of human experience have been largely sacrificed.

Jane Austen was, fundamentally, a realist writer, and Clueless, for all its amusing translation into contemporary fluff, is a fantasy world. It is not the sort of fantasy that this blog celebrates, but the kind which ultimately yields little more than spectacle and decadent self-indulgence. In doing so, it really makes fun of itself, representing its trivia as exactly that: trivia. Because no matter how polished or trend-setting Clueless was, or how great Alicia Silverstone looked in it, we are meant to laugh at Cher, and never for a moment take her or her trivia seriously. It is ironic, but not the way Austen was ironic. Emma, on the other hand, though every bit as vain and self-indulgent as Cher, is somehow a heroine whose redemption we do take seriously, whose trivia, it seems, we do take seriously.

Why is this? Perhaps the crucial difference between Clueless and Emma is that Emma's [social] cluelessness was never the primary flaw, but her lack of respect for a complex system of conventions meant to serve courtesy and honour, as a result of arrogant dismissiveness. And curiously, in its very irony, Clueless replicates this flaw, by mocking the trivia which emerges with such skill in Austen's novels as anything but. Because if Austen's novels teach us anything, it is that playing justly by society's rules is never trivial if it serves their original purpose to sustain virtue and express compassion.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Of Seeing and Believing

I am always excited about film adaptations of books. The same is also true of books that movies have been based on. Even if I didn’t particularly like the movie, if I discover there is a book behind it, I will get my hands on that book. I can’t exactly say why this is. I suppose I love comparing a story-telling across two mediums. Most of the time I am disappointed of course, but that is a universal cliché. I still always get something out of it, see something there I hadn’t considered before: the director’s vision sometimes so far from my own it enters my consciousness as an entirely new aesthetic, if not an entirely new story, so that I can appreciate it for its own sake. And I believe that is fairly peculiar of me.

The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights is what I consider a good example of a film adaptation. I say this particularly because I didn’t really enjoy this book, and that has nothing to do with the current controversy whirling around its religious themes. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was reading it for a class, but I didn’t feel the wonder and heightened emotion that one should feel from a good fantasy work. I didn’t ‘recover’ the ordinary through its fantastic estrangement. The movie effected this. The movie made me realize there were things in that story that had tuned in to my sense of the epic and the fundamental. But it had taken the movie to bring these feelings to flower. I find this quite remarkable, that the movie did what the book could not…definitely a first for me. And I have never cultivated prejudice for one medium, over the other. For me both books and movies nurture imagination in their own particular ways. Yet undoubtedly we have fewer opportunities to find book adaptations of movies than movie adaptations of books. I have found both, and been very surprised by both experiences. If anyone has any doubt of this, take a scene from what you consider a ‘good’ movie, try and write down all the subtle and fine touches in a single expression on a character’s face, make it into a ‘book’. You could write pages, but I don’t think you would get the same effect, not without being a tyrant over your reader’s imagination. And the same is true, curiously, of movies based on books; no actor could precisely capture what you felt for the words that originally evoked those emotions.

Maybe it was the effect of the succinct and the visual, and the medium just more properly suited the fairy-dimension. Then again I shall definitely enjoy the book more when I get it again.

One can read fantasy in the ‘right’ way of course, while still not succumbing to its emotional seduction. By the ‘right way’ I mean that we can ask ourselves the questions that we are supposed to ask, that the fantasy compels us to ask. In the case of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, people have been reducing this complex process to seeing ‘through’ the story to what it is ‘really about’. But this is missing the whole point of the value in fantasy’s extraordinary power to pull us back to the heart of the things we do. Reading (or watching) fantasy is never about what the story is about. It should give narrative form to ideas, the way myth does, but it is in its displacement to a world made strange, a world of magic and fairy-tale beings, it allows us to examine those ideas critically and consciously, without the distractions of the material. So the fantasists tell us.

And I confess I will always try to believe them, so long as they play fair and give us such worlds of wonder and peril as this. Whether seeing (movies) or imagining (reading), it is always really about imagining, isn’t it? It is just a way of feeling more than we ever could at the height of the mundane, in realms far beyond what is right there.