Easter With Excalibur

This post includes spoilers for the 1981 film Excalibur.

[image description: screenshot from Excalibur (1981) in which Nigel Terry as King Arthur receives back the mystical sword of kings, Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake after having broken it in his pride and rage (Fair Use).]

Watching John Boorman’s epic 1981 fantasy film Excalibur has become an Easter tradition in my family, not just because at one point a priest praying for deliverance from the film’s main villain, Morgana, intones the words: “and on this Easter day, when Christ rose from the dead…”, but due to the film’s overall theme of death and resurrection.

Central to this story are the Celtic Arthurian motifs of the Wasteland and the Grail, so it is fitting that the film should have a theme of springtime renewal and rebirth. In medieval times, shortly after the feasts of Christmas and Twelfth Night came the solemn period known as Lent, from an Old English word which originally meant “spring season”; an observance still held today by Christians the world over, to both commemorate and emulate Christ’s forty day fast in the desert, lasting until Easter Sunday. To medieval folk the terms “desert”, “wilderness”, and “wasteland” were often interchangeable. The Wasteland therefore became an important spiritual metaphor in Christian interpretations of the Grail myth, and Excalibur makes good use of it in the final act. The Grail itself has also become linked with Christ, as it is often held to be the very cup he drank from at the Last Supper, which caught his divine blood at the Crucifixion.

Curiously, an undated copy of what purports to be the final draft of the screenplay of Excalibur contains another Christological reference which did not make it into the final cut of the movie itself:

Mordred kneels on one knee.

                                     MORDRED
                         Father...

                                     ARTHUR
                         Rise, Mordred.

                                     MORDRED
                         I have come to claim what is mine, 
                         Father.

                                     ARTHUR
                         I recognize you only as my son, no 
                         more.

                                     MORDRED
                              (his tone is scathing)
                         And you are the great King? The lords 
                         have rebelled. Invaders attack the 
                         coasts. Crops don't grow. There is 
                         nothing but plague and hunger in the 
                         land. Only I am feared. I will be 
                         king. You may have lost Excalibur, 
                         but I have found my own weapon of 
                         power. There.

He points to the huge lance. The page pulls a string and the hood drops, revealing a diabolically sharp spear tip, its metal glinting menacingly.

                                     MORDRED
                         The very spear that pierced the side 
                         of Christ as he died on the cross.

                                     ARTHUR
                         Your mother told you that?

Mordred is thrown off by the doubt Arthur has cast. Arthur looks upon his son, desperately trying to read him.

                                     ARTHUR
                         I cannot offer you the land, only my 
                         love...

                                     MORDRED
                         And I offer only this, Father. To 
                         commit with passion and pleasure all 
                         the evils that you failed to commit, 
                         as man and king.

Arthur goes forward to embrace his son, a desperate attempt. Mordred recoils.

                                     MORDRED
                         We will embrace only in battle. 
                         Father, and I will touch you only 
                         with the blade of my spear.

The implication, of course, is that Morgana lied about the spear’s origins. But it’s still an interesting connection beyond that of the Grail, and yet complementary to it, and also very much in keeping with the idea that Arthur is himself a Christlike figure, having suffered a mortal wound from the very Lance of Longinus, only to be borne away to the mystical isle of Avalon until such time as he might rise again to become king once more.

[image description: screenshot of the final battle scene in Excalibur (1981), in which King Arthur is pierced through the midsection with a spear wielded by his son Mordred (Fair Use).]

But before any of that happens, we are slowly and inexorably led through the Wasteland alluded to by Mordred when he first confronts his father, in which “Crops don’t grow,” and “There is nothing but plague and hunger in the land”, as the Knights of the Round Table wander it seemingly aimlessly in their perilous quest to find the Holy Grail, until finally all are dead except the one called Perceval. After initially failing to obtain the Grail, and undergoing his own Christlike death and resurrection upon the hanging tree, it is this most faithful knight who finally solves the riddle and gains the cup that will bring the king–and therefore the kingdom–back to life.

Percival’s name is variously rendered “Peredur”, “Perceval”, “Parzival”, and “Parsifal” in medieval Arthurian tales. He was the protagonist of the romance tale “Perceval, the Story of the Grail” (late 12th century) by Chrétien de Troyes, and several derivative works.

In the film, Perceval is the only knight who is worthy of the Holy Grail. This follows the version of the Arthurian tales told by Chrétien de Troyes…. In later versions of the Arthurian tales, the Grail-worthy knight was Galahad, an illegitimate son of Lancelot. [source]

“I am wasting away. I cannot die and I cannot live.” ~Arthur

[image description: screenshot from a scene in Excalibur (1981) depicting the Arthurian knight Perceval, naked from the waist up, holding the Holy Grail, which in this cinematic adaptation of the tale is an ornate chalice (Fair Use).]

“Drink from the chalice and you will be reborn and the land with you.” ~Perceval

Excalibur (1981) King Arthur and the Holy Grail

“Perceval… I didn’t know how empty was my soul, until it was filled.” ~Arthur

Happy Easter to those who celebrate.

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

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