Today, May 1st, May Day, or Beltane as it was known to the ancient Celtic people, is Mordred’s birthday. He is the greatest villain, or perhaps the most misunderstood in Arthurian legend. So in his honor, I am posting Chapter 5 from my book King Arthur’s Children, so we can have a closer look at his true character, or at least, what we may discern about it.
The Character of Mordred
The name of Mordred is synonymous with traitor to those familiar with the Arthurian legends. If ever a cursed figure has existed in literature, it is Mordred, for how can one feel sorry for him when he is the murderer of King Arthur, the greatest, most noble king Britain ever had? Yet Mordred was not always an evil character in the legends. In the Welsh tradition, he was even honorable and admired.
The earliest written source we have for Mordred is the tenth century Annales Cambriae where it states that Arthur and Mordred fell at Camlann in 539, but no mention is made of their relationship or their being on opposite sides. Mordred may only be mentioned as falling with Arthur because he was one of the highest and greatest members of King Arthur’s court.The Welsh tradition describes Mordred as one of the three kingly knights of Arthur’s court, and it states that no one could deny him anything because of his courtliness. The curious qualities to which his persuasive powers were due were his calmness, mildness, and purity (Guest, Mabinogion, 344). Loomis also states that in a Welsh Triad Mordred is mentioned along with Nasiens, King of Denmark, as “men of such gentle, kindly, and fair words that anyone would be sorry to refuse them anything” (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 146-7). When the Welsh had such nice things to say about Mordred, we can hardly expect him to have become a traitor.
Whether Mordred was actually Arthur’s nephew before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings cannot be determined; in “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” he is mentioned as Arthur’s nephew (Jones, Mabinogion, 140), but this Welsh tale could have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth since it was not written down until the fourteenth century. Furthermore, we must notice that Mordred is described in the above passage as a “kingly” knight, and later he is grouped with the King of Denmark. “Kingly” would seem to mean that Mordred was himself a king, or at least of royal blood. He would be royal if he were the son of Arthur’s sister and King Lot; possibly, he would have even inherited a kingdom upon his father’s death. In some later versions of the legend, he was supposed to inherit Arthur’s throne, as will be further discussed in Chapter 9; therefore, the hint that Mordred may have been a king could be well founded.
Mordred’s ability to persuade people so that none could refuse him may need to be looked at a little more hesitantly. It sounds almost as if he were capable of manipulating people, but this interpretation may be false reading between the lines in an attempt to find sarcasm where it was not intended. Such a negative interpretation was often used by the later romancers in their portraits of Mordred. They may have simply been misinterpreting what the Welsh had said of Mordred, or the person who wrote these Welsh traditions down may have been fusing the Welsh traditions with other more recent concepts of Mordred’s character.
One quality attributed to Mordred that we cannot overlook is his purity. Mordred is perhaps the last character in the legends one would expect to have been pure. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mordred is so far from purity that he is trying to force Guinevere into marriage with him. However, the sin of marrying his father’s wife is a sin Mordred originally seems innocent of having committed since it is not mentioned in any of the earlier Welsh versions of the legend.
One final clue to what may have been Mordred’s true character is that the Welsh Triads give two reasons for the Battle of Camlann. One of these is the blow Gwenhyvar struck to Gwenhwyvach, said to be her sister in “Culhwch and Olwen” (Jones, Mabinogion, 106). The other, surprisingly enough, is the blow Arthur gave to Mordred (Guest, Mabinogion, 343). Here it appears as if Mordred is not even at fault, but rather Arthur! Does this statement mean Mordred is the good guy or on the right side in the battle? This interpretation may seem impossible, but we must keep it in mind because it will need to be further explored when we discuss the Battle of Camlann. Since the passage does not give Arthur’s reason for striking Mordred, it could also be interpreted that Mordred started the trouble and Arthur was merely retaliating.
Although the Welsh tales do depict Mordred as rebelling against Arthur, it is strange that if they were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth, they would have said so many nice things about Mordred which Geoffrey does not credit to Mordred. The writing of the Welsh tales may have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, but they may have also been drawing on independent Welsh traditions from which Geoffrey may have also drawn. Perhaps Geoffrey only borrowed the negative aspects of Mordred’s character, while The Mabinogion presents Mordred as a more rounded and realistic character.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s portrayal of Mordred as completely evil allowed Geoffrey’s successors to exaggerate this wickedness to extremes. Mordred’s character became darkest when the author of the Mort Artu (1205) decided to make him the child of incest. As we have seen, this incestuous birth may have been an almost forgotten tradition about Mordred; however, it also could have been invented to degrade Mordred further. A person born of incest was viewed as being nothing short of a devil by the Christian writers of the Middle Ages; these writers viewed Mordred’s incestuous birth as an act of lust, and through this act of lust, even greater lust was conceived; therefore, Mordred became the most despicable, lustful character in the romances, quickly losing his last good characteristic, his purity.
A few examples of the lustful deeds attributed to Mordred during the Middle Ages can be found in the Huth Merlin and Claris et Laris. In the former, Mordred is so lacking in gratitude toward his host that he seduces the girl who is his host’s amie (Bruce, Evolution vol. 2, 345). Even worse than seducing maidens, in Claris et Laris, Mordred attempts to rape a girl, but she is rescued before he can succeed. Later in the romance, he again attempts to rape a girl, but he is foiled in his attempt when the girl turns out to be a knight in disguise (Bruce, Evolution vol. 2, 271, 273). And of course Mordred is guilty of making attempts against Guinevere, which will be further explored in Chapters 6 and 7.
One reason why all this evil may have been attributed to Mordred could go back to our earlier discussion of his name origins. The Welsh form of Mordred’s name was Medraut or Medrawt, but it was later changed to Mordred, the Mor part of his name suggesting connotations to various European words for the sea. The stories of Mordred’s connection to the sea may have caused writers to believe he had some connection to death, specifically by drowning—hence his rescue from drowning at birth, so they borrowed from this new suggestive meaning in his name to depict him as evil. Of course, it could be that the name change was the result of writers wanting a name that more accurately depicted his already established evil character. In any case, Mordred’s character makes a change for the worse at approximately the same time as his name passes from the form of Medraut to Mordred.
Mordred’s wickedness, rather than growing into a more grotesque depiction, has received more sympathy from modern writers. We now live in an age of psychology where we look at the environment of the child that formed the adult. Consequently, trying to understand Mordred’s villainous behavior has provided him with a degree of sympathy; after all, how can he help hating his father, when that father tried to drown him, and furthermore, he must deal with the knowledge that he is the child of incest?
In some of the modern fiction, Mordred even appears to be regretful of his evil ways prior to the Battle of Camlann. Often he appears to be the victim of fate, trapped in a situation he is unable to avoid (Lacy, Arthurian Encyclopedia, 394). Even when he is not a sympathetic character, some writers depict him as not being completely at fault for the Battle of Camlann. Writers over the centuries, from Sir Thomas Malory to Mary Stewart in her novel The Wicked Day (1983), have arranged a meeting between Arthur and Mordred before the Battle of Camlann. In The Wicked Day, it is decided that Mordred will be king after Arthur’s death and have lands of his own until that time. In both Malory and Stewart, the Battle of Camlann begins during this meeting. While Mordred and Arthur are negotiating, one of their soldiers steps on an adder, which then attacks him; the soldier’s reflex is to draw his sword and kill the snake. The flash of the sword, at the same time Arthur happens to raise his arm, is interpreted by the two armies as the sign to start the battle, and so the wicked day begins. Here Mordred, although desiring the kingdom, was at least trying to make peace with Arthur so there need be no more battles, but it is Mordred and Arthur’s fate to slay each other, as Merlin predicted would happen when Mordred was born.
Occasionally in the modern texts, Mordred is even seen as having a purpose besides his own selfish desires for the throne. In The Mists of Avalon (1982), he is the arm of his mother, Morgan le Fay, sent to punish King Arthur for betraying the Isle of Avalon and forgetting his vows to the Goddess. Although Morgan seems a little fanatical at times in this work, the reader always sympathizes with her and so Mordred comes out on what is viewed as the side of good.
Perhaps the most unusual view of Mordred lies not so much in whether he was a good or an evil person, but in the theory that he, and not Arthur, was the rightful King of Britain, which would give a new understanding to his actions, making them merely an attempt to regain what was rightfully his. This interesting theory will be discussed more fully in Chapter 9. First, let us follow our chronological scheme of study and see what lies behind the tale of Mordred’s abduction of Guinevere since that is generally one of the causes for the Battle of Camlann.
For more information about Mordred or to purchase a copy of King Arthur’s Children, visit www.ChildrenofArthur.com
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com