When the movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword hits theaters Friday, it will add the latest twist to a legend that’s been evolving for nearly a millennium. This version of the legend (starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law) pits King Arthur against his uncle, who seizes the crown until the famous episode in which young Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and proves he is the rightful king.
It’s a fanciful tale and one that’s been told many times, but where does it come from?
Some people do believe that King Arthur could have been a real person, but despite the occasional news story about an archaeological discovery that may provide clues, experts on Arthurian legend tell TIME that there is no evidence — no primary source from the time — to confirm that King Arthur was ever a real person.
What is possible, however, is that Arthur is based on a real leader from the 5th or 6th century. One promising theory points to a person known as “Riothamus” — an honorific for “supreme king” — who crossed the English Channel to fight in France. That’s something that Arthur also does in early texts. “It may be the closest we will come to locating a specific model for Arthur,” according to Norris J. Lacy, a medievalist and former international president of the International Arthurian Society.
If an “Arthur-type” figure were alive around that time, then he was probably a military leader reacting to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, a very violent time and a setting ripe for the creation of a legend. “There was no centralized government, and British life was essentially tribal,” says Lacy. “Rulers would occupy an area, often a hill, that would be easy to defend. Local wars were frequent, with much hacking and ‘smiting.’ Life being as uncertain as it was, and with society torn by war, strife, and sometimes famine and disease, it is not surprising that people would latch onto stories of a benevolent king or warlord who is intent on peace and prosperity.”
Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter
The first full “biographies” of Arthur don’t appear until the 12th century. Though they were sometimes styled as being based on a true story, they came out of a time when romance writing was all the rage, inspired by the rise of courtly love and chivalry.
The most famous accounts are Historyof the Kings of Britain, written in 1136 in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who claimed to have been translating an ancient British book on the kings of Britain that had been lost. The legend really took off in the 15th century with the release of Le Morte d’Arthur, with which Thomas Malory helped popularize, for the English-speaking world, courtly love and the iconic image of Arthur being the only one who can pull the sword out of the stone.
“There were powerful women in the courts of England and France who were patronizing poets and writers, and they may have wanted certain type of stories” about courtly love, says Chris Snyder, an expert on Arthurian legend and dean of the Shackouls Honors College at Mississippi State University.
On the other hand, no matter whether Arthur was a real person or not, the story’s mysterious origins add a level of intrigue that have helped keep the legend alive. “No one was keeping good records because they were trying to survive, and that’s one reason the legend became so popular,” says Dorsey Armstrong, professor of Medieval Literature at Purdue University and the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Arthuriana. “Something amazing happened, but we don’t have details, so you’re free to use your imagination.”
How is Marie Lu's writing style different in the chapters from Day's perspective from the chapters in June's perspective?
Lu's writing style for the different characters reflects their backgrounds and upbringing. Day's sections use more slang and move at a faster pace, which reflects the quick decisions he has to make as part of street life. June's chapters, on the other hand, are more reflective and tend to refer more to numbers and calculations, both indicators of formal education. June also often begins her entries with a recording of the location, military time, and temperature (which the Republic moderates at 72 degrees), which indicates her military training and deliberate style of observation. As the novel progresses, these formalities are dropped as her actions become more spontaneous.
What does it say about the Republic that its best minds all go into the military?
The Republic sends its best students to the military because the Elector Primo is single-mindedly focused on conquering the Colonies, even if doing so destroys the country. However, the prominence of the military in the Republic is not just due to the Elector Primo's personal preferences. It also reflects a nationalistic culture that values security and military value above all else. Even good characters like June have internalized this culture; at the beginning of the book, she has never questioned her future military career.
Legend includes many dream sequences. What function do they serve?
The dream sequences in Legend serve two purposes: they reveal information about the past, and they help the characters realize things that they haven't consciously put together yet. An example of dreams revealing the past is Day's dream in prison about the street hockey incident. These dreams give the author a fast and simple way to tell readers about events that happened before the beginning of the book, especially those involving characters that have since died in the narrative. Lu also uses dreams to reveal information at moments when it will have a strong dramatic effect. An example of dreams helping characters come to realizations is June's dream of Day insisting that he's innocent of Metias's murder. In this case, June had all the information to realize Day's innocence, but she was not emotionally ready to come to that conclusion yet. The dream helps her to come to her senses.
Compare and contrast the Republic with our society today.
Obviously, the Republic is much more violent and authoritarian than modern American society. However, there are also some similarities. Many of these similarities stem from the vast gap between the rich and the poor, which also exists in American society. In both societies, children must take an important test that helps determine their future; politicians court rich people who can help them stay in power; poor people often don't get the services they need; and the poor are more vulnerable to disease. Several practices of the Republic are based in historical fact. The restrictions placed on Internet usage and the mandatory portraits of the Elector Primo in Republic citizens' homes also mirror policies in China today and during the Cultural Revolution, which Marie Lu's parents lived through. The Republic also practices eugenics - removing bad genes from a population by culling those deemed undesirable - which was used to justify the actions of the Nazi Party.
Why do you think Marie Lu chose to tell the story from two perspectives?
By writing Legend from two perspectives, Lu allows readers to see the highest ranks of the Republic as well as its poorest sectors. It also allows her to complicate the traditional protagonist vs. antagonist story. June and Day are enemies for much of the novel, but by showing both of their perspectives, Lu allows readers to understand and root for both of them.
What role do girls and women play in this novel?
Despite the Republic's flaws, women are well off, arguably better off than they are in contemporary American society. Several female characters, including June and Commander Jameson, hold high positions in the military. Even the Republic’s propaganda movies feature strong heroines, like The Glory of the Flag, which is about “a Republic girl who captures a Colonies spy” (276). The people who fight the Republic also seem to have advanced ideas about gender. Kaede, a physically strong and assertive woman, is the most prominent Patriot in the book, and June doesn't seem to be held back by her gender in any way. In general, the futuristic society of Legend seems to be a place where women have achieved nearly complete equality.
Compare and contrast Day and June.
Day and June are both extremely intelligent and work hard to keep in top physical condition. They are also observant, dislike violence, and care deeply about their families. However, they deal with their emotions very differently. Day tends to act rashly when he is overcome with emotion. Examples of this include his hastily-planned hospital robbery, and his decision to charge the soldiers who come to arrest him and his family. June, on the other hand, methodically reflects and considers every situation. She frequently reviews evidence to look for clues she's missed, and she reflects for a day before deciding to rescue Day from prison. Both characters' temperaments have benefits and drawbacks. Day's quick decisions allow him to act fast, while June's slow preparation nearly derails Day's rescue. However, Day's rashness sometimes puts him in precarious situations, and June's perseverance allows her to reveal the truth of her brother's murder.
Is violence ever justified? Use examples from the book to explain your argument.
Violence can be justified when a person needs to defend him or herself, but even in those situations, they should only use the minimum amount of violence necessary to save themselves. Day is a good example of this type of behavior. Although he robs banks and takes people hostage in order to provide for his family (a type of self-defense), he makes genuine efforts not to hurt anyone. Likewise, people are undoubtedly hurt when June and the Patriots rescue Day, but by using a diversion, they kill fewer people than they would have by storming Batalla Hall directly.
The Republic engages in eugenics - that is, trying to remove people with bad genes from a population so that only those with good genes will survive. How do they accomplish this? Is eugenics a good idea? Why or why not?
Even if eugenics seems like it might make society better, it is impossible to know what traits are "good" for society. The Republic values tactical intelligence and physical strength. However, it seems to punish critical thinking and compassion, as we see when the government covers up Day's perfect Trial score and tries to kill him. All of these traits are good for society, and preventing the births of people who are different from an established model of perfection can only make a population more vulnerable.
The Republic is a morally confusing society. How do the characters in Legend decide how to be good people?
In Legend, each character must decide for him or herself how to be a good person. The Republic doesn't offer much guidance, and those who decide to rebel against its laws each have their own moral code. Day feels obliged to help the poor people around him, while June seems more content to focus on defending the people she knows. Kaede, on the other hand, is very practical and efficient and only wants to do things that will help advance the Republic's downfall.