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What King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Gets Right About the Middle Ages

Guy Ritchie’s take on Arthurian legend is silly, yes. But it could be a lot worse.

Courtesy of Warner Bros

There is little more annoying than an academic “expert” pissing on the parade of a new, creative take on their specialty. Actually, the expert interrupts to say, it wasn’t like that at all. Hollywood has never cared for accuracy, and neither has the American viewer, so why does the academic bother? Nobody is listening to the emeritus professor whining in The New York Review of Books that HBO is putting the wrong kind of historical stocking on its anachronistic hotties of yore.

With that said, it’s tough out there for a medievalist. This week sees the release of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. A chapter of my own dissertation was about King Arthur and the man who invented most of his legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth. I had been interested in the way that landscape is depicted in the ur-Arthur text, Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. But as I sat nearly alone during an afternoon screening of Ritchie’s movie, watching a comically massive war elephant lumber across the screen as arrows whiz by and the war drums go dum dum-dee dum, I thought: Maybe this won’t be so bad.

In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the hero dies by the hand of his own illegitimate child Mordred. After a long and bloody fight, Arthur takes up his spear and runs across the battlefield, “cryeng tratour now is thy deth day come.” He smites Mordred right through the body. But then Mordred suddenly thrusts himself along the spear. He inches forward, pushing along the shaft with his doomed body until his father is within arm’s reach. Once close enough, he deals Arthur a blow that pierces the skull. Mordred falls “starke deed to the erthe.” Arthur faints, his death wound sustained.

Death is an important part of the Arthur legend, which is a mish-mash of old, old stories. And most Arthurian literature, as we know it, is like the Mordred-killing scene: balanced, beautiful, humming with Christian themes about sacrifice, and very sad.

When Geoffrey wrote his “history” of King Arthur, he set the story in the mythic past. Geoffrey lived in the twelfth century, but Arthur was supposedly king in something like the fifth or sixth. Geoffrey’s is an origins story for the nation of Britain. To the medieval people of Britain these stories said, Arthur came from here, we are from here, and thus we Britons all share a special and deep relationship to our land. Arthur becomes a metonym for indigeneity, for “native” belonging. In Ritchie’s movie, Arthur’s called the “born king.”

Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) does not die in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Instead, he’s a flash cockney bastard in some kind of floor-length shearling coat, trained in martial arts by a neighbor named George. This Arthur wears maroon trousers and calls his group of retainers his “crew” and flashes a cheeky grin between high kicks. He dodges swords with balletic hip swings reminiscent of Keanu Reeves’s Matrix best. He’s not much of an Arthur at all.

That’s why it’s so surprising that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is faithful to obscure elements of the medieval plot. In Arthurian literature, Vortigern is a king whose ill-advised allegiance with the Saxons must be cleaned up by Arthur later on. In the movie, Jude Law plays Vortigern, who in this version is Arthur’s uncle. Mordred is a “mage,” a wizard of some kind, with whom Vortigern plots to overthrow Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father, played by Eric Bana). Lion King-style, Arthur struggles for power against his usurping uncle, though it’s obvious to everybody from the sword-in-the-stone episode that the tawny young lad is destined for the throne.

In the movie, Vortigern also must build a tower: The taller it gets, the greater his power becomes. He’s feeding a horrible squid-woman in the basement, too, for bonus powers that make flames shoot out of his cloak and big horns grow out of his hat. But the tower hearkens back to an important leitmotif of Arthur’s story.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, Vortigern is having problems building a structure, which won’t stay upright. “Whenever they completed a day’s work,” Geoffrey writes of the tower, “It would be swallowed up by the ground the next day, so that they had no idea where it had gone.” Baffled by these architectural setbacks, Vortigern’s magicians suggest sacrificing a fatherless youth. “Kill him and pour his blood over the cement and stones,” they instruct.

So, they find one. His name is Merlin. When summoned, Merlin produces his own version of the cause of the literal instability of Vortigern’s royal project. “My lord king, call your workmen and set them digging; you will find a pool beneath the tower which prevents it from standing,” he predicts. In the pool, he says, they will find two hollow rocks containing sleeping dragons. And, what do you know! There they are.

Merlin’s prophecy shows that he understands the nature of the landscape itself, the true material of Britain. The phony magicians just want to kill people and pour their blood around. The pool and the dragons that lie at its bottom are the true cause of Vortigern’s instability, but they also embody the political future of Britain. After the dragons have been located and Merlin is proved correct, they do battle. The dragons’ fight represents the struggle between the Saxons and the people of Britain to come.

The residency of the prophetic dragons beneath the earth, and the psychic connection between them and Merlin, demonstrate the key role of landscape in organizing the national identity of Britain.

The most interesting innovation of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword lies with the famous stone itself, where Excalibur lay unbudgeable for so long. As Arthur eventually sees in a vision, the stone was once in fact the body of his father. Rather than suffer ignoble death at Vortigern’s hand, Uther Pendragon throws Excalibur into the air and receives it, kneeling, to the back of the neck. His body turns to stone and sinks into the bedrock, where his heir’s inheritance awaits his coming.

And so, for all its silly, winking jokes and massive fight scenes and enormous flying bats (at one point Arthur goes on a quest and finds himself in a monstrous place called the “Darklands”), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword understands something central to Arthurian legend. It matters who your father is, because your blood, your right to govern, and the very earth of Britain upon which you walk, are made of the same stuff. The sword-in-the-stone is as much about the stone as it is about Excalibur.

Told and retold by writers from Monmouth to Chaucer to Malory, this ancient set of tales weave together intrigue, magic, piety, and the idea that the one true king can bring together a faltering nation. The story of Arthur is a national and, in many ways, a nationalist epic. That makes it simplistic in some respects, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not a very smart movie (Arthurian stories usually add in some good material about love and fealty and noble quest, but I suppose there wasn’t space for any of that once Ritchie was done with all those war elephants.).

But the movie is fun to watch and it repeats almost none of the damaging tropes about the medieval period that shows like Game of Thrones promulgate. Ritchie has cast a diverse group of actors, and made no fuss about it. There are no women raped or gratuitously tortured. The enemy is not coded as racially other. There are no plague boils. Ritchie has reached into the medieval quiver of tales for material, but has not imposed the meta-narrative of Western history onto those stories. For this restraint medievalists should be thankful, and the critics should be a little more forgiving. It’s really not so bad.