Ronald Hutton: review

February 25, 2005

King Arthur has had a good year. With Jerry Bruckheimer's Hollywood blockbuster last summer and this week's television documentary by Michael Wood, his story has been subjected to renewed public scrutiny and celebration.

But the contrast between the two approaches to the legendary king is the reverse of what might be expected.

Bruckheimer's fantasy concentrates on the "historical" Arthur, drawing heavily on one of the latest scholarly reinterpretations of his story: that it derives ultimately from the Russian steppes.

Wood, on the other hand, ignores such modish suggestions. He concentrates firmly on traditional explanations, ending up by half-heartedly endorsing a long-argued, if unfashionable, view that Arthur was a native prince based in what became northern England and southern Scotland.

Most of Wood's screen time, moreover, is devoted not to the man but to the legend, charting its development until the 20th century. This emphasis reverses the theme of most of his documentaries since the 1970s, in which he has sought out the historical truth behind a famous story or name.

In part, the aberration may be due to Wood's love of England and its traditions, which has always made him more sceptical of those from Celtic literatures - probably only he would turn a programme on Arthur into an opportunity to recite Anglo-Saxon, as he does, by flickering firelight.

If so, then it is a happy circumstance. For the tilt that this gives to his perspective draws out Wood's genius for documentary-making.

The "quest romance" quality that he always brings to his work is emphasised by the restless energy of his movements: by foot, car, plane and boat.

He loves to find sites with major historical associations that have been missed by heritage trails - a derelict warehouse in Oxford made out of an abbey where the medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, and a Kentish creek up which the Saxon leader Hengist allegedly arrived in Britain - as well as filming around well-known monuments connected to his story.

This "democratisation" of the evidence leads to a wider range of living witnesses than used in other programmes on history and archaeology.

Certainly, the familiar academic scholars appear to serve up their findings, but they are always yanked out of their studies to converse in pubs or among ruins.

More importantly, they are outnumbered by, and usually much less memorable than, the succession of amateur enthusiasts and specialists Wood brings in to provide colour, humour and - above all - unfamiliar insights into his subject.

Cornish bards, Welsh and Irish storytellers, a Shropshire shopkeeper and a retired major all feature in his understanding of the Arthurian legend.

This reminds the viewer how diverse and interesting the human, as well as the physical, resources for the recovery of the past are. It all comes together as a form of enchantment, of people, places and landscapes. Wood is to television history what Quentin Tarantino is to movies: an auteur, somebody who represents a voice and an eye so individual that nobody else can reproduce the formula.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history at Bristol University. His book Witches, Druids and King Arthur (Hambledon) is published in paperback on March 1, £9.99.

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