Identity and Self-Acceptance in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur and The Gentlemen

Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is another one of those great movies who have gone rather unnoticed. Despite its little success it is still a fantastic and powerful movie that can teach us a lot about dealing with our own demons, with self-sabotage, and how self-acceptance of our own strength can be the key to overcome our self-doubt.

Arthur’s identity is bound to the sword. Only after he grips the sword, his true identity is revealed. Although this may sound trivial if you don’t put any thought in it, it is by no means a negligible detail.

Before he pulls the sword out of the rock, Arthur used to live his well-ordered life as a crime boss. Leading “a well-ordered life” while “being a crime boss” may sound like a contradiction, but the contrast is obviously intended in the setup of the story. As long as Arthur lives as a criminal, his life is ordered and structured. He is street savvy, knows the ins and outs of the business and has established a good position for himself and his associates. He even has influence on the Black Legs (the king’s men), which allows him further advantages for his shady business. Living as a crime boss, his life was flourishing. Everything seemed to be in order. Meanwhile, Vortigern, his uncle and murderer of Arthur’s father Uther, has forced his tyrannical yoke onto the country and its people.

The disorder starts as soon as the water drops and reveals the legendary sword, Excalibur. King Vortigern commands all men in the right age to be tested to pull out the sword, so he can find Uther’s son and kill him. Arthur tries to escape the draft, but he gets captured and is forced to comply. After he pulls the sword out of the rock and is thus revealed to be the True Born King, his old life falls apart. Overwhelmed by the might of the sword and the images of the past events it evoked in him, he falls unconscious and is taken as prisoner. Vortigern busts his business, imprisons the prostitutes who raised him, and wants to publicly execute his nephew. But the Mage and Sir Bedevere’s men save him. Now he needs to go into hiding because Vortigern’s Black Legs are skimming the country to kill him.

The chaos ensues both in Arthur’s life as well as in the whole kingdom. It is caused by the revelation of Arthur’s true identity. Dialectically, as long as he lived under his wrong identity, his life appeared to be in order. But it is not true order if it can be disrupted by the truth. His former life was thus a shadow-life. It was the life-lie he was able to functionally live – without having to fulfill his true destiny. The shadow-life is the life Arthur was able to live while not taking account the truth about himself.

The Shadow-Life

The shadow-life is the life we lead to escape our true selves. It is the life we live to avoid the responsibility of living up to our highest potential. Instead of being the King of England, Arthur used to be the king of Londinium’s underworld. That’s easier. It has less responsibility. Being the king of the underworld doesn’t require him to be as much as he needs to be the King of England. Self-sabotaging is always easier – at least short term – than taking responsibility for one’s own life.

That’s why, after being saved and captured by Bedevere’s men, Arthur wants to go back and see what is left of his old life. Although Arthur mourns that his former life is no more existent, in truth it is a disguised blessing. Losing his old life is what opens the door for him to step into his new life.

But Arthur is not merely hesitant to take his next step – he is actually unwilling to do so. Why is that? We’ve already hinted that he wants to avoid the responsibility of being more. We can sense that it is fear that’s stopping him; fear of having more responsibility, fear of having to deal with bigger tasks, fear of being stronger to solve these tasks: fear of being more. And having to do more. To better understand Arthur’s fear, we need to listen to the dialogue between Vortigern and Arthur in the dungeon, right after Arthur is captured.

As soon as Arthur awakes, Vortigern openly confesses his admiration for him. “Not only did you survive in the gutter, you blossomed out of manure.” And: “What kind of man would you have become, had you inherited your father’s kingdom and all its advantages, instead of being raised in a brothel?”

But they key part in this dialogue is when Vortigern lays out his and Arthur’s similarity: “You and I have a lot more in common than you think. It’s not just the same blood we share, but also the same interests. We both developed a palate for power.”

Arthur, being his inauthentic self, denies Vortigern’s claims: “I’ve never had any power or any desire to achieve it,” and promises to disappear and never return to challenge Vortigern’s throne. But Vortigern has found out the truth about Arthur’s career and his achievements, which plainly reveal Arthur’s aspiring nature. For Vortigern, they are proof of Arthur’s ambitious character, and thus reason to believe that one day he might indeed turn against him and try to claim his title. Thus he tells Arthur: “Your achievements now stand as your prosecution,” and sentences him to die.

Arthur’s unwillingness to acknowledge his true nature persists even after the Mage and Bedevere’s men save him. Bedevere’s men try to provoke him to a fight, so he would do “something razzle-dazzle with that sword” – meaning they want him to activate Excalibur as to strengthen his connection to it and its powers. Arthur first claims that he won’t fight and acts innocuously as if he were a pacifist – only to surprise them with an insidious attack. This cunning attack reveals, nolens volens, his true nature as a man who is well able to mislead his perceived enemies to gain a winning advantage over them. Ironically, the fight ends when Arthur forgets himself and grips the sword firmly with both hands (more about this detail later) to fight Bedevere and his men. Gripping Excalibur with both hands activates its power. When Arthur experiences this power, he sees flashes of his demonic uncle, and of his father urging Arthur to flee. Unable to withstand these flashbacks, he passes out.

Magic and Power

These two things are intrinsically connected in Arthur’s traumatic experience of his parents’ deaths: the vision of his demonic uncle, and his father Uther commanding Arthur to flee.

When he feels the power of the sword and his pupils turn blue from the magic flowing through him, Arthur immediately has flashbacks of his demonic uncle. This is because he recognizes that these two powers are of the same nature. And he is afraid of this magic – not merely because it is what killed his parents, but also because his father triggered a flight response in Arthur by telling him to run away from his uncle in his demonic shape.

Arthur has seen magic do evil things and is afraid of wielding the same force. In fact, he’s been haunted by nightmares of this dangerous magic his whole life, as we can see in the montage showing how he grew up in Londinium. It’s been torturing him for as long as he can remember. And this fear and pain is what causes his anger, which we also see in the growing up montage.

But this force in Excalibur is Arthur’s force. The sword is bound to him and his true identity, thus revealing who he really is. It answers only to him. He is the only man capable of wielding it. Excalibur is what makes Arthur the legitimate King. At the same time, Excalibur’s magic is the same force by whose means Vortigern was able to commit his atrocities. That is why Arthur fears it. He is afraid of the evil things he might do with this power. He’s afraid of not being able to manage his dark side with this power.

In the growing up montage, we see Arthur’s dark side from early on. His dark side, or his shadow, shows in his cunning, which he learns early as a kid. It is revealed in his affinity for fighting, which he’s taught by Kung Fu George. It also reveals itself in his greed, broadly speaking, which makes him accumulate so much money in his coffers – money, after all, is also a form of power. But we see it also when he’s raging, alone in his room, bumping his fists and swinging them like in self-aggression.

The Sickness unto Death

Hence, there is something in himself that Arthur cannot, or does not want to, accept. He wants to stay the way he is, and not accept his higher vocation with all the potential to be unleashed in the future. That which Arthur is as a crime boss, is his ego, his status quo, his static identity in the here and now. The self is that which Arthur, or any other person for that matter, can possibly become – the sum of all possible me’s through time and space.

The disalignment with one’s self is what the Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the main trait of all desperation. He explains that there are two kinds of desperation: desperately not wanting to be oneself, and desperately wanting to be oneself. To keep things short for the purpose of this essay, let’s focus solely on the type of desperation that is relevant for Arthur and his story.

Arthur does not want to be himself. He does not want to be the True Born King. He can’t refute the fact, but he does not want to bow to the truth of who he is. He wished he were just a bastard born in a brothel, so he could go ahead with his known life without bearing more responsibility. That’s why the Mage tells him: “You are resisting the sword. The sword isn’t resisting you.” But at the same time, his anger and his nightmares reveal that something is not right with his life as the Londinium crime boss. There is a disturbance in himself, or in his self. There is something that requires clearance.

Thus, to heal Arthur from his desperation, she (the Mage) requires him to go into the Darklands, to prepare him to become king. There, he encounters his fears: snakes, giant bats, huge rats and wolves; he’s being thrown into fast rivers. But at the end of his journey, at the altar where he is supposed to bring the sword to, he is faced with the clear memory of the full events at his parent’s death. He relives how they tried to escape with him, how Vortigern killed first his mother and then his father. Only then does he fall unconscious and is found by Sir Bedevere and the Mage.

When Arthur returns to consciousness, the Mage addresses him with the words: “Did you see everything you needed to see?” Arthur was sent into the Darklands to see something – something that was in the dark and hidden. As Jordan Peterson explains, maturity consists in the integration of our dark sides which are unknown to us and which we resist to acknowledge. “What you most need will be found where you least want to look. […] If it chases you, you are prey. If you confront it, then you’re the thing that can transcend it.” Carl Jung derived this idea from the alchemistic aphorism: “in sterquiliniis invenitur” – in filth it will be found. Accordingly, the Alchemists’ goal was to transform common materials into gold – which equates to elevating defective character traits into noble ones.

Arthur had to be confronted with his fears he didn’t want to face. He needed to be confronted with the pain of his parents’ death. He needed to become aware of the evil that is in the world, and that he would become a victim if he didn’t take the sword in his hands and fight it. He had to become aware that the evil that is in the world he carries within himself, too. The awareness of all these dark things in the world ignites in him the necessity of acting upon it by means of his own darkness. Because it was while Arthur denied is true self that Vortigern built his towers; which means that while you betray yourself, bad things will happen which sooner or later catch up to you.

Responsibility, Faith and Virtue

Just like Kierkegaard, director and writer Guy Ritchie explains that “you must be willing to own” who you are. For him, “every man in himself is aristocratic […] he is his own king.” For him, a man’s task in life consists in taking full responsibility for everything in his life. It means asserting oneself against the material world that imposes itself upon us, trying to make us believe that we are less. Being a king means “taking back your own authority, your own divinity, your own identity – your own power” from the material world. As the famous saying goes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Guy Ritchie applied this idea not only to King Arthur, but also to the more succesesful The Gentlemen, starring Matthew McConaughey as crime boss Mickey Pearson. The movie begins with Pearson’s monologue: “If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like a king. You must be the king. There can be no doubt. Because doubt causes chaos and one’s own demise.”

In The Gentlemen, these words are related to Pearson’s unshakeable self-confidence, but mainly to his will to take responsibility for his life to the extent that he is willing to face every adversity and not look away from anything. Applied to King Arthur, we see that all mayhem happens only and always when Arthur does not take ownership of being the king.

Potential bears responsibility. And nobody has more responsibility than the king. This goes for Pearson as well as for Arthur. For Pearson, being the king means acting confidently and attacking problems as to not look away from them and give his enemies an advantage over him. For Arthur, being the king means essentially the same thing, since while he didn’t take responsibility for his crown, bad things happened which all caught up to him. Beyond that, becoming powerful bears in itself the responsibility of not becoming a cruel tyrant, like Vortigern. Arthur’s fear is the fear of becoming demonic when given such an amount of power.

Arthur’s hero-journey consists in learning to accept his shadow. That’s why the Mage requires him to go to the Darklands, to prepare him to become king. There, he encounters his fears: snakes, giant bats, huge rats and wolves; he’s being thrown into fast rivers. But at the end of his journey, at the altar where he is supposed to bring the sword to, he is faced with the clear memory of the full events at his parent’s death. He relives how they tried to escape with him, how Vortigern killed first his mother and then his father. Only then does he fall unconscious and is found by Sir Bedevere and the Mage.

As the mage explains: “You don’t want all of him to survive, that’s the point. You have to break his old self completely.”

In this case, it means that Arthur needs to let go of his self-deception, but more accurately of his defiance to accept himself with his own dark side. Because in the end, it is only the proper and integrated use of this dark side, of Excalibur’s magic, that allows him to protect his friends, to defeat Vortigern and to re-establish order in the kingdom.

Identity and Self-Realization

In his book “Psycho-Cybernetics”, Maxwell Maltz explains that all living beings function like a servo-mechanism. We aim at something, and our automatic servo-mechanism acts in a way to achieve our target by gradual correction – just like a missile adjusts its course while pursuing a target. If we doubt ourselves and visualize failure and negative outcomes, our internal servo-mechanism will pursue that which it is given as a goal. The servo-mechanism does neither judge nor discern. It just “follows orders”. Whatever target it is given, it will seek to achieve.

Perceiving ourselves as less than we are, not being the “king of our own lives”, only produces the visualization of lesser outcomes. While, instead, perceiving ourselves as worthy of life, worthy of more life with successes and positive outcomes, instructs our inner servo-mechanism to become our best selves and follow our vocations. Just like Arthur, as long as we deny our power and who we are, we will keep sabotaging ourselves. To escape this self-sabotage, we need to accept our strength, which stems from our dark side.

But we cannot and must not let our dark side take control over us, because then it becomes malevolence. That’s why we need to look at it, so it does not have its way, unchecked. If we know our dark side and learn to contain it, if we look at it and incorporate it, it becomes the strength that enables us to fight malevolence and instead bring good into the world. Our courage to face evil and adversity stems from this force.

Pulling the sword out of the rock means accepting our own identity with all its capacity for good and evil, and taking full responsibility of it. It is that which enables us to keep darkness away and create light in its stead.

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