By James Turner
Is everyone excited about the new trailer for The Green Knight, a dark fairy tale dripping with mysticism and willfully obscure symbolism? Well, this entry is going to be almost the exact opposite of that.
I have doggedly maintained throughout this series that the true wonder and historical significance of the Arthurian legends is their sheer adaptability and persistence. As we have explored, everyone from Edward I to Queen Victoria, from the serried ranks of the Hundred Year War’s knightly elite to the creators of Gone With the Wind have looked back at the Arthurian legends and seen something of themselves within them. Some reflected glint of shared heritage, virtue, or ideals, it has been my contention that a major part of this phenomenon is the result of projection. The content and presentation of the legendary king’s stories have been continually reworked to better conform to the political horizons and cultural foibles of their changing audience. So many different authors and artists have found so many laudable and aspirational qualities within the person of Arthur, simply because they were qualities that they were already culturally predisposed towards appreciating. Essentially writers already literate in and sensitive to the presence of certain contemporarily resonant themes and cultural artifacts have accentuated or transfused them into subsequent depictions of the Arthurian legends.
In a way, such reinvigorating, occasionally dubious, cultural infusions into the Arthurian traditions have been aided by Arthur’s essential ambiguity and vacuity as a character. As we have touched upon previously, in many of the stories of chivalric exploits that proliferated through medieval aristocratic culture from the mid-twelfth century onwards, the king serves not as a protagonist but as a narrative framing device or Deus ex machina. The chivalric arms race, launched by medieval authors to create ever more thrilling and worthy heroes, essentially consigns Arthur to the margins of his own kingdom. While this unhappy state of affairs was corrected somewhat by Thomas Mallory and his imitators, the charting of the rise and fall of Camelot conflates man with kingdom.
The end result of which is a totemic king, synonymous with and symbolic of an all too brief golden age brought down by the iniquities of human weakness. One cannot look directly at Arthur, so intense is his aura of majesty and glory, and that is just as well for beneath the radiance lies a hollow sitting atop an empty throne. Of course, some works of romance literature or other forms of Arthurian-inspired art and entertainment have created highly detailed and nuanced iterations of the legendary king. But such works, many of them relatively modern, invariable reflect the tastes and preconceptions of their authors’ environment.
The Arthurs of the 20th century reflected a belief that the course of history could be shaped by the actions of great men or the development of a contrasting fascination with the potentially corrosive effects of power. Arthur, I have in essence argued, is a literary cipher, a figment whose historical significance is derived purely from the broad appeal and malleability of his legend.
It could be argued with some justification that this is an overly cynical and reductionist view. Indeed, the exact extent to which the consumption of Arthurian legends and imagery either reflects or informs a culture’s celebration of chivalric ethos and imagery is always going to be difficult to determine since their proliferation and consumption is so often accompanied by self-reinforcing exaggeration.
Some have emphasized continuity in the imagery and themes of Arthurian literature to a much greater extent whereas I have occasionally characterized them as an armoury to be ransacked for political capital by later generations. Others, pointing to the work of Joseph Campbell, attribute the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his legends, to the extent it conforms with a pattern, to story telling common either to the myths of Indo-European cultures or the human condition itself.
Without digressing too far, I am extremely skeptical of the validity of this construct but also ludicrously unequal to the task of vivisecting it here. Then most intriguingly, there are the few diehards who have continued to argue for Arthur’s historicity. The argument runs that while the fantastical and anachronism-fueled works of 12th-century romance literature came to dominate portrayals of Arthur, these fictions and legends were built atop a foundation of legitimate historical evidence and records that attest to Arthur’s existence.
Within the multitude of works of literature and fiction we have covered within this series, Arthur’s Camelot is an ever-shifting dreamlike realm of high romance, a world in which the commitment and ostentatious excesses of chivalric literature was not only attainable but lauded. The historicity of Arthur was throughout much of the medieval and early modern period considered both obvious and unassailable. Arthur’s status as a real historical figure was vouched for not only by the ubiquity of his legends and artefacts but by the testimony of many of the most important and ancient chroniclers of the history of the British Isles.
These assumptions were first challenged by the extensive work of historians and antiquarians during the Enlightenment who began to notice profound inconsistencies between the versions of histories laid out by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s sources and the one they had been arduously piecing together. While these assertions provoked public outcry and a spate of anti-intellectual sentiment within England, once begun this process of revaluation was inevitable as more detailed evidence of the history of British Isles so-called ‘dark age’ was uncovered.
As 20th century Britain emerged bleary-eyed and disorientated from the throes of the Romanticism movement, almost inevitably people came to see the fairytale-tinged vision of pomp and splendor they had constructed around the Arthurian legends as wholly incompatible with their still evolving conceptions of the past and its aesthetics. An attempted solution to this dissonance, within media and popular culture, has been to lend the Arthurian legends greater credence and authenticity by locating them in a nominally more accurate historical context.
As we will see, the main storytelling impulse behind this trend seems to have been the assumption that divorcing Arthurian literature from its stranger idiosyncrasies would revitalize the material by making it more accessible and unique. The grit and grudge of a world in large part defined by collapse and invasion contrasts nicely with the flowery high-flown questing that formed the plot hooks of earlier works of Arthurian literature. Arthur’s pseudo-historical setting also frames and bring to mind some of the most important issues surrounding the study of Sub-Roman Britain, such as the formation and location of hegemonies, continuity of Roman governmental and social structures, the resilience and survival of Celtic customs and associations as well as the character of early Saxon settlement.
Arthur in historical fiction
While an exhaustive list of works of 20th and 21st century literature that attempt to ground the Arthurian tales in a more historically appropriate and representative setting is far beyond the scope of this article, we’ll briefly touch upon some of the highlights. An early stand-out in this emerging movement was John Cowper Powys’ Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages. The titular character, who surprisingly partakes in some romance during the dark ages, is the heir to the throne of a humble kingdom in North Wales that is but a small part of the larger empire ruled by a heavily romanized Arthur. The skillfully sketched internal politics of the Porius family reflect and emphasise the wider confluence and hybridization of different cultures and religious practices. Porius, who like many of Britain’s elite within the book is of mixed Roman and Celtic ancestry, becomes associated through Merlin with the pagan god Saturn but is also depicted as having been educated by the real life Christian theologian and condemned heretic Pelagius.
In addition to this intriguing portrait of cultural medley slowly working towards equilibrium, Powys retains significant fantasy elements. Sorcerers duel their apprentices, owls are transfigured into humans and Porius’ ancestry stretches to include the giants who in the medieval pseudo historical tradition lived in the British Isles before the coming of humans. In the end, Arthur’s kingdom is brought to ruin, as it always is, but Porius’ kingdom survives the Saxon onslaught, its peoples coalescing into a new identity, the Welsh.
Evidently something of an overachiever, the celebrated children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff wrote two distinct series reinterpreting or featuring the Arthurian legends. Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth series, which begins with the Romans and concludes in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest, wonderfully conveys a sense of narrative and historical continuity by following the lives and adventures of a single family in an ever changing Britain. The two middle books of this series, The Lantern Bearers and The Sword of Sunset, are set in what purports to be the Arthurian period and presents a largely grounded reimaging of events alluded to in the earliest Arthurian sources.
The Lantern Bearers’ protagonist is a heavily Romanized British born soldier who chooses to remain in Britain following the Imperial abandonment of the region. Much of the plot and thematic emphasis of the novel revolves around the efforts of the embittered main character’s master, Ambrosius Aurelianus, to unite those scattered across the spectrum between Roman and Celtic culture against the invading Saxons.
The Sword of Sunset is something of an outlier of the series and is narrated by a mortally wounded Arthur analogue. The life of this Artos, the nephew and successor of Ambrosius Aurelianus, imitates many of the motifs and incidents that are familiar to us, such as the formation of a band of elite heavy cavalry and the unknowing siring of a bastard child with his half-sister but largely excising the overt magic and divine intervention of the romances. Once more the cultural and political tensions between the Romo-British and their Brythonic kinsmen plays a major element in the plot.
Sutcliffe’s second series of Arthurian-inspired works cleave much more closely to that of the fantastical and idealized stories of Romance literature. This similarity extends beyond tone and content into the structure, after dedicating the first half of the trilogy’s opening work to Arthur’s rise to kingship, its later half and the entirety of the second book are dedicated to an anthology of the archaic and magical quests undertaken by various knights of the round table. In addition to these two great projects, Sutcliffe also wrote a nominally more realistic and historically accurate reimagining of the story of the romance of Tristan and Iseult which is often folded into the wider canon of Arthurian legends.
Many of these themes of clashing or emergent cultures reflected not only their authors’ conceptions of life and culture in the dark ages but to an extent the increased permeability and global character of society in the latter half of the 20th century. They are also present within Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord trilogy and its vivid portrait of Dark Age Arthurian Britain. The central thread running through the trilogy which again impinges upon and complicates Arthur’s attempts to unite Britain and repel the Saxons is that of sectarianism and religious intolerance. The smattering of Sub-Roman British kingdoms in which the majority of the series is set are composed of both Christians, often characterized by a proselytizing zeal, and the followers of an anachronistically prevalent Druidism.
There’s also a smattering of characters that worship other pagan deities such as Guinevere devotion to Isis and the preservation of the cult of Mithras as a secret society. The series main character, the Saxon born but Briton raised, Derfel, is appropriately loosely based upon a character in the early welsh poems of Arthur who fell out of favour in later adaptations. The series makes much of the thrilling clashing of swords and shields but carefully contextualizes this action within the confines of its own imagined world as you’re drawn into the narrative out of concern for its sympathetic and likeable main character.
Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle is worth touching upon briefly here as a highly entertaining exemplar of historical fantasy which has also likewise seen a surge in popularity. While confining the narrative to a broadly representative version of the 5th and 6th century, rather than present a more historically plausible and realistic rendition of the Arthurian legends, the Pendragon Cycle seeks to weave together and incorporate the legend’s expansive mythological elements within this new setting. This approach is perhaps best exemplified by the series’ version of Merlin who, while suitably grubby and stained, has legitimate mystical powers and is the son of a druid and an Atlantean princess.
While I hesitate to even mention it, and certainly would not recommend it, in light of the numerous allegations of abuse levelled at its author, the Mists of Avalon series also attempted to integrate the dark age setting with elements of magic and fantasy taken from the later romances; albeit tinged with a sort of new age neo-paganism vibe. The idea of a mundane historically plausible Arthur living in the fifth or sixth century, whose tale became distorted and exaggerated in subsequent iterations, is explored in Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. In the book, Merlin, a perfectly mundane bard, and his assistant, through pluck and guile engineer the rise to prominence of the brutish warlord Arthur, eventually sculpting the familiar legends from Arthur’s turbulent personal life and arbitrary management style.
Arthur in movies and television
This trend of reinvention and reimagination has, unsurprisingly given its popularity in the latter half of the twentieth century, successfully made the transition to both the small and large screens. Arthur of the Britons, a television series initially aired on the United Kingdom’s ITV in 1972 was perhaps the first and certainly the most prominent work to make the attempt. The program completely jetsons all aspects of the legends that originate from the traditions of medieval romance literature or its imitators, including the trappings of chivalry or even allusions to magic and the supernatural. Far from a knight in shining armour or the archetypical legendary king, the magnificence of Arthur and his world is rather shrunken and dimmed, a thematic and aesthetic decision that happily aligns with the show’s somewhat limited budget.
Arthur, portrayed by Oliver Tobias, is presented within the reality of the show as an unambiguously Celtic figure unperturbed by any Roman influences. Rather than a proposed chosen one, he is but one of a number of perpetually squabbling Celtic warlords who he seeks to unify in the face of the threat posed by the Saxons. He is supported in this endeavor by his cousin Mark of Cornwell, played by the irrepressibly energetic, Brain Blessed and by his foster father Lludd of the Silver Hand, a reference to the Welsh hero and demigod of the same name who also served as the inspiration for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s King Lud. The show elects to delineate between the Britons and the Saxons in a number of bizarre and historical ways. The Celts are shown to live a pastoral almost hunter-gatherer lifestyle living in the mist-wreathed sylvan glades of Britain’s deep forests. In contrast, the Saxon invaders are depicted as farmers who fell trees, altering the land to suit their purposes. Despite this strange rhetorical and thematic device, the show takes time to delve into the more nuanced and morally grey nature of this conflict and Arthur’s foster brother Kai is himself a Saxon. While often clumsily idiosyncratic and falling far short of any pretensions toward realism or accuracy, Arthur of the Britons is a charmingly earnest experience.
The most ambitious and bombastic attempt to represent a more historically plausible iteration of the Arthurian legends within popular media is without a doubt the 2004 film, King Arthur. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the man responsible for training days and such action-oriented hits as the Equalizer and The Magnificent Seven remake, the film was written by David Franzoni, one of the Oscar-winning writers of Gladiator.
The film is set in the very last days of Roman rule in Britain and follows the struggles of the half-Roman, half-Celtic cavalry officer Artorius Castus, played by Clive Owen, as he attempts to reconcile his divided loyalties. Arthur’s knights are here portrayed as the remnants of an auxiliary unit of elite Sarmatian cataphracts who were sent to Britain decades ago and are now approaching the end of their indentured service to the Roman Empire. When Artorius, Arthur to his friends, and his knights are blackmailed by the Roman hierarchy into undertaking one last daring mission, they travel north of Hadrian’s wall and brave the predations of the “Woads” in order to rescue the well-connected family of a man too busy attempting to convert the natives to Christianity through torture to heed the evacuation order from Rome. The incident shakes Arthur’s faith in the institutions and bureaucracy of Rome, as well as winning them the somewhat begrudging admiration of the enchanting Pictish noblewoman Guenivere, played by Kiera Knightley, who they free from captivity.
Interestingly, Arthur is depicted as a student and mentee of Pelagius in much the same manner as Porius, the hero of John Cowper Powys novel. Here the Roman establishment’s execution of Pelagius, forms a Rubicon of sorts for Arthur, their defence and enforcement of the doctrine of original sin is portrayed by the film as a deeply cynical instrument of social control. Meanwhile, a horde of Saxons has landed in Britain and began their customary burning and pillaging. Rather obligingly they seem to have sailed all the way up to Scotland with the intent of working their way down rather than simply landing on Britain’s southern coast as their literary and historical equivalents did. In the end, Arthur and his knights forego departing for Rome or returning home in favor of teaming up with the Woads to save the people of Britain from the Saxon horde. The battle scene that follows is suitably impressive and visually engaging with the ancients Picts utilizing both trebuchets and napalm in classic Hollywood fashion.
The film ends with Arthur and Guinevere, who at some point found the time to fall in love between dramatic escapes and soul searching, getting married and establishing a new united, egalitarian and humanistic Britain. A fitting and evocative reimagining of the golden age of glory, honour and prosperity that Arthur’s reign brings in earlier works of romance literature. King Arthur actually has a lot to recommend itself, as a film the setting and characters are well-realized and thought-provoking. It is just a shame that its tone and plotting are occasionally overwrought, while its action is a touch sensationalized.
If King Arthur was occasionally too grim and dark for its own good, then 2007’s The Last Legion is enjoyably light and fluffy. Based on the novel of the same name by Valerio Massimo Manfredi and directed by Doug Lefer, the movie stars Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley and about half the assorted cast of Game of Thrones. The film follows the adventure of the young puppet Emperor Romulus Augustulus, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Love Actually fame.
Closely modelled on the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus’ father, Orestes, who made the questionable parenting decision to eschew the throne himself and simply rule though his young son as a way of mediating with the foreign mercenaries the empire now relied upon. Unlike his historical namesake, however, Romulus survives the fall of his father at the hands of a Barbarian coup and accompanied by his mentors’ beings a National Treasure style hunt for the mythical and long-lost sword of Julius Caesar. After recovering the sword, the party set off to Britain in the hopes of finding the last loyal Roman troops. Running foul of the local warlord, our heroes are saved by the intervention of the mysterious Lost Legion, an army of retired Roman soldiers who settled down within the province and became farmers in exactly the manner expected of former Roman soldiers. After a climactic battle with the evil Vortigern and his barbarous allies, Romulus announces apropos of nothing that he is changing his name to Pendragon and that he intends to one day have a son called Arthur. The Last Legion is a largely enjoyable family adventure film even if the plot is predictable and the action subpar here and there. What really makes me smile about the movie is that asserting a legitimate continuity between the Western Roman Empire and hegemony within Britain is exactly the sort of bold aggrandizing move that Edward I, Edward III and the intended readership of Perceforest would have heartily approved of.
While visions of a knight in shining armour have yet to fully dissipate, the return of Arthur to his roots as a fifth or sixth-century warlord living in an approximation of Sub-Roman Britain within fiction has had a significant influence on the format and reception of related academia. The study of Sub-Roman Britain is, I think it’s fair to say, more the domain of the archaeologist than the historians. Its findings and body of evidence are somewhat obscure, couched in specialist terminologies and inevitably fragmentary. The association of this fascinating period with the personage of Arthur within the public consciousness has been successfully used by scholars as a way of generating interest in the topic.
As useful as the Arthurian legends have been in providing scholars with a hook to snare public interest, there remains a vocal minority who vociferously maintain Arthur’s historicity and physical presence within this period. In the next part we will examine the content and manifestations of this broad movement by returning to a subject we have previously only glossed over. Arthur’s emergence within the primary sources and his presence within a cumulatively constructed pseudo-historical lineage.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art