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Arthurian Nights

by Matthew Newton

A classical image of King Arthur
Doctor Who has often used popular stories, myths and legends for the basis of stories throughout its history, and the legends of King Arthur and his court are amongst the most popular and powerful myths of history, so it was almost inevitable that one day the two would coincide. This happened as late as 1989 and Ben Aaronovitch's "Battlefield". The thinking behind the story seems to be that the battles between these knights from another dimension supposedly produced the legends of King Arthur that have been known and retold for a thousand years, but how, in real life, did these powerful stories of a king and his round table influence Aaronovitch in the writing of "Battlefield"?

Although it is not known who the real Arthur was, and there were stories of such a man in post-Roman times, it was not really until about 1139 when the legend as we know it today was born. This was the year of "The History of the Kings of Britain" by Geoffrey of Monmoth, a document combining history, Celtic stories and Geoffrey's own rich imagination. A large part of the book dealt with Arthur, and was responsible for the start of stories such as Arthur's birth at Tintagel in Cornwall, a fact that the tourist industry of that small town are no doubt thankful for. Other stories and poems from writers in Germany and France, as well as Wales and England, dealt with the subject after this, but it is probably the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson in the 19th century which are responsible for the images of Arthur's court that we know today.

In "Battlefield", perhaps the most obvious use of the legends themselves is in the two principle villains of the story, Morgaine and her son Mordred. Taking these in reverse order, Mordred is certainly based on one of the most significant Arthurian characters, also called Mordred, but known as Modred or Medraut as well. In early forms of the legends, he is Arthur's nephew, at first a member of the court, but always a traitor and a villain. One story concerns Arthur leaving for Rome with an army and entrusting the kingdom to Mordred in his absence. However, when preparing for battle, Arthur learns that Mordred has been treacherous; he has usurped the crown and is about to marry Guinevere, Arthur's queen, after spreading stories that the king is dead. Arthur returns home and there is a battle in with Mordred and his army in which Mordred is killed and Arthur mortally wounded. So the ground was set for the villainous nature of Doctor Who's own Mordred, although any treachery on his part is certainly never mentioned on screen. The legendary Mordred may also have influenced the character of Ancelyn on screen, although in the opposite respect, as Marc Platt's novelisation suggests that Ancelyn is a treacherous member of Morgaine's forces.

However, one connection that at first seems to be missing from the ancient stories is the relationship between Mordred and Morgaine's forebears; it is certainly never mentioned that they are mother and son, although as we shall see this is certainly a valid conclusion for Aaronovitch to draw. This starts in a latter version of the legend when it is revealed that Mordred is Arthur's incestuous son - this is something Marc Platt seems to have picked up on, as the novelisation certainly hints that Arthur is Mordred's father. However, this is but half the story.

A mad old witch

In "Battlefield", Jean Marsh's character of Morgaine would seem to be mainly based on the legendary Morgan le Fay (French for the fairy), probably the chief villain of the legends. Morgan is an evil witch - literally - and probably the main enemy of Arthur and Merlin. Again the influence on Doctor Who is clear. As a young woman, Morgan and Merlin fell in love, and Merlin taught her magic, although she soon broke her promise to remain with Merlin forever, and was soon turned to the side of evil. Later, Morgan le Fay is ruler of the Isle of Avalon (meaning isle of apples, now identified as Glastonbury) - one of two meanings for a word from the legend that found its way into "Battlefield" as the name given to Earth by the warriors from another dimension. It is also mentioned that Morgan le Fay is Arthur's half-sister, so it is quite possible for her to be Mordred's father. It is often stated in some legends that Morgan was in love with Arthur, hence her hatred of Arthur when he marries Guinevere. One particular legend concerns her trying to tend Arthur's wounds after his defeat at his final battle, although other versions consider this as another woman called Morgan from Glastonbury. Also, some versions state that Arthur unknowingly committed incest with Morgause - Morgaine's (and Arthur's) sister - although it is not stated this produced Mordred. But while Aaronovitch may have used Morgan le Fay as the simple basis for Morgaine, he certainly changed the substance - it is certainly never stated that Morgan le Fay was commander of a great army like Morgaine was; it was often enough for her to use just magic to attempt to defeat Arthur and Merlin.

So these are the main parts of the legend that influenced the substance of "Battlefield", but there were many other references, both obscure and obvious. One of these is the name Vortigen, which is the name of a lake in Aaronovitch's script. This seems to be a reference to Merlin, Arthur's wizard and advisor whose place is filled by the Doctor. In legend, Merlin was born to be the son of the Devil as an anti-Christ, but was turned to good by a Saxon king called Vortigen. Probably the obscurest reference in the story is to Peter Walmsley's archeology. Walmsley is site manager for the Carbury Trust Conservation Area; Carbury seems to be a derivation of the name Cadbury, an archeological site in Somerset that is often believed to be the site of Camelot, Arthur's legendary castle.

But while the story had many obscure references, they were accompanied by many more obvious ones. This included the sword in the stone, the famous method of Arthur's selection to be king, being used as the activation to Arthur's spacecraft, and Ace's arm rising from the water holding Excalibur aloft, mirroring exactly the Lady of the Lake after the knight Bedivere returned the sword after Arthur's final defeat.

But by far the most interesting aspect concerns the popular legend of Arthur never actually dying. This comes from one legend, when after he received fatal injuries at the Battle of Camalan, Arthur was transported to the mysterious Avalon to await the time will he will be reawakened in Britain's hour of need - "a sleeping warrior who one day will reappear as leader when called by the breaking of a spell." This sees a second use of the word Avalon, and it is probably this usage which influenced Aaronovitch; in "Battlefield" it at first appears that Arthur was put into suspended animation by Merlin (the Doctor) and transported to Earth (Avalon) until he is needed again - a direct parallel of the legend. It is only at the end of the story when we discover that Arthur is really dead, killed in his final battle. Is this Aaronovitch commenting on the legend, by stating the futility of believing something that is clearly not true?

Arthur has certainly been used many times on television, from numerous historically based series such as Arthur Of The Britons to more fantasy based stories like ATV's Raven. At last, in 1989, Doctor Who tackled the subject. Whether it did this successfully and whether it produced a good story is purely subjective, but at least it tried.

Originally published in Think Tank issue 25 (September 1991).



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