The depiction of the life of King Arthur, in print and film, is a Rorschach Test.
The story of Arthur and Camelot is presented differently for each generation, reflecting that generation. The early legends were catered for the Norman cult of Courtly Love in England and France. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the story was all about the Knights of the Round Table. The era was one of knightly chivalry, jousts, and tournaments. Armor evolved from utilitarian chain mail to the clunky and highly romantic man-in-a-tin-can look. The Knights of the Round Table were perfect for the era.
The Victorian years were all about the romance. Tennyson dedicated his Idylls of the King to the Prince Consort (Albert) and later simply to the Queen (Victoria). The romance of Victoria and Albert inspired a cottage industry of Arthurian Romance. It was all about the heartbreak, of life and death, love and loss, reflecting the death of Prince Albert.
T. H. White’s Arthurian world was based on fantasy and an ideal world, with allusions to World War II, and communism. The Knights of the Round Table reflected the 1950s. The musical version of Camelot was considered an allegory for the Kennedy years. Monty Python interjected the new humor of the mid-1970s into the story. Excalibur was an abject disaster, the worst of the lot. While visually stunning, it was world-weary, a commentary on the Carter years.
Then came, in this author’s humble opinion, the best of the best, King Arthur. The 2004 film was about strong and stalwart soldiers fighting the terror of invading Saxons. It was almost a commentary about the War on Terror. It is at this point where your humble author will express a fondness for the rather bad The Last Legion. (It’s a Colin Firth thing).
My introduction to the story of Camelot and King Arthur was when I was just a little kid and my mother insisted my sister and I accompany her, our father, and our grandparents to see the movie, first run, on a Cinerama screen. I then read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The story did not make much of an impression on me until a few years later when I read Mary Stewart’s enchanting The Crystal Cave. Then I was hooked. I became a rabid King Arthur fan.
Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy reinvented the genre. The author, who is a personal favorite of mine, wove the latest in archaeology, history, and legend to breathe new life into the Matter of Britain. The Crystal Cave was published in 1970. From the moment I read the condensed version in Reader’s Digest while visiting my grandparents, I have never ceased studying and reading about King Arthur.
For me, the legend is fascinating, but I have spent most of my life delving into the historical and archaeological reality of Arthur. As a writer, researcher, and historian, I am fascinated with two things. The first is how a person becomes legend, then myth. The second is the fact that every nation has a defining moment and a defining legend. My personal quest has moved on to the life of Wyatt Earp, watching his story begin to transform from documented history to legend. In England, the defining myth of character is King Arthur. Here in the United States, our defining moment and character is Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral.
As a historian and a researcher, I use the documentation of the life of Wyatt Earp to provide arguments for the reality of King Arthur. One of my favorite arguments pointing to a historical basis for Arthur, to explain away the legends, is the tale of Wyatt Earp disarming Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas, in 1873.
No, Wyatt Earp did not disarm Ben Thompson there in Ellsworth, but there is fascinating evidence to point to the fact that he was there at the time, and may have been the catalyst for the surrender of Thompson following the murder of Sheriff Whitney. Wyatt Earp died in 1929. I have a tendency to date Arthur around the time of the “Fall of the Roman Empire” c. 476. If historians have such a problem with the details of Wyatt Earp’s life, imagine trying to create a historical picture of an incident that occurred at least 15 centuries ago.
Because I am more interested in post-Roman Britain and Arthur in the setting of the final years of Rome, I try to keep an open mind when attempting to single out one of the many actual historical personages who might have been Arthur. I have a tendency to give the work of Bede, Gildas, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth more weight than some researchers do. I find the Mary Stewart theory about Ambrosius Aurelianus well grounded.
For quite some time, I’ve identified Lucius Artorius Castus as a possible inspiration for a historical Arthur. Consequently, the 2004 movie starring Clive Owen, King Arthur, is the rendition of my dreams. I have a tendency to view it in terms of the movie Tombstone and the life of Wyatt Earp. It’s not perfect, but probably tells the best version of that tale.
I have no patience for fantasy. I have no patience for the Bernard Cornwell books. I have even less with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. I see Arthur as either a post-Roman or late Roman – Roman, in every sense of the word. He was probably a cavalry officer of ducal and consular rank.
Because of my lack of tolerance for fantasy and my intense dislike of the sword, wizard, dragon, and balderdash genera, the moment I saw the previews for the Starz series, Camelot, I decided I would not watch it. I like my Arthur as a Roman, a competent Roman knight, and absolutely no fantasy. I was determined not to watch it.
There are some historical inaccuracies in the series, but that’s expected. One of the reasons I was prepared not to watch it was an article I had read about the role of Merlin. The great irony of the entire Matter of Britain is that Merlin may be the only character who can actually be documented. He was a prince in Wales. He was a poet, a visionary, and a thinker. Mary Stewart may have come closest to the actual Merlin. There was nothing magical about him. He was a man with a great mind.
The one character in Camelot that I was prepared to intensely dislike is the very thing that has hooked me. Joseph Fiennes’ Merlin is the way I always pictured Mary Stewart’s Merlin.
The legend of Arthur is quite sordid. It deals with incest, illegitimate birth, murder, deception, adultery, and betrayal, and that was on a good day in Camelot. The barbarian encroachment on one of the golden ages of humanity, Roman Britain, is important to the story of Arthur. It is portrayed beautifully in the series.Powered by Sidelines