TCS Daily

Politically Correcting the Legend

By Michael Brandon McClellan - July 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Jerry Bruckheimer's most recent rendition of King Arthur raises a fascinating question: is the political correcting process implemented intentionally, or does such revision simply occur by momentum once patterns of thought start heading in a certain direction?

The newest King Arthur purports to tell the "real story" that inspired the legend of Camelot. The Cliff's notes version is this: King Arthur was really the Roman commander named Lucius Artorius Castus, leading a group of conscripted "eastern knights" charged with repelling Rome's enemies at Hadrian's Wall in Britain. These "knights" are pagan cavalrymen from the Central Asian region that lies between the Vistula River and the Caspian Sea, known as Sarmatia.

Guinevere and Merlin are actually "Woads" (named for the blue dye used to paint the body before battle that gained notoriety in the movie Braveheart). These Woads are pagan barbarians who constitute Rome's primary enemies beyond the Wall to the north. Merlin is not really a magical wizard but a mystical Shaman-like freedom-fighter leading the Woads; Guinevere is not a queen in flowing robes, but rather a proto-feminist archer who goes to battle in William Wallace-style face paint.

The Woads simply want to be left alone after facing great persecution and torture by the Catholic Romans, who are willing to implement any hideous means to convert and enslave the natives. With the exception of Arthur (who is part-Woad), the Christians are almost uniformly duplicitous, and dare I say it, evil. Meanwhile the real enemies are coming down from the north, and they are the blonde-haired Aryan-looking Saxons. The ruthless Saxon leader's most notable quotation is along the lines of "don't breed with the locals, you'll taint our blood."

While the historiography is dubious on its face, it is interesting that the movie claims to be telling the real historical tale. There are of course some grains of truth upon which the new myth is built: there was indeed a second century Roman leader named Artorius, the Saxons were temporarily repelled by a King around the fifth century AD when the Romans were abandoning Britain, and there were Sarmatian cavalrymen conscripted to fight for the Roman Empire. It is therefore possible, or perhaps even plausible, that Arthurian legend was somehow inspired by a combination of Artorius, the repulsion of the Saxons, and the Sarmatian cavalry. Following on Kemp Malone's theory from the 1920s, anthropologist C. Scott Littleton made the argument for such a connection in the mid-1990s, and his co-author Linda Malcor consulted in the making of the movie.

Am I taking this entertaining movie far too seriously? Maybe, but the mind can be conditioned in many ways, and often the most effective propaganda is that which is subtly delivered to the audience, which passively ingests the "intellectually nutritious" message much as a Kindergartner willingly consumes a tasty Flintstone vitamin. With the Flintstone vitamin in mind, let's examine the movie's main themes as it retells what was once the paradigmatic tale of British Chivalry.

First, Britain's saviors come from the East. The famed Knights of the Round Table -- who even in this politically corrected rendition retain their famous names of Lancelot, Galahad, and Gawain -- are metamorphosed into, as Roger Ebert said, "yurt dwelling" Central Asians. I have no idea whether the Sarmatians lived in yurts, huts, or teepees (the movie shows huts) -- according to Herodotus, their land had very few trees, so I'll tentatively stick with yurts. Regardless, the premise that in the "real story" the legendary Exemplars of Chivalry had to be imported from the geographic and cultural East is troubling enough, and the movie makes sure we get the point.

These post-modern conscripted knights fight according to a new Chivalric code. Brazenly eschewing Leon Gautier's "Ten Commandments of Chivalry," these modernized knights of yore do not defend the Church, and they do not fight for "higher ideals." Rather, they irreverently proclaim things like "I kneel before no one" and derisively mock priests who are praying after battle. They fight for their freedom, and then reluctantly out of a sense of comradeship with Arthur. These knights are fallen "realistic" heroes.

Guinevere is no effeminate damsel in distress, creating dissention in the ranks with her irresistible beauty. Rather, she is first discovered in a Catholic torture chamber, stoically facing her martyr's death for refusing to abandon her indigenous religion or the Woad independence movement. Once revived, she undergoes a brutal realignment of her dislocated fingers, and then emerges on the battlefield, wielding a bow like Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Far more Xena the Warrior Princess than the Princess Bride's Buttercup, she dons a Gothic leather outfit with the theology to match.

Alas, we come to Merlin. Merlin is the shrewd political and religious leader of the fight for Woad independence. In a triumphant moment of ethnic solidarity, Arthur allies with Merlin for the final battle against the Saxon invaders. While Arthur the imperial instrument had been wasting his time fighting for Rome and its ideals, he finally embraces his native culture and stops fighting the insurgents. These forest dwelling, face painting pagans are really the true Britons. They are also technologically advanced. In maybe the most unintentionally funny moment of the movie, Merlin and his Woads pull out some allegedly indigenous trebuchets (deadly Roman and late medieval siege weapons) and launch flaming projectiles at the hapless Saxon army.

And so we have it. It wasn't noble Christian British knights who sat around Arthur's round table and forged the legendary Camelot. It was the combined ingenuity of pagan Woad face-painters and Central Asian cavalrymen. It was not a refined queen who embodied the ideal medieval Lady, but an arrow-slinging Goth chick. And for good measure, don't forget, it was the technologically advanced barbarians who brought sophisticated artillery into battle, not the Romans. I'm sure glad that Hollywood has set the record straight. I was worried we were being fed a bunch of rubbish.


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