8 Fun Facts about King Arthur before watching 'Legend of the Sword'

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Arthur (Charles Hunnam) doing what Arthur does best: Pulling a sword from a stone.


By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

A number of people watching King Arthur: Legend of the Sword when it premieres May 12 will probably think, “Hey, I know King Arthur, and that’s not King Arthur!” And they’ll be wrong, because nobody really knows King Arthur – if he existed.

With that in mind, let’s look at 8 Fun Facts about King Arthur:

1) Technically, King Arthur isn’t English.

The words “English” and “England” are derived from the “Anglo” part of “Anglo-Saxon,” referencing the Germanic tribes who conquered most of Britain beginning around the 5th century and culminating in a unified country roughly 500 years later. The late 5th century is when Arthur was supposedly fighting his fights – and it was the Anglo-Saxons he was fighting.

2) More than likely, the Arthur stories got their start in Wales.

The name Arthur as a warrior or leader arises from Welsh legends and folklore, as do other Legend of the Sword characters like Vortigern (Welsh: Gwrtheyrn), Uther (Utyr), Sir Kay (Cei) and Sir Bedivere (Bedwyn). Medieval Wales gave us Mordred (Medraut) and Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar). A number of stories that later find themselves in the Arthurian legend are also Welsh.

Possibly connected and possibly not, a 6th century Welsh monk named Gildas wrote of an unnamed war leader who defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Badon. Then the 9th century monk Nennius made the connection explicit by writing of an Arthur who fought 12 great battles, culminating at Badon. A 12th century compilation of earlier stories called The Annals of Wales repeated some of Nennius, and added the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur and Mordred are killed.

Other major Medieval manuscripts don’t mention Arthur, or are thought to lift largely from Nennius, and many of these “histories” are quite fanciful anyway. Worse, nobody even knows where “Badon” was, if it existed at all.

3) The historic Arthur (if he existed), would have been a Celt.

A late 5th century warlord battling the Saxons would have been a Romano-Briton. That is to say, he would have been from one of the Celtic tribes that populated Britain and would have been using Roman tactics and weapons to preserve Roman culture. That’s because the Romans had ruled “Brittania” for about 400 years, and that was the status quo. (The Romans had gone home in the early 5th century, what with the collapse of the Western Empire and all.)

Courtesy of  Warner Bros. Pictures

Battling Vortigern are (from left) Freddie Fox as Ed, Craig McGinlay as Harry, Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, Aidan Gillen as Bill and Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere. Of the names normally associated with Arthur’s knights, only Bedivere and Kay (not pictured) are featured in Legend of the Sword.

4) Most of the cool Arthur stories were written in the 12th century – and not initially in English.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote 700 years after the Arthur stories are set, wrote all that stuff about chivalric romance and courtly love and so forth – because that was the style of the time.

Geoffrey, writing in Latin, gave us a strong foundation for the Arthur stories by adapting legends and myths into a streamlined story that he pretended was actual history. (He titled the work containing his Arthur stories Historia Regum Britanniae, or “History of the Kings of Britain.”)
 
De Troyes, a Frenchman, invented Lancelot du Lac – a Frenchman, naturally – and therefore the world’s most famous love triangle. He also added a bunch of Christian themes and the Quest for the Holy Grail, thereby creating or fleshing out the various Knights of the Round Table.
 
5) Geoffrey might have been French, too.
 
While Monmouth is in Wales, there’s not a lot of evidence that Geoffrey spent much time there. Given that he was literate and a member of the leadership elite, he was probably from one of the Norman families that took charge of the country after William, Duke of Normandy, became king after winning the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Normandy, of course, is in France.
 
6) Arthur’s men weren’t knights in shining armor.
 
The stories of King Arthur are generally set in the late 5th century. Plate armor didn’t come along until the 13th century, and the sophisticated “jousting armor” you see in movies like Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail wasn’t in heavy use until the 15th century – 1,000 years after King Arthur (if he existed). The fellas hanging around the Round Table (if they existed) would have been wearing something like what the Romans used, possibly bronze cuirasses (covering the torso), ringleted mail armor and leather. Lots and lots of leather.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Vortigern (Jude Law) is a hero in some stories and a villain in others. In Legend of the Sword he’s the latter. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

7) The Anglo-Saxons might have been invited to Britain.
 
Various legends and stories recount how Vortigern – played by Jude Law in the movie – was a 5th century warlord having trouble maintaining order after the Romans left. His main problem was raids by pesky Picts and Scots, tribes that had never had been under Roman rule. So, legend has it, he invited tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes to act as “foederati” – part of the Roman practice of subsidizing “barbarian” tribes with land and money in exchange for providing protection.
 
Naturally, as with Rome itself, the foederati decided to just take over the place instead. Whoops!
 
Since we don’t know if Vortigern actually existed, there’s no reason to put much stock in this legend. Further, some stories name the Anglo-Saxon leaders as Hengist and Horsa, which translates to “Stallion” and “Horse” in Old English, placing them in a mythological tradition of “divine twins,” so they probably didn’t exist either. But it’s a cool story.
 
Geoffrey of Monmouth thought the divine twins were cool enough to include in his Arthur tales. But he decided it would be cooler if Vortigern was seduced by one of Hengist’s daughters, and wrote that in his “History” instead.
 
8) “Pendragon” started out as a title.
 
In Welsh, it literally means “head dragon,” but in a figurative sense, it means “chief leader” or “commander-in-chief” and was used for other characters besides Uther Pendragon.
 
Not that there aren’t dragons in Welsh myth. There’s an old story involving two “wyrms”and featuring Aurelius Ambrosius – occasionally Uther’s brother – scaring the breeches off Vortigern with his dragon knowledge. (Geoffrey re-wrote the story with Merlin as the star.) Also, either Ambrosius or Uther saw a dragon-shaped comet predicting one thing or another (stories vary).

What does this mean for “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”? Not much, except that it’s as valid a take on the guy as any – if he existed.
 
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Dragons are apparently important to the Welsh, since their flag features one.

The red dragon was their standard. In some stories, the Saxon standard was a white one. Cornwall, where Arthur was supposedly from, floated the boar.

"Float the boar" sounds like it ought to be an awesome euphemism for something.  I'm just not sure what.

I've been re-reading The Crystal Cave, so my language has gotten a little flowery lately.

Love this thread. Anyhow, I agree with the assessment that Arthur, if he was real, was from Whales. If I'm not mistaken (and I could be) Whales was a stronghold of the Bretons (from whom we get Britton) that were a Germanic tribe, that emigrated from the mainland prior to the Saxons and Angles. The battle of Badon is referenced in several historical accounts; however, Arthur is only referenced by Nennius. The Battle of Badon is generally accepted as an actual historical event by most historians (or so I've been told).

A recent theory has Arthur having been from what is commonly known as Scotland today, not Whales. A contemporary scholar, the name of whom I can't recall at the moment, claims to have identified not only where Badon was, but also the remaining 11 battle sights that Arthur had been said to have fought in. Having identified the sights, presumably knowing the participants as well, this particular historian has Arthur born in what is today Scotland. (seems a bit sketchy to me, though).

 

Saw the movie last night with a couple of friends.  Wasn't particularly impressed.  None of the characters are particularly well-developed and there were several scenes that struck me as ridiculous and/or tedious to view.  I like some ridiculous over-the-top fantasy fodder as long as it's reasonably entertaining but this one just didn't do it for me.  

Two other fantasy-oriented films I've seen recently that were much more to my liking were Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Colossus.

The reviews aren't good, and to tell you the truth, when I read the premise I didn't want to see it. Sure, it's as valid a take on Arthur as any, but it's not one that sounds interesting to me.

I tell you what I'd like: An adaptation of the Mary Stewart books. She used the most common take on Arthur, and created the most common take on Merlin (that he's the son of Ambrosius Aurelianus). There's some good action stuff in there, with the magic kept to a minimum and almost plausible level.

Fred W. Hill said:

Saw the movie last night with a couple of friends.  Wasn't particularly impressed.  None of the characters are particularly well-developed and there were several scenes that struck me as ridiculous and/or tedious to view.  I like some ridiculous over-the-top fantasy fodder as long as it's reasonably entertaining but this one just didn't do it for me.  

Two other fantasy-oriented films I've seen recently that were much more to my liking were Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Colossus.

I think I read something about that Scottish theory. I agree, it's a stretch. It lifts from The Annals of Wales, which was a "history" that talked about a lot more than Wales. But, hey, if the Scots want to claim Arthur, they've got as good a claim as any.

As for Bretons, those are the people who live in Brittany, or "Less Britain," in France. It got that name in the 5th century when a number of Britons fled there with the Roman withdrawal. But mainly they are, or were Celts, as far as I know. And they have no connection to Wales that I know of, which emerged as a Celtic kingdom around the same time.

Brittany comes into play in the Arthur legends as a place where Aurelianus Ambrosius and Uther were in exile during Vortigern's rule -- at least, in some tales. Mary Stewart expands on that quite a bit in The Crystal Cave.

A lot of Bretons were in the army William, Duke of Normandy, raised to invade England in 1066.

John DeRubbo said:

Love this thread. Anyhow, I agree with the assessment that Arthur, if he was real, was from Whales. If I'm not mistaken (and I could be) Whales was a stronghold of the Bretons (from whom we get Britton) that were a Germanic tribe, that emigrated from the mainland prior to the Saxons and Angles. The battle of Badon is referenced in several historical accounts; however, Arthur is only referenced by Nennius. The Battle of Badon is generally accepted as an actual historical event by most historians (or so I've been told).

A recent theory has Arthur having been from what is commonly known as Scotland today, not Whales. A contemporary scholar, the name of whom I can't recall at the moment, claims to have identified not only where Badon was, but also the remaining 11 battle sights that Arthur had been said to have fought in. Having identified the sights, presumably knowing the participants as well, this particular historian has Arthur born in what is today Scotland. (seems a bit sketchy to me, though).

 

I recently saw the movie King Arthur (2004). It wasn't as bad as I feared it would be but I probably won't rewatch it.

My favorites still are Camelot (1967) and Excalibur (1981).

I haven't seen the 2004 movie. Or, obviously, the 2017 movie. I dunno -- can anyone do better than Excalibur? Or, on the other end of the scale, Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I can't imagine needing any more Arthur than that.

Excalibur was the first time I saw Helen Mirren, playing Morgana. Today she's thought of by most of the public as playing dignified queens. Prior to Excalibur I understand she played her share of bad girls among a variety of other roles. In recent years her character in the films Red and Red 2 were a lot of fun.

There's a clip on the Internet somewhere depicting Helen Mirren on some UK talk show, and the (male) host babbles a lot of drooly, rude questions at her about her "sexuality" and how it gets her roles as the bad girl. Mirren handles this nonsense pretty well, but aside from the appalling sexism it's interesting learn that -- just as you say, Richard -- Mirren played a lot of femmes fatale on the stage in her youth.

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