An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 12, 2015

Kingsnorth: The Wake

Image result for kingsnorth the wake first edition
Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake. London: Unbound, 2014 (UK paperback April 2015; U.S. edition: Graywolf Press, September 2015).

Reviewed by Dustin Frazier Wood (

well this fyr has cum now it has cum and it has beorned high and strong and for many years and it has eten all angland in it and now angland is but a tale from a time what is gan.[1]

It is not often that a historical novel set in the middle ages requires a glossary, much less a four-page 'note on language'. But The Wake, written in a 'shadow tongue' created by Paul Kingsnorth to convey the feeling and alterity of Old English, requires both. The prose is made up almost exclusively of words originating in Old English. Capitals are non-existent, punctuation is rare, characters' words elide into the framing first-person narrative voice. Even the alignment of the text shifts on the page, at times conveying an uneasy sense of resistance to the conventions of a twenty-first century machine-printed book. Kingsnorth's 'shadow tongue' can be challenging, even alienating - but it is also surprisingly effective and at times startlingly familiar.

Set in the run-up to and aftermath of the Norman Conquest, The Wake follows a band of Anglo-Saxon guerilla resistance fighters and is narrated by their leader, buccmaster. Despite being one of only two English characters with non-Old English names, buccmaster is a man obsessed with his language and with the words that give meaning and order to his world. i is a socman of holland he insists at every opportunity. (Holland in this case refers to a region of Lincolnshire, where the name survives in the administrative district of South Holland; buccmaster’s village seems from the book’s few place names to have been located somewhere east-southeast of modern Boston). Alone among the inhabitants of his village buccmaster is a socman (or sokeman), a landowner whose only legal obligation is to the king and not, as for those around him, to the thegn. He is a man figuratively and literally apart. His 'three oxgangs' of land are situated on an island in the fens, and he alone of the villagers occupies a seat on the wapentake, a local administrative council in the counties of the Danelaw. a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me[2]

When buccmaster finds himself alone and dispossessed by the French, his only companion the gebur [bondman] grimcell, he faces a new order in which the words that define him teeter on the edge of meaninglessness. Only when the two men are joined by the orphan tofe can buccmaster reassert his social status: he is now the ring gifer [ring-giver; lord] of their two-and-a-half-man werod [war band]. Even so, without a home or larger community, and with little knowledge of events beyond the fens, buccmaster's is a world in which familiar names and the things they signify have become tenuous and endangered. One of the most moving passages in the novel occurs as buccmaster is leaving the place that defines him:

i was locan at an ac treow and i put my hand on its great stocc and i was thincan the ingengas will haf another name for this treow. it had seemed to me that this treow was anglisc as the ground it is grown from anglisc as we who is grown also from that ground. but if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no more. it colde be that to erce this treow will be the same that it will haf the same leafs the same rind but to me it will be sum other thing that is not mine sum thing ingenga of what i can no longer spec
                will they gif angland another name also i saes to this treow what will we call our cildren[3]

buccmaster’s reflection on language and identity contains a certain ironic humor. Nearly a millennium after the Norman conquest an ac remains an oak, a treow a tree. We still call our cildren, children. buccmaster’s anglisc often sounds modern, his descriptions of the world around him familiar.

But this familiarity raises questions. In his note at the end of the book, Kingsnorth writes that ‘Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them’.[4] If this is the case – and I think that it can be – what are we as readers to make of The Wake’s ‘shadow tongue’? Does the tale and its telling allow us to experience a glimmer of the Anglo-Saxon worldview by helping us to step linguistically closer to an imagined Anglo-Saxon past? Or does it only take us closer to Kingsnorth’s imagining, to the boundaries erected by the author as language-crafter cum world-shaper? Can we as readers of what is essentially a foreign language text avoid translating our own linguistic perspectives and biases into the narrative? If the world of buccmaster's England is 'the foundation of our own', as Kingsnorth says, what parts of the novel's medievalism are recognizable, which need to be remembered, and why?[5]

For a start, this is a medieval world in which the Normans are unquestionably the bad guys. The novel’s first page quotes from Orderic Vitalis’ account of William the Conqueror’s deathbed confession of the atrocities he has committed against the English.[6] The second page quotes William of Malmesbury bemoaning the fate of an England seized by foreigners and an English people in a state of perpetual misery.[7] Jump forward 360 pages to Kingsnorth’s second 'note', where the Norman conquest is described as ‘probably the most catastrophic single event in the nation’s history’.[8] The English are enslaved and sneered at by their overlords, led by Duke Guillaume of Normandy, whose name is never anglicized. Parallels are drawn between buccmaster and his historical counterparts on the one hand, and the French Resistance and Viet Cong on the other. This is a story of freedom fighters and evil oppressors. Guillaume is to blame for the fact that in the twenty-first century approximately 70% of English land is owned by approximately 1% of the English population.[9] In the novel, Norman power is overwhelming and brutal. When buccmaster and his followers kill a Norman knight, two more arrive and begin a slaughter of innocents. for efry ingenga we cwells . . . they cwells a ham. we digs our graefs, says grimcell.[10] When buccmaster and his band, by now swelled to nine men, arrive at Stamford they are met with a blighted landscape in which homeless English men and women erect a motte and bailey under the watchful eyes of mounted, armored overseers. The words man and wiht [animal] appear paired with startling frequency, especially where suffering and oppression are in evidence. Whether or not the reader ascribes to the Norman Yoke theory, the first-person narration of the novel admits no other perspective.

Just as Kingsnorth's note encourages comparison of the present and the novel's imagined past, buccmaster himself views his world through a historicizing and medievalizing lens. The oppression the French bring is not only political and military - it is religious as well. The priests and bishops who accompany geeyome, like the pope who blessed his armies, embody literally and figuratively the Christian law that buccmaster views as fundamentally opposed to the laws of England. buccmaster's is a world in which Christians outnumber and mock, but have not yet stamped out, the eald hus of Thor, Odin and Frigg.

As the novel opens buccmaster sees a great bird in the sky, an omen of something coming. When the haerig star (Halley's comet) appears buccmaster warns the locals that it is a second sign - something is coming. What comes to England is clear. What comes to buccmaster, though, sitting alone in the forest on the night he hears of the death of Harold and his own sons, is more unexpected: the great smith weland . . . the deorc ealdor of all anglisc folc.[11] But Weland is closer to buccmaster than a vague ancestral figure. On the crossbeam of buccmaster's house hangs his grandfather's sword, forged as the story goes by Weland in Mirkwood and inscribed with runes of power and magic. buccmaster's story quickly merges with that of the smith. Like Weland, buccmaster loses his wife, and then his place in the world, to an aggressive foreign king. William becomes the Nithad to buccmaster's Weland; and in the first flush of his rage buccmaster imagines himself exacting a vengeance like the smith's:

broc he was but he cum up again and lic the fugol was abuf all men

and a cyng i cwelled and all his cynn folc[12]

Throughout the rest of the novel Weland - or at least a voice buccmaster thinks is Weland, presented as interrupting, right-aligned italic text - urges, cajoles, hectors, goads and harries buccmaster, driving him to fight the French in ways he struggles to understand. When the Christian population of lange toft refuse to aid him he kills the village gerefa [local official; reeve] and extorts food and supplies from the frightened villagers. His mockery of priests turns would-be followers against him. Even so, we are encouraged to sympathize with buccmaster. Priests are universally weak. Bishop Odo commits worse atrocities than William when left in charge of London, and Bishop Turold is more arrogant and bellicose than the knights who try but fail to protect him from buccmaster and his men. buccmaster's happiest moments are those that take place in an unnamed village of free folc led by wulfhere, a welcoming and honest Englishman who follows the ways of the eald hus and encourages men of the village to join buccmaster's band.

Unfortunately for siward, godric and osbern, who dream of fighting the French who defeated them at Senlac, buccmaster is no harold cyng. Commanding, headstrong and impressive to those around him, buccmaster is not a leader of men. The foundation of his identity lies in his family mythology and his three oxgangs of land. He is a man of the fens, then a man of Holland, then a man of the Danelaw, then a man of England. Fiercely independent and fiercely parochial, buccmaster's insistence that he answers to no man but the king renders him powerless when Harold dies and his world contracts to the land he himself can effectively rule. His rangings - to creatas tun (modern Creeton), stan ford (Stamford), lange toft (Langtoft) and bacstune (Boston) - never take him more than twenty miles from where he started.

Triangulating the villages of The Wake throws buccmaster into stark contrast with Hereward, whose manor at Bourne stood near the center of the novel's geographic circuit. Hereward is a presence buccmaster cannot escape and a rival for the esteem and affection of the characters he meets. When buccmaster, tofe and grimcell kill the French 'thegn', we is as great as any fuccan hereweard . . . with me leadan and with my sweord on my belt we walcs tall lic we is the fyrd we is goan to be.[13] Despite his pride, however, buccmaster and his fyrd [(national) army] get none of the credit. According to the gleeman ulf, it is Hereward whom the French fear and the English praise for the killing.

The parallels between buccmaster's life and the details of Hereward's are striking. Part of what makes The Wake such an effective tale is its shadowy familiarity, its place in a tradition of English medievalizing of Hereward's narrative that stretches back to the eleventh-century and the Gesta Herewardi itself. Both buccmaster and Hereward are driven into exile by their fathers for having aroused the hostility of their neighbours, Hereward through fighting and buccmaster on account of his beliefs. After a period of exile both return to claim their fathers' houses and authority. When the Normans invade both buccmaster and Hereward seek refuge in brunnesweald, where they become grene men, gather followers and plan raids. With a sprinkling of authorial licence, Kingsnorth transfers Hereward's capture of Bishop Turold in a forest near Peterborough to buccmaster, who stumbles upon the bishop on a fenland road. Indeed, buccmaster captures Turold en route to elge (Ely), where he plans to impress Hereward with tales of his victories and the size of his following. But the capture of such a rich prize is too much for buccmaster. Hereward and Ely are forgotten. buccmaster binds Turold's arms, straps him to a horse and, led by the voice of Weland, returns as always to the isolation of his three oxgangs to celebrate his victory and decide the bishop's fate.

But The Wake is a novel of doomed resistance, a novel in which buccmaster is destined to fail. When the Normans arrive a messy and strange but still admirable old world doesn't quite end; a new and oppressive order overshadows but does not submerge it. Kingsnorth's 'shadow tongue' hints at Old English and modern alike, suggesting that neither the Anglo-Saxon tongue nor the worldview it implies is entirely alien from our own. buccmaster's medievalized storytelling starts eventually to feel like any number of tales about the good old days, his idealized grandfather to assume a shape like many other grandfathers then and now. Questions about the link between identity and place of origin, inequalities of wealth and power, religious frictions and factionalism, and the collapse of traditional social distinctions are sources of anxiety as profound and relevant to a reader living in the globalized twenty-first century as for a socman of the fens. Whatever one's political perspective, part of the reason The Wake works is that the medieval is alluring as a source of insight into - and, some might hope, answers to - these questions. The novel closes as it opens, with discordant and almost indistinguishable voices urging readers to go baec as buccmaster does, to engage with a story that is already their own, to seek understanding by comparing the present with a semi-historical, semi-legendary imagined medieval past that hums with emotional and political charge.

Dustin Frazier Wood
University of Roehampton

[1] The Wake, 49.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] Ibid., 124.
[4] Ibid., 355.
[5] Ibid., 356.
[6] Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, Bk 7, Ch 15. See Marjorie Chibnall, ed and trans, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Volume 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), 94-5.
[7] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Bk 2, Ch 13. See J. A. Giles, ed and trans, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: Bohn, 1847), 253.
[8] The Wake, 357
[9] For a concise if politicized overview of the sources and origins of the recent furore aroused by the publication of these figures, see Kevin Cahill's 'The great property swindle: why do so few people in Britain own so much of our land?', NewStatesman online, 11 March 2011.
[10] The Wake, 154.
[11] Ibid., 90.
[12] Ibid., 93.
[13] Ibid., 183.

April 3, 2015

Vaughn, dir: Kingsman

Kingsman, The Secret Service. Dir. Matthew Vaughn.  Twentieth Century Fox Films, released February 13. 2015 (U.S.), in theaters.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

Starring: Colin Firth (Galahad), Samuel L. Jackson (Richmond Valentine), Mark Strong (Merlin), Taron Egerton (Gary “Eggsy” Unwin), Sophie Cookson (Roxy), Jack Davenport (Lancelot), Mark Hamill (Professor James Arnold), Sofia Boutella (Gazelle), Michael Caine (Arthur), and Hanna Alström (Princess Tilde).

The Spy Who Came in from the Round Table. 

In Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman, The Secret Service, James Bond, Austin Powers and John Steed all take turns vying for a place at the Round Table in the Siege Perilous, with a trusty squire in tow.  The film is based on the six-part comic book series, The Secret Service, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, which was reissued by Marvel in a collected edition to tie in with the film’s release.  The film retains the basic secret agent plot of its source, but adds to that source a less than subtle Arthurian twist by providing the agents with Arthurian code names—Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, Perceval, and Merlin—and by offering its own versions of two fairly common Arthurian narremes: the story of the Fair Unknown and the promise of the Arthurian return in a time of need.

The film’s plot develops around an attempt by a megalomaniac to end world overpopulation by a cull that will eliminate about two-thirds of that population.  In the comic book version, the megalomaniac, who likes to kidnap actors who played roles in the Star Wars franchise, has taken Mark Hamill hostage.  In the film version, Mark Hamill himself plays a more than hapless climate scientist named James Arnold.  In the comic book version, the megalomaniac is thwarted by a secret agent and his nephew; in the film, by a decidedly upper class secret agent and his equally decidedly working class misfit of a protégé and, given the film’s Arthurian connections, squire. 

The film opens in the Middle East in 1997 when Colin Firth’s Harry Hart (code name Galahad) is unable to prevent a fellow agent from being killed during an interrogation gone wrong.  Fast forward 17 years to Argentina where an agent with the code name Lancelot attempts to rescue kidnapped university professor and climate change doomsayer James Arnold, in the process single-handedly killing more than a half dozen of his captors only to be literally cut in half by a woman with Oscar Pistorius-like legs that give new meaning to the idea of stiletto heels.

The death of Lancelot leaves a vacancy in Kingsman, an organization based out of a Saville Row tailor shop that has been supplying bespoke suits to the most powerful men since 1849—a gentleman never buys off the peg.  Huntsman, an actual shop in Saville Row, has actually been doing so since 1849, and is the setting for the film’s tailor shop.  When the sons of these most powerful men were killed in the First World War, their inheritances were pooled to fund an independent international intelligence agency, Kingsman, which has been operating ever since, clandestinely and above politics, to right wrongs globally.  Headed by Arthur (Michael Caine), the members of Kingsman meet around a table—rectangular, alas, not round—to plan their courses of action, to toast their deceased brothers, and to seek their replacements.  Caine’s Arthur is a died-in-the wool (tweed?) class-bound snob who wants to limit the ranks of Kingsman to those with Oxbridge pedigrees; Firth’s Galahad takes a more democratic view and sponsors Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, son of the agent killed in 1997, who is at first an unemployed Royal Marine dropout living on a council estate with his mother, abusive stepfather, and infant step-brother.  Eggsy’s one memento of his father is a medal of valor acknowledging his father’s service to queen and country.

The villain of the film is Richmond Valentine (played by a lisping Samuel L. Jackson), a communications multi-billionaire determined to cull the world’s population, thereby eliminating undesirables and ensuring the survival of those whom he deems the fittest.  His assassin sidekick is the blade-legged Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).  Valentine’s plan is put into motion when he provides everyone in the world with a free SIM card, and those whom he will save with an implanted micro-chip that will protect them when the culling takes place—and, unfortunately, blow their heads off if wrongly activated.  Using those SIM cards, Valentine will send everyone a message that will trigger a murderous global rage which will result in the cull.  But Valentine is not totally successful in winning those whom he would save over to his cause, and a number of VIPs and heads of state, including Sweden’s influential and voluptuous Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), have gone missing.

Galahad arranges for Eggsy’s training as a possible member of Kingsman under the tutelage of the heavily Welsh-accented Merlin (Mark Strong)—the film’s Bondian Q character— and then goes off to track down the missing VIPs and heads of state.  At this point, the film’s narrative switches between Galahad’s quest and Eggsy’s apprenticeship.  Galahad manages to find Climatologist Arnold, whose head soon explodes thanks to the chip implanted behind his ear by Valentine.  Galahad, posing as a billionaire himself, subsequently meets with Valentine and learns of his plans, eventually following him to a Kentucky hate church where he becomes involved in a massive brawl triggered by Valentine’s SIM card.  Singlehandedly, Galahad kills every member of the congregation before Valentine kills him.

Eggsy meanwhile is having mixed success in his training, which pits him against the Oxbridge crowd who dismiss him from the get-go because of his humble working-class origins. Finally, the search to find someone to succeed Lancelot comes down to two candidates, the level-headed Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Eggsy, with Eggsy being dismissed when he is unwilling to shoot his dog, his failure further fueling Arthur’s snobby prejudices against the working classes.  When it turns out that Arthur himself has been comprised and joined forces with Valentine, it is up to Roxy, Merlin, and Eggsy, who uses a bit of working-class sleight of hand to thwart Arthur’s attempt to kill him, to save the world.  Eggsy and Merlin assault Valentine directly in his bunker, while Roxy, using a high-altitude balloon, temporarily knocks out the communications satellite tied to Valentine’s SIM cards.  When Valentine restores the satellite thanks to a little help from his ally, the President of the United States, Merlin overrides Valentine’s signal and blows off the heads of everyone in Valentine’s bunker and all of his other allies around the world in an at times hilarious, at times gratuitously violent, CGI sequence to the accompaniment of Pomp and Circumstance. Eggsy then fights and defeats Gazelle, thanks to a poison tipped blade in the toe of his bespoke Oxfords—the only shoes a true gentleman would wear.  Eggsy, champagne flutes and bottle in hand, then rescues Princess Tilde who had promised him that she would make sure things ended for him well once he saved the world.

Kingsman is both reverential and comic (and, in one case, more than crass) in its treatment of the secret agent film genre.  Galahad and Valentine have several exchanges in which they lament the current sorry state of the genre as opposed to its golden age with the early- to mid-Bond films from Pinewood Studios.  Winks and nods abound in the film to other examples of the genre.  Both Firth and Strong appeared in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Caine took a turn as the title character’s father in Austin Powers in Goldmember—Jackson has become a regular on film and television in several of the MARVEL comic franchises.  (In a nod to a non-Bond film, Firth also played the King in The King’s Speech, of course.)  James Bond’s nemesis in Tomorrow Never Dies was another communications mogul and megalomaniac, Elliott Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce.  The Bond franchise had already moved down the social ladder with the casting of Daniel Craig as the more rugged looking latest Bond in Skyfall—Eggsy’s characterization just moves a bit further down market. 

Early in Kingsman, Lancelot, Professor Arnold and Valentine all share a tumbler of rare 1962 Dalmore Whiskey, which was featured in Skyfall.  Lancelot and Eggsy’s weapon of choice is an umbrella reminiscent of Steed’s in The Avengers.  Eggsy’s pug is named JB for Jack Bauer, the hero of Fox television’s 24—not for Jason Bourne or for James Bond, as Arthur guesses.  The poison knife-tipped Oxfords, worn by both Galahad and Eggsy, are straight out of From Russia with Love, where more sensible working-class shoes with such a concealed blade were former SMERSH Colonel and current Chief Operations Officer for SPECTRE Rosa Klebb’s signature weapon—Klebb having been played by an over-the-top Lotte Lenya. Valentine’s mountain lair and cave landing strip are reminiscent of those of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the villain in several Bond films.  Sophomorically, in a somewhat startling variation on a Bondian narreme, Eggsy does end up with the girl, but Kingsman records their encounter not with a deft pun or with a bit of sexual innuendo, but rather with an in-your face shot confirming that Eggsy does indeed “end up” quite well—he ends up Princess Tilde’s butt!

More interesting for my purposes are the Arthurian and medieval elements that the film adds to the original comic book series.  Again, the film assigns the heroes Arthurian code names. Eggsy’s father’s medal for valor shares a design suggestive of that of Gawain’s endless knot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Galahad’s—and eventually Eggsy’s—personal motto is “Manners makyth man,” also the motto of Winchester College and of New College, Oxford—both founded in the fourteenth century.  Kingsman tailors provide bespoke suits which, we are told, are “the modern gentleman’s armor,” while the Kingsman himself is “the new knight.”  Eggsy and his mates hang out at the Black Prince Pub.

Eggsy, given his working class pedigree, is also the latest iteration of the popular folk motif known as the “Fair Unknown,” a motif with especially strong connections to the Arthuriad.  That motif posits a young man of questionable or unknown lineage, who is at times amusingly uninhibited (cf. the final encounter with Princess Tilde), and who becomes a hero saving the society that at first rejects him.  Eggsy, following the motif, must prove his worth through a series of adventures.  While Arthurian variations on the motif grant the Fair Unknown a relationship with the Round Table through kinship—he is often a relative of Gawain and thus, by extension, of Arthur, Gawain’s uncle—in Kingsman, Eggsy becomes Galahad’s adopted son and heir.

In a further Arthurian connection, Kingsman trades on the myth of Arthur’s promised return, a key element of the Arthuriad from at least the twelfth century when it appeared in the works of William of Malmesbury and Wace.  Based on the belief that Arthur lies dormant not dead in his tomb, the myth promises his awakening in a time of need to come to the aid of England, or even of the entire world, in a time of peril. Earlier Arthurian films such as King Arthur Was A Gentleman, Four Diamonds, Seaview Knights, and The Mighty had used the promise of that return with varying degrees of success.  In Kingsman, Arthur has returned with his knights, but he is eventually killed.  However, his decidedly more democratic and inclusive legacy lives on in Eggsy who seems well prepared to succeed Arthur and to guide Kingsman in its future efforts to defeat any and all forces of evil that threaten the peace and stability of the world.

For more than a century, cinema Arthuriana has taken a number of forms and been adapted to fit a number of film genres.  In Kingsman, we have the first adaptation of the Arthuriad as a secret agent film—with decidedly mixed results—but with a clear promise of yet another return.  Kingsman ends on a note that sets us up, depending upon its success at the box office, for a sequel, if not for a franchise of sequels—profits makyth sequel(s)!

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University

February 20, 2015

Galavant. Dan Fogelman, creator.

The ABC Television Mini-series Galavant: Dan Fogelman, creator; Dan Fogelman, Alan Menken, Glenn Slater and Chris Koch, executive producers; Chris Koch, John Fortenberry and James Griffiths, directors; Dan Fogelman, Kirker Butler, John Hoberg, Casey Johnson, Kat Likkel, Kristin Newman, Scott Winger and David Windsor, writers—with music by Alan Menken and Christopher Lennertz and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Filmed in Bristol (UK) by Abbey C Studios for ABC Television.  Aired January 4, 11, 18, and 25, 2015. 8/7c.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

To extend an allusion to Piers Plowman more than a bit, small-screen medievalism has long been a fair field ripe for cultivation but one hardly full of folk to do the cultivating.  The only full-length study of this form of medievalism that comes to mind is Bert Olton’s excellent Arthurian Legends on Film and Television, but, as comprehensive and invaluable as Olton’s catalogue raisonné may be, it was published fifteen years ago. Other than the occasional essay devoted to some individual television show or series, the fertile field of small-screen medievalism sadly lies largely ignored and uncultivated, despite the rich harvest it promises. 

Such lack of critical and scholarly attention is all that more curious given the long history of small-screen medievalism.  Pride of place as probably the earliest example of small-screen medievalism belongs to the BBC six-episode Robin Hood broadcast live in March and April 1953, but, alas, no longer available for viewing except in some very brief excerpts incorporated into other television programs.  British television would, however, continue to embrace medievalism throughout the so-called Golden Age of Television in the United Kingdom and in the United States, the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when Britain’s independent channel, ITV, produced in rapid succession, and then broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, and The Adventures of William Tell—in many cases from scripts penned, we now know, by blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters.

Small-screen medievalism has come in waves.  Each decade since the 1960s has brought more series, or more individual episodes of non-medieval series.  Small-screen medievalism has tended more often than not to be Arthurian or Hoodian, repeatedly taking us to some version of Camelot or of the Greenwood, but, no matter where it is set, small-screen medievalism comes in a variety of genres: broad comedy (When Things Were Rotten and Maid Marian and Her Merry Men), equally broad social commentary (Robin of Sherwood and The Mists of Avalon), sci-fi (episodes of Dr. Who and of Star Trek), pseudo-history (several iterations of Ivanhoe and series such as Covington Cross, Roar, and The Pillars of the Earth), cartoons (Prince Valiant, Clone High, and King Arthur’s Disasters), westerns (episodes of Gunsmoke and of Bonanza), crime and mystery dramas (episodes of Criminal Minds—one a two-part especially gruesome bridge between seasons—of The Avengers, and of Perception, as well as the several season mini-series Cadfael), fantasy and horror series (episodes of Charmed and of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a continuing major plot line in True Blood involving vampires who were originally Viking warriors), and, in the case of the latest example of small-screen medievalism, ABC television’s mini-series Galavant, musical romantic comedy, albeit very silly musical romantic comedy.

Musical comedy has embraced medievalism before on the stage (Spamalot, Pippin, Good Time Charley, and Twang!), but Galavant may be a first for small-screen medievalism.  Billed by ABC as a four-week comedy extravaganza, Galavant is actually eight half-hour episodes that were presented in four double installments as fillers while the popular series Once Upon a Time, a show that itself dabbles at times in medievalism, was on hiatus.  Galavant’s ratings were respectable enough, and the mini-series certainly ended with enough cliffhangers, but there has been no word yet as to whether the show will return for a second season any time in the future.

The handsome eponymous hero (Joshua Sasse) is more slacker than he is Fair Unknown as he sets out to mend his broken heart.  Unlike his counterparts in Spamalot, he is not trying to find his Grail or his male, but his gal!  She is the lovely Madalena (Mallory [such a wonderfully-appropriate medieval first name!] Jansen) who is kidnapped as the series opens by the not-quite-too-dastardly King Richard (Timothy Omundson).  Richard at one point bills himself as a “modern thirteenth-century man” when it comes to treating woman (and to hiding the fact that he is still a virgin).  Madalena is hardly a typical damsel in distress though, since she quickly decides life as Richard’s queen may have its advantages—not the least of which is an extremely nimble and uninhibited court jester (Ben Presley) who can more than satisfy the unmet sexual needs she continues to have thanks to Richard’s closely-guarded virginity.  

Galavant’s immediate response to what turns out to be Madalena’s more-than-willing abduction is to take to the bottle, but soon enough he is off on a quest—as any good knight should be—to aid Princess Isabella of Valencia (Karen David), whose kingdom Richard has conquered and is in the processing of starving to death.  On his quest, Galavant is joined by his wise-cracking black squire, Sid (Luke Youngblood), who, we learn later in the series, has suggested to his proud—Jewish, of course—parents that he is the knight and Galavant is the squire.  The (mis)adventures on Galavant’s quest to free Valencia from Richard’s tyranny are mainly an excuse to introduce a number of guest stars: Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville and Sophie McShera, John Stamos, Weird Al Jankovic, Ricky Gervais, Anthony Head, and Rutger Hauer—and to showcase a number of musical numbers in a variety of musical styles, with repeated nods to several Broadway musicals.  In what may be the most inspired of these nods, Richard’s cook (Darren Evans) sings a duet with his scullery maid girlfriend (McShera) in which they plot to poison everyone at Richard’s court. That duet practically genuflects in the direction of the duet about Mrs. Lovett’s pies from Sweeney Todd.

Galavant clearly wears its medievalism on its sleeve—its claim to being an example of small-screen medievalism rests on the fact that its episodes repeatedly incorporate tropes, narremes, and motifs that a 21st century audience will easily identify as medieval.  Galavant is, of course, the knight errant on performing deeds of derring-do with his squire in tow—they are not quite Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but they seem clearly in that tradition.  Galavant jousts with the French knight Jean Hamm (Stamos), in a nod to Mad Men. There are two, not just one, damsels in distress (Madalena and Isabella)—though no dragons or ogres. Richard does have a thuggish right-hand man and all-around henchman, Gareth (Vinnie Jones).  There is a cruel king—actually two—since Richard only came to the throne when his older brother Kingsley (Hauer) renounced it, though Kingsley returns later in the series to attempt to reclaim what is rightfully his. Valencia also boasts a mostly hapless King and Queen (Stanley Townsend and Genevieve Anthony). There are several turreted and moated castles.  There is a Merlin-like wizard, Xanax (Gervase), and a monastery, which is home to monks who are suitably tonsured and robed, as we might well expect.  The monks of Valencia Monastery do not, however, take a vow to remain silent.  Instead, they take a vow to sing in an unceasing do wop rather than chant. There are peasants, but none the equal of the Python’s politically-minded Dennis.  There is a dungeon and instruments of torture—think Inquisition light. There are faux Saracens who attend the boy Prince Harry to whom Isabella is, in a further plot complication, betrothed.  Further complicating this plot complication is the fact that Harry is also Isabella’s cousin who imprisons her in a toy princess castle soon after Galavant has freed her from Richard’s.  And, oh, there are pirates, whose ship has run aground, rather inconveniently atop a mountain, and a Pirate King, Peter the Pillager (Bonneville), though he is more a cross between Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver in demeanor and costume than anything medieval.  And guest stars Hauer and Head have each appeared in separate small-screen retellings of the story of Merlin, Hauer as Vortigern in the 1990s mini-series and Head as Uther in the more recent multi-season cable channel series.

While Galavant attests to the continuing fascination that the small screen has with medievalism, it is hardly the best example of comic small-screen medievalism. That distinction belongs either to The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood or to When Things Were Rotten (or to both) in the United States and to Maid Marian and Her Merry Men in the United Kingdom.  The partly comic Kaamelott, which ran on France’s M6 channel from 2005-2009, is in a class all by itself.  Galavant is harmless enough, silly, at times genuinely amusing—and American television has in the past certainly renewed worse shows, so we could do with a second season of the mini-series if only to resolve all those cliffhangers.

Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University