Once and Future Arthurian Enchantments!
By Kristin Battestella
Let's get our early medieval old speaketh education on with this chivalrous list of family friendly and Arthurian-centric documentaries.
The Arthurian Legends: The Legend of King Arthur – This 50 minute documentary from 2006 is the first in this series from Kultur and spends its time focusing on the historical and fanciful merging of the Arthur mythos. Interviews with scholarly experts and modern medievalists debate Arthur as a hero modeled to fit his time and place and how the legend has traveled across cultures and through the centuries. Balanced point/counterpoint theories break up the expected man versus myth monotony, and the time is divided into themed segments such as the Malory Arthurian era, Arthur’s genesis with the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, and the Geoffrey of Monmouth writings. Everything from early Ecclesiastic evidence and Roman influence on the legend to Sarmatian possibilities, dragon motifs, and Christian iconography is discussed here. Granted, the standard Camelot summary and knightly re-enactments are here, too. However, Stonehenge scenery and lovely artwork contribute to the well edited pacing. This won't be anything new to the well read Arthur enthusiast, my rental disc skipped, and there are no subtitles which might hinder an otherwise fine classroom viewing. Some may also find the presentation too dated or British, but considering the subject, what did you expect? This one is just the right length and none too high brow for a youthful medieval fan.
The Arthurian Legends: Camelot – This second documentary hour focuses on the would be seat of King Arthur. Was there really such a place as Camelot? How do you research a city that seemingly did not exist? Name corruptions from Chretien de Troyes, Roman ties, and several historical locales with similar monikers are discussed as numerous places on the UK map have their eponymous case made known. Mobile forces, original wooden hill forts developing into later medieval stone castles, and real world locations such as Tintagel debate how Arthur has gradually changed from a Welsh warlord who needed no hall to a king with a supposedly most chivalrous court. By chapters, scholars recount evidence for Camelot, writings after the fact from 15th century Malory and later Tennyson in the Victorian era, and the symbolic haven of peace and justice Camelot brought for peoples living in a darker time. From the Round Table hanging at Winchester Castle and fair government ideology to underlying Christian themes on inherent goodness meeting innate corruption, the narration becomes a bit too lofty at times – whimsical but also bemoaning on the impossibility of a finite Camelot answer. The accented, fast talking experts also become redundant while tossing around confusing ye olde names and waxing on the allure of a lost city mixing magic and idyllic possibilities gone awry. Fortunately, great scenery and locations with Cadbury excavations, Viroconium ruins, and research on actual 5th century construction make up any difference for today's knightly loving teens.
The Arthurian Legends: Merlin – The final leg in the Arthurian Legend series focuses on those separately inseparable aspects between the eponymous wizard and King Arthur. Did this wild man of the woods even meet Arthur or are their sources too far apart? From Merlin's natural, pagan origins and his mysterious conception to his legendary erection of Stonehenge and his blending into Christianity and other native religions, the segments here break down Geoffrey of Monmouth's information alongside other early or obscure sources. Factual or mythical basis for the possibility of more than one Merlin is debated alongside Welsh terminology versus Celtic lore and evidence for the existence of a real 6th century man who has been described as a part demon magician and a warrior poet. Name changes – even jokes about the potential for a “shitty” Latin translation snafu – and prophecies attributed to Merlin’s name help paint the backdrop for Roman and Saxon strife, Druid teachings, and pagan versus Christian influences. At times the muddled supposition strays to far from the details we know and love, but some of the conjecture from fringe scholars is perhaps fittingly esoteric. Fortunately, there are enough new theories and quality historical scope here to conclude this fun and informative little trilogy.
Mystery Files: King Arthur – This 2010 half hour from the Smithsonian Channel series wastes precious minutes and a little too much time on a recap of the well-known legend. It also makes sure it looks right cool with cinematic, digitally graded color, fast, angled photography, and badass re-enactments – young classroom audiences won’t have a tough time watching this! Again, Le Morte d Arthur and Malory are used to frame the presentation, and common topics like chivalrous codes and jousting feel like an unnecessary geek chic lure. However, expert opinions – mostly young, hip scholars, of course – break up the obvious narration on how the 15th century writings have obscured the Dark Ages facts. Understandably, the Ambrosius Aurelianus and Riothamus amalgam conversation is presented as the new, shocking, crux, but it’s all overly generalized and brief by necessity due to the short runtime here. In this era of reality shows on The History Channel and Ancient Aliens on its sister station, however, it’s simply so nice to find quality, educational, and informative content – and the on location Tintagel scenery is lovely! The brevity may bother long time Arthurian aficionados, but this short and sweet is fitting for today’s fantasy tweens with a budding interest in Arthurian fanfare.