King Arthur. A legend that grew out of a warrior (not a king) who rated exactly one mention of his name in the meager history of the Middle Ages in Britain. When many British refugees fled the Saxons and Danes and Irish raiders and settled in the ancient land of Armorica, there were so many of them that the land was renamed Brittany.
As Brittany gradually became part of France (a process that isn’t really complete even now), the people began speaking a dialect of French alongside their Breton language. Early on in that process, though, troubadours from Brittany began traveling around wherever they were welcome, performing songs they made up or learned.
Those songs began to center around the great warrior Arthur, who quickly got transformed into a king. He was surrounded by a bunch of other heroes and a few lovely ladies, most of whom had Breton names but with more and more of a French tinge to them.
These Breton troubadours came into a French courtly tradition that already had a great hero, Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor. But as king, he could hardly go out having adventures, so a lot of the songs centered around one of his hero knights, Roland.
The Breton troubadours learned from that tradition – and tried to top it. King Arthur was centuries before Charlemagne. And he had so many great knights serving him on mighty quests that he needed to seat them all at a Round Table and …
Then one marvelous day, an English chap named Thomas Malory collected a bunch of lore about Arthur and his knights, shaped it into his own much-altered version in the English language and published it in England as the ancient history of the British Isles.
But the title wasn’t in English. In those days, all the literate people in England spoke French, so what Mallory published was La Morte d’Arthur. Because, then as now, French was cool, English not so much.
It was one of the earliest books printed in England after William Caxton got his printing press up and running and made it profitable to publish books in the vernacular. There’s an advantage to being one of the first books – Morte d’Arthur caught on and became a permanent part of English legend and literature.
Even though the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the English language were the bad guys in the Arthurian legends as told by Malory, and even though the heroes were the Britons, whose on-island descendants, the Welsh and Cornish, had been a constant source of conflict for the English from the start, it didn’t matter. Just as the tragically fallen Indian hero Tecumseh was so respected by his White American enemies that William Tecumseh Sherman was named for him, the British hero Arthur was adopted as the founding hero of all kinds of English patriotic lore.
What is easy to forget is that except for the name Arthur, everything in the Arthurian legendarium is completely fabricated. It was made up by guys like me, who kept embellishing the same stories over and over until they took on a kind of reality in people’s minds.
So here we are with yet another movie about King Arthur: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Let’s think back on all the important Arthur movies in my lifetime. It began with Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in 1963, when I was in sixth grade. Naturally, I got the book and read it, and to my good fortune it was not a novelization, it was a perhaps-abridged version of the first volume of T.H. White’s wonderful satirical Arthurian saga, The Once and Future King.
I had no idea, however, that there were three more books – a good thing, because I would have read them, and those later volumes are dark dark dark. White pulls no punches and Merlin’s cuteness fades considerably.
I don’t count Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or any of its derivatives as being serious Arthurian storytelling. Nor do I count side-stories and romances about Tristan and Isolde.
Camelot, the film adaptation of the stage musical, was very entertaining and delivered the traditional story rather well, though they sang and danced rather more than I would have thought the beleaguered Britons of the sixth or seventh century AD would have.
Also, I could never forgive them for the anachronism of saying that Lancelot came from France. He came from Gaul. France and the French language didn’t yet exist at the time the “real” King Arthur was extant.
The next serious Arthurian movie I remember seeing was John Boorman’s brilliant, dark and quirky Excalibur, with Nicol Williamson stealing the whole movie as Merlin. Too weird to be a huge hit, it’s still a cult classic. And it’s way better than any Arthurian movie made since then.
Sean Connery was perfectly cast as King Arthur in First Knight, but unfortunately the shallow, annoying script spent most of its time on the boring love story of Richard Gere as an unconvincing Lancelot and Julia Ormond trapped as Guinevere. My disappointment grew throughout the nearly incoherent film.
Clive Owen played Arthur in King Arthur (2004), starring Keira Knightley and Ioan Gruffudd as the obvious people. It claimed to be more historically accurate than any of its predecessors, though how that would be measured I can’t begin to guess. All I know is that after the first half hour I gave up counting the howlingly dumb errors and anachronisms.
By Hollywood standards it was probably “more accurate” because it defied expectations, making Arthur a Roman and linking him to the usual not-Arthur people from history. But so many culturally impossible things happened that nothing could conceal the bad research or the bad writing.
With King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which opened this past weekend, the writers gave up on the whole Arthur legendarium except for a round table at the end with a one-quarter wedge missing.
Instead of being born of adultery with the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, Arthur is a completely legitimate child who is swept away, Moses-fashion, in a boat that drifts downstream from the battle where his parents both died.
But he was not a baby. He was a child old enough to have fragmentary memories of his parents and of their death scenes.
He is taken in by tavern wenches in Londinium and raised on the streets, though he also falls in with a completely unexplained Asian-born Samurai-style teacher of hand-to-hand combat and swordsmanship. This racial anachronism was surpassed by giving him an equally inexplicable Black friend, Djimon Hounsou. I’m not complaining – they are some of the best bits about this movie.
This is all quite fun, even though it has nothing to do with anything that could have happened or anything in the folklore. Why not? It’s all lies anyway, so go for it, kids.
The problem for me was that somebody had read way too much cliche-ridden dark fantasy and so the whole story is dominated by an evil mage named Mordred, who was able to defeat Arthur’s father even though he wielded the magic sword. The sword transformed the corpse of Arthur’s father into the stone from which the sword could not be pulled.
The new king, Arthur’s uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), searching for the true heir to the kingdom, forces every male person in the kingdom to come take their turn at the sword. Of course Arthur pulls it out, but the magic in the sword puts him down in a dead faint.
It was Vortigern’s plan, of course, to identify Arthur and then kill him so that he could go on ruling in Camelot. But Arthur is rescued, after some tedious scenery-chewing, by a female Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) sent by Merlin (whom we never see).
It says something about the script that this Mage, who rarely speaks, steals the whole movie from all the actors who talk and talk and talk.
The other best things in the movie are:
Charlie Hunnam, who is pretty compelling as Arthur and does a good job with all the overacting that the script requires.
Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in Game of Thrones) as somebody-or-other whose understated acting came as a relief.
The extravagantly overblown sets designed under the supervision of Gemma Jackson. Only magic or CGI could have made these impossibly tall stone structures stand without any kind of buttressing. The decision seems to have been: Who cares if such a building could ever stand? It looks really cool.
And you know what? They’re exactly right. It looked cool.
The weak writing and overacting could have been overcome quite easily, if the storytelling had been clear. But the writers seem to come from the “plunge right in” school of storytelling, as well as the “we need a prologue to explain stuff, except we won’t actually explain anything in it” school of cheating the audience.
That’s right, we plunge into barely-explained action with lots of swording and spellcasting and stones-on-fire and imperial stormtroopers evil soldiers of Mordred never quite killing the right people. There’s also a sickening human sacrifice whose real purpose is never explained until the last few minutes of the movie.
So here’s what happens: We get a prologue in which nothing is made clear, and therefore nothing is remotely interesting beyond the level of sheer spectacle. We are given nobody to care about because we don’t understand anybody’s motives.
The movie finally gets a little bit interesting in a choppy montage of Arthur toughening up in mean old Londinium (and my wife, sitting beside me, disagrees that this montage made anything interesting).
But then, as Arthur learns gradually to get control over the magical sword, he keeps having flashbacks to the scenes we saw in the prologue, and guess what! In the prologue there were key elements that we were not shown until the much-later flashbacks.
So here’s the artistic failure of this movie: Prologues stink. It’s really hard to make them worthwhile. The only value they have is if they make later things clear.
But when nothing is clear until the flashbacks, why in the world did they waste our time on the prologue? If the movie had begun with scenes of Arthur learning his swordplay and combat skills in Londinium until he’s captured and taken to pull the sword from the stone, we would have had somebody to care about right from the start – and the movie would have begun just about where Arthur’s story begins, with the sword-pulling.
The flashbacks could then have told us all we needed to know about the past, but we’d be discovering things right along with Arthur himself. This is the simplest and, in almost every case, best way for stories to unfold, both on screen and in books.
Instead, they took a pretty good generic fantasy story and made it needlessly tedious and confusing.
I won’t enumerate all the opportunities they missed. They had Jude Law, for heaven’s sake, and they completely wasted him, just as they wasted Eric Bana as Arthur’s dad.
And they did the typical pointless Hollywood-movie dance of making the hero really-really-really-really reluctant to be a hero. That’s right, this Arthur actually throws the sword away. Then it’s forced back into his hands by the Lady of the Lake, so we get both versions of how Arthur got the sword. Yee-haw.
But Arthur knows that he’s been chosen. He now remembers his father using the sword before he died. He knows that only this sword can defeat the evil mage Mordred and that nobody but him can wield it.
He also knows that he is a superb swordsman who defeated all comers back in Londinium before he got the magic sword, but now he can use it to defeat enemies that he never even touches.
What kind of lily-livered slacker refuses to step up and do the job that must be done for the good of all? He’s as bad as the wimpy grownup Peter Pan in Hook, who just couldn’t bring himself to kill Hook even though he beat him in a fair fight and Hook threatened to come back and destroy Peter’s children as long as he lived.
Come on, Hollywood writers. This business about reluctant heroes is pure crap. The hero is the guy who steps up. Every now and then, a Dead Pool is fun. But the hero is the guy who takes responsibility.
It’s Gene Hackman saying to Keanu Reeves in The Replacements, “Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.”
That’s the truth, and the wimpy “hero” who throws away the magic sword because using it is hard is contemptible. Rocky ran up those Philadelphia steps and drank all those raw eggs because heroes do what it takes. Every child wants parents who do what it takes. Every nation depends on heroes who do what it takes.
This myth of the reluctant hero is bogus, it’s destructive and it wrecks or at least wastes precious time in movie after movie. Come on, don’t you just groan when the hero goes through his tedious “Oh, not me, don’t choose me” routine? Don’t you want to pull out your phone and play some videogame until the story gets back to something believable?
After Frodo said, “I’ll take the ring, though I do not know the way,” he refused all opportunities to free himself from the burden. Having taken on the responsibility, he carried it out as far as he could. Get it? That’s what heroes do. They put the responsibility on their own shoulders when they realize that nobody else can do the job and yet the job must be done.
Here’s another reason why this was a bad movie: It wasn’t about the “real” King Arthur.
This movie makes as much sense as filming a Tarzan movie without Jane, the apes or the jungle. You put “Arthur” in the title and dress people in armor, and the audience comes expecting the story to have something to do with Arthurian legend. However fake its origins might have been, it’s the legend now.
Instead, what King Arthur: Legend of the Sword actually became is a pretty decent Robin Hood movie. If you think of Arthur as Robin Hood, Vortigern as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Mordred as wicked King John, with the Mage as a kind of sexless Maid Marian and the other guys as Robin’s merry men, and this is a way better Robin Hood movie than either Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood.
So is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword worth seeing?
If you want a couple of hours at the movies with some nifty stuff on the screen and a decent story that has nothing to do with the source material, and you are willing to put up with bad writing and bad storytelling (and many of us are willing to do that, or the whole Da Vinci Code thing and Shades of Grey thing wouldn’t have made so much money), then sure, go see Legend of the Sword.
But here’s a better plan. Stay home and play Ticket to Ride, or watch a DVD of a good movie, or read a book aloud to your kids or your spouse, or take a walk around the neighborhood with people you love, talking about things you care about.
Or if you haven’t yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy 2, then go see that.
John McWhorter’s new book Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca returns McWhorter to his roots as a public figure. A serious linguist working in creoles and pidgins, he first came to prominence when he refuted some of the extravagant claims about Ebonics in Oakland, California, in the 1990s. Now he tackles the whole issue of how American Blacks talk.
Is Black speech just bad or broken standard American English? No. It’s a genuine dialect, with complex grammatical devices that standard American English doesn’t have – as well as simplifications, which are already the hallmark of English.
Black speech is also an accent, so that even when reading or narrating something written in standard American English, we can tell when the speaker is Black with nearly perfect accuracy.
Not all Black Americans speak with a “Blaccent” (McWhorter’s word), but excluding immigrants from Africa, about 99 percent do – or at least know how to switch it on at need.
White Americans are learning not only the Blaccent but also some of the grammar of Black English, and it shows up in places like this text message joke:
Text: “We can’t leave things like this. Can’t we try again to love each other like we used to?”
Reply: “Who dis?”
There is no implication that either party is Black. But the Blaccent pronunciation “dis” for “this” is perfect for texting, because a single “d” replaces “th” and because in Black grammar, “Who is this” is shortened by leaving out the copula (the “to be” verb). Thus, “Who dis?”
Most Whites of the rap music generation have adopted enough Black English to not only understand that sentence, but also to say or write it without any sense that they were getting “racial.” It’s just part of young informal American English now.
McWhorter spends a bit of time explaining the Black English usage of “ass” and “damn.” Take, for instance, “I’m going to fire his ass.” Nobody thinks for a moment that only a particular part of the person’s anatomy will be fired. In all such usages, “his/her/their/our/my/your ass” is a compound pronoun that includes a strong dismissive meaning: It is meant to demean the person referred to.
The stress makes a difference. Jimmy Carter, about what he’d do if Ted Kennedy ran against him in 1980, famously said: “I’ll whip his ass.” As a White man, Carter stressed “ass.” “I’ll whip his ass.” But in Black English, it would be “I’ll whip his ass,” with “his ass” serving as a disdainful version of the pronoun “him.”
“Damn” does the same job, but is even more contemptuous: “Why’s she complaining about the low attendance? She didn’t even come her damn self.” Standard English would use “own” in that sentence: “She didn’t even come her own damn self.” The “damn” would just be a cuss word instead of a grammatical word.
This is a great book, and considering how much the two dialects (standard American and Black English) are interpenetrating, and yet how much they serve as markers and boundaries, I think it’s important reading for both Blacks and Whites.
Blacks need to read it so they recognize that when they “talk Black” among themselves, they aren’t speaking bad English, they’re using the valid dialect that marks them as insiders in their own community.
Yes, for purposes of career advancement in many fields, it’s useful to also learn how to use standard American English, just as immigrants benefit from learning it. But American Blacks should no more abandon, suppress or demean Black English or the accompanying Blaccent than immigrants from other lands need to forget or hide from the native language of their forebears.
Of all Americans, White Southerners should understand this. The various Southern accents (from the Appalachian twang to the tidewater drawl) all sound stupid to outsiders, so that many or most Southerners regard it as part of their education to learn to speak so that nobody even suspects they’re from the South.
But, as I learned from a Southern girl I knew in college, “The minute I get home to where people talk right, I drop right back into my native speech.” In American life, in order to get ahead and get along, it’s valuable to be multilingual – which includes learning how to use different accents and dialects accurately and fluently.
McWhorter shows how the diglossia of American Blacks is a complete answer to the frequent comment: “Well, you couldn’t talk that way in a job interview.” Blacks don’t need to be told that, says McWhorter – they already know.
American Blacks engage in code-switching all the time. Most Blacks with jobs work in places where there are few (if any) other Blacks. They immediately learn to put on their Standard American speech when they get to work and use it throughout the day.
They almost certainly keep their Blaccent, so their White co-workers think they’re hearing “Black Dialect.” They’re not – and the proof is, they understand every word their Black co-workers are saying.
Because the purpose of speech is usually to communicate, Blacks aren’t going to switch into genuine Black Dialect among a bunch of White people who will not – who cannot – understand large sections of it.
That would be like me speaking to a group of Americans and suddenly switching into Portuguese to make a point that’s nowhere near as funny in English. Since nobody is likely to speak Portuguese, having not lived in Brazil for a few years as I did, what would be the point of switching to a language that my audience doesn’t understand?
Code-switching is a part of the lives of American Blacks, and they don’t need White people to tell them about it. What they need is a chance to unwind every day among people who speak the same native language.
If White people wonder why Blacks segregate themselves residentially or, on high school and college campuses, at the cafeteria table, part of the reason may be the simple comfort and rest of being among speakers of their native language.
I know the feeling well. For several months on my mission in Brazil, my companion was a native Brazilian. Things worked out very well for me and Claudio, in large measure because, among the American missionaries, I was one of the most fluent in Portuguese. Claudio and I communicated well – and my Portuguese certainly improved.
But when we were among Americans, it was almost painful for me not to lapse into English, like water flowing to the lowest point. Yet when I did, it had the effect of excluding Claudio. So it was my job not to code-switch, but rather to help him be comfortable among the other Americans by maintaining Portuguese throughout the conversation.
There was, literally, no time when I could speak English without being rude to my Brazilian companion. Let me tell you: The only thing more exhausting than code-switching is not being free to code-switch!
Another aspect of the Blaccent that many people believe in is that Black males talk in a lower pitch than White males. There are times when this is true, or truish. But I’ve also seen the opposite.
I remember the time that I and a professor from Appalachian State were walking along a street near the railroad station in downtown Washington, DC, and a big Black dude in the uniform of the homeless accosted us.
I say accosted because, when you’re that big, regardless of race, and you walk up to strangers and ask them for money, there can’t help but be a hint of a threat about it.
However, this guy knew his game, and so he bent his shoulders a little and talked to us in an exaggerated Blaccent that was very, very high-pitched and whiny. I immediately recognized it as a version of the Stepin Fetchit subservient Black speech that owed more to minstrel shows from the slavery era than the Blaccent that Blacks use among themselves.
He exaggerated his Blackitude by using a very high pitch, not a Luther Vandross baritone. (Though Vandross is also gorgeous in his tenor range; remind yourself by listening to Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me.)
So I politely explained to the beggar that I was going to give him what he was asking for, but I asked him if we could both keep our dignity by speaking to each other man to man. “I’m sure the way you’re talking right now works with a lot of White guys,” I said, “but I’d rather give this money to you than to this character you’re playing.”
He laughed and immediately began to speak in Standard American English with an ordinary Blaccent – and in a normal speaking pitch. I gave him 10 bucks or so (I don’t remember the amount, but it was more than he asked for) and thanked him. He thanked me back and walked away with a fairly jaunty gait, rather than the cringing way he had walked toward us.
Anybody who thinks that Blacks speak “broken” English doesn’t know what broken language sounds like. Blacks in America have more control over their grammars and accents as they switch from code to code than any but a handful of American Whites.
Hispanics, by the way, do similar things, especially second-generation Hispanic-Americans, but the fundamental difference is this: Nobody thinks Spanish is “broken English.” It’s another language with a history as old as our own.
The effort to elevate Ebonics to a level parallel with Spanish or other languages-of-origin is perfectly understandable, though it’s also completely wrong. Black English is not based on African, particularly Bantu, grammars or vocabulary. It is based on English as it was bent to accommodate their ancestors’ inability to produce some of the sounds of English.
Far from being a broken language, what Blacks speak now is a powerful dialect of American English. You can’t learn it from the criminal street dialect of Blacks in crime shows, largely because most of that is criminal argot rather than Black speech, and it’s mostly based on other crime shows rather than actual Black Dialect.
Nor are we hearing authentic full-on Black English when we listen to comedy performances by most Black comics. They emphasize the accent, but only rarely drop into the actual dialect.
So even as more and more Whites learn to imitate some intonations and vocabulary of television and comedian Black dialect, it would be wise for us to remember that as White people, we will never hear full-on Black Dialect often and deeply enough for us to learn it.
This is not because Blacks are trying to exclude us; quite the opposite, they are trying to include us by modifying their speech quite deliberately so as not to say things in ways that they know we could not possibly understand. They’re being polite to the person who doesn’t speak the language.
Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter is available as a cheap hardcover ($10.81 new on Amazon) and as a Kindle ebook ($10.27). An audiobook would have been very helpful, so that we could hear McWhorter switch into and out of Black dialect – but alas, we only have the text version so far.