Saturday, July 21, 2012

Back to the Source

I don't think I've ever worked so single-mindedly on one project in my life. I've been drawing for hours every day for the past month and a half. I've certainly discovered my limitations as an artist, but I see this as a chance to learn as I go.

Why this story, though?  The Arthurian legend goes back quite far in my life. I remember when I was five years old, a local television station ran The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, a half-hour adventure show from the UK, right after The Mickey Mouse Club. I'm sure I had no idea what was going on in the show, other than the fact that there were knights. (A bit of confusion then: I also watched The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I couldn't seem to get around the fact that in Sir Lancelot the good guys wore armor and in Robin Hood the bad guys did.) What really connected me with the Arthurian stories, though, was when I played in a high school production of Camelot. That may seem rather mundane, but for me it was a watershed. It was my first experience with theatre, and it was my first real connection with the actual story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Obsessive that I am, I memorized the entire play and then read T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and then Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Four decades and many other books later, this legend is the taproot of who I am. My love of literature, history, myth, comparative religion, fantasy, theatre, storytelling, and Monty Python all revert back to the cycle of stories which revolve around this figure, the very nature of whose existence is murky at best. As I get further into this project, I look forward to portraying characters whom I've known for most of my life. In that respect, it's not unlike attending a high school reunion. (Truth be told, being the socially awkward nerd that I was, I know these characters better and have kept better contact with them than I have with my actual classmates.)

I suppose it's no surprise, then, that the first character we meet is my oldest friend. I have always been beguiled by Merlin (or Merlyn, as T.H. White spelled it, or Myrddyn in the Welsh as his name appears in Calogrenant). I'm certainly not the only one who feels this way. Merlin seems to have been second only to Arthur in general interest almost from the beginning. The 12th century Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in his Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of British Kings) wrote the first full history of Arthur, also made a star of Arthur's mystical advisor. Geoffrey imported Merlin from a couple of generations later, and incorporated at least two if not three Celtic bards/seers/madmen into the character. Merlin was such a hit with readers that Geoffrey composed The Life of Merlin as a follow-up, and the mage has been an integral character in the Arthurian cycle ever since.

In the medieval stories, Merlin was dark and mysterious - a figure of awe - not that he isn't still. But T.H. White created a different Merlyn than Geoffrey's or Malory's. There was, I believe, much of White himself in his seer: a stodgy, cluttered academic who lives backward in time. His Merlyn was a guide for us into the middle ages, someone with our knowledge who has gone back to that age and observes with our eyes and attempts to bring to a violent age a sense of civilizing order. There is sad irony here, since during the writing of the books which comprise his Arthuriad, White lived through and was horrified by the bestiality of the Second World War. His book ends with Merlyn long gone and Arthur's idealistic experiment in ruins, at war with his best friend. What, I wonder, would Merlyn (or White) think of our world today, in which ideologues, devoid of their idealism, do their damnedest to destroy each other without bothering to discover who, exactly each other are. But to come back from the tangent, Myrddyn in my comic owes much to T.H. White, but just as much to J.R.R. Tolkien, Dr. Who, three quarters of my professors from college, and just about every presenter of B.B.C. documentary series, from Kenneth Clarke to the present. He's becoming in my mind an amalgam of just about everyone I've ever really wanted to have lunch with.

Speaking of the B.B.C., here's a link to one of the best reasons for state-sponsored media I've ever come across. My discovery of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg is one of the true perks of having the Internet. Once a week, he sits down with a few academics and discusses... whatever. This past week it was Hadrian's Wall. The week before that it was skepticism.  Forty-odd minutes a week of unashamed and glorious pedantry! So here's a discussion of Merlin from a few years ago. Enjoy.


Caroline said...

Melvyn not Merlin is why I sometimes can't get out of bed in the morning for fear of missing a line...

Every episode is now online so you could loose your whole life listening in fascination...

Who would have guessed just how many have had lives of pedantry for pay?

Gillian said...

I've been getting In Our Time as a podcast for some time now. I've used several programs in my Advanced Placement English classes. I have to admit, though, that the better part of an hour dedicated to Whole Numbers doesn't exactly fill me with paroxysms of ecstasy.

I don't know about the UK, but in the US paid pedants are a dwindling breed. Tenured positions are very few and about as accessible as the Holy Grail. I have a brilliant friend who was professorial at the age of 20 several decades ago. He's been teaching college English for years but has yet to receive a professorship and is still relegated to freshman comp and the bulk of that is online.