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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.

Đang xem: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017)


There is little more annoying thanan academic “expert” pissing on the parade of a new, creative take on theirspecialty. Actually, the expertinterrupts to say, it wasn’t like that atall. Hollywood has never cared for accuracy, and neither has the Americanviewer, so why does the academic bother? Nobody is listening to the emeritusprofessor whining in The New York Reviewof Books that HBO is putting the wrong kind of historical stocking on its anachronistichotties of yore.

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

In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the hero dies by thehand of his own illegitimate child Mordred. After a long and bloody fight,Arthur takes up his spear and runs across the battlefield, “cryeng tratour nowis thy deth day come.” He smites Mordred right through the body. But thenMordred suddenly thrusts himself along the spear. He inches forward, pushingalong 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 ofthe Arthur legend, which is a mish-mash of old, old stories. And most Arthurianliterature, as we know it, is like the Mordred-killing scene: balanced,beautiful, humming with Christian themes about sacrifice, and very sad.

It’s surprisingthat King Arthur: Legend of the Swordis faithful to obscure elements of the medieval plot.

When Geoffrey wrote his“history” of King Arthur, he set the story in the mythic past. Geoffrey livedin the twelfth century, but Arthur was supposedly king in something like the fifthor 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 sharea special and deep relationship to our land. Arthur becomes a metonym forindigeneity, for “native” belonging. In Ritchie’s movie, Arthur’s called the“born king.”

Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) does notdie in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.Instead, he’s a flash cockney bastard in some kind of floor-length shearlingcoat, trained in martial arts by a neighbor named George. This Arthur wearsmaroon trousers and calls his group of retainers his “crew” and flashes acheeky grin between high kicks. He dodges swords with balletic hip swingsreminiscent of Keanu Reeves’s Matrixbest. He’s not much of an Arthur at all.

That’s why it’s so surprisingthat King Arthur: Legend of the Swordis faithful to obscure elements of the medieval plot. In Arthurian literature,Vortigern is a king whose ill-advised allegiance with the Saxons must becleaned up by Arthur later on. In the movie, Jude Law plays Vortigern, who inthis 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, playedby Eric Bana). Lion King-style, Arthurstruggles for power against his usurping uncle, though it’s obvious toeverybody from the sword-in-the-stone episode that the tawny young lad isdestined for the throne.

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

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

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

Merlin’s prophecy shows that heunderstands the nature of the landscape itself, the true material of Britain. Thephony magicians just want to kill people and pour their blood around. The pooland 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 havebeen located and Merlin is proved correct, they do battle. The dragons’ fightrepresents the struggle between the Saxons and the people of Britain to come.

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

The most interesting innovationof King Arthur: Legend of the Swordlies 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 ofhis father. Rather than suffer ignoble death at Vortigern’s hand, UtherPendragon throws Excalibur into the air and receives it, kneeling, to the backof the neck. His body turns to stone and sinks into the bedrock, where hisheir’s inheritance awaits his coming.

The sword-in-the-stone is as much about thestone as it is about Excalibur.

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

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

But the movie is fun to watch and itrepeats almost none of the damaging tropes about the medieval period that showslike Game of Thrones promulgate.Ritchie has cast a diverse group of actors, and made no fuss about it. Thereare no women raped or gratuitously tortured. The enemy is not coded as raciallyother. There are no plague boils. Ritchie has reached into the medieval quiverof tales for material, but has not imposed the meta-narrative of Westernhistory 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.

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