Area experts say 'Arthur’ has historical value

By Mark Hughes Cobb
Staff Writer-Tuscaloosa News
July 15, 2004

Because Hollywood swings hyperbole the way Arthur wielded Excalibur, many flinched at the “historical" claims for the new “King Arthur" movie.

But if you ask a couple of guys who’ve been on an Arthurian quest of their own, the film has its points.

“We both expected the movie to be kind of 'Hollywood,’ “ said Jake Livingston, co-creater of the Web site “In Search of Britain’s Lost King: A Millennial Quest for Arthur" ( “It’s not a documentary."

But both Livingston and his quest partner Joseph Boyles found it entertaining, and they said they would be glad if it brings interest back to King Arthur, especially as they’re compiling the results of their travel and research into a yet-to-published.

“[The moviemakers] came up with a believable theory," Boyles said. “It’s not necessarily historical, but it gives an alternative to the many-spired-towers-of-Camelot vision."

In “King Arthur," released last week, the legendary leader (played by Clive Owen) is envisioned as fifth-century Roman officer sent on a 15-year tour of duty in what is now Great Britain, to help settle the wild land and drive off those pesky, dreadlocked Saxons.

Pre-release materials indicated the gritty look, devoid of most of the magic and glamour of other visions of Camelot, the Round Table and Merlin, was based on “new archaeological findings."

Boyles and Livingston, who as Birmingham-Southern College undergrads made two trips to Great Britain, traveling more than 5,000 miles researching the sites of purported Arthurian tales, dispute that.

Some of the movie’s concepts come from archaeological findings, but most are from within the last couple of decades, which might or might not be recent, according to your viewpoint.

“But it’s not really archaeology that they’re basing this story on," said Boyles, who is now in law school at the University of Alabama.

“It’s literary research, going back through Roman archives."

There was an Artorius Castus, a Roman commander in the second century, too early to figure in the Arthurian legends – most tales place the figure several centuries later – but that figure might have sired namesakes.

“The movie suggests, very briefly, that this Arthur is a descendant," Boyles said, an Arthur who is half-Roman, half-British and a Christian initially loyal to Rome, and in thrall to one Roman writer’s concepts of individual freedom.

“There’s also a theory that Arthur became a title, the way Caesar was originally a name, but became a leader’s title."

It’s also documented, Livingston said, that in fourth and fifth centuries there was a notable increase in families naming their sons Arthur.

“That argues for a real historical figure that inspired the namesakes," said Livingston, who is going into his final year of medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The duo both liked seeing a younger Arthur, a gritty fighter still establishing his concepts of fairness and strength, as opposed to the complacent gray-bearded fellow holding court at Camelot.

“Arthur’s not the big fat guy on the throne," Livingston said. “He would have been a leader, a warlord."

Livingston also found novel the movement toward the north, where much of the movie is set.

Arthur and his small band of loyal, but war-weary, knights, are sent on one last (and possibly suicidal) quest: To rescue a highly connected Roman family from invasion by the Saxons, in the unconquered lands north of Hadrian’s Wall (a 73-mile Roman construction that once bisected Great Britain).

“Traditionally, most of the legends have been set in the south," Livingston said, although on the pair’s second trip, they did visit some northern sites in Wales.

Where they were disappointed somewhat was in the secondary characters. Gawain (Joel Edgerton) hardly registers at all, and beyond Bors (Ray Winstone), depicted as a drunk, good-timing lout, most of the knights seem interchangeable under layers of dirt, hair and leather.

“In the early, pre-medieval legends, Gawain is Arthur’s right-hand man, a very strong character," Boyles said.

“Over the years that changed, after the introduction of Lancelot [played in the movie by Ioan Gruffudd]."

Other adaptations that might throw fans of the myths and legends: Merlin (Stephen Dillane) isn’t so much a real magician as a mystic leader of the native people the Picts, called Woads for the type of blue dye they use on their skin. Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is a warrior princess of the Woads. And that old love triangle – Arthur to Guinevere to Lancelot – is left out completely.

Apparently, the movie originally delved into the love triangle, but director Antoine Fuqua cut it when test audiences didn’t like Arthur being cuckolded, Boyles said.

The love triangle was a relatively late addition to the legends anyway, as was Lancelot himself, added by the French writer Chretien de Troyes.

Guinevere’s transformation from swooning, unfaithful queen to bow-slinging fighter is in line with modern feminist interpretations, such as in the series of books begun by Marion Zimmer Bradley with “The Mists of Avalon."

“It was very in-vogue in medieval times to make women the evil character, kind of the Eve story," Boyles said. “Women were either cast as virgins or whores, reviled of glorified."

Bradley and other writers might be on to something with their vision of a stronger Guinevere.

“Celtic and British women were known to be pretty strong and wild," Boyles said.

While giving short shrift to the knights in general, the movie also left out completely some of the key figures in the legends, such as Kay and Bedivere.

One touch they did like (short spoiler ahead): Rather than have a young Arthur pull the sword Excalibur from a stone, he pulls it, in a moment of extreme duress, from its place marking his father’s grave.

In preparing to travel for their project – for which they got an A, later presenting material at three conferences, and for various classes – the BSC duo read voluminously, interviewed Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe and also watched many of the great and not-so great film versions of the legend.

Among their chief recommendations on video is the lesser-known “King Arthur, Young Warlord," a mid-’70s British mini-series. It also focused more on the known – or speculated – history, keeping away from mysticism.

For example, when Arthur finds Excalibur stuck under a huge rock, he organizes his knights to lift it so he could snatch it out, illustrating leadership and not a bit of craftiness.

That de-mystified view influenced another British film from the same era, one which also inspired Boyles and Livingston: the 1975 comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

“Monty Python rules supreme," Boyles said, laughing.

“We watched that a lot while planning our trips," Livingston said, “just to keep in the proper mood."