“The Old Bonds Between Man and Nature Have Been Broken”:

Environmentalism, Mysticism, and Folk Horror in The Knights of Pendragon, Part 1

Although the title of the Marvel UK comic book series The Knights of Pendragon (1990-1993; Pendragon hereafter) refers to a group of superheroes, the main protagonist of its first six issues (July-Dec, 1990) is very much the middle-aged, burnt-out, semi-retired Welsh policeman Dai Thomas. These issues see Thomas eventually become one of the Knights after he undertakes an investigation into a series of grisly murders as an operative of the British military/government agency W.H.O. (Weird Happenings Organisation) which gradually transforms into a ‘quest’ – as Thomas himself refers to it – at the behest of the mystical entity from Arthurian legend, the Green Knight, presented in the series as a kind of elemental being, personifying Nature. As the series progresses, it is revealed that the Green Knight – motivated by anger over destruction to the environment – is not only behind the murders W.H.O. are investigating, he is also responsible for Thomas’s involvement in the investigation; the detective being the modern iteration of the Arthurian Knight, Sir Gawain, whose encounters with the Green Knight are recounted in the anonymously authored medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – described by the poet Simon Armitage, who authored a modern translation of it (2009) as ‘the world’s first eco-friendly poem’ (Tim Dunn, dir., Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, UK: BBC, 2009) – the narrative of which is weaved into Pendragon’s first six issues.

This focus on Thomas, and use of the poem, allows Pendragon’s writers Dan Abnett and John Tomlinson to not only fuse the series’s prominent theme of environmentalism (prominent to the extent that the comic was printed on Scangloss, ‘an environmentally safe paper which uses half as many trees as normal paper and a minimum of chlorine bleach’ as the reader was informed in a note beneath the creator credits of every issue of the series’s first volume, 1990-1991) with one of mysticism. In doing so, it departs from the traditional generic conventions of superhero comics, and it also introduces elements of folk horror to the narrative, including – as I discuss in more detail below – an act of ritual sacrifice in a rural setting. This recalls – but has significant differences from – a similar execution in a key Folk horror text, and one of Adam Scovell’s (Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Leighton Buzzard, UK: Auteur, 2017, p.8) ‘Unholy Trinity’ of films in the genre: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).

Already an existing character in comics published by Marvel UK’s American parent company Marvel Comics, Thomas had been nicknamed the ‘hero hater’ after his wife, Valerie, was accidentally killed during a superhero battle (as established in Captain Britain 3 [Oct, 1976], written by Chris Claremont, and as recounted in Pendragon #5 [Nov, 1990]). By the time of Pendragon #1 (July, 1990) he is living alone in an isolated, unkempt cottage in Gower, South Wales, still grieving Valerie’s loss. However, his first appearance in the issue is as one of many diners choking to death in a London branch of the fast food chain Tastee Burger as shown in the opening two pages (numbered as pp.3-4) of the first issue. The panels on these pages are overlaid with narrative captions which indicate that what the reader sees is in fact a nightmare someone is having. The final three panels on the second page show Thomas as one of the choking diners; the last panel, a close up on Thomas’s face with the caption ‘Wake me up’, indicates that it is his nightmare we are seeing. This panel is repeated as the first panel on the next page, with a caption indicating the location as Gower and giving the time as 12.10am. Panel 2 shows Thomas on a living room armchair, surrounded by overflowing ashtrays, an empty liquor bottle, and take-away food cartons. He has been awoken by a TV news report of the incident at the Tastee Burger branch, revealing Thomas’s nightmare to have been a vision. This is the first association in the series of Thomas with mystical powers, an unexpected development for readers already familiar with the down-to-earth, rather cynical detective. Even if the reader is unaware of Thomas’s past, however, it is nevertheless clear that Thomas is not used to experiencing visions. Thomas’s vision of the Tastee Burger massacre is also the first association in the series of mysticism with environmentalism, the writers’ feelings about the ecological impact of Tastee’s actual world equivalents having been made clear in their quotation on the opening page – a large, lurid, single panel depiction of a choking man crashing out of the window of the restaurant with other panicking diners in the background  – of a line from prominent (at the time) British ‘alternative’ comedian Ben Elton: ‘One day, the whole world is going to choke to death on a hamburger’.

Unsettled by his dream/vision, Thomas attempts to calm himself by attempting to read his copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the text’s first appearance in Pendragon. Narrative captions, representing Thomas’s interior monologue, inform us that he and Valerie used to read the poem to their young daughter Ruth, establishing its significance in his life. Disturbed by this memory, Thomas puts the book aside, next to a framed photograph of himself with Valerie and Ruth. A caption shows Thomas questioning his decision to come to the Gower cottage, which he describes as a ‘haunted house’; while this description refers to his memories of his family, it will take on another significance as the series develops and the extent of the Green Knight’s involvement/interference in Thomas’s life is revealed. These revelations are foreshadowed when, in the subsequent panel, a disconsolate Thomas holds one of Ruth’s old toys; a grinning, top-hatted scarecrow doll, a miniature version of the life-sized mannequin, animated by the Green Knight, the reader will encounter later in the issue. Captions in this panel suggest to the reader that Thomas is estranged from Ruth, further emphasizing his isolation; however, a sound-effect of a door-knock indicates this isolation is about to come to an end. The next panel shows a nervous Thomas answer the door, hoping his caller is Rut. The next panel, however, reveals his visitor to be the superhero, Captain Britain, there at the behest of W.H.O. to reactivate Thomas in the wake of the Tastee Burger incident. The final panel on the page is a depiction of the exterior of Thomas’s cottage, again emphasizing his isolation. Captain Britain informs Thomas that W.H.O. is in ‘need’ of him, a reference to the character’s past association with anomalous events as established in Thomas’s publication history. Thomas replies ‘I know’, indicating his embryonic awareness of his specific connection to the Tastee incident. Although neither Thomas nor Captain Britain are aware – as they are both still inside – the reader sees that a phantasmal, hooded figure is observing the cottage from behind a tree; this figure is later revealed to have been the Green Knight in a similar panel which closes Pendragon #6 – and ends Thomas’s quest – and to which I will return below.

Thomas then attends a W.H.O. briefing in the Tower of London in which he learns that the Tastee incident is the third in a series of events all linked to the multinational Omni-Corporation, the business practices of which are ecologically irresponsible. The briefing is conducted by Brigadier Alysande Stuart, a character modelled after Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart from the British science fiction TV series Doctor Who (1963-1989), just as W.H.O. is an analogue of UNIT – United Nations Intelligence Taskforce – which Lethbridge-Stewart commands in the series. (The agency’s acronym can also be read as a reference to the TV series.) Lethbridge-Stewart, and/or other UNIT personnel, feature in several of the episodes of Doctor Who that Adam Scovell identifies as containing Folk horror elements (The Daemons [1971]; Terror of the Zygons [1975]; and The Android Invasion [1975]), and their presence in Pendragon can be read – from a post-Scovellian perspective – as a sign that Thomas’s investigation will take him into similar generic terrain. This terrain is also physical, as the next murder by the Green Knight – following his killing of whale poachers and the CEO of a company producing irradiated fruit – is of a Kentish farmer whose excessive use of astringent pesticides and artificial fertilizers has resulted in ‘four years of bumper crops’; the farmer’s approach towards crop cultivation is expressed in his surname, Hardacre. (Thomas’s investigation of Omni-Corporation also brings to mind another narrative of a grieving British detective which fuses environmentalism with mysticism, that of Ronald Craven in the BBC mini-series Edge of Darkness [1985] whose investigation into the murder of his environmental activist daughter Emma becomes a quest into the dark heart of the military-industrial complex and the occult groups behind it. Like Pendragon, Edge of Darkness is strongly influenced by James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – that the earth is a single, living organism – as is evident in the name of Emma’s activist group, GAIA. Tomlinson acknowledges Lovelock’s influence on Pendragon in his introductory essay to the 2010 collected edition of the series’s first nine issues, Once and Future.)

The reader is introduced to Hardacre before Thomas or his associates in W.H.O. in Pendragon #1, when the narrative shifts to Kent (following a cut to Buckinghamshire which establishes the sinister nature of Omni-Corporation, when two of its employees, Grace and Dolph, are seen to threaten and manipulate the British cabinet minister in charge of W.H.O.) on a page which opens with a panel similar in composition to that which closes page 6. Again, we see an isolated property – this time, Hardacre’s farm in Sevenoaks, Kent – which is being ‘observed’ by the top-hatted scarecrow foreshadowed by Ruth’s doll on panel 3 of page 6. That the scarecrow is next to a tree and is watching the farm from the same perspective as the phantasmal figure observes the Gower cottage in page 6’s closing panel creates a visual connection between the scarecrow and this figure, later revealed to be the Green Knight. Furthermore, that the scarecrow is a life-sized version of Ruth’s doll, and that it will be animated by the Green Knight to kill Hardacre, raises the disturbing possibility that the Green Knight has long had an influence over Thomas’s life. Perhaps even to the extent of being responsible for Valerie’s death in order to place Thomas in the correct emotional/psychological state where he can become the Green Knight’s instrument as the modern-day iteration of Gawain; a role the Green Knight may have been preparing Thomas for since, at least, Ruth’s childhood when he and Valerie read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to her. It may be, then, that Valerie has been sacrificed by the Green Knight – and, metaphorically, Ruth too if she is indeed estranged from her father – foreshadowing the ritual sacrifice of Thomas-as-Gawain by the Green Knight which occurs in issue 6, and which I will discuss further below in comparison to the execution of Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man.

The scene on Hardacre’s farm (which takes up the entirety of the eighth page) also introduces his farmhand, Melvin, who serves as a mouthpiece for Abnett and Tomlinson’s environmental concerns. These concerns are angrily rebuffed by Hardacre, establishing his character and designating his suitability as a target for the Green Knight’s murderous anger. Melvin’s environmentalism – and, therefore, that of Abnett and Tomlinson – is established further, after Hardacre’s death, when he is aggressively questioned by police officers who already think Melvin is responsible due to his possession of ecologically conscious literature. Hardacre’s death takes place off-page, and his body is missing at the scene of the crime, baffling police and the members of W.H.O. (including Thomas) who arrive to investigate. The body has, in fact, been pulverized by the Green Knight – using the form of the animated scarecrow – and placed in the punnets normally used for Hardacre’s ‘bumper’ strawberry crops, achieved by his reckless use of the chemicals that appall Melvin. (This method of murder – like the death of the whale poachers by harpoon and of the fruit company CEO by irradiation and vacuum-packing – is an act of ‘poetic justice’ by the Green Knight, as will be the subsequent murders by him as the series develops; all are individuals associated, like Hardacre, with Omni-Corporation). Hardacre’s remains are found in the farm’s barn, a discovery anticipated in Thomas’s second vision, which he experiences en route to Kent and after visiting the scene of the Tastee Burger massacre. At the restaurant, Thomas recalls his first vision and the sense of the presence of ‘something ancient and forgotten, something in great pain’, which is, of course, the Green Knight, or rather that which the Green Knight personifies, Nature itself. In this sense, the Green Knight can be considered to be Abnett and Tomlinson’s poeticisation of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which, although scientific, veers towards the mystical. The second vision, in which he has become Gawain, involves direct contact with this ancient entity which he encounters, in a barn, in the form of the scarecrow. Thomas relives this experience at the Hardacre farm when the scarecrow attacks him with a pitchfork, which transforms into a scythe, causing Thomas to identify the Green Knight in this form as ‘Death…the Reaper’, an early indication in the series that the entity may have been driven insane by the abuse of natural resources under capitalism, which is made explicit in Pendragon #6. The issue closes with a panel in which the scarecrow is back on its mount, still ‘observing’ the Hardacre farm, but now covered in the farmer’s blood and apparently smiling in triumph, either at the farmer’s death, the beginning of Thomas’s quest, or both; another indication of the Green Knight’s madness.


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Dr David Sweeney is a lecturer in The Glasgow School of Art's Design History and Theory department, where he specializes in popular culture. He is the author of the books Scanned Clean: (Re)Reading Michael Marshall Smith in the Digital Age (Subterranean Press, 2022); The OA (Auteur/LUP, 2022), a critical study of the Netflix series of the same name; and the forthcoming The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Genre, Gender, Glamour (LUP, 2024), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. Contact him here: d.sweeney@gsa.ac.uk

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