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A Discrepancy? Where?

This is my fourth encounter with The Lion in Winter, and until now each one has been different. The first version I saw was the 2003 made-for-TV movie starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. This one is actually still my favorite, a fact which continues to surprise me.

My second encounter was with the 1968 movie version starring Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins. Shockingly, I did not like this version nearly as much as the later one. It lacks the energy, emotion, and playfulness of the newer version, seeming somewhat dry and boring in comparison.

Then, about a year and a half ago, I grabbed as many copies of the play as I could get my hands on and performed it with the SC Players. I played Phillip, and enjoyed the unique opportunity to really get inside the story and see it as one of the characters.

Now we have come full circle, and I have seen the newer version of the movie for the second time. This time, too, has been different, however. Now I am seeing the movie as the historical backdrop of the period in which Chr鴩en de Troyes was writing his courtly romances. The historical reality as presented by The Lion in Winter forms a very interesting contrast to the idealized chivalric stories of the period as presented by Tristan + Isolde.

As the movie begins, Eleanor of Aquitaine (former wife of the King of France) and her two eldest sons, Richard and Geoffrey, have just been defeated in their attempt to overthrow Eleanor’s current husband, King Henry II of England. Eleanor is imprisoned, her sons slink back to rule their respective territories, and Henry begins to raise his youngest son, John, to be the next king.

Time passes, and during the winter of 1183, Henry convenes his Christmas court at Chinon. Eleanor is temporarily freed to visit and whole family gathers to celebrate the holidays while trying to gain an edge in the squabble over who will be the next king. Henry is set on John, Eleanor on Richard, and Geoffrey on . . . well, himself. Into the midst of this comes Phillip II of France (son of Eleanor’s first husband) who is demanding that Henry honor his treaty with France whereby Phillip’s sister Alais was to marry the next king of England in exchange for Henry’s acquisition of the Vexen (a large tract of French land). The only hitch is that Alais is still not married, partly because no one knows yet who will be the next king, but mostly because Henry is sleeping with her.

Things get more complicated from there, and emotional outbursts and devious machinations fly in all directions as our “heroes” maneuver furiously to acquire whatever it is they happen to be after. Henry wants the kingdom he has built to stay united under the rule of his favorite son, without having to give Alais to him or give up the land from France. Eleanor wants her favorite son on the throne, her freedom, her former lands back in her possession (the Aquitaine), and Henry. All three sons want the throne. Phillip wants to destroy the man who humiliated his father. Alais wants love. And on and on it goes for over two and a half hours.

Possibly the most entertaining aspect of The Lion in Winter aside from the hilarious dialogue and rapid plot reversals, is the exercise of attempting to discover just which part of the main characters is genuine, and which is a show put on to get their way. By the final scene one is tempted to believe that, either we haven’t seen a single real emotion during the entire display, or these people are all certifiably insane, possibly both.

This, then, was the generation that invented chivalry. And a fine bunch of dysfunctionial backstabbers, manipulators, and nitwits they are, too. It almost begins to make the chivalric code look like more like a Machiavellian public relations maneuver than a sincere collection of virtuous guidelines. The ultimate question that this contrast brings me to ask myself is this: Are the realities of the 12th century less important to its legacy than the fictions (artistic and literary) which it produced? Or, on an even more basic level: Which has a greater impact on us today, the actualities of history or the dominant perceptions our forebears leave behind?

My over-simplified answer: Our perceptions have the greater impact, but it is very important that we retain an awareness of the reality in order to maintain a properly balanced view of history.

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~ by Jared on February 19, 2006.

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