King Arthur, Excalibur, Merlin, Lancelot, and Guinevere are stamped hard into the popular consciousness. As touchstones, they don’t need a lot of explaining when writer’s choose to dump them into whatever story they want to tell. And yet, there’s a lot of things we haven’t seen nearly enough of when that happens.
There are so many versions of the story of King Arthur, it’s nearly impossible to keep track. But that diversity means that there’s a lot more to take then just Arthur, his sword, and his shitty romantic life. Ironically, for every complaint we have of the BBC’s Merlin, you can’t say it didn’t use everything it stumbled on that seemed vaguely Arthurian. That’s not the case with most film and TV adaptations, which rely on the same things over and over again. If we’re going to keep doing this story, why not bring these lesser-known stories and characters to life? We keep worrying about Game of Thrones running out of books and we keep seeing books split into several movies when it isn’t needed, when an Arthur telling could conceivably never run out of things to do.
Here are the biggest suggestions we have for anyone looking to do this tale for the billionth time.
Let’s Spend Less Time With Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur
This is the cornerstone of a lot of the modern Arthurian adaptations, and it makes sense. We’ve got all sorts of reasons to be into the tragic love triangle of Arthur the perfect king, Lancelot the good knight, and Guinevere the … queen. Look, a lot of the characterization of Guinevere depend a lot on how this tragic love story is being told. She can end up being virtuous and tortured or a hated adulteress. But, regardless, we’ve spent a lot of time examining this relationship from every possible angle, and it’d be nice to delve into other parts of the Arthurian legend than endlessly re-inventing this one.
Let’s Spend a Lot More Time With the Knights of the Round Table
There are a giant pile of knights that haven’t gotten a chance to shine. It makes sense, since giving them all their due would make a single story difficult to tell. But there are some great stories waiting to be told in them. Any Arthur telling could have the running subplot of how much everyone just straight-up hates Galahad for being so perfect all the time.
Why not have a story about Caradoc? He starts out rebelling against Arthur and then becomes a trusted advisor. That would be great. Chrétien de Troyes gave Caradoc his own a romance , with his wife Ysave. Ysave gets seduced by a enchanter who then makes Caradoc fall in love with animals while he gets Ysave pregnant with a son, who Caradoc thinks is his and names after himself. There’s a ton more, with a beheading test and Caradoc the Younger discovering his parentage. And, of course, the comeuppance involving more farm animals. Let’s do this story!
How about Sir Gawain? We could totally do with an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which doesn’t star Sean Connery as the Green Knight. Or even one about how his bizarre tendency to be at peak power during noon — it involves a priest praying for his strength God being very literal in granting his wish,. How about poor Bedivere, who spends his time helping another dude marry his dream girl and is often one of the few survivors of this whole mess?
The Saracen Knights
Speaking of seeing more Knights of the Round Table, there are Middle Eastern Knights who should totally get more screen time. Lord Esclabor was a Babylonian noble who ended up in Britain saving King Pellinore’s life and with three sons ending up as Knights of the Round Table: Palamedes, Safir, and Segwarides. Of the three, Palamedes is the one with the most story time. He’s the main rival for Isolt’s hand in the other well-adapted Arthurian love story, Tristan and Isolt. (Fun fact: Tristan has an affair with Segwides’ wife in Le Morte D’Arthur, and Segwides forgives him with “I will never hate a noble knight for a light lady.”) Palamedes is also one of the knights who goes after the Questing Beast, which has the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the back legs of a lion, and the feet of a hart. Pellinore’s whole family spends their time hunting the Questing Beast, while Palamedes’ hunt is as futile as his quest for Isolt’s hand.
We could even get the comedy version of this quest, which was written by T.H. White in the second book of The Once and Future King, The Queen of Air and Darkness. In that version, Pellinore gives up hunting the beast, and Palamedes and others try to bring him back to the hunt by impersonating the creature. Accidentally drawing an amorous Questing Beast out of hiding.
Merlin As a Demon-Begotten Prophet Who Is Not Around For Camelot
We’ve gotten used to the advice-giving, beard-having, magic-wielding Merlin. He’s basically the template that all other helpful sorcerers are based on. Put him, Dumbledore, and Gandalf in a line-up, and it’d look like a family reunion. But we could spend time with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of Merlin, who was less of a sorcerer and more of a prophet with his own shady background:
Upon this the messengers hastened to the governor of the city, and ordered him, in the king’s name, to send Merlin and his mother to the king. As soon as the governor understood the occasion of their message, he readily obeyed the order, and sent them to Vortigern to complete his design. When they were introduced into the king’s presence, he received the mother in a very respectful manner, on account of her noble birth; and began to inquire of her by what man she had conceived. “My sovereign lord,” said she, “by the life of your soul and mine, I know nobody that begot him of me. Only this I know, that as I was once with my companions in our chambers, there appeared to me a person in the shape of a most beautiful young man, who often embraced me eagerly in his arms, and kissed me; and when he had stayed a little time, he suddenly vanished out of my sight. But many times after this he would talk with me when I sat alone, without making any visible appearance. When he had a long time haunted me in this manner, he at last lay with me several times in the shape of a man, and left me with child. And I do affirm to you, my sovereign lord, that excepting that young man, I know no body that begot him of me.” The king full of admiration at this account, ordered Maugantius to be called, that he might satisfy him as to the possibility of what the woman had related. Maugantius, being introduced, and having the whole matter repeated to him, said to Vortigern: “In the books of our philosophers, and in a great many histories, I have found that several men have had the like original. For, as Apuleius informs us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates, between the moon and the earth inhabit those spirits, which we will call incubuses. These are of the nature partly of men, and partly of angels, and whenever they please assume human shapes, and lie with women. Perhaps one of them appeared to this woman, and begot that young man of her.”
There’s another version of the origin story in later stories, where Merlin’s mother is a virgin and his father a demon, with Merlin intended as a sort of Damien-style antichrist. He’s baptized though, and his unusually heavy metal birth is where he gets his powers. I would 100% support seeing this version adapted.
Geoffrey’s Merlin also has very little time for shitty magicians: Merlin in the meantime was attentive to all that had passed, and then approached the king, and said to him, “For what reason am I and my mother introduced into your presence?”— “My magicians,” answered Vortigern, “advised me to seek out a man that had no father, with whose blood my building is to be sprinkled, in order to make it stand.”— “Order your magicians,” said Merlin, “to come before me, and I will convict them of a lie.” The king was surprised at his words, and presently ordered the magicians to come, and sit down before Merlin, who spoke to them after this manner: “Because you are ignorant what it is that hinders the foundation of the tower, you have recommended the shedding of my blood for cement to it, as if that would presently make it stand. But tell me now, what is there under the foundation? For something there is that will not suffer it to stand.” The magicians at this began to be afraid, and made him no answer. Then said Merlin, who was also called Ambrose, “I entreat your majesty would command your workmen to dig into the ground, and you will find a pond which causes the foundations to sink.” This accordingly was done, and then presently they found a pond deep under ground, which had made it give way. Merlin after this went again to the magicians, and said, “Tell me ye false sycophants, what is there under the pond.” But they were silent. Then said he again to the king, “Command the pond to be drained, and at the bottom you will see two hollow stones, and in them two dragons asleep.” The king made no scruple of believing him, since he had found true what he said of the pond, and therefore ordered it to be drained: which done, he found as Merlin had said; and now was possessed with the greatest admiration of him. Nor were the rest that were present less amazed at his wisdom, thinking it to be no less than divine inspiration.
This Merlin also makes his prophecies and bails before Arthur ever shows up. It would be a great adaptation that takes Merlin out of the picture before King Arthur takes power, and instead leaves everyone trying to figure out what he meant.
Split Morgan and Morgause Back Into Two People
Originally, it’s Arthur’s other half-sister, Morgause, who was the mother of Mordred the traitor. Morgan’s already got a number of murdery plans without also attributing Mordred’s to her. In fact, women other than Morgan and Guinevere get left out in pretty much every modern adaptation save The Mists of Avalon. The Lady of the Lake has a great backstory with Merlin, where she refuses to give him love unless he teachers her magic. Then she traps him in a tree. That’s more fun than her usual demotion to strange woman lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a system of government. How about Arthur’s mother Igraine, who Uther impregnates by pretending to be her husband? And who gets her by waging war on her husband? Lots of women with interesting stories to tell who aren’t Morgan and Guinevere, awesome as they may be.
These are just a few things from the rich and diverse Arthurian tradition that we’d like to see more than just endlessly focusing on Arthur himself. The richness of the story comes from the fact that it’s constantly been re-written to suit the tastes and issues of the era. And yet, we’ve somehow ended up with a very concentrated popular conception of that story, when there’s a lot more storytellers could be doing with it.