Autumn 2007 Volume One Issue Four
A Chainsaw-Wielding Yankee in King Arthur's Demonic Court
- Richard Scott Nokes
King Arthur is everywhere. He seeps into our pores. Like a mist, he curls through the little cracks and crevices of our culture. He is the once and future king, yes, but he is also very, very present.
Fish probably don't realize they are wet, and in much the same way, we tend not to notice the Arthuriana around us unless it is pointed out to us. Whenever I teach my Arthurian literature course, I warn the students that they will see Arthur everywhere, peeking at them from around corners, whispering in their ears where he is unexpected. They always look at me like I'm drunk with love for the subject I'm teaching. Long before the end of the semester, though, they begin to sense that they are swimming in Arthuriana as surely as the fish swims in the ocean. Sir Mix-A-Lot, in addition to liking big butts, has an Arthurian name. The name "Excalibur" is given to every sort of product imaginable, from hotels to airplanes to food dehydrators. Anything we deeply desire becomes a "holy grail," whether it be a briefcase in a Quentin Tarantino film or the name of my student's favorite mixed drink. Merlin, Camelot, and Arthur himself can be dropped easily into our culture without any assumption that the audience has read Malory. We all know about Arthur simply because we all know about Arthur. Never to have heard of King Arthur is to be profoundly culturally illiterate.
As T.S. Eliot pointed out in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," art builds upon art. Arthur has become the foundation for so much important art that to examine it adequately, we have to divide it into sub-genres. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court marks the beginning of one of these sub-genres. Utopian and dystopian literature has a long tradition of time-travel as its primary conceit. Probably the most famous was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published in the 1880's, about a man who (being mesmerized) sleeps from 1887 to the year 2000, which is a socialist utopia. This device of time travel (either of someone from a future to our own present, or someone from our present to a future), is a "Stranger in a Strange Land" method, in which an outsider critiques the culture, and is expressed even more broadly in various kinds of travel narratives, such as Gulliver's Travels. The time travel element, though, was popularized by Bellamy.
There must have been something in the air of the late 1880's that encouraged this theme of time travel, because in 1889 Mark Twain brought the time-traveling stranger device to Arthuriana, and created a new sub-genre with the publication of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The very first film version of Connecticut Yankee was filmed in 1921, still early in the era of silent film. Again and again filmmakers have returned to Connecticut Yankee as a commercially and artistically profitable, with variations from A Spaceman in King Arthur's Court to Black Knight. On television, cartoons seem to be the preferred medium for Connecticut Yankee themes, including a series entitled King Arthur and the Knights of Justice (about a time-traveling football team) and Bug's Bunny's "A Connecticut Rabbit in King Arthur's Court."
Sam Raimi's low-budget Evil Dead would not seem to be a likely launching point for another Connecticut Yankee. In the original film, four college students find an audio recording of a reading from an evil book. After playing the recording, evil is awakened around them in a film that is groundbreaking and creepy. After the success of Evil Dead, Raimi planned a sequel, which in actual execution became a trilogy, the final installment of which was Army of Darkness. As the series progresses, it leans less and less on the horror element, and more on comedic elements.
Army of Darkness begins right at the point Evil Dead II ends. Ash, the sole survivor of the first film, has continued his battle with the dead through the second film. In the course of the second film, his hand becomes possessed and, in order to save himself, Ash severs it himself, then replaces it with a chainsaw, transforming his body into a weapon to fight the dead. When Evil Dead II ends, Ash is sucked into a medieval past, along with his chainsaw/hand, a double barrel shotgun, and an Oldsmobile. Army of Darkness opens with Ash as a slave (though it seems that he had only been a slave for a few hours), having been captured by the forces of "Lord Arthur" and accused of being in league with Duke Henry. Arthur is advised by an unnamed Merlin-esque wise man who saves the chainsaw hand, but is unable to convince Arthur to spare the life of the stranger. Arthur orders him cast into "The Pit," which is a subterranean hole that is infested by Deadites and with nasty spiked walls. Ash is cast into the Pit and has a slapstick battle with the Deadites within. When it becomes clear that Ash is holding his own, the Merlin figure tosses down the chainsaw, with which Ash neatly dispatches the head of a Deadite. He crawls out of the Pit and shatters Arthur's sword with his "boomstick" shotgun. This begins Ash's reluctant quest to save the lands of Arthur and Henry from the Deadites.
OK, so we have someone named "Arthur," and an old man. How does the rest of this fit into the Arthurian tradition, though? Couldn't all this simply be coincidence? And, if it is in some way, Arthuriana, what does it mean? How does any of this help us understand Raimi's film better?
First, we have to understand Twain's Connecticut Yankee and the tradition it spawned. Despite its deep influence, scholars often will cite Connecticut Yankee as an artistic failure. The usual reason is that Connecticut Yankee is not a single, well-wrought book. Instead it appears to be two halves knitted together, which is why I would argue that Connecticut Yankee is the failed combination of two different artistic successes. The first half of Connecticut Yankee is the light-hearted, fun part. Hank, the Yankee of the title, is struck on the head and finds himself transported into the past. Because of his strange clothing and way of speaking, he is assumed to be dangerous and is condemned to death. Fortunately for him, it turns out that this date just happens to be the date of an eclipse that he has somehow remembered, and after he accurately predicts the eclipse, the Arthur frees him out of fear of his power.
The book then progresses merrily along. Hank, with all of his Yankee ideas and technological know-how is able to best those around him. Merlin becomes his enemy as Hank's reputation for magical power grows greater than his. Gunpowder, telegraphs, and bicycles all impress the denizens of Camelot, and Hank makes condescending observations about their culture that are as much Twain's critique of 19th century Europe and Catholicism as anything else. Most of the later tradition of Connecticut Yankee adaptations grow out of this first half of the book, and generally follow a simple formula: Our contemporary is somehow thrust into the Arthurian past. He then uses technological superiority to impress the people of Camelot, and often acts as an agent of reform, bringing the primitive medieval people into our contemporary enlightened state.
At first glance, Army of Darkness appears to be from this tradition; Ash thinks so, anyway. He refers to his shotgun as a "boomstick," and consistently calls the medieval people denigrating names such as "primates," "primitives," and "primitive screwheads." When his love interest, Sheila, is poking around a prosthetic hand he is constructing, Ash says to her, "Don't touch that please, your primitive intellect wouldn't understand things with alloys and compositions and things with . . . molecular structures." No matter how badly Ash errs, he never loses his unshakable faith in his own superiority to those around him, to great comic effect. After Ash makes a particularly self-indulgent speech, Arthur asks him, with disgust, "Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?" Ash's self-confidence is so ridiculously over-pronounced that he is incapable of being insulted, as he demonstrates with his proud reply: "Nope, just me, baby. Just me."
Ash, though, is an anti-hero. Throughout the Evil Dead series he is depicted as a cowardly, self-absorbed character -- and that is what makes him so fun. Ash very rarely acts with anything that could be called bravery, though he is very often motivated by bravado. He does have good characteristics, of course - most notably his perseverance -- but by and large we laugh at Ash far more often than we laugh with him. Usually in Connecticut Yankee adaptations the Hank figure acts as a liaison between our world and the world of the past, and we find ourselves in general accord with the attitudes of that central figure. Not so in Army of Darkness.
This disconnect stems from the second half of Connecticut Yankee. Midway through the narrative Hank travels with King Arthur (in disguise) around the countryside and, after a few chapters mocking Arthur's pretensions as king, the book suddenly grows somber as they happen upon a plague house. From that point forward, though there are comic moments, the book grows much darker and more serious. Hank presses his conflicts with medieval institutions, until finally he presses too hard against the Church. Soon, nearly the whole of England is arrayed against Hank and a few loyal followers, but numbers are unable to overcome Hank's technological superiority. The scale of the conflict, though, is so immense that Hank slips across the line of so many revolutionaries - from reformer to butcher. He finds himself literally surrounded by a mountain of thousands of corpses, all of his making. He unwillingly escapes from this killing field by the hand of Merlin, who sneaks into his camp and casts a spell to make him sleep until his own time.
This dark shift of the Connecticut Yankee narrative calls into question all the fun of the first half. Sure, it's fun to fantasize about being god-like in the past; The problem with this, and a lesson that Hank never really learns, is that people in the past were not immature or children. They were people like us, only in a different set of circumstances. Hank assumes that his technological superiority equals some sort of moral superiority - an assumption that lies buried under the mountain of corpses he leaves behind. Naturally, most latter-day adaptations of Connecticut Yankee never move into this second part of the narrative; it is messy, complicated, and no fun. Most allow the time traveler to reform the society, perhaps learn a few trite lessons about himself, and return to his own time better for the experience.
Army of Darkness is, surprisingly, one of the more complicated adaptations. Ash enters the past with the assumption that he is superior to the primitives around him, but never quite realizes that, for the most part, he is their moral inferior. Essentially, Ash behaves like Hank from the first half of Connecticut Yankee as if he were dropped into the second half of Connecticut Yankee. Indeed, Raimi adds a third part to the story, one that Twain did not include. Where Hank leaves the story just as the consequences of his arrogance begin to destroy the world around him, Ash is able to stick around and fight back.
In his arrogance, Ash refuses to practice the magical words to take the Necronomicon safely, and as a result an army of the undead rises to take back the book and destroy the world of the living. And, just in case we miss the point that all of this is Ash's fault, the army of Deadites is led by ademonic version of Ash himself. In John Milton's Paradise Lost, after the demons are cast out of Heaven they build their own city in mockery of Heaven -- Pandemonium. Everything about Pandemonium is a twisted copy of Heaven, giving rise to the literary term "demonic parody." A "demonic parody" in literature is an evil mockery of its subject; for example, a wicked stepmother in a fairy tale could be described as a demonic parody of motherhood.
In Army of Darkness we have both literal and figurative demonic parodies. The film Army of Darkness is a figurative demonic parody of Connecticut Yankee, and Ash is attacked by a literal demonic parody of himself. In order to defeat the Deadites and save the world, Ash has to defeat the demonic version of himself and for once has to substitute actually bravery for bravado. In defeating the Demon-Ash, he defeats the worst parts of himself. In Connecticut Yankee, Hank is forced back into the future where he does not have to deal with the consequences of his actions (though he is tormented by the loss of his wife and child). Ash rejects that option, and stays behind long enough to save the day by conquering his demons both internally and externally.
OK, so what? Yes, there are parallels between Army of Darkness and Connecticut Yankee, and yes the connections are stronger with the second half of Yankee than with the first, but of what possible use is any of this? Just this: Army of Darkness ironically teaches us a kind of humility toward the past, and indeed toward anyone we would consider primitive.
Most Connecticut Yankee adaptations are deeply progressive, preaching the perfectibility of mankind through technological and social innovation. For this reason, most Connecticut Yankee adaptations have to end before getting into the second half of the novel, otherwise we would see those innovations giving rise to a slaughter that prefigures the First World War. Most of the time, Hank (or the Hank-figure) not only thinks he is better than Arthur's court, he really is better -- smarter, wiser, and more just. Where Hank fails in these versions, he fails because the medieval people are so incredibly backward that they are completely unprepared for his teachings.
Army of Darkness, though, presents a far less progressive image of mankind. Men are suspicious, violent, and self-serving. Ash, as the Hank-figure from our own time, is not actually any smarter, wiser, or more just than those around him -- quite the contrary! He does, however, firmly believe in his superiority to the "primitive screwheads" around him. Where most Connecticut Yankee adaptations pander to audiences by depicting mankind as growing toward perfection (and, as the most recent version of mankind, modern audiences are by definition the most perfect humans yet), Army of Darkness challenges that flattering image, and in challenging that image, also challenges what we see as our place in history.
In doing so, this unassuming film convicts us in our smugness. Every time we use the word "medieval" to describe something as primitive, we act like Ash -- not the heroic Ash, fighting the evil Deadites, but the smarmy, swaggering Ash. When we condescend to those who are technologically inferior to ourselves as mentally and morally inferior, we not only dehumanize them, we become demonic parodies of ourselves. Unfortunately, unlike Ash, we can't have our parodied selves separated out from our bodies and defeated; we must conquer our nastier side while it is still within us. Arthur still teaches us this lesson today, through his messengers like Hank and Ash.
- END -
A professor of medieval literature at Troy University, Dr. Nokes enjoys reading, film, and torturing students. You can follow his blog at http://unlocked-wordhoard.blogspot.com/ for more glimpses into the life of an Indiana-Jones(tm)-esque Academic.