December 23, 2005

Requiescat in Pace, Artorius

We watched "King Arthur" yesterday. I mean the one released in 2004 with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley since there have been quite a few re-tellings of the Arthurian legend over the years. I was half afraid that this would be another re-hash of the tired old story but those fears were put to rest when the movie began with the following words: "Historians agree that the classical 15th century tale of King Arthur and his Knights rose from a real hero who lived a thousand years earlier in a period often called the Dark Ages. Recently discovered archeological evidence sheds light on his true identity." In fact, I spent most of my time after that worrying about the historical accuracy of the movie to worry about the story :p So this is going to be about the history in the movie and not about the movie itself – it’s fairly entertaining and if you like the Arthurian legends, you’ll definitely enjoy it.

I initially thought that the movie was a bunch of bull and that most of their "historical" facts were inaccurate or misplaced. Upon later investigation though, I found that most of it was either historically accurate and that in fact, they had obtained the services of a historian, who himself believed that the story of Arthur had historical basis, as consultant for the movie. Anyway, for anybody who is as nitpicky as me, here are the points that struck me and a brief discussion about them :p

The movie opens with a story about Sarmatians and I was immediately up in arms. My reaction was, "here’s another movie inventing a fictitious people for story purposes". Turns out that the Sarmatians did indeed exist. They would be Iranians in today’s terminology. Apparently, they were pretty similar to the Scythians (whom I did know about :p) There is an interesting similarity between the Sarmatians and the Picts (who also appear in the movie) – they both had their women participate in warfare. I didn’t find anything about the Sarmatian pact to send their children to serve in the Roman army but there is evidence that Sarmatians served in some of the Roman garrisons in Britain.

Then comes the whole "knight" thing and while it’s a nitpick, it’s a sore point with me :p The term "knight" did not actually come into origin till about 1100AD and this particular story is set around 5th century AD. Since the Arthurian legends are usually set in the medieval period, the term knight is used when referring to Arthur and his men. However, there were no "knights" in the Roman army. The closest term from the Roman period was Equestrian – a member of the upper social classes. While this term (and what it implied) is pretty near that of a knight, I don’t believe that the Sarmatian’s, who were more or less conscripted into the Roman army, were in a position to be part of the upper social class. So the only "knight" in the merry band would have been Arthur. But I nitpick :p

The story progresses and we have the Woads enter the scene. Now what they call Woads in the movie are actually Picts – a group of tribes from what today is called Scotland. The term woad comes from the plant they were supposed to have used to obtain the dye for the intricate tattoos that covered the bodies of the Picts. One comment suggests that the term Woads was used to convey the sense that it was a derogatory military term, like many others used since like Pandy in India by the British or Gook in most of Asia by the US or hundreds of other epithets used by soldiers throughout history to identify the "enemy".

I had other doubts about Christianity in Britain at this time period, about a pope being there in Rome and a few other things. I thought that historically the events were either too early or too late. But turns out I was wrong :p Most of these things did take place (or were at least possible) by around 5th century AD. So overall, it does appear as if the movie is indeed as historically accurate as the movie makers claim. Now I don’t know about the little tiny details – there probably are plenty of anachronisms and slip-ups (there usually are :p) but at least the base facts seem to be straight :)

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Tags: Entertainment, Hollywood, Movies
Posted by Fahim at 7:31 am   Comments (1)