Friday, November 18, 2005

Baby, It's Cold Outside


14 degrees yesterday morning. The high was 27. Oh, man, I'm not ready for how cold this winter is going to be. In fact, the only thing that would be worse is snow. Which we already had this week. Right now it's one of those still, bone-dry late autumn mornings that just kill the greatness of fall (and everything else that it can). I didn't even buy the new jacket I was planning on getting this season. I hate the cold, and I hate the snow, and I hate the way DeKalb County barely plows. This sucks.

It also puts a dent in the one thing I'd love to do: move to Canada. The new American totalitarianism really freaks me out, so I'd like to see what living in a democracy is like, especially one that understands the differences between socialism and fascism (for Americans who still can't figure it out, socialism=good, fascism=bad, and neither one is actually communism). I think I could get used to using maple leaves and acorns for money, but the snow and cold...it just lasts longer there, doesn't it? Still, they have less gun violence and I'm sure they're in need of English teachers, right?

Maybe I'll move to Hawaii, instead. Posted by Picasa

Throwdown 11/18

15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. Jennifer Aniston is GQ’s first Woman of the Year. Why? Because she got divorced? Women are always honored for getting divorced, like it doesn’t happen to the majority of married women in America (divorce rate: 52%). It’s not an accomplishment, and her movie career is pathetic at kindest. You know who’d be a better choice? Angelina Jolie. She at least helps people. And don’t give me that "man-stealer" bullshit; what, Brad Pitt doesn’t have a will of his own? Nobody ever stole a man what didn’t want to be stolen.

2. Holy shit, it actually happened. Some dude got shot after seeing Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the 50 Cent product--er, movie. I thought white people were just being their usual overreacting, reductive, idiot shit-scared o’ black people selves. Wow. Is there a single stereotype the African-American community won’t play into anymore?

3. So, Keith Urban wants to stop the rumors that he’s dating Nicole Kidman, and the best he can come up with to say is: "Right now, it’s just a rumor. When and if there’s a statement we’ll make that public." Gee, I can’t see through that one, you fucking hick idiot. "Right now" it’s just a rumor? I get it, you’re fucking, but you don’t know if you’re dating yet. Dumbshit. What a dumbshit. Just lie, dude, it makes you look less stupid.

4. Diana Ross and Jon Voight are dating. Wow, the crazy people really do attract one another. Speaking of crazy people, Michael Jackson is using the public ladies room in Dubai. Mm-hmm. Says he couldn’t find the sign on the bathroom door. Look, we’ve all made that mistake, but it’s just so...Michael Jackson.

5. Unusually loud-mouthed starlet Hilary Duff is taking a break for awhile, probably so she can get her life back in order before the anorexia rumors start. Seriously, though, she looks anorexic. And her new video is ridiculous. And her last movie sucked. Yeah, some time off is just what I need. Maybe Haylie can actually release the album she recorded two years ago, but which her mother buried so as not to take any attention away from her precious one.

6. I think there needs to be some kind of injunction against American writers referring to Orlando Bloom as a "British movie hunk." I think a more appropriate description would be "British sexually non-threatening ladyboy beloved of 13 year-old girls and gay men."

7. Oprah now claims she never believed the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes romance was real, not for a second. Right, and I’m sure she also figured out that we’re at war with the wrong country and had no trouble understanding the end of The Blair Witch Project. Quick, somebody ask her what the monster is on Lost!

8. The Jane Austen Society in America is upset about the brazen sexual imagery of the new version of Pride & Prejudice, which they find "totally inappropriate." I can’t believe I typed any of those words in a succession like that. Jesus Christ, people, it’s a fucking movie. Can we please, please, please stop making these stupid Jane Austen movies? Let’s face it, folks, her novels are all overly-plotted exercises in genteel sexual wish fulfillment that have no relevance to today. And they’re awfully boring. Look, this Jane Austen revival and movie craze has been going on ten years now. I’ll make you a deal: if you stop making these movies for the next 40 years, I’ll go see everyone that comes out when I’m 69, okay? But please, a break, because it’s not like any of them have been that good, except for the 1995 Pride & Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Oh, and I liked Clueless.

9. Apparently Britney Spears always consults a psychic before making major life decisions (I believe the name of the psychic who told her to get married in Vegas to a childhood friend was named something like Bacardi or Captain Morgan), and this psychic has told her that she’s going to get pregnant again in the next six months. What kind of a just and ordered universe would allow Kevin Federline to keep breeding? On the other hand, whatever keeps her out of the recording studio is to be supported.

10. William Shatner wants to sell his kidney stone on eBay. See, Trekkies? He still hates your asses; that's the move of a contemptuous man. And you know there’s going to be a bidding war over it, too.

11. Kimberly Stewart got engaged for the second time this year, and Paris Hilton dumped Stavros. Man, why don’t Kimberly and Paris marry each other and get their fiendish search for major publicity over with? Then they can "accidentally" release a sex tape. It’s all so obvious. Jesus, will you two die in that plane crash already?

12. I support Johnny Depp’s breaking smoking bans in England and America. I mean, it’s kind of ludicrous and unfair to alienate smokers and tell them they’re awful people for smoking. Some people just aren’t going to quit, no matter how bad it is for you. How come smoking is bad, but restaurants never try and stop people from eating too much? Huh, how about a limit for fat people? I mean, they’re just as weak as smokers, so why not tell them how much they can have? Bartenders have to cut off drunks.

13. Sir Sean Connery is the recipient of this year’s American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. Which is, apparently, fitting for the star of First Knight, The Arab Conspiracy, and Zardoz, in which Sean Connery runs around in a diaper and ponytail for two hours yelling about the evil and power of the penis.

14. Bruce Willis is now offering $1 million to anyone who turns in al-Qaeda leaders. So all of you people who weren’t giving up the locations of al-Qaeda leaders because you couldn’t see what was in it for you, cash in on your info and meet Bruce Willis. What a fucking idiot. Yeah, I’ve been living next door Abu Masab al-Zarqawi for a year now, but I never turned him in because he rakes his leaves and he lets me keep the apples that fall on my side of the fence. Once, we even had a beer together. But, you know, now that an important man like Bruce Willis wants me to help him not look like a total fucking ass for making this offer, I’ll have to turn him in. Sorry, Abu, looks like we’re not going ice fishing this weekend after all! What a numb-nuts. Wasn’t there anyone at all who was willing to take Bruce aside and tell him that this wasn’t exactly going to look noble and stable, but more like a grandstanding idiot trying to make people think he’s personally doing something about terrorism? This is Sean Penn style showboating, right here. Can’t he get jobs anymore? I bet El Pollo Loco is hiring, they’re always hiring.

15. Gary Sinise has co-founded Operation Iraqi Children, which will send school supplies and help rebuild and reorganize the school system in Iraq. See, that’s what doing something useful looks like, not offering a bounty because you’re so damn slick. And, being a Midwesterner, Sinise is humble about it, too.

Anne Hathaway Is Just So Damn Naked

Yet another picture of Anne Hathaway naked from Havoc. I'm proud of the girl for having the courage to go naked after becoming a Disney girl, especially in today's Hollywood, which is terrified of tits (and loves gore). She's so beautiful, and I really think she's going to be a great actress. Thanks, Annie, for making my day today, you slice of wonderful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Must-See TV

I was reading Merna's blog just now, and agreeing with her on a couple of things: it sucks that Arrested Development got cancelled, and My Name Is Earl and The Office are great TV shows. According to things I've been reading, those two shows, Tuesday night on NBC, are the highest-rated night of comedy on television (though I believe, technically, the highest rated sitcom on TV is Two and a Half Men, but it's interesting to point out that, right now, specials and dramas are doing much, much better than sitcoms).

Anyway, those two shows, My Name Is Earl and The Office, have been the center of some speculation these days. It seems that the ratings for NBC's big Thursday night lead-in, Joey, are down something like 47% from last season; in fact, the whole night's down. Some people think that two shows like Earl and The Office would be a natural fit on Thursdays, and help revive the once-formidable Must-See TV time slot. I think so, too, but I'm against it for one simple reason: they'd put Earl in at seven (I live in the central time zone), move Joey to 7:30, Will & Grace at 8, and then The Office at 8:30, which would completely fuck up my schedule and my plan to never watch Joey or Will & Grace in my lifetime.

But the point of all this is that it's been fascinating to rubberneck as NBC completely destroys all the work that the late Brandon Tartikoff put into revitalizing NBC and making it the number one network on television. Seriously, if a formula works, why change it? Didn't they learn anything from Coca-Cola?

Tartikoff came into NBC as director of programming in 1980, when the Thursday night line-up consisted of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (an embarrassment, I don't care how many geeks like it) and The NBC Movie of the Week. A death zone, that. In 1981, Tartikoff moved in a new show, Hill Street Blues, and--network execs, pay attention--once it became popular he never moved it for the entire seven years it was on. That's, like, the point. If a show is popular, you don't move it to see if the audience follows, you leave it and use it as a base to grow an entire night of programming.

Anyway, by 1984-85, NBC had managed to come up with an entire night of successful programming. The line-up was an epic of good television: The Cosby Show, Family Ties (my favorite sitcom of the eighties), Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues. It was successful, the shows were quality shows, and the line-up didn't change for three years. Remember those nights when you could watch a single channel for a night of decent programming? Now my TV's hardly ever on in the evenings and into the night. The first cracks began to appear in 1987-88 when Family Ties was moved to another night and replaced on Thursdays by the lame-ass Cosby spin-off A Different World, one of the dumbest sitcoms in history. Replacing Hill Street Blues with L.A. Law made sense, though replacing Night Court with Dear John... was a little chancier (though it briefly, for some reason, made a sitcom star out of Jere Burns, who would later ruin his career with the idiotic Something So Right).

It wasn't until 1990-91 that NBC's Thursday night (I don't remember at what point they started calling it "Must-See TV") started to become something you could really miss and not care too badly about it. The Cosby Show got more unbearable the longer it was on the air (the turnover rate of kids on that show was insane, every black actor who ever lived had to be shoehorned in to provide a "meaningful" example, and they finally used up all of Bill Cosby's really good comedy bits), A Different World just wouldn't die, and Dear John... was replaced with Grand, an ambitious and funny show that no one got and that was cancelled after something like four episodes. It ended up being replaced with the foulest spectre of death to ever wander the airwaves, searching for souls to destroy: Wings. What the fuck was it with Wings? You people just couldn't get enough of that goddamn show. Despite Steven Webber, despite Tim Daly, despite Crystal Bernard and Thomas Haden Church, despite Tony Shalhoub with an over-the-top accent and fucking Amy fucking Yasbeck, you people kept that show on the air for something like thirty years. Or maybe it just felt that way.

But, you know, we still had Cheers, one of the greatest shows in the history of television. I always like to bring up the Cheers legend--that it finished last in the ratings the first year it was on, but Brandon Tartikoff gave it another chance because of a hole in the schedule, and it became one of the most popular shows of all time--whenever they cancel a quality show like Arrested Development, which Fox played unfair with.

Thursday night was saved in 1993-94 when, after the cancellation/ending of A Different World and The Cosby Show, NBC premiered the inexpilcably popular Mad About You. Following it with Wings, the rest of the night consisted of a struggling Seinfeld, the new Cheers spin-off Frasier, and the stalwart L.A. Law. They call 8pm Thursdays the Seinfeld time slot, but it's really the Cheers time slot. The next year was kind of mixed, but still successful: Frasier and Wings were moved from the night, Wings was replaced by the new show Friends, and even though Madman of the People became the umpteenth cancelled Dabney Coleman show, a departing L.A. Law was replaced by the instantly popular ER. Thursday not only reclaimed its status as the juggernaut of weekly programming, but also produced a series of incredibly bad shows that were, really, only successful because they were on between Friends and Seinfeld (and, after Seinfeld ended, Frasier) or between Seinfeld and ER: shows as bad as Veronica's Closet, Caroline in the City, The Single Guy, Suddenly Susan, Union Square, Jesse, Stark Raving Mad, Inside Schwartz, Cursed, and Good Morning, Miami. The only real bright spot was Just Shoot Me, a haven for the writers and producers of the cancelled, excellent show NewsRadio (and, like NewsRadio, was constantly moved around by the networks).

And now, the former juggernaut has been demolished. Without Friends and Frasier, and with ER getting worse and worse as the series goes on and on and just doesn't end, NBC has pretty much killed the night (especially with reality show The Apprentice in at 8--reality shows are only popular the first time around, and don't belong in a prime time slot; they're really just short-term cures for a failing night of programming). My advice, as if anyone would ask, is that they go back to Tartikoff's original formula: 4 comedies, 1 hour-long drama. I don't really have any vested interest in seeing NBC back on top of the ratings; I'm just fascinated by how badly they could ruin the good thing they had going. Is it so hard to find four sitcoms of any real quality and then put them on the same night? I mean, even if the other nights suffer, at least you'd have something.

So, if NBC wants to raise its ratings, moving Earl and The Office so that they're not running up against the highly-rated Commander-in-Chief on ABC is a step in the right direction (especially once The Apprentice goes off the air for the last time). Just, you know, keep them next to one another so I can just have the TV on for an hour and ignore everything else.

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week. In this case, one.

BORN TO BOOGIE (1972)
One of the greatest bands of all time is T. Rex, the band that invented, popularized, ran into the ground, and completely killed glam rock. Granted, there were others who were more instrumental and less embarrassing than Gary Glitter and Jobriath--Bowie, of course, as well as Roxy Music, Elton John (who mostly ripped off Bowie in the first part of his career), the Sweet, Slade, Alice Cooper, Electric Light Orchestra (before heading into art/prog), Suzi Quatro, Mott the Hoople, Cockney Rebel, Mud, and the Sparks come to mind. But the greatest of them all was Marc Bolan, the lead genius of Tyrannosaurus Rex, a combination folk/skiffle/rockabilly band that was just twee enough to be interesting, just hard enough to be rocking, and favored the bongoes over the drums courtesy of Steve Peregrin Took. Then, in 1971, they had one of the greatest albums of all time, Electric Warrior. They had changed their name to T. Rex, and, with the help of producer Tony Visconti, who had produced and played with David Bowie, created glam rock seemingly out of thin air. And what an album it was. Sadly, Bolan was so weird and wasted that the band changed line-ups more often than the Byrds did, and rather than capturing a band at the height of its abilities, the movie (part concert documentary, part weird, pointless sketches) focuses on Marc Bolan flitting around and acting weird. It's somehow perfect that Bolan's friend Ringo Starr directed this movie, since the Beatles made the only less comprehensible rock 'n' roll movie, Magical Mystery Tour. Of course, there are some good things in here, especially the concert performance of T. Rex's most beautiful song, "Cosmic Dancer," and an inspired orchestral performance of "Children of the Revolution," but it's so disjointed and purposeless that the 62 minutes seem to pass by in the space of five. It's terrible, and Bolan seems to have no personality to display, but as a pop culture oddity and a collection of T. Rex music... *** stars. Truly, truly weird.

What's in a Name?

Peter Lynn over at Man vs. Clown! has a funny post about a fake persona he created on a personals site by the unlikely name of Van Hammer.

I was just saying to myself the other night that if I had an occasion to rename myself or give myself an alter ego, I would use the name Lucifer Von Blackenstein. That sounds like someone who could even give Van Hammer a run in the blowing-cigar-smoke-in-the-baby's-face department. The kind of guy who punches llamas just to blow off a little steam. A man's man.

Either that, or Burt Reynolds III. Because who's cooler than Burt?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Of course.


Well, in a move that surprises absolutely no one who's been paying attention, Fox finally cancelled Arrested Development. It can't be that shocking; except for the two episodes that aired last Monday, it's been missing for nearly a month (supposedly for the World Series schedule, though I notice it hasn't stopped them from airing a new episode of Prison Break every week).

You bastards, Fox. What, was the show to smart and funny for you? Not sexy and lame enough. Shit, you'll put Bones on the air, but you can't give an actual good show a chance? Well, it's just one less reason to watch Fox. Actually, as The Simpsons continues its descent into lameness (now in it's eighth season of sucking!), there's really no reason to watch Fox anymore. Especially with HBO showing Rome and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras (even in reruns, still worth watching).

HBO, the fans are begging you: please pick up Arrested Development. It belongs there, anyway. Fox never gave a shit about, you know, viewers. Posted by Picasa

Wankers

I see INXS has a new single out, with lead vocals by some guy who won some reality show on some network about becoming the new lead singer of INXS. Which leads me to wonder one thing: why? I mean, since Michael Hutchence died over a decade ago, have you ever heard anyone wonder what was going to happen to the other members of INXS? I mean, can you even name any of them? Hutchence took up so much of the spotlight with his insistence on living life as a Jim Morrison clone that INXS never registered as its own band. They might as well have called themselves Michael Hutchence & the INXS, because their place in the footnote of music history they occupy is basically as a backing band. And really, who's still listening to "I Need You Tonight" or "Devil Inside" or any of that middling crap? They only have that footnote because of Hutchence's weird death from autoerotic asphyxiation.

Jim Morrison is an apt comparison in one aspect: who gives a shit about the Doors without him? You can stick Ian Astbury in the front and tour as a Beach Boys-like Doors Hits Revue, but it still ain't the Doors. I know this is Ray Manzerak's chance to show that he was the real genius behind the Doors, but no one is still alive who cares, alright? I think both bands should be forced to change their names. Ian Astbury is not the Doors, and the addition of a "reality star" to INXS's lineup just makes it an entire band of people you don't care if you know the name of.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Jessica Goes to Africa


Look at this picture; it's like she's never seen a giraffe before. It's so cute. She looks like a little girl and she's afraid the giraffe is just waiting to get close enough to do something bloody to her. Or she's looking at its tongue and making unfavorable comparisons to Nick. Either way, I just thought it was a cute picture.

Oh, and for some reason, I just wanted to add something about Roger Ebert that pissed me off. See, he's always giving favorable reviews to the girls he likes sexually, and you can read it in his reviews pretty accurately. Why else would he give a favorable review to Into the Blue? In the review, he fobs on and on about how magical Jessica Alba is. He loves Keira Knightley, too, and Reese Witherspoon. But he immediately comes down on Jessica for being a ditz; his whole reason for not liking her seems to be based on the fact that she once said in an interview that she didn't know who Lance Armstrong was. Dude, who gives a shit about a guy who left the wife who stood by him and supported him through his cancer, and then dumped her the moment he could get a famous chick? Now that he's retired, can Americans please stop pretending that they give two fucks about cycling? They just liked having something to lord over the French (the actual winners of the American Revolution, as Cornwallis surrendered to their superior forces, not to the Americans). Posted by Picasa

Well, I Was Wrong


So, they killed Shannon on Lost. I had earlier predicted it would be Sun, and I felt all the signs were there, but they went with Shannon. Apparently the tabloids, which I just can't bring myself to pay attention to anymore, had outed this fact, but I was surprised when I watched. It felt so manipulative and unfair, too, they way the flashback made you feel bad for Shannon, and then she died so suddenly at the end. Of course, all the deaths on Lost are unfair and sudden and manipulative, which is part of what makes the show so compelling and emotional. But I was disappointed. I really felt she had more to do. Unless, of course, her death somehow makes her able to communicate with Walt, wherever he may be; I mean, they're not going to just let that one go. Right? Posted by Picasa

A "Real" King Arthur: A Short Essay

As we’ve seen in the recent Jerry Bruckheimer production King Arthur, the myths of Camelot are constantly being reinterpreted. This newest version, however, takes it a step farther by pretending to be the "true story" or King Arthur, a film which "sheds light on his real identity" (according to the opening titles). Then, of course, it immediately deviates from history.
Arthur’s true identity, if there is one, is lost to us now. His deeds and battles were, as all legends have been, added to and re-shaped in later centuries, until we are left with a composite of several people and later inventions. What follows are some of my own thoughts about what we know concerning a "historical" Arthur.

Post-Roman Britain
Britain was made the westernmost tip of the Roman Empire in the early part of the first century BCE. But after too long, the Empire began a long, inexorable decline before finally disappearing. In 390, the Empire was divided into halves – Eastern and Western – with each half ruled over by a co-emperor. The Western half got the worst of it, as waves of northern tribes began to spill into the countryside to eventually kick the Romans out.

Britain was suffering as well. In 122, Hadrian’s Wall had been built in an attempt to keep out the Picts, who raided from the north. Around the time of the Empire’s division, the Saxons were starting to raid from across the sea, and they took advantage of the weakness of Rome to carve out small settlements along the eastern coasts. By 406, the Roman legions in Britain were called to the continent to fight the Visigoths; they would never return.

Arthur, if he existed at all, could only have existed in this time period, given the scant evidence we have. We know that Emperor Honorius did not wish to abandon Britain, and appointed a Roman governor under the title of Comes Britanniarum, or "Count of Britain." His name was Constantine (not to be confused with the 4th century Roman emperor). But the legend names him Ambrosius Aurelianus, "the last of the Romans" according to Saint Gildas. We know little of him historically, except that he restored trade with the Empire and re-established the Roman law among the Britons. But he was recalled in 418, as the pressures facing the Empire made every last man necessary for the defense of Rome herself; Britain was declared independent and left to the mercy of the Saxons.

The Britons reverted to their past ways with fair speed. They attempted to reorganize into the ancient Celtic tribal systems gathered under a High King, called the Vortigern (or "overlord"). The Vortigern, however, had much trouble maintaining order in the face of invading Picts, Scots, and Saxons. In 448 the Vortigern called to the Romans for help, but no answer came (they were being sacked by the Vandals at the time). Instead, he turned to the Jutes in Scandinavia, and hired the warriors Hengist and Horsa (sometimes described as a father and son, sometimes as a pair of brothers) to save the Britons. As often happens in history, Hengist and Horsa, upon landing in Kent, won their victory and decided to conquer the Britains afterward. After all, they were too weak to fight back (this was how Rome gained many territories along the way). The Jutes were the first Angles to come to the future Angle-land, or England.

In his De Excidio Britorum (The Ruin of Britain), Saint Gildas describes the successor of Ambrosius as one Artorius, who took the rather grandiose title of Dux Bellorum ("Duke of Battles") and led the Britains in 12 mighty battles against the Anglo-Saxons. The final battle was fought at Mons Badonicus (or Badon Hill), in which Artorius won a final victory that gained years of peace. This battle probably did take place, and is usually allowed to be sometime between 490 and 500. By this time, the Angles of Hengist and Horsa had firmly established themselves on the island and were enslaving the Britons and Cymbry (or Welsh). But Artorius won peace for a time.

Arthur and His Knights
Artorius had several things in his favor. First, he is supposed to have been a Romanized Briton, and well-trained as a horseman. His men were knights, but not in the medieval sense. Rather, they were Roman knights, or heavy cavalry. Arthur’s sword was called Caliburn, a Welsh name. He carried a spear and rode down the Anglo-Saxon infantry with his disciplined cavalrymen.

Though Gildas identified his kingdom as being somewhere in southwest England (the southeast was firmly held by Anglo-Saxons, and the kingdoms of Essex, Kent, Sussex, and East Anglia were beginning to form), it is more conceivable that his realm was somewhere north of the Firth of Forth, between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, near Edinburgh and firmly on modern Scottish ground. This area is near the traditional royal seat of Holyrood, under a mountain that is still called "Arthur’s Seat."*

There were four tribes that lived in this area, called collectively the Gododdin. One of these tribes, the Votadini, is thought to be Arthur’s people. They were Romanized, and had fought for Roman against the Picts. They were fluent in Latin, and partially Christian. They were thought brave and fierce, but had been completely wiped out by the Saxons by the eighth century. The epic Gododdin, by one of the three great Welsh bards, Aneirin, tells the story of the final stand of the Votadini in Homeric passion.

Geoffrey’s History
In 1135, Geoffrey of Monmouth published a book that dominated much of Western literature: Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). An entire section was devoted to Arthur. Geoffrey, however, was working from earlier sources such as Gildas, and Nennius’s Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), which was the first historical source extant to name King Arthur and give a list of his deeds and accomplishments (published circa 810).

Geoffrey purported to accurately chronicle British history from 1115 BC to 689 BCE. However, like Herodotus and Suetonius before him, Geoffrey printed a lot of gossip and legend as though it were historical fact. He ascribes to Arthur not only the conquest of all Britain (including Scotland and Wales), but Ireland, Orkney, Jutland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark. He is then supposed to have driven the Romans out of Gaul and sacked Rome itself.

As a historical side note, from 457 to 474, Leo of Thrace was Emperor of Rome. He was, in fact, driven from Gaul by Gaiseric the Vandal, and in 476, Rome abandoned the Western Empire. This may have been Arthur’s time, so the time nearly fits. Still, Geoffrey has managed to describe the entirety of the empire ruled over by his current king, Henry I. And besides that, he has given much of the victories and accomplishments of Charlemagne (the conquest of Gaul and the establishment of feudalism) to Arthur. It is, in its way, a propagandistic attempt to establish the primacy of England over the kings of France and the pope in Rome.**

Geoffrey gives the date of Arthur’s death as 542, a mere 4 years before Gildas is supposed to have written his Ruin of Britain. His detailed story is the first to identify Arthur’s queen; he names her Guanhumura, the daughter of some Roman noble. She is better known to us as Guinevere, and is more usually identified as the daughter of the Frankish Leodegranz, a fictional nobleman living in Scotland at the time of Arthur. Gildas does not mention any of these deeds in his book, which leads one to the natural conclusion that Geoffrey is telling a story.

Final Details of Historic Britain
Britain was commonly known on the continent as England by the end of the sixth century, a hundred years after Arthur’s supposed liberation of the Britons from Saxon domination. The first English king we know of for certain was Ethelbert, the King of Wessex, whose line would dominate English history for 500 years after his crowning in 560. His line would beget Alfred the Great, the first king of all England, and his descendants would rule until the Norman Conquest of 1066 (and, technically, William the Conqueror was a cousin of Edward the Confessor, and through the matrilineal descent the same bloodline of that Ethelbert still rules England to this day).

By 650, the last Briton kingdoms had disappeared. Earlier, in 476, the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the Frankish kingdoms began to appear in Gaul. Arthur, if he lived at all, must have lived between the years Rome abandoned Britain (418) and the crowning of Ethelbert (560).

The Celtic Myths
There is not much evidence that Arthur ever existed at all, save as a religious construct. Arthur’s name in Welsh is Arth Vawr, or "Heavenly Bear." Arthur, the bear, took the place of his father, Uther Pendragon, whose own symbol was the Gold Dragon. In the heavens, the pole star of the north used to be Alpha Draconis, the Head of the Dragon. As the Earth subtly shifted, however, the pole star changed to Polaris in Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The Druids studied the heavens and the movements of stars, and it can be suggested that the mythological Arthur reflects this observation, taking over leadership from his father Pendragon.

Arthur may have origins as a pagan solar god among the Celts. He may have supplanted the earlier solar myths of Gawain. Gawain’s mother, Morgause, was part of the Celtic version of the Great Goddess (virgin-mother-crone). Morgause, the mother, gave birth to the four quarters of the year: Gawain, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine. At the end of the year, Gawain, as the new sun, beheaded the old one, personified by the Green Knight, and the new year began. At the end of the year, that same Gawain had become the Green Knight, and was in turn killed, in the familiar pagan cycle (Cu Chulainn was the Irish version of this same myth, which persisted in many ancient cultures).

Arthur’s life was overseen by the Great Goddess; Elaine, the virgin, was his mother (as she was later Lancelot’s). Morgause, his sister and lover, gave him his son-killer Mordred. And Morgan, as Fate (or Fata Morgana), determined his death and final resting place. Before the pagans were Christianized, this was the Trinity, or Triple Goddess.

So we can see that Arthur also has a base in Celtic mythology; possibly these myths (which, under other names, were common to most ancient religions) were laid down by Celts and Britons onto the deeds of an historical Arthur as a way to preserve their heritage in story.

Merlin
Merlin is, in the familiar stories, the wizard-advisor of Arthur. He emerges as a composite of two men. The first is a legendary Welsh figure, Myrddin Emrys (or Merlin Ambrosius, whom Gildas identified as Ambrosius himself). He was a child-prophet with supernatural powers who had counseled first the Vortigern, then Ambrosius, and Artorius himself.

The second figure is an historical person, Myrddin ap Morfyn, or Merlin Celidonius (also known as Merlin the Wild, or Myrddin Wyllt). He is a singer-warrior, and considered (along with Taliesin and Aneirin) one of the three great Welsh bards. He lived, it is generally thought, from 470 to 540, and several poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen are credited to him. This Merlin fought at the Battle of Arfderydd in 574, went mad, and became a hermit, living in the woods among the wild creatures.

Both were considered Druidic prophets of some import (the first Merlin is, according to legend, an immortal who erected Stonehenge with his magic), neither was mentioned in connection with Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth. He based his writing career on Merlin, publishing Prophetiac Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin) in 1130. It proved so popular among readers that he could not resist laying them into his Historia Regum Britanniae. After that work was published, Geoffrey returned to Merlin exclusively, publishing Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) in 1148.***

Merlin is generally thought now to have been an Old Welsh shaman. Traditionally, his magic was taught to him by women and he now rests in the Mother’s Cave (or Womb) awaiting his Second Coming. Christian writers made his powers evil and claimed he was the Antichrist, fathered on a virgin by the devil (his good human side won out, apparently). Merlin, as he was known by Druids, was a prophet with some abilities; the notion of wizards and magicians as we know them now is largely a medieval construct.

The French Additions
The knights of Arthur’s Round Table existed as Roman cavalry for a long time. But in the mid-eleventh century, King Edward the Confessor brought French ideas of chivalry and knighthood to England. Though Edward was the last Saxon king of England, he was raised in Normandy, and brought with him the notion of the French court. This was cemented by William the Conqueror’s reign, and the knights of Arthur would forever after be remembered as we now remember the medieval knights of jousts and pilgrimages.

The French had considerable influence on the legend of Arthur. The greatest of Arthur’s knights, Lancelot, was from France. He was created in 1172, when Chretien de Troyes wrote Le Chevalier a la Cherrette (The Knight of the Cart), which is better known historically as Lancelot. The knight was made the personification of courtly love and heroic demeanor, the very best romantic notion of knighthood. An idealization of the French hero.

In fact, Lancelot may have been a romanticization of the love triangle going on in the country at the time. King Louis VII (The Young) of France had divorced Eleanor of Aquitaine, who gave him no sons, and she, in turn, had married England’s King Henry II, by whom she had four.
The French also renamed Arthur’s sword Caliburn, calling it the more familiar Excalibur. De Troyes also added the Grail to the story in 1185 with his romance Percival, and Robert Wace added the Round Table in Le Roman de Brut. The Greeks and Romans knew a round table of their own – the moon wheel, which showed the sacred calendar table (or mensa) of the goddess Vesta. He counted 28 original knights; 28 is the pagan number of the moon.

So we can see the effect of myth, legend, and politics on the way Arthur has been interpreted over the centuries. In 1596, Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene surrounded Arthur in a setting of twee fairy tale and courtly romance. This work was so popular, it became near impossible to separate the feeling of Renaissance silliness from the historical realities of Old England. The fairy tale was too beloved.

This happened again in the early nineteenth century. In 1825, Joseph Ritson published The Life of King Arthur, the first attempt at a rational historical study of Arthur. But a few years later, Alfred Lord Tennyson published his Idylls of the King, more fairy tale, romantic nonsense, that rooted in the public imagination almost immediately. Because of this, and the lack of written historical records from post-Roman Britain, we will never know the "reality" of King Arthur. Today, as we see in films, the legend is still being misinterpreted and misrepresented. Perhaps Arthur belongs as myth; there seems to be more power for the British people in the legend than in any possible reality. Winston Churchill once remarked, "If King Arthur didn’t exist, he should have." And perhaps that will be the final historical word.

* Still others cite Colchester, but this is only because of a coincidence of name. Modern Colchester was once called Camulodunum, and served as the seat of the imperial Roman governor. People have looked at the similarities of the name "Camelot" and "Camulod" and thought a connection might exist there, but there is no evidence to suggest it. In fact, the name "Camelot" was not seen in the Arthurian myths until Chretien de Troyes wrote his Lancelot in 1172. In Arthur’s time, if so it was, Camulodunum was firmly held by the Saxon kingdom of Kent.

**Geoffrey puts the founding of Britain at 1115 BC, and ascribes it to Brutus, a great-grandson of Aeneas, who left Troy to found Rome. This popular myth of the time was meant to put the Britons/English on an equal footing with proud Roman history, as Rome itself perpetuated the myth of Aeneas to connect their past to the Trojans and create a false line of descent from Aphrodite to her son Aeneas all the way to Romulus and Remus and finally Julius Caesar.

***Our image of Merlin seems to mostly be based on Odin as he is portrayed in The Volsunga Saga. This great German epic also includes the episode of Sigmund pulling the Sword from the Tree, which later became Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the Stone.

Bibliography:
Isaac Asimov, The Shaping of England (Houghton Mifflin, 1969)
David Day, The Search for King Arthur (Facts On File, 1995)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae (1135)
Saint Gildas, De Excidio Britorum (546)
Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Harpercollins, 1983)

Sunday Hottie 41


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