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

February 18, 2016

Salda: Arthurian Animation

Michael N. Salda, Arthurian Animation: A Study of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Television. Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Company, 2013. 

Reviewed by Christopher Berard (

Arthurian animation (“Arthurianimation”), as defined by Michael N. Salda, is not limited to animated productions that feature King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but includes productions with Arthurian themes and motifs as well. According to this expansive definition, the earliest known example of Arthurianimation is Warner Brothers’ 1933 cartoon short Bosko’s Knight-Mare, but here King Arthur is, as it were, ‘Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film’. In fact, Arthur does not seem to have made his animated film debut until Knighty Knight Bugs, another Warner Bros. film, which premiered on 23 August 1958 and garnered that year’s Oscar for Best Animated Short. Salda’s Arthurian Animation: A Study of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Television, which takes Bosko’s Knight-Mare as a starting point, is thus far-reaching in scope. It spans seventy-five years of film history, and it contextualizes and describes more than one hundred seventy separate works. The monograph is largely diachronic in structure and can best be described as a comprehensive compendium of Arthurianimation. Each of the book’s ten chapters begins with an overview of the cultural and commercial climate behind the film(s) under consideration.

In the introduction, Salda makes three cogent statements about Arthurianimation that set the tone for the work as a whole. First, he observes that Arthurianimation is by-and-large a commercial cash-in phenomenon. Second, he comments that it typically draws its inspiration from recent, popular retellings and re-imaginings of Arthurian tales (rather than directly from medieval source material). Third, he notes that although the commercially driven and derivative characteristics of Arthurianimation are seldom a recipe for high art, they make Arthurianimation an ideal specimen for the study of the reception of Arthurian legend. Arthurian animated projects tend to be produced when animation studios believe that the Matter of Britain is a lucrative commodity. Arthurianimation thus serves as an indicator of the actual or perceived popularity of Arthuriana. The presentation of Arthurian content in Arthurianimation is shaped by a combination of the creative team’s own understanding of the material and their sense of their audience’s understanding of the material. Thus Arthurianimation tells us when Arthurian legend is “in the air” and furnishes us with a snapshot of contemporary perceptions of Arthuriana (3).

Salda’s claims about the derivative and commercial elements of Arthurianimation are amply corroborated by the great mass of films he examines. And the exceptions prove the rule. One such inspired exception is Jane Yolen’s Merlin and the Dragons (Shanghai Animation Film Studio/Lightyear Entertainment, 1990), a twenty-four minute entry in PBS’ acclaimed animated anthology series Long Ago and Far Away. In this episode, we are introduced to a King Arthur who has only just drawn the sword from the stone. His new kingly responsibilities weigh heavily upon him. In the middle of one sleepless night Arthur goes to consult Merlin, who is dwelling in the same castle. The seer-advisor tells the young king the story of a certain “Emerys”, who, like Arthur, did not know his father and faced tremendous adversity as a young man. The villainous King Vortigern was intent on killing Emerys unless this fatherless boy could explain to him why his new stronghold kept collapsing. Emerys survives the king’s machinations, and his example proves inspirational to Arthur, especially once Merlin reveals that he is none other than Emerys himself. As Salda notes, Yolen drew upon medieval source material for this embedded narrative (122). But I would add that Yolen’s choice of narrative frame, Arthur’s court shortly after the Sword-in-the-Stone episode, is an even more inspired choice. It is a fine interlacement, or in the words of Chrétien de Troyes, une molt bele conjointure, of parallel facets from the lives of Arthur and Merlin. Both characters experience uncertainty and anxiety about their respective identities and abilities as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Yolen’s creative presentation of Arthur’s angst and Merlin’s avuncular quality make the characters appealing and relatable to a wide spectrum of audiences. Salda is right to recognize Merlin and the Dragons as a highpoint in the Arthurian animation tradition (122–4).

In the space that follows my aim is to bring Salda’s findings about the history of Arthurian animation into dialogue with the medieval and post-medieval Arthurian tradition more broadly speaking.  And I wish to begin by calling attention to how the Arthurian tradition, like the messianic figure of Arthur himself, has gone through periods both of intense activity and of hibernation, yet has escaped death. The longevity of the tradition and its cyclical pattern of hope and disappointment spring from the two-fold belief that once upon a time there lived a military leader named Arthur of superlative virtue and accomplishment, and that this Arthur is destined to return to bring succor to his people in their hour of need. Great expectations, equally great disappointments, and counterfactual speculation pervade the tradition.

In the world of politics, reigning monarchs and pretenders to the throne of England have attempted to co-opt the myth of Arthur’s return to their advantage by representing themselves as Arthur returned. These manipulations of the myth have given rise to further Arthurian hopes and disappointments. Disappointed Arthurian hopes and missed opportunities extend beyond the arena of politics and into the realm of literature. In this category we can place Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene (1590–6), John Milton’s proposed Arthurian epic (c. 1638–42), John Dryden’s original dramatick opera King Arthur (1684), J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur (developed 1934–7), and John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (developed 1956–9). In each of these cases, the original intention was not achieved and this in turn has led to speculation regarding what might have been.

These examples set the stage for the first great, unfulfilled hope of Arthurian animation: Hugh Harman’s King Arthur’s Knights. Salda devotes the second chapter of his monograph to this, dubbing it (in the chapter heading)  “The Best Arthurian Cartoon Never Made” (16–35). King Arthur’s Knights was under development in 1941 with a proposed budget of $530,000, but the United States’ entrance into the Second World War resulted in the project’s postponement, and financial backing proved to be lacking in the later 1940s and 1950s (31, 35). The architect of this project, Hugh Harman (1903–82), although not a household name, was one of the great animators of the twentieth century: he had, in fact, been one of the original co-producers of Merri Melodies (1931–3). Harman began his career working with Walt Disney and then took on assignments for a variety of other studios. In 1928, Harman, together with his frequent collaborator Rudolf Carl Isling (1903–92), created Bosko. The pair went on to animate the aforementioned “Bosko’s Knight-Mare”. In 1941, Harman, joined by fellow former Disney animator Mel Shaw, established “Hugh Harman Productions”, and Harman was intent on making a feature-length Arthurian film that would rival the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Fantasia (1940).

This Arthurian film project first came to scholarly attention in Charles Solomon’s Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (1994), but Salda has broken new ground. He obtained from Mark Kausler (animator, animation historian, and custodian of Harman’s papers) two story treatments for the proposed film, and he has traced the evolving plans for the film. King Arthur’s Knights was to cover the rise and fall of Arthur, but to center on the exploits of Sir Gareth and Lynette (that is to offer a loose retelling of Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth”). Salda’s reconstruction is captivating, and his inclusion of original character sketches is helpful for visualizing what might have been.

This second chapter of Salda’s book calls to mind Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work on the Fall of Arthur (2013) and Chase Horton’s on Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976). The idea of reconstructing, editing and/or discovering a lost Arthurian text has, it should be noted, been a central plot element in at least two contemporary novels, Robertson Davies’ The Lyre of Orpheus (1989) and Arthur Philips’ The Tragedy of Arthur (2011).  And one might also note that since the beginning the thirteenth century writers have been trying to resolve the ending of Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished masterpiece, Perceval ou le conte du Graal (c. 1190).

Disappointment results not only from Arthurian projects that fail to materialize, but also from those that prove to be dead on arrival and fail to deliver. The grandeur and magic of the Arthurian tradition moves the casual audience member, not to mention the consummate Arthurian, to expect marvels, and sadly Arthurian cinema often leaves its audience, like the Arthur of romance, hungry and dissatisfied. Many would agree that there has not been a “definitive” cinematic adaptation of the Matter of Britain. The same holds true for Arthurianimation, particularly Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963) and Warner Bros.’ lesser known, but much more recent, Quest for Camelot (1998).

Salda critiques the Disney film for having a  “monotonous storyline”, “forgettable tunes”, and for lacking a uniform message (60–62). The Sword in the Stone is, as it were, the modern equivalent of a mirror for princes, but one that cannot make up its mind as to what wisdom to impart. According to Salda, the reception of the film has consistently “lukewarm” (60), but following its Christmas 1963 release, the film was rereleased on 22 December 1972 and 25 March 1983 (64). Salda treats this as evidence of a lack of popular demand for the film, but he offers no basis of comparison with other Disney classics.  Salda traces the limited success of The Sword in the Stone directly back to Walt Disney, who reportedly did not take much interest in the project and assigned the directorship to a competent and dependable, but uninspired, company man (64).

If The Sword in the Stone was a moderate success, Quest for Camelot was an unmitigated disaster. The film cost an estimated $120 million to produce, but in ticket sales it brought back only $23 million domestically and a further $15 million abroad (148). The narrative of Quest for Camelot had great potential. In typical romance fashion it tells of a youth’s quest to become a knight, except this time the fair unknown is female.  The protagonist is Kayley, the ten-year-old daughter of one of Arthur’s knights. Kayley, as the story goes, was born on the very day that Arthur drew the sword from the stone; her mission is to return the now stolen sword (Excalibur) to Arthur. This is an excellent and fitting concept for contemporary Arthuriana: whereas Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide (c. 1170) and Yvain (c. 1176) have the knightly protagonist confront the competing demands of marital life versus a life of knightly service; Quest for Camelot has its young heroine confront the competing dictates of personal vocation (to the knighthood) and society’s oppressive gender roles. Unfortunately, the filmmakers flinched for fear of being controversial. Over the course of the film, Kayley falls in love with a blind woodsman named Garrett. Together they save Arthur from certain destruction. Arthur shows his gratitude by making Garrett and Kayley, “knight” and “lady” and by giving them seats at the Round Table. As newlyweds, Kayley (in the lead) and Garrett (sitting behind her) ride off into the sunset with a “Just Knighted” sign affixed to their horse (148).  Simply put, the filmmakers do not allow Kayley to succeed in her own right (without the assistance of a man) and the equality of Kayley and Garrett is predicated on the latter’s blindness. Much like The Sword in the Stone, Quest for Camelot is unwilling to commit itself to a progressive stance.

As can be seen from the foregoing discussion, Salda’s Arthurian Animation provides readers with ample food for thought and this volume is very much a detailed introduction to the field and a conversation-starter. Salda impressively covers obscure films from across the globe. One truly esoteric example is “Merlin and the Toothless Knights”, a public service film (co-produced in 1970 by the British General Dental Council and I.D. Television) in which Merlin instructs the Knights of the Round Table in oral hygiene (72–3).  Yet the strengths of scope and variety are something of a liability on two counts. First, extended animated series, such as the thirty-six-episode “Arthur! and the Square Knights of the Round Table” (Air Programs International (Australia), 1966) and the thirty-episode “King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table” (Toei Animation (Japan), 1979–80) receive only slightly more attention from Salda than one-off film shorts. Consequently, the coverage seems somewhat uneven. Second, portions of the book read as a series of reference-like entries of discrete subjects. This tendency perhaps should have been more openly acknowledged and embraced through the inclusion of subheadings naming the examples of Arthurianimation under consideration. Another desideratum is an appendix listing all known examples of Arthurianimation in chronological order. This omission is particularly curious given that Salda has, in fact, compiled such a catalogue, and it appears as part of the Camelot ProjectAdditionally, as noted by Roger Simpson in his review for Arthuriana 23.4 (2013), Salda does not provide a fully developed conclusion that crystallizes his discoveries and suggests areas for further research.  Nevertheless, the strengths of the monograph are many and easily outweigh the few weaknesses.

Salda’s Arthurian Animation is a pioneering work that explores the intersection of the history of animation and Arthurian Studies.  It is clearly written and accessible to a general audience, but the work is geared primarily toward readers conversant with Arthurian literature from the middle ages and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Salda provides far more background information about animation history than he does about the Arthurian tradition. This is understandable given that Arthurianimation’s roots in the legend are fairly shallow. Arthurian Animation is recommended reading for scholars interested in the contemporary reception of the Arthurian tradition and/or the place of Arthuriana in popular culture. It is a worthy accompaniment to any bookshelf that contains such McFarland publications as King Arthur in Popular Culture, ed. Elizabeth S. Sklar and Donald L. Hoffman (2002), Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays, ed. Kevin J. Harty, (2002), and Jason Tondro’s Superheroes of the Round Table: Comic Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (2011).

Christopher Berard