Culture

King Arthur: A once and future king

With King Arthur back on our cinema screens, Professor Elizabeth Archibald explains why we’ve always been enchanted by the legend

Charlie Hunnam in King Arthur

1135 – The original origin story

The-History of the Kings of Britain

Geoffrey of Monmouth produces the first popular written version of the King Arthur story in his The History of the Kings of Britain, published in Latin after the Norman Conquests, later translated first to French then to English. “It is the first time we get the birth-to-death of Arthur and it was a bestseller – more than 250 handwritten manuscripts survive to this day.”

1486 – The  Tudors

If Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur, hadn’t died young, we could have had another King Arthur in 1509, rather than King Henry VIII. “The Tudors made a lot of their Welsh background but in the time of Henry VIII that world of knights and chivalry is no longer fashionable.”

When Shakespeare mentions Arthur he tends to be quite contemptuous

1600s – Barred by the Bard

An all-conquering king cut down in his prime by his treacherous son sounds very Shakespearean. But the bard all but barred Arthur. “The historicity of Arthur was being questioned in that time, and attitudes to war were changing. So when Shakespeare mentions Arthur he tends to be quite contemptuous. Milton thought about writing a big epic about Arthur but wrote Paradise Lost instead.”

1800s – Tennyson to Twain

Romantic literature fell further out of fashion during the Enlightenment but Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King had a powerful Arthur at its heart. “In the age of British empire that muscular Christianity with knights riding out into the world fits. And Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court sees an American get knocked on the head and wake up in Arthur’s world. At first, he is critical – there are no newspapers, no bicycles, no telephones, no banks – but, by the end, he has seen the value.”

1960s – Camelot, USA

Camelot

Musical Camelot opened on Broadway in 1960 and ran for more than 800 performances, winning Tony Awards, spawning an Oscar-winning film, and counting President John F Kennedy among its fans. In an interview with Life magazine just four days after his assassination, his widow Jackie forever linked JFK to King Arthur and Camelot. “Jackie was looking back on a time that could have been perfect and ideal, the height of civilisation, but was tragically cut short. That resonates with the Arthurian spirit of aspiration, idealism, high hopes and values not coming to fruition.”

1975 – Monty Python

Monty Python The Holy Grail

And now for something completely different. With Graham Chapman as King
Arthur, one of the great film battle scenes, and an alternative take on Arthurian legend, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a huge hit. “While it appears to be a complete send up of the story, it is also using it as a vehicle for making comments about society and modern culture.”

Charlie Hunnam: “The themes and issues of King Arthur feel very relevant”

1980s – Excalibur and fantasy fiction

More than half of the literary versions of Arthur were published in 1980s and 1990s. It was a golden age for fantasy in book and film, with John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur setting the heroic tone. “The genre as we know it would not exist without the Middle Ages and the world of King Arthur. Game of Thrones is so medieval. The 1980s was also the age of greed, so that flourishing of sci-fi and fantasy literature could have been them looking back with nostalgia to the Arthurian ideals.”

Today – Feminist readings

Feminist responses to the Arthurian legend, most famously Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 epic The Mists of Avalon, changed the focus of the story. “There is much more interest in Guinevere today. In the Middle Ages, she was a device, a necessary queen who betrays her husband. But in more recent versions there is interest in how she and other women operate, the pressures on them. In The Mists of Avalon, you only see events from women’s points of view. It is not about glory in battles, it’s a very different view of the Arthurian world.”

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