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Matters of Britain

Perhaps the central fact of the Arthur mythos is that the once and future king will rise again to save Britain in her hour of need. Less explicitly acknowledged (or too obvious to bother acknowledging?) is the fact that the myth itself performs a similar function; as with all national myths, it morphs to meet the needs of the particular Britain of its moment. During the heyday of Empire we got stories of knights spreading civilisation outward from Camelot; the late Victorian Arthur is in Tennyson’s poems of loss and death and ending; T.H. White’s Arthur story is fascism and doom and yearning; Welsh Arthurs in the twentieth century are sleepers under the hill, ready to rise again; in a postimperial Britain his realistic-sounding Roman roots are centred. Arthur is king of England or of Britain as the situation requires him to be. Merlin is Scottish; Arthur shows up in the Mabinogion; those connections are emphasised at particular moments for particular reasons. There’s a reason this body of myth is referred to as the Matter of Britain—its purpose is, in part, to define what Britain is.

What this means is that an Arthur film, in a year that has included both Brexit and a rather startling British election, is bound to mean something. Yet Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, released earlier this summer, has not generated its own miniature thinkpiece industry. This is a relief, in a way, but surely this incredibly topical film has something to say about the country for which it’s providing an origin story?

Perhaps not.

We open at the end of a war. Mordred, here a rogue mage, is attacking the city of Camelot with giant demonic war elephants, Hannibal crossing the South Downs. Uther Pendragon, king and bearer of the magic sword Excalibur, defeats him and wins the war—but is soon betrayed by his brother, Vortigern. The infant Arthur witnesses the killing of his parents before being set adrift in a boat that carries him down the Thames to Londinium. There he is found and raised by a group of women who work in a brothel, and all seems to be going well until the water levels around Camelot drop drastically, revealing Excalibur embedded in a stone. Rumours of the existence of a “born king” start to fly; to quell a growing resistance movement Vortigern orders that all men of about the right age attempt to draw the sword. Meanwhile, Arthur, now an adult (we get a montage of the years in between) has gathered around him a band of comrades, with fine names like Wet Stick and Backlack. Tom Wu has a minor role as “George” (referred to at one point as “Kung Fu George”[1]), the mentor who taught Arthur how to fight. Forced to undergo the sword test, Arthur is immediately captured by Vortigern, but rescued by a band of upper-class rebels led by Sir Bedivere and “The Mage” (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Vortigern must be defeated before he completes the tower that will give him magical strength, and Arthur must reconcile himself to his fate and organise his two sets of allies before claiming his birthright.

“I’m trying to tell a story here …”

In discussing a retelling it’s always tempting to start by trying to map out what is and isn’t included—perhaps it’s useful to know that that there’s no illegitimate son here, no Guinevere, no Grail; that Merlin is mentioned in passing, but has no active role to play. But then, as John Clute has elsewhere said (in an essay on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence in Pardon This Intrusion [2011]), the Matter of Britain is “almost intractably complex, not only because of the incoherence and mutual incompatibilities that muddy the inner tale, if there is indeed a single inner tale that can be told, but also because the Matter has been traversed in poem and story by many tellers over many centuries.” Modern retellings are more usually reaching into a vast mass of story and symbol and attempting to draw out coherent threads rather than attempting to encompass the whole—and as readers and viewers of the myth we’re used to receiving it in mutually incompatible fragments. And because this is a story that has been told and retold over and over, with everything but the barest essentials (and I’m not even sure what those might be) altered, we recognise it primarily as one that is told, full of tropes and shapes that we understand to be fundamental to how narrative works.

Legend’s status as story also unmoors it from time. In this film we are in the odd, atemporal space of myth-history. Actual history is gestured at rather than reconstructed—Londinium is full of Roman architecture, most of it in familiar-looking ruins. The costume design (by Annie Symons), too, is genuinely clever at straddling the divide between plausible Olden Days clothing (here too the film is not restricted by any sort of accuracy) and things that feel modern when the characters wear them. Vortigern’s kingly outfits feel particularly business casual. We’re never asked to look upon this world as accurate in any material sense—it’s purely representative, and this is one of its strengths.

Indeed, it turns out that Arthur, too, is a storyteller—it’s through his narration that we’re quickly walked through past events and alternate presents. (“Tell me a story,” demands a member of Vortigern’s police force, “about a girl called Lucy, a Viking called Greybeard, and some rebel graffiti.”) But Arthur’s stories are not the only way in which we’re reminded of the workings of narrative. This quirk is very Guy Ritchie (ifyoulikethatsortofthing), but it’s also very well suited to the subject matter. Large swathes of plot are handed over to montages (we and the film both know how it's going to go, so going through the motions is unnecessary), and we are able to slip comfortably between real and mythic space, lived and narrated events, and past and present because, again, we recognise these as inherent to the mythos and how it is received. In the face of most reviews of the film, then, I'd suggest that it's actually the most over-worked, over-stylised scenes (Arthur's comic turns as storyteller, those breathless montages) that work best here. Legend of the Sword is at its weirdest and cleverest when it’s working with our understanding of story—usually to draw us into a sort of collusion with it, but occasionally (as with Arthur’s journey to “the Dark Lands”) to wrongfoot us over our expectations of what is important[2].

This subheading really should have been a dick joke

At one level, a movie about magic swords is always going to be a bit phallic; this is neither interesting nor an original reading. Legend of the Sword, however, really wants you, the audience, to know that it knows that it is basically about dicks. The film opens with a suggestive explosion at the top of a tower, and makes full use of every opportunity to pit its various towers (two), swords (several, one magic), and snakes (miscellaneous, one of them giant) against one another. We’re invited to focus on the pommel of Arthur’s saddle as it rocks back and forth, or on a guttering candle being lovingly caressed by Vortigern. David Beckham (I know), in a cameo role as the Vortigern employee who oversees attempts to draw sword from stone, advises Arthur to put “ten digits round the blunt bit, give it a tug.”

In a film so silly and so blatant about its symbols, it’s hard to tell how much those symbols are worth thinking about. Legend can get away with being lazy, given that its source material is so oversaturated with meaning; it can give us signifiers without ensuring that they signify anything. What, for example, are we supposed to do with a scene involving an eagle carrying a snake flying into the sunset? Is this a callback to the Roman Empire? The flag of Mexico? Who knows.

Having said all of which, I risk making myself look silly when I describe one of the moments in the film where I think symbol is used to genuinely good effect. At some point we notice that the symbol of the “born king”, graffitied on walls across the city, is a circle with a cross on top of it (♁)—an upside down version of the female gender symbol and the planetary symbol of Venus that feels like a sly joke in a film so heavily and knowingly dependent on phallic imagery. It’s also, however, the symbol for Earth. Intentionally or not (probably not) Legend of the Sword here has touched on something real. The matter of Britain is also the physical matter of Britain—the rock and earth that make up the island. There’s an echo of this in the most basic version of the myth—the sword being pulled out of the stone, out of the stuff of the landscape itself. Ritchie’s version takes the metaphor even further. As Vortigern stabs Uther in the back with his own sword, the dying king is transmuted into a rock, so that Arthur, now literally a son of the land, is pulling the sword out of his father’s body. Later, the Lady of the Lake will physically pull him into marshland.

And speaking of the Lady of the Lake:

Strange Women Lying in Ponds

Before we'd even reached the opening credits, much less the sword-tugging, two women had died. (A lot of men presumably also died at the same time, during the war with which the film opens, but in the manner of background cannon fodder.) Vortigern, it turns out, has been enhancing his magical powers by serially sacrificing the women in his family and throwing them to mysterious creatures that live in an underground lake. Igraine, his sister-in-law, is killed, and her body falls into the river. Later, Arthur witnesses the murder of the woman who raised him.

It’s not surprising that so many of these deaths seem to involve bodies of water—underwater seems to be one of the few places in the film’s world where women (not the dead ones, presumably) can thrive. The Lady of the Lake seems powerful, though all she actually does is telepathically give Arthur a vision of a possible apocalyptic future (more demonic elephants). The creatures with which Vortigern makes his terrible pact appear as a writhing mass of tentacles and women’s torsos, so that it’s tempting to do a plausible reading of the film as Little Mermaid fanfiction.

Its women characters are also the point at which the film’s creativity in naming seems to have dried up. The men are “Wet Stick,” “Goosefat Bill,” “Flatnose Mike,” “Mischief John”; and there’s palpable joy in the sounds of these words, and the playfulness that they allow. Meanwhile, a couple of the women get dull first names, while “The Mage” and “The Lady of the Lake” are synonymous with their jobs. IMDB informs me that Vortigern’s underwater allies are named “Syren 1,” “Syren 2,” and “Syren 3.”  (Try “Ursula,” “Flotsam,” and “Jetsam.”)

And yet it does occasionally look like the film is making an effort. The decision to jettison Merlin for a female Mage might well have been a good one, had Legend been able to decide whether she was supposed to be terrifying and otherworldly or merely a Girl whose pigtails Arthur can pull. [3] And as much as they’re barely present and/or murdered to move the plot along, it’s clearly important to Legend’s conception of itself that multiple women (domestic and sex workers among them) are present and play a role at Arthur’s eventual coronation. If only it could sustain its attention long enough to have them do something.

Britain means Britain

That coronation scene is important, of course, because this is the restoration of order the film has been leading up to. We know (because the myth demands it) that Arthur is a good king—so what the film means by good is going to be encompassed in the values of his court. Soon after his ascension to the throne Arthur has begun work on the construction of his Round Table. We’re invited to notice that Arthur’s friends and allies are ordinary people, and that many of them are women. We’re invited to view this Roman Britain as a relatively racially diverse space, even if the only named Asian character is a martial arts teacher.

We’re also, hilariously, invited to view Arthur’s trade negotiations, when the Vikings whom he’d annoyed earlier in the film press him to honour Vortigern’s promise to sell them English children as slaves. Arthur’s refusal is only to be expected; his dramatic declaration that “You are addressing England,”[4] on the other hand, is impossible to read outside the context of the current political climate; a European trade deal in which all the English have to do is repeat their demands very slowly and clearly. At the beginning of this review I asked whether Legend of the Sword has anything to say about the country in the present, and it would obviously be easy to try and map Arthur’s policies onto contemporary Britain’s political divides. But I suspect it’s the other way around—that the myth itself, and Ritchie’s use of it, are so vague, and the discourse over British nationhood currently so panicked, that it’s actually the latter that maps on to the former. I wrote this review during the week that all (some of) (online) Britain went to war over the question of race in Roman Britain, and whether, or how many of, its citizens should be depicted as black. Had Legend of the Sword appeared more earnest in its approach to history (and had anyone watched it), this film, rather than some innocent BBC schools video, might have been at the centre of that storm.

Had Legend been more earnest, in fact, many things might have been different. I say above that the Arthur myth provides the raw material for whatever national story is currently required; this sort of thing can easily slip into bad allegory. Yet Ritchie’s film goes to the other extreme in some ways, repeatedly resisting meaning (even as it bombards you with symbol). It would be foolish to complain that this film lacks a consistent political vision because of course it does, but where other retellings of Arthur tend to organise the mass of the myth into something, Legend just offers you a sort of lucky dip of tropes. That the result feels so true to Britain’s current flailings seems more by (happy?) accident than design, but ultimately Legend’s vision of an unthreateningly multicultural, small, beleaguered island that still inexplicably wields international power is both completely incoherent and very familiar.


[1] Before the film’s release a promotional poster suggested that this was the character’s “official” epithet. The poster was deleted, and George is only referred to in this way once in the film, so presumably in the event wiser counsel prevailed. ( [return]

[2] Which is not to suggest that this is always well done. Take an extended sequence, late in the film (I think, but at points this film felt unending) in which the death of a particular character is aggressively signalled to the audience. He survives one perilous moment, then another, the viewers’ expectation of his death being used to string us along; by the time Ritchie kills him off it has merely become annoying and we’re glad to be rid of him. [return]

[3] To be fair to the film, Arthur also seems to enjoy harassing Bedivere. [return]

[4] It’s not clear what’s going on in the other countries that make up the British Isles. [return]

Aishwarya Subramanian lives in the North of India, teaches English at a law school, and writes about children’s books, fantasy, space, and empire. She's on Twitter as @ActuallyAisha.
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