Excalibur and the Myth of the Moral Arc of the Universe

When the word myth comes up in daily conversation it almost always carries a negative connotation. We say “that’s just a myth” to identify some naive or potentially dangerous belief disproven by enlightenment and common sense. In our time myth = old made up story = no longer relevant.  But myth as a concept still represents deep truths about human existence and human cultures. We tell stories to understand ourselves better, and hundreds of years ago it was no different. 

John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur is still one of the greatest translations of an ancient myth to the screen. It took one of the most well known of myths, the story of King Arthur, and turned it into a meditation on the rise and fall of a political order. It shows a ruler and a society struggling to do what is just and right. The question of whether human civilization naturally grows more just has been on the minds of many lately. One of the most well-known of phrases is MLK’s ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Discouraged progressives might be tempted to say that such phrases are just another myth we tell ourselves. Excalibur attempts to show that these questions about civilization have been around for centuries. It’s an old story that reflects the fragmentation, hope, and brokenness of our modern world.   

Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg didn’t want to just retell the story of Arthur, which had already been done countless times in film. They sought to create a meta-myth on screen, a sweeping panorama of the Arthurian cycle that would be a commentary on the nature of mythical truth. They used Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as a base, but drew freely from other medieval traditions and rearranged certain characters and events. For wider symbolic reference they turned to Jessie Weston’s influential and erudite interpretation of Arthurian myth, From Ritual To Romance. The setting is meant to evoke the origins of British and, more broadly, Western civilization. As such it borrows elements from the dark ages and the medieval world.

Excalibur opens with a familiar situation. The land is hopelessly divided and in need of a unifying ruler. At first King Uther is that hope. He wields the sword Excalibur and makes a seeming truce with his enemies. But lust proves his fatal weakness, a flaw that prevents him from unifying the land. The magician Merlin uses trickery to help him seduce the wife of a rival Duke. Thus Arthur is born in less than honorable circumstances, and Merlin snatches him away and hides him as a designated “chosen one.”

Arthur is notably unremarkable when we draws the sword from the stone as a teenager. Nigel Terry plays him with a certain bumbling, awkward manner. But it’s his humility that helps him unite the land. This humility is emphasized to set him apart from his father, who had failed in the task. In the midst of battle with Uryens, Arthur falls to his knees and asks him to knight him. Deeply moved, Uryens does so, even though he could just as easily have cut off his head. Arthur is not afraid to make himself vulnerable because of his confidence in the rightness of his cause.

Arthur isn’t the most talented fighter or swordsman. Lancelot gets the better of him in their first meeting, and Arthur uses Excalibur to cheat and help him win, breaking it in the process. Remorseful, Arthur confesses his petty rage, that Lancelot was the better man. Only because of this penitence does the Lady of the Lake restore his sword and kingly authority. This epic humbling of Arthur is what gains him Lancelot and the total unification of the kingdom.

Arthur centers his new utopia in Camelot. When Lancelot brings the young Perceval to the castle for the first time it looks like the beginning of a market economy. Perceval wanders amidst sellers, conjurers, scientists, in a dazzling display of innovation and creativity. Camelot’s own post-war boom. Arthur’s Round Table stands for the unbroken unity of a government. The land is at peace, crops grow in abundance. “Where hides evil?” a confidant Arthur asks Merlin. “Always where you never expect it,” says Merlin dryly.

Nicol Williamson’s Merlin is a marvelous creation. He embodies, not just the tension between the dying pagan world and the emerging Christian one, but between foreknowledge and tragedy. He sees the doom written in Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship from the start, but recognizes the necessity of their union. “It is a time for men and their ways,” he says. But Merlin’s love for humanity means he can’t help entering into their struggles himself. Merlin, like many a spiritual or religious advisor, is drawn out of monastic resignation into the less pure, worldly affairs of men.

Excalibur is situated between pagan and Christian Europe. Arthur is a Christian king and his rule follows Christian rituals. But the old pagan ways remain intermixed with everything. Like the modern West, the relationship between political order and divine agency is fraught and complex. Arthur is deeply connected to the land. When he does well, the land blossoms. When he falters, the land decays. Did God, or the gods, ordain this arrangement? It’s a question as mysterious as the same one in our modern world, and can provoke the same contentious debate.

The trouble in Arthur’s utopia sits with Lancelot and Guinevere. Their affair is not simple lust, but a deeper love which both resist for a long time. But eventually they yield, and Arthur relinquishes Excalibur as a sign of his disgust and feeling of failure. Soon after an incestuous dalliance with his half-sister Morgana produces a son, Mordred.

The place of women in the film is a difficult one. They have to navigate a world largely defined by male sexual desire. Morgana is using the most basic weapon she has against Arthur. Her own mother was taken advantage of by Uther, aided by Merlin’s magic. Merlin’s own complicity in this shows his own complicity in the fallen state of humanity. Though Morgana is a villain, she is a tragic one and we are meant to sympathize a bit with how she got there. Merlin’s own dark and suppressed love for her is visible in their interactions. Williamson and Helen Mirren allegedly didn’t get along well, and in their scenes together you can cut the tension with a knife.

After impregnating Morgana, Arthur is struck by lightning in an implied act of divine punishment. His kingdom is struck as well. With famine and economic catastrophe it becomes a wasteland. As all nations do in such misfortune, Camelot searches for a means of revival. For Arthur this is the Grail, and he sends his knights in search of it. The film emphasizes the weary hopelessness of the quest, as most of his men fall and Mordred grows in power. Meanwhile, Lancelot, frozen in guilt, has turned wild-eyed apocalyptic itinerant preacher. “Christ has abandoned us!” he screams at Perceval when they stumble upon one another. In Perceval and Lancelot we see two different responses in a fallen society. Lancelot sees only divine punishment in the fallen state of things. He sees restoration through intense and gloomy penitence. Perceval is different. “I can’t give up hope, Lancelot. It’s all I have” he tells him. For Perceval, the Grail represents hope and the quest for it the refusal to surrender hope. The finding of the Grail is a beautifully filmed sequence set to music from Wagner’s Parsifal. Much of the film is organized this way and it give narrative flow an epic, dreamlike quality.

With the Grail’s power, Arthur and Camelot are restored enough to make a final stand against Mordred. Arthur visits Guinevere in a convent, offers his forgiveness, and asks for hers. Again, Arthur’s humility restores Excalibur to his hands, as she reveals she has kept it with her since he surrendered it. Lancelot rejoins Arthur in battle and briefly all is restored. But leaders can’t live forever and neither can Arthur. Excalibur sleeps with the Lady of the Lake, waiting to be claimed again by the just and the wise.

Excalibur might seem worlds away from our democratic age. But its dramatization of the tension between justice and power couldn’t be more relevant. A large part of the US feels that something precious was lost in the most recent presidential election. The other half of the country feels vindicated and energized at the restoration of their power. Our divisions are rooted in different conceptions of a just and fair society. In Excalibur a justly ordered society proves a fleeting ideal, but one which good people are willing to sacrifice for. The myth of the moral arc of the universe doesn’t seem like much comfort to liberals right now. But great political and social leaders have always understood the mysterious role of our own agency in bending the arc. Excalibur is a film about flawed humans who struggle to do what is right, build something special, lose it, and fight to win it back. Myths can help us bend the arc, and sustain us when the Grail we struggle for seems hopelessly distant. If the moral arc is a myth, then it is a good one worth holding on to, much like Excalibur.