Le Morte d’Athur: Saving our ransacked mythology

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Dafydd Prys argues that we need to reclaim our mythology before it’s lost to us forever…

That’s it, that’s quite enough. Arthur was a Welshman (or a Brython at least).

The new King Arthur film is the latest in a long line that seek to portray him as an Englishman. The film’s only sop to its Welsh roots is that a few scenes were shot in Snowdonia.

But it’s not just films. I’m certain I’m not alone in my frustrations upon looking at the exhaustive list of books, TV shows, and comics that repackages our mythology as belonging to another culture entirely.

This cultural appropriation is all the more ironic given that Arthur first appears in our mythology as the chief scourge of the invading Anglo-Saxon.

Whoever he was, if he existed at all, he would be turning in his grave alongside a field of other Gododdin, if he knew that he would now be fighting for the other side!

Cultural cringe

I currently live in Seattle where I’m putting together a video game project which seeks to celebrate and reclaim our mythology.

A big part of this endeavour is having to explain, over and over again, to confused Americans that Arthur was not English.

‘Oh, I thought he was English, you know with the Holy Grail and Camelot?’

‘That’s surprising, I’ve seen all the films and just thought…’

‘Every time I’ve seen the character I could swear he was wearing the St George cross…’

It’s no surprise that King Arthur tends to be repackaged as English. We’re notoriously bad at selling ourselves and claiming our mythology as our own.

We suffer from a healthy dose of post-colonial cultural cringe, oblivious to our own cultural richness even as others mine it and sell it off to the highest bidder.

A crusading King Arthur in the USA

Flop

But one thing these films, TV shows and books tend to have in common is that they’ve very, very bad.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was yet another box office flop. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I think there’s a reason why films and TV shows surrounding the myth fail to convince. It’s because they are created by individuals who share no sympathy with the peoples from whom the mythology originated.

They don’t understand what he represents, which is insurrection and rebellion, and hope for the future. An iron determination to preserve our nation in the face of tyranny.

Many English don’t get that concept because they were the invaders in this tale. It’s as if Castro was reinvented as an American, Luke Skywalker as an Imperial Officer or Robin Hood as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

The English mythology is that of the dominating Teuton, not the guerrilla fighter.

Re-planted

I’m not saying, of course, that other cultures can’t use the character. Mythology is all about developing and building on what was there before. The mythology we have today is much the richer for it.

But they must at least doff their hat to the origins of the myth, and pay homage to the fact that the character was acquired from elsewhere.

Most film audiences understand that, for example, The Magnificent Seven is a retelling of a Japanese tale (Shichinin no Samurai – Seven Samurai), City of Angels is remade in the vison of Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire and conversely we see Bollywood rip offs of Hollywood films.

However, these well-known cultures are widely disseminated, and audiences are aware of the cross-pollination.

Conversely, the Arthur character has simply been torn out of his roots and re-planted. There is no awareness amongst audiences of where he came from.

A South Korean Mabinogi

Mabinogi™

Is it up to us to be more forthright when it comes to claiming our own history? Sure, that’s exactly what I’m doing here in Seattle.

But the responsibility also lies with other cultures. In depriving us of our hereditary past they remove our connection with our own history and I consider it theft.

The European Commission has already mandated that only products from a certain geography can be attributed thusly: Cornish Pasties, Parma Ham, Caerffili Cheese for example. Is it time to start defending cultural brands? I think so.

A South Korean company has already somehow trademarked the word ‘Mabinogi’ in the US and Europe when it comes to its usage in the sphere of interactive art.

This is genuinely unfathomable. Mabinogi is a Proper Noun and its genesis known as the name for the stories of Welsh myth. Can you imagine the word Odyssey being trademarked in such a fashion? It’s unthinkable.

How damaging is it when audiences around the world assume that Arthur is an Englishman? How much do we lose when entire stories from our mythologies are repackaged and transported wholesale to another culture?

If the above is anything to go by then the damage is severe when legal agencies the world over will charge use for using our own Welsh words.

We must strive to renationalise Arthur and all the stories from the Mabinogi. They should be our stories to tell, our recognisable symbol.

And in these troubled times, when Welshness is at risk of being stamped out altogether, we need something more than ever to identify us as Welsh in the world.

Dafydd Prys is a Producer living in Seattle. Previously he was a Director of Planet magazine, an award winning-Designer and a playwright. He founded the media company Fideo 8 with Dr Elidir Jones in 2016 and they create online and traditional content.

If you’re interested in hearing more of Dafydd Prys’s project in Seattle get in touch with him on Twitter @dafprys or email the editor of this site for contact details.

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25 Comments

  1. Diolch eich erthygl mor hynod o dda. Thanks for your excellent article.

  2. Diolch ynfawr iawn Dafydd it is an excellent article and I just hope other Cymreig read, comment on it and don’t support such another crap film.
    Nearly all ourt Celtic heritage and culture needs to be saved as we heard over the weekend Mickey Rourke is making a film about rugby player Gareth Thomas’ coming out while still playing and an international. Rourke says few Americans know about rugby and basically no one knows about Cymru! Another Irish American weaving the Irish fantasy! It makes me laugh I have family in Kansas City and attended the Heartland of America Rugby Union Competition where 12 state teams male and female played over the weekend. And of course no one thar has heard of Tom Jones, Richard Burton, Micheal Sheen, Ioan Gruffuth, Shirley Bassey etc., etc., etc!
    The only Arthur texts I’m interested in is everything that predates Monmouth in old 5th/6th century texts. I am writing a children’s book to put the dragon story straight, yet another symbol of ours taken and misused. Not far off finished actually. It is based in Dumnonia of which Kernow was the smallest, yet only surviving, part including Dyfnaint, Somerset, Dorset and Avon. Here again this area known as West Cymru has been largely forgotten due to being anglocised, but needs more recognition.
    I guess bit by bit and slowly we’ll regain the truth!
    Just one thing though, the pasty may be associated to Kernow these days, but a recipe found next door in Dyfnaint recorded in 1510 on the Mt Edgecombe Estate, Plymouth puts the pasty in Dyfnaint over 200 years prior to it being recorded in Kernow. It is recorded earlier elsewhere in England, but that was most probably because a Deb’m Bey took it there! That’ll get our cousins in Kernow sitting up! LOL!

  3. Sharon morgan

    Gwych!

  4. Rhys Davies

    Great post, I must say I never believed in King Arthur until I read the books by Alan Wilson and Blaram Blackett. The real shame come from when the Senedd allowed this cultural appropriation to happen

  5. Interesting and exciting. Equally frustrating is being told by people with no Welsh or understanding of the language what Mabinogi and its stories really mean/ are about.. Look forward to seeing how your game develops. Pob lwc o’r Gorllewin Gwyllt.

  6. Dw i’n cytuno I like Chris Barbers version a Welshman that has spent 35 years time detective of our history, his argument is flawless, we teach it as part of the Prosiect Pobl Arwrol Y Syllwg/Silwriaid. we are teaching in schools both Cymraeg, and Saes and at events we are filming it and leaving it in the People’s Collection for posterity in the National Library of Wales. We need our own Brave Heart it would do wonders for Plaid!

  7. Ewan Macintyre

    Of course you are right!
    Did you know that the English in Scotland also arrogated to their Anglian tongue the title of Scots? (See Early Scots in Wikipedia). It happened in 1513. The original Scots of Argyll spoke Gaelic. Therefore Gaelic is the real Scottish language.
    Anyone who is interested in the history of British Celtic can read Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (Routledge, 2014) by Peter Schrijver, a linguist and a professor of Celtic. He explains what happened to Welsh during the Roman occupation and why Irish and Scots Gaelic are closest to the original British Celtic language.

  8. Stuart1927

    Very good. Please to see Welsh media. Would be good to have a share button.

    • Rhys Davies. Can you please expand on how the Senedd has allowed this appropriation and what was it?

      Alwyn ap Huw. Someone has actually touched on a part of our history not many pay much attention to, diolch yn fawr iawn Alwyn!
      There are Breton names intertwined within the place and family names in the South West, my area of study in the land of the Dumnonii. Totnes, Devon founded around 937AD was given by William I to Judhel a Breton (aka Judhel de Totenais) who was permitted to build the classic Norman Motte an Bailey that still exists towering over the town today. The Devon surname Harvey is also a Breton name introduced at the conquest. Old Breton Haerviu ‘battle worthy’. Along the River Teign is a farm and hamlet called Teign Harvey and during summer hols, many moons ago, I played around the area with Harvey children. Perhaps I should revisit and see if their lineage goes all the way back?

      I like your last comment and perhaps you may want to start a petition via a recently set up facebook group called, Yr Ymgyrchwyr – The Campaigners. I for one will certainly back you!

  9. Helen Jones

    Interesting, and on the whole I agree. However, it’s not quite accurate to describe the historic Arthur as an insurgent. If he existed, he was leading the defence of Britain against the Angles and Saxons after the Romans had left. He was not rebelling against a dominant power, but resisting an invasion and protecting a status quo. It’s not the same thing. We do need to protect and reclaim our celtic heritage – though the myth of Arthur became Europe wide and is none the weaker for that in my view – but we do it no service if we muddle it or layer over it our current preoccupations. As a modern day supporter of Welsh independence I would love to be ale to claim Arthur as one of our own. But actually he is more likely to have been a Roman trained, or even Roman war leader – Dux Bellorum. And we can’t know what exactly he was defending, or why. For a real early hero of the national movement we’ve got Owain Glyndwr.

  10. There is a complication with the history of Arthur.

    When the “Norman Invasion” happened in 1066, it wasn’t a “Norman Invasion”, many of the invaders were Bretons. Brittany was a “gaulish” (Celtic) region of what is now called France and many of the Brythons from Devon, Cornwall, greater Wales & lowland Scotland fled to Brittany as a result of the Germanic invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

    Brettons supported William the bastard’s invasion because they wanted their historic lands back! They came with their story of Arthur’s descendants “defeating” the Anglo-Saxons, at last. Hooray!

    The French took up Arthur’s tale, when the Francophone Norman/Brettons claimed that France was a part of England. It is only when the Norman-Breton invaders and the Welsh and the Cornish became assimilated with the English, that Arthur’s story becomes an English one! Whilst we Celts are arguing about Arthur’s ancestry, the Saxons, not the Norman-Brettons, are making films about him!

    There is no certainty that King Arthur existed, there is a possibility that he is a remnant of a proto Roman / Celtic god of Ursa Major, rather than an historic figure, why bother with him? We have many more certain Welsh heroes that we should be demanding films made about them!

    • Rhisiart Morgan

      Brittany was a Syllwg/Silure colony known as Armorica thats why you have Welsh place names from the Breton’s Infact Arthwyr ap Meurig ap Tewdrig/ Arthur meaning the Bear person or the exalted Bear, went to Breton to become a monk because of the blood debt of killing so many in his 12 battles. Arzel is where he built his monastery, Arzel meaning the Iron Bear where he fought a last battle and is seen as the only saint with a mailed foot peeping out of his robes!..

    • That’s interesting – I knew there were Bretons among the Norman army pf 1066 and that there are a lot of French Arthurian tales, but I didn’t know the background and how that all got blurred together Fascinating!

      • Rhisiart Morgan

        Shwmae Leia, A great informative book about this is The Legacy of King Arthur, by Chris Barber and David Pykitt (ISBN 1-872730-18-3) Chris Barber and Ray Howells are the only academics I would travel to see. I do not trust Universities who are some of the biggest source of perpetual fact fudging! I want Welsh people to write our history not to be told about it by our colonising masters.

  11. We also need for Welsh history to be taught in all Welsh schools (not just Welsh medium) up to and including A Level.

  12. One of the biggest problems is self evident , most of the cultural Welsh like yourself….are living outside of Wales…so have no direct impact anymore on those Welsh communities

  13. Huw Ellis

    Very interesting article. I don’t agree with Bryn Daf. I live outside Wales, have done for many years ( 52 in fact) but still have direct contact with my Welsh Communities, and do all I can to continue to support and promote “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”

    • Hi Huw,

      I fully understand what Bryn Daf is sayiing. Because every Cymry within or without Cymru should be paying far more attention to the very poor situation our country is in.

      I have lived outside of Cymru on and off for 60 years now, but this year I am returning home to stand side by side with those that are already standing up for and defending Cymru from within.

      As for being culturally Cymreig I guess depends on the perspective of the individual and who they are talking about (perhaps not me!). What we do not see is many Cymreig ‘experts’ standing up for anything more than the status quo in fear of their position or career within the British system of occupation.

      One thing we all do have now is Nation.Cymru which is starting to give us our own national voice. They will appreciate any support anyone can give.

  14. Pingback: Complex feelings about “borrowing” from other cultures in movies and art | Phoenix Swords

  15. QUOTE FROM ARTICLE: “I think there’s a reason why films and TV shows surrounding the myth fail to convince. It’s because they are created by individuals who share no sympathy with the peoples from whom the mythology originated.

    [snip]

    Many English don’t get that concept because they were the invaders in this tale. It’s as if Castro was reinvented as an American, Luke Skywalker as an Imperial Officer or Robin Hood as the Sheriff of Nottingham.”

    ****

    REPLY: There was actually a Welsh film made about King Arthur this year. It is called “King Arthur: Excalibur Rising” and stars Adam Byard and Annes Elwy and was filmed in Neath. Unfortunately, it has extremely poor reviews on IMDB so far, mainly due to criticisms of bad acting and cheap production values. I have seen part of the film but not yet, unfortunately, the whole thing. To me it is quite watchable. The acting isn’t of the standard we’d expect of a top class film, to be sure, but if people can sit through something like 1980s Doctor Who or Shatner’s old Star Trek, they should have no real cause to complain about this.

    Other than that, it is low budget but it is great to see a small independent film released, particularly since they were in the difficult position of going up against the Guy Ritchie juggernaut. As I have said, I have not seen this film in its entirey yet but I can honestly say, low budget aside, I have found what I saw to be better than the Ritchie over-indulged mess.

    It does take a Welsh viewpoint and mixes reality (the Saxon invasion) with mythology (the Lady in the Lake and Excalibur) and there is a wonderfully subversive pacifist tone to the piece: early on, when Bedivere seeks to return Exaclibur to the Lady in the Lake, he very pointedly prays for peace.) Later, when the Lady in the Lake gives the sword to Arthur’s son, Owain, she also emphasises that this is a weapon that is not to be used for violence but to lead the Britons to safety, away from the aggressors. Since I have not yet seen the conclusion of the film, I have no idea how this will play out but I hope they keep promoting these pacifist themes.

    At any rate it is worth checking out. Just go in with low expectations regarding budget and accept that this is a small group of local actors. The film may not have garnered much attention and may not be that well-reviewed out there in the wider world but, IMHO, it is a worthy effort. Furthermore, going back to the premise of the article, it signals a start for the Welsh to reclaim the Arthurian myth and it ticks the boxes the author raised in this article.

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