King Arthur and Camelot in Once Upon a Time Season 5a: The Antithesis of Ideal
by Lori J. Fitzgerald (@MedievalLit)
The realm of King Arthur lies on the border of folklore and history. Its stories are brought to life in the pages of literature and echoing in the wind over the archeological sites of Cadbury Hillfort (Camelot) and Glastonbury Tor (Avalon). It is a place of magic and chivalric ideals of behavior and leadership, woven into the songs of minstrels so that all of medieval Europe knew of King Arthur and his knights. Here be wondrous tournaments and adventures for the mysterious questing beast, or the otherworldly Grail, or to rescue a fair damosel in distress. Knights in shining armor display great feats of strength and chivalry, right judgement, and courtly love. In Camelot, striving for your best self, for trouthe (integrity), is the utmost ideal. It is no wonder that Once Upon a Time, a show known for its unique twists on fairy tale characters, has reached into the mists to draw out King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Unfortunately, in Season 5a, the show has presented a very warped view of the medieval ideal of Camelot and chivalric leadership.
An Overview of Merlin
by Lori J. Fitzgerald-- @MedievalLit
"He walked with dreams and darkness,"
Merlin and Vivien, Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson
The most shadowy and complex figure in Arthurian legend is Merlin, a composite not only of roles but of people, both historical and literary. Enchanter, political advisor, teacher, prophet, poet: Once Upon a Time has a plethora of characterization to choose from for its undoubtedly unique portrayal of the Sorcerer coming up in Season 5. The Apprentice’s reveal of the Sorcerer’s name in the Season 4 Finale was an enchanting moment; however, one thing that research has shown about this enigmatic wizard is that "Merlin" was probably not his real name.
Names have power, as we know from Rumplestiltskin. The Ancient Celts believed that the name of a person and his soul were connected, and as thus, tied into power and control. Names should be kept hidden. The great Bard Taliesin formally forbade all teachers in the Celtic realm from revealing personal names, as they held the keys to the sacred stories. So "The Merlin" was probably either a nickname or a title. A merlin is a type of falcon, small, swift, and dark: a hunter of other birds. As such, it seems appropriate for a person who was powerful enough to be a Maker of Kings.
Rumplestiltskin's Transformation in Once Upon a Time: Literary Anti-Hero to Hero Archetype
by Lori J. Fitzgerald (@MedievalLit) and Teresa Martin (@Teresa__Martin)
“Ah, but I’m a villain. And villains don’t get happy endings.”
~Rumplestiltskin to his father in Episode 3x11, “Going Home”
In the first few episodes of Season One on Once Upon a Time, it was easy to classify the characters into stereotypical roles: Snow White, Prince Charming, and Emma as the heroes/protagonists and the Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin as the villains/antagonists. However, as the stories unfolded and we learned more during the Enchanted Forest flashbacks, it became apparent that the lines of good and evil were not as clear cut as they were drawn in the original fairy tales or the Disney movie versions. The creators of the show, Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis, emphasized from the very beginning that their take on the characters was not a traditional one; all their creations were complex and dynamic, or changing characters with both virtues and flaws. So the Evil Queen’s revenge stems from the murder of her true love, Rumplestiltskin was betrayed by his wife and lost his son, Snow White casts a curse that kills Regina’s mother and blackens her own heart, and Emma sanctions a Lost Boy’s heart being ripped from his chest to facilitate contacting Henry. These are just some examples of “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” as the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth would chant (I.i.10). So far, none of the major series players in Once Upon a Time are true villains or true heroes. They are all flawed protagonists. Rumplestiltskin in particular is a literary anti-hero, which is a flawed protagonist, or main character, which has qualities usually belonging to a villain, but these traits are tempered with other human, identifiable, and sometimes even noble traits as well.
One of the earliest uses of the narrative role of anti-hero is by John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667), who casts Lucifer as the central figure in the first part of his epic poem. Lucifer is overwhelmingly arrogant, powerful, cunning and deceptive, but he is also the most beautiful angel and so charismatic that he is able to rally the other angels in his army after a crushing defeat in the war. During the Romantic period of literature (approximately 1800-1850), the anti-hero was given further “dark” qualities of being emotionally conflicted, brooding, and self-destructive by the poet Lord Byron, and thus the terms anti-hero and Byronic hero became intertwined. A Byronic hero was described by the Romantic literary critic Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) as "a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” Byron’s pirate anti-hero in “The Corsair” (1814) is
That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)
And He knew himself a villain—but he deem'd
The rest no better than the thing he seem'd;
And scorn'd the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath'd him, crouch'd and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XII)
Some well-known Byronic/anti-heroes in literature include the wild and vengeful Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and the secretive, brooding Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Both of these characters may have been patterned after Lord Byron himself, whose own lover characterized him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series is a well-known contemporary Byronic hero, and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader can also fit this role.
By Lori J. Fitzgerald
J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, first performed on stage in 1904 and later novelized in 1911, is a classic of children's literature. It's famous setting, Neverland, is a treasure map filled with adventures and fanciful characters of a child's imagination: secret hideaways, fights with pirates, daring rescues of Indian princesses, mermaids in lagoons, flights through the air, a boy who never grows up. However, upon reading Peter Pan as an adult, Neverland and its denizens take on a darker atmosphere in the older and wiser mind. Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis often said they based their portrayal of Peter Pan as a twisted character on the question, "What type of person would refuse to grow up?" Once Upon a Time's version of Peter Pan and Neverland take on the exact sinister atmosphere that an adult reader senses lurking underneath the whimsical plot of Barrie's book.
By Lori J. Fitzgerald
In Episode 3x02 of Once Upon a Time, “Lost Girl,” Snow White finds the inner strength and commitment to lead her people through what she thinks is a magical weapon, the Sword in the Stone. Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, is an iconic symbol of kingship. In true Once Upon a Time fashion, this sword not only proves Snow White worthy of the throne but also connects to the greater theme of acknowledging one’s true self in “Lost Girl."
Above: Illustration by Howard Pyle
In medieval Arthurian literature, the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur are actually two different swords, although popular culture and Prince Charming treat them as one and the same. Sir Thomas Malory, in compiling the various Arthurian legends of his day and crafting them into the definitive version Le Morte Darthur, combines the tales of the two Excaliburs, thus solidifying them as one sword in our minds. Prince Charming claims that the Sword in the Stone, called Excalibur, was forged by the benevolent mage Merlin from the realm of Camelot. In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1470), England is in political chaos for many years after the death of the king, Uther Pendragon. Merlyn (as spelled in Malory) finally sends for all the knights and lords of the realm to gather in London at Christmas because Christ the King would show them by some miraculous sign who should be king of England. “When matins and the first Mass were done, there was seen in the churchyard opposite the high altar a great stone, four-square and like unto a marble stone; in the middle thereof was an anvil of steel a foot in height, and therein stuck a fair naked sword by the point. There were letters written in gold about the sword that said thus: Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightfully-born king of all England” (8). Arthur is in London with his foster-father, Sir Ector. As squire to his foster-brother, Sir Kay, Arthur is instructed to go back to their lodgings to fetch Sir Kay’s forgotten sword, but the lodgings are locked. Arthur then takes the sword from the stone and gives it to Sir Kay, not realizing what it is. Sir Kay attempts to claim kingship, but his father gets the truth out of him. However, although Arthur is crowned king, many of the lords of the realm do not fully accept this sign, and he has to wage war to solidify his claim to the throne. He “drew his sword Excalibur, and it was so bright in his enemies’ eyes that it gave light like thirty torches” (13).
By Lori J. Fitzgerald
The Charmings may be growing magic beans to return to the Enchanted Forest, but in Episode 2x19 “Lacey,” Once Upon a Time takes us into the medieval literary setting of Sherwood Forest. Although the famous outlaw of this greenwood, Robin Hood, makes but a short appearance, his presence still gives us a glimpse of the swashbuckling legendary character and holds its weight worth in gold by advancing the symbolism and theme of this episode.
Robin Hood was a character of medieval ballads which were told or sung by wandering minstrels. In a time where only members of the nobility or clergy could read, the ballads were meant as performance literature for both the commoners and the court; therefore, as in many folktales of the oral tradition, the Robin Hood stories were a constant re-creation, continually adapted and changed by the minstrels who performed them, rather than a careful, exact recitation (Bolton 348-349). Thus many of the original stories that have survived about Robin Hood and his band of outlaws are conflicting or fragmented. Medieval stories achieved some consistency once they were scribed by monks or printed, but being written down was usually the last thing that happened to a ballad. The Gest of Robyn Hode, which is a collection of these ballads, was probably first set to type by the famous medieval printer, Wynkyn de Worde (the successor to William Caxton’s printing press) around 1500, although the ballads were popular entertainment for more than a century before this. The Gest as we have it today in Middle English was compiled from a series of Gest manuscripts and printed in the collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child in the late 1800s.
By Lori J. Fitzgerald
Each week we find ourselves falling into the realms of Once Upon a Time, deeply immersed for an hour in plot lines and characters that are drawn from the pages of literature and given a new life. The phrase “into the deep,” which is also the title of Episode 2x08, and the word “deep” itself, can have several connotations: being fully involved with something, such as “deeply in love,” or a “deep sleep”; taking a plunge, as literally diving into deep water or figuratively risking a chance; and journeying into the depths of the mind or subconscious. In their story arcs so far, both Prince Charming and Regina have gone “into the deep” in their own ways. Their journeys as dynamic, or changing, characters mirror the words of Robert Frost and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two American writers who also wander “into the deep.”
One of Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) most famous poems is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a simple yet profound poem which explores going “into the deep,” in this case a winter wood:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
by Lori J. Fitzgerald
Jefferson: Stories. Stories. What’s a story? When you were in high school did you learn about the Civil War? How? Did you read about it, perchance, in a book? How is that any less real than any other book?
Emma: History books are based on history.
Jefferson: And story books are based on what? Imagination. Where does that come from? It has to come from somewhere. You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants some magical solution for their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic….
Emma: This is it. This is the real world.
Jefferson: A real world. How arrogant are you to think yours is the only one? There are infinite more. You have to open your mind. They touch one another, pressing up in a long line of lands, each just as real as the last. All have their own rules. Some have magic, some don’t. And some need magic. Like this one.
Once Upon a Time, Episode 1x17, “Hat Trick”
By Lori J. Fitzgerald
Huzzah! Once Upon a Time has entered the realm of Arthurian legend and literature with Episode 2x03, “The Lady of the Lake,” which features probably the most well-known Knight of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot. There are many works of Arthurian literature which span across the medieval period in Europe (approximately 1100-1500 AD), but Le Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory (1485) is considered the definitive work, as he took many of the Arthurian texts that came before him and shaped them into what is considered the paradigm of knightly stories, of which Sir Lancelot is as central a figure as King Arthur himself.
The feudal system was the reality behind King Arthur’s court. The knight, a professional and trained soldier of the warrior-elite, became a lord’s vassal, a member of his retinue, by pledging his military services and fealty to the lord. In return, the liege-lord granted the knight a tract of land or property called a fief. Knights ran their estates, kept order in the area, and administered justice to the lower classes. They could be called into battle at any time by their lord, and they were expected to fight valiantly to protect him. As part of the ruling class with such an important role in society, knights were also expected to follow a code of behavior. Medieval romances such as Le Morte Darthur mirrored real life in that the knight became the main character whose plot conflict often involved the attempt to adhere to the chivalric ideal of behavior (Cavendish 39-40).
The Code of Chivalry included several elements, among them battle prowess, largesse, gentilesse, curtesye, and trouthe. Battle prowess is strength and valor on the battlefield. Largesse is material generosity, and gentilesse is spiritual generosity. Curtesye is courtly manners, gentlemanly respect and fairness, and also involves the exaltation of women, also known as courtly love. Trouthe, or integrity, is most important; a knight who has trouthe maintains what is right in society and is true to his own ideal sense of self. If a knight follows the Code of Chivalry as a basis for behavior, then he gains and maintains honor.
Sir Lancelot is the first knight to be introduced in Le Morte Darthur:
Soon after Arthur had come from Rome into England, all the knights of the Round Table resorted unto the king and made many jousts and tournaments. Some knights so increased in arms and worship that they passed all their fellows in prowess and noble deeds, and that was well proved by many. But especially it was proved by Sir Lancelot du Lake, for in all tournaments, jousts, and deeds of arms, for both life and death, he passed all other knights; at no time was he overcome, unless it were by treason or enchantment. (141)
As the knight who surpasses all others, Sir Lancelot becomes the champion of the court, representing Arthur in battle and protecting him and his queen, Guinevere. In Once Upon a Time, Prince Charming asks how a Knight of the Round Table could “fall from grace,” and Lancelot answers because of “a woman.” This woman is, of course, Queen Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. In courtly love, which had its own code of conduct recorded by the writer Andreas Capellanus, the lovers’ feelings were kept unannounced and in secrecy; however, publicly the knight performed deeds of valor dedicated to and in adoration of his beloved which brought them both honor. The knight was absolutely committed to her, and if his desire was frustrated, then he would feel the throes of “love languor,” or lovesickness (Cantor 349). Therefore, loyalty and service to a beloved were equated with the same loyalty and service given to a liege lord (Keen 30). Lancelot, as the best knight, also excelled at courtly love: “Wherefore Queen Guinevere had him in great favor above all other knights, and certainly he loved the queen in return above all other ladies all the days of his life. For her he did many deeds of arms, and he saved her from the fire through his noble chivalry” (Malory 141). Courtly love, however, was supposed to be unrequited love. When, through his human fallibility, Lancelot gives in to his physical desire, he crosses the boundary to treason, the worst crime in medieval eyes, which could consist of slaying the liege lord, lying with his wife, or surrendering his castle (Keen 8-10). However, it is worth noting that Arthur knew of the affair, but chose to ignore it, and it was only when the charge of treason was brought in front of him at court by jealous knights that he had no choice but to act upon it: “…the king was full loath that such a charge should be upon Sir Lancelot and his queen, because the king had a suspicion of the situation. But he wished not to hear of it, for Sir Lancelot had done so much for him and the queen so many times that, wit ye well, the king loved him passingly well” (Malory 695). As an outcast from Camelot in Once Upon a Time, Lancelot has become a “sword-for-hire” for King George; this was a form of “bastard feudalism” in which a lord paid a fixed fee or offered political protection in return for feudal services from “freelancers,” or mercenary knights (Benson 142-143). It is no wonder that Once Upon a Time’s Lancelot has a tone of bitterness in answering Snow and Charming, for he has lost his love, his liege lord, and his honor.
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.