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

September 17, 2022

Medieval, dir. Petr Jákl (2022)



Petr Jákl’s 2022 film Medieval


Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty

La Salle University


The first word that we hear on the screen is “violence” in a voice over by Michael Caine (yes, that Michael Caine, no less), here cast as Lord Boreš, ambassador extraordinaire for a Holy Roman Empire in political and religious turmoil.  That one word sets the tone for the two hours which follow.  Medieval (released in Europe under the title Jan Žižka) bears no relation to previous examples of cinematic medievalism that were costume dramas, or even bigger-budgeted costume epics.  Its closest cinematic antecedent is Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, not PG-violent films such as Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight, or even Guy Ritchie’s 2017 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Like the patriotic roots of the Scots supposedly on display in Mel Gibson’s film, Medieval wants us to know that those of the Czechs are just as mired in blood and mud.

Director Petr Jákl’s Medieval is an English-language Czech production that recounts the early years of the life of the storied Czech national hero, Jan Žižka (c. 1360-1424—here played by Ben Foster), before he achieved even greater fame in the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) that pitted Catholic Europe in a series of crusades against the followers of Jan Hus. Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, despite a guarantee of safe passage from the Emperor Sigismund if he would appear before the Council of Constance to answer charges of heresy brought against him. Hus had been a noted preacher in Prague who called out the Catholic Church for a litany of abuses later echoed by Martin Luther and exacerbated in Hus’s time by the schism in the Church involving the Avignon Papacy and contending claims to papal legitimacy.  The death of the Holy Roman Emperor (in 1402 according to the film) only further fanned the flames of religious and political turmoil, since whoever was to be his successor, presumably King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (Karel Rodin), needed to be crowned by the pope—the one in Rome, not the one in France.

As is often true in medieval history and in historical film medievalism as well, who gets to succeed whom is never without complications.  In Jákl’s film, the complications are several. Wenceslaus is already deeply in debt to, but needs further funding from, the overly ambitious and wealthy Henry III of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger) to pave (bribe?) his way to his coronation. Wenceslaus’s half-brother, Sigismund, so far just King of Hungary (Matthew Goode), has the proverbial lean and hungry look and an overly sanctimonious attachment to orthodox Catholicism. Wenceslaus’s daughter, Katherine (Sophie Lowe), is a much sought-after pawn in all the political and religious chaos that surrounds her because she is marriageable (Rosenberg fancies himself her ideal spouse), because she is sympathetic to Hus, and because she is a niece of the King of France, who supports the other (in this case, wrong) pope. And, for good measure, oppressive taxation, political tyranny, and ecclesiastical abuses have so enraged the populace that revolution is already in the air.

The film opens with Rosenberg’s men’s failed attempt to assassinate Lord Boreš on route from Rome to Prague from a diplomatic mission to secure the imperial crown for Wenceslaus. Boreš’s rescue is effected at the last minute by Žižka and his ragtag troop of mercenaries, whose allegiances are about as clear as the film’s politics at this point. Once hoping to become a knight himself, Žižka’s knightly ambitions quickly soured when friends and family members were murdered by the very knights whose company he sought to join. With Boreš safe in Prague Castle, Žižka declines an offer (more command) to join the army led by Torak (Roland Møller), the film’s true, almost snarling, villain, who is variously employed by Wenceslaus, Sigismund, and Rosenberg, all to the detriment of anyone who stands in his way, as the burned, impaled, crucified, hanged, decapitated, and otherwise mutilated corpses strewn in his wake across the at-times breathtaking landscape attest. Torak’s cruelty and pursuit of Žižka (who loses his right eye to Torak in battle), once he kidnaps Katherine in a scheme to force Rosenberg to fund Wenceslaus’s claim to the imperial crown, know no limits.

Like any good Hollywood film hero (even though Medieval is a Czech production), Žižka comes close to death more times than one can count.  And, to rally his loyal, seemingly outnumbered, troops, he also has a short version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech originally found in Shakespeare’s Henry V that has become de rigueur in examples of cinematic medievalism. Along the way, Katherine begins to question where her loyalties should lie—unhappy with the treatment of the people by those who rule them and of herself by those who would make her their pawn.  She eventually decides that she will be the mistress of her own destiny, a decision which backfires when she falls to her death in a suicidal attempt to end the squabbling over her.  Just for good measure, before her death, she gets rescued when a lion (conveniently kept by her father) is loosed upon Torak and his men, and seemingly falls in love with Žižka, with whom she shares a passionate kiss just before she dies, in a set up faintly echoing a more extended one in Braveheart between Queen and rebel. Grief stricken but emboldened, Žižka rallies all Bohemia’s disaffected to the cause of the Hussites and further ensures his place in the Czech national consciousness—he was a true military genius The film ends with Žižka and his followers marching off to the Hussite battle hymn, "Ktož jsú Boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are Warriors for God).”

       The film’s plot can be a bit difficult to follow if audience members aren’t quite up to speed on medieval Czech history, but all the principal actors—along with the vast supporting cast—turn in good performances. Matthew Goode’s less than convincing, and even less flattering, blonde hair may, however, evidence an unfortunate trend in recent cinematic medievalism.  Ben Affleck sported a similar blonde “hirsute misadventure” as the villainous Pierre d’Alençon in Ridley Scott’s 2021 film The Last Duel. But the locations shots, the already noted breathtaking scenery, and the props and interior sets are all what an audience will think is authentically medieval—although we medievalists might quibble about their accuracy, as we are wont to do. 

Rarely do directors give us an example of cinematic medievalism without at least a nod to pressing political or social issues in their times. Žižka’s life previously inspired a well-received cinematic trilogy (known collectively as The Hussite Revolutionary Trilogy) directed by Otakar Vávra in the 1950s. Žižka also appeared as a central or minor character in several later Czech films and in Aleksander Ford’s 1960 Polish film Knights of the Teutonic Order, and his deeds have been celebrated in works of fiction, poetry, and drama. But, clearly, the story of Jan Žižka is also not without relevance for our own times. The last on-screen title dedicates the film to freedom fighters everywhere, so one cannot help but think of the Russian aggression into Ukraine, an aggression sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church, and of a world at large where, as Michael Caine’s Lord Boreš notes in a moment of despair in Medieval, government has repeatedly sunk to such new lows.

 Medieval, an English-language Czech production directed by Petr Jákl; screenplay by Petr Jákl from a story by Petr Jákl, Sr.; produced by Cassian Elwes; starring Ben Foster, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger, Matthew Goode, Karel Rodin, Sophie Lowe, and Roland Møller produced by WOB FILM; released 8 September 2022; running time 125 minutes.

July 27, 2022

Brown and Williams: The Mab: Eleven Epic Stories from the Mabinogi

Matt Brown and Eloise Williams, eds., The Mab: Eleven Epic Stories from the Mabinogi. Illustrated by Max Low, translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas. London: Unbound, 2022.

Reviewed by: Donna R. White (

The Mab announces itself as a collection of retellings for young readers, but it would be more accurate to call it an adaptation of the medieval Welsh tales rather than retellings. Telling a story again may introduce changes but does not necessitate them, whereas adaptation requires change. According to Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation (2nd ed., Routledge, 2013), an adaptation is a re-visioning based on alterations to its sources. All adaptations, says Hutcheon, are made in a “creative as well as an interpretive context that is ideological, social, historical, cultural, personal, and aesthetic” (p. 109), and a new interpretive context mandates change. Like its source, in other words, an adaptation is a work of a particular time and place. In the case of The Mab, a twenty-first century iteration of tales first written down in the twelfth or thirteenth century, the changes incorporate a shift of genre, context, audience, tone, point of view, characterization, theme, and ideology.

The Mab is not the first children’s version of the eleven medieval Welsh tales known collectively as the Mabinogion. That honor goes to Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s Mabinogion (1881), a highly bowdlerized edition of Lady Charlotte Guest’s English translation (1838-1849). Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, dozens of children’s books included retellings of one or more of the stories. The tales were first translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest, who was considerably more capable than native Welsh scholars have suggested. (For a discussion of the many literary crimes these mostly male Welsh academics have accused Lady Charlotte of perpetrating, see my essays “The Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 15, Harvard University, 1995, pp. 242-49 and “The Further Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 17, Harvard University, 1996, pp. 157-66.) Four of the medieval tales are clearly linked by recurring characters, plot references, and a formulaic ending: “And , so ends this branch of the Mabinogi” (Sioned Davies, ed., The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 46). These four tales comprise the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and the other seven are a hodgepodge of early and late Arthurian tales, dream visions, and pseudo history—all collected and written down by different scribes in different decades. The only commonalities among the eleven stories are that they are all Welsh tales and that scribes bound parts of them together in several different medieval manuscripts, most notably two romantic-sounding 14th-century manuscripts known as The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest. Lady Charlotte dubbed her translation The Mabinogion because of an error at the end of the First Branch in one medieval manuscript; the scribe mistakenly wrote “mabinogion” instead of “mabinogi,” and Lady Charlotte assumed the former was the plural form. The popularity of her translation ensured that the name became permanent. Modern Welsh scholars tend to use the word “mabinogi” to refer only to the Four Branches and “mabinogion” to refer to the entire collection of stories. The adaptors of The Mab ignore the word “mabinogion” entirely and refer to the collection as a whole as the Mabinogi, which misleadingly suggests that all the stories are closely related to one another. However, only the most nitpicky of Welsh scholars would quibble over this usage.

As an adaptation, The Mab is a creative act of reinterpretation, and the eleven children’s writers who have tackled this version of the Mabinogion have reinterpreted their chosen tales in a variety of ways. This approach is in keeping with the medieval manuscripts in that, as Welsh professor Sioned Davies tells us, the original tales “vary as regards date, authorship, sources, content, structure, and style” (Davies, p. x). Since the source material is itself varied, it is appropriate for the modern writers to approach storytelling in idiosyncratic ways. They all strive to maintain language and content suitable for children aged 9-12, but each writer has a distinctive style.

Because each story has a different author, the tone, theme, point of view, and characterization differ from one story to the next. Matt Brown’s “Rhiannon, Pwyll and the Hideous Claw: A Retelling of the First Branch of the Mabinogi” has a lightly humorous tone with a running gag about trousers, while Sophie Anderson’s “Branwen and the Cauldron of Rebirth: A Retelling of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi” evokes a poetic melancholy while belaboring the power of love—very different from the action adventure of its source. The most extreme character changes occur in Nicole Davies’s “Happily Ever After: A Retelling of the Third Branch of the Mabinogi.” The original tale focuses on the wisdom, intelligence, and perseverance of Manawydan, a Welsh prince. Davies transfers most of his qualities to Cigfa, her first-person narrator, who is Manawydan’s daughter-in-law. In the medieval tale, Cigfa epitomizes the wet blanket cliché: she is fearful, and she whines and complains about everything. Davies turns her into a strong woman capable of agency while Manawydan becomes a bit of a wimp. Davies adds feminist ideology that fits uncomfortably in its medieval setting. Perhaps I am being unfair to Davies, however, because Manawydan is my favorite character in the Mabinogion. He’s a quiet, capable man who always figures out what to do, and I don’t like to see him emasculated.

Although we have no way of knowing how the tales were originally told, the sexual content of the medieval manuscripts suggests an adult audience. To make the stories suitable for modern children, the adaptors of The Mab have omitted a lot of material. Bowdlerization is a standard practice when adapting material for children, although Gwyn Thomas and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Tales from the Mabinogion, an illustrated children’s book published in 1984, is astonishingly blunt about the sexual content of its source material. Society seems to have become more prudish since 1984. Nobody finds rape and incest suitable topics for a contemporary children’s story, so The Mab does not include the rape of Goewin in the Fourth Branch or the subsequent punishment of the rapist and his brother (transformed into male and female animals and forced to mate with each other). Only selected portions of each tale are included, and most of the familial links are left out. Family relationships are particularly obscure in Eloise Williams’s “Meadowsweet and Magic: A Retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi,” despite the fact that relationships between uncles and nephews are the foundation of the Fourth Branch. Readers of Williams’s story do not realize that in the original tale the wizard Gwydion helps Lleu because Lleu is his nephew and Gwydion has raised him from birth. In Williams’s version, Lleu’s random wish finds its way to Gwydion, who grants the wish simply because he has time on his hands.

Each contributor of The Mab focuses on a single episode in his or her selected tale, an appropriate approach to converting long, meandering medieval tales into modern short stories for children. The Four Branches, which are episodic in the original, fare better than the other tales in this respect. Most of the other stories seem to end abruptly in the middle of the tale, particularly the three French-influenced Arthurian tales. The retelling of “Culhwch and Olwen,” the most Welsh of the Arthurian tales, works better because, like the Four Branches, it is already episodic in structure. Claire Fayers’s “The Strange and Spectacular Dream of Rhonabwy the Restless: A Retelling of the Dream of Rhonabwy” works as a complete story only by drastic manipulation of the source.

The least successful stories in The Mab are the retellings of the three French-influenced Arthurian tales about the knights Peredur, Owain, and Geraint; “The Dream of the Emperor Maxen”; and “Lludd and Llefelys.” In the case of “Lludd and Llefelys,” Zillah Bethel’s present-tense reinterpretation of the story creates a mystical tone that turns the straightforward original into a set of choppy, confusing scenes that culminate in a moral lesson for King Lludd. The other stories suffer from abrupt endings that make it clear the writers are only telling part of the story. All these stories lack the background context that is provided in their sources.

Although the stories in The Mab differ greatly from their medieval sources, they retain the Welsh names, which Anglophone readers may find difficult, thus requiring a pronunciation guide at the end of the book, and the writers tell lively, PG-rated stories. According to Hutcheon, adaptations have to work both for knowing audiences and for audiences that are unfamiliar with the original sources. The Mab works best for an unfamiliar audience that does not get bogged down in fidelity discourse. Max Low’s illustrations are colorful and slightly cartoonish, and they complement the tales nicely. One of the outstanding features of The Mab is that it is bilingual: each story is followed immediately by a modern Welsh translation. The Welsh people put a lot of effort into keeping their native language alive, so I’m glad to see the editors provide Welsh versions of these native Welsh tales. Some schools in Wales provide instruction via the Welsh language, so Welsh-speaking children will appreciate reading their native tales in their native tongue.

Donna R. White

Arkansas Tech University


June 20, 2022

The Adventures of Maid Marian


Bill Thomas’s The Adventures of Maid Marian


Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty

La Salle University


Poor Maid Marian and her sisters!  When left to their own devices, neither film nor television generally knows what to do with them.  The one exception has been the Tony Robinson BBC children’s comedy series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-1994).  The series reduced Robin Hood to an over-the-top foppish former tailor whose contribution to Sherwood lore is to coordinate the Lincoln green colors of the outfits for the Merry Men with those of the forest, so that the outlaws can more easily blend into the scenery.  In the admittedly zany series, the real brains behind the Sherwood outlaws are Marian’s.  The Marian character in Cybil Richards’s 2000 mildly pornographic film Virgins of Sherwood Forest is a twentieth-century film director who is knocked on the head and wakes up à la Twain in twelfth-century England.  She gets no respect in either century, but she does at least get the best line in the film.  Exiting Sherwood after a tryst with one of the merrier of the Merry Men, she deadpans, “So, why do they call you little, John?”  Keira Knightley tried her hand at being Robin Hood’s decidedly independent daughter only to resort to gendered stereotype and don a wedding dress at the end of the 2001 Disney made-for-television film Princess of Thieves. In the BBC series Robin Hood (2006-2009), Lucy Griffiths’ Maid Marian, disguised as the Night Watchman, outdid the eponymous hero with her nocturnal exploits against the Sherriff—at least until she was killed off early in the series. One yearns for the solid, dependable Marians of old—Enid Bennett, Olivia de Havilland, and Audrey Hepburn—who stood by their men careful not to upstage them, at least not too often.  The latest film Marian, Sophie-Louise Craig, in Bill Thomas’s direct-to-streaming 2022 The Adventures of Maid Marian could use some help blending into the scenery.

The film opens with a series of title cards telling us exactly where we are in this version of the oft-told tale of Robin Hood. Three years ago, Prince John, serving as King Regent, had levelled crippling taxes on the people in the absence of his brother, King Richard the Lionheart.  In the North, however, Robin Hood and Marian Fitzwater stood against John, exposing in the process the corruption of the Sheriff of Nottingham, William de Wendenal.  King Richard rewarded Robin and Marian for their bravery,


Sophie-Louise Craig as the title character in The Adventures of Maid Marian


commanding that Robin join him to fight in the Crusades to liberate Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land, and sending de Wendenal into exile.  Absent Robin, Marian and Sherwood are left unprotected, but anyone with a conscience cannot sit idly by and do nothing.  Marian hides out in Kirklees Priory disguised as a novice, Sister Matilda.  Marian, however, makes a poor novice (“How do you solve a problem like Matilda?”), not least because she receives regular love letters from Robin and sneaks about at night disguised as Robin to help the poor. The poor, by the way, are scarcely to be seen in the film—which is probably a good thing. No one in the film seems to have any time to rob from the rich, so there is nothing to give to the poor.

            Three years pass, and the Crusade ends.  Robin is back home, but, alas, Richard is dead in France, and de Wendenal is also back in England seeking revenge on Robin and the restoration of his title and lands.  As he clumsily attempts to do carry out his revenge, de Wendenal is aided in no small part by the Prioress of Kirklees, Sister Elizabeth, his cousin no less, who is intent upon punishing Robin for sullying her family name.  Equally corrupt, is Abbot Eustace, who is being blackmailed to aid de Wendenal, lest his past unsavory deeds be made public. Other minions of de Wendenal include a sniveling Guy of Guisborne [sic] and the double-crossing Warden of Sherwood, who at the end of the film is named new Sheriff of Nottingham by Prince, now King, John.

            Bill Thomas likes to advance the action of his film by inserting endless overhead shots of Sherwood—his cameraman is like a kid with a new toy drone—and by repeating scenes.  Thus, Marian is attacked and tied up twice.  Marian must twice run up the incredibly steep hill that the Priory rests on.  There are, at one point, two Sheriffs of Nottingham, the exiled de Wendenal and Baron William de Lech, who is assassinated by a second woman archer disguised as Robin Hood.  Robin himself is twice shot in the back, once with an arrow loosed from a crossbow and once with a spear launched from a ballista.  Guisborne produces several ballistae on a moment’s notice to attack a wooden shack in which Robin and Marian are unsuccessfully trying to hide, and somehow Robin manages to survive both wounds.

            The ballistae are not the only weapons in de Wendenal’s armory.  Each of his men is armed with a Morgenstern, and they all wear helmets modeled after that found in the Sutton Ho treasure trove. Marian is, though, a match for any man she meets whether she is armed with long bow, crossbow, axe, staff, or sword.  She even sheds her outfit of Lincoln green for a full suit of chain mail, eventually

Dominic Andersen as a decidedly second-fiddle Robin Hood in

The Adventures of Maid Marian


killing de Wendenal in a duel.  The twice-wounded Robin barely gets to fight at all.  Indeed, in the film, his initial interest lies in leaving England almost as soon as he arrives back home to become a pig farmer in France where Richard has deeded him some land. 

There is much talk in the film of the famed deeds of Robin Hood and his Merry Men—only Little John and Friar Tuck appear briefly in the film—but there is little in Dominic Andersen’s portrayal of Robin to suggest he is really a match for the legend that has grown up around the Wolfshead, as Robin is repeatedly referred to in the film.  Indeed, Andersen seems to have arrived back in England from boyband practice rather than from France, and he looks ten, if not fifteen, years younger than Marian, who is always rescuing him from danger.  Not that she gets much respect for doing so.  When Tuck attempts to come to Marian’s aid, he is admonished not to do so by Abbot Eustache who quotes 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify their abandoning Marian: “Do not permit a woman to exercise authority over a man.”

The Adventures of Maid Marian is mercifully short, and does nothing to burnish Marian’s screen reputation, instead reducing her to a twelfth-century cougar in hot pursuit of a much younger, pouty-lipped boyfriend.  Marian may be plucky, but to no real end.  Bill Thomas does have the temerity to end his film on a note that suggests there will be one or more sequels.  Such a note was struck both by Guy Ritchie at the of his 2017 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and by Otto Bathurst at the end of his 2018 Robin Hood.  So far, we have been spared the sequel or the franchise for either.  I suspect the same will be true for poor Marian in The Adventures of Maid Marian.

The Adventures of Maid Marian, directed by Bill Thomas, Signature Entertainment and Picture Perfect Productions, with Sophie-Louise Craig as Marian, Dominic Andersen as Robin Hood, James Groom as King John, Bob Cryer as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Jon Lee Pellet as Little John, Harry Harrold as Friar Tuck, Adam Benwell as Guy of Guisborne, Jennifer Matter as Prioress Elizabeth, Roland Stone as Abbott Eustace, Gerard Cooke as the Warden of Sherwood, Danny Husbands as William de Lech, Kitty Dobson as the Second Woman Disguised as Robin Hood, and Robin Gould as King Richard the Lionheart (whose actual onscreen appearance seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor). Running time: 1:22. Released straight to digital platforms on 6 May 2022 in the US and on 9 May 2022 in the UK.