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Angle-ing for Arthur: Erasing the Welsh in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 August 2020

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Summary

In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie exhibits a puckish delight in torqueing his received material, a habit he displays as well in earlier films like Sherlock Holmes. In his latest venture, Ritchie and his co-writers, Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, take a crowbar to the myth, jettisoning timelines and disrupting family trees. Mordred, for instance, loses his standing as Arthur's bastard child, becoming instead an evil necromancer pitted against Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon (chap. 1). Vortigern, in contrast, gains a familial connection, for Ritchie recasts him as Arthur's power-mad uncle, one so intent on preventing Arthur's ascension that the wicked usurper willingly sacrifices his own daughter to his warped cause (chap. 10).

Not satisfied with making just these startling revisions, Ritchie chooses to rework the legend further by melding bits of other stories into his Arthurian base. In doing so, he makes use of a “neomedieva[l]” technique, in which artists blithely mix and match materials from a wide variety of eras, displaying little concern for fidelity to the historical record. Ritchie thus connects his work to earlier films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Knight's Tale, which likewise play fast and loose with their received materials. In King Arthur, the director evokes Moses by having his young king discovered alone in a boat (chap. 1). Additionally, the scantily clad damsels of Londinium who find the future hero look like they have arrived fresh off the set of Cecile B. DeMille's famed epic about the Hebrew patriarch, The Ten Commandments. Ritchie also incorporates a healthy dose of Robin Hood into his retelling of Arthurian lore, prompting the reviewer for The Economist to wonder why the director did not just go “whole hog” and name his movie after the notorious English outlaw instead. Ritchie's echoing of the Sherwood-forest outlaw in his depiction of Arthur enables him, potentially, to increase his audience base by appealing to aficionados of both legends. The merging of Arthur and Robin Hood also heightens the film's irreverent nature, not just by making the storied king a rabble-rouser, but also by conflating the Arthurian literary tradition with the folkloric one of the Merry Men.

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Studies in Medievalism XXIX
Politics and Medievalism (Studies)
, pp. 49 - 66
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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