My first exposure to Arthurian legend is Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, and I’ve been hooked on retellings of the legend ever since. The elements are fairly standard: a misunderstood boy with few friends, a world descended into chaos, a powerful relic created to appoint the new leader, and an eccentric wizard who helps the hero succeed. My young soul desperately connected to the boy, with seemingly no prospects, who becomes the Once and Future King. As I’ve grown older, I’ve never lost my love for stories where someone on the margins becomes a hero. So, I was pleasantly surprised when my wife and I went to see The Kid Who Would Be King and saw a movie continuing the tradition of elevating the marginalized—allowing them to become heroes.
Twelve-year-old nerd Alex finds the magical sword Excalibur in a concrete pillar at a construction site across the street from his school. After he’s attacked by flaming skeletons that only he can see, a young Merlin explains that he must save the world from Morgana, the mythical witch the original King Arthur defeated in legend. Alex recruits the help of his nerdy friend, Bedders, and his school’s bullies Lance and Kaye. As you can imagine, there is tension between the two groups, but they eventually learn how to fight with swords, live as knights, and honor one another. As they become a true fellowship of knights (and with the help of Merlin’s magic), they’re able to unite their entire school against Morgana.
As was true of the original Arthurian legend, this hero’s journey is set in a world full of division and strong-armed leadership. What makes this story different is the characters’ self-awareness. Alex and Bedders realize they are fulfilling every nerd’s dream of becoming legendary heroes. Bullies Lance and Kaye take what they want because that’s their experience of how the world works. No one stands up for what’s right, and the truth is no protection against societal injustice. In the midst of this broken world, Morgana arises as the embodiment of this discord. Her power comes from a world torn apart because no leader stands against injustice. Alex is chosen as a leader when Excalibur appears to him because he alone will stand up to the bullies when they are picking on his friends.But in Alex, we see a kid that owns who he is and shows others that they can too.
This commitment to good, right living helps The Kid Who Would Be King rise above lot of entertainment today. For example, the hero is unwilling to sacrifice his morals or others’ safety just to survive. He also lives deep within nerd culture, often referencing things like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. This atypical hero speaks to my inner child who is still madly in love with The Sword in the Stone and it’s exciting to see a character that children today can find themselves in. When I was eleven-years-old, I didn’t want to be like myself—I always wanted to be someone or something else. But in Alex, we see a kid that owns who he is and shows others that they can too.
After all, Alex’s oddness is what makes him the hero Britain needs to face Morgana. Excalibur chooses him. And not because he’s big, strong, or incredibly good looking. He’s average—a nerdy preteen who sneaks over to his friends house to talk about the latest fantasy adventure they’ve read, seen, or maybe played. Alex and his best friend Bedders, seem like the kind of kids that would rather be at home with a couple of character sheets and a set of Chessex dice. He doesn’t bat an eye at donning medieval-armor replicas as he descends into a dungeon with his friends to fight Morgana. The efficiency with which they set up defenses at their school reflect that they’ve probably thought about similar situations once or twice. In middle school, these boys and I would have been fast friends. I am so happy that characters like Alex and Bedders exist, inspiring kids to take heart in what makes them different. After all, Alex’s differences are what made him king.