Le Morte d’Athur: Saving our ransacked mythology
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!
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
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.
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.
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.