I love King Arthur, but I love him enough to know there’s no one canonical Arthur. I learned that 30 years ago in Bob Milgrom’s medieval and Arthurian lit classes at the School of Visual Arts.
Arthur can be a Constantine-like conqueror, a noble hero, a wise sovereign, a passive potentate, even a temperamental twit. So go ahead: reinvent the myth. Tell me a King Arthur story set in modern times, or in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, or in Atlantis, or on Proxima Centauri b ten thousand years in the future.
Make Arthur half-elven. Make Merlin and Morgan le Fay mutant siblings with shared superpowers. Reveal Mordred as a time-traveling Nazi out to prevent the invasion of Normandy by undermining the Round Table and allowing the Germanic hordes to overrun Britain, preemptively eliminating both the UK and the USA.
None of these revisionist flights of fancy poses so insurmountable an obstacle to me as a single soul-crushing structural choice in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — namely, recasting Arthur’s origin story as a standard-issue Hollywood revenge-fantasy plot.
Revenge. It’s the cheapest, laziest, lowest-common-denominator character motivation in the book. Nothing is easier or less meaningful than to get audiences rooting for the comeuppance of a hissable villain who wronged the hero or (even better) the hero’s loved ones.
Vengeance is part of human experience, and revenge is an integral part of stories both sublime and ridiculous. King Arthur’s legend, though, should stand for something more elevated.
However Arthur himself is depicted, the Arthurian hero (be it Gawain, Bedivere, Perceval, Lancelot, Galahad or Arthur himself) is a man who stands for an ideal or a cause. Perhaps he fails to live up to it, or perhaps the ideal or cause is worth cross-examining and critiquing, but the ideal, the cause, should be there.
If you can’t manage this much, you aren’t reinventing the myth — you’re simply committing an act of cultural vandalism.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.