History in the Movies: ‘King Arthur’

Guinevere (Keira Knightley) joins the fight for freedom for her people and her land.

Romans, Saxons and Picts, oh my!

For a summer flick, “King Arthur” begins unusually. Apparently anxious to back up its tagline (“The Truth behind the Legend!”), the film opens with a statement implying solid scholarly support for this version of King Arthur’s tale. “Historians agree,” the screen reassures us.

Uh, no, they don’t.

There is anything but agreement on the historic Arthur. Was he Celtic or Roman? Was Arthur his name or some form of title? And did he even exist, or was he instead just a creation of some fanciful medieval writers?

Hundreds of books have been written about Arthur, each giving its own spin on these questions. The ultimate answer? No one knows for sure. (Which is true, by the way, for lots of things in history.)

The arguments about Arthur are fun, though, and I applaud the film for presenting a new and provocative take on his legend. But to weigh the evidence for yourself, here’s a handy guide to the world of the historical Arthur.

Q. According to the movie, Arthur was Roman. True or false?

A. The filmmakers made Arthur half Briton/half Roman, which is unproven but believable, considering the Romans ruled Britain for 350 years. And many popular theories give him a Roman connection of some kind.

Q. What else do we know about the “real” Arthur?

A. Most historians think a historical figure (we’ll call him Arthur) successfully led Britons in battle against the Saxons in the late 5th century. Beyond that, there are lots of questions. Perhaps to keep all the Arthurian buffs happy, the movie gives us not just one theory about the historic Arthur but a hodgepodge of competing ones.

Q. The Knights of the Round Table were from Sarmatia? Huh?

A. The film expands on this theory, first suggested decades ago. When the Romans defeated the Sarmatians (in eastern Europe and Russia) they followed their tradition of demanding soldiers from those they conquered. Thus, thousands of Sarmatian cavalry served in the Roman Legions in Britain.

But why would these soldiers be linked to the Arthurian stories? For two reasons. Intriguing similarities exist between Sarmatian legends and Arthurian legends. And one candidate for the “real” Arthur is the 2nd century Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman who led an elite group of Sarmatian cavalry.

Q. Who were the “Woads?”

A. The filmmakers invented this tribal name, but they’re referring to the Picts, a tribe from Scotland best known for the blue dye (made from the woad plant) they painted on themselves before battle.

The movie goes out on a limb by portraying both Merlin and Guinevere as Picts, who ally with Arthur to drive off the Saxons. It would have made more sense to have them part of a Celtic tribe in southern England or Wales, since far more Arthurian stories are centered there. The Picts are also an odd choice because, frankly, they could be meaner than the hated Saxons.

So why did the filmmakers pick the Picts? I think they’re meant to represent all the native Celtic tribes of Britain, and their visual distinctiveness aids in that. And maybe the cool blue body paint was too good to pass up.

Q. Was Guinevere really a warrior?

A. Not in the old legends. But there is some historical precedent for the idea. During Rome’s conquest of Britain, a female warrior called Boudicca led an army of Celtic women and men against the Romans, and to Rome’s shame defeated their legions a few times.

Q. What was that strange costume Guinevere wore to battle?

A. Ah yes, Guinevere’s leather belt bikini. I’d love to imagine that costume designers poured over ancient clothing artifacts in Welsh museums for that design, but my hunch is that it was intended mostly to show off Keira Knightley’s abs and belly button. Seems a tad chilly for outdoor fighting in the British Isles, though.

Q. Did the Saxons deserve all the abuse this movie gives them?

A. Depends on the century. They were pretty nasty at the time-part of those “barbarian hordes” you read about in school that were conquering territories and helping destroy the Roman Empire. By 500 A.D. the Saxons had left their German homelands (along with the Angles, another tribe) and had conquered large swaths of the British Isles.

But flash forward some 500 years, and the rehabilitated Saxons and Angles have become the “English” (from the name “Angles.”) In 1066, it’s their turn to become the victims, when Normandy attacks and conquers England. And interestingly, some of those conquerors were descendants of the Britons who had fled from the Saxons into France centuries earlier.

Q. So, is this the true history of King Arthur, as the movie promises?

A. Well, no, but on the whole it’s a plausible history.

All except for that belt bikini.

Q. What’s a good book for more information?

A. See Geoffrey Ashe’s “The Discovery of King Arthur.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.