King Arthur- A Hero for all Ages by Beth Williams
With the upcoming release of Guy Richie’s latest film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword the question in some people’s minds might be ‘do we really need another film about King Arthur?’ It’s a legitimate question. I can’t deny a certain weakness myself for all things Arthurian but it still seems curious to me that one figure has succeeded in inspiring generation after generation of storytellers. The 2004 film King Arthur, BBC’s Merlin and Starz short lived show Camelot are just three of the most recent examples in the English language, not even touching upon the many T.V. shows and films that predate these or those created globally elsewhere. Of course we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t a purely modern phenomenon as even a passing familiarity with the works of the romantic poets or the Pre-Raphaelites proves that the Victorians weren’t immune to the charms of Camelot and its fictional inhabitants either.
In spite of his enduring popularity every incarnation of the legendary king differs wildly from the one that came before. The reason why most likely lies in the original source material; there are so many ‘Arthurian Legends’ it means there is no definitive account, no single authoritative voice dictating who Arthur is or was. In modern adaptations of Arthur just as the plot and characters are inspired by Medieval Romance so is the trend of re-writing the stories to suit a contemporary audience. He remains a figure shrouded in mystery, half fact half fiction. As such, writers and artist are free to re-imagine him as they wish.
The earliest datable appearance of Arthur in literature is the Welsh work History of the British but it is Geoffrey of Monmouth who is widely credited with sparking the Arthur trend. The Arthur that appears in Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is a great warrior King who successfully conquers England, Ireland, areas of Europe and even secures victories as far afield as Asia and Africa. This early incarnation of Arthur is an empire builder, who dies defending his land from his rebellious nephew Mordred. The idea of Arthur the Imperial victor has mostly fallen out of fashion, probably because the values of the conqueror are not ones shared by a modern audience.
Later traditions tended to focus upon the independent knights rather than the grand monarchical narrative. The most familiar version of the tale is from the romance of the high middle ages. The stories of Chrétien de Troyes in which Percival’s hunt for the Holy Grail and Guinevere’s and Lancelot’s doomed love appear for the first time. Arthur also spreads beyond its British origins amalgamating earlier stories into the Arthurian canon such as the tale of Tristan and Iseult. The far reaching popularity of the stories is demonstrated by the appearance of Arthur in the decorative carving of Modena Cathedral in Italy (it’s even been suggested that this is the earliest surviving depiction of him, although there is lively debate over its exact date).
As Arthur grew in popularity the English monarchy started to use the reputation of the legendary king as a propaganda tools for themselves. Never is this more evident than in the round table still displayed in pride of place on the wall of what remains of Winchester Castle. It was made in the reign of Edward I who, like his grandson Edward III, used Geoffrey of Monmouth as historical antecedence for their claims over Scotland and the latter even suggested setting up his own round table of knights. The Tudors got in on the Arthurian action too with Henry VII calling his first son Arthur in the hope that he would become Arthur I of England; with Arthur’s premature death his brother Henry VIII wasn’t above playing up his welsh ancestry to suggest an hereditary link with the Arthur of old, and had the Winchester round table painted with a Tudor Rose and a portrait that bore a striking resemblance to Henry as a young man.
Arthur easily lends himself to being a hero for all time, because that is what he has always been. Each author has taken the name of Arthur and used him as a vehicle to present their idea of a great King. From the early incarnations of the fearsome warrior, to the epitome of Chivalric values Arthur can be everything to everybody because every writers creates their own new Arthur inspired by, yet independent from those that came before. From the look of the trailers Richie’s Arthur rejects his hereditary position being ‘raised on the streets’ in order to make a rough tough action hero who is more palatable to a twenty-first century audience than a privileged rich boy who hasn’t had to work for what he has. The hunt for the ‘real Arthur’ has spawned all kinds of studies, and ideas about the historical truth behind the legends but the reality is that the real life King Arthur, if there ever was one (a big if) will always remain unknowable but Monmouth did succeed in creating one of the most enduring popular fictional figures ever.
Beth Williams, February 2017. – Beth is currently undertaking a MA Medieval Studies course at the University of Lincoln.
For an Introduction to Arthurian Literature see:
Archibald, Elizabeth and Ad Putter (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend (Cambridge, 2009).