Centre professor presenting paper on King Arthur


There's no Excalibur, per se, although Arthur does pull a sword out of the earth. The Knights of the Round Table, mercenaries from Sarmatia, have dwindled to seven. Merlin and Arthur are enemies. While Guinevere and Lancelot exchange a few lingering looks, there is no infidelity. There's no Morgan Le Fay, Uther Pendragon, Igraine or Camelot.

Certainly, there are teasers that remind viewers of the traditional views of Arthurian legend. There are hints of the medieval tales of valor and honor.

So what's up with the latest rendering of Arthurian legend in Touchstone Pictures' motion picture "King Arthur"? According to Mark David Rasmussen, associate professor of English at Centre College, the filmmakers have "adopted a very non-mainstream theory that is very interesting and a little peculiar." The theory?

"That Arthur was a Roman leader of a group of knights from Sarmatia, or far Eastern Europe," says Rasmussen, who teaches courses in medieval and Renaissance literature. "They are soldiers from Sarmatia brought into Britain around the first or second century as mercenaries.


"It's a big theory that has developed over the last decade or so. It's been very far from granted acceptance, so it's kinda surprising that a movie about the 'historical Arthur' (follows) this theory."

The promotional campaign for "King Arthur," which features Clive Owen as Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot and Keira Knightley as Guinevere, made an emphasis that "this was the historical version of the legend," Rasmussen notes.

"There was special on The History Channel about the historical Arthur," he says, adding the same company owns both Touchstone Pictures and The History Channel.

In the film, Arthur becomes the leader of the Britons against the Saxons. And the various knights are virtually unrecognizable, Rasmussen says.

"Tristan (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is this strange guy with a cool tattoo who is into his hawk," he adds.

Guinevere is quite different in "King Arthur," Rasmussen notes.

"Arthur and his band of Sarmatian warriors serve the Romans, who still are the dominant presence in Britain. They defend against the Woads, who represent the Picts. Woad is a blue dye. This movie is the first time we've seen the Picts called by the name 'Woads.'

"Guinevere is a Woad, one of the downtrodden, oppressed natives. She's also a warrior princess and a fabulous archer. It's a very different Guinevere from the long-suffering, adulterous queen. It's very interesting."

One noticeable difference in this version of the legend is its setting

Rasmussen, who will present a paper on the movie titled "Touchstone Pictures and the Historical Arthur" at a "Recreating Arthur" conference next month in Winchester, England, says one noticeable difference in this film's version of the legend is its setting.

"It's kinda interesting because most (movies about King Arthur) set the legend in the late Middle Ages, with knights, armor, courtly love and chivalry. The late medieval period is when the legend really flourishes."

Sir Thomas Malory's work of 1470, "Le Morte D'Arthur," is the work "that really fixes the legend in our minds," Rasmussen adds. But the new film "King Arthur" is "claiming to be going back to the historical origins of Arthur," he says.

"What's appealing about this particular version of the historical Arthur to this maker of blockbuster pictures?" Rasmussen asks.

"If there was a historical Arthur, he lived in the late fifth or early sixth century. He came out of the period when the Romans were withdrawing from Britain. They leave Britain undefended and the Anglo-Saxons invade in the fifth century. ... There is evidence that the invasions were temporarily held back and there are references to a historical leader associated with the stemming of the tide of Anglo-Saxons."

The Battle of Baden Hill is something of a final showdown between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons, a "sort of great victory of the Britons over the Anglo-Saxons," although ultimately the Saxons wind up being successful in taking over Britain.

"Arthur is associated with this period," Rasmussen adds. "What complicates this is that the earliest historical records (talk about) the stemming of the tide (of Anglo-Saxons) but they don't name Arthur. He comes up hundreds of years later. ... Arthur is a legendary figure who comes out of these conditions. Whether he is the real Arthur or not, the legend comes out of those real historical conditions."

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