Once & Future: How the Fantasy Comic Successfully Adapts Arthurian Legend

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Once & Future, Vol. 1, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain and Ed Dukeshire, available now from BOOM! Studios.

Once & Future, Vol. 1 explores British nationalism through the lens of Arthurian legend. The first arc — which originally comprised the full mini-series, before it was extended — contains six issues that follow academic and rugby player Duncan, whose bad first date with Rose gets worse when his grandmother wanders away from her nursing home. He hears from her quickly, but there’s a catch.

Through the course of a single night, Duncan discovers that most of his life has been a lie. He’s not just an academic and a rugby player; he’s a stand-in for Sir Percival, one of the original Knights of the Round Table.

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In this world, King Arthur is brought back through the scabbard that once held Excalibur. Though the sword is famous enough to have a name, the scabbard isn’t. However, it possesses incredibly healing magic, which makes it worthy of a quest all its own. Duncan’s mother Elaine — once known as Mary and presumed dead until now — raises her second son as Sir Galahad and returns Arthur from the dead so as to send Galahad after the Holy Grail, purging the world of Anglo-Saxons and anyone who isn’t fully of British descent.

The first arc of Once & Future puts a fantastical spin on the dangers of nationalism and xenophobia — but it also plays fast and loose with Arthurian legend, which ironically makes it a more successful adaptation than most. The fact is, there’s no true Arthurian “canon.” Various writers have added to the mythology over time and certain facets often remain from adaptation to adaptation — such as the inevitable resurrection of King Arthur and Merlin, the affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and the hunt for the Holy Grail. However, any attempt to “accurately” follow the story is ultimately moot, because there are so many versions.

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In this way, Once & Future is quite meta. Duncan’s grandmother, Bridgette, reminds him again and again that although he may know one version of the King Arthur legend, he doesn’t know them all. This is partially due to Arthur being resurrected more than once, but it’s also partially due to writers and historians placing him at different points throughout history. Even Duncan’s obsession with Excalibur as King Arthur’s sword is rooted in pure myth — the sword belongs to one of the ladies of the lake and she allows the king to borrow it, on the stipulation that he return it when he no longer needs it.

Kieron Gillen therefore writes the story to be ever-changing as it unfolds. As the characters learn more — particularly the undead King Arthur himself — the world around them shifts to accommodate the changes, which both increases the stakes and drives home the idea that stories like these are nebulous. As Bridgette notes, the more knowledge anyone has of the Otherworld, the more danger they’re likely to face.

In the end, when Elaine becomes Nimue, the story changes again. Although certain characters appear to be fixed points, the overall trajectory of the mythos cannot be pinned down, which makes Once & Future one of the most genuine Arthurian adaptations to date.

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Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora's Once & Future is clear about one thing: Arthurian legend isn't a fixed story. That makes the comic a great adaptation.

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