Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Sword in the Stone and Arthurian Romance

Arthurian Romance

Where did my interest in the Myths and Legends of King Arthur come from? I know I’m not alone in being a little bit obsessive about seeking out adaptations of the different tales. King Arthur as a character has appeared in over 30 feature films and countless books; I’m even looking forward to Guy Ritchie’s version, scheduled for cinemas in 2017 according to, starring Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur and David Beckham as “Blackleg leader” ….!? Charlie Hunnam joins a list of distinguished screen Arthurs over the years; in the picture below Charlie relaxes (with Excalibur I imagine) in a boat alongside an Arthur-fest of other actors: Clive Owen, Sean Connery, Nigel Terry, Liam Garrigan, Jamie Campbell Bower, Graham Chapman, Brian Aherne and Bradley James.

Arthur at the BBC

I felt the BBC TV series Merlin was strongly-designed and acted with involving relationships. I also thoroughly enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of The Once and Future King with David Warner as Merlyn. I have no doubt there will be many future variations, additions and perversions of the Arthurian stories. All the elements have been recycled many times: the boy with a destiny, the noble leader, the magical weapon, the love triangle, the adventures and spiritual quests, the friendships and betrayals, the battles and the tragic end.
Disney's Sword in the Stone, Harry Potter, the Narnia series and Terry Pratchett novels borrow Arthurian elements

The Sword in the Stone

After reading The Goshawk by TH White in my teenage years I thought it would be entertaining to read The Sword in the Stone and I bought a paperback copy at Wakefield market. I had not read anything like it before – the knowing asides to the reader, the anachronistic references to the 20th century in a medieval narrative, the exquisite descriptions of English landscapes.

It was easy to identify with the Wart (to rhyme with Art) – a runt of a boy (misunderstood and bullied.) The other main characters are also vivid:
  • the charismatic wizardly teacher, Merlyn
  • the talking owl, Archimedes
  • the affable but clumsy Kay
  • the comical but brave King Pellinore
  • the gruff but kindly Sir Ector. 
Disney’s whimsical film captures much of the plot of The Sword in the Stone but misses out the underlying philosophy and satirical politics.
Merlyn and Archimedes

Arthur pulls the sword






Mixing Fact and Fiction

Following my enjoyment of The Sword in the Stone I scoured references to potential historical figures on whom Arthur could have been based: Artorius, Artúr, Agitius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Lucius Artorius Castus and Riothamus. Celtic, Briton, Roman or a mix of all three? I read Tennyson’s poetic version Idylls of the King, Enid Blyton’s children’s version of the stories, Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling, Tristan tales in comic books, John Steinbeck’s skilful adaptation and Mary Stewart’s trilogy about Merlin. I looked up encyclopaedia entries about Tintagel, Glastonbury, Winchester, Cadbury Castle and many other sites around Britain laying claim to fragments of the legendary characters and ideas. I devoured (several times) Alan Garner’s superb tales of Alderley Edge: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence of five books, starting with the unsettling Over Sea, Under Stone.

Academic Module

At university I took an optional course in Arthurian romance when I learned about Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Wace, Chrétien de Troyes (who introduced the Lancelot/Guenevere love triangle and the Holy Grail), Eschenbach’s Parzival, the Song of Roland, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Mabinogion and Spenser’s Faerie Queen. It became obvious that there was no such thing as a definitive Tales of King Arthur originating from a single narrative foundation but a collection of elements from a variety of sources, cultures and traditions. Arthurian Romance is a miscellaneous ragbag of bits and bobs, all the more marvellous for their open-ended possibilities. Alan Garner explains his idea about riffing on old ideas in the afterword to the Alderley Tales: “Originality is the personal colouring of existing themes.”
Films by Robert Bresson and John Boorman

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – a major landmark

There is probably one book, though, that is the nearest thing to a lodestone for fans of Arthurian Romance. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur from 1485 is the book that seems to combine the most potent stories and ideas into as coherent a whole as currently exist and this mighty tome was the meat of the course at university. It was the work that was used for the beautiful-to-watch and eminently worthy (but in my opinion strangely dull) production at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 directed by one of my favourite directors, Greg Doran, and starring two of my favourite actors, Sam Troughton and Jonjo O’Neill. I’m not sure why that production didn’t light my fire since it brought together two of my favourite obsessions: the Arthurian legends and the RSC. William Goldman’s famous opening to Adventures in the Screen Trade is the only explanation I can come up with: in the entertainment industry he authoritatively stated: “Nobody knows anything.”
RSC's Morte d'Arthur with Jonjo O'Neill as Lancelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel

“Whoever pulls this sword out of this stone and anvil is born to be the rightful king of all England.”

Before getting to the academic study at university there were two other works that DID light my fire – one set of books and one film musical. The musical was based on the books and the books were based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It was a series of books that, it is fair to say, have haunted me since I read them aged 15: the sequels to (or continuation of) The Sword in the Stone – The Once and Future King.
Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur