On the importance of the incidental reference: king Arthur and The Mandalorian

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Published: 29 November 2021
On the importance of the incidental reference: king Arthur and The Mandalorian
Natalia Petrovskaia


ExcaliburMandalorianStar WarsKing ArthurDisney
Title (NL): Het belang van 'incidentele verwijzingen': koning Arthur en The Mandalorian
Abstract (NL):

Als bijdrage aan de bestudering van moderne adaptaties van middeleeuws materiaal, beargumenteert Natalia Petrovskaia dat 'incidentele verwijzingen' (d.w.z. op het eerste gezicht onbewuste verwijzingen naar objecten of thema's buiten hun gebruikelijke context) naar de middeleeuws Welshe literatuur en geschiedenis invloed kunnen hebben op de hedendaagse beeldvorming van dit verleden. Hiermee neemt ze tot op zekere hoogte stelling tegen de huidige tendens in het onderzoek naar moderne vertalingen en adaptaties van middeleeuwse teksten om ons met name te richten op volledige vertalingen. Aan de hand van het voorbeeld van de 'Darksaber', een zwaard dat een belangrijke rol speelt in het verhaal van The Mandalorian — de nieuwste serie in het Star Wars-universum — en tevens een 'incidentele verwijzing' naar de zwaarden van koning Arthur, hoopt Petrovskaia te bewijzen dat de rol van dergelijke verwijzingen in interculturele vertalingen en adaptatie niet onderschat moet worden.

Foto door Michael Marais (https://unsplash.com/photos/JLHyIwix46c).

One of the most frequent forms in which we find Celtic elements in modern culture is in the form of incidental references. Essentially, an incidental reference is constituted by out-of-context use of a topos,[1] name, or term derived from a distinct textual or literary tradition, which can be, but does not have to be, recognised by at least part of the new text’s audience. It is not a ‘reference’ proper or even an allusion because it does not have to be recognised and does not necessarily explicitly point to an earlier tradition, and, importantly, its recognition (or even the reference itself) is not key to the larger plot or narrative of the work in which it occurs. Instances include use of the word ‘Celtic’. The ‘Celtic runes quiz’, casually mentioned in the second episode of the Netflix series Fate: the Winx saga (2021) is a recent example. Allusions to Arthurian locations, such as Glastonbury featuring in Stargate: SG1 (Season 9 Episodes 2&3, ‘Avalon Parts 1 & 2’) are another common staple. Frequently featured are also characters’ names, or objects, such as Arthur’s sword, even in context otherwise entirely devoid of Celtic or Arthurian allusions. For instance, a character armed with a sword who believes himself to be Arthur, boards the space station in Babylon 5 (Season 3 Episode 13, ‘A late delivery from Avalon’). Such incidental references, despite being virtually omnipresent, are not usually tackled in adaptation studies. The main focus within that field is on larger units – story elements, motifs, entire narratives. The incidental reference, however, deserves attention. It constitutes – I would argue – a basic unit of what is known as ‘cultural translation’.[2] I would also argue that continued re-use of a particular reference in specific contexts converts it into a short-hand reference to those contexts (cf. Voigts 2017).[3]

The case-study I propose to illustrate this argument with, which might be familiar to some of the readers of Kelten, is taken from the ever-expanding Star Wars franchise, more specifically the live-action series The Mandalorian (2019–). The incidental reference under consideration in this example is the weapon referred to in the Star Wars material as the ‘Darksaber’. This represents an incidental reference to the Arthurian legend, and specifically to king Arthur’s sword(s). (The plurality of Arthur’s swords is addressed further below). The link to the Arthurian legend is not overt in The Mandalorian itself or in the preceding series where the sword features, the animated show Star Wars: Rebels (2014–2018). The reference is made explicit, however, in the title given to the second of three videos posted onto YouTube by Disney presumably to provide a background for the Mandalorian storyline through a compilation of excerpts from Star Wars: Rebels. This second video is entitled ‘Mandalorian civil war: dark Excalibur’.[4] The reference of ‘Excalibur’ is difficult to miss.[5] The discussion below uses this example to demonstrate that incidental references to what we can broadly designate the Arthurian legend both constitute an act of cultural translation and also condition audience responses to particular plot points and storytelling devices.  

In order to discuss the cultural translation of Arthurian elements in The Mandalorian, it is worth also briefly considering the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, as it served as an introduction of several relevant elements we find in the later series. It also introduced the ‘Darksaber’.[6]

This sword-shaped weapon, associated with the right to rule over the planet and people of Mandalore, is the most obvious Arthurian symbol in both Rebels and The Mandalorian. Although as it stands in The Mandalorian, this can be seen merely as an accidental echo of the Arthurian sword-in-the-stone, the animated sequence in Rebels that accompanied an account of it its background story emphasises the intentionality of the reference, as does the title of Disney’s YouTube video mentioned above. The brief animated sequence – a pantomime of shadows on a wall showing how the sword created by a legendary Mandalorian, Tarre Viszla (depicted earlier on in the sequence as a caped and helmeted figure wielding the sword), was retrieved from the Jedi temple – distinctly depicts a helmeted armoured individual pull a sword from a solid block (Star Wars: Rebels, Season 3 Episode 3, ‘Trials of the Darksaber’, 01:00-01:28). It looks, for all intents and purposes, as if the individual pulls it out of a stone and brandishes it aloft. With its implications of the right to rule, and associated with the iconography of sword-in-stone, the Darksaber is a translation of the Arthurian sword in the stone.

Such translation, in the form of an individual reference or idea, can be argued to carry two sets of meanings: a primary meaning that is obvious and a secondary meaning that requires appreciation of its association (Maitland 2017: 36). Such double quality of meaning has been argued by Maitland to lie at the foundation of that supremely postmodern phenomenon, the meme, for “the modus operandi of the most viral of memes requires their audience to go beyond the surface-level meaning to appreciate hidden depths” (Maitland 2017: 39; see also Voigts 2017). I would argue that the same is valid for the Darksaber, despite the fact that it is not itself a meme (although it might give rise to memes). Its primary meaning is its function and characteristics within the world of Star Wars. Its secondary meaning, I would argue, taps directly into the Arthurian legend and the associations carried by the image of Arthur’s sword in the stone. Indeed, it shares some of those associations: armour, a code of honour, and most crucially sovereignty and the ‘right to rule’ of the wielder.

Although the sword in the stone is not Excalibur, which is Arthur’s second sword, the right to rule becomes associated with the latter much earlier in the history of the Arthurian legend, presumably because it (conveniently) has a name (Mancoff 1996; Jackson 2008).[7] In medieval sources, appropriation of Arthur’s sword (not necessarily Excalibur), and its use as a symbol for the creation of a new legendary legacy is also attested in a number of sources, as in the Middle English romance Richard Coer de Lyon (Heng 2003: 66). Thus, in many respects, the Arthurian sword(s) is/are already a translation and a metaphor of the broader medieval complex of ideas in both religious and secular contexts that, to quote Michelle R. Warren, “maintained the sword at the center of medieval thought on the representation of power” (2000: 20 and 21–22; cf. Vinaver 1958). Crucially for our argument, the Star Wars iteration does not require knowledge of the Arthurian legend to understand the connotations of sovereignty, as these are stated directly and explicitly at multiple points in the franchise (e.g. Star Wars: The Clone Wars ‘Shades of reason’, Star Wars: Rebels ‘Trials of the Darksaber’; The Mandalorian ‘Chapter 11: The heiress’), and, although indebted to the sword-in-the-stone narrative, it has the potential to overwrite it (and therefore translate it) for a younger audience, for instance, who might see the Star Wars: Rebels animation before they encounter any Arthuriana at all, e.g. by watching Disney’s Sword in the stone (1963) or even the BBC series Merlin (2008–2012).[8] Warren’s remarks on Arthur’s sword are equally applicable to the Mandalorian’s Darksaber:

In the interplay between idea and action, between political theory and its lethal execution, the sword does not merely function as a symbol (the physical embodiment of an abstract principle); it has the physical capacity to enforce the consequences of that principle. The representation of the named sword thus both performs and comments on acts of conquest (Warren 2000: 22).

The connection between the power associated with the sword and literal violence pointed out by Warren in the quotation above, is made even more explicit in the Star Wars iteration of Excalibur, through the added requirement for the rightful wielder of the sword to have won it in combat (Mandalorian ‘Chapter 16: The Rescue’).

The Arthurian echoes of this reference are reinforced by the fact that the sword in Star Wars, and particularly in The Mandalorian, is not entirely divorced from other aspects of Arthuriana and knightly romance.[9] The use of elements already rich with pre-existing associations has been a feature of the Star Wars franchise from the outset (Collins 1977: 9).[10] Particularly striking from the perspective of knightly romance is the (initially at least) irremovable helmet, his armour, and, crucially the anonymity of the hero in The Mandalorian. The anonymity of the hero is a recurrent theme in medieval knightly romances (Gordon 2008). Indeed, the importance of helmet-protected anonymity of the knight is such that he is recognised usually by cloak, shield, or colour of armour, and the lack of these features can become a pivotal plot element. The case in point is the encounter between the hero and Arthur’s nephew Gwalchmai in the medieval Welsh tale Iarlles y ffynnawn ‘Lady of the well’, where the combat between them ends only when a lucky blow lifts the latter’s visor, allowing the hero, Owain, to recognise him and stop the fight (Davies 2009: 130). In this episode, the hero, too, is anonymised by wearing an all-black suit of armour that had previously belonged to the guardian of the well whom he had vanquished at the beginning of the tale. This example is not necessarily the prototype of the Mandalorian’s anonymity, but the pattern is certainly recognisable. This does not have to be necessarily the result of a conscious decision on the part of the show’s creators to echo the medieval Arthurian legend, albeit in the light of the sword, this seems likely. ‘The fair unknown’ and ‘nameless knight’ have become an established topos (literary commonplace) long since, and has continued its existence beyond the Middle Ages and well into the era of the novel. One thinks in particular of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), but that is by far not the only example.

Furthermore, what is important is not the ability on the part of the audience, or on the part of medievalists or Arthurian enthusiasts, to recognise the references, but rather that these incidental references seem to bring with them the cultural baggage of associations and concepts from their point of origin. Another example from the Mandalorian is afforded by the Mandalorian’s ‘the Way’ (a behavioural code constantly referred to by various Mandalorians, including the eponymous hero) an invocation of the Japanese warrior code bushidō 武士道 (‘way of the warrior’). The similarity is not accidental and, in fact, we know from interviews with the show’s creators that this echo was intentional, as was the link via westerns and Clint Eastwood’s lone cowboy of For a fistful of dollars (dir. Sergio Leone, 1964) to Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1961 film『用心棒』 (Yōjinbō ‘Bodyguard’) that inspired it.[11]

Audiences of Star Wars may be aware of this, but appreciation of the Mandalorian’s behavioral code does not require one to know that the final segment 道 (dō) in the word 武士道 (bushidō ‘way of the warrior’) means ‘road’ or ‘way’, thus literally providing the source for the name of the Mandalorians’ code. What is important is not the viewer’s ability to trace back the narrative element’s, or the symbol’s, genealogy, but rather the process of transformation it had undergone. That process in itself constitutes cultural translation. In many ways, our acceptance of the outcome of this process hinges on the fact that it starts with something that had already formed part of our cultural background. Viewers of Star Wars might not be familiar with bushidō, but they will be familiar with the lone cowboy of the Sergio Leone classic western. Equally, they might not have read How Culhwch won Olwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the kings of Britain, or even Malory, but they might recognise the sword-in-the-stone motif. Indeed, whether or not the audience recognises the Darksaber as a science-fiction or fantasy reincarnation of or an allusion to the Arthurian sword-in-the-stone, the instinctual acceptance of the association of sovereignty with a sword (why not an orb, a sceptre, or a shield, a crown, a helmet?) is, I would argue, already conditioned by Arthuriana.

Conclusion

As Peter Burke observes, “Translation implies ‘negotiation’, a concept which has expanded its domain in the last generation, moving beyond the worlds of trade and diplomacy to refer to the exchange of ideas and the consequent modification of meaning” (2007: 9). In this case, at each point of transmission, the symbols described above have undergone a process of negotiation and modification, resulting in the accumulation of significance and cultural reference. The most important argument in favour of seeing the Darksaber as a cultural translation of the Arthurian legend is that the set of associations it carries as an incidental reference to Arthur’s first sword will ultimately become the basis for similar associations and expectations for viewers and readers who might not be aware of the Arthurian sword at all, had never read T. H. White or seen the Disney cartoon, let alone read Malory.[12] A similar transformation has already taken place for The Grail, which has become separated from the Arthurian legend for more audiences through its appearance in the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the lost ark (1981) and Dan Brown’s 2003 Da Vinci code (Lacy 2004, esp. 87-89). It may not be coincidental that the latter incidentally features a fictional professor of semiotics (a discipline specialising in the analysis of signs and symbolism). Dan Brown knew what he was doing, for even more than Galahad, the original grail hero, Perceval (not to mention the properly Welsh though not necessarily grail-hero Peredur), now languishes in obscurity.

The importance of incidental references here lies precisely in the possibility of the loss of the original context, which may become so obscure as to be invisible to new audiences. The inclusion of incidental references into the category of cultural translation, and therefore almost by default of adaptation, is to acknowledge that not all adaptations remain recognisably “haunted at all times by their adapted texts”, as Linda Hutcheon so eloquently puts it (Hutcheon 2013: 6).[13] Rather the ghost of the translated or adapted material, if I may be permitted to take the metaphor further, in some cases gradually fades and becomes indistinguishable. Incidental references ultimately lose their reference points, but generate in turn new contexts and stories that in their turn generate new sets of associations and new traditions, with their own adaptations and their own incidental references.

Notes

The term was introduced by Ernst Robert Curtius in his Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (Bern 1948), where it is defined as a literary commonplace or ‘intellectual theme’, recurring in particular contexts; see Curtius, European literature and the Latin middle ages, trans. by Willard R. Trask (Princeton 1990: translation originally published in 1953) 70.
For the purposes of the present argument, cultural translation is understood, following Burke and Hsia’s definition of translation (Burke and Hsia 2007: 3), as a transferral of information in the form of text, which can, but does not have to, involve the change of language (e.g. from Old Irish of Medieval Welsh to Modern English or Modern Dutch) and/or medium (e.g. from manuscript text, to digital text, radio play, or movie). The term has been subject of much discussion and for various other definitions and further bibliography, see, for instance Maitland 2017; Conway 2019: 15-17.
At the risk of making the discussion very technical one could also add that arguably, once it enters the phase where it becomes a short-hand reference to particular context, the ‘incidental reference’ whether it is a name or object then becomes a symbol or a sign, or more precisely a representamen were one to follow Peircean terminology (Peirce 1932: 228), and we move into the realm of semiotics, not linguistics. See, for also essays in Eco 2004. Such technicalities can be left aside, however, for the purposes of the present argument.
On the DisneyXD YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdoYZkYGgS0 (consulted 16 February 2021).
Excalibur has been the subject of many discussions. See, for instance, Michelle R. Warren, History on the edge: Excalibur and the borders of Britain, 1100-1300 (Minneapolis and London 2000).
See also Richter, ‘Of war, peace, and art’: 159. The DisneyXD channel on YouTube have uploaded a mini-series of three episodes under the common title “Mandalorian civil war” collating material relating to Mandalore from various episodes of Star Wars: Rebels; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcNCLMgvBb8 (consulted 16 February 2021).
Excalibur does not always appear to be Arthur’s sword in the medieval tradition. In the twelfth-century Conte du graal of Chrétien de Troyes, for instance, it is Gauvain, Arthur’s nephew, who wields it; Le Conte du Graal, l. 5828, (Méla 1994: 1115; William W. Kibler 1991: 453).
For a discussion of the latter, see Gossedge 2012. Gossedge uses the translatio studii et imperii framework for his analysis. For a discussion of the use of topoi derived from knightly romance in works of contemporary science fiction, see, for instance, Keyes 2006.
For more on holy wells see Caroll 1999; Ó Cadhla 2002.
Collins’s analysis of the effect achieved by Lucas’s mix of medieval and modern cultural ingredients in the first instalment of Star Wars in 1977, strikingly echoes Yeats’s manifesto for the use of Celtic (meaning Irish) medieval legends to fuel modernist literature (1903: 293–94). For links between later installments of Star Wars and Modernism, see Richter’s discussion of cubist (Picasso) and modernist (Klimt) influences in the depiction of Mandalorian art in Star Wars animation (2020: 166).
See, for instance, Will Thorne, “The Mandalorian’: Jon Favreau and Pedro Pascal on creating a Western on steroids” Variety Nov. 11 2019 https://variety.com/2019/tv/features/the-mandalorian-jon-favreau-pedro-pascal-western-1203399015/ (accessed 27 Sep 2021); Collider: ‘Star Wars: the Mandalorian press conference’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNM-ouJdEgQ (accessed 27 Sep 2021); Christi Carras, "'The Mandalorian' star Pedro Pascal channeled Han Solo and Clint Eastwood for Disney+" Los Angeles Times 28 August 2019 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2019-08-26/mandalorian-pedro-pascal-star-wars-disney-plus (accessed 27 Sep 2021).
A grim view of the process of over-writing of cultural memory by Disney adaptation is taken by Gossedge 2012: 115-16, citing Zipes 1995.
Hutcheon, of course, treats only those works as ‘adaptations’ which are translated (e.g. to a new medium) in their entirety as stories or ‘story elements’, characters, or fabulae (Hutcheon 2013: 10-11).

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