Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Few Comments Inspired by Voltron: Legendary Defender

𝔗here are a few points at which events in Voltron: Legendary Defender seem to be iterations of deus ex machina, a sudden and un-looked-for occurrence of salvation without any real preamble. The humanoid form of the Atlas that emerges in "Lion's Pride, Part 2" is but one example; the far earlier revelation of Allura's special princess powers is another. Others pervade the series, and there is some justification for reading each as a kind of narrative dodge; the device is often used as a means to extricate writers from plot holes of their own making, and it is justly decried in such circumstances. Too, since it occurs in what is, ultimately, a children's program (though one with significant nostalgia value for older viewers), Voltron: Legendary Defender does suffer from some perception that narrative cohesion does not matter for it; kids don't care about that kind of thing, or so perception commonly (and not entirely accurately) holds.
While there may be some truth to such readings, if Voltron: Legendary Defender is viewed as a piece of medievalist fiction, there is some justification for the prevalent deus ex machina in the series. Frankly, medieval chivalric literature makes much use of such devices; for the series to do so, then, becomes an iteration of the medieval within it. And while that may still make for some occasional annoyance for a twenty-first century audience, it does help to keep the series consonant with its medieval predecessors.
For one example, consider Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Considered by no few scholars to be the finest piece of Arthurian romance,1 its narrative action hinges on the occurrence of unexpected events. Early on, the text notes explicitly that the milieu in which it exists relies upon them, noting famously that Arthur would not eat at feast until some wonder happened.2 That is, feasts do not even begin--because eating before the king is a grievous breach of protocol and an insult like to be avenged with violence--until some (somewhat) unlooked-for occurrence comes about. The narrative milieu in which SGGK exists relies on the deus ex machina, which the narrative provides repeatedly, both in the entrance of the eponymous Green Knight and in many of the actions that follow.
The same is true for the more notable Arthurian work, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, certainly. One of the better-known passages in the work offers an easy example. In Chalmers's influential 1816 edition of Malory,3 for instance, the sword in the stone that is used to assess the worthiness of a claim to England's kingship is a revelation ascribed to a merciful miracle from Jesus (even as it is more likely the machination of Merlin).4 Given the context, in which magic is real and Merlin is a known magician, it may not ring as being as much deus ex machina as might otherwise be the case, but it still smacks of being awfully convenient that such a thing just happens to be present at the exact moment it is needed--much like the emergence of Allura's powers or the Atlas in Legendary Defender.
And, to be fair, there is some similar antecedent or potential antecedent in the series for the sudden emergence of powers. Allura is the daughter of a long-dead alchemist king, one preserved for millennia by strange technologies that ring of the mystical; she inherits and more or less marinates in magic, so it is not a surprise that it would manifest in her in seemingly strange ways at times. Shiro, whose efforts awaken the Atlas, has been dead; it is to be expected that crossing back and forth between life and death would make for some strange abilities, especially since others known to have done so in the series--Zarkon and Haggar/Honerva--also exhibit such. The things in the series that suddenly emerge and evidently jar may not be quite so ex nihilo as they might otherwise seem.
Perhaps, then, there is not so much to decry in the series as might be thought. Even if the strangeness that emerges is strange, it is at least strange in a way that aligns with the medieval and medievalist works to which the series connects. And if the oddities are not so odd, they still connect to the series' forebears, and that is something worth consideration.

-Geoffrey B. Elliott

1. Thomas J. Garbáty, Medieval English Literature (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1997), 254-55; Jennifer R. Goodman, The Legend of Arthur in British and American Literature (Boston: Twayne, 1988), 44-45; James J. Wilhelm, The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation (New York: Garland, 1994), 399; James Winny, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. and trans. Winny (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2005), vii, x.

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. and trans. Winny (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2005), ll. 85-106.

3. Barry Gaines, Sir Thomas Malory: An Anecdotal Bibliography of Editions, 1485-1985 (New York: AMS Press, 1990), 13-14.

4. Thomas Malory, The History of the Renowned Prince Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Chalmers (London: J. Walker, 1816), 7.

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