Why writing about King Arthur and Camelot is wonderful, hard as hell and hazardous to your health

Why writing about King Arthur and Camelot is wonderful, hard as hell and hazardous to your health

Banner-with-all-dates

(You can now buy Part One of The Camelot Kids on Amazon.)

When I first had the idea for The Camelot Kids, my upcoming book, it was about a summer camp run by Merlin.

Cool idea, maybe, but too similar to some stories I was reading at the time. I abandoned the project before it got started.

But my brain snagged on the Camelot myth. Knights, dragons, wizards, adventure, love, betrayal; this is the stuff we scarf up like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups these days. And it’s attributable, or at least natural, to King Arthur in one way or another. Camelot and King Arthur are the vehicle in which Fantasy (with a capital ‘F’) has been carried through time, to our time.

If you ask people to tell the story of Camelot, well, that could mean a bunch of things.

The quest for the Holy Grail!

The forbidden, dangerous love affair between Queen Guinivere and the knight Lancelot!

Arthur pulling the sword from the stone!

Whichever tale you associate with the Camelot myth, it’s in your noggin somewhere, and it’s a good bet that your impression is somewhere between “blech” and “meh.”

Isn’t that odd? One of the heartiest yarns to survive the ages actually leaves many Fantasy fans cold!

As I dug into the story I found something even odder. Camelot felt like a cardboard cutout of fantasy. It felt like a 50s Disney film with pointy towers and pointy flags and fair ladies with pointy hats. Everyone wore white or gleaming armor in my mind’s eye. Fair maidens batted their eyelashes. And knights? They jousted, or something. Blech, indeed. Maybe Camelot wasn’t for me after all.

But there’s a big but.

I figured out how Camelot would be relevant to me again. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it took Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Harry Potter and, most importantly, the horrible 80s film, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to give me my eureka moment.

The-Camelot-Kids-Part-One-b

The world sucked for a kid growing up in 70s and 80s America.

And it was hard to ignore the suckage, which ranged from the Iran Hostage Crisis to Max Headroom to everything else.

Luckily, Fantasy was thriving ! Star Wars, comics, and any Atari game or Tor book were crucial to my sanity. Taking a look around at what popular culture has become today, it’s clear that several billion others felt the same way.

Back then, I read comics and books that swept me away from wherever I was because wherever I was just plain bit. With Star Wars or Superman I could escape into a place that had nothing in common with my farty classroom, or the stale mall, or my quiet bedroom. To me, there was no magic here. There was only magic there.

This is one of the reasons why I hated stories where kids from our world stepped into another one. To me, even one child from our reality stepping into a fantastic world would be like a cancer on the story, sucking our insecurities about “otherness” out of us like pus from a wound. Narnia, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland…they were so quaint with their talking animals and spritzy, cute sheen. (note: I love them now, but I was an angry teen!)

Worst of all? The kids always wanted to go home! Losers.

The people in these stories were shallow to me. Their bonds to other characters were like a person to a pet — strong but inhuman. All the “heroes” had one foot out the door, willing to risk everything to see mommy again.

My hatred of the “Looking Glass” type of story was vindicated (in my petty mind) when the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe movie came out in 1987. Starring Dolph Lundgren and Courtney Cox — need I say more? In the movie, He-Man is trapped in our universe in a far-from-epic adventure designed to sap the magic out of our world for decades. No, that wasn’t the plot. That’s what the movie actually did. It made your standard TV movie of the week look like The Godfather. To me, this movie was proof that no one knew how to take a normal kid, place him in another world and tell a good story.

I balanced myself on that told-you-so soapbox for years. It was an argument I had with my film geek college friends in NYU Tisch School. I watched as Hollywood botched fantasy film after fantasy film with nary a lesson learned.

Uh-oh-Hut

Then Harry Potter came along.

It took Harry Potter to show me that our world and a fantasy world could mix, and be fantastic. The thing about Harry Potter that changed the dynamic for me was emotion. The best Fantasy starts with our sense of love, jealousy, revenge, ambition and then places it in a fairy tale. What had been missing for years (for me) was a story that took place in our world but treated us as magic. What author would be daring enough to shed the sarcasm, the cynicism of our times and insist that adventure is right under our noses? Who would find a fantastic way to tell a human story where a school, not a parent, is the ultimate shield from harm? Who would acknowledge our deep desire to be swept into another world and never see this one again? It turned out to be JK Rowling.

The lore of King Arthur is stale because the humanity has been leeched out by centuries of interpretation. Characters have become cardboard caricatures. Camelot has become Disneyland. Chivalry has become trite. In many ways the second most recognizable fairy tale in the western world suffers a lack of depth.

This is what I thought. Past tense. Until…

(and this is where my desire to write about Merlin and his pawns sat up from its death bed like the Frankenstein monster)

…until you ponder the famous Arthurian characters as normal people trying to make the world a better place, but stumbling on their weaknesses.

That would be cool.

And make them modern people, who we can identify with.

But don’t lose the history. Never lose the history. Make a sequel, not an adaptation.

Writing is hard.

Writing about famous figures is harder.

Writing about Camelot is downright dangerous. The consequences of taking creative license with something that has Ivy League programs dedicated to it invites wrath that’s usually reserved for atheists writing about God. But, really, can you think of a more exciting hill to climb?

When I started researching The Camelot Kids, I’d never read any of the classic Arthurian tomes. I’d never seen the racy Excalibur flick or Disney’s Sword in the Stone. But somewhere along the line I’d become so familiar with the gist of the key characters that I spontaneously grew an appetite to consume their stories, old and new.

As I immersed myself in the myth of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table I was struck by how familiar it was. When I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I was surprised to find that it was good to see these old stalwarts, these staples of Fantasy. It wasn’t quite the same as seeing a new Indiana Jones movie, or picking up a new Harry Potter, but it was still a tug at the heart which is the sole domain for old favorites. Where did I ingest the story so deeply that I could tell you about Mordred or Morgan Le Fay? How could I recall the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone? Why was Lancelot so burned into my mind’s eye?

My best answer is that all archetypes seep in. They’re in images we see every day. Their morals come up for air in the small deeds we do for and against others. They are us. And we are them.

So, upon realizing my love of characters whom I sensed, but did not know very well, I began work on The Camelot Kids.

From the blank page I noticed something odd.

It usually takes a while for me to flesh out my plot and characters. Weeks, months. But within days, I’d settled on writing a modern tale where a number of young teens are told that they’re descendants of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Merlin needs their help to save New Camelot from destruction.

From the first tap of a keyboard key, the boys and girls in my new story came alive. They were sweet, petty, funny, confused, and searching for chances to connect with each other in meaningful ways.

And they were chivalrous. Naturally so. Humanly so. In other words, they were chivalrous at times, vindictive in others.

There’s that word again. Chivalrous. What is it? And why is it so important in King Arthur’s world? Here’s why!

 

The Camelot Kids

[divider divider_type=”gradient”][/divider]

5 Comments

  1. Hi Ben, great to see how it’s all rolling along for you, very exciting. I am really looking forward to your story and the character’s world. Love the imagery and feel for what’s to come in Camelot Kids. As i am in pre-launch myself and you asked to be kept informed, my book covers for the Citadel 7 Earth’s Secret coming Trilogy (first of 13 in my series) are on my web page for the anticipating readers. Also my 2014 book trailer is being dialed in now, a full 3D animated render of the Citadel 7 superverse and some of the great stuff to come.

    best regards
    Yuan Jur

    Reply
  2. I was always suspicious of the Arthurian legends growing up. There was always this idea I had that they were *almost* what I wanted to read, tied to an unshakable feeling that if I let myself get caught up with them I was going to be disappointed. In retrospect I think it’s precisely because the stories are always told in the context of our own reality. They don’t take place in a fantasy world where we can’t be sure of which rules govern what… They take place here in our own reality, where we already have a solidly anchored sense of what is and is not possible.

    To that end, even though the story itself was magical (literally as well as figuratively), the very idea that it was based in this horrible, magic-less world made it almost impossible for me to engage with. And quite possibly any time I heard something about the legitimacy of King Author as an actual historical figure, it just crushed the wonder out of it a little more.

    And every time I saw the story, it felt less like a fantasy novel, and more like a historical retelling.

    I mean sure, maybe it’s just me, but I can’t watch anything to do with retelling the original King Arthur without feeling that every time something magical happens, it’s with big frustrating winks to the audience. “Oh, of course, there was this sword in the lake, -sure- he did.” And then it zips forward to the next *big event*, as though the story teller’s biggest concern is making sure we know the key points of the story, rather than how the characters felt, or what they were really thinking.

    I mean, sure, maybe that’s just the narrow focus of youth – to see the magic in a story we need to see it stand entirely on its own. Sure, maybe the idea of magic and fantasy needs to be cultivated independently, before we can stand to watch it alongside what perceive as the norm, and not have it lose its sense of wonder?

    But, at least with my pretty limited sense of appreciation for the stories, I wonder if a wider inability to appreciate Arthurian lore isn’t so much a lack of chivalry, so much as it is that the placement of the story itself has put itself squarely outside of the zone that we believe should occupied by chivalry?

    The story of King Author, not so much as a fantastic, magical story of swords and wizards, but just some kind of pedestrian list of dates and events? I can no more attach my idea of chivalry to such a thing than I could a well layout Excel spreadsheet.

    Ah, but listen to me prattle on.

    All this aside, I’m really enjoying The Camelot Kids so far! Perhaps more than anything it addresses my biggest issue with all my experiences of Arthurian story telling – it’s letting me get inside of the protagonist’s head. Somehow being able to take the journey along with Simon, who seems to have the same view of the Arthurian legends as me, is making even the old stories of King Arthur seem way more vibrant than I ever remember them being!

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the incredible post, Nick! I’m knee-deep in launching The Camelot Kids, so my apologies for the delay in responding.

    You sense the same staleness in the myth that I did. I also think your assessment is dead-on of why the story feels like cookie-cutter, templatized allegory. The tales have been wonderful fodder for historians and academics, but they’ve floundered as modern entertainment. How can the rest of us identify? I hope The Camelot Kids is part of the answer!

    I hope you enjoy the rest of the book! I’m waiting for Nathan Fox’s final cover to be delivered to my Inbox. The sketches he’s done are FANTASTIC!

    Reply
  4. Interesting post – I’ve got my own Arthurian story percolating in the back of my brain, waiting to be given the time and attention it needs. Arthur will need to wait in line behind a time travelling 17 year old though!

    Reply
    • That sounds fun! Do you have a name for the time travelling story?

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What is chivalry? - […] The same way magic is the code that holds Harry Potter’s world together, chivalry is the code, the foundation …

We'd all love to hear from you!