Friday, May 17, 2019

King Arthur: Surviving into Modern Times?

By Richard Denham

Who was King Arthur? What stories and legends about him have survived into the modern day and where, in fact, did these stories come from?

Treatment of the king and his story has become a cottage industry in the twenty-first century, with serious historical research, novels, art, music, film and television, all vying to hijack the king who still sleeps, unperturbed by it all, under his hill.

A number of works with supposed Arthurian connections are spurious, however, particularly in the realms of science fiction. There are those who see the original Star Trek series (1966-69) as an Arthurian adventure. For Arthur, see Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner; for Merlin, the ‘sage’ Spock (Leonard Nimoy); for Camelot, the Starship Enterprise. Its mission, a la the Grail, is to seek out new worlds in space – ‘the final frontier’. The point about Star Trek – and the various much older Arthurian stories – is that it represents action, adventure, excitement. The poets who wrote The Mabinogion; Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention Thomas Malory, knew the elements that made up a good story; so did Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek. These elements are universal – the Bible has them too.

For whatever reason, relatively few dramatists found inspiration in the legends for their plays. One who did was J.C. Carr, who wrote King Arthur for the stage in 1895. The heart-throb of the day was Johnston Forbes Robertson, who played Lancelot. In publicity photographs, he looks every inch the worthy knight, even if his mail does leave rather a lot to be desired. The costumes and sets, working from his own earlier paintings and sketches, were designed by Edward Burne-Jones of the pre-Raphaelites. Fast forward to 1923 and we find the ex-war poet Laurence Binyon writing King Arthur. In true heroic mould, a musical score for the play was written by Edward Elgar, the musician’s answer to the flag-waving Rudyard Kipling.

Perhaps because dramatists could not take the Arthurian legends seriously (and, practically, because both shape-shifting magic and pitched battles are difficult to pull off on stage) the more recent Arthurian treadings of the boards are musicals. Camelot, by Lerner and Loewe, famous for their double-act creations, was based on White’s The Sword in the Stone and was made into a film in 1967. Merlin was the creation of the illusionist (a magus of our time!) Doug Heming, with music by Elmer Bernstein. Spamalot, itself a spin-off from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, starred Tim Curry as Arthur and Hank Azaria as Lancelot (and, as usual with Azaria ‘other characters’).

In the world of music, the Arthur stories have not found the conventional outlets. There have been a number of Arthurian titles and characters in very recent albums but the latest full-blown opera was Gawain, written by Harrison Birtwhistle in 1991. Before that, the only truly famous composer to tackle the theme was Richard Wagner, drawing on the rich legacy of the German Medieval romances. Forever associated with Bayreuth and tainted by the adulation of his works by Hitler, Wagner wrote Lohengrin in 1848, the year of revolutions throughout Europe. Tristan und Isolde followed in 1865 and the last creation was Parsifal seventeen years later.

Screens Great and Small
At least one movie has survived from the silent era, pre 1927, but there may have been more, cheaply made and quickly told, which ended up corroding in a reel tin somewhere. The first version of A Connecticut Yankee appeared in 1931 at a time when Hollywood was already dominating the world of cinema. As we have seen, Bing Crosby took over the Will Rogers role in 1949 when he and Cedric Hardwicke were ‘busy doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do’. It was a subconscious throwback to the ‘roi faineant’, the do-nothing king of the French Medieval romances.

What made every little boy’s heart leap for joy in 1953 was Knights of the Round Table, filmed in Technicolor and perpetual Hollywood sunshine. Robert Taylor was stoic as Lancelot; Ava Gardner beguiling as Guinevere; and who could look more noble and put upon, than Mel Ferrer as Arthur? What was particularly pleasing to the little boys who paid their threepence to watch the movie at ‘the pictures’ was the fact that Messrs Brittan, the toy company, produced authentic copies of the mounted knights made of metal. Collect the set!

The next year, Alan Ladd was the black knight in the film of the same name. The story bore little relationship to Arthur, but at least some of it was filmed at Castell Coch, a real-life (if nineteenth century!) castle in South Wales, home of the Silures tribe and a possible haunt of Arthur 1,500 years earlier.

Two years later, television, which had already got America in its thrall, was fast hooking the younger generation in Britain. William Russell, good-looking and clean-cut, with a 1950s ‘short back and sides’ haircut, was the star of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. It was the first British television production to be filmed in colour, but during its run, British audiences could only watch it in black and white. And because it was shown during Children’s Hour, there was absolutely no hanky-panky between Lancelot and Guinevere.

Animation revolutionised Arthur. Today there are a large number of animé adaptations of the legends, but it was Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in 1963 that captured everybody’s heart. Merlin’s owl Archimedes was pure Disney and the silly old duffer tripping over his beard was the perfect foil for the cute kid who grabbed said sword, utterly unaware of his future destiny.

Four years later, the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot hit the big screen, complete with big names. Richard Harris as Arthur had no clue ‘how to handle a woman’ and no clue how to sing either. Franco Nero as Lancelot, all silver armour and piercing blue eyes, had a much better grasp of things female, in this case, a willowy Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere; as so often, life imitated art and they became a couple, marrying many years later and after a long separation, in 2006.

Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in Camelot

Then came the riotous Monty Python vehicle, The Holy Grail, played entirely for laughs. There wasn’t a single horse in the film – all ‘mounted’ characters simply miming a horse and pulling on non-existent reins – but the thirteenth century armour was quite authentic and the various quests into the Otherworld were no sillier than they are in Malory or the Mabinogion.

Two gloomy movies followed, trying to re-establish some sort of gravitas. The first was Excalibur in 1981. Directed by John Boorman, it is regarded as a classic today, but at the time the violence was found excessive. Nigel Terry was an ambivalent Arthur, not the hero we expected, and both Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgan Le Fay, unleashed their dark sides. The armour had now slid forward to the fifteenth century, the only real nod to Malory.

Battle between Arthur and Mordred by William Hatherall

In 2004, King Arthur, accompanied by a documentary made for television, purported to be historically accurate fifth century stuff. It wasn’t. Clive Owen, never off the big screen in those days, mumbled his incomprehensible way through the role of Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd (a Welshman at last) was the Frenchman Lancelot and newcomer Keira Knightley, who, of course, can handle a bow better than any man, was Guinevere. Everybody was trying just a bit too hard and what most people remember of the film now is that Knightley’s upper half was enhanced somewhat by CGI for the posters!

A similar ‘authentic’ series, this time made for television, was Arthur of the Britons in which a suitably smouldering Oliver Tobias played the Romano-British warlord; no castles, no plate armour, no round table. There were none of these things either in Merlin (2008-12) which told the story of the teenaged Arthur and his equally teenaged sage (!) There wasn’t the remotest attempt to create period through costume or set, the actors often dressed in almost unaltered tees and jeans, but the kids loved it.

Gawaine and the Green Knight, with Murray Head and Nigel Greene respectively, was good back in 1973. First Knight starring Richard Gere as Lancelot and (everybody’s idea of a king) Sean Connery as Arthur, was not. And don’t get me – or anyone else interested in finding Arthur – started on the Last Knight in 2017 – that was part of the Transformers cycle!

Warhammer board games, role-playing games, video games (Wikipedia lists 24 which is probably not even close to a definitive number) – it goes on and on because Arthur goes on. His character, his stories, are timeless and capable of endless adaptability. In 2018, the name Arthur was the twenty-third most popular boys’ name, up eight from the previous year.

Yet somehow, in all the magnificent creations barely touched upon in this chapter, we have lost sight of him. But even so, I believe we will never really believe the words we sometimes hear in darkness; Arthur is gone …

[all above images are in the Public Domain]


Richard Denham is the co-author of the best-selling 'Britannia' series. These books follow a group of soldiers and their descendants through a chain of events which will eventually lead to the fall of Roman Britain and the descent into the Dark Ages. His other titles include 'Weird War Two', a collection of strange facts and unsolved mysteries from the Second World War. When not working, reading or writing, Richard enjoys dogs, real ale, music and is, unsuccessfully, trying to make pipe smoking cool again. In a previous role, Richard worked in local government where he helped expose deep-rooted corruption and sexual misconduct within Hampshire Constabulary. He's done with that now, preferring to spend his evenings watching Netflix and drinking tea with his loved ones.

Buy Richard's latest release, Arthur: Shadow of a God, HERE


  1. It really is incredible when you think about it how we never tire of retelling the Arthur story. A very interesting article.

  2. Thank you for this overview!

  3. Sword of the Valiant was another version of Gawain And The Green Knight. A bit silly, but Sean Connery was lovely as the Green Knight and I know I spotted Rosemary Sutcliff’s name somewhere in the credits. Alas, her own novel, Sword At Sunset, never made it to the screen, but there is a play somewhere out there, usually done by amateurs.

    The Pythons were/are University graduates, one of whom writes history books, so no surprise there. I found that film especially funny because I did an Honours thesis in Middle English literature.

    I enjoyed King Arthur, while never believing in its accuracy. For one thing, they had the Romans still in Britain long after their departure. But it was good fun and rather touching. Arthur Of The Britons was delightful- and Brian Blessed was a King Mark who would certainly have made mincemeat of Tristan if he had tried it on with his Queen!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.