Not Just Another Medieval Soap Opera: ‘Camelot: The Complete First Season’

In a famous exchange between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the two writers discussed the nature of myth:

Lewis: Myths are lies and therefore worthless, even though lies breathed through silver.

Tolkien: No, they’re not lies… there are transcendent truths that are beyond us… about beauty, truth, and honor that man knows exist but cannot be seen. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths.

The legend of King Arthur is one of the most enduring myths, and the Starz channel has developed a compelling reinvention of Camelot. A strong cast is led by Joseph Fiennes, who plays Merlin with Machiavellian ferocity. Driven to shape England’s future, Merlin places a promising but feckless young Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) on the throne. “A king exists primarily as an idea,” Merlin tells Arthur.

Arthur’s half-sister Morgan, played with scorching intensity by Eva Green, is an erotic sorceress who also has a legitimate claim to the throne. Starz’s Camelot is a dark retelling of the Arthurian myth, as Morgan descends into the occult to strive against Merlin’s “boy king”.

The series inverts the standard Camelot love triangle. The highborn Guinevere is engaged to Leontes, a loyal knight in Arthur’s court. When Arthur and Guinevere betray Leontes on his wedding day, a seed is planted for future discord and strife.

Seduction is a major theme throughout Camelot. The king is tempted by the beautiful Guinevere. Morgan is seduced by power and is willing to channel dark forces to attain it. Merlin is distracted by Arthur’s mother, the widow Queen Igraine. The series is unabashedly erotic, and the sexual tensions and betrayals in Arthur’s court eventually threaten the king’s moral authority.

Yet the series aims for something higher than just another medieval soap opera. Arthur attempts to establish a rudimentary system of justice in a lawless land. Campbell gives a clever turn as the golden boy Arthur, a young king who grows in stature as the series progresses. In the first few episodes it seems that Morgan will eat Arthur alive, yet he matures before our eyes. Campbell’s performance is subtle and underplayed as he takes a backseat to the fiery theatrics of Fiennes and Green. By episode ten we sense a core of steel in Arthur that we didn’t notice before.

The first half of Season One is exceptionally strong. In one brilliant episode, “Lady of the Lake” (spoilers ahead), Merlin commissions a renowned smith to forge Excalibur. When the smith insists on delivering it personally to the king, Merlin foresees that he means to assassinate Arthur. Merlin kills the smith, but the smith’s daughter escapes with the sword.

As the girl flees in a canoe across a lake, Merlin casts a spell that slowly turns the water to ice. The girl panics and topples out of the boat. As she goes under, her sword arm is trapped in ice as she drowns beneath the frozen lake. Her frozen arm remains upright as it holds Excalibur, eerily gleaming in the sun.

When Merlin returns to Camelot, Arthur’s men ask about the origins of the sword. The guilt-stricken wizard replies:

I rode many miles, till I came to a lake. Everywhere there was a mist and I had to stop. Then from out of the gloom a woman called to me… like a siren. From within the lake she stretched out her arm, holding this sword, clutching it. I took the blade and thanked her. She smiled and slipped back into the water, saying, ‘This is the sword of King Arthur…Excalibur’.

The episode is beautifully done, a masterpiece of storytelling that blends magic with gritty realism. It embraces what Tolkien meant — that myth expresses a higher truth that cannot be conveyed in any other way.

There are a few problems with Camelot. In the season finalé, “The Battle of Bardon Pass”, Arthur’s forces meet Morgan’s rebel army in the field. What should be a major climax falls surprisingly flat. The battle scene is inexplicably small-scale, featuring a few extras dressed in medieval garb. They attack Arthur’s knights in hand-to-hand combat around a small cottage. Perhaps budgetary constraints ruled the day, but England’s future is supposedly at stake here. An epic battle scene was needed, or at least hinted at.

Starz just recently cancelled the series and it appears that funding was pulled from the Camelot season finalé and spent elsewhere. The show had the misfortune of competing against HBO’s remarkable Game of Thrones, so the sword and sorcery market was fragmented this past season.

Nevertheless, Camelot is one of the best series of the last few years and never received the attention that it deserved. The ten-episode set of Season One is beautifully shot and scored. DVD extras include behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews.

RATING 8 / 10
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