Arthur: His Life and Legends
By Jake McAdams
The chivalrous and courageous King Arthur and his fabled Knights of the Round Table protect Britain from her invaders and finds the Holy Grail. King Arthur and his knights have become legends that have survived and even thrived throughout the centuries. Ever since the twelfth century, King Arthur has fascinated the western world, especially the British. Arthur represents the best battle leader, the perfect Christian knight, and the ideal Victorian Christian. But was King Arthur a real, historical figure or were his exploits just fables and myths created to inspire and entertain Britain? In this A&E documentary released in 1995, narrated by Mike Grady and John Shrapnel with Jack Perkins as host, the filmographers of King Arthur: His Life and Legends present Arthur's legends remarkably well, but in the process, create a bias that is impossible to overlook and which does not fully represent what King Arthur meant to the people of Britain throughout the centuries.
Within the first five minutes of the film, the legends of King Arthur are ruled as fables and myths. This does not however keep the experts from discussing these myths. King Arthur was born to King Uther Pendragon and Igraine who was the wife of the Duke of Tintagel. King Uther pleaded with the wizard Merlin to allow him to marry Igraine with the stipulation that, if there was a son born to them, he must live with Merlin. Merlin raised and protected the young Arthur and continued to counsel the king until he married Guinevere, who Merlin warned would destroy Arthur and his kingdom. After Uther died, Merlin created a contest that enabled Arthur to pull the famous sword out of the stone, thus making him King of England. Although Arthur had the sword that he pulled from the stone, the new King soon received Excalibur from the "Lady of the Lake." Excalibur was a magical sword that ensured victory and glory to Arthur, but its scabbard ensures that whoever wears it will never die of his wounds in battle, which was a constant threat in those times. Arthur soon fell in love with Guinevere, but before they were married he had an affair with his half sister, not knowing who she was. She bore him a son named Mordred. The fabled Round Table was a wedding gift from Guinevere's father, and Arthur soon used the gift when holding counsel with his knights, included among them his illegitimate son Mordred and Lancelot du Lac, who is considered as the “best of all knights.” Although Lancelot and Arthur were best friends, Lancelot secretly lusted after Guinevere, so to protect himself from sin he moved away, but eventually returned to Camelot. While Lancelot was away from Camelot, he had a son named Galahad who traveled to Camelot and become a knight after Lancelot returned. Arthur gave Galahad a seat at the Round Table and soon sent him on the quest of finding the Holy Grail. Galahad found the Grail but soon killed himself because he believed that he was now too pure to continue in life, thereby giving him the title of the "perfect knight."
After Galahad found the Grail, Lancelot and Guinevere had an affair and betrayed King Arthur. Mordred informed Arthur of their adulterous acts and sought to burn the lovers at the stake for their sins. Mordred was able to capture Guinevere but before he could kill her, Lancelot saved her and they fled to Lancelot’s palace. When Arthur heard this news he besieged Lancelot’s palace and eventually banished him and took Guinevere back to Camelot. While Arthur was pursuing Lancelot, Mordred took Camelot and Guinevere as his own. When Arthur heard this he quickly returned to Camelot where Mordred killed Arthur in battle.
The documenters do a good job of giving a chronological overview of the Arthurian legends but they do not give any support for their theory that Arthur is a myth. The first account of the fabled King Arthur of Camelot was written in the twelfth century by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae or the History of the Kings of Britain. Many contemporary historians doubt Geoffrey and believe that Arthur and other kings mentioned in his work were merely "conceived of as historical monarchs whom Geoffrey used to fabricate a myth of origin for a British monarchy." It is clear to the viewer that the expert documenters who made this film believe in this theory, but they do not support their beliefs or even give any idea that there are people in the academic world who disagree with them. This reduces the documentary's credibility. It is understood by everybody that one must fully support one's theories but by suggesting that there is a possibility of a historical Arthur, they created a huge bias in their film which does not allow the viewers to receive information and critically analyze it for themselves. Every good informative, educational film, especially a documentary like this one, should present information in a way that the viewers can decide what to do with it for themselves. The creators of this film did a great job presenting the legends but did not allow for differing opinions, which hinders the quest for knowledge.
Although this idea that Arthur was purely fictional is widely accepted as fact among much of the academic world, some scholars believe that King Arthur did actually exist in the sixth century and much time and money has been spent trying to find physical evidence of Arthur and Camelot. In 1965, the Camelot Research Committee was established to excavate different sites throughout Britain in hopes of finding Camelot. The committee discovered several structures including a massive sub-Roman rampart, a cruciform church, and an aisle hall with Mediterranean pottery which led them to believe that an actual King Arthur reigned in a Camelot which existed in what is now South Cadbury, in Somerset. Although all the support for this theory is purely circumstantial, many Britons have taken this evidence and said that it proves their English hero was real.
A third theory believed by modern historians including N.J. Higham and T. Green is more plausible: The likeliest origin [of King Arthur] was a military leader of repute in Roman Britain who had become legendary and who later evolved into a "pan-Brittonic...folkloric hero, a peerless warrior of giant-like stature who leads a band of superhuman heroes that roam the wild places of the landscape." There has been much evidence supporting this theory. Many consider the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae to be historically accurate accounts that document the period in which Arthur is said to have lived. These histories mention many of the battles that Arthur is said to have fought, thus giving proof to many that Arthur must have been real if his battles were real. Another support to the theory of two Arthurs is the evidence of a Lucius Artorius Castus who was a second-century Roman military leader in Britain. It is not hard to imagine that an actual Arthur was a military leader and that over the years of oral tradition, his legend began to grow into the myth that we recognize today.
Whether or not a historical King Arthur actually existed is of no importance in the end. The legacy of King Arthur has long outlasted his reign, if there ever actually was a reign of Arthur, because his legend has meant much to Britons throughout the centuries. The film explains what the legends have done for the people of England only in passing and does not do full justice to the impact these legends have had on Britons over the centuries. In 1956, Sir Winston Churchill wrote that Britons chose to believe the legends of King Arthur because they represent the fight against”…barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour...[and] guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity…” Britons rally behind Arthur and use him and his court as models for the ideal Briton and Christian England. Finke and Schichtman point out that “all history…fabricate[s] a past from which we would like to have descended.” The authors of the various accounts of Arthur and his Round Table wrote without much, if any historical support, and created works that appealed to the masses and represented a perfect Briton and possibly English racial superiority. It is believed that many began clinging to the myths of King Arthur during the Norman Conquest of the twelfth century. With the invasion of the Normans, the native Britons wanted a figure to rally behind who embodied all the best aspects about their society and race and they used Arthur and his knights for the purpose. The history using Arthur as a cultural figurehead continued all the way to the twentieth century when Churchill used him to present the idea that England should fight fascism because that is what Arthur would have done. If the documenters had included more of what Arthur has meant to the English people throughout history, the film would be much more useful. The legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are merely children’s bedtime stories if one does not link the legends to the impact that they have had on British society and culture throughout the years.
King Arthur and his mighty knights were courageous and chivalrous and involved themselves in grand and even holy adventures. The legends in and of themselves are fascinating to listen to and read, but the impact that the legends had on Britain is far greater than the film depicted. It is clear that ever since Geoffrey first mentioned the medieval King, Arthur has fascinated and inspired Britons. The film falls short of expressing that realization, just as it falls short of explaining why the Arthurian legends should be outrightly dismissed as purely fictional. King Arthur: His Life and Legends does an outstanding job of giving an overview of the legends surrounding King Arthur but does not fully explain its stance on some of the basic, but most important discussion surrounding the most famous legends of England:” How do you know the legends are purely myths?” and “Why are they important?” If the creators had explained these two questions, this film would be much more informative and would appeal more to the academic world than at present.