This third essay in the King Arthur series is comparing the 1981 movie Excalibur with the Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, an extensive account of the King Arthur legend written in 1485. Weirdly enough, I liked Le Morte d’Arthur a lot better than Excalibur. Well, maybe that’s not weird if you’ve ever seen Excalibur. I could elaborate on this at length (especially when it comes to the character of Morgan Le Fay), but instead, you’re getting a short snapshot comparing the depiction of Igraine in the two versions.
As a heads up, this essay also mentions sexual assault, although it is not discussed in any detail.
Wife vs. Mother: Igraine’s Choice in Le Morte d’Arthur and Excalibur (1981)
Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is a chivalric romance where the concerns of men are paramount. Aside from some mysterious wanderers and sorceresses, women in Le Morte d’Arthur are largely either wives or objects of desire. Although some of the women of the story are mothers, this role is not focused on. Not so with the 1981 film Excalibur, which attempts to tell the tale of King Arthur from the very beginning. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur focuses on the character Igraine’s role as a wife, but Excalibur briefly focuses on her role as a mother, which provides her character with a greater emotional range. The difference between these two depictions of Igraine highlights a tension between the roles of wife and mother.
Of all of Malory’s women, Igraine is the most defined by her maternal role, but “Igraine as a mother” plays a relatively small part in the text. Igraine is first presented as the wife of the Duke of Tintagel, whom King Uther desires. As the wife of the Duke, she behaves as a wife should, resisting Uther’s advances and convincing her husband to flee. She is soon raped by Uther in the guise of her husband, and her description of the event further illustrates how Igraine performs the role of a wife: “I went unto bed with him as I ought to do with my lord” (Malory 6). Igraine’s focus is ever on what she “ought to do” as a wife. When Igraine conceives Arthur, the focus is on paternity rather than maternity, as exemplified by how “the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child” (Malory 6). The baby Arthur is then given to Merlin, and Igraine is entirely absent from this exchange. Unlike how Malory wrote of Igraine’s joy at knowing Arthur’s paternity, he leaves missing any trace of emotion she feels at Arthur being given away. In addition, while Igraine is mentioned to be the mother of three girls (Morgan Le Fay, Elaine, Morgause), this relationship is never commented upon or depicted. Although Igraine is King Arthur’s mother, her roles which receive the most attention are those of the dutiful wife and the object of Uther’s desire.
The film Excalibur (1981) places greater focus on Igraine’s relationships with her children, thereby giving her a greater emotional range and interiority than in Le Morte d’Arthur. Excalibur’s Igraine follows a similar arc as Malory’s, though she does not reappear later on in the film. She is first shown dancing seductively for her husband the Duke and enflaming Uther’s desire. But when she next appears, shortly before she is to be assaulted by Uther, she is comforting her daughter Morgan, whom she clearly cares for. When Arthur is born, Excalibur depicts Igraine holding him to her breast as he nurses, and she is hardly absent when Uther hands Arthur off to Merlin. Uther rips Arthur from Igraine’s breast as she screams, cries, and begs for her child. Igraine’s presence dramatizes the moment, but it also serves to give Igraine a depth of feeling found nowhere in Malory’s text. If Malory’s Igraine is ever the dutiful wife and only a mother by virtue of providing Uther with an heir, then Excalibur’s Igraine is a mother first and wife second, a woman who cares more for her children than Uther.
The differences between Malory’s Igraine and Excalibur’s Igraine present a tension between women’s roles as wife and mother. In a situation where the roles conflict (the giving away of Arthur), the stories diverge in the choices Igraine makes. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Igraine choices the role of wife, but in Excalibur, she chooses the role of mother. Igraine’s choice in each illustrates which role the authors found most important, which can be seen elsewhere in the stories. Through Guinevere, Malory continues to focus on the role of wife, and the film Excalibur makes Morgan Le Fay the mother of Mordred, continuing the focus on the maternal role. Thus, Igraine serves as a snapshot of the larger choices made by Le Morte d’Arthur and Excalibur in how women are characterized and depicted.
Excalibur. Directed by John Boorman, Orion Pictures, 1981.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford UP, 2008.