Non-Book Review: Arthurian Animation

Arthurian Animation: A Study Of Cartoon Camelots On Film And Television, by Michael N. Salda

When I had the opportunity to select another book to review for De Re Militari [1], I took the opportunity to request a book about contemporary portrayals of the Arthurian cycle of stories, a matter of some personal interest both in terms of the subject’s promise in terms of film criticism [2] and also in terms of what our portrayal of the Middle Ages says about ourselves, apart from its value as an accurate portrayal of history and legend itself. For many people animation, whether in collaboration with live action as in Monty Python And The Search For The Holy Grail, or in the form of a movie ostensibly designed for children like Shrek The Third or The Sword In The Stone, is the first place where they become familiar with the Arthurian myths, especially if they do not supplement this initial familiarity by becoming better acquainted with either the historical arguments about Arthur, such as whether he was Scottish or among the Celtic peoples of pre-Germanic England and Wales, or with the early Norman myths and story cycles dealing with Lancelot and Guinevere or other novelizations dealing with this story cycle, like a young woman I know who was reading such a book over Thanksgiving when I visited her family, and who seemed rather possessive of her book and unwilling to have me browse through it. Such familiarity and fondness leads to the understanding that these stories, to whatever degree they reflect a historical reality, that they retain a power upon our imagination and the way that we view the early Middle Ages in the British Isles.

Yet despite the fondness of contemporary audiences, whether among children or teenagers or adults, this book remained for months without someone to review it. Perhaps this is due to the book’s title and subject material–it may not be thought sufficiently mature and serious for a historian to take interest in animation designed for children. Yet my first sustained familiarity with the Arthurian legends came from a comic strip, Prince Valiant, which dealt in a nuanced and complicated way with the struggle of virtue against the brutal violence of many of my ancestors among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who took over England from its previous population of Celts, from whom I am also descended. The fact that many animations are designed for children, or those who are young at heart, is not in any way to deny that such matters are worth studying. If we first become familiar with many aspects of history and myth as a child, it behooves us to study such material and to pay attention to it, so that we may select for ourselves and for our children those creations that are of the highest moral and artistic worth, to at least provide access and encouragement for children to recognize what is most beautiful and also what may inspire their interest in investigating the past for themselves, which is something every historian should appreciate. When is a better time to encourage young minds to take the past seriously and engage in its study than at the earliest possible moments, before their imagination has been crushed by the brutality of our own world, not so unlike the brutality of war and dispossession and treachery dealt with in the stories of Arthur’s knights.

So, although this book does not deal at length with the Arthurian myths themselves, which are the subject of much writing and considerable controversy, except insofar as the stories are adapted faithfully or unfaithfully, I was pleased to find in my initial and cursory look through the book that it is written by a professor of medieval literature at Southern Miss, deals forthrightly with the contemporary politics, including racial politics, of many of the portrayals of Arthur in animation starting in the early days of animation in the 1930’s, continuing through various peaks and valleys marked by either commercial or artistic success (Monty Python, Shrek) or failure (The Sword In The Stone) in a chronological fashion that includes commentary on more than 170 theatrical and televised and cinematic portrayals of the Arthurian legend in about 200 pages of material, including substantial endnotes. It promises to be both an enjoyable and an instructive read with a critical look at material aimed at children about the intersection of myth and history in early Medieval England in contemporary animation. The author even tries to coin a new word in this book: arthurianamination, which is perhaps a bit too long of a word to catch on, I suppose.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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