For anyone who has watched the most recent popular movie involving King Arthur (with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), they might have found it appealing because of the attractive actors playing the classic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Other more historically minded viewers might have found the gritty feel and realistic fighting refreshing.
I would agree to both points, they are better than previous versions which were to clean in the scenery and sweet in the verbiage. But as someone well-learned in the period I was unable to avoid a few points that were not so historical. Let’s start with the primary characters – Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. While Arthur was historical, the other two were not. Lancelot was invented either by the troubadours or a French poet in the twelfth century. Guinevere is a symbol of the land Arthur ruled and his connection to it, and not an actual person.
The geography is also a bit off. While Arthur was a ruler of northwestern England Cumberland), his protagonist, Cerdic, landed just east of Cornwall on the southern coast. The two would have been active so far apart as to make confrontation impossible in this period.
In addition, the dating is absolutely irredeemable. Arthur’s warriors are culled from the Scythians, a tribe that seems to have disappeared by 300. The opening scene involves a conversation that mentions Pelagius, a scholar active in the decades around 400 whom, truth be told, Romans did not speak of after he was labeled a heretic. And to return to Cerdic, he likely did not land in England till long after Arthur was dead, and well over a century after the Romans had lost interest in Britain.
Rachel Bromwich was an incredibly hard-working, open minded scholar. Her seminal work was The Welsh Triads, a collection of pnemonic devices used by medieval bards in their telling of stories, construction of poems, and the performance of their many duties.
To complete it, she not only had to become an expert on the manuscripts that contained the triads, manuscript dating in general, and Medieval Welsh, but she went several steps further. She researched every name she found in all of the triads, beginning with the Welsh genealogies and continuing through an extensive search of all historical, legendary, and mythological materials that were available to her. She then went on to make comparisons and draw references to the continental Arthurian romances.
I met her once. As a nervous third-year graduate student, I had begun writing her for advice and guidance on my thesis. Eventually, either because she was impressed with my love of the subject or just out of pity, she invited me to come visit her in Aberystwyth. We spent hours discussing my thesis, the subject of King Arthur, scholars, and Welsh history and literature in general. More than guiding me through the more difficult aspects of my dissertation, she re-enthused me with her passion for the subject. It is a gift which I will forever be grateful.