Snake-Women and Vikings: Gendered Geographies in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Teaching, research, and more

“You’re addressing England,” a newly crowned King Arthur tells Greybeard, leader of the Vikings, at the end of Guy Richie’s 2017 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. In the scene, the line contrasts two kinds of kingship: Vortigern’s, based on fear and the sacrifice of others’ lives for power, and the protective kingship of Arthur. In context of the film, however, Arthur’s England is the result of two contrasting narratives of its history and geography, each heavily inflected by gender. The first, drawing on the tradition of ‘gritty realism,’ depicts England as the ruined remnants of Roman imperialism in an international geography that includes real locations like Norway, China, and Mercia. In this narrative, power is generated economically and militarily by men, and women function as signifiers of men’s emotional and political connections or as victims of male violence. The second narrative, conversely, figures England as the site of conflict between “man & mage.” This conflict is divorced from any external geography but deploys a connection between women and snakes, seen in narratives of the Fall and medieval romances such as Lybeaus Desconus and Mélusine, to portray women as the source of a mysterious and animalistic power capable either of facilitating or destroying male creations. This paper traces the film’s attempts to combine these histories and argues that, in insisting on the dominance of the male and ‘realistic’ history in Arthur’s character arc, the film undercuts its efforts to define Arthur as a positive and unifying alternative to Vortigern.