Black in Camelot: Race & Ethnicity in Arthurian Legend

Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript
Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript
Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript.

Black in Camelot (Africans in Arthurian Legend)

Kris Swank (Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona)

Paper given at Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First Century Fantasy Literature Panel II. 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)

Introduction: When the television program Merlin debuted on BBC One in September 2008, viewers quicklynoted that a number of key roles were played by actors of African, Middle Eastern and LatinAmerican heritage, including the key roles of Guinevere and Lancelot. The reaction to thismulti-ethnic casting was mixed.


The following two quotes are typical of the objections and praises. An Internet blogger called “Eurasian Sensation” wrote:

“It seems like a blatantly PC move which flouts any notion of historical accuracy. Well, maybe not historical accuracy per se, since Merlin is pure fantasy, but you know what I mean. You wouldn’t throw random European actors into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to play Chinese noblemen, so why do the equivalent here? Since it is apparently set in Britain circa the 5th Century AD, surely they should try and capture the feel of the era. Back then, ethnic diversity meant the Angles and the Saxons ” (Eurasian Sensation).

On the other hand, New York Times’ journalist Alessandra Stanley commented that Arthurian legend

“is eternally reworked to suit the sensibilities of the age” and that the BBC’s Merlin “is tailored to the age of Obama…[where] Merry Olde England looks a little like a White House cabinet meeting: there is a lot more diversity to the realm than just Britons and Saxons” (C1).


However, both detractors and supporters, alike, largely failed to recognize that an all-white Camelot is, itself, a fiction of the modern age. The presence of Africans in early Britain and continental Europe is attested in both archeological and historical records. While “Moors” and “Saracens” are also featured in several medieval Arthurian romances.

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