A Closer Look at Camelot

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 2, 2011 — 18 Comments

Like many modern Pagans I’ve been long fascinated with Arthurian myth and its ties to pre-Christian religion. So little is actually known about the historical reality of Britain’s King Arthur that both Christians and Pagans alike have claimed him for their own. In the early 1980s, a mini cultural movement of sorts began that either gave greater emphasis to “pagan” elements in the story or imagined the entire mythos through a lens of Celtic pre-Christian religion. A precursor was Mary Stewart’s “Merlin Trilogy,” which saw an omnibus edition released in 1980, then came John Boorman’s 1981 film “Excalibur,” which explicitly counted Merlin and Morgan Le Fay as followers of the “old ways,” followed by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1982 with her revisionist (and highly influential) novel “The Mists of Avalon”. In 1984, the first novel of The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay, which explicitly tied Arthur to Welsh and Celtic myth in a fantasy setting, was published.

This movement utterly changed the way the Arthurian story was told in modern times. While King Arthur was considered a Christian story for hundreds of years, it was now accepted that pre-Christian themes be included in any modern retelling of the legend. From Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles to 2004’s big-budget film “King Arthur.” Some tellings were good, and some were not-so-good, but few can deny that the tension between pagan religion and Christianity has now become a fairly integrated trope in the story. Much like the modern introduction of a Muslim character into the Robin Hood cycle, which also underwent a process of “paganization” in the 1980s, but that’s a different story.

This Christian-pagan trope in the Arthurian cycles sees its latest expression in Starz new series “Camelot.” Yesterday, I briefly mentioned an Assignment X interview with actor Joseph Fiennes, who plays Merlin in the series. In it, Fiennes talks about the pagan nature of his character.

“…we wanted the magic to be something very organic, elemental, true to [Merlin as] a pagan character. He’s not of this newfangled Christian age. He has a very different belief system…”

This theme is repeated in an interview with actress Eva Green who plays Morgan.

“She’s not the image that we first have in mind: a sorceress. She wants to restore pagan ways — celebrate sexuality, love.”

And again, in an interview with Executive Producer/Showrunner Chris Chibnall.

“He says his focus is on credible, relatable characters built off of the struggles of the time, the conflict between emerging Christianity and fading paganism, which is personified in the characters of Arthur and Merlin. But, according to Chibnall, there are other characters, like Morgan, who have a much more complex relationship with those traditions.”

So whether it’s bad or good, pagan themes in the Arthurian cycle are further solidified in “Camelot.”

I don’t have Starz at home, so I’ll have to wait 90 days before I can watch it on Netflix streaming, but if you’ve seen the first episode, do let us know what you thought. Were the pre-Christian elements handled well? How was Merlin? Morgan?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • fyreflye

    I believe the first two episodes might be available from iTunes or Hulu now for a nominal price. But I haven’t checked.

  • MikeyUK

    What…no mention of the recent BBC series?

    On an unrelated note, I’ve noticed that you don’t usually capitalise the word “Pagan”, although you afford this to virtually every other religion or religious umbrella term. Is this a conscious decision? If so, could you explain your reasoning?

    Thanks Jason!

    • http://www.OccultCorpus.com Caliban

      If you look at this article, you will see Jason does in fact capitalize Pagan while speaking of contemporary religious affiliation. Lowercase pagans are those who followed pre-Christian religions in antiquity. E.g. Starhawk is a Pagan, but Lucius Apuleius was a pagan intitated into the Isian Mysteries.

      • Jason Pitzl-Waters

        What Caliban said.

        • http://witchesandscientists.blogspot.com Gene

          A pox on both of you! That's "Isain", not "Isian"! :)

  • Haakon

    Well, if there are any pre-christian elements handled at all, I would’ve needed some one to bonk me on the head and shout, “There’s one now!” Arthur was crowned by some all duded up bejeweled and fancy robed catholic-like high priest. I can’t remember word for word, but Arthur swore to uphold the laws church and the gospel. Having seen but this first episode, the jury is still out over here. Eva Green and Tasmin Egerton notwithstanding, by the third episode of any series usually determines if I watch four and beyond. The costumes, sets, location and acting are superb, tho.

  • Rombald

    I thought the 80s paganisation of Robin Hood worked well. If you see Robin Hood as being about the downtrodden rural poor, and English, against the rich, the church, the cities, and the Normans, relict paganism fits quite well politically.

    I don't think having blacks and Muslims, as in more recent retellings, makes as much sense. It is true that there were small numbers of black people in northern Europe in mediaeval times, and I therefore agree that non-white actors should not be completely excluded from films of that era. However, the Islam connection makes less sense politically, as the Muslim world was largely more urban and sophisticated than Europe, and especially northern Europe, so it doesn't fit with the whole people-on-the-fringes-at-one-with-nature thing.

  • MikeyUK

    Ah ok…I can see that in this article, but what I had in mind was the article Jason wrote for the Washington Post, although I assume he was bound by their editing conventions.

    Thanks for clearing that up.

  • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com NorseAlchemist

    Camelot. Camelot? Camelot!

    It's only a model.

    Shhhh!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xijDLnFoVYI

    That said. I don't know about historical accuracy, but dang that looks cool. I look forwards to seeing it on Netflix

    • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

      HA! That song admittedly is the first thing I think of when I think of King Arthur, MP have spoiled me.

  • http://twitter.com/LionessFeathers @LionessFeathers

    Husband and I watched it last night (DVR'd it!) and while I can't really comment (I'm of Egyptian tradition and have little interest in the minuscule details), he enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the Oghm tattoos on Merlin's hands. We had been hoping for the Lady of the Lake telling vs. Sword in the Stone, however. We'll be watching it again.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I don't get Starz, but I appreciate that the two embedded videos ran smoothly, did not take time spooling and lacked ads.

  • ejm

    Morgan was great , but she may not be too sure what she getting into as far as her brand of witchcraft goes, – just MY opinion. I like the Merlin in Excalibur really well – but this new character is pretty cool , and smart. Seems maybe he isnt going to use his"power " or craft too much yet. No real Wicaa, Witchcraft,Pagan or real "Christian" elements yet in my opinion- as stated in an earlier post, you have to watch a few to know if you are going to like it or not and continue the series. There was more witchy (heehee) stuff in Legend of the Seeker than this so far. I miss that show!They even had a mock pentacle made out of candles in one episode- too cool!The books are the best tho.If you have ever heard of Rosalind Miles- her stories are FULL of pre-christian elements and pretty accurate- love all her Guenevere & Isolde tales- very into female rulers , healer's , and queens, witches – now thats what I LIKE!!She really goes into what it may have felt like to be in that era and see christianity take hold and male rule come into power from the roman ways and stuff. In her stories there are strong female role models.i am getting off track……………………..oh and i cant spell…

  • Cathryn Bauer

    I have always been sympathetic to Morgan le Fay and am having a little trouble with her being portrayed as something of a sociopath. I'm looking forward to seeing how that aspect of the show plays out, though, and what we'll find out about her at the end. I thought the business of her being left for the night on the tree was very mythic and yes, I did notice the Ogham marks. I have never imagined Merlin to be as he's portrayed here. It does make sense, though, and I'm getting used to the idea. I think the show is visually very interesting. We're going to be following it at our house, though I'm not yet sure it will be THE Arthurian movie as far as I am concerned.

    Something MUST be done about about the dialogue, however. Arthur saying "No way" was like fingernails on a blackboard. Snort.

  • Daniel

    There are, actually, alot of Pagan elements in Arthurian Myth. For one, the Arthurian stories have many mythological parallels to Finn McCool and the Fenian Knights. As well, Cuchulain also has many overlapping similarities to the story of the Green Knight, Gwalchmai–The Hawk of May, with the beheading theme found in both Gaelic and Cymraeg Cultures. I might add, as well, that all of the oldest stories of King Arthur are Cymraeg in origin. One story in the Mabinogian has Arthur going into the Otherworld to retrieve the Cauldron of Inspiration from Annwn from the God Pwyll. In addition, the Cup of Truth, exists in profusion in Celtic Myth. In one story with King Cormac, a magical vessel, the Cup of Truth, actually shatters when a lie/false judgement is utttered in it's presence. It disappears and a stouthearted group of warriors must retrieve it to restore order to the wasteland.

    • Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Oh, certainly. But those elements didn't gain wider mainstream attention until the 1980s.

      • Daniel

        Indeed! But those elements are very important being connected to the recorded Celtic Myths in and of themselves. Caitlin Matthews does a wonderful job of bringing this to the fore. Her book: King Arthur & the Goddess of Sovereignty is a good collection of varying lore on the same themes.

  • kevin Norwood

    I dont have Starz but I will look for it on Netflix for sure. I like how they focused on the Pagan aspect of it.