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July 12, 2004

King Arthur - circa 2004

Went and saw the new King Arthur flick that just came out. Over at Steve's site there is a back & forth about whether it is historically accurate. Steve's "well-known reader" comes closest to my position, there's not lot of history in the Arthur tales really, so you can make up whatever you want. A few comments....

A lot of lines are about a British theologian named Pelagius. In light of my recent posts expressing skepticism on the real impact of abstractions on the path of history, I found it amusing that much of Arthur's idealism in the film is rooted in his adherence to Pelagianism, which emphasizes free will, rejects original sin and tends toward a universalist conception of salvation. Pelagianism was rejected as "heresy" in the 5th century, but I believe that most mature Christian movements have accepted some of the sunny spirit of Pelagianism, if not the letter of its doctrine, in particular the tenets that imply that non-Christians may have access to heaven (often reformulated as a way to suggest that believers can not know the ways of God and who he chooses to give grace to). The Mormon Church tends to have strong Pelagian tendencies, perhaps from Joseph Smith's flirtation with Universalism. In any case, the "Peleagian" stream has always existed within Christianity from where I stand, and to me is further evidence that though abstract ideas may explicate issues, much of our understanding of mystical and religious faith is rooted in gut instincts and hard-wired mental facilities.

Another point, which Steve has brought up, is the martial role of Keira Knightley exemplifying the butt-kicking female stereotype that is now in vogue in Hollywood. Personally, I have no general opinion on the trend, as long as the women are attractive and perform the requisite number of nude scenes, but I do think that one can explain Keira's character in its historical context.

The "Woads" depicted in the film are clearly Picts. Their use of the word "Saeson" indicates a Brythonic Celtic speech, but perhaps Gaelic uses this word as well (I don't know). In any case, the Picts were the people north of Hadrian's Wall, and their blue body painting was depicted in the film. One reason that the Picts are noteworthy is that they seemed to have been a matrilineal society. This does not imply matriarchy, but it does suggest that women had a stronger voice in their society than we might expect from a modern perspective when imagining the lives of pre-literate Britons. Additionally, the Celts in general (whether the Picts were Celts or not is open to debate, but they were certainly in close contact and influenced by Goidelic and Brythonic Celts) gave women a prominent role in their society, and it seems that Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who rebelled against the Romans and unleashed a wave of anti-Roman massacres might have been less than atypical among the Celts (Mebh of Connaught is another example, though whether she is pure myth or part history is open to debate).

On a general note, I was struck by the juxtaposition of genuine facts outside of their historical context. For example, the Pope was not "the Prince" in the 5th century, and Papal Armies were a creation of the High Medieval period. The armor of the Sarmatian "knights" struck me as accurate, but we have no idea if the Sarmatians were still offering up soldiers for service so late into history. From what I have read the soldiers of Rome did not wear the horse-hair on their helmets during battle, but rather, this was a flourish for a victory parade. Of course, the glaring error is pushing the Roman withdrawl 50 years into the future.

Additionally, I was struck by the anti-Christian sentiments expressed in the film. Arthur is a heretical Christian, and his knights are aggressive pagans. The clerics are straight out of the literature of the early Protestant sects, which depicted them as worldly and craven. One thing I thought of though, I have read a few recent historical fiction novels about this period. Bernard Cornwall's Warlord Chronicles depicts a Dark Age Arthurian world where Arthur and his knights are pagan, ergo, Gildas leaves them out of his early history of this period. Another recent book that was Dark Age in sensibility depicted Arthur and his knights as being of Sarmatian stock, and only recently converted to Christianity. Perhaps the screenwriter simply read a few recent Dark Age Arthurian novels and cobbled elements of them together?

Anyway, good for a matinee price. A little too mushy for a battle epic, but one can always take a nap....

Posted by razib at 08:30 PM