The most recent filming of King Arthur and his mythical and legendary feats has been conducted in 2004 by Antoine Fuqua. Unlike previous literary and filmmaking attempts, the movie’s major peculiarity was embedded in the statement of “the untold true story that inspired the legend,” which featured in the movie’s trailers and advertisement. From this standpoint, Fuqua’s “King Arthur” abandoned traditional themes which accompanied the story, namely Camelot and Excalibur, and instead concentrated on historical correspondence of Arthur and events, which in historical literature belonged to the sixth century period. From the critical point of view, although filmmaker and producers utilized historical consultants while creating a movie, immediately after its release “King Arthur” attracted significant amount of criticism from historians and historically aware public regarding its historical accuracy. The paper focuses on some historically problematic aspects of the movie and offers some interpretation of authors’ motivation for movie’s particular setting.
Conventional Arthur and Its Interpretation
The opening statements of “King Arthur” alleges that the film tells “the true story” based on “recently discovered archaeological evidence.” However, general audience did not have a chance to learn what historical evidence is available to prove the chosen approach of screenwriter David Franzoni. From the standpoint of historiography, there are two scholar schools regarding Arthur’s origin. One school insists that Arthur lived some time in the late 5th century to early 6th century, and had Romano-British origin, and to have fought against the Saxons. For instance, Geoffrey Ashe (1981), identified Arthur with Riothamus, “King of the Brettones”, who was active during the reign of the Roman Emperor Anthemius. Simultaneously, another group of historians claimed that Arthur belonged to Celtic deity and devolved into a fictive person like Beowulf. In “King Arthur,” the creators chose the Roman approach, however, with some significant deviations, which are discussed in the paper below.
In modern times a steady doxography has built up for and against the idea of the “historical” Arthur. The main impetus in recent decades has tended to come from the archaeological side: as Dark Age sites, particularly in southern Britain, have been more fully excavated, the tendency to tie them to likely Arthurian geography has increased. This approach was associated in the early 1970s with Leslie Alcock’s (1987) proposed identification of Arthur’s capital at Camelot with the heavily fortified site of South Cadbury; and it has increased with greater awareness of the archaeology of Arthur’s traditional birthplace of Tintagel, among much else. The underlying climate of opinion led John Morris not only to entitle his own synthesis on “The Age of Arthur”, but to see Arthur as the leading force in the British defense against Saxon invasion (Kirby and Williams, 1975-76).
Morris took the simple and unguarded stance that Arthur’s reign and indeed ‘Empire’ was described by the contemporary ecclesiastical pamphleteer Gildas, who just happened not to mention the leader’s name: “These institutions [criticized by Gildas] existed. They are not the institutions of a society that had entirely disintegrated, but of a society whose rulers were at least trying to rebuild the administrative order of the past. Arthur’s government had only one possible and practicable aim, to restore and revive the Roman Empire in Britain” (Kirby and Williams, 461).
From this standpoint, movie creators in the intention to account for a historical core to the legend had two angles of approach: either they could study the “right” period of the fifth and sixth centuries AD and find candidates of some other name who for some reason take on the name or title Arthur; or they could look for Arthurs of almost any period from the second to the eighth centuries AD who were wrongly connected to the historical vacuum between Roman withdrawal and Saxon invasions that Arthur himself is meant to have filled. Unlike various historians who criticize “King Arthur” it should be emphasized that neither authors’ procedure is either absurd or unsound in itself. The trouble always is that with so little to go on, and such generally unspecific source material available, almost any candidate can be plausibly made to “fit” after a fashion the cloudy historical probabilities available. Guesswork tends to proliferate in hypothesis after hypothesis in relating the Arthurian materials to individual sites: there seems an almost insatiable appetite, especially in semi-popular books about Arthur, for trying to pin the king’s supposed court at Camelot down to south-western England or south Wales, or the north as far as lowland Scotland: all of this can further be complicated by the idea that the prestige of the name Arthur, once established, is likely to cause the use of the name itself to proliferate, so that achievements of several different Arthurs of more than one period might plausibly unite to form a composite.
Fuqua’s Roman Approach: For and Against
As it was mentioned above, the authors have chosen Roman approach to portray King Arthur in the movie. From the critical standpoint, this decision has some logical and historical grounding. Contemporary witness Gildas writes important account “On the Ruin of Britain” where he deplores the present state of the British nation after Roman withdrawal in the face of Saxon threat (Kirby and Williams, 479). Names, where they are mentioned, in particular that of Vortigern, generally stand up to historical scrutiny, but the only major figure where the audience should expect an Arthur to be is a figure bearing Roman name of Ambrosius Aurelianus. To be sure a major battle only much later associated with Arthur’s name is mentioned, the battle of Badon; a battle-list given by “Nennius” (1977) in the ninth century links it with Arthur. Moreover, according to history of Gildas as well as rapidly increasing archaeological record it is evident that a leader of a sub-Roman British warrior band would have held off the Saxon invasions for a considerable time. Iron-age hillforts as South Cadbury or the former Roman base at Caerleon in south Wales could indeed have served as fortified bases from which to harass invaders; the former Roman road system would still have sustained rapid movement so that a leader could move more rapidly over much of Britain than would have been possible in Norman times, for example. If assessed critically and chronologically, there were no absolutely other unequivocal contemporary candidates for Arthur at the right time, but there should be a valid reason for the accumulation of so much material round a single central figure. Therefore from this standpoint, the decision of Franzoni to choose Roman origin is justified.
Simultaneously, this approach does not fit exactly in the historical context. According to traditional evidence, the Roman withdrawal from Britain was finished by 407AD – some hundred years before King Arthur and famous battle of Mount Badon in 517AD, which indicated in the movie as 452AD. It is difficult to decide if it was done intentionally by Franzoni in the effort to fit artificially King Arthur in the Roman context. On the other hand, “Nennius” and Geoffrey of Monmouth provided a list of twelve battles in which Arthur fought, and might conceivably have annexed an early Welsh battle-poem to supply this information. Here Arthur is a Christian, performing a battle-miracle. It can be argued that there is an element of plausibility in the battle-list and simultaneously, a whole sequence of scholars have offered a more or less plausible sequence of sites; which were consequently rearranged to suit just about any interpretation of supposed military campaigns. If a King Arthur were already established, for example, it would be perfectly natural to attach his name to impressively fortified sites or strategic river-crossings where crucial actions might be fought.
Multiple Historical Inaccuracies
According to historians and any individual concerned about history, from the point of Franzoni and Fuqua it was significantly inaccurate to illustrate the Catholic Inquisition in Britain six centuries before it was established in Spain. While human sacrifice and torture were common in Britain before that time, in that historical context these atrocities could be attributed only to the Druids and pagan priests. Yet, in this film, director Fuqua illustrates the Christians exercising everything what history records the Druids practicing. Simultaneously, it is extremely inaccurate to portray Catholic Bishops as exercising any political or military control before the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church obtained traditional enormous power only in the later Middle Ages.
In his book “History of the English Speaking Peoples” Sir Winston Churchill indicates that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were models “chivalry, honor and the Christian faith.” Churchill portrays Arthur as “a great British warrior who kept the light of civilization burning against all the storms that beat, and that behind his sword there sheltered a faithful following…” (Churchill, 217). Instead, Franzoni portrayed mercenaries as pagans having Sarmatian connection. It is difficult to suggest why screen writer and historian consultants offered such an “original” interpretation for the Knights’ origin. It is believed that this misconception about mercenaries is caused due to mixed evidence regarding King Arthur’s initial origin. Practically, there is a historical concept according to which Arthur’s origin is attributed to Sarmatia or Scythia. For instance, R. S. Loomis accounted for the oriental Arthur as a phenomenon: “If one realizes how much of Asia Minor and Syria was at this time colonized by peoples of French blood or speech, one will not reject this affirmation as sheer balderdash” (Loomis, 153). Since the mid-1970s arguments have been put forward to derive features of the Arthurian story from “Scythia”. Two scholars who studied the folktales available from the Caucasus were able to find analogues not only to the Graal story itself, but to a “sword-in-the-lake” motif as well. This led in time to a full-length treatment by Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor (2000) under the title “From Scythia to Camelot” in which not only an unexpectedly early Arthur but also a new route to the diffusion of Arthurian tradition has been proposed.
In brief the thesis of Littleton and Malcor is as follows. The folktales preserved in present-day Ossetia were brought to Britain by Roman army units containing near-Eastern barbarians; as the leader of the first such attested units in Britain in the late second century AD was himself called L. Artorius Castus, the name “Arthur” was applied to the heroic legends of the Alans in particular. One of the two key pieces of evidence in the so-called “Sarmatian connection” theory of an Eastern King Arthur figure relates to a group of modern folktales published in 1930 by G. Dumézil. Their contents offer the oral traditions, recorded only from the late nineteenth century, of an Iranian-speaking Ossetian people in relatively inaccessible regions of the Caucasus. The Ossetians called their heroic legendary ancestors the Narts, and they come across as nomadic warriors with a small heroic elite and a distinctive cultural profile.
From this standpoint, the reasons why Franzoni incorporated “Sarmathian connection” in the screenplay are justifiable. For some unknown reason, Franzoni and Fuqua decided not to spread the eastern tradition on the image of Arthur and applied Roman approach to his character. However, “Sarmathian connection” brings some other questions, particularly those regarding paganism among the Knights of the Round Table. As Churchill notes in his book, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table represented the models of “chivalry, honor and the Christian faith” (Churchill, 217). The conflict is evident, and the reasons why authors of the movie chose their particular line lie beyond understanding.
Simultaneously, the geographical context of “King Arthur” represents also inaccurate picture. Historically, the Saxons invaded the South of England not Scotland in the North as it is depicted in the movie. Since the troops of Saxons arrived by the sea there were no reasons for them to breach the formidable Hadrians Wall. The Saxon army invaded South Eastern England, and thus Arthur’s victory at Mount Badon was closer to Wales, therefore the depicted strategy of King Arthur to allow the invaders past the wall and then engage them afterwards does not sustain criticism.
In the analysis of “King Arthur’s” historical accuracy, one should remember that the movie as an artwork does not have necessarily to correspond precisely the historical evidence. From the personal standpoint, significant amount of criticism brought by historians regarding film’s evident inaccuracy can be provoked only with authors’ claims of “the true story” based on “recently discovered archaeological evidence.” Although the movie’s setting is to the very degree controversial one can find some justification for authors’ approach selected. It should be remembered that all possible deviations from history are done to enhance artwork’s peculiarity and in this light many images of “King Arthur” are justified too.
Ashe, G., “A Certain Very Ancient Book.” Speculum 56, 1981, 301-23.
Alcock, L. Arthur’s Britain, Leiden, 1987
Nennius, Historia Brittonum ed. J. Morris, London, 1977
Kirby, D. P. and Williams, J. E. C. rev. of J. Morris, “The Age of Arthur”, Studia Celtica 10-11, 454-86, 1975-6
The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles, 2nd edn, ed. R. S. Loomis 1966, New York
Winston Churchill. History of the English Speaking Peoples (4 vol), London, 1989
C. Scott Littleton, Linda A. Malcor From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, Garland Publishing; Revised edition, May, 2000