Home » Uncategorized » Arthurian Medievalisms and the Public Understanding of the Past

Arthurian Medievalisms and the Public Understanding of the Past

Guest Blog Entry by Laurie Rizzo, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library

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Studying Arthurian legends is like a labyrinth in which the closer you think you’ve gotten to solving the maze the more you realize that you have so much more to explore.  There are several reasons why Arthuriana presents such an enigma.  For one, Arthuriana is arguably the largest body of literature revolving around a central character. Secondly, the stories’ origins are ambiguous. Arthurian legends are a complicated, intertwined web of oral tradition, legends and historical facts. Untangling it all is not easy, but that’s what makes it so fascinating to me.   Throughout hundreds of years, authors have shaped and molded the legends influenced by their own time, their patrons/patronesses, and their culture. Many medieval authors’ identities are just as mysterious as Arthur’s himself.  Arthurian legends are essentially an entire body of works akin to fan fiction, except without a single definitive source.

Arthurian legends are a part of our popular culture, depicted in every contemporary medium, from comic books and video games to television and cinema. There have been more than one hundred Arthurian legend-themed films.  Arthuriana has been repeatedly adapted to film since the inception of moving pictures despite the fact that the films rarely do well in the box office. Each time a new film is released there are high expectations both from the filmmakers and from the audiences who go to see the movies. People have high hopes that the next film version will be better than the last and be more well received. The films continually fail because the expectations of how the legends should be portrayed in film have not been met.

Audiences have specific expectations of Arthurian films which can be discerned through the analysis of metatexts. Film reviews act as a metatext to the film.  Reviews are often the first point of contact people have with a film, playing a major role in how a film is perceived and interpreted.  Thus, it is not the film itself that sets the standards for the subgenre, but rather it is the interpolations of film reviews that influence what audiences come to expect as the paradigm of these types of films.  Analyzing film reviews can provide insight as to the reasons behind a film’s appeal.

For a paper I presented at the 2011 International Congress on Medieval Studies I examined the reviews of fourteen Arthurian films, set in medieval times which were produced between 1967 and 2009. I looked for the critical discourse, perception and meaning in the reviews, as opposed to simple binary classification into favorable or unfavorable judgments. By analyzing reviews across these films, I identified several significant trends in expectations and interpretations, which I classify into the following six categories: 1) Primary sources, 2) Missing elements, 3) Character portrayals, 4) Theme, 5) Film medium and 6) Time period.

Readers of this blog may be most interested in the last of these — the film’s representation of the Middle Ages. In assessing the accuracy of the films’ representation of the time period, critics generally focused on four aspects: the scenery, the costumes, the battle scenes and the dialog.

The scenery seemed to be the easiest expectation to satisfy. Often the films major success is that the locations are beautiful, but most critics are in agreement that pretty scenery is not enough to make a good movie. Additionally, in order for the film to be realistic the scenery can’t be too immaculate – as was the case in First Knight (Dir. Jerry Zucker, 1995) which was criticized for Camelot looking like something out of Disneyland.

With costumes there was less of a consensus. Should the costumes reflect a specific time period? Or should it be historically ambiguous? Whatever the choice, the costumes should feel authentic and consistent to the chosen time period.  Costumes should not be too silly, too dirty, or too clean-looking. If the costumes are too manicured, it comes across with a ridiculous feel.

Even prior to Braveheart, battle scenes were expected to be epic, exciting, bloody and coherent. However, after Braveheart and Lord of the Rings, the bar has been raised as to what can be accomplished in filming warfare. Too often the battles in Arthurian films are confusing, boring and bloodless. Blood was often considered essential for being able to follow the action as to what is happening and who is being defeated. Too much one on one fighting during warfare such was the case in King Arthur (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2004) is considered unrealistic and boring. Additionally, if the audience doesn’t care about the characters or their cause there is no reason to care about what happens during the battle.

The dialog should not sound contemporary, it should feel medieval, not cliché or anachronistic.

Regardless of audience’s level of familiarity with the medieval Arthurian literature or the medieval time period, there are important aspects of the legends that are expected to be maintained. No matter what time period the film is set in, audiences desire consistency in look and feel. Arthurian films do little more than allude to the middle ages, setting their tales in a muddled, indistinct time period rife with anachronisms of time periods and speech, with confusing warfare. In spite of all these flaws in the films, reviews demonstrate the relevance and significance of Arthurian films to our modern culture, regardless of each film’s popularity.  It is the discourse that follows a film that dictates how future films within the same genre will be constructed. Thus we see that each director’s cut of the Arthurian legends is fundamentally not an adaptation of the literary sources, but rather a new installment of the timeless tale.



  1. Jeffrey Hull says:

    Nice posting, thanks. I would like to mention Excalibur (1981) – for howsoever ludicrous otherwise, I confess to liking its high & dramatic language. Indeed, I enjoy its dialogue as much if not more than that of Shakespeare (!).

    BTW: Here is an enjoyable & illustrated article regarding that film by someone who qualifies as a true fan of that movie:


    Good luck 😉

  2. But, a Devil’s Advocate question: are those who write the reviews a fair sample of the audience? For whom were these reviews written? The press, or the Internet? The intended audience and included information would vary considerably between the two…

    My apologies if the full version of your paper dealt with these concerns.

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