“Silver people on the shoreline, let us be…”

O tacky Arthuriana, where would be without thee? Someone needs to tell NBC to return the sword to its stone and back away slowly. Rue this news from Variety:

NBC has acquired a series take on the Camelot legend called “Merlin” that will anchor the net’s winter Sunday sked at 8 p.m. FremantleMedia is distributing the series, which was produced by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for the BBC. Shine recently acquired the Silverman-founded Reveille production outfit.

Cast of “Merlin” includes Anthony Head (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Skein just began production for the BBC, which plans to air it in the fall.

I may not be able to recall all of my Latin paradigms, or the year of the Battle of Lepanto, or what I had for breakfast this morning, but I do remember that American network TV has already limped down this benighted road.

Behold: “Mr. Merlin,” the 1981 series in which the famous wizard runs a garage under a false identity in San Francisco while taking an awkward teenage boy under his wing. (This same concept would be updated and relaunched two decades later under a new title: “To Catch a Predator” with Chris Hansen.)

You can see the pain-inducing promo for “Mr. Merlin” here and the opening credits here; fast-forward to the 8:19 mark.

Every few years, you can count on American television to dabble in this sort of half-hearted, quasi-medieval schlock. While you’re over at YouTube, don’t miss the opening credits for “Wizards and Warriors,” the 1983 series starring Jeff “Celebrity Rehab” Conaway and co-starring his hair, which is feathered like the plume of a mighty falcon. Or, if you can stand it, take another look at “Covington Cross,” the show you adored in 1992 if the Skye in your world was always the color of Ione. Then ponder “Merlin,” and despair…

“Looking in shades of green through shades of blue…”

When the Zemeckis Beowulf movie came out last year, several commentators insisted that a “fresh reading” often gives new life to an ancient work. Blogging medievalists weren’t necessarily hostile to that notion, accustomed as they are to studying stories that change over time, but most didn’t think the reworking of the epic succeeded on its own merits. Recently I wondered: Which film adaptations of medieval stories, if any, have succeeded without being true to their sources?

Expecting the answer to be “none of them,” I revisited what may be the most famously awful “medieval” movie: the 1984 film Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I hadn’t seen this turkey in 20 years, but I expected to find a wonderful piece of evidence against the “fresh reading” argument. In fact, I envisioned a world in which simply declaring “Sword of the Valiant! Sword of the Valiant!” would shut down any response from reckless modernizers who can’t be bothered to contend with a work of medieval literature on its own terms. Instead, what I found in Sword of the Valiant surprised me: a laughably bad movie, to be sure, but a most intriguing mess. The film fails not because its creators gave the story a “fresh read”; it fails because they loved its medieval sources just a bit too much.

If you’ve seen Sword of the Valiant, you know that the first ten minutes are somewhat faithful to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and there’s a five-minute section near the end that reminds you what this movie purported to be. The rest is a disaster. (Bafflingly, Sword of the Valiant is a remake of a film made more than a decade earlier by the same writer and director; that long-lost original is being reissued on DVD next month, I suppose to capitalize on the success of the Armitage translation.) The faces of familiar actors pass in and out of the frame—Trevor Howard, John Rhys-Davies, David Rappaport, even a weary Peter Cushing—but their presence fails to comfort, because Miles O’Keeffe, playing Gawain, is omnipresent.

How much Keeffe is in this movie? Miles O’Keeffe. Star of way too many awful, awful 1980s sword-and-sorcery flicks, O’Keeffe dons a Prince Valiant/Peter Frampton wig and takes up the challenge of the Green Knight, played by Sean Connery, whose pranceworthy outfit, spray-on tan, facial glitter, and exposed fuzzy midriff go a long way toward explaining why his wife from the original poem is nowhere to be seen.

En route to the Green Chapel, Gawain inexplicably wanders out of his original story and into another romance: the Yvain of Chretien de Troyes. Like Yvain, he’s trapped between two gates and then rescued by a maiden named Lunette, who brings him an invisibility ring. Three or four plot twists later, he falls into another lousy movie entirely and gets caught in a war between two barons, Bertilak and Fortinbras. Along the way, Gawain slays Morgan le Fay, whom the Green Knight turns into a talking orange toad. He acquires a squire, befriends a friar, interrogates a dwarf, and often earns praise and love for no apparent reason. We even see our hero chasing a unicorn through the woods with a crossbow because he hopes to kill and eat it. At that point, I don’t know why the filmmakers didn’t just show Miles O’Keeffe enjoying a Bavarian hang-gliding adventure over Neuschwanstein. That’s what he did as Ator in the equally terrible fantasy movie Cave Dwellers, and it couldn’t have made this movie worse.

Actually, I know why Sword of the Valiant never gets quite that random. Sure, the movie chokes on its own haphazard storytelling, but its randomness is of a particular type, resembling the immature but effusive novelty of the Squire’s story in The Canterbury Tales. When a pavilion full of food appears out of nowhere or a rainbow gleams in the sky after Gawain blows a horn by the seashore, the movie still stinks, but these strange moments at least make Sword of the Valiant a unique curiosity, ensuring that the film harks directly back to medieval literature in ways that most bad fantasy movies do not.

Consider the medieval storytelling motifs that don’t need to be in Sword of the Valiant but somehow get thrown in anyway. The unnamed, Arthur-like king declares that none shall partake of the Yule-feast until someone in the court proves he’s worthy of his spurs. The king is mouthing a cliche, of course, but the knight literally earning his spurs is a common folklore motif. (In fact, it pops up in the final reel, so to speak, of Ralph the Collier.) Unlike the hero of the original romance, who needs only to fulfill his promise after a year, our big, stupid O’Keeffe is also charged with solving a murky riddle, not unlike certain knights in Gower, Chaucer, and at least one other medieval Gawain romance. There’s even a stock encounter between our hero and an irascible porter, a scene with roots in countless medieval romances, even though it serves no purpose here. The inclusion of these and similar details suggests an interesting ambition on the part of the filmmakers: that they’re playing not to popular expectations regarding medieval adventure stories, but to the specific expectations of people who’ve actually read medieval literature.

Sword of the Valiant is random, episodic, unsatisfying, and incoherent. But when its actors deliver such interesting lines as “A sword is three feet of tempered steel, with death dancing on every inch and hanging like a dark star on the very point” or “The old year limps to its grave, ashamed,” they try to sound like they mean it, because it’s clear that the filmmakers want them to mean it. The movie bristles with this sort of unfocused ambition, much of it hinting that its creators resisted cinematic competence for the greater glory of half-assed medievalism.

Maybe that’s why I find Sword of the Valiant worthy of affection, if not an ounce of respect. Despite their desperate visual references to Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian and The Empire Strikes Back, the filmmakers aspire to rise above the usual fantasy cliches, even when they so obviously don’t know how. You can almost imagine them puzzling over dim memories of undergraduate lectures, as fascinated by Middle English as the haze of a hangover will allow, trying to rework the material not out of a need to freshen up their sources for modern audiences but because they loved the sheer medieval strangeness of it all. That’s why it’s fascinating, and a little sad, to see their apparent affection for medieval literature mated with sheer pretentiousness to spawn what is, in effect, a terrible work of medieval-lit fan-fiction.

Sword of the Valiant closely approximates a student’s first reading of the strangest medieval romances: you’re confused by an alien mindset, you’re served up a dog’s breakfast of medieval motifs, and you start to suspect that the storyteller has inherited an ancient pile of symbols that he doesn’t fully understand. It took centuries for medieval romances about grail-seekers and courtly love to seem outlandish and weird, and no actual romance is as blatantly strange as this movie, so let’s give Sword of the Valiant some credit: to accomplish that in less than 25 years—heck, to accomplish that just by releasing the film—sure must be some kind of art.

“Do you nervously await the blows of cruel fate?”

Over Christmas, while taking a break from alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse, I started reading Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain the Green Knight. The introduction led me to anticipate a bold, original poem. “This is not an exercise in linguistic forensics or medieval history,” Armitage warns his reader, insisting that “the intention has always been to produce a living, inclusive, and readable piece of work in its own right.” The poet spends four pages explaining his decision to imitate the alliteration of the Middle English original, as if it’s to be the sole conservative impulse in a translation that will otherwise astonish the reader with its rampant modernity.

At least one reviewer likewise suggested that Armitage was up to something wild. “His vernacular translation isn’t literal,” wrote Edward Hirsch in The New York Times. “[S]ometimes he alliterates different letters, sometimes he foreshortens the number of alliterations in a line, sometimes he changes lines altogether and so forth—but his imitation is rich and various and recreates the gnarled verbal texture of the Middle English original, which is presented in a parallel text.”

Not all reviews have been so positive. The Independent declared that “[t]here are some excellent hunting scenes towards the end, which Armitage rises to with great verve and agility. But there are also many moments of slackness, when the translation seems to have gone off the boil; when it feels dutiful, even throwaway.” Writing in The Guardian, Kevin Crossley-Holland remarked that in Armitage’s Gawain, “one has the sense of a wonderfully talented and versatile poet trying rather too hard.” And a Kansas City Star reviewer conceded the need for a new colloquial translation but ruefully concluded that Armitage “indulges in slanginess at the expense of decorum.”

Strangely, reviewers have neglected to mention Armitage’s most inexplicable choice. The 101 stanzas of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vary in length, but alliteration on stressed syllables consistently unites the first and second halves of each line. Calling alliteration “the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads,” Armitage reproduces this basic structural device, a difficult trick in modern English. But no one, not even Armitage, mentions that this new translation only partially preserves the form of the original.

Each stanza of the Middle English poem ends with a five-line “bob and wheel.” Unlike the bulk of each stanza, the bob and wheel rhymes: a short line (the “bob”) is followed by four longer lines (the “wheel”) in accordance with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B-A. Armitage admits that “[i]n the ‘bob and wheel’ sections where meter and rhyme also enter the equation, further deviations are inevitable”—but take a look at what Armitage considers mere “deviation.”

Here’s the original “bob and wheel” from lines 102-106:

in halle.
Therfore of face so fere
He stightles stif in stalle;
Ful yep in that Nw Yere
Much mirte he mas with alle.

Here’s Armitage’s rendering:

would meet.
With features proud and fine
he stood there tall and straight,
a king at Christmastime
amid great merriment.

Here are lines 198-202 in the original:

with yye.
He loked as layt so lyght,
So sayd al that hym syye;
Hit semed as no mon myght
Under his dynttes dryye.

Again, here’s Armitage:

and bone.
A look of lightning flashed
from somewhere in his soul.
The force of that man’s fist
would be a thunderbolt.

In Armitage’s translation, the bob and wheel sometimes rhymes perfectly, in keeping with the original. But occasionally, only two of the lines actually rhyme. And frequently, randomly—and to me, inexplicably—Armitage gives us a bob and wheel like the examples above, translated verses that completely ignore the tightly packed rhyme of the original.

I’m not sure why Armitage would faithfully reproduce the alliteration of his source text, reworking entire passages to coax his own rum, ram, ruf reluctantly into place, but choose to ignore one of the poem’s most memorable formal devices. Translating a Middle English original that both rhymes and alliterates is enormously frustrating, but even for the greenest of poets, it’s hardly impossible. Perhaps these omissions comprise the “moments of slackness” cited by The Independent, but what a peculiar translation we get as a result: one that’s beholden to form almost all the time, except when it isn’t. Armitage’s troubles can teach a new poet one difficult truth: if you’re going to translate a medieval work, you’d better commit to a form.

By contrast, consider a project by Adam Golaski. Yesterday, thanks to Brandon at Point of Know Return, I discovered Golaski’s Green, an oddball translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that’s now being serialized by the Web journal Open Letters. (The first selection is published here; the second is here.)

Reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s reworking of “Clementine” by “one of our modern ‘cool school’ of composers,” Green will baffle anyone who doesn’t know the original—but its first stanza reveals a translator who’s made a firm choice about form:

Since ceased th’siege + assault upon Troye,
bones brok’nd brittled t’bronz’nd ashes,
that soldier who trod treason o’er th’plots’v
his enemies was tried f’r treachery tho
agile Ennias, of th’truest on Earth, of high kind,
haunted by shade Dido, was worth th’wonder
wealth’v all th’west isles——
From rich milk’v wolf-mother Romulus
rose Rome’nd’n its captured riches Romulus was
swath’d. W/ arrogance he built his name
upon a hill + took Palatine t’Romulus t’Rome——
Tirius traveled t’Tuscany he built beginnings,
Langaberde’n Lombardy left us houses,
+ far o’er th’French floods Felix Brutus
on many full banks built Bretayn + sits
w/ one
where war’nd wreck’nd wonder
by surprise has went therein,
+ oft both bliss’nd blunder
fool hope shifted t’sin.

Although I can’t quite tell if Golaski is serious, or if his style is sustainable, Green is a pleasure to read aloud, a weird, silly, gimmicky jumble that makes Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer seem timid by comparison. Golaski toys with the notion of literal pronunciation; he acknowledges that he’s dabbling, at more than one level, in abbreviation; and he engages with the sound of the original poem, often regardless of anything else, riding recklessly into the open field even as Armitage lingers politely alone at the tree line.

Golaski’s rendering will never make it into the Norton Anthology, and I’d only use Green in the classroom if I wanted my students to hate me, but its weirdness demands that a reader react. With a medieval romance as rich as Gawain, “the work of a sly, sensuous, genial writer…who loved his fellow humans for their strengths, their weaknesses, their sheer complexity,” getting a rise out of readers is certainly someplace to start. Having focused on diction while skimping on form, Armitage failed to engage me. More true to a poem both strange and humane, Golaski at least made me laugh.

“A secret to be told, a gold chest to be bold…”

Hail to the king, baby. In an essay for the quarterly Coyote Wild, Scott Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard sets the 1992 guy-with-a-chainsaw-for-an-arm movie Army of Darkness firmly in its Arthurian tradition. Scott argues—persuasively, I think—that the film is more faithful to the spirit of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee than other adaptations have been, largely because it’s less willing to congratulate the modern world on its supposed superiority and doesn’t automatically sneer at the medieval.

My only regret is that Scott isn’t an Americanist. Then he could shed some critical light on another terrific Sam Raimi-Bruce Campbell collaboration, the little-noted nor long-remembered Jack of All Trades. You’ve got to love any series that keeps manufacturing excuses to place on the same East Indian island such figures as Lewis and Clark, James Madison, the Marquis De Sade, and Napoleon (Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer, in the role he was born to play). I like to think that if the show had lasted another season, King Arthur might have washed ashore, too. Avalon, Schmavalon—that funeral barge had to land somewhere…

“Hey there, laddie, internal exile…”

Like the rubble of Dinas Emrys raining down on Vortigern’s hapless masons, the barrage of books that purport to reveal the history behind the Arthurian legends still falls with some regularity on the just, the unjust, and the just plain uninterested.

This time, at least there’s a quirky twist: according to a new book, Merlin—yes, that Merlin—wasn’t merely a scholar from Scotland; he was also a resident of Glasgow from the year 600 until 618—and he lived on what’s now Ardery Street.

Local pride, dubious use of sources—the debate, quondam et futurus, continues, as Glaswegian conflicts do. Over at The Scotsman, the comments on the Merlin story became so heated that the editors had to shut them down. For now, I’ll stay neutral, but tonight, over dinner, I’ll honor the newly discovered McMerlin with an entree that also has its mythic roots in Glasgow. For all I know, King Arthur and Merlin invented it. Which, I can hear someone thinking, is a fine idea for a book…