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Well, you’re getting it (sort of) wrong if you’re getting it at all, anyway. Just about every year, sometimes every semester, I teach a British lit survey covering 500-1800 AD. Every year we read excerpts from Malory’s Morte Darthur, and I informally survey the class: what had you read or seen about these stories before now?

Here’s what usually comes up: two or three have actually read some version of the Arthurian legend, often a version influenced by Malory. That’s two or three out of approximately 90. A few have seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail; others, Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Occasionally someone will mention Excalibur, Arthur (“the real story”), First Knight or Merlin (either the mini-series with Sam Neill, or the recent BBC “young Merlin” series. In the end, maybe 1/10 of the class will have had some previous awareness of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in some debased form.

So I’m always interested in any new version, though every one is another opportunity to produce an enormous swords-and-sandals fiasco like Arthur. TV critic (and English major) Myles McNutt posts at Cultural Learnings about Starz plans for a new 10-part series called Camelot, based on Malory, and general difficulties of doing this kind of thing well:

However, I think Camelot represents the perfect example of the way in which Malory is used within adaptations of the Arthurian legend. They evoke the name because it is, in fact, still considered the definitive work on the subject, which offers the adaptation a certain degree of legitimacy. The problem is that they admit that Malory is just a starting point in the same sentence, and then goes on to pretty much state that they are only using Malory for the strands of “authenticity” that they will work into a “modern” and “relatable” tale of, most likely, melodramatic investigations of adultery and heroism, a reductive translation of Malory’s story.

Television as a medium is more capable than film of capturing the qualities which make the Morte a fascinating text, capable of giving attention to the substantial range of characters and even potentially being able to bring stories considered tangential to the “main narrative” to life in ways which are impossible in the more linear model of feature filmmaking. I think if someone really sat down and decided to tackle Malory’s text as a serialized, non-linear narrative, there is the potential for a sprawling and epic investigation of the value of chivalry, honour, kinship and morality within a complex series of events which challenge those values.

Yes, I’d like to see that show, too, but also fear that it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Why? McNutt goes on with a very insightful analysis of what holds Malory’s Morte together, and what most adaptations have largely left aside:

Therein lies the problem in studying adaptations of Malory’s work: inevitably, all of them are not actually adaptations of Le Morte Darthur. They all take creative licenses, and it is expected that they may not even resemble Malory’s text by the end of it. The real question, however, is why this is an inevitability; Malory’s themes and characters are not foreign to modern society, and the Arthurian Legend has certainly remained relevant. However, what D.S. Brewer has identified is that the central theme of honour is not something common within modern society.

All about Arthurian film and TV adaptations: Kevin J. Harty’s online Arthurian film bibliography.

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