Arthurian Cinema and the Dream of Camelot

I believed in Camelot growing up; I believed pretty much anything I saw in movies. I had trouble distinguishing fiction from non-fiction, I still get the terms mixed up. So, when I saw Dragonheart (1996) at around 4, I took it very seriously. I even memorized the Old Code Bowen recites throughout the film; the code King Arthur once wrote for his knights. It goes:

“A knight is sworn to valour. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His might upholds the weak. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked.”

I remember standing by a tree with a plastic sword one summer day reciting these words, finally having watched the film enough times to memorize each line. I had to say it quickly, because my bare feet were burning on the warm sidewalk, but it felt important, and so it had to be said outside. I don’t quite recall why I thought that, I suppose I just figured they were appropriate words to shout at a tree? From then on, I dedicated myself to the Code, even had Draco the Dragon as an imaginary friend for guidance. I spent every dollar of my allowance, all two of them, buying a dollar store plastic sword and bow and arrow, and then proceeding to break them over the week so I would have rebuy them the following weekend in this terrible and wasteful cycle. Dragonheart, Quest for Camelot (1998), and A Knight’s Tale (2001) were on a constant loop in my household, to the extent where my Mom had a friend in Spain buy a DVD copy of Quest for Camelot and mail it to us because she couldn’t stand renting it one more time.

Kayley from Quest for Camelot and Kara from Dragonheart became my icons, because while I took this oath very seriously, I realized that it didn’t mention women. It seemed to imply that only a man could be a knight, yet both films featured these strong women who were in every respect, knightly. King Arthur’s Round Table never featured any women, by my knowledge, but Quest for Camelot tries to remedy that by focusing on Kayley, a woman who wants to become a Knight and take her father’s place at the table. What I came to realize about Camelot, and Arthur in general, is that these films are actively reworking Arthurian material, commenting on something already well established and even challenging it, to an extent. Praising the best parts while acknowledging how difficult those oaths and legends are to the modern eye.

“That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.”
(Camelot 1960)

Camelot occupies a unique position in all these films, because none of them really focus on King Arthur. They focus on Camelot, but more importantly, the image of Camelot, what that place represents. King Arthur is the perfect balance of myth and history. He wasn’t necessarily a historic figure, there is plenty of debate surrounding whether he actually existed or not, but historic in that the stories of Arthur and his knights are quite old. The stories themselves have a history, as they have been well established for an exceedingly long time and often used politically. When England’s Henry VII took the throne, he apparently claimed to be a descendant of King Arthur, and that claim is found throughout history.

King Arthur became the ideal King, the best example, the one closest to God’s will, what with his fancy holy grail. He was also taken as a lesson to future Kings about chivalry and betrayal. Camelot doesn’t have a happy ending, as the prosperity brought in by Arthur vanishes after his death, which implies that a Kingdom is only as good as it’s ruler, and that the connection between land and ruler is interconnected in a very literal way. I should preface here, I am not an expert on Arthurian lore by any means, as although I read a lot of Camelot literature during my degree, that was a while ago, and Camelot movies were always my go to, although that’s probably blasphemous. It’s also crucial to note that there is so much literature out there for Arthur, if we are talking about every adaptation, translation, or even just inspired work. Because I want to spend my next post discussing a new favourite of mine, The Green Knight (2021), it felt appropriate to establish where this film is coming from, not just the literature, but the actual myth of Camelot in Hollywood, as that comes with a whole other set of expectations.

There are several films about Camelot that just focus on the love story between Guinevere and Lancelot, and Arthur (who is also there), and use that as a moral lesson about love and responsibility, often painting it as a tragic drama, which literature has done too. I was never interested in those, I was always worried about how Guinevere would be represented, because so much of literature actively hates her, blaming her for every terrible thing that happens to Camelot. Much like Eve and the Garden of Eden, Pandora and the box, Camelot’s downfall officially begins after Guinevere’s betrayal, not Lancelot’s, not even Arthur’s, who decides to burn her at the stake, so she unfortunately signals that fall from grace, or the ideal that Camelot represents. Some literature has depicted Lancelot and Arthur’s betrayals as the death of chivalry, but more often the focus is with Guinevere.

I am far more interested in the stories that take place after Arthur, or the ones that aren’t officially based on Arthurian lore but invent new stories within Camelot. Take Quest for Camelot, the title alone tells you what is at stake. It begins with King Arthur’s Round Table, and then focuses on a quest to save Excalibur and return it to Arthur. Lancelot and Guinevere are notably absent from the film, so it’s version of Camelot has no perceivable downfall after the events of the film. Once Arthur’s sword is returned to him, we get this happily ever after where our heroes, Kayley and Garrett, can stay as Arthur’s knights. It’s interesting that in this film, the villain Ruber, tries to take over Camelot by fusing his arm with Excalibur, essentially becoming one with the sword and corrupting it with his greed, and thus corrupting the land as well. The film focuses on greed, suggesting that it is the opposite of everything Camelot stands for, symbolized by the Round Table, where all are equal and no person is above anyone else, or more central than another. Notable still is the fact that Quest for Camelot, and many of the other modern Camelot films, remove the Christianity associated with these stories, where the table represents that all men are equal because each was made by God, who is above everyone.

“I Didn’t Know We Had a King, I Thought We Were an Autonomous Collective.”
(Monty Python and the Holy Grain 1975)

Modern adaptations focus on a version of chivalry, characterizing it as a basic good versus evil conversation, while also attempting to remove it from Christianity. There is a lot of Christianity in Arthurian literature, even quests from God for the Holy Grail, but it’s not something we really include in modern films because people are more interested in conflict than in utopias. No one wants to hear about a good day in Camelot, even though it was by all account the perfect place. People, at least modern audiences, are more interested in chivalry, specifically the conflict around honour and greed, not just the religious kind but a code outside of the bible.

Take Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which like Life of Brian (1979), pokes at Christianity, there is even a literal depiction of God in the film, guiding Arthur and his men on their bizarre quest for the Holy Grail. Here, Camelot is comedic, both because of how serious it’s been dealt with in the past, and how strange some of this lore is, especially to the modern eye. Like the scene where Arthur is accosted by one of his ‘so-called’ subjects, who refuses to acknowledge him as King, remarking “I didn’t vote for you” and “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government”. I will spend more time examining the rules of chivalry in my Green Knight post, because it is crucial to that film, so suffice to say here that chivalry is a set of rules, essentially the Old Code I mentioned prior. It’s not always put into exact words, as it is in Dragonheart, but it appears in most Camelot cinema, usually so the film can question if chivalry can compete or even exist amongst widespread greed. It even appears in A Knight’s Tale, which doesn’t mention King Arthur, but focuses on a Knight’s honour, on doing the right thing in the face of a powerful adversary. In Quest for Camelot, it’s everything that Kayley and Garrett represent while fighting against Ruber’s selfish greed.

I would be doing a disservice trying to explain the overlap and contrast between Christianity and chivalry, and how those terms are described in literature and then adapted in modern works. Countless people have dedicated entire books to this very discussion, so I am vastly underprepared. I think it’s fairly obvious, however, that these modern Camelot films turn Christianity into an undertone rather than a literal depiction, and I kind of prefer it that way. I am not Christian, which means I often overlook when a story is Christian. It took me well into my 20s to realize that a series like The Chronicles of Narnia was in anyway Christian. It also means that I’ve never been interested in Christian stories, with the exception of Camelot, which I didn’t realize was religious until I visited the literature. Camelot media is becoming micro, trying to focus on specific stories, characters, emotions, that they can fully examine within 2 hours or so. Keep in mind, most Camelot literature is long and complex, which doesn’t bode well for your typical blockbuster. Even The Green Knight, which is arguably the greatest Camelot film out there, focuses on chivalry, it bases the entire story around that discussion and frames every relationship through it. That is exactly what Guinevere and Lancelot films do, telling a story through one lens, love or drama. There hasn’t really been a Camelot film which focuses on Christianity in that manner, and so I never realized it was there. The characters might vaguely refer to God, but only in passing.

Take Dragonheart, a film which takes place hundreds of years after King Arthur’s death and talks about that downfall and how chivalry and knighthood have been desecrated. We begin the film with Bowen, a knight of the old code, and his pupil, Einon, a young Prince. The two watch as the King is murdered while attacking uprising peasants, he is actually swarmed by a crowd and stabbed multiple times, a revolt that the rest of the film debates, suggesting that the monarchy is a corrupt and brutal institution. Einon tries to steal his father’s crown, wrestling it from the dying man, and is then fatally wounded after being knocked into a spike. Bowen, believing that Einon has learned to be a good man from his lessons, takes the Prince with his mother to a great Dragon who splits his heart and shares it with the boy. Much like Arthur and Camelot, the two are connected, and should one die, the other will too. Despite this gift, Einon proves a horrible and greedy ruler, far worse than his father, and Bowen blames the Dragon, believing that he corrupted the boy and made him forget the Old Code. It’s important to note that the reason the Dragon trusts the Queen and Bowen is because both claim to be of the Old Code, behaving as someone from Camelot would, that same honour.

The rest of the film focuses on the relevancy of the Old Code, as the Dragon, who we eventually call Draco, explains that he was there when it was written, and so (spoilers) his death as the last dragon could signal the final death of chivalry, whatever was left over from Arthur’s time. But unlike the stories of Camelot, where Arthur’s death destroys everything, Draco is taken to the stars and becomes the constellation Draco, implying that what he stood for will never die for those willing to look to the stars, or the old ways, and remember. It’s a happier ending, aside from Draco’s truly moving death, but it also acknowledges that our modern world is entirely distanced from this Camelot model. The characters even in Dragonheart are having difficulty comparing their world, and the widespread greed and inequality throughout the land, with the so-called ideal Camelot, wondering if those old ways are just naïve versus this broad disparity, a disparity that still exists.

“You’re no longer a myth. You’re starting to mean something.”
(King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 2017)

Another frequent type of Camelot cinema is the origin story, which has plenty of exciting bloodshed for modern audiences. There’s The Mists of Avalon, both the novel and adaptation (2001), which follows Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay, and her involvement with the events in Camelot, but there are also the two King Arthur movies, King Arthur (2004) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). Both received mixed reviews although I find them enjoyable. The 2004 film tries to make Arthur into a historic figure, a Roman officer who turns to fight along Hadrian’s Wall with the Celts. Again, it’s hard to add history to King Arthur because there is this massive debate, and this film is in no way historically accurate, but I appreciate that it tries to change the way we talk about Arthur, and it was the first film I ever saw which addressed the Roman Empire in Britannia, which got me into a whole Boudica phase.

The later 2017 is a Guy Ritchie film, and so it plays like his other action films, with his distinct editing and fast dialogue. It too, however, tries to suggest that its audience doesn’t know King Arthur the ‘right way’, and that their expectations of Camelot are about to be shaken up. These origin films are essentially saying that most Camelot stories are boring, especially the serious dramas which focus on Lancelot and Guinevere, like First Knight (1995). They are arguing that these stories need a modern spin that removes whatever complicated chivalry system the literature has, reducing this conversation to a more obvious good versus evil. Chivalry is a lot more complicated than that, which also makes it quite daunting. That is where The Green Knight comes in, as it follows a specific Arthurian story, and never tries to modernize that discussion, and for that, it’s one of the greatest adaptations I have ever seen. It’s not the closest adaptation, but it does render a complex struggle that isn’t even outright said in certain Arthurian literature, it’s just how the characters are and behave.

Everything in The Green Knight is astonishing, from the casting, performances, visuals, tone, material, but it’s also the kind of film I wish I could have seen while studying these works. To read about chivalry is one thing, to see it in such a full and complicate light it is another. But more on that next week. For now, I am reminded of my Knight obsessed childhood, one that eventually blossomed into a Greek mythology obsession. The two mix well, as literature often springs from one allusion to the next, between Camelot and the Greek pantheon. There is a moral to these stories, much like the Old Code I declared to a tree years ago, but it’s pronged. Authors and creators turn to these old stories and find new meaning in them or use them to say something about themselves and their modern world. Camelot is dead, it was ancient even when these stories were being told, but its representation is still growing. Rebranding with each new film or interpretation. There is no true version, no sword in the stone that only one pure director can wield. Camelot, like any myth, is a practical tool that says just as much of the people referencing it as the characters included in it.

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