Lanterns: King Arthur and Why Legend Matters


King Arthur and Why Legend Matters

'King Arthur,' which just opened in theaters, bears little resemblance to the King Arthur legend that has enchanted readers for centuries. It will certainly never rival 1981's 'Excalibur,' which remains the cinematic gold standard.

This retelling features giant attack elephants, snakes, and sea serpents, among other hideous creatures. Viewers expecting a classic tale of dashing knights, fair damsels, and acts of chivalry will be disappointed. Those content with a summertime popcorn flick, replete with violence and special effects and unburdened by historical detail or context, will likely get their money's worth. 

Charlie Hunnam performs adequately in the title role and makes a handsome leading man. Jude Law as the villainous king and Djimon Hounsou as one of Arthur's future knights lend respectability. Special kudos go to the cinematography, without which the film would have no degree of breathtaking wonder.

Filmmakers typically don't grasp that the compelling conflicts of the King Arthur legend are not those between knights and elephants or even knights jousting with each other. The King Arthur legend concerns the eternal struggle between the more noble and the baser aspects of human nature. Reminiscent of the theme of 'Paradise Lost,' Arthur's Camelot ultimately falls to adultery and betrayal, with Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot completing the triangle.

King Arthur, though written off as legend and fantasy, may have truly existed, according to some historians, in a much more brutal time before the age of chivalry.  In this case, it is the legend that matters. The great king of legend inhabits the earliest days of the England (and thus, western civilization) we have come to love. Civility, chivalry, even equality, and democracy all have roots in the tales of King Arthur. This description may not be original, but I submit that Arthur exists as a mythical George Washington - all British royalty are said to be his descendants. The simple words, "The once and future king" supposedly mark his final resting place.

The best films of Arthurian legend stay close to the original source materials such as 'La Morte d'Arthur' and Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King.' For all the human frailty - and, yes, a disturbing amount of bloodshed - these are epic tales of destiny and redemption., and they stand alone as compelling adventure stories.

And finally, a plea to Hollywood: why not make a King Arthur movie featuring Sir Galahad? Granted, he is a latecomer to the legend, and some find him so morally pure as to be unbelievable. He was, of course, the hero of the search for the Holy Grail, by most accounts the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. His devotion and gallantry were both unparalleled, even surpassing that of his father, Sir Lancelot. Lancelot, though mighty and gallant, was also a playboy who, unfortunately, garners glory that is rightfully Galahad's. That's just a personal peeve. Nonetheless, Galahad bears at least a mention for putting duty and faith ahead of romantic satisfaction and then dying young with nobility.

The religious and moral underpinnings may seem archaic in an age of subjectivism when special effects rival character and storytelling. 'King Arthur' is not bad, but fans deserve better. The source is a morality play for the ages, thus western civilization deserves not snakes and elephants but heart and soul.

Written by David Bozeman

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