It’s safe to say that Guy Ritchie’s new film interpretation of the King Arthur story hasn’t exactly been an unqualified success, with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword only bringing in takings of $44.9m dollars worldwide against its $175m budget (and unknown publicity costs) so far and attracting mixed to negative reviews.
Starring Charlie Hunnam as a rough-and-ready Arthur raised in a brothel, some of the criticism of the film has surrounded the deviations from the popular myth, with characters like Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin either absent or sidelined while Ritchie’s trademark “blokes and banter” style runs rampant.
Accordingly, many viewers have suggested Hollywood might do better to avoid a gritty reboot of the character and instead return to the traditional Arthurian world, one of noble Knights, round tables, magicians, Lancelot and Guinevere. Simple, right?
Well, not exactly – because THAT version of Arthur is also taking some liberties.
You see, the version of Arthur and the Knights of the round table that we all know and love is pretty far removed from the earliest references to the figure, whose real-life provenance is heatedly debated by historians to this day.
And whether he was a real person or not these questionable early records of Arthur (including entries in the Historia Brittonum/History of the Britons and Annales Cambriae/Welsh Annals) tell us little except that he was a soldier of note, and had a crucial role in the 6th-century Battle of Badon.
Welsh legends collected in places like book of poetry Y Gododdin and the modern Mabinogion expand the tale slightly further with the introduction of familiar knights like Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere and Arthur’s wife Guinevere (though with different names), while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) incorporated the figures of Arthur’s father Uther and his magician advisor Merlin (a character made by combining legendary Welsh figure Myrddin Wyllt and real life war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus) along with several familiar storylines.
Iconic Knight Sir Lancelot and his affair with Guinevere? Both created by 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, as was the Quest for the Holy Grail. The full picture of how we see King Arthur in modern terms can probably only be credited to the Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory’s 15th-century English-language account of the entire Arthur story which seems to have been positioned as an authoritative collection of the various legends.
A title page for the 1909 reprint of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur
So clearly, when we talk about “taking liberties” with Arthurian legend the situation is a little more complicated than with adaptations of characters like Sherlock Holmes, where there is a clear and established canon. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword may not have Lancelot, Guinevere or much of Merlin (he only has a brief appearance), but for centuries at a time neither did the majority of stories about King Arthur.
Older myths see Arthur as a near-magical figure hunting down strange creatures, holding a connection to the Welsh Otherworld and allied with pagan gods, and if it wasn’t for people fiddling, adapting and adding to the stories the Excalibur-wielding, chivalric and romantic version of King Arthur wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Hell, even the courtly, medieval aesthetic of knights in shining armour isn’t exactly accurate for the Dark Ages Arthur was first recorded as existing in, so we can’t be too strict with Guy Ritchie’s costume choices.
None of this is to say King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a brilliant addition to the canon – much would indicate that it is not – but we can’t censure it too much for tinkering with the formula. After all, if you’re a fan of Arthurian Legend at all that’s only because a different writer got a little creative with the established canon themselves all those centuries ago.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is in UK cinemas now