Arthurian Tropes, Nostalgia and Hope
To unwind from the stresses of moving, my husband and I have been binge-watching The Librarians. The series continues on from the three movies of the same name, starring Noah Wylie as Flynn Carson, aka The Librarian — think a slightly dorky Indiana Jones who collects artifacts to protect the world from dangerous magic. The show, like the movies, has so much heart that the cheesiness is adorable.
The Librarians, although set in world where magic is real, completely skips the grittiness that permeates (or infests, depending on your point of view) so much television fantasy. The stories end well; good triumphs; someone can always read the ancient, faded writing in a dead language and solve the problem within 50 minutes.
In short, it’s feel-good fantasy where nerds are the real heroes, and I love it.
But it’s also a show with numerous references to the Arthurian legend, which means that when I watch it I can’t help but activate the academic part of my brain. After all, I spent years of my life reading, researching, analyzing and writing about Arthurian narratives, both medieval and modern.
While The Librarians deploys Arthurian elements rather haphazardly, its use of these tropes resonates with the nostalgia that has always been a part of the Arthurian legend. The stories of Arthur and his kingdom are always stories of a past imagined as better, purer, more noble than the future — a golden age of chivalry lost to the present, whether that present is the twelfth century or the fifteenth or the twenty-first.
But in this show, the nostalgia isn’t just wistful; it’s also hopeful. Take Galahad, the grail knight par excellence of medieval stories and a major character in The Librarians. In the show he does not seek the grail, but as in the grail legends he remains an idealist dedicated to high moral standards. He makes the world better by simply living, but also, crucially, by training the new librarians. Galahad is a tangible reminder of a better past who provides hope for a better future.
The past that Galahad represents is, of course, fictional: not just made rosy by historical distance, but actually fictional, since Galahad has no possible real-life counterpart.1 And yet the nostalgia for a better, if fictional, past still works in the show to inspire a better future for the characters and, by extension, for us the viewers.
I admit that I sometimes can be cranky about nostalgic, romanticized views of the past — and especially the medieval past. Chivalry is violent and patriarchal; nobility depends on the oppression of the non-noble; and one has only to read Chaucer or Boccaccio to realize that medieval people were not somehow more moral than modern people.
And yet I fall for the combination of nostalgia and hope in The Librarians every time. I think it’s because the nostalgia is not for a time period, but for a set of values that transcend time. In the show, Galahad, Excalibur, and even the Lady of the Lake stand for loyalty, courage, perseverance, knowledge and self-sacrifice. And when the cast of the show faces an enemy from the Arthurian narrative, the idea conveyed is that evil has always existed but can always be overcome by good.
The nostalgia for the past is transmuted into hope for the future through these transcendent values. And this alchemic process gives The Librarians its big, nerdy heart. Even when the odds look bleak, the values of human knowledge and human courage can still save the day.
Is The Librarians great television? Not really, to be honest. We live in a golden age of television, and many shows have better acting, effects and scripts. But the heart and the hope in this show point toward the power of ideals, a power that stretches through history to inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.
Arthur may have been a historical person; the knights Gawain, Kay, Bedevere and Mordred are connected with Arthur from nearly the earliest written references, although it’s impossible to know if they are rooted in real people. Lancelot and Galahad are French additions to the story, and purely fictional.↩