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Thursday, April 23, 2020

A To Z Blogging Challenge 2020: U Is For ... Uther Pendragon!

So... U is for Uther Pendragon! 

King Uther. Public Domain


If you have read/seen any Arthurian fiction/film, you will know who he is: Arthur’s Dad. The one who got into disguise, with the help of Merlin, and went off to sleep with a woman who wasn’t his, to conceive Arthur, one night while her husband was fighting and, importantly, dying elsewhere.

In my favourite Arthurian film, Excalibur, he was shown as a man who was so desperate to get his hands(and other bits of him) on the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall that he didn’t even bother to take off his - plate! - armour before leaping on to her! Presumably he took off the important parts of what he was wearing, but we didn’t see it. In fact, even the actor, Gabriel Byrne, commented on that...

Uther and Merlin plan their action. Public Domain


We all know that part of the story. We’ll get back to it later. 

Uther gets a detailed mention in Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

Uther, later known as Pendragon(Chief Dragon, head warrior), was the brother of Ambrosius, the rightful heir to the throne. But when they were children, the throne was usurped, by one Vortigern(more of him in my next post), their father killed and the boys whisked away to safety across the Channel. 

Eventually they return and Vortigern gets his comeuppance. But there is still a lot of fighting to do, against the Saxons, and they do it. Ambrosius gets killed and Uther is king. He helps Merlin get those stones to Britain, to act as part of Ambrosius’s tomb.

Around this time is when the story of Uther betraying his loyal ally, the Duke of Cornwall, happens. Yes, we know! They are having a party to celebrate a victory. Uther sees Ygerna/Ygraine/Igraine and falls madly in lust with her. Gorlois hustles his wife, and maybe their kids(at least one, Morgana, the future enemy of  Arthur, was there in Excalibur, and saw right through the glamour put on Uther by Merlin)off to their castle, Tintagel, while he goes off to another castle to defend it against Uther’s troops. He gets killed just before Arthur is conceived. That’s important to the story. It means Arthur can be made legitimate. 

And then Merlin takes the child away till he is ready. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, I vaguely recall from my university years, he is off being raised by the fairies in Avalon. 

Uther is busy fighting Saxons. Towards the end, he is badly wounded, but insists on continuing to fight, even if it means being carried into battle on a litter. The Saxons call him the half-dead King.

There is a rather nice scene in Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills. Young Arthur has been brought to court, very excited about his first battle. He doesn’t know, yet, that the king is his father(Actually, that bit does lead to disaster, when Morgause seduces him that night). But in the battle, Uther, proud of his warrior son, smiles and throws him his sword... 

In the BBC Merlin, of which I admit I have only seen a few episodes, Uther Pendragon is still alive and ruling when the youthful Merlin comes to court and Arthur is the crown prince. The role was played by Anthony Head, whom you might remember as the school librarian and Buffy’s Watcher in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Mary Stewart’s Uther is a passionate man. Merlin - his nephew in this series - doesn’t actually have to use magic to fool Igraine, just a bit of make-up to get them into the castle. Uther and Igraine have already met and fallen in love. When Uther finds out that Gorlois is dead, he is furious with Merlin. One more day, he complains, and he could have had her legitimately. But Merlin replies that one more day would have meant a different child. He was not doing this for his uncle’s benefit, but for the hero who will come of what they did this night. 

In Sutcliff’s Sword At Sunset it is Ambrosius, not his brother, who survives and brings up his nephew, Artos. Artos/Arthur is Utha’s (her spelling) bastard. 

If you haven’t seen Excalibur, do. The scene where Merlin uses magic to change Uther’s appearance is amazing. He is on his horse, galloping towards the castle, and as he goes his armour dissolves into Gorlois’ armour. 

He dies at the hands of his enemies, chasing Merlin when the wizard is carrying the baby from the castle. It is Uther who puts the sword into the stone, while trying to break it - nobody shall have Excalibur but him! 

The Pendragon name comes from Uther’s viewing a comet that looks like a dragon. He takes the dragon for his device. 

There is much more, including a theory that “Arthur son of Uther” is a mistranslation of “Arthur the Terrible King” (Terrible as in scary to his enemies, not as in incompetent). I’ll leave you to look that up, though. 

Here is a scene with Uther from the BBC Merlin


Next time, we will, hear about Vortigern, the guy who usurped the throne and used Saxon mercenaries. 



21 comments:

AJ Blythe said...

I know this is rather petty, but I've never liked the name Uther. I realise the "U" must be long, but my head always reads it short, like "other".

Sue Bursztynski said...

Chuckle! If you hate it, just imagine being stuck with the name.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I enjoyed visiting Tintagel in Cornwall the last time I was in Britain. I climbed all those endless bloody stairs up to the castle ruins, saw King Arthur's Footprint and then went down to the shore, clambering over very slippery rocks, to enter Merlin's Cave. And of course, the town itself is one big theme park tourist trap for the Arthurian Legends. Loved it!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I bet it’s a tourist trap! ๐Ÿ˜‚ I missed it, when I was last there, years ago, and only had a couple of hours in Glastonbury due to the public transport shortage. But I did get to Shrewsbury, which was doing very nicely out of Brother Cadfael tourism.

A Tarkabarka Hรถlgy said...

That plate armor scene from the movie... O.o Ouch.

The Multicolored Diary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Definitely - ouch! ๐Ÿ˜‚

Stuart Nager said...

I hate to say it, but I still have not watched Excaliber. I know. I will change that.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Do see it if you can. A classic! Plus you will see several big name actors early in their film careers - Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson...

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Okay, but it would be kind of awesome if his name was really "Arthur the Incompetent" before the translators got confused! Ha ha!
Black and White (Words and Pictures)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ah, Anne, we will never know...๐Ÿ˜‚

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Wonder if he was so horrible-looking that Merlin had to use glamour on him for any woman to sleep with him...?

An A-Z of Faerie: Werehyena

Sue Bursztynski said...

Always possible, Ronel! But I think this particular event was to make him look familiar.

Roland Clarke said...

That scene from Excalibur with the versatile Gabriel Byrne - as with most of that excellent film has become my dominant image of Uther. Although, as a Buffy-fan, I was also entertained by Anthony Head as Uther - weirdly, I'm listening to the original Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack which features Anthony's brother Murray as Judas Iscariot. Synchronicity or something?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Definitely synchronicity! How good to hear that Anthony’s brother is also an actor/singer! Especially in the role of Judas, which requires the performer to be brilliant at both.

Did you see that David Tennant Dr Who episode in which Anthony Head plays as the evil alien Principal(and Sarah Jane returns)?

I have a recording of him reading - delightfully! - a story by Diana Wynne Jones.

Roland Clarke said...

Although I watched Dr Who religiously until recently, I hesitate to say 'I remember'. Or do I? Off to try and find it. I want to catch up again as the new Doctor is an actress I rate highly.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think the episode is called School Reunion. The kids are being used by the aliens via the fat in which the school canteen chips are fried.

Do watch the Jodie Whittaker episodes! She is wonderful. I remember heaving a sigh of relief and thinking, yes, it’s still the Doctor! There was an episode in which she meets another woman who is another regeneration which neither of them remembers and the scene so reminded me of the encounter between Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee!

Roland Clarke said...

I will for sure, Sue. I was fortunate to meet four of the doctor actors, including working with Jon Pertwee - on a sci-fi pilot - and Tom Baker - a voice over for a documentary.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Roland, I'm seething with jealousy! The only Doctor I ever met was Peter Davison, and that was briefly at the airport, when I went with friends to greet him and his wife, Sandra Dickinson aka Trillian from Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. He had just taken the role and was having to put up with fans who resented ANYONE replacing Tom Baker..

Roland Clarke said...

Peter Davison was a good Doctor, even if Tom Baker was my favourite among the first era doctors. David Tennant is possibly my fave of the modern crop, but I've yet to watch Jodi Whittaker so...

I'll admit my first doctor encounter was as a kid when either William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton was in a cricket match versus my dad's eleven. So, that one is a vague memory, while meeting Paul McGann - does he count - was when trying to cast him unsuccessfully.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, Roland, Paul McGann counts, whatever we think of the episode. He is officially the 8th Doctor, and that’s good enough for me, even if we did have to put up with the silliness of his being half human. I wouldn’t have minded seeing him for a season, but it just didn’t happen.

Have you seen Night Of The Doctor? If not, it’s free on YouTube. Only a few minutes long, but it works. In it, we see him - very reluctantly! - regenerate into the War Doctor.

Mutter, grumble, whinge about people whose families played cricket against one of the Doctors!

Roland Clarke said...

I missed that mini-episode with Paul McGann - and those with John Hurt. But I've watched the first now and heading forwards. Many thanks, Sue.