Excalibur – Part II
A few observations and theories on two characters cast in a negative light throughout John Boorman’s masterpiece: Morgana and Guinevere. The movie like most of literature portrays women as the root of the problem. Or does it say something else about these two?
Concepts of duality and equality abound within the movie. Particularly the duality of man also characterized as ‘the battle within oneself.’ This is best exemplified by the character Lancelot who struggles internally throughout and later dies of a self-inflicted wound. However this central theme overlays into the other characters as well. Essentially and being overly simple we must beware that good begets evil and evil begets good. They cannot be separated. Further, within this dual concept things are often paired and not individual.
So who are the women and what do they represent? We know Morgana is paired with Merlin and Guinevere is wife to Arthur. But what they represent or what is their true role within the story is trickier to discern.
First Morgana: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Just as I wondered who is the real hero and decided it was Perceval (Part I), I wonder who is the real villain? Is there a real villain? I am not so sure.
Morgana as counter wizard to Merlin and mother to Mordred appears as the main villain for most of the movie. She is certainly portrayed as one evil woman.
But step into her shoes. Or rather the shoes of eight-year old Morgana. From her perspective, her father Cornwall was an equal combatant to Uther. So much so that even after Uther wielded Excalibur, Cornwall was still given “all the land from here to the sea”, which apparently was sizable since Cornwall was happy. Then Merlin and Uther conspire to kill her father, have Uther rape her mother and have Merlin steal her baby brother. No child or her parents deserve this fate.
To her, quite reasonably and truthfully, Merlin ruined her life. More so, had Merlin given Excalibur to Cornwall (who is not portrayed as big of a jerk as Uther), her father would be King and she would be in line to be Queen. Yet the treacherous Merlin arbitrarily gave an ordained magic tool to her father’s opponent in what was otherwise an equal fight.
There is no possible way anyone, even Mother Theresa, could forgive and forget this.
Also, Morgana is incredibly intelligent and observant. She knew during the rape of her mother that Uther was not Cornwall, meaning she could intuitively see through the silly illusions of Merlin’s magic as a child.
She then created an ambitious plan to take Merlin’s powers the same way Merlin stole her happy future: through deceit. Morgana did not create herself. Like Eve from the rib of Adam, Merlin begat Morgana. She is the equal and dual reflection of Merlin the manipulator.
Similar to Merlin, Morgana never aspires to be Queen or ruler but rather to control who becomes the king. Like Merlin ordaining Excalibur to Uther and then grooming Arthur, Morgana ordains Mordred to be invincible to mortal weapons and grooms him. She like Merlin uses magic to serve the self-interests of her favored people with no regard of the negative consequences or collateral damage done to others. And of course, Merlin and Morgana are the cause of each other’s ultimate demises.
She and Merlin are two sides of the same coin, bound together forever. But while Merlin is the one who dragged her on to the coin, she bears the burden of being deemed evil while also being the first one evilly wronged. One side portrayed white. The other black. But in reality equal and the same. This is the essence of her speech to Merlin as she eternally traps him in ice.
Further, her duping of Arthur to begat an heir is a smart attempt to set right the wrongs of others. Incest was common among crazy royals as pure bloodlines mattered to support legitimate claims to the throne. By sleeping with Arthur,she tied the two families (Cornwall and Uther) together into a single heir. Mordred is the only grandchild of both the original combatants for the throne with only one grandmother.
To Morgana, Mordred’s ascension to the throne would have as best as possible nullified the crimes done by Merlin and Uther. Remember Morgana’s answer to Mordred when he asks if she has any message for her ‘dear brother’ Arthur? She responds: “You are my message.” Perfect. Morgana may have been the only character thinking clearly in the entire movie. Yet like Medusa we are supposed to hate her. Left with no justice, Morgana got shafted.
Now Guinevere: Guinevere does not have much screen time in the movie so there is little material to interpret. Most symbolism in her character lies in the love triangle and betrayal.
We cannot blame her for sleeping with Lancelot. It was Arthur who betrayed her love and their marriage by refusing to defend Guinevere’s honor against Gawain’s untrue accusation. Arthur’s self-righteous arrogance resulted in Lancelot doing a sacred job which must be reserved for a husband. How could Arthur not stand up for his wife and expect her not to give her love to the man who is willing and almost does die for her? Especially when the man is way more talented and cooler than Arthur. Just as Morgana is intelligent, Arthur is an idiot.
His stubborn refusal to honor his wife is the largest error of judgment in the film. It also resulted in Perceval becoming a Knight, Lancelot wounding himself and Merlin using magic to let Lancelot’s love of Guinevere keep him alive despite the wound. Going forward, remember that Arthur’s placement of his laws over her love was the catalyst for the “Things Fall Apart” portion of the movie.
Back to Guinevere.
Regardless of the essays which could be written about each character or the love triangle, Guinevere is God. And probably more so than Arthur or any other character. Crazy but hear me out.
We are told Arthur is the Lord. Or the representation of a God on Earth. Jesus-like. When Perceval takes the Grail, they come out and say so. This always bothered me since Arthur is an overly fallible fool. Surely God can do better.
Now, the movie is named after a very special sword. As delineated above, the fate of all characters was determined by who got to hold Excalibur and only a few did.
But importantly, how did they get it? Famously, Arthur gets the sword by pulling it from the stone many years after Uther thrust it there.
Excluding the stone, the sword is bestowed twice from a supernatural or magical character: The Lady of the Lake first to Merlin and then to Arthur. These are the only two occasions the sword is “given” or ordained in the movie.
There are also only three instances where the sword is handed from Arthur to another. First to Kay after Arthur pulls the sword and to which Kay quickly returns Excalibur. Then Arthur to Uryens to knight and crown Arthur and later to Perceval to return it to the lake. It should be noted when Kay, Uryens and Perceval are first handed Excalibur, they all have other thoughts about its potential use. Yet as if compelled, they are all quickly faithful to the will of sword’s rightful master, Arthur. Clearly, this is a unique sword for which mere mortals are not capable or permitted to wield.
Regarding the stone, no one was able to pull the sword from that infernal rock. No matter how hard they tried for years, the strongest men around could not budge Excalibur one millimeter. This is an important lesson we already knew: when an authorized user sticks Excalibur into stone, it can only be pulled out by another authorized user. Not even Merlin or Morgana could pull the sword from the stone. Only a deity, semi-deity or a representation of God on Earth like King Arthur.
And Guinevere of course. Didn’t anyone notice?
Growing up, my favorite scene in this movie was what I happily referred to as “Naked Guinevere!”
As we all know, her and Lancelot get it on before Arthur shows up and finds them sleeping. Arthur then abandons Excalibur by sticking it between them, Lancelot runs away and Guinevere cries around the sword. Then everything falls apart until Perceval saves everyone and Guinevere returns Excalibur to Arthur.
Wait! She did what!?!
As a naive youth, what bothered me most about the sexy betrayal scene was the choice of location. Lancelot had been to this place before and it was apparent in both scenes it is full of jagged rock and stone covered in moss. No comfortable areas. Why not do it on the soft grass just over yonder? Is it a simple and obvious ‘love on the rocks’ metaphor? This seems unnecessary under the circumstances.
When Arthur abandons Excalibur, the ground shakes and Merlin agonizingly screams “into the spine of the Dragon!” This was not a normal event – the dragon did not mind too much even when Uther lost Excalibur. We can be certain Arthur did not put Excalibur into dirt or clay or sand. He definitely put it into stone. As explained, only very special people can pull this thing out of a rock. Basically, only Arthur (God) and not Merlin, Morgana or any other characters.
Yet without any explanation, we learn at the end that diminutive and weak-armed Guinevere yanked it out without a problem. And unlike Kay, Uryens or Perceval, she did whatever she wanted with it with no regard of the wishes of Arthur, who later wondered of its location. In her case, she wrapped it up for twenty years as if it was a minor trinket or memento to store away while most of the characters died.
Guinevere is an authorized user of Excalibur. She is not merely Arthur’s wife. She is no less than a God.
Perhaps the one true God.
I stated Excalibur is bestowed or “given” throughout the movie at crucial points only by the Lady of the Lake, a symbol of Paganism. Well, not exactly. When Arthur abandoned Excalibur, for all intents and purposes, it was forever lost as no one knew where it was.
After Perceval found the Grail, Arthur rode out to fight Mordred without Excalibur yet Mordred was invincible to mortal weapons. Without his sword, Arthur and his army would assuredly lose. Excalibur had to be “given” one more time.
Another theme throughout the movie is the change from Paganism to Catholicism. In the beginning, Excalibur is bestowed by a Pagan God. However, the final time Excalibur is bestowed to Arthur, it is by a representation of the Catholic God, thus continuing the transition of religions.
Where has Guinevere been all these years? A Catholic church: the House of God. When Arthur enters the room to see his wife after twenty years, she is standing in almost the same position and under a similar cross as was the “Lord Arthur” during Perceval’s Holy Grail scene. Yet humbly with no flair or bright lights and music.
Notice that Guinevere only reveals she kept Excalibur after Arthur apologizes for his dumb actions throughout the movie. His final confession. Without which she apparently would have let him ride to defeat. So with triumphal music sneaking in, Excalibur wrapped in pure white cloth is “given” to Arthur by a symbol of God: Arthur’s better half and wife, Guinevere.
More so, Arthur’s “It is a dream I have” speech and final loving words to his wife read perfectly as his prayer that Guinevere will accept him into Her eternal Kingdom of Heaven.
(Video starts after apology/confession)
We have written of the symbolism of Arthur’s death and Perceval’s survival in the other post. Essentially, God is gone and has left us in charge. It is quite a declaration yet fitting end for a movie like this. However, is Arthur the true God? He made enough errors of judgment to certainly doubt his divinity and he departs along with Excalibur, the last symbol of the ancient Pagan Gods.
No one kills Guinevere. No one is looking for her and no one is her enemy in the movie. Looking back, it was the failure to honor Her that caused the downfall of every character but we have no reason to believe she has been or ever shall be in any danger. In the end, all the nobles and magical characters are gone except only her and Perceval, common man.
Finally, we can be assured that noble Perceval, the worthy peasant who rose to Knighthood by bravely defending Guinevere’s honor and whose perseverance of faith was rewarded with the Holy Grail, will forever dutifully serve his Queen. Even if never comprehending Her true power over his world.
While common man thinks he is alone, God hides in plain sight. At the most obvious of locations but in a form he least expects. Yet as if masterfully manipulated, the one particular form he has always honored and loved. The one form he shall never fail to defend.
You bent my mind, Boorman!
Now, I’m gonna have to read “Le Morte D’Arthur” to get all of this out of my head once and for all.