Some of the most popular characters from history have no historical basis in fact. Robin Hood is a name that can be taken to literally mean ‘thief in a hooded cloak’; an archetypal persona created to represent an ideal. A character, not a historical figure. Yet countless films, books, series, and miscellaneous media have been created based on Robin Hood.
And yet there is an even more prolific pseudo-historical figure that has become so ingrained in the collective consciousness of Great Britain that many aren’t even aware his story is not based in fact. King Arthur was not, as far as we are aware, ever a real person. He did not summon his knights to a round table and rule from the fabled city of Camelot. Despite this, many films have been made about Britain’s once and future king.
The most recent film to feature this enigmatic (if mythic) hero, is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Just how accurate to the early historical period in which Arthur supposedly lived is it? And how true to the original source material is the plot? We’re about to find out…
If we learned anything from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, it’s that Hollywood takes extreme liberties when it comes to characterising fabled British heroes. In many respects, Legend of the Sword is no different. It is a fantasy epic and as such is rife with unrealistic creatures and magic. That is to be expected. But Charlie Hunnan’s cockney accent and roguish winking, coupled with the hilarious presence of hugely oversized war elephants, do little to inspire confidence that this version of Arthur will have any basis in historical fact.
And yet, you might be pleasantly surprised.
A Review Of King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword
The legend of King Arthur was – as far as we are aware – originally penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth, as part of his Historia Regum Britanniae (or History of the Kings of Britain), a popular book from the 12th century. Arthur himself was depicted as living some time in the fifth or sixth centuries. While it’s possible there was a real Arthur who sparked the myths we’ll likely never know for certain. Likewise, Monmouth may have based his version on older written accounts that do not survive.
The tales likely originated in Wales, or another part of Britain inhabited by the ‘Celts’ – a rather inaccurate term coined to describe the Brythonic-speaking people scattered throughout much of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall.
The tale has since been picked up and adapted by many others, most famously Sir Thomas Malory, who penned Le Morte d’Arthur in the late fifteenth century. One thing to bear in mind with the source material is that it was written in the Christian era, and as such is riddled with themes from Christianity. Attempting to unravel which elements were influenced by the Christian beliefs of the authors and which come from earlier, pre-Christian tales is a little like trying to figure out which parts of Lord of the Rings are original Tolkeinisms and which were stolen from Norse mythology and culture.
The Surprisingly Accurate Part Of Legend Of The Sword
You’d be forgiven for thinking this film lacked any historical accuracy at all – either to the relevant historical periods or the original source material. Hunnam’s Arthur is reminiscent of Jax, the actor’s Sons of Anarchy character, had he been raised in a brothel and trained in martial arts by an East Asian named George. Arthur’s full of cheek, banter, and swagger, surprisingly agile and graceful, yet not what you’d expect from a warrior in fifth or sixth century Britain.
And yet Legend of the Sword is surprisingly faithful to the oldest roots of Arthurian legend, specifically Monmouth’s intent when he first wrote it. Set in a time without its own written records, Monmouth’s version of Arthur was a rallying cry for the people of Britain. It said ‘This is who we are, this is where we’re from, and this is what we stand for’.
The notions of chivalry and knightly behaviour that came to infuse Arthurian myth were arguably inventions to curtail the raping and pillaging of a large group of heavily armed men, prone to violence. Regardless, that romanticised view of a culture deeply rooted in our land, of indigenous belonging and commitment to a certain code, endures to this very day.
The Born King
Legend of the Sword refers to Arthur as the ‘born king’, which is a nice acknowledgment of these origins and the original intent of the character. At the same time, the film pits Arthur against Vortigern, played by Jude Law, who is the brother of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon.
Vortigern usurps the crown of Camelot from Uther, murdering Arthur’s mother and leaving him stranded in a small boat until he’s found and taken in by a group of prostitutes who have no idea of his true identity.
While Vortigern rules tyrannically from his castle, Arthur grows to be a street-savvy leader and protector of a tiny chiefdom of his own. As the film progresses we learn that Vortigern sacrificed his wife, the same night he seized the throne, in exchange for the power to build a great tower.
Arthur, Uther, Vortigern And Constans
This, too, is a subtle callback to the original roots of King Arthur. While Vortigern was not originally Arthur’s uncle, Monmouth presents him as the murderer of Arthur’s uncle, Constans. Constans came to be king following the death of his father, King Constantine, at the hands of an assassin sent by the Picts (a tribe living in what is now Scotland). Vortigern was married to the daughter of the king who preceded Constantine, and upon the death of Constantine became an advisor to the young Constans before having him killed and seizing the throne for himself. With both of Constans’ brothers (the historical figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther) both infants at the time, Vortigern was able to take Camelot for himself. The young prices were smuggled away to Brittany, where they grew until Uther eventually returned and claimed his crown.
So Legend of the Sword presents an amalgamation of the story of Uther’s rise to the throne, and Arthur’s. Vortigern is Arthur’s uncle, rather than the man who murdered his great uncle, and it is Arthur, rather than Uther who is sent away only to return.
The tower that the film’s version of Vortigern is so desperate to construct increases his power with every new level added to it. It appears in Monmouth’s version as a structure that Vortigern is struggling to build with little success, as it would remain standing. The ground literally swallows what has been built each night, much to the bewilderment of Vortigern’s advisors, who suggest he sacrifice a fearless youth in order to secure its construction.
The youth in question is named Merlin, who predicts that the true issue preventing the construction is a pool beneath the tower which is home to dragons who slumber within hollow rocks. They investigate and discover he is correct, finding two dragons who rise and battle each other. Merlin’s understanding of the landscape exposes the false mages and the foolishness of blood sacrifices. Meanwhile, the warring dragons represent the impending conflict between Britain and the Saxons.
So, while the details of Vortigern’s tower have been altered for dramatic effect – the tower is in fact standing, blood sacrifices are in fact made in the form of Vortigern’s loved ones, and with each sacrifice, his tower and power grow – the pieces are present in the original tale.
The Subtle Nuances Of King Arthur
Unfortunately, the subtle nuances in the film that nod to the original legend will likely escape most of the audience. Unless you’ve studied the text, it’s unlikely you’d be aware of the significance of Arthur’s ‘born king’ title, or the relevance of Vortigern building a tower with a lake beneath it.
Instead, the majority of viewers will have lamented the absence of their favourite characters, and the fact so much screen time is given over to banter and ‘boys being boys’. Gritty reboots are all well and good, but you need to retain enough of the elements that made the ‘original’ so popular, or all you’re left with is a dud.
What counts as original, here, however, is public perception.
The original legend, by mainstream standards, is the vision of Arthur with his knights, seated at a round table, his wife Guinevere to hand, and a stoic dedication to the code of chivalry, while Arthur’s right-hand man, Sir Lancelot, is secretly embroiled in a passionate love affair with his Guinevere.
Yet the actual origin of the tale of Arthur features none of these elements. In some ways, the original legend of Arthur made the character of Arthur little more than a metonym for indigeneity.
How King Arthur Developed
While we don’t know if Arthur was ever a real man, we do know that the earliest records of the figure, which appear in Historia Brittonum (the History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (the Welsh Annals) paint a very different, very simple picture of a notable soldier whose role in the Battle of Badon was absolutely critical.
The precise date of this conflict is unknown, though it was most likely during the 6th century, and has gone down in history as a major victory for the Brits in their efforts to prevent the advance of the Saxons.
There is no mention of Arthur as king, no knightly court at Camelot, no round table, no Guinevere. These elements were introduced as the tale was told and retold, with versions from The Mabinogion and the poetry in Y Gododdin beginning to colour in more of the details that are familiar to us today.
Here is where we first meet Sir Bedivere and Sir Kay, where Arthur develops a wife (not yet called Guinevere, but at least present). It was not until the 12th century and Chrétien de Troyes’ masterpiece, The Quest For The Holy Grail, that we knew anything of the iconic figure that is Sir Lancelot, and his ill-fated love affair with Guinevere.
And yet, the version of Arthurian myth familiar to most people is contained within the pages of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which seems to have taken pains to incorporate as many elements from the versions that came before as possible. Polished into a complex, compelling narrative, it’s understandable why so many fans are irked when a new retelling doesn’t remain ‘true’ to the Arthur they know.
Legend Of The Sword Returns To King Arthur’s Roots
Yet in many ways, Legend of the Sword is more dedicated to the earliest tales of Arthur and the original historical records mentioning him than most other modern retellings. There’s not a sign of Lancelot, or Guinevere. Merlin is barely mentioned. Instead, we’re given a rough-and-ready fighter, more akin to the mysterious hunter of peculiar creatures we see in early tellings, with his close connection to pagan gods and the Welsh Otherworld.
Yes, Hunnam’s wearing maroon pantaloons and a floor-length shearling jacket instead of a suit of armour, and many fans were put off by this. However, this is actually more accurate than the many portrayals we’ve had over the years of Arthur in a suit of shining metal.
They belong to Malory’s world, with plate armour only invented at the turn of the 13th century, and full suits not coming into use until the 15th. They have no business turning up in the 6th century. At that time, men in Britain were sporting trousers, belted tunics, and cloaks.
In the film, it is Vortigern and his men we see sporting suits of armour. A character who – like the very legend itself – has been reshaped for a modern audience by muddling up various aspects of previous versions of the tale.
Is Legend of the Sword historically accurate? No, it’s a fantasy epic. Yet in perhaps the truest way possible, it reflects the original themes of the mythical Arthur far more than the polished, romanticised view of other retellings.
The historical inaccuracies, coupled with the absence of many of the most well-known elements of Arthurian legend overwhelm the ways in which the film pays homage to its roots. And while a historical analysis of the film can’t criticise it too heavily for the details it has omitted, this is only due to an awareness that they are the very elements added piecemeal over the course of centuries of embellishment and modernisation.