Will the Real King Arthur Stand Up?  Please!

I think I grew up with King Arthur.  I knew all about Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain, Kay, and all the other knights of the Round Table before I was out of Middle School and I had a list of every one I had come across.  I even managed to order them by their fighting skills.

Then I got to high school and I realized there was much more to him than that.  There was an historical context in post-Roman Britain 410 to 600.  That led to a great deal of reading about the source materials, their flaws, their dates of production, and a whole lot of insecurity about the topic.  The fact is that there is so much we can never know about Arthur, his men, his battles, his location, the dates of his career.  We won’t ever know what he looked like, the details of his last years; such is a perfect opening for a fiction writer.

Which is why I don’t get Arthurian movies at all.  In King Arthur he and his men are Sarmations?  But that tribe hadn’t been active for centuries by 410.  In his opening dialogue Arthur speaks about a contemporary named Pelagius; but Pelagius had been excommunicated and outlawed from all Roman regions before 400.

Then there are the more subjective flaws.  Arthur allies with Picts (of the Highlands) while fighting against the Saxons who have landed on the southern coast.  This in the fifth century, when all government had fallen apart and traveling the length of the island would have been a feat in and of itself.  Rome was dead before Arthur was active, he could never have been its servant.  Oh, and he might have had the money for metal body armor, but not one of his men would have, leather armor, wooden shields with leather or metal plating, and iron swords were the armaments of the day.

Tristan is made out to be a falconer.  Warriors didn’t do that, knights of the later Middle Ages did.  Besides, Tristan was a figure of myth who was added to the Arthurian cycle later and all we know he did was slay a dragon.

Numbers are an issue, too.  The economy of fifth century Europe had fallen apart, and farming was ragged.  There was no means of supporting a large group of warriors, and farmers would not be asked to fight in a standing army until the modern era.  That the Battle of Badon could have happened in any way as it is portrayed is laughable.

First Knight is no better with its shiny knights and high morality.  A post-Roman king who didn’t kill a man who looked at his wife would have lost the respect of his warriors.  If Arthur hadn’t conquered a kingdom with a weak ruler or no male heirs someone else would have.  That covers my issues with Lancelot and Guinevere.

Tristan and Isolde?  I can’t help but smile.  Originally the story involved a dragon, a knight who took credit for Tristan’s (Drust’s) kill, and the maiden who healed him and fell in love.  That movie is an awkward combination of the romance as first seen through Thomas of Britain and a post-Roman Britain that could never have existed.

Can’t we just have a movie involving Arthur where everything we know to be true is kept to and the poetry is in the plot, the characterization, or even the politics of the period?  It would be so refreshing for a change.




About Cian Beirdd

I live with my kitty, and encourage his tuna and catnip addictions. I have a website as well; https://cianbeirdd.wordpress.com/cian-beirdd/
This entry was posted in Historical Science Fiction, Reviewed Books and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Will the Real King Arthur Stand Up?  Please!

  1. Hope for a Ken Burns documentary or an HBO mini series. I’ve been waiting for that movie my whole life, but it does not appear likely to ever happy. More’s the pity.

  2. Loki says:

    I think the problem — to the extent that there is one — is that these stories are considered myths and legends rather than historical narratives. Considering how rarely Hollywood bothers to consider how things really were in the latter, it’s not really surprising that it doesn’t occur to anyone to do it at all with the former. If they’re going to battle a dragon anyway, for instance, then why bother with whether or not their armour looks like it would have. The percentage of the audience that would know any better is too small to care about. Historical accuracy in a film about king Arthur would be like historical accuracy in a film about Hercules or Aeneas — very pleasing to me personally if it happened, to be sure, but not really something I’d expect anyone who makes such films to care about.

    • Loki says:

      Oh, and, there’s also a slight argument in favour of their utter lack of respect for historical context and accuracy — as you yourself admit, these stories have always been constantly mutable, ever-changing and adapting. The cycle grew, characters were added, old ones moved around in function, prominence wasn’t always held by the same ones. Those who told (and later wrote down) these legends in earlier centuries changed them around to fit their current world views and understanding of history, no matter how faulty or flawed that was, so of course, so will today’s storytellers. Saying Tristan was a falconer and had armour at a time where he’d have neither isn’t really a bigger change than adding Lancelot to the court of Camelot, is it?

      I think there’s also a worry that if they stick too close to the source material, it’ll get boring for the average movie goer. If you remove the giant battles, if you remove the shining armour, what you’re left with is small war bands of dirty anti-heroes who steal cattle from other war bands and happen to have names reminiscent of what people associate to king Arthur’s knights. Which might do well as an independent art film, but doesn’t have “big money blockbuster” written anywhere on it.

      But of course, I’m just speculating. Maybe a historically accurate interpretation would do great, and I’m dead wrong about this. Little would please me more.

  3. Cian Beirdd says:

    There’s no point in being modest, of course you’re right. I rarely use this blog to simply throw out my opinion. I’m simply trying to make people aware that history was not how how they see it. Yes, Arthur was a real person and lived in a real time. So, for that matter, did Heracles and Aeneas. And they didn’t fight dragons, but people or symbols that came to be dragons.

    I am writing novels on the era, and although I think they are interesting they are at bare bones about as you describe. It’ll be interesting to see if they ever sell very well.

    • Loki says:

      Novels are different, though. Novels are about the human drama, and compelling characters — or alternately (or complimentary) about engaging plots. There’s no reason a realistic world portrayal won’t provide that — if anything, it should help it. The kind of big blockbuster film that an “Arthur” film would typically need to be, however, aims primarily at being adrenaline- and/or humour depending roller coasters, where characters and plot at best come in as a secondary concern. Which is why you’re probably right that you might have a better chance at seeing something like you’re sketching in a cable drama series (which has a lot more in common with traditional novels) than you ever will on the big screen.

      I’m a bit surprised at how certain you seem that distant past characters such as Heracles (and to a lesser extent, Aeneas) were real people once. Oh, I’m sure lots of the stuff in their legends are an amalgamation of legends of real historical people, but this notion that such ancient figures whose prominence depended on centuries’ worth of oral storytelling have a one-to-one relation to an actual historical person seems a bit optimistic. (While Arthur, being thousands of years their junior, is someone whose having a direct real-life antecedent is more or less a historical certainty by comparison — even though I’m sure wth him, too, there must have been stories both imagined from the bottom up and inspired by other historical people that merged with the main character. Hugely popular legends tend to gravitate all smaller stories to them like that.)

      Interesting that you’re writing novels about this stuff. You seem very qualified to do so, considering your extensive posts about it all! Inter-related novels in a series, or simply many standalone stories with a similar historical take on various legends?

      As far as general enlightenment of public perception of history goes, you have my full support. One of the (many) travesties of modern life is the general distaste people have towards “useless” knowledge of the past. The misconception that you go to school primarily to learn what you need to get a job — as opposed to learn what you need to know to be a fully rounded citizen capable of making up your own mind about the world around you — is to my layman’s eyes perhaps the single most dangerous thing to happen to the long-term viability of modern democracies remaining, well, democratic.

      So, standing ovation for your desire to bring the reality behind the stories out for general awareness. Be it in blog-form or novels, it cannot be anything but a good thing. 😀

      • Cian Beirdd says:

        Thanks! You have me blushing across the pond. I can send you a copy of whatever you like once I can get a final copy approved. Just walk through my publications pages and have a look.

        To answer your questions. They are interrelated both laterally and longitudinally. The Arthurian era, for instance, will have a series as will at least one of his vassals, Urien from a couple generations later and perhaps more. But I also plan on a collection of stories regarding saints that will cover the whole time frame and have them working in the same universe.

        Longitudinally will be a little more interesting and that is a trade secret right now. However, I can promise there is some continuity of characters between all the eras I will be writing on.

        As to the “mythological” characters I am so certain about. I know that isn’t proven, but in doing my thesis (on the Arthurian romances as historical sources) I learned a lot about that transition you spoke of, from oral praise to attraction to a more popular hero, to the formation of a cycle, to being written down, to being reinterpreted. Do I believe that Heracles did Twelve Labors, built Troy, tore it down, etc., etc.? No! But he is at the center of a cycle of stories, which means he was in all probability real and a charismatic and successful leader in his time. I don’t know, passed that, if ‘Hercules The Legendary Journeys’ or Dwayne Johnson’s version, is more accurate.

      • Loki says:

        Thanks for the clarification, I think I’m following you now! As for your joke, I haven’t seen Johnson’s film yet, but considering that if my childhood memory served, Hercules’ shared universe spinoff Xena interacted with both Beowulf (ca 700 AD) and Julius Cæsar (ca 50 BC) and the Trojan War (ca 12 000 BC). So I’m going to go ahead and assume Johnson wins that accuracy test unless he carries a uzi or discovers fire at some point in the film.

        I’d be happy to check out some of your stuff! My reading list is as ever longer than my lifespan will likely allow, but I shall try to fit in at least a smattering. 🙂

        About rounded citizens, it seems we’re of a mind. It’s not the ignorance that bothers me — nobody can help that — it’s the lack of interest in changing it. Upon realising they thought this was all roughly contemperoneous, I patiently and (uncharacteristically) briefly tried to explain to someone the difference in timeframe between WW1, the pilgrims who settled in North America and the American “wild west” motif of the cowboy gunslinger. The “whatever” type response is exactly the issue. I don’t care if someone doesn’t know what the French revolution was. That’s fine. I am even fine if someone thinks history is hard and struggles remembering how events relate to one another. But I sure as heck care that someone doesn’t WANT to know.

      • Cian Beirdd says:

        Actually I hadn’t meant it as a joke. Forgetting the extraneous time periods the Kevin Sorbo bit was about a guy going around helping others and being looked up to. That was what I meant.

        Take a look at the page and tell me what you like, the only novel right now is ‘The Demon of Lleuenydd’, everything else is 5-40 pages.

        Yeah, that’s what gets me too. It saddens me when people don’t want to get where other cultures come from. And Americans are horrible in that respect. It’s a death toll to society when people don’t want to know where they really came from.

      • Cian Beirdd says:

        I forgot the last bit you wrote. As an educator who has worked from ninth grade through undergraduate I could not agree with you more about the miseducation of our youth. Perhaps in showing some harsh realities from the past people might have a little more pride and stake in their present. Rounded citizens are absolutely necessary to continuing democracies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s