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