John Boorman’s Excalibur: Paganism into Christianity.


John Boorman’s film Excalibur contrasts the pagan character with Christian consciousness. The story begins with Uther, the brutish warrior who becomes king through sheer might. Uther is like a wolverine. Brave, tough, insatiable. His heart is beastly. He lives, triumphs, and dies as a pagan warrior through and through. For him, there’s no concept of peace or truth beyond this–or his–world. Even with the aid of Merlin, he cannot see anything beyond his appetites and ambitions. He’s suspicious of everyone, and in time, everyone’s suspicious of him. He rules by fear; his followers admire his strength but don’t respect or love him. Even as he dies, he bitterly clings to the magic sword. He screams NO ONE shall wield Excalibur but he. He drives it into a stone from which it can’t be extracted… except, as it turns out, by his son Arthur.
If Uther made himself king through the laws of the jungle, Arthur is favored by higher powers and, as such, is destined for higher things. As soon as he pulls the sword out of the stone, he’s instructed by Merlin that this gift of power must be used wisely and virtuously–morally justified. For Uther, power was like a carcass secured by an hungry predator. Because of the hardship involved in the prize, Uther feels entitled and uses and abuses it anyway he chooses.
Arthur, because the power was handed to him by divine force, feels he must live up to a sacred ideal. Initially, Arthur fights the knights who refuse to acknowledge him as king; he proves his worthiness not only as a warrior but as a man of virtue; he spares the life of one of the great knights who, in turn, feels good vibes emanating from Arthur and pledges loyalty to him.
And, consider how Arthur dies. He doesn’t bitterly cling to life, power, or glory. He doesn’t guard Excalibur for himself to the end. He meets death with peace and calmness. He tells Perceval to return Excalibur to the lady of the lake so that it may rise again for the future king. Christianity is crucial to Arthur’s peace with death and his generosity of heart. He’s in tune with a greater conception of time and humanity.
To be sure, Arthur too is a pagan warrior and rules over a domain that is, at best, only half-Christian. It’s a time when the new religion avails higher wisdom and deeper truth but at the price of man’s vital link to nature and magic. Ultimately, the balance between paganism and Christianity is unsustainable. Warriors are meant to fight, and a world of peace softens and corrupts them.
Arthur, through the fellowship of the Round Table, seeks to maintain a tough, disciplined, and virtuous military order over his peaceful land. But, his knights grow decadent, lazy, and distracted. We may find a parallel in Seven Samurai, where the samurai are at a loss after their great triumph over the bandits. Having restored peace for the peasants, what is the meaning of their existence… except to wait for another dreary opportunity to fight, kill, and perhaps die? And, this was indeed the problem of Japan of the Tokugawa period–when Japan was unified. Without war, many samurai lost their positions. Many turned to gambling , the easy life, and ended up in debt; some even had to sell their swords–the soul of the samurai(powerfully portrayed in Kobayashi’s “Seppuku”–a.k.a “Hara Kiri”. It was still a samurai-ruled order but with no need for samurai.
Because of the impossible nature of Arthur’s political/moral order, it too must fall. Arthur’s saving grace is he can let go with peace of heart, something beyond the grasp of his father. Uther was the greater warrior than his son but spiritually a zero. He died pitifully, clinging to physical power to the last. Arthur dies as horrible a death–and at the hands of his wicked son–, but he meets death with honor. And, his example inspires Perceval who, though tempted to keep Excalibur for himself, casts it back into the lake. The theme of victory even in defeat is central to Christianity, and it can be said Arthur triumphs in one sense despite the fall of his kingdom: his virtuous legend will be remembered for all time.
Yet, the passing of warrior paganism also designates the loss of something wondrous and beautiful–for universal laws, the basis of future social order, are generic, and moralism can be dogmatic(as Lancelot-as-Christian-fanatic seems to be at one point.)
Arthur’s dilemma is universal for all non-democratic political leaders seeking to be just. In a world where power is won and held by might, how does one distinguish virtue and weakness, between law and honor? It’s true that Uther took another man’s wife whereas Arthur–in the movie version at least–would not have done so; but, Arthur loses his wife to another. And, when Arthur cannot make himself kill Guinevere and Lancelot, was he being decent or weak? Is virtue possible in a world where might and honor still account for much of the political order?
It’s a question visited upon Western Man in the latter part of 20th century, and it continues to this day. Can Western Man survive by trying to the lone virtuous figure in the world, atoning for all the sins committed in its interests, ideals, and ambitions? Western Man would like to believe that his socio-politico-economic order was based on the highest ideals and beliefs, the most heroic adventures and achievements, but look closely at any history and there is the equivalent of the Uther-Merlin alliance to create the New Order. So, since the end of WWII, especially with the rise of leftwing Jewish power, the West has been filled with little more than self-doubt and self-loathing.
The very dynamic of the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot is problematic. Lancelot pledged his loyalty to Arthur in the mistaken belief that Arthur had fairly beaten him in a fight. Actually, Arthur cheated by improperly using the power of excalibur. Lancelot is the most powerful knight yet comes to believe that Arthur is the mightiest one. Lancelot does come to respect Arthur’s decency and goodness, but it’s still the world of the warrior, where the central basis of power is the sword and martial honor.
Arthur is good, but his goodness may be inappropriate–even foolish–in his world. Also, there is a threat far more sinister and lethal than sword and physical power. Wit can be used for good or evil. Knights may chop off heads, but Morgana poisons the hearts of man. She gains control over them from the inside. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Merlin, in his wish to do good, has become tainted in his complicity with Uther’s lust and madness. Merlin is a necessarily devious character, rather like Henry Kissinger. In a cruel and ruthless world, he had no choice but to work with what was available. His machinations led to the birth of good king Arthur, but only at the murder of Duke of Cornwall, the rape of his wife, and the fall of kingdoms.
In this sense, Merlin and Arthur made a natural pair. Both tried to do their best with an imperfect world. Arthur is a willing student. Alas, Merlin cannot teach Arthur everything, and if any mortal could see what Merlin could see, he would be filled with doubt and without faith in social order. In a way, Merlin represents both the comedy and tragedy of superior knowledge. It humors him to see people act like children, but it also troubles him to see the sad fate of all things, not least those he helped build.
(Merlin maintains his sanity because he not only has superior knowledge but superior wisdom. The latter gives him the will to carry on despite the futility of all things. A mortal who gains his knowledge may well turn to nihilism since all seem fated to rot and decay; Merlin’s wisdom accepts the rise and fall of all things as a cyclical system. Departing from Arthur’s side, he knows the kingdom is doomed. But, it is not the only one. It is only one of many worlds, all of which will rise and fall and lay the ground for new worlds. Merlin cannot help being attached to certain mortals, and Arthur is one of his favorites, and so he tries to something drastic to bring down Morgana, but he must have know that it would be futile. Even so, he had to try because even his failure would be a crucial part of the bigger story. And, it is indeed; though entombed in Morgana’s spell, he turns into a Jungian dream and helps Arthur to defeat Morgana and Mordred. And, there’s even a bit of irony here, for even as Merlin fears the coming of the One-God-that-drives-out-the-many, he becomes a kind of Christ-like figure, a resurrected sorcerer rising from the crucifixion at the hands of Morgana.)
As a pagan figure, Merlin is not all knowing nor all powerful. He’s a sorcerer, not a god–besides, even pagan gods are far from all-powerful. He sees and understands more than mortals, but he is often surprised by what men are capable of. Though he’s an expert on the dragon, he lacks complete knowledge of it ways. After Arthur’s misuse of the magic sword against Lancelot, Merlin thinks it’s shattered for good. He’s as surprised–perhaps even more–as Arthur when the lady of the lake holds up the mended sword for the repentant king.
How did Northern Europeans go from pagan to Christian consciousness? That is a question for historians, but surviving artifacts can only teach us so much. Art can approach it from a psychological angle and a mythopoeic process; and John Boorman’s Excalibur is among the greatest of such imaginative endeavors. Boorman’s film is story of Northern European consciousness than of men.
It begins in the world of nature, man, and magic. Nature is mysterious, beautiful, and cruel. Man is a part of this nature, but his intelligence and imagination lead him toward ideals outside nature. Merlin represents the wit, brilliance, and magic between nature and man. Merlin has insights into nature’s designs and even limited power over it. Merlin also understands the heart of man. Merlin is a slippery ideal in a world where notions of perfection and purity have as yet to be discovered. And so, he’s a man of wit as well as wisdom. He has to be devious in order to negotiate between nature and man, but Merlin is not without higher vision of man. He has an appreciation of the beauty of nature and guides man toward potential for order and truth. Merlin’s ideal for man is a balance between nature and community, between mind and body.
The film opens with bloody warfare. It’s a world where brutish might is the law. Merlin seeks an order when men will be wiser and more enlightened. As such, they will use their power to create than destroy, to spread peace than violence. What Arthur represents for Merlin is the law of the righteous king. Of course, Merlin fails because the Arthurian order too is based on personality and a deep connection to haphazard forces. What must prevail for there to be lasting peace is impersonal law and ideals separate from the randomness of nature. Excalibur ends in a world which has yet to come under the domination of Christianity and legalism. It is a celebration of that cyclical world when man was cyclical along with nature, rising and falling, being born and growing, then decaying and dying. A world dark and dangerous but virile and magical.
The rise of Christianity and legalism has provided man with a firm and stable system less dependent on personalities and on the ways of nature. Even when leaders are inferior and weather turns bad, we have the law and technology to maintain our social well-being. And, the belief in the one-and-only Almighty God provides us with an idea of a perfect and stable cosmic order–as opposed to the pagan view of spirituality linked closely with nature.

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