The origins of the legendary King Arthur and his successes and failures, as the rising leader of Camelot, until his death, as told in Malory’s Le Morte D'Arthur.
Excalibur (1981) is a film based on medieval romances centered on the King Arthur legends, directed by John Boorman and produced by Orion Pictures. The film draws from Le Morte D’Arthur (1485), written by Thomas Malory, beginning with Uther Pendragon placing the sword in the stone and continuing through the rule of Arthur, ultimately ending with his death at the hands of Mordred. Malory adapted these Arthur stories to create a grand collection and translation of Arthurian romances that were beginning to be written down in the twelfth century. The twelfth century in particular was a period in which England was politically divided because of the Anarchy and civil war, and medieval romances reflected the need for the influence of a strong leader (Aberth, 7). As a result, Malory’s stories contain themes about the meanings of strong leadership within a kingdom that is politically divided. Another theme, seen in how women are represented in the Malory stories, deals with the subject of women’s autonomy. This theme is evident in Excaliburthrough the portrayal of the three most prominent women in the film: Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi), and Morgana (Helen Mirren).
The viewer is introduced to the first of these three women, Igrayne. She appears as a beautiful dancer whose presence entices Uther into laying a siege to the castle in hopes of “winning” her. During this siege Uther uses Merlin’s magic to disguise himself as Igrayne’s husband and rapes Igrayne. This encounter results in the birth of Arthur and speaks to a larger theme of adultery within the story of Arthur (Kennedy, 63). Igrayne depicts a temptress “who lure[s] and guide[s] the hero to their destiny”; she is a vehicle through which Arthur (Nigel Terry) is created, and thus her role in the story is limited (Fries 2). The Igrayne of the film exists to be raped to further the story, which strips her from having any autonomy. Before the rape, she was a faithful queen. Afterwards, even her own daughter, Morgana, knows that she had unknowingly slept with the enemy and can no longer fulfill her duties as a faithful queen. Igrayne presents little influence on events and can be clearly seen as the Arthurian archetype of a woman who stays in the castle and whose only purpose is giving the king an heir.
The next woman the viewer is introduced to is Guinevere, a character who is more in control of her own life. She first appears to Arthur, after he has helped save her father’s castle, and heals his wounds, following the example of many women of Arthurian legend (Fries, 3). Later, at a celebration, she dances in front of him in a way that is reminiscent of how Igrayne danced in front of Uther. Guinevere again fills this temptress role, though in a different way compared to Igrayne’s “temptation.” She attracts Arthur and becomes his queen, while also attracting the knight Lancelot, becoming the center of a love triangle. Through this love triangle can choose what she wants in life, even if one of her options is socially unacceptable. However, she is ultimately reduced to her sexuality when she gives into temptation and sleeps with Lancelot. Guinevere becomes the unfaithful queen who initiates the downfall of Camelot. Despite this her infidelity serves as an example of her autonomy. It is a decision that reduces her to a temptress stereotype, and a woman who is only defined by her relationships to main male characters in the story, but it at least shows her ability to give her love to Lancelot.
The woman who is able to exercise the most autonomy in Excalibur is Morgana. Morgana is a character derived from three different characters, Morgause, Nenyve, and Morgan le Fay, of the original Malory story (Aberth, 20-23). While the amalgamation of these three characters was done to streamline the story in the film, the blending of these characters into one does give the film’s version of Morgana a more visible and impactful role in the story. Morgana is essentially the antagonist of the story; her actions include capturing Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and encouraging Mordred (Robert Addie) to fight against Arthur. Morgana demonstrates a greater level of autonomy compared to the other women. Despite this, we see her lack of autonomy when Mordred, her son, kills her after she appears in front of him in her true form of an old woman. The scene of Morgana’s death demonstrates that her power came largely from her beauty. If it were not for her sexuality, she would not have been effective in altering the events of the film. This story is similar to the evolution of Morgana across varying versions of the legend (Fries, 3-7). Though she is a strong antagonist, her murder in the end shows Morgana’s power to be largely illusory when her power wanes.
Based on how the three leading women are depicted in this film, it can be understood that women are largely stripped of their autonomy in Arthurian romances. All three women are reduced to their sexuality and viewed as temptresses, and usually the center of the “male gaze.” Despite this, they do have an impact on the story, though it is lessened by their portrayal, which focuses on their beauty and sexuality above other aspects of their characters. Igrayne is defined by her rape, Guinevere by her temptation, and Morgana by her sexuality. They are not characters, but stereotypes, which perhaps speaks more to the gender politics of the 1980s than Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in particular.
Aberth, John. A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. New York & London: Routledge, 2003.
Fries, Maureen. "From The Lady to The Tramp: The Decline of Morgan Le Fay in Medieval Romance." Arthuriana 4, no. 1 (1994): 1-18.
Kennedy, Beverly. "Adultery in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur." Arthuriana 7, no. 4 (1997): 63-91.
Early Middle Ages (c. 500-1000)