Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Spirit of Excalibur: Final Rating

This picture is dramatic, but I don't really know what's supposed to be going on.

Spirit of Excalibur
Synergistic Software (developer); Virgin Mastertronic (publisher)
Released 1990 for Amiga, Macintosh, Atari ST, and DOS; 1991 for Apple IIgs and Commodore CDTV
Date Started: 29 January 2014
Date Ended: 1 February 2014
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 83/137 (61%)

Most games, even mediocre ones, have at least a few strong game mechanics--some element that keeps you playing and that may even prove legitimately addictive. I just finished Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and while I felt the game was far too long and horribly-plotted, I couldn't get enough of the mechanics of climbing buildings, jumping across rooftops, and collecting flags. Knights of Legend was a mediocre game with an epic, tension-filled combat system. In Hillsfar, I disliked almost everything except picking locks. It was fun to mine in Starflight long after I lost the need for money.

Spirit of Excalibur, on the other hand, underwhelms me in just about all of its areas. It manages to combine three genres--adventure, RPG, and strategy--without being good at any of them. The battles are too scripted, with not enough tactics or logistics, to be a good strategy game; there aren't enough puzzles to be a good adventure game; and there isn't enough character development to be a good RPG. The game really has only one narrative line, and the player has to figure out how to best adhere to it, rather than make his own role-playing choices and crafting his own path to the end.

Let's see how it does on a GIMLET:

1. Game World. This is perhaps the game's best element. It's not only one of the few RPGs to draw its story from Arthurian literature, but it creatively uses traditional themes to craft an original game world. I admire that the developers didn't do the obvious thing and set the game during Arthur's time, with Arthur himself as an NPC.

I had some fun in the posts noting the game's deviations from Arthurian tradition, and I still can't reconcile myself to its treatment of the Grail, but for the most part the deviations were within the spirit of the Arthurian legends. Even though the world develops and changes on a railroad track, it's fun to watch the slow and steady reunification of Britain. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. In this vital category for a traditional RPG, this game mostly falls flat. You don't get to create or define any of the characters; the most you can do is choose which heroes you'll field from a list. The only "development" is through the slow accumulation of combat points, nobility points, and faith points, and I don't even think these things really matter much in the game; most of the really tough battles are fought with objects and spells, not raw combat prowess. Score: 2.

3. NPC Interaction. The various lords, villagers, hags, maidens, and other figures that you find in the towns and keeps provide both bits of lore and clues as to the various quests. There's not much depth to the interactions, no dialogue options except the choice to accept or deny some quests. There is some intrigue in how you charm or bribe them. The dialogue is well-written, and a few of the villains are well-characterized, making it satisfying to defeat them. Score: 5.

The party gets some intel about Merlin's location from a townsman.

4. Encounters and Foes. The enemies in this game are mostly other knights plus various demonic hellspawn. Too many of the latter are defeated only through specific magic items rather than prowess in combat. There are a few light role-playing choices centered around the decision whether to rescue a maiden or continue your primary quest, or whether to accept a knight's challenge or risk a loss of nobility. None of them amount to much (usually, the choice is quite obvious), but they do have some effect on whether you end the game in charge of all Britain or just a part of it. Almost all encounters are scripted, with the exception of the randomly-roaming bandits and demons in the third and fifth scenarios, and you can't really do much with them anyway. Despite an adventure game feel to many of the screens, there aren't really any "puzzles" in the game. Score: 4.

This isn't much of a role-playing choice unless your idea of "role-playing" is simply "not being a complete jerk."

5. Magic and Combat. There's a fair amount of both, but they all feel more like semi-scripted events in an adventure game rather than the tactical battles of an RPG. Most of the combats, whether involving individuals or armies, are won or lost before they begin. In the case of individual battles, this means choosing strong knights (almost always Lancelot) with magic equipment; in the case of army battles, this means having the right forces in place when the battle commences. In either case, there are almost no tactics that can help you once the battle has begun. Despite options available on both screens ("attack," "defend," "flank," "engage"), the outcomes of the battles rarely vary no matter what you choose.

Lancelot takes care of a beast with a quest item.

In the case of magic, it's even worse. There are almost no spells that you can cast at will to influence the tide of battle; all of them are instead used to overcome specific obstacles or to effect permanent boosts to one knight's statistics. The "healing spell" and the "charm spell" (which make it more likely that NPCs will impart valuable information or give you stuff) are two exceptions. This is the second game in recent memory--the other was Elvira--in which spells are limited by the availability of reagents, and you have to be very careful not to expend them in the wrong place. Score: 3.

6. Equipment. Very little in a traditional RPG sense. Scattered about the kingdom are a couple of special swords, a handful of pieces of magical armor, spell reagents, and a few potions. These generally feel like quest items rather than a flexible inventory used to improve the character. There are no shops or random loot available from combats. The game's mechanism by which once you equip an item, it permanently grafts to the character and can't be traded, is a little inexcusable. Score: 2.

Nineve's late-game inventory of spell items.

7. Economy. You mostly need money to bribe herbsellers for reagents and a few townsfolk for information. There's more than enough money for this at the outset of the game (carried on individual knights or kept in the treasury at Camelot), so it becomes a simple matter of making sure that the right character has enough money at the right time. You can loot a few gold pieces from a small number of slain enemies, but for the most part, the economy is a minor part of the game. Score: 1.

8. Quests. The game has main quest line, divided into five scenarios, and its full nature only becomes clear after you've played a few times. Like the back story and game world, the quests are reasonably interesting, though I found Morgan le Fay a little cartoonish as the villain. There are some limited side-quests having to do with whether you've rescued all the kidnapped maidens and princes and such, and disenchanted all the stoned rulers, with the results affecting how much territory you control at the end of each scenario and at the end of the game overall. Score: 5.

I did well. The walkthrough helped.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I thought the graphics for both scenes and monsters were relatively well-composed. The DOS version had no sound except annoyingly repetitive music. I felt the interface was rather poor. Although it offers the option for a mouse/keyboard hybrid, I found it too easy to hit the wrong option or click on the wrong thing. The process of transferring items from one character to another was needlessly cumbersome, as was the process of combining and splitting parties. In the end, it gets points only for the graphics. Score: 2.

A pretty shot of Lancelot and Nineve coming upon Merlin's cave.
10. Gameplay. I hold a special contempt for games that seem nonlinear but actually expect you to follow a precise path. What starts as "Wow! I can go anywhere in Britain!" Soon becomes "Wow! If I don't hit these towns in this precise order, there's no way to defeat the Saxon armies!" For this reason, although I acknowledge that I might be missing some potential avenues, I can't really see the game as "replayable," either. Its difficulty is pitched about right--a little easy, even--once you know the path, and I suppose its one virtue is that it doesn't take that long. If it had gone for two or three more scenarios, I probably would have abandoned it. Score: 3.

With its highest scores in the "game world," "NPC interaction," and "quests" categories, we have a game that's relatively strong in narrative but weak in mechanics. The final score of 33 puts it slightly below my "recommended" threshold. Despite what sounds like a lot of pessimism, I'm glad I played it--but mostly for the plot alone. I enjoyed reviving my long-dormant interest in Arthuriana.

Computer Gaming World reviewed the game in the May 1991 issue. Todd Threadgill praised the graphics, which were state-of-the-art at the time, but this paragraph encapsulates a lot of my frustration with the game:

Unfortunately, the second observation that new players will make is that the documentation seems appropriate in terms of recreating an era when most of the population was illiterate . . . There is a thorough description of how to do things (via the game's icon-driven interface), as well as interesting historical background and account of the myths of King Arthur. Once one has mastered the simplest mechanics of the game, all this material proves of little use in enlightening the player as to what to do.

Threadgill also criticized aspects of the interface and the need to do so much wandering around to figure out the objectives of each scenario.

I'm glad I had a chance to play Robert Clardy's early games before arriving at Spirit of Excalibur. Although the game is far-removed graphically from Wilderness Campaign, Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure, and Apventure to Atlantis, it bears several elements of Clardy's modus operandi, including frequent shifts from the campaign level to the individual level, a variety of game mechanics, and a reluctance to adhere to the conventions of a single genre. While I admire this eclectic nature, you eventually have to incorporate the more sophisticated aspects of at least one genre to have a solid gaming experience. When I wrote my reviews of the Campaign series, I was forgiving--even admiring--of the limited combat mechanics, the extremely light puzzle solving, and the half-implemented RPG elements. It was early in the history of computer games, and there weren't many templates. But by 1990, there were plenty of examples of excellent role-playing, adventure, and strategy games, and Excalibur doesn't draw from any of them. If a game merged Sword of Aragon's gameplay mechanics with Spirit of Excalibur's graphics and story, it would be a fantastic game.

I'd like to see some evolution in this game's sequel, Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), but I've looked at the screenshots online, and it appears to use the exact same engine. It also appears to take place on the Iberian Peninsula, so at least I can look forward to seeing how the game manages to weave Spain and Portugal into the Arthurian legends.
It's worth noting, as a final nod to both legend and history, where the game leaves Britain in its happy ending. Constantine may have unified the island under the peace of the Round Table, but it won't last. It's maybe 550 at the game's end; by 600, the Saxons will have returned and effectively conquered and divided the island. One wonders, in the grand scheme of things, what Arthur, even in legend, managed to accomplish.

During my period of Arthurian studies, I read some histories that doubted Arthur ever existed at all, and others that were happy to completely invent the circumstances of his existence. The best that the latter sources were ever able to say was that he held off the Saxon advance for a time and preserved Roman traditions in Britain long enough that when the Saxons returned, they couldn't completely obliterate them. In the most optimistic sources, there's always some suggestion that the Saxons of Arthur's age were savages who would have ravaged the island had they won, but by the time they returned at the end of the Arthurian period, they were no longer the same barbarians, and the "conquest" was more gradual and peaceful. The same Saxons who are the villains of Geoffrey of Monmouth are, after all, the heroes of Ivanhoe.

The other popular thought is that even if Arthur's Britain didn't last, the example he set did, through story and song. As Arthur himself says in Tennyson's account:

I was the first of all the kings who drew
The knighthood-errant of this realm and all
The realms together under me, their head,
In that fair order of my Table Round
A glorious company, the flower of men,
To serve as a model for the mighty world

It is this impulse that informs so much modern Arthurian literature, including T. H. White's inclusion of an episode in which Arthur sends a young page named Thomas--anachronistically presented as Thomas Malory himself--away from the final battle to spread the tale of Camelot. This was adapted into the Broadway play as the final song:

Ask every person if he's heard the story
And tell it strong and clear if he has not
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot

But where the "saved us from the Saxons" story doesn't hold up to history, the "stuff of future memory" hypothesis doesn't hold up to the original legends. In the modern era, the "Knights of the Round Table" might be synonymous with slaying beasts, rescuing maidens, righting wrongs, and meting justice, but this is all a fanciful distillation of the Arthurian legends. In most of them, these noble deeds are the purview of the hero of the story--Lancelot, Erec, Perceval, Yder--and his actions are contrasted with the majority of the Round Table knights, who happily maraud, rape, murder, and engage in petty familial feuds. Arthur doesn't establish the Round Table as a place where "all men are equal, even the king" (as the dreadful First Knight has it); he inherits the thing from his father, or father-in-law, and membership is earned by winning tournaments, not being pure of heart. In more than one story, Arthur himself begets a son by raping a maiden, and when he hears about Mordred's birth, he tries to defeat prophecy by killing every baby of Mordred's age. The early legends simply do not emphasize the great mercy and justice of Arthur's Britain in the way that we think of it through modern lenses, nor do they always establish Arthur as a ruler to be emulated.

When you study the Arthurian legends, you eventually learn that the memory of Arthur persists not because of his historical significance or the nobility of his cause, but for one simple reason: the stories are fantastic. The Arthurian saga rose in an era in which the standard work of fiction had all the narrative sophistication of a kindergarten play. Then suddenly, within a century, we have a saga of epic struggles for kingdoms, love triangles, a sword in a stone, incest, filial betrayal, and a Holy Grail. The weight of the legend was such that nothing could resist its pull. Tristan and Isolde, originally a completely separate legend, got wrapped up in the intrigues of the Round Table. So did Geraint and Enid. Arthur's story grew to subsume the great Celtic heroes and gods--Culhwch, Peredur, Bran the Blessed, Gwynn, Llyr of the Sea--as well as true historical figures. Urien and his son Owain, kings of Rheged near the turn of the seventh century, got sucked back a century to appear as Arthur's knights. Ambrosius Aurelianus became Arthur's uncle, the Byzantine Emperor Leo I became his vassal, and of course a minor sixth-century king of Dumnonia, Constantine, became his successor.

To say that once unleashed, the story "spread like wildfire" is, if anything, understating the case. The Arthurian saga reached, and received contributions back, from every corner of Europe. Geoffrey of Monmouth's history from around 1138 (and it's near-immediate French translation in Wace's Roman de Brut) was clearly chief among the sparks that lit this fire, but it was not the only one. The Welsh already had their lives of saints, triads, and (probably) the Mabinogion; a non-fantastical chronicle of Arthur's deeds appears in Brittany in 1019; and 700 miles away, in the ancient Italian city of Modena, a relief on the Porta della Pescheria, probably pre-dating Geoffrey's text, depicts the rescue of Guinevere from Caradoc by Arthur, Yder, Gawain, and Kay--a story that Geoffrey doesn't even recount. By 1230, less than a century after Geoffrey's text first met a scribe, we have hundreds of poems and prose romances from France, Germany, Italy, Iceland, Norway, Holland, and other regions. The number of texts that we have from this era is rendered all the more startling when you consider how much literature must have been lost.

The legends bled into authentic history. King Richard the Lionheart claimed to have Excalibur, and he presented it to his ally, Tancred of Sicily, as a gift in 1191. The same year, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to find Arthur and Guinevere's graves. In 1486, with the first printing of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur creating another spike of interest in the legends, King Henry VII bestowed the name of Arthur on his first son. If the prince hadn't died of an unknown illness when he was only 15, he would have reigned as Arthur II, and the world would have been spared a horrible Herman's Hermits song.

There is, in short, no other story like it--at least not in the western world. Robin Hood and Amadis of Gaul have not half the age; the Greek and Roman gods not half the texts. In a thousand years, no generation has been without its own crop of Arthurian texts, with the headliners of each age making their own contributions--names like Chaucer, Heywood, Spenser, Fielding, Scott, Wordsworth, Wagner, Tennyson, Twain, Steinbeck, and yes, even Tolkien. Movies were only a few years old when they took on an Arthurian subject (1904's Parsifal), and since then, neither television nor film have been able to leave the legends alone for long. It's only fitting that video games should contribute to the legend as well. The final word that I'll say about Spirit of Excalibur is that during my Arthurian studies in college, a period in which I read hundreds of Arthurian texts--some dealing with heroes, lands, and themes with only the most obscure and tangential relationships to Arthur--I never encountered a single one that cared to explore in detail what happened in Britain after the fall of Arthur's court. In most sources, Constantine's reign, the wars against Mordred's sons, and Lancelot's death are handled in a cursory, "wrap-up" manner. To that end, whatever I think of its gameplay, Spirit of Excalibur becomes part of a long and noble history of giving every Arthurian character his own geste. I'm happy I was able to write about it.


  1. "In most sources, Constantine's reign, the wars against Mordred's sons, and Lancelot's death are handled in a cursory, "wrap-up" manner."

    Would you care to give us a bibliography of these events? I confess my knowledge of Arthuriana comes only from Mallory, so anything that happens "after" is strange to me. It'll be interesting to read something more about this.

    1. The original source will be Geoffrey of Monmouth:


      Starting on page 193 of that link, we have accounts of Constantine dealing with Mordred's sons, then his own death, then a succession of semi-legendary kings ending with Cadwaladr in the late seventh century.

      Lancelot doesn't exist in Geoffrey's account, however. Sources that have both a bit of an epilogue after Arthur's reign AND Lancelot include the Vulgate (c. 1215-1230) and Post-Vulgate (c. 1230-1240) Cycles, the Prose Lancelot (c. 1215-1220), the Prose Tristan (c. 1230-1240), the Italian La Tavola Ritonda (1325-1350), and Malory himself (c. 1470). In these sources, Lancelot usually returns to Britain on the heels of Arthur's final battle, kills Mordred's sons, and then retires to a hermitage, where he dies after a few years. The fates of a few other knights are often discussed. The final chapters of Malory's account can be read here:


      Chapter XIII, with Ector's eulogy for his brother, is particularly moving.

      Constantine himself doesn't appear in the Vulgate, Post-Vulgate, Prose Tristan, or Prose Lancelot, which form the bulk of Malory's sources, so his inclusion in Malory is interesting. Malory shows few signs of having read Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, but my notes say that Constantine appears in a poem from around 1400 called the "Alliterative Morte Arthure," and Malory otherwise shows signs of having used that poem, so he probably got Constantine from there. Malory's treatment of Constantine is EXTREMELY brief, as is the poem's.

      That's about the best I can do. I didn't do a great job organizing all the notes I took 15-20 years ago.

    2. I wonder if there's some truth to Geoffrey of Monmouth's claim that he merely translated his book from an earlier source, or whether he just made it up to appear more scholarly. It would certainly be fascinating if that book were ever discovered.

    3. Indeed. But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that he expanded upon several extant sources, including Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and Welsh mythologies. It's not impossible that someone else had already combined these sources into a single book and Geoffrey translated THAT, but in such a case, it would hardly be, in Geoffrey's own words, "very ancient."

      That said, there is a TON of lost Arthurian literature, and we can always hope that some day, new manuscripts will be discovered. In particular, we lack Chretien's source for the Grail myth (though it's not impossible that he made it up himself), and we lack the ur-Lancelot.

    4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur's_messianic_return

    5. New work pulling old text off reused manuscript paper will hopefully yeild a lot of this, we have far more of the paper then we can analyse. Hopefully book breakers won't destroy too much of the work before this can happen.

  2. Great post, but I don't get what you mean about Herman's Hermits.

    1. Henry VII was succeeded by Henry VIII instead of Arthur II. Herman's Hermits are a band, and have a song about Henry VIII.

    2. Henry VII's son...Henry VIII. By Herman's Hermits. The song.


    3. It was perhaps a dumb way to say it. In reality, the consequences of Prince Arthur surviving and taking the throne are unimaginable for the western world, starting with no split with Rome and the persistence of Catholicism in England. There would have been no Elizabethan Age, and who knows what reverberations would have had on the Age of Exploration and the colonization of the Americas.

    4. I think you overrate the importance of individuals in deciding the general course of history. The economic reforms (in particular, the decision to stop exporting wool to holland and develop a domestic textile industry) were already well underway by the reign of Richard III (and modern scholarship suggests that debate was actually the major driving factor in the War of the Roses) -- and that all means conflict with the Netherlands, competition in the furrier trade and colonial expeditions in the Americas.

      The papacy and England were never a very good political match, due to the popes historic reliance on France and/or Spain for protection of the papal states. It's extremely likely that there would have been a break somewhere down the line where the pope would force England out of the fold.. and even if that didn't happen you're still looking at a War of Religion in England similar to that which happened in France, with the English much less invested in papal influence (arguably you had a 'lite' version of this as a strong subtext of the English civil war and the crypto-papal inclinations of the Stewarts).

    5. I think if I went back in time to 1485 and chipped a stone on London Bridge, the reverberations would be such that none of us would be around today, so I don't think I'm exaggerating the effects of a completely different king. But I'm not an expert in the history of the time, so I'll leave a rebuttal to someone else if they care to make it.

    6. I'm not trying to claim that Arthur becoming king instead of Henry wouldn't have had effects on the course of history. What I was trying to point out is that not all historical dynamics are micro (ie. depend on individuals) nor are they all chaotic. There are plenty of strong attractors and stable equilibria (the geographic relationship between France, Holland and England, for example) in a macro-historical sense that make it likely counter-factual history (created say, through dynamical systems simulations) would diverge less from the actual course of history than many people would expect.

      Or to put it another way as to your example: It's quite possible that micro-erosion of the London bridge might have a measurable effect on who's alive a hundred years later, but it's very unlikely that micro-erosion is going to change whether the London bridge, city of London or the English monarchy exist a hundred years later.

      Or to put it another way as to your example: It's quite possible that micro-erosion of the London bridge might have a measurable effect on who's alive a hundred years later, but it's very unlikely that micro-erosion is going to change whether the London bridge, city of London or existence of the English monarchy a hundred years later.

    7. The Constitutional Peasant couldn't have put it better.

      Masses beat Monarchy... or at least the guy who got a sword thrown at him by some watery tart.

  3. There was a short-lived theory in Germany that Charlemagne didn't exist, but was a later invention. His conquests basically only restored the Frankish Empire to what it was 200 years before and there is a dearth of sources of his time. Also, there is the legend of Kyffhäuser, which foretells the return of Emperor Barbarossa to restore the Holy Roman Empire. However, originally, the legend related to his grandson Frederick II, but over time, Barbarossa took over that place. I actually wonder if some of Arthur's deeds, actually happened under Alfred the Great and his history merged with the "original" Arthurian legend.
    I really love this semi-historic stuff. There are even theories that the Kings David and Solomo were only small chieftains and their role was vastly overblown by later hebrew writers.

    1. A fair amount of stuff that happened in Britain during this period was attributed to Arthur well after the fact. I didn't talk about it much, but a sixth-century British cleric named Gildas wrote a bit of diatribe/history of Britain DURING the Arthurian period, and he notably doesn't mention Arthur. He does mention Ambrosius Aurelianus and seems to suggest that HE led the victory at Mount Badon. He also mentions Constantine. Arthur's exclusion from this narrative has been hand-waved by saying that Gildas wasn't really writing a history but a sermon about the wickedness of a small selection of kings, but it's still notable that Arthur's name doesn't appear in the one contemporary source where you would expect it.

      There are British rulers later in the sixth century named Arthur of Dalraida and Arthur of Dyfed. Their existence has been used to argue for the existence of our Arthur (otherwise, why are all these princes suddenly being named "Arthur"?), but it's also possible that things they did were conflated with the legendary Arthur, and I suppose it's possible that even the deeds of Alfred the Great could have been attributed to Arthur. Without a doubt, authors had no problem taking the values and achievements of kings in their own times and grafting them onto the Arthurian saga.

    2. Oh, and based on your comment, I've been reading all about the "Phantom time hypothesis":


      This same theory occurs in The Elder Scrolls universe, oddly enough. There are a couple of books that argue that a thousand years of supposed history in the First Era never actually occurred.

    3. The only seemingly compelling evidence for Phantom Time is that there's a curious dearth of archeological artifacts, but even that isn't unusual. Out of all the eras of history and all their different locations, it is unsurprising that sooner or later one of them left relatively few artifacts behind due to blind luck.

    4. Yep, that theory was exactly what I was thinking of!
      Hmm, I didn't know that about the Elder Scrolls Universe, but the writers at Bethesda did a fantastic job with their lore. The Elder Scrolls series does it better than any other gaming franchise I would say. And it's the presentation of the game world that I am actually looking most forward to in Elder Scrolls Online.

  4. Awesome post. Really enjoyed it. In fact, I really enjoyed everything you had to say about the Arthurian legend. I greatly respect your scholarship on this, all the more so because it is something you pursued as a hobby, not something you were "forced" to do (in a certain sense) to achieve a degree.

    Many of the things you mentioned about the Arthurian legend are things I had no clue about. That really highlights the sorry state of the way western civilization and western literature are taught these days.

    One little nitpick (I know, I'm sorry, I've been a little nitpicky recently, please forgive me).

    "There is, in short, no other story like it--at least not in the western world. Robin Hood and Amadis of Gaul have not half the age; the Greek and Roman gods not half the texts."

    If I'm reading this right, you're saying that the Arthurian story is venerable above all other stories both because of its age and because of the vast amount of source material. If I'm reading that wrong, please forgive me.

    With respect, the Biblical text is both older and much more sourced. On top of that, it has witnesses that are far closer in time to the events that took place. The oldest is from A.D. 125, a fragment of John's gospel called Rylands p52 that may be only 30-40 years removed from the original manuscript. In addition, that fragment was found in Egypt, quite some distance from where John ended his life in Ephesus, Greece. This suggests that his gospel had been in circulation for quite some time prior to that. Besides Rylands p52, there are about 10 other documents that date around or before A.D. 200.

    It has been said that if we by and large accept Josephus and other relatively poorly sourced historians, people really ought to take the Bible more seriously as well. There are many reason why the Bible has been called "The greatest story ever told."

    Again, thank you very much for the wonderful lesson in Arthurian history and legend. It was really a joy to read and it exemplifies why this blog is not just some whimsical distraction, but a serious and scholarly look at the history of CRPG's and their intersection with our culture. Keep it going, Chet!

    1. You are correct, of course, that the Bible has both more antiquity than the Arthurian legends and more books written about it. But part of my point was not just the age and quantity, but the extent to which authors adapted and expanded the texts, thereby adding, century by century, to the Arthurian mythos. It's arguable whether the same thing happens with the Bible. Most of the books written about it are theological or historical, not "fan fiction" in which new characters are introduced, minor characters expanded, and every so often, the whole thing re-written to match the values of a new age.

      I could be wrong, though. Clearly, plenty of films have been based on biblical characters without drawing all of their dialogue and plot points from the Bible itself, and we have lots of expansionist/revisionist Christian fiction like The Last Temptation of Christ and Sarah: A Novel. This strikes me as a very 20th/21st century phenomenon, but I'll allow that there many be any number of sources over the centuries that I just don't know about.

    2. Ah... I missed that part of what you were trying to say. Thanks for helping me get it. :^)

      And once more, thank you for the awesome literature (and history?) lesson on Arthur.

    3. Tarn Adams wrote to me by e-mail and suggested Dante's La Divina Commedia and Milton's Paradise Lost as examples of biblical analogues to the developing Arthurian saga. Both contain examples of themes that are not found in the Bible but that have entered our collective consciousness. In addition, we have texts like Pseudo-Dionysius's De Coelesti Hierarchia that inform many of our modern conceptions of angels. Our ideas of the Trinity come not as much from the Bible as the writings of Catholic theologians.

      In short, there are probably more examples than I came up with while writing the post. If I simply say there's no secular story like it, everyone is right.

    4. Thought: If I understand an earlier post correctly, then certain Arthurian stories are actually the origin of the Christian idea or symbol of the holy grail?
      Am I reading you right that the Arthurians stories are secular?

      Regardless, I'm interested in what you would say makes a story secular? I mean, obviously it's necessary for the story to have no supernatural elements.
      Is a story secular if it's not held to be important as part of certain people's religion? If so then the Iliad and Odyssey aren't secular texts. Anyway it would seem like a somewhat arbitrary way of distinguishing secular stories. Star Wars would end up not being a secular story, which seems wrong to me. Or is that anti-jediist bias on my part? :D

    5. By "secular," I meant that they're not supposed to form the basis of religious belief, not that they don't contain religious elements. Practically every story is religious if you include anything with religious symbology as a "religious" text.

      Look, the Arthurian legends tell a fantastic series of stories that clearly appealed to people all over the western hemisphere, as evidenced by the sheer number of texts, plays, art, films, and video games over the past millennium. I was perhaps a little thoughtless in suggesting that it has NO rivals in that regard, but if the first sentence of my last paragraph was a little hyperbolic, it doesn't change the truth of the rest of it. I'm not really interested in spending any more time on that one sentence.

    6. I really wasn't trying to be pedantic or anything, just interested in what exactly was meant with secular/non-secular story.

    7. Okay, I think I shall hold my tongue about EASTERN stories that predates both the Arthurian Folklore AND the Bible...

    8. Well, if we are just going with oldest one then I'd just haul out The Epic of Gilgimesh and we could be done with it, but I don't think that inspired a whole lot of later fan-work.

  5. That was a very nice way to wrap up what sounds like a really mediocre game. I'm glad that I was able to read your unique perspective on it.

  6. "Bran the Blessed"

    You cannot imagine how disappointed I was when I realized I'd misread this.

    1. I fear this is going over my head.

    2. I'm going to guess that Fred is referring to the English actor, Brian Blessed, well-known for his booming voice and ability to drop more ham on a role than William Shatner.

    3. Ah, very good. I should have caught that. I like him. He's been in a ton of Shakespeare adaptations and apparently played King Mark of Cornwall in a 1970s Arthurian TV series that I'm just finding out about.

    4. His name is by convention written in all caps, BRIAN BLESSED, thereby restoring balance to the Force disrupted by e.e. cummings.

    5. Can you really say that last word on a family-friendly blog like this?

    6. It could've been Bran the Builder. Then everything would've been better.

  7. The story of Arthur killing all children of Mordred's age reminds me of Cronus eating his children because one of them was prophesized to overthrow him.

    1. I guess it's a common theme. The Bible has it in both the story of Moses and the story of Jesus (i.e., Herod's Massacre of the Innocents). I suspect it was the latter one that the author of the Vulgate Cycle (the first text to feature Arthur's massacre) had in mind.

    2. Yes and the Jedi Knights seem to be inspired by Arthurian stories a little bit. They are a bunch of knights who are dispatched to different places after a council makes decisions. The council meets in a circular chamber. Honor and Virtue are of absolute importance.
      Just as Knights have armor which the normal person doesn't have, the lightsaber offers superior protection than the average person has.

  8. As I read the sequel sets up in Spain, I first thought they could be inspired by Rolands song, but it doesn't seem so.
    Are you generally into medieval literature or only into the Arthur saga?

    1. I don't dislike other medieval literature or anything, but I only studied the Arthurian saga.

  9. It's interesting how much of Arthurian legend makes it in to our culture... even pop culture. Heck, Stargate adopted Arthurs legends right along side their Egyptian and Atlantis mythos - Morgan and Merlin became rival Ancients and important players in the latter seasons of SG-1 and briefly into Atlantis.

  10. "disenchanted all the stoned rulers"

    Is that from this game or a Toronto headline?

    1. Hey! I missed that one! Ha! Great catch!

    2. *sigh* The one time Canada makes the news worldwide...

  11. Thanks for this excellent post! It was a very interesting read.

    I think I remember reading somewhere that one motive for Tolkien's work was the lack of a sort of national saga/mythology for England (or maybe it was an interview in the DVD bonuses). It would have led to the texts that were ultimately gathered in the Silmarillion (the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are just short episodes of that story). Tolkien would not have been the first author willing to give his country its own saga; there was Kreutswald with the estonian saga Kalevipoeg, and Lönnrot with the finnish saga Kalevala, and before that James Macpherson (apparently forged) scottish(?) saga's Fingal (which is not related to the arthurian literature, unless I'm mistaken). It's just interesting to note that from Tolkien's point of view, the arthurian literature did not fulfill that function.

    Of course, this might decrease a bit your opinion about Tolkien :-)

    PS : Just to be clear, I take all this from the preface of a French edition of Kalevipoeg (except the bits from the DVD bonuses), I'm far from being an expert in that field.

    1. I think Tolkien's problem with the Arthurian cycle was that it was missing a creation myth. While the Greek legends began with the creation of the world and continued on down to the age of heroes, Arthur's story begins after a great deal of history has already taken place. The early Silmarillion was meant to fill the part of the "Matter of Britain" up to the point that recorded history begins.

    2. I never knew that Tolkien intended his "Middle Earth" to be taken quite so literally. Are the maps in LOTR supposed to vaguely correspond with real places, then?

      Lest anyone is confused later, I should emphasize that my reference to Tolkien in the post was to his unfinished Fall of Arthur; I don't otherwise see a lot of Arthurian themes in The Lord of the Rings. The ones that seem obvious on the surface (Gandalf=Merlin) fall apart under scrutiny.

    3. That's the vague idea, yes; but as Tolkien writes, "as for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised ‘dramatically’, rather than geologically, or paleontologically." Whilst his places are based on real world equivalents (the Shire is usally equated with Oxfordshire, Minas Tirith is meant to be at the latitude of Florence, the ancient city of Pelargir is roughly where our ancient Troy was, etc.) they don't really tie together nicely on any of the maps in the book. He excuses himself in the prologue, saying "Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed..."

    4. By the time Tolkien wrote LOTR, I think he had pretty much abandoned the original concept of his stories being an English mythology.

      It's most noticeable in "The Book of Lost Tales", which he wrote very soon after WW1, and never completed. Tol Eressea (Elvenhome) in the early stories was supposed to be the island of Britain. Tolkien rewrote the entire thing in the 1930s as the "Quenta Silmarillion" and was rewriting it again when he died.

      The story had fewer and fewer ties to existing legends as time went on, probably because they became more and more limiting as Middle-Earth's own history was built up.

    5. What about Tolkien's Gawain and the Green Knight? Is that a retelling of an existing story, an addition to the "mythos", or a scholarly treatment of an existing story?

    6. Oh I forgot another thing: The impression I've gotten is that the Arthurian legends might be focused on Britain, but that the stories are at least as much French, and to some extent, generally European, as they are British? If that's in any way right, that might also be part of the reason that Tolkien didn't see it as an especially British or English mythology.

    7. I believe Tolkien's text is a modern English translation from the original Middle English. It's an impressive feat in artistic terms (it's not easy to translate poetry in a way that preserves some sense of style of the original) but it doesn't add anything in narrative terms.

      Yes, you're right that most of the development of the legend was in France, although we have to keep in mind that a great many Welsh stories were never written down and therefore lost. It's also important to note that during the time the Arthurian legends were written in French, there was a lot of intermingling of English and French royalty. This was after the Norman conquest, of course, and most of the English kings had primary holdings in France, spoke French, and took French wives.

      England had essentially reclaimed the bulk of the Arthurian legends by the time of the Hundred Years' War. No significant texts came out of France after the 13th century, whereas they flourished in England after that.

      Anyway, I'm off track. I know very little about Tolkien so I can't speculate as to his intentions or motivations. Geoffrey of Monmouth's history, a thoroughly British book, describes the founding of Britain by a descendant of Aeneas who conquered it from a race of giants. Between this and Welsh mythology, I don't understand how Tolkien could argue that a) Britain didn't have a mythical origin story; and b) it wasn't sufficiently British.

    8. I always understood that motivation to be about having something "wholly British" in the sense that it didn't take stories from other cultures myths. It could be from a sense of loss due to England's history, language, and culture being so much a product of its conquerors cultures. I remember his interest in Finnish stemmed from its ability to stay separate and true to itself in no small part due to the epic Kalevala.

  12. Even though Ultima VI is coming up, I'm a bit disappointed that this game was completed so quickly due to your posts being so interesting and full of knowledge about the game's (rough) Arthurian setting. Just wanted to throw that out there.

    I still wish there was a way to donate some PayPal dollars to you. This entire blog has been vastly more entertaining than any MMO and I feel like I should be giving you something for it.

    1. I appreciate it. One day, I will perhaps have a book for you to buy.

    2. That. And fridge magnets stating, "Score me a perfect GIMLET".

  13. I was recently re-reading "Robin's Law's for Good Game Mastering." It's a pamphlet-sized publication giving some good advice on running pen-and-paper RPG's. In the book, he briefly addresses how different western cultures tend to approach role-playing. He says that while Americans want a big epic triumph of good over evil, British role players tend to like the struggle against impossible odds, regardless of outcome. The whole "stiff upper lip" thing. (Of course, he's talking in generalities, which may not apply to everyone.)

    It struck me that in your description of the Arthurian legends, that preference for emphasizing the struggle rather than a "save the day" outcome is already a pretty dominant theme.

    1. I never thought if of that way. It certainly does explain a lot of British film, too.

  14. There's a notion especially popular amongst nihilistic teenagers that nothing matters unless it is permanent. Trouble is, nothing is permanent. Sooner or later the heat death of the universe will catch up to us and everything will die, even if human civilization manages to survive every other calamity we know to be creeping towards us from an unspeakably long time in the future (and who knows how many others that we don't know about). That doesn't mean there's no point to any of our accomplishments. Everything that has happened will always have happened, so if the sum of Arthur's reign is that a bunch of peasants weren't slaughtered by Saxons, it's not like those peasants long and happy lives are retroactively snuffed out because 50 years later a whole different set of Saxons did manage to conquer England. Something doesn't have to be literally eternal to be worthwhile.

    1. That's a good point. I don't think we have to limit the notion to "nihilistic teenagers." Very often in political discourse, there's a sense that "nothing was accomplished" because a trend didn't persist forever, or a bad statistic (crime, traffic fatalities, suicides, whatever) came back up after it was down for a while.

  15. I have to say, your posts about "Spirit of Excalibur" are my favourite posts in your blog. The game itself may be mediocre, but your knowledge of the Arthuriana and they way you talked about it in your posts are excellent.
    I'm only familiar with Mallory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", but know I really want to read more on this subject.

    1. I'm glad you liked them. I don't often get to blend detailed personal knowledge with my gameplaying. But if I ever get to an RPG set in New Orleans, watch out!

    2. It's not an RPG, but have you played Gabriel Knight? If you haven't heard of it, it's a famous Sierra adventure game about the occult set in New Orleans.

    3. American Horror Story: Coven may prove inspiration for some dev to make an rpg featuring Laveau and LaLaurie. :)

    4. From what I understand, AHS has already botched quite a bit of NO lore (not to mention an extremely disappointing conclusion), so you're probably walking a risky path mentioning it here ;))

    5. I watched the first two episodes of the first season of that show, and I thought it was without question the stupidest show I'd seen in years. I would have preferred re-runs of Alf. I know the seasons all tell different stories, but someone needs to assure me that the other seasons are significantly different before I'd try it again. Knowing that it manages to hose up NOLA only convinces me to stay away more!

      Mizkreant, no, I've never played the GK series. How well do they really evoke the city?

    6. Well, the series is known for using actual photos of the city, and then greenscreening actors on to it, so you should have something to talk about at least.

  16. If you put together all the works inspired by the Arthur legends, and all the works inspired by the Greek legends, I'm not so sure that you'd find twice as many on the Arthur side of things. Of course, an awful lot of the Greek stuff has been lost - looking at the tragedy section of the Great Dionysia alone, you had 3 playwrights each producing 4 plays every year for hundreds of years, and these days we have, what, 33 that have survived? But even today I'd hazard that we have more new stuff written based on the Greek than on Arthur.

  17. Chet: The following post has been going around Tumblr, and I'd love to hear your opinion on it:

    On legendry, by prokopetz:

    Lately, I’ve run across complaints that modern depictions of the Knights of the Round Table are too “anime” - giving them all sorts of goofy powers, and sending them on weird, over-the-top adventures.

    Allow me to point out that the following are all actual things that appear in the older tales about the Knights:

    -Sir Kay is said to have had the power to grow to giant size, hold his breath for nine days, and radiate supernatural heat from his hands.

    -Sir Bedivere openly practiced sorcery, and suffered from an accordingly sinister reputation; on more than one occasion, he was saved from being hanged as a witch only by King Arthur’s testimonly to his good character.

    -Sir Galahad possessed supernatural strength and speed by virtue of his moral and sexual purity - making him a rare example of a male character with virginity-fueled super powers.

    -Sir Balin once wielded the Lance of Longinus, and blew up an entire kingdom with a single blow. He also fought an evil knight with the power of invisibility.

    -Sir Marrock was a freaking werewolf.

    Conclusion: modern depctions of the Knights of the Round Table aren’t anime enough.

    (Here the original quote ends and a new one starts--CG) I made this post two years ago, and while it’s never really taken off, it’s still getting a small burst of additional notes every couple of months. I wonder how folks keep finding it?

    Anyway, the original post is hardly exhaustive - here are a few more fun examples:

    -Sir Gawain (you know, the guy involved in that whole mess with the Green Knight) is described as literally solar-powered in some tales, being three times as strong at high noon as he is at daybreak.

    -Sir Owain’s best friend and partner in battle is a talking lion. While his tales do include a sort of “origin story” explaining how he met the lion, the fact that it can talk isn’t remarked upon - it’s just a thing.

    -Sir Gwrhyr is able to speak every language, including those of animals, and in some versions can transform into various animals as well.

    -Though Lancelot isn’t usually described as having any specific supernatural powers or tools, he’s constantly described as “perfect” by everyone who sees him - you can practically see the bishie sparkles.

    (Speaking of Lancelot, it’s interesting to note that in the earlier stories, his illicit romance with Guinevere is actually part of a love triangle involving another knight named Galehaut - and the focus of that love triangle isn’t Guinevere, but Lancelot himself! Galehaut has been quietly edited out of more modern retellings for sadly obvious reasons.)"

    So, was there a ton of magic in The Knights of the Round Table? Because that sounds like a great setting for an RPG, tabletop or computer.

    1. The 1st ed D&D sourcebook: Deities and Demigods had stats for many Arthurian characters. Several of the powers you mentioned were included.

      Galahad was basically Jesus with a sword.

    2. He was also an actual Paladin among all the Fighters, Fighter/Thieves, Fighter/Magi, Fighter/Clerics, Fighter/Thief/Clerics and Fighter/Thief/Magi of the Round Table.

      In fact, I believe that the Paladin class in D&D is actually based on him.

    3. There are a number of misleading things about his post. The three broad themes are:

      1. About half his examples come from a handful of Welsh legends, whose themes don't really make their way into the rest of the body of Arthurian literature. Granted, Welsh sources are full of monsters, magic items, and fantastic powers, and any media rooted in it would be highly interesting and highly fantastical, but the result wouldn't be anything resembling what most people think of as "Arthurian." You wouldn't be able to include Lancelot, Galahad, or the Holy Grail, for instance. No Knights of the Round Table or "Sir" anyone.

      2. He discusses "powers" found in a variety of scattered sources as if they make up a unified body. Think of Arthurian literature as making up about 1,000 sources, each of which might have 1 or 2 fantastical things happen. Naturally, if you treat this as a unified work, you've got 1000-2000 examples of superpowers and magic, but no individual author expect his work to be treated this way, and none would have created an Arthurian setting in which magic was so explicit and prolific.

      3. Even though such powers are ASCRIBED to warriors in various in the legends, they don't generally make up a plot point. Yes, in Culhwch and Olwen, a Welsh source, Cei is described as able to hold his breath underwater for nine days, go without sleeping for nine days, grow as tall as a tree, and generate heat. Such fantastic abilities are ascribed to a lot of warriors. But there's no scene in the tales in which they actually happen. Despite all the chest-thumping about what the warriors can do, I can't remember episodes in Welsh legend in which their supposed powers are key to the plot resolution.

      More specific comments:

      -Don't know where he's getting that stuff about Bedivere practicing sorcery and having a sinister reputation. It's not from any classic (pre-1900s) source that I can find.

      -Yes, Galahad is basically Christ with a sword as Tristan says. He's clearly favored by God. But if you're going to include that in derivative works, you have to be prepared to deal with the explicitly-Christian nature of it. His power is divine, not arcane.

      -Same deal with Balin. The Lance of Longinus didn't have some special "exploding" power or anything. God turned the kingdom into a wasteland because of the profane use of a holy artifact.

      -A knight named Marrock being a werewolf is a throw-away line in Malory. There are a million of them. "When Arthur went to war with Rome, he took...." Commence three pages containing a long list of knights, some with allusions to their deeds and histories, none of whom actually appear "on screen."

      -Yvain does indeed save a lion from a serpent in some tales, and the lion becomes his companion. I can't recall or identify any tale in which the lion talks.

      -I don't know where he gets the bit about Lancelot being "perfect." It's a common trope to identify the hero of the story in hyperbolic terms. There's nothing about Lancelot that isn't true about a bunch of other knights when they're the focus of the story.

      -The stuff about Galehaut is just stupid. Yes, in the Vulgate Lancelot, Lancelot becomes fast friends with a king named Galehaut, but there's no indication that they're lovers, and I can't find any evidence of interaction between Galehaut and Guinevere, so there's no love triangle. Galehaut wasn't "quietly edited out of more modern re-tellings," for reasons "obvious" or otherwise. He just wasn't that important a character except to that one author.


    4. The overall conclusion is that while prokeptz is correct about some specifics, he leaves the wrong impression about the tone and nature of Arthurian legends in general, and he bolsters his claims with one-off allusions to characters that exist for only a single story. Fantastic events, powers, and magic, while sometimes alluded to, rarely appear in the forefront of stories, and even then only a couple of times per tale. Magic and powers are almost never used in the resolution of plots. Rare exceptions are heavily Christianized and not "magic" in the way we think of high fantasy.


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