Arthur's women tell their story

Feminist 'Avalon' has a moral message; 'Chronicle' mixes humor and sci-fi action

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King Arthur lives. That's the great thing about a legend: He can drift off into the mists of Avalon, guarded by maidens of the lake, and sleep for thousands of years, only to return and rebuild Camelot.

Well, that's one version of the story. There are many.

Almost every generation retells the knightly tales to suit its own needs - even disguised as westerns or sci-fi. In "Henry V," Shakespeare refers to Arthur as a saintly figure who will take jolly old Falstaff to his bosom in heaven.

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Now, there is a complicated new televised version of the Arthurian legend based on the best-selling novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, who retells the legend as a feminist-pagan fable. The Mists of Avalon (TNT, Part 1, July 15, 8-10 p.m., Part 2 July 16, 8-10 p.m., and both repeated through the end of July) may be revisionist, but it's still a sparkling medieval romance.

The four-hour miniseries focuses on Arthur's women: his mother, Igraine (Caroline Goodall); her sisters, Morgause (Joan Allen) and Viviane (Anjelica Huston, a.k.a. The Lady of the Lake and Lancelot's mother); his half-sister Morgaine (Julianna Margulies), and his wife, Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis).

The complicated story involves incest, a lot of second sight, a mystical island that occupies the exact same space as a monastery island (on another plane altogether), a rather fanciful and glamorized idea of ancient paganism and mother goddess worship, and a contest between the old religion and the new (Christianity).

Arthur's female blood relations are all pagans. Arthur himself totters between the two beliefs when he marries a Christian.

And, though paganism comes off more sympathetically than this ancient form of Christianity, it is clear that goddess worship has an evil side (akin to the "dark side of The Force" in Star Wars). A curse makes the queen unable to bear children. Black magic turns Morgaine's son against her and his father - Arthur. Gwenhwyfar is perpetually in a bad mood.

It's a good cast (though Angelica Huston overdoes it a bit with that priestess cant) and a good script. But there's no Holy Grail. No jousting. No saving maidens in distress. Where is the prowess of the knights of the round table? Where's all the romance and the courtesy? Gone, alas.

Meanwhile, Viviane is willing to sacrifice her niece and nephew for the good of Avalon, and her plan to produce a great king backfires.

One might ask, with all her magical powers and foresight, why she doesn't see the disaster that is Mordred coming. But never mind, motivations and powers are always a bit iffy in medieval stories.

"If King Arthur ever existed, it was during the lost period of the fifth century after the fall of the Roman Empire when the Celts were trying to hold out against the Saxon invasion," says screenwriter Gavin Scott. "I wanted to stay faithful to the book, so I didn't try to import existing material [about the Arthurian legends] into it...."

So he looked for what he believed to be the core of the novel, the relationship among the women, and realized that the basic conflict was religious. In fact, ancient forms of Christianity did absorb many of the pagan beliefs of the period.

So Mr. Scott has the story revolve around the struggle to maintain the old religion in the face of the new, and the gradual absorption of paganism into Christianity.

Scott says that the basic paradox of the story is symbolized by Excaliber, which first appears as a cross, then a sword, and then returns to a cross as Arthur dies.

"For me, as much as anything, the search for spirituality is a lifelong quest," Scott says. "Arthur was trying to create a perfect world, a heaven on earth, and for a brief moment he brought together the best and the brightest who were trying to do such good. But he was brought down by the flesh, by the sins of the flesh, and the challenges of the real world."

Scott says that the battle between Morgaine and Viviane represents one of the great lessons of the 20th century: The ends do not justify the means. "Devoting yourself to a cause and sacrificing others to it has been discredited. To Viviane, Avalon was more important than individuals. But Morgaine is not prepared to see individuals sacrificed .... It is an elemental struggle."

There's a scene in the sci-fi comedy "Men in Black" in which Tommy Lee Jones takes Will Smith to a newsstand, buys a pile of tabloid newspapers with stories about aliens, and remarks, "Best investigative reporting on the planet." What if all the stuff in the tabloids were true - from "There's a Demon in My Toilet!!!" to "Woman gives Birth to Twin Aliens!!!"

That's the premise of the Sci-Fi Channel's tongue-in-cheek "dramedy," The Chronicle (beginning with back-to- back episodes July 14, 9-11 p.m.). And though it's a trifle awkward in its storytelling, it's imaginative and fun, too.

Young Tucker Burns (Chad Willett), fresh out of Columbia School of Journalism, can't find a job at a legitimate newspaper because of a major mistake he made as a student.

But, desperate for money, he applies to a tabloid. His new boss (the wonderful character actor Jon Polito) knows all about Tucker's misstep and hires him because he's a terrific writer. Tucker's first assignment includes saving the world with his two colleagues. So the job definitely has its satisfactions.

Speculative-fiction fans will enjoy the humor and the sci-fi action. The writing and acting will likely only get sharper. When the absurd bumps up against banal reality, comic sparks fly.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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