‘Galavant’: Finding Meaning in a Merry, Mocking Medieval Musical
Anyone who thinks that fairy tales always end happily hasn’t read enough fairy tales. Still, when Galavant premiered on ABC last year, it was promoted as a fairy-tale musical that would break all supposed rules of happily-ever-after: The heroic knight had failed his quest, his true love had betrayed him for power and wealth, and the villainous king who had ruined his life wasn’t even a respectably formidable enemy; he was just a selfish, immature prig. The adventures of our eponymous hero were going to be fun to watch precisely because the story would be a cynical, knowing take on the Disney classics we’d all grown up watching.
It was an unlikely endeavor—after all, who puts a medieval musical on TV in half-hour increments? Galavant winked at its own implausibility with fourth-wall-breaking lyrics (“you’ll know hell’s freezing if we get decent ratings”) and the oddity of its very existence.
This was the story we were promised, and we were promised it would be told with excellent music (Alan Menken of Little Mermaid fame was on board), beautiful production values, and stunningly attractive actors.
While Galavant did deliver on its promise of good music, good cinematography, and good-looking people, it was clear by the end of its first season that it had something even more subversive in mind than simply sending up old tropes: It was going to make fun of those tropes, stomp around on them, and then—with a goodhearted joy—it was going to reinvent and fulfill them.ABC’s ‘Galavant’ breaks all the fairy tale rules and delivers a hefty dose of humor, humility, and reality in the process.
In the end, it was this full-throated delight in the loves, the friendships, and the personal growth of its characters that turned out to be the most subversive thing about a show that had already sold itself on its ability to stand out from the pack. Though it means skipping around a bit chronologically, we’ll start by looking at personal growth, and then move on through friendship and love.
Telos is the ancient idea that objects have an “end,” that you can study a thing in terms of what its purpose is. It takes the idea of “potential”—what something has the possibility of becoming—and adds a “should” to it: What should this thing be? What purpose should it serve?
It’s also an idea Christianity has historically adopted in statements like The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question: “What is the chief end of man?”
Man has a proper end, and he can reach that end when his potential has been properly fulfilled. All human beings do change over time, and if the way we change is growth and not degeneration, then we will be fulfilled. That is, if we grow in accordance with our telos, we really can glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
But potential by itself isn’t really a good thing. It’s a good place to start, but it’s a terrible place to stay. Think about it: God Himself, the good of which no greater good can be imagined, has no potential. He simply is.
Change is good when it is growth toward a proper end. In Galavant, this truth is seen nowhere more clearly than in season one’s ostensible villain, King Richard, played by the excellent Timothy Omundson.
In the first season, King Richard was the narcissistic, whiny man who stole our hero Galavant’s “true” love, Madalena. In the first of the show’s big twists, Madalena refused to let Galavant rescue her: She’d take the offered post as queen instead, please and thank you.
But after refusing Galavant, she also refused Richard: She insisted that he do everything she commanded and that included staying out of her bed. And King Richard, who we learn was a second son who never was meant to become king at all, falls meekly in line with Madalena’s every request. Madalena proceeds to launch a successful coup and by the end of the first season, Richard has lost his wife, his home, and his crown, and is left adrift. (Quite literally: He’s on a boat, headed into exile.)
Yet the song Richard sings as the season closes provides a hint that the writers have much more planned for him than being the perpetual butt of everyone’s jokes. His last ballad, “Goodnight My Friend,” is a sweet lullaby that holds not a hint of cynicism. As he sings, “Good night/Sleep tight/We’re gonna be alright,” the scene shifts from character to character, showing them all disturbed by and attentive to the lovely, comforting tune mysteriously floating through the air.
When season two arrives (“A new season/That you’ll probably record”), Richard has joined his erstwhile enemy, Galavant, and the two of them are planning to work together to regain Richard’s kingdom and save Galavant’s (new, true) love, Princess Isabella.
Richard’s new friendship with Galavant becomes even more important when they arrive at his old kingdom to find that his castle has been torn down by his old subjects, who are now experimenting with democracy (“Everybody gets to choose/Except the you-know-whos”). Now Richard has nothing left except the charity of a knight who has good reason to hate him. His wife betrayed him, his old cronies abandoned him, and his people refused him.
During Richard’s dark night of the soul (as dark as a night can get, anyway, when you’re a clean, well-groomed, handsome fellow wandering around a medieval village that’s as pretty and sunny as a utopian fever-dream), he sings several songs of self-examination. In one, he ponders alternatives to his now-defunct career as a king:
If I were a jolly blacksmith
What a happy guy I’d be
I would do all kinds of blacksmith stuff in my blacksmithery
I would hit the thing with the other thing
Till I made a different thing.
If I were a jolly blacksmith…no, that doesn’t feel right…
He continues along these lines, trying on and discarding a whole host of jobs (“If I were a jolly tailor…juggler…barber…wet nurse…cesspool-worker…”), until finally he concludes:
Oh dear, what difference would it make?
I would still be me.
There’s the rub, and it’s the rub for all of us: Whatever we do, whatever new guise we try on, we can never escape from our own depressingly disappointing selves (so full of potential).
His second song of self-examination is literally a duet between his adult self and his younger self wherein they lament together, “Is it hopeless?/Am I useless?/Are we doomed to be completely lame?”
In other words, Richard faces his failure to achieve even his good and true desires (friendship, love, exercising just rule) and acknowledges that he couldn’t achieve his dreams even when everything was handed to him on a platter.
After he sees himself as he truly is, Richard doesn’t change immediately or quickly. But he does change, and it’s good change. He leaves the ruins of his own quest to regain his crown in favor of accompanying Galavant. On the way, Richard acquires two things: a sword (that, even with his uncanny ability to pull it from a stone, he doesn’t realize marks him as the “one king to unite them all”) and a lizard (that he’s convinced is a baby dragon). While both of these new acquisitions highlight the fact that Richard is—and maybe always will be—a bit clueless, they also highlight Richard’s new, infant virtues. He uses his sword in support of his new friend’s quest. The lizard is a living creature that he’s willing and eager to protect and provide for.
In both of these acquisitions, Richard begins to step outside the small world of his own concerns and into a new life of caring for others. In the end, these steps lead him back to where he started: By the end of the season, he’s once more a king. Only now, instead of being a king who casually kills and kidnaps when it sounds amusing, Richard is a king who wants to serve his people and to be known for his “fair-minded ways.”
At the start of the story, Richard wasn’t able to exercise his power well—he wasn’t even able to want to do so. But by being humbled and then restored, Richard is now able to exercise power well, and in fulfilling his role properly, he finds fulfillment for himself, becoming a better and truer man that he was before.
He had to leave his life in order to find it again. But find it again, he does.
If Galavant’s friendship is the catalyst for Richard’s personal growth and fulfillment, then it’s the friendship, and eventually the love, of Princess Isabella that catalyzes the journey of growth that Galavant himself embarks upon.
In the first season, Princess Isabella sets out in search of Galavant, the legendary hero, in order to ask him to save her parents. But what she finds isn’t a legendary hero: It’s a smelly drunk.
Depressed over Madalena’s betrayal, Galavant has given up his heroics, his temperance, and his habit of bathing; he now spends his days getting sloshed in the local pub, and his nights sleeping it off. It is Isabella’s hard-edged insistence that he’s needed that prompts him to pick up his sword again.
Isabella and Galavant don’t immediately like each other, much less love one another (“each day together’s/a chore together/a belching, nagging bore together”), but they respect each other. Their friendship grows as they face danger and learn to count on each other, and then attraction grows up alongside that working partnership. By the end of the first season, after a decent dollop of shared shenanigans and revealed secrets, they have fallen in love.
It’s a new love, though, a beginning love. In contrast to the picture-perfect facsimile of love that Galavant once shared with Madalena, Galavant and Isabella’s love is awkward and unpolished as a newborn foal. Their duet recalling their first true romantic moment starts out staunchly declaring, “It was the world’s best kiss,” then stumbles as they both admit that it was awkward and weird, and then completely falters as Isabella wails, “It was an awful kiss!”
But it’s a kiss neither of them can forget, and as they both battle back toward one another, their eagerness to try again and learn to do better is endearing. This is romance: recognizing a relationship’s failings, but also recognizing that there is enough good in it to keep trying. Galavant and Isabella find fulfillment in their relationship not because it is perfect, but because it is growing toward a good end. Their relationship isn’t a garden without weeds, but it is a garden that is being weeded, being tended, being watered. In the end, that makes it a garden that is fulfilling its purpose. It is a garden that will be fruitful.
If romantic relationships have a telos, what is it?
The traditional answer is marriage, and it’s still a good one. Here we come back to the idea of happy endings. They say you can tell a Shakespearian tragedy because it looks like a comedy when it starts, and you can tell the comedies because they’re the exact opposite: They begin looking like a tragedy, but they end with a wedding. (Maybe even with a wedding and dancing.)
Ending a story at the wedding is a thoroughly Christian idea: After all, we believe the entire story of the cosmos will end with a wedding. It will end, in fact, with the wedding supper of the Lamb, and that end itself will only be the beginning of an endless cascade of goodness and joy.
That the ending is only a beginning, even in frail and faulty human marriages, is encapsulated in the very words of our traditional wedding ceremonies, which speak about the forthcoming love and comfort of the bride and groom, and, of course, of the promise of children.
Courtship is all well and good, but courtship is not meant to last forever. Galavant and Isabella fight to reunite, and then to defeat their enemies, but they don’t do it because they want to continue being fighting, road-roaming heroes forever: They are fighting for something, and they want to be allowed to eventually enjoy it:
I’m finished with adventure
Tired of my sword
Those songs about my exploits
Leave me kinda bored
At last, I’ve seen the sunset
I’ve been riding toward.
People say it’s all about the journey, but that’s a lie. The journey is nothing without the destination, and the romance nothing without the consummation. When they finally triumph, Gal and Izzy sing delightedly about their “real live happily ever after,” which will include tending gardens, writing poetry, and raising children:
As epic endings go, it’s rather small,
But it’s a real life, happily ever after
Yes, the heroes in Galavant make fun of their friends’ weaknesses, but they never abandon those friends or despise them. There’s a kindheartedness there that saves them from cynicism. And the show itself does take joy in mocking its characters’ grand ambitions…but it takes even more joy in fulfilling them. (In one of the best jokes of the show, it turns out that King Richard’s lizard really was a dragon.)
This is not a story of Christian redemption and maturation, no “trees planted by streams of water and yielding their fruit in due season” here. The Disneyesque songs don’t make it a show for children, and the not infrequent celebration of fornication (of various and sundry sorts) mean that parts of it aren’t edifying for anyone.
There’s a good form of humility in Galavant, and it’s a humility that’s often missing from the rosier version of fairy tales that we offer to children in cartoons like the Disney classics. The humility of Galavant and Isabella in recognizing that they have a lot of work to do in order to learn to love each other well—that’s a humility any aware adult can identify with. It makes their happy ending feel believable, because it feels earned. Though it can feel cliché to end with a wedding, when we know how hard the bride and groom have worked for their happiness, ending with a wedding doesn’t feel cliché, it feels satisfying.
It feels fulfilling.
But the humility of Galavant’s characters is an incomplete humility, because it acknowledges humanity’s faults without moving on to admiring God’s perfections. True fulfillment comes from a proper understanding of yourself and of God, and it’s only the first we find in Galavant (and in most modern entertainment). The smaller vistas Galavant offers are like the miniatures artists used to paint: little pictures that show us a bit of what someone looks like, but that fail to give us the vast context of the sky overhead and the earth stretching back to the horizon.
Yet, in a world of television where “prestige” might as well be a synonym for “bleak,” there is something deliciously rebellious about a show that revels in the fulfillment of the joys of friendship, the wide-open vistas of personal growth, and the type of romance that leads to domesticity, marriage, and children.
Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.
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A well-written take on a sometimes awkward, sometimes uncomfortable, ultimately delightful show.
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