The following excerpt is from my book King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition upon a little discussed aspect of Arthur’s perhaps forgotten brother in early Arthurian legends:Before we leave Mordred, we should notice that there may be some confusion between him as either Arthur’s son or brother, and between Mordred and a brother of Arthur’s named Modron. The confusion is further increased since Modron usually appears as Arthur’s sister rather than brother.
R.S. Loomis tells us that the ravens of The Mabinogion who battle with Arthur’s knights are Arthur’s nephew Owain’s mother, Modron, and her sisters, the daughters of Avallach (Wales 96-7). Loomis also states that Morgan le Fay and Modron have a connection because both are daughters of Avallach (Celtic Myth 192). If Morgan le Fay and Modron are sisters, we must first wonder whether they are Arthur’s sisters, making them the daughters of one of Arthur’s parents, or are they the children of Avallach? If Modron is Owain’s mother, it seems strange that Morgan is also frequently credited with having a child named Owain. Perhaps the two are not sisters, but merely the same person with a confused identity. This situation may be a similar case to Arthur’s Welsh sons becoming confused or integrated into Mordred.
Celtic scholars are in agreement that Modron, who seems to be Morgan le Fay’s sister, is the old Gallo-Roman goddess Matrona, who gave her name to the river Marne, and therefore, seems to be connected with water (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 193). If this connection to a river is true, it should not surprise us that Modron is sister to Morgan, who is often the Lady of the Lake.
When the Welsh wrote of Modron in their legends, they made her the mother of both Owain and Mabon (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 193). This son, Mabon, can be traced back to Apollo Maponos, who was worshiped in both Gaul and Britain (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 4).
What is strange is that if Modron were a female, she should later appear as Arthur’s brother in a modern novel such as in Edward Franklin’s The Bear of Britain (1944), where he is treacherous, along with Mordred, who is here Arthur’s nephew (Thompson 41).
In other works, Mordred has been depicted as Arthur’s brother, which may be another confusion with Modron, but more likely authors just taking license with the story. In Edison Marshall’s novel The Pagan King (1959), Mordred is Arthur’s half-brother. Why would Arthur have both a treacherous brother and nephew? In Marshall’s opinion, it must have seemed easier to combine the two into one character. We may then wonder whether Mordred and Modron have an older mythological connection or at least these writers are drawing upon what they want to believe is a lost connection.
In the Prince Valiant comic strip, begun by Hal Foster in 1937 and still running in more than 300 newspapers each Sunday, Mordred is also Arthur’s half-brother. In this case Mordred has a daughter, but she is not King Arthur’s direct descendant as a result. Mordred’s daughter Maeve marries Arn, the son of Prince Valiant. Arn and Maeve’s daughter Ingrid (born in the 1987 comic strip) has been designated as Arthur’s heir. Mordred has been removed from the line of succession. My guess is that Foster chose to depict Mordred as Arthur’s half-brother to avoid the issue of incest in a comic strip; I doubt Foster was interested in the relationship between Mordred and Modron.
Modron cannot be readily accepted as an early brother of Arthur. Nowhere in early traditions does he appear as such. However, in Welsh tradition is a tale where Arthur speaks to an eagle, which reveals itself to be his deceased nephew, Elewlod, the son of Madawg, son of Uthr (Bromwich, Arthur Welsh, 58). That Madawg’s son should become an eagle, may remind us of Modron as a raven, and also the legends which tell of Arthur being turned into a raven rather than dying. Perhaps then we can accept Madawg as being Modron.
Modron’s reasons for becoming confused with Mordred may also have explanations. We have seen Modron’s possibility as a sister to Morgan le Fay, Lady of the Lake. Modron herself is connected to river goddesses. Mordred definitely has a connection to water through his mythological ancestor, Dylan. Suggested connections have also been made betwen Pryderi and Rhiannon and Modron and Mabon, who was also taken away when three nights old from his mother (MacCana 83). In “Culhwch and Olwen,” Cei and Gwrhyr search for Mabon and must ask all the oldest animals where he may be. In her chapter “Chrétien de Troyes,” Jean Frappier points out that in Yvain are blended in traditions of Modron as a water nymph (Loomis, Arthurian Literature,163), and in an Irish tale, a character named Fraech is wounded by a water-monster and is then carried away by his fairy kinswomen to be healed. In her chapter “The Vulgate Cycle,” Jean Frappier makes notice of another Irish tale that tells of Fergus mac Leite being wounded by a water-monster, and as he lays by the lake dying, he charges his people that his sword Caladcolg (the original of Excalibur) should be preserved till it can be given to a fitting lord (Loomis, Arthurian Literature, 310). Could Mordred then have an origin as a water monster or as a female goddess of the sea? Or could there be a lost tradition that Mordred is the son of Modron? Why not, since we already have Morgan le Fay and Morgause as possible mothers for him.
Accurate connections between Mordred and Modron have not yet been made, but the similarities may point to a need for further investigation into this matter.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com