The first five minutes felt like an extended trailer and the next 20 was a British gangster film set in the mythical dark ages. There were quite a few jumps of style and I’m not sure if it worked, but as a viewer it certainly kept you on your toes. As a recreation of Arthurian myth it’s all over the place – Ritchie takes bits and pieces and weaves it into a story of his own making, but some of the ideas are quite refreshing – how the sword got in the stone being one of my favourites- and also the cost of magic power that Vortigern pays being another. Plus the channelling of Mordred’s magic through a coven of acolytes circled around him looked great and seemed to show that the makers of the film thought about how magic might work.
What I still can’t get over though are the giant elephants – the size of mountains. Where did that idea come from? Just crazy.
So what happens? In a nutshell – Arthur’s dad is killed by his own brother (Vortigern) who uses magic powers to defeat Arthur, who is unbeatable facing mortal men because of his magic sword. Arthur – a young boy escapes and grows up as a street kid in old Londinium town. He becomes the leader of a criminal gang. Vortigern grows in power but fears the legend that the true king will come – that true king is the one able to draw the sword from the stone. He tests everyone in the kingdom – eventually Arthur gets his turn …
The effects and style of the film are stunning. The humour you will have seen before in Guy Ritchie films – I’m not personally a fan, but the look of the film and the use it made of diverse myths carried it for me. The main actors were all pretty good, so I would say yes worth seeing – but be prepared for it to be a bit daft.
Here’s an excerpt from the first section of the translation:
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when that burg was destroyed and burnt to ashes, and the traitor tried for his treason, the noble Æneas and his kin sailed forth to become princes and patrons of well-nigh all the Western Isles. Thus Romulus built Rome (and gave to the city his own name, which it bears even to this day); and Ticius turned him to Tuscany; and Langobard raised him up dwellings in Lombardy; and Felix Brutus sailed far over the French flood, and founded the kingdom of Britain, wherein have been war and waste and wonder, and bliss and bale, ofttimes since.
And in that kingdom of Britain have been wrought more gallant deeds than in any other; but of all British kings Arthur was the most valiant, as I have heard tell, therefore will I set forth a wondrous adventure that fell out in his time. And if ye will listen to me, but for a little while, I will tell it even as it stands in story stiff and strong, fixed in the letter, as it hath long been known in the land.
Weston’s translation is clear for the modern reader, but retains the power of the original poem (although in prose format).
I recently listened to the audiobook of Michael White’s Tolkien: A Biography, and I was struck by the fact that he was motivated to write The Silmarrillion as he believed that the English did not have a proper mythology in the same way as perhaps the Celts, Finns or the Norse have with works such as the Mabinogion, Kelevala and the Sagas and Edda.
Beowulf was also mentioned, but I guess that most of the Anglo-Saxon literature only alludes to a pre-Christian past and we are left to guess that they had a similar mythology to the Norse, but that is all. But Tolkien either wishes that such a mythology existed, or perhaps realised that the English were such a disparate culture in many ways – with confusion over Englishness and Britishness, the input of Norman culture etc, that we were left with no unified national mythology in the same way as these other Northern European cultures.
That left me thinking about King Arthur. Surely the Arthurian legends are a pretty strong mythology aren’t they? They tell of a powerful leader who unites the country and makes it great. What more could you ask for?
Well I suspect that Tolkien had a few problems with the Arthur legend. Firstly the legend was probably not English enough for him – the sources being primarily Welsh or Romano-British, with the main opponents being the Anglo-Saxon’s, the very English that Tolkien wanted to mythologize. And the second issue I think was that Arthur was really a Christian King and although there are some allusions to magic and folklore there is very little of the pagan past in the Arthurian legend.
Quite ironic really that Tolkien was so interested in creating an English mythology that relied on paganism, when he was actually a very devout Catholic.
But apart from Tolkien, I would say that the Arthurian legend has been pretty wholeheartedly accepted by the English and the British as a sort of national myth and legend – the Plantagenets and the Tudors were happy to use the legend for its unifying power and the implication that Britain was the source of true chivalry, and of course the Victorians with their Pre-Raphaelite art adored it. And perhaps Arthur is a healthier legend than trying to recreate an Anglo-Saxon myth based on Norse paganism, it certainly allows for a more unified image of a varied British culture, and gets rid of the depressing violence and doom of Germanic myth.