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The many legends of King Arthur in pop culture

If you are interested in Guy Ritchie’s "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," now showing in area theaters, you may want to brush up on your knowledge of King Arthur myths. Since medieval times, King Arthur has starred in numerous poems, novels, paintings and films. To prepare yourself for Charlie Hunnam’s portrayal of Britain’s most legendary king, why not take this trip down Arthurian memory lane?


Medieval literature is filled with Arthurian tales, but two books will get you up to speed. Start with the work that catapulted King Arthur into superstardom—Geoffrey of Monmouth’s "History of the Kings of Britain" (1136). Here you get the first complete version of King Arthur’s story, featuring such figures as the wise magician Merlin, the lustful King Uther and the beautiful Queen Guinevere. Geoffrey establishes Arthur’s myth as tragic: though he unites Britain and conquers most of Europe, his empire collapses after his son Mordred’s rebellion.

Thomas Malory’s "Le Morte D’Arthur" (1470), a massive work composed by an imprisoned knight with a serious criminal rap sheet, contains many of Arthurian myth’s best-known stories. Here you will see Arthur pull the sword out of the stone, watch the wickedly talented Morgan le Fay turn into a stone, witness Lancelot and Guinevere’s troubled love lives, and thrill to the hunt for the Holy Grail. Malory’s got it all.

If your tastes for Arthurian literature are more modern, then check out these three books.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s "Idylls of the King" (1859) contains lyrics dripping with nostalgia for chivalry. (To put yourself in the right Romantic mood, look at some Pre-Raphaelite images of luminous ladies and sensitive knights—Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s or Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings will do the trick).

Next, for satire about all that medievalism, read Mark Twain’s "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court" (1889), which follows the knee-slapping adventures of an American industrialist who time-traveled to Camelot. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s "The Mists of Avalon" (1983) puts a feminist spin on Arthurian myth, making Morgan the central character of a spiritual Britain.

The films

Start with John Boorman’s stunning "Excalibur" (1981), which covers Arthur’s whole story—from a fiery depiction of his conception to his boat-trip to Avalon after the tragic civil war. "Excalibur" offers exciting knightly battles and courtly love affairs, but its true brilliance lies in the magnificent performances of its two show-stealing magicians—Nicol Williams’ Merlin and Helen Mirren’s Morgana. It's both campy and intense—a perfect Arthurian combination.

Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave star in the 1967 film musical "Camelot."

With divided loyaltiesa and its steamy cinematic potential,  the story of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere often takes center stage in Arthurian film. Cornel Wilde’s "The Sword of Lancelot" (1963) offers a fine version, with Wilde’s passionate Lancelot pursuing a doomed love affair with Jean Wallace’s Guinevere while civil war destroys Camelot. Joshua Logan’s "Camelot" (1967) offers a musical version of the infamous Arthurian love triangle, with Vanessa Redgrave’s Guinevere making Richard Harris’ Arthur melodically melancholy. Jerry Zucker’s "First Knight" (1995) is disappointing: Richard Gere just seems too American and blasé to capture the moody courtliness of Lancelot.

The 1970s brought two rarities among Arthurian films—bona fide cinematic masterpieces, each in French. Robert Bresson’s 1974 "Lancelot du Lac" offers an austere, anti-romantic look at the gloomy and divided Camelot in which Lancelot and Guinevere conduct their torrid, selfish affair. Erich Rohmer’s 1978 "Perceval" creates a wonderfully unrealistic, fairy-tale atmosphere for its timeless and lyrical version of the original Grail romance by Chrétien de Troyes.

Antoine Fuqua’s "King Arthur" (2004) shows both the risks and rewards of offering a new take on Arthur. The film has a clunky and rather forced first half, as Clive Owen’s half-British Arthur leads a number of Sarmatian knights forced to extend their military service to Rome. Once Keira Knightley’s wild Guinevere helps Arthur’s men commit to joining the fight of native Britons against fiendish invading Saxons, the film becomes a powerful epic.

Popular shows focused on Merlin offer excellent Arthurian fare. Steve Barron’s star-studded miniseries "Merlin" (1998) provides a charmingly fresh vision. In Merlin’s magical world, Miranda Richardson’s Queen Mab, an ancient goddess, competes with Sam Neill’s Merlin, who tries to help Arthur usher in a new age. Standout Merlin performances include Isabella Rosselini’s tortured Nimue and Helena Bonham Carter’s ambitious Morgan. BBC One’s "Merlin" (2008) also offers a unique version of Arthurian myth, focusing on Colin Morgan’s young Merlin as he struggles to help Arthur in a Camelot where magic has been banned.

Some King Arthur movies are, despite all efforts to be serious, simply silly. Take Richard Thorpe’s "Knights of the Round Table" (1953). Whether it’s disgruntled kings knocking down part of Stonehenge after leaving a meeting with Arthur in a huff or Robert Taylor’s Lancelot saying he loves his horse “like a brother,” this pageant-filled epic provokes more laughter than awe. Perhaps the most ridiculous Arthurian film is Stephen Weeks’ "The Sword of the Valiant" (1985), which features Miles O’Keefe as a humble and often shirtless Gawain in a blonde page-boy haircut, who, questing with his loyal squire Humphrey, fights the ridiculous Prince Oswald, sees Morgan get turned into a toad and watches Sean Connery’s Green Knight literally melt out of the film.

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" pokes fun in a masterful way at the King Arthur legend.

Some films are meant to be silly. One masterpiece of Arthurian goofiness is worth highlighting—Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’ "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975). In a glorious send-up of every Arthurian cliché, the "Holy Grail" features cowardly knights, Communist peasants, a pyromaniac wizard, a killer rabbit, and a squire who uses coconuts to produce the sound of galloping horses. Especially after reading Malory and sitting through so many films, you should reward yourself with seeing how hilarious Monty Python can make the Arthurian Middle Ages.


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