The Legend of the Sword, Hollywood’s newest take on the legend of King Arthur, is nothing mind-blowing or utterly original. However, it has my favorite cinematic portrayal of King Arthur to date as Charlie Hunnam takes the role of reluctant legend and gives us something rarely seen on-screen: An Arthur with charisma.
I have loved Arthurian legends since I was old enough to read, but if one really digs back into Malory, de Troyes, or before, it’s hard to find a solid interpretation of what Arthur was like. He was a king, he founded his own kingdom, he inspired loyalty – but it’s hard to give that Arthur a face. (You can say Clive Owens gave Arthur or ‘Artorius’ a face in the historical take on the legend, but while I enjoy that movie I dislike the popular theory that ties Arthur in with the Roman Empire.) Charlie Hunnam does more than give Arthur a face – he gives him a personality. Many portrayals of Arthur show him as little more than a title; a figure meant to instigate the adventures of his knights.
Guy Ritchie’s Arthur has a key element usually missing in other portrayals – charisma. In stark contrast is the villain Vortigern, who has everything at his fingertips except the ability to truly inspire.
Note: This is not a film review; this is a breakdown of Arthur vs. Vortigern, a ‘how to write charisma,’ if you will. My thoughts on the film are: it’s a very Guy Ritchie movie, which means it’s almost entirely unsentimental, the editing is clever, and sass abounds. Think about his Sherlock Holmes duology and imagine this film as the Arthurian prequel. Take that as you will.
It can be hard to write a character with charisma, especially if ‘charisma’ is not a trait you consider having in your repertoire. The ability to naturally inspire or draw people in is a rare gift, and not one that can be forced – so how do you write a charismatic character? Let’s take a look at Arthur’s outstanding traits.
• Tenacity. Arthur grows up in a brothel, and in a series of clever montages we see him as a young boy – earning money, getting beat up, watching men fight, wishing he could keep the women who rescued him from being beaten by their customers. We see him as a slightly older boy – earning money, running with a few other boys, learning how to fight, getting beat up, attempting to defend one of the prostitutes and failing. We see him as a teenager – earning money, leading several other teenagers, fighting with other men, and throwing a nasty brothel client out the window. Right from the beginning, this sets up Arthur as someone who is grimly, stubbornly determined to do what he sets out to do, no matter how long it takes. He won’t be swayed, he won’t be beaten into submission – it might take time, but he will do what he sets out to do. Already this inspires a kind of respect – Arthur is willing to realize his weaknesses, but he’s also going to work until they are strengths. Other people recognize this, and it shows the quality of Arthur’s character.
• Reasonableness. Arthur is no pushover. When a viking diplomat treats one of the prostitutes roughly, Arthur goes after him and, when words won’t work, achieves the viking’s reluctant apology through a brief fight. Violence is not Arthur’s first reaction, but it is his second. He will give you one chance, and you had better choose wisely. That said, one of Arthur’s catchphrases is, “Why have enemies when you could have friends?” At the end of the movie, the vikings approach him, expecting him to uphold their previous political deals with Vortigern. Arthur firmly but reasonably tells him that won’t happen, and offers them a choice: they can either fight him and thus the whole kingdom, or they can bow the knee. Having encountered Arthur before, they reluctantly choose to bow the knee – but Arthur doesn’t make them kneel for long. He waits just long enough, then invites them all to eat with him as friends. This is extremely smart, both personally and politically. Arthur could choose to be feared, but by treating others with courtesy, he instead chooses to command respect.
• Confidence. He leads any conversation he’s in, whether he initiated that conversation or not. When first talking with Bedivere, he flips the tables, asking Bedivere what he wants, making Bedivere answer to him. When rescued and forcibly taken to meet the rebels, he maintains a buoyant upper hand by allowing his confidence to slip into a charming smugness – joking, teasing, and acting like anything but a prisoner. He’s not afraid of anyone; he simply wants to mind his own business. When fully joins the cause against Vortigern, he does so quickly and entirely. Instead of “What do you want me to do,” his attitude is, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” This ties into the last point, however – Arthur is confident, but he is not arrogant. He respects others, and they, in turn, respect him.
Vortigern is Arthur’s antithesis.
Where Arthur scraped a living for himself off the streets, Vortigern has the wealth of an entire kingdom. Arthur has a rag-tag band of loyal rebels; Vortigern has a brutal, tired army of paid soldiers who would just as happily serve someone else for more money. It’s not that Vortigern isn’t clever or powerful – but in the end, he’s defeated by a young man raised in a brothel, and here’s why.
• Vortigern stole his power, and everyone knows it. Where Arthur fought for every inch, Vortigern plotted and schemed before murdering his brother, his wife, and exiling the peaceful mages. This creates a sense of mistrust among the populace – from then on, he’s seen not as a rightful king but as a slippery usurper, untrustworthy and undeserving.
• Vortigern keeps his power by force. Arthur does not have followers and soldiers – rather, he has friends and comrades. Rather than using cruelty swiftly to overtake the kingdom and then settling down into calm peace, Vortigern continues his reign of cruelty. His soldiers ride through the streets, forcing people out of their way or riding into them if they don’t move. All young men in the city are forced to try to draw Escalibur and are branded as soon as they fail. Vortigern chooses a reign of fear, which is ultimately unwise as a people who live in fear will run in the other direction if a better option presents itself.
• Vortigern’s power is not his own. Everyone is aware his power does not come from the force of his personality, or even his own magical abilities. Rather, his power comes from the creature under the castle and the tower he’s building right in plain sight. Arthur’s power is his – his strength, his personality, his birthright. Vortigern’s power is either stolen or created. Vortigern is fully aware of the fear he inspires, and he tells Arthur that he lives for this fear. It intoxicates him, it makes him feel as if he truly has power when really, he has only the illusion of it. (This is even paralleled in the way they dress – Arthur wears the simple clothes of a commoner, while Vortigern wears ornate armor designed to look frightening and intimidating.)
Vortigern may have dark magic and an army at his disposal, but he does not have charisma – and in the end, Arthur’s charisma, and not his ability to wield Escalibur, are what turn the tide in his favor.
Yes, the sword allows him to win several battles, but without Arthur’s charisma there would have been no battles in the first place. Without his charisma, there would have been no loyal friends, no fellow soldiers, no citizens inspired to throw off the weight of Vortigern’s oppression. In the end, Arthur’s ability to lead led the victory, while Vortigern’s pretense failed him. Vortigern cows, but Arthur inspires.
I’ve seen many authors try to write a charismatic hero and make Vortigern’s exact mistakes. Don’t settle for giving your character the illusion of charisma. If you’re going to write a charismatic hero, look to Arthur and remember: why have enemies, when you could have friends?