Featuring a swashbuckling battle for the throne, witchcraft, and the electric guitar, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reads like a love child between rock ‘n’ roll and Game of Thrones. While some elements of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword are pulled from the original King Arthur lore, filmmakers took a giant departure when writing the role of the Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), who initially was billed as Guinevere. Though the Mage and other supernatural women seem to be be the keepers of power in this realm, that doesn't necessarily mean King Arthur does right its representations of women.
In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a baby Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is sent down the river to safety after his uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law) overthrows Arthur’s father Uther (Eric Bana) and takes the throne — think a mashup of Hamlet and Moses. Raised in a brothel, Arthur comes of age in Londinium with a rough-and-tumble gang of friends. He’s happy. He doesn’t feel a call toward greatness. But greatness is thrust upon him after he manages to wrench an enchanted sword from a stone, indicating his royal lineage.
The rightful heir to the throne, Arthur’s the only person who can overthrow Vortigern, played by Law at his smirkiest. But since Arthur is a hustler who’d rather be extorting Vikings for money than ruling the kingdom, it takes the persuasion, collaboration, and the teachings of the Mage before he can accept his duty.
The Mage, played by Bergès-Frisbey with a blend of exasperation, impenetrable expressions, and an unidentifiable accent, was sent by the magician Merlin to whip Arthur into shape. She’s able to conjure and control dangerous beasts, and Arthur certainly wouldn’t have been victorious without the Mage’s giant snakes and hawks thwarting his enemies.
Though the Mage is essential to Arthur's ascension to the throne, her backstory is never developed or questioned. I was shocked to find that, upon looking at the film's casting, Bergès-Frisbey was initially cast to play Guinevere, not the Mage. Guinevere is a classic character in Arthurian legend, but she’s nothing like this ass-kicking mystical witch. Instead, Guinevere is King Arthur’s wife, made famous by her affair with the knight Lancelot. Guinevere's adultery eventually brought down Arthur’s fellowship with the Knights of the Round Table, and led to the disintegration of Camelot.
Some time over the course of the film's development, Bergès-Frisbey's character evolved from the classic character Guinevere to an entirely new creation — and I wanted to know why.
While the Mage may be an upgrade from Guinevere, a woman known only for her betrayal, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’s portrayal of women is far from perfect. There’s a sharp distinction drawn between categories of women characters in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. First, there are the wives and daughters, who are almost all pay for their husbands’ and fathers’ ambitions with their lives. Arthur's only memory of his mother, Igraine (Poppy Delevingne), is her death; Vortigern kills his wife and daughter so he can hold onto the throne.
And then, the film features mystical women like the Mage, without backstories of their own but armed with plenty of powers. Vortigern, for example, makes a covenant with a three-headed lake monster, sort of like Ursula with triple the personality. Similarly, after Arthur abandons his sword in the lake, the mythical Lady of the Lake returns Excalibur to him and resets him on a path to greatness.
In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, these mystical women have something ambitious men don’t: the key to power. These women are able to portend the future, control animals, and win wars; neither Vortigern nor Arthur could’ve achieved the throne without them. Unfortunately, this means interesting women characters become mere conduits for men achieving the throne.
Given all this, I think I’ve figured out why Guinevere became the Mage over the course of the film’s development. It seems that Guinevere could only become a character of import in the film if she were given supernatural powers — essentially, if she were turned into a new character entirely. While the Mage is a dynamic presence, a real achievement for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword would’ve been featuring a mortal woman with as important a place in the proceedings as a magical one. Like, for example, a Guinevere.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword arrives in theaters on May 12, 2017.
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