Black Voices in Arthurian Legend

Hello, friends! I know it’s been so very long since my last post– but I’m back and looking forward to being more active on here again!

As we end Black History Month, I wanted to share a few quick thoughts and some great names that deserve mentioning. 🙂

While the Arthurian Legend is rooted in Celtic history and lore, on an island that is assumed to have been inhabited by a predominantly white race, it’s safe to say that this iconic and beloved legend has felt tremendously inaccessible to people of color throughout the centuries (as has the entire fantasy genre, in general.) Not only have people of color rarely been represented over the centuries but monsters and “ugly people” in Arthurian legend have always shared a wondrous similarity to POC features. Evil witches and old hags have “large, wide noses” and a monster like the Moor (a man of color), in the words of Chrétien de Troyes, is “large, ugly and hideous in the extreme; with hair unkempt and his bare forehead more than two spans wide, his ears hairy and huge as an elephant, his eyebrows heavy and his face flat.” Sometimes I read these things in my favorite stories and as a woman of color, feel an anger like a burning coal in the bottom of my stomach, and a hurt like I’ve been betrayed by a friend. I love this world and these characters so much– and then I remember how my people have been portrayed in this world over and over again and I can’t help but feel ashamed for loving a genre that has been so cruel to people of non-European descent.

But as we’ve seen, over the last few decades, that’s thankfully begun to change. Especially in the Arthurian genre! This is thanks to several portrayals of POC Arthurian characters in film and TV (including BBC’s Merlin, ABC’s Once Upon a Time, Netflix’s Cursed and A24’s The Green Knight) as well as main characters in Arthurian books that are specifically POC. It’s always been important to me that people of color, especially black folks, are represented beautifully in Arthurian legend when possible. (And before we start with the whole “black people in medieval Britain is historically inaccurate” thing, the Arthurian age is set in post-Roman Britain, right after the Romans brought people from Africa and the Middle East with them to England, Wales and France as slaves, soldiers and lovers.) This obviously doesn’t mean that every main character in every Arthurian tale must be POC, of course. Much of my own Arthurian cast that lives in my head are white. But I find it important to challenge what we’ve always known or seen, for the sake of inclusion– without going out of our way to include something we know nothing about, of course. There’s a fine line and I think many new artists telling Arthurian stories are finding that balance beautifully. I have several black friends that love Arthurian legend and that have always felt a sense of imposter syndrome while enjoying it…until now. ❤

Those warm winds of change are thanks to a lot of amazing artists, including these two powerful women, and the beautiful work they’ve contributed!

Tracy Deonn, author of Legendborn

Tracy Deonn is…am I really saying this?…the first black author of an Arthurian novel. I may be incorrect and I hope I am!! But to my knowledge, she is the only known black Arthurian novelist, thanks to her riveting book, Legendborn. Her main character is a black, sixteen-year-old girl named Bree who lives in the American south and discovers a secret historically white magic society that may have something to do with her mother’s death. And the Knights of the Round Table. I’ve yet to read this book but I’m BEYOND excited to start it soon. Here’s a quick review from Instagram book-lover @alexysreads:

“As a 30-year-old Black Woman and having spent most of my life North Carolina. I’ve NEVER…I mean NEVER felt so SEEN in a fantasy book as much as I have with #Legendborn. ❤ I felt utterly engulfed in this story. The world was vivid and felt real! It went deep and didn’t gloss over the everyday things many Black folks go through daily, especially in PWI (Predominantly White Institution) space. I loved Tracy’s mixture of Black History, Southern Blackness, ancestral magic, erasure, resilience, survival and grief. There were several parts I needed to sit with just to soak it all in. It’s the deep and every day for me, from talking about feeling cheated when it comes to knowing one’s family history, eating Bo-Berry biscuits and joy of wash day for our hair. I loved Bree and rooted for her during the entire story. Even at the age of 30, I felt connected with Bree on many levels, especially with grief. Also, I have no idea which team I’m on. I always go for the bad boy exterior but a complete teddy bear on the inside type. But oh man, I am leaning towards #TeamNick. TRACYY HONEY!!! You had me going to bed at 2am multiple nights and waking up exhausted for work. I blame you for my lack of sleep these few days!! Make sure to read LEGENDBORN by @tracydeonn.”

If that doesn’t rouse you enough to want to stop everything and read Ms. Deonn’s work right this second, I’m not sure what will. Don’t forget to check out the sequel, Bloodmarked, releasing soon!

Zetna Fuentes, director of Cursed

I’ve mentioned Netflix’s Cursed series before but it deserves another mention and so many more! Cursed centers around a young Nimue, or Lady of the Lake, who’s in the midst of a fight to protect her people. It’s a very refreshing new take on the Legend, with inclusion interwoven seamlessly throughout. The book series it’s based on was written by Thomas Wheeler and Frank Miller, who decided to make Nimue a woman of color. In the Netflix series, while Nimue may be caucasian, the actors who play Arthur, Morgana and several other supporting characters are POC– and Morgana even has a female relationship! Seeing black and black queer representation in the Legend had never been done before– and for that, we have Latina-American director Zetna Fuentes to thank.

Ms. Fuentes has done work on How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Shameless, This Is Us, and several other classic bingeable shows. But her new twists on the Arthurian legend– not just in diverse casting but in directing and fleshing out a riveting plot– make this show a new stepping stone for the rest of us. She’s raised the bar on multiple levels, which I think was very much needed for the areas of our Legend that are growing tired. She’s taken those areas and revived them; breathed fresh life into them in a way that makes the Legend truly accessible in multiple ways. She even made sure to include the actors’ natural hair (which we’ve never seen before in Arthuriana), like one of the warrior women’s long dreads and Morgana’s beautiful cornrows. She mentioned in an interview that she wanted to create a fantasy world that she– and everyone– would want to live in. When asked how she felt the show resonated with the modern age, she said:

“It’s funny, we began work on this show before the pandemic, before this racial reckoning…and yet we knew– when we were working on it, it was layered in there, subtly, or not so subtly when you’re watching it– it was this fear of other. Oppression of other. And I think Nimue [embodies this] as a character because she’s different; because she doesn’t understand what makes her different or how the world sees her. It really is a tale of people trying to destroy what they don’t know, what they don’t understand, and that is the world we live in. It resonated with me as a woman of color, thinking about moving through this world. And if you’re different in any way, people often want to stop it, or to destroy it, to oppress it. And I think this speaks to that. This speaks to our hero, who is going to move forward and do what’s right.”

A look at Shalom Brune-Franklin as Morgana

Zetna Fuentes, Tracey Deonn and several other artists carrying on the Arthurian tradition are certainly raising the bar for all of us Round Table storytellers, and even just fantasy fans. It’s up to us to not only keep up, but to keep pushing the bar even further. To make space for all of us.

It’s what our High King fought for, after all. His Round Table was “round” because there was no head; everyone was equal. His knights came from all over Britain (even enemy lands) and from all over the Continent, and otherwise. Scotland, France, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Morocco. He kept both Christians and pagans in his court. Arthur was adamant about making his Camelot, his war band, his people, feel at home, no matter where they came from. Saxons were invading, northern kingdoms were waging war and nothing felt safe. So coming together at the heart of it all and being one at the Table, regardless of background, was imperative. And no matter which adaptation you prefer– the dark, action-packed dramas filled to the brim with political intrigue, or the lighter, romantic, kid-friendly comedies– I feel like Arthur’s roots and soul rest in what he stands for. His will to unite and stand together against darker tides. It’s literally the whole point of the Legend.

So as artists trying to carry on his tradition, I think it only right that we do the same, for this day and age. Let’s continue to unite under this umbrella of incredible stories that we all love, and continue the work to make space for all of us at the Table. It’s what Arthur would have wanted. ❤

Hope you’ve had a wonderful February. Sending blessings your way for a beautiful March!

Published by arthuriananerd

Arthurian enthusiast, podcaster of "Of Swords and Magic". Writer, actor, tea-fanatic, kitchen witch. Instagram: @ofswordsandmagic.podcast or @lj_bertini

4 thoughts on “Black Voices in Arthurian Legend

  1. It’s so nice to finally see diversity coming about in Arthurian Legend, because you are absolutely right. The Romans brought people from all over AND the Britons themselves traded with many other lands, including Egypt, which was also very diverse. Palamedes was a POC from Babylon. I got some weird comments from early readers that my Camelot would not be diverse BUT IT ABSOLUTELY WOULD BE. If I make my Camelot a central hub, the center city of Briton, it absolutely would have people from all over traveling for trade and settling in.

    Legendborn was absolutely amazing and I can’t wait for you to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! I was thinking the same thing. Camelot would have absolutely been a central hub for trading, etc, and would have invited a variety of people from different backgrounds/cultures. I’m SO excited about the diversity that is growing more and more popular in Arthurian legend. ❤

      Like

  2. Loved this part! Encapsulates the legend so well: “It’s what our High King fought for, after all. His Round Table was “round” because there was no head; everyone was equal. His knights came from all over Britain (even enemy lands) and from all over the Continent, and otherwise. Scotland, France, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Morocco. He kept both Christians and pagans in his court. Arthur was adamant about making his Camelot, his war band, his people, feel at home, no matter where they came from.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: