Sunday, September 03, 2006

Hail to the King, Baby

In my Arthurian Legends class the other day, we were discussing some of the various man-out-of-time versions of Arthuriana, mostly of the Connecticut Yankee strain, but also containing a little bit of "some vaguely Arthurian person comes to the present" tradition. In this discussion, I brought up the film Army of Darkness. Interestingly, most of the student had seen it (though they could not have been more than around seven years old when this R-rated film was released) -- but none of them seemed to realize that it is a demonic parody of Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

First of all, I should note that sometimes when we say "demonic parody," we mean it in the figurative sense of following Milton's themes. The genre of a work does not have to be parody, nor does it have to contain characters that are literal demons. In this paper, for example, someone makes the case that Max Max: Beyond Thunderdome is a demonic parody of the present -- even though the film doesn't actually have any demons, and is not what we would normally call "parody." In the case of Paradise Lost, of course, the demons actually set up a reign in Hell that parodies Heaven ... the ur-demonic parody.

Army of Darkness, of course, is both a literal and figurative demonic parody, and then has its own embedded demonic parody as well. Ash is the Yankee, wielding Excalibur (primarily represented by his chainsaw hand, but also sometimes represented by his "boomstick"). Unlike Twain's Yankee, he does not seek to make the lives of those in Arthur's court better. Instead, as the anti-hero, he uses his superior weaponry (and undeserved sense of intellectual superiority) to make his own life easier at the expense of others. Twain's Sandy, Hank the Yankee's beloved, is replaced by Sheila, who quickly learns a bitter lesson about Ash's late-20th-century sense of commitment, when in response to her protestation, "but what about all those wonderful things you told me?" he replies, "That's just pillow talk, baby."

Here it might just be one of the better films in the tradition of Connecticut Yankee parodies, including such notable works of high art as Black Knight, A Spaceman in King Arthur's Court (originally released as Unidentified Flying Oddball, and A Kid in King Arthur's Court. Sam Raimi, though, takes it a step further, folding the parody in on itself. A demon-clone-sorta-thing of Ash abducts Sheila and transforms her into a zombie Deadite (where they actually appear to have a more committed relationship than the non-zombie Ash can manage), set up an alternative Deadite court/army, and attack the living, finally forcing the living to band together against them. The demon-Ash parodies both Ash himself (looking like an undead version of Ash), as well as King Arthur (here divided into "Lord Arthur" and "Duke Henry").

So, why haven't I published a paper on Army of Darkness as medievalism? Probably because the above is about all I have to say on that subject, but also because it is hard to write about something you love. I live my life according to the teachings of a few wise thinkers, and Ash occupies a position in the higher pantheon.

By the way, Bruce Campbell has a new book out, entitled How to Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way. This book will no doubt occupy a position of great honor on my bookshelves.


  1. Expanding your horizons a little, I write to inform you of the Arthurian RPGs out there.

    We start with Pendragon, Greg Stafford's paen to the Arthurian legend in its most popular incarnation.

    Then you have The Once and Future King a parody set in the far future where the Knights of the Roundtable tool about on flying robotic horses. And Legends of Excalibur, a more traditional setting.

    In fiction I recommend S. M. Stirlings' Dies the Fire, The Protector's War, and A Meeting at Corvallis. The trilogy is the story of the collapse of civilization, the establishment of a new order, and the story of what really happened when an Arthur-like figure (The one-time bush pilot Michael Havel) became king.

    (You'll also note some obvious Lord of the Ring parallels, with the Bearkillers as Gondorians, Clan Mackensie as the elves of Lothlorian, and The Protector as Sauron.)

    The story has inspired a lot of people in a lot of ways.

  2. I wish I'd have gotten these titles before I went to the bookstore today.

    As for the RPGs, I knew of Pendragon, but not the others.

    There ought to be more posts about Arthurian this semester, as it will be on my mind.

  3. I think there are more Arthurian RPGs out there, and Arthurian settings. But with all the titles available it can be a bit of a slog to find them.

    Then you have designs with Arthurian tropes and works with Arthur like figures.

    Charlemagne's Paladins for example. A setting for an earlier edition of D&D set in a quasi-historical version of the France of Charlemagne's day.

    For Arthurian tropes you have a number of settings based on the Robin Hood stories. There you have Richard Lionheart as Arthur the Once and Future King. Who shall return when England is in her darkest peril. Namely, the tyranny of Prince John.

    In RPGs there is Chivalry & Sorcery which, while not strictly Arthurian, features many Arthurian tropes and memes.

    One thing to note about Legends sof Excalibur is that it does use the D&D magic system, which gives a much different feel to magic than found in the stories. As an example, it's not just a holy knight who can raise the dead. As the saying goes, "Death before dishonor. But only if the cleric can raise dead."

  4. *giggles quietly to self at the knowledge that she is in the company of geeks*

  5. Did you know the word was changed from "geeks" to "wolves" because wolves have a better reputation?

  6. hmmmm ... Gabriel Byrne or Jon Stewart? Tough call!

  7. But this would be an ideal topic for PCA, Scott. Think about it!

  8. It's going to be in Boston, though. I hate visiting Boston.

    I take it, though, that you are chairing the medieval section again? I'll think about it...

  9. Anonymous10:01 AM

    I would first love to say that I feel the pain of making a reference only to have your students stare blankly back at you. I am going through the same thing teaching on a high school level when I'm only 22.

    Secondly I'm currently working on a major project for my undergrad exit papers, and I'm writing about the use of chivalry in modern media. My primary focus is on the representation of chivalry in movies such as Army of Darkness and The Princess Bride. So naturally this was an awesome blog.