Legend, Magic And Myth - In Search Of The Real King Arthur

By Penelope Parkin | 02 August 2004
Shows a photograph of the actor Clive Owen dressed as King Arthur in the film King Arthur. He is sat astride a white horse. He is wearing body armour and a red cloak.

Photo: Clive Owen is King Arthur. Photo: Jonathan Hession © Touchstone Pictures & Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Inc.

As Hollywood releases its interpretation of the Arthur story, the 24 Hour Museum takes a look at the legend and asks did King Arthur really exist…and if so just where and when did he reign?

The much hyped King Arthur starring Keira Knightley and Clive Owen has now hit our cinema screens, but if you’re looking for Camelot, Excalibur, an Arthurian Round Table or the traditional love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot you’re in for a shock.

The film takes place at the end of King Arthur’s reign in the 6th century AD and is a one last mission extravaganza, which sees Arthur and his band of knights set forth to rescue a Roman nobleman and his family during the Saxon invasion of England in the Dark Ages.

What’s more, the film’s set in Cumbria and many of its action sequences were shot around Hadrian’s Wall. Cumbria’s not usually equated with Arthurian folklore so this comes as something of a surprise. Especially when we’re used to medieval knights, comfortable, cushioned castles and fanciful tales of chivalry and magic.

Shows a photograph of Ioan Gruffudd dressed as Lancelot, Clive Owen as King Arthur and Keira Knightly as Guinevere in the film King Arthur. Ioan is wearing armour and a cloak. Kiera is in a green period dress and carrying a bow. Clive has on body armour and a red cloak.

Photo: Photo: Ioan Gruffudd (left), Keira Knightley (centre), and Clive Owen right ) © Touchstone Pictures & Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Inc.

So here’s how the confusion started…

Despite our perception that King Arthur reigned in the Middle Ages as seems to be portrayed by many 20th century films, the tale has its roots in the Dark Ages. Thus the Legend of King Arthur, as we know it today, is thought to be a combination of all the Arthur tales gathered together and embellished by historical tomes composed by commentators such as Sir Thomas Malory.

Malory composed his famous Morte D’Arthur while he languished in a 15th century prison. The tale is said to have included (amongst other works) the Welsh Monk Nennius’s 8th century compendium The History of the Britons and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century tome The History of the Kings of Britain.

Shows a photograph of a scene from the film King Arthur. There a men on horseback approaching what looks like a marching Roman legion.

Photo: Arthur and his men on the move in a scene from KING ARTHUR, directed by Antoine Fuqua and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Photo: Jonathan Hession © Touchstone Pictures & Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Inc.

Malory’s work is also thought to have borrowed the mythical dragon slaying tales of the 4th century Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. Hence the embellishment of the myth with fantasy and tales of sorcery.

The 12th century Brittany chronicler Chretien De Troyes similarly merged such myths with the French 'Lais' or poetic verses and the rhymes of the 10th century Welsh poet Bleheris, creating the legends of Lancelot and the Holy Grail.

Whatever its history, various centres in Britain can perhaps be said to lay claim to different stages of Arthur’s life - and it is easy to see how easily an Arthurian lake or a venue for the round table or a court can be attached to a fragment of folklore.

Follow our 24 Hour Museum trail to find what Arthur treasures and legends are can be seen in The South, Wales and The North.


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