The following essay is an excerpt from my book King Arthur’s Children, taken from Chapter 4 about the Birth and Origins of Mordred:
Perhaps the most interesting, although far-fetched, of the new theories surrounding the birth of Mordred lies in Norma Lorre Goodrich’s study King Arthur (1986). Here Goodrich suggests that Mordred was actually a twin, and his twin was none other than Sir Lancelot. Goodrich points out that both Lancelot and Mordred have stories of being thrown into a body of water. Furthermore, she states that in the Celtic world, the birth of twins was considered as a sign that the mother had committed adultery with a devil. It was believed that the firstborn twin was the son of the earthly father while the second twin was the son of the Devil; giving birth to twins resulted in the mother being put to death for adultery. Beginning probably with the Lanzelet and carrying into later Lancelot tales, Lancelot is kidnapped by the Lady of the Lake, who then raises him as her own son. This kidnapping usually takes place when the castle of King Ban, Lancelot’s father, is besieged by its enemies. Lancelot’s mother flees the confusion with her child. She either sets her son down for a minute, or else she accidentally drops him into the water. The Lady of the Lake then appears and steals away the child. Goodrich suggests that this kidnapping may have been a late version of an earlier story in which Lancelot’s mother, because Lancelot was the second born twin, threw her son into the lake to drown him. If she could successfully hide the fact that she had twins, she would not be put to death for sleeping with a devil (163).
However, the Lanzelet is the first source for this story and it is a late source. It seems unlikely that this German author would have knowledge of an actual tradition which the English, Welsh, and French writers never mentioned; therefore, it is more probable that Zatzikhoven invented this story from his own imagination than that he found it in a now lost Arthurian source.
Furthermore, the Lanzelet states that Lancelot is a year old when he is thrown into the lake (26). Obviously, if Lancelot were a year old, his mother would not try to drown him so late after his birth when his being a twin would already be known. Perhaps this statement of Lancelot’s age, however, is also a later addition to the story. Originally, Lancelot’s mother may have thrown him into the lake, and the later romancers, not understanding why a mother would so treat her child, may have added the attack upon the castle to try and make the tale understandable (Goodrich, King Arthur, 164-5).
Is it possible then that Lancelot was Mordred’s brother and twin, and therefore, even the son of King Arthur? If so, then Lancelot’s true mother was not King Ban’s wife, commonly named Clarine or Helen, but Morgause or Morgan le Fay. In the Lanzelet, a mermaid messenger declares that Lancelot “is now proved a relative of the most generous man whom the world ever saw: King Arthur of Cardigan was beyond doubt his uncle…Thus Lanzelet discovered he was Arthur’s sister’s child” (92-3). If tradition says Lancelot was Arthur’s nephew as Mordred is referred to as being, then is it not just as possible that he was Arthur’s son born of an incestuous relationship?
This theory leaves some confusion since it doesn’t seem necessary that if twins were born, the mother would have thrown both into the sea to hide her guilt. Perhaps Lancelot was the second born, believed to be the devil’s son, and therefore tossed into the sea to prevent his mother’s death; following this event, Arthur’s edict was made, which resulted in Mordred also being tossed into the sea. Mordred was probably the first born child since in some sources his mother wished to prevent his death by casting him out in a floating cradle that allowed him to be washed ashore (Goodrich, King Arthur, 164). However, the cradle suggests that the writer may have merely been borrowing from other sources such as the biblical tales of Moses and the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, or the classical tales of Perseus and Oedipus. In these tales, children are ordered to be murdered by a king because that king fears a child overthrowing him when the child becomes an adult. Similarly, Arthur is afraid of Merlin’s prophecy that Mordred is the child who will result in his downfall so he orders all the children of Mordred’s age to be killed. Therefore, the tale of Mordred’s nearly drowning may have its origins in either biblical or classical sources, or it could be a universal motif that the Celtic people also frequently used.
If Goodrich’s theory is correct, then Lancelot was King Arthur’s son, since it is doubtful he would have been the son of a devil. Something else Goodrich doesn’t mention that could help back up her theory from a mythological point of view is the tale of Dylan’s birth. Arianrhod is said to have given birth to two children, Dylan and another son named Llew Llaw Gyffes. Llew was a solar god who grew so rapidly that when he was four, he was as big as if he were eight, and he was the comeliest youth ever seen (Rolleston 381). If Dylan and Llew were twins, then could Mordred and Lancelot also be twins? Loomis suggests that Lancelot may have mythological connections to Llew, and his name might even be derived from Llew (Lanzelet 15). This connection is disputed by most present day scholars, but we will return to it in Chapter 7.
If Lancelot is Arthur’s son, there is a good possibility that he is connected to Arthur’s earlier son, Llacheu, since both may have connections to solar gods. Rhys has claimed that Llacheu wore a circle of gold, and although this seems unlikely as we saw in Chapter 3, Lancelot is credited with similarly possessing a ring by the Lady of the Lake. Norma Goodrich says this ring may have been able to clear Lancelot’s head since he was subject to delusions and madness (King Arthur 164). Although Llacheu’s circle of gold does not protect or heal his head since it is chopped off, perhaps Lancelot’s need for something to protect his head is a borrowed motif from Llacheu’s losing his head. Goodrich also points out that Lohengrin’s mother put golden chains around her babies’ necks as she surrendered them to be thrown into the lake (King Arthur 164). This ring may then have a connection to the Lady of the Lake. If Llacheu is in some way a source for Mordred, who was also thrown into the sea, then it is not so surprising that Llacheu would have had such a ring.
Whether or not Lancelot is Mordred’s brother and Arthur’s son, it is an interesting theory that has some support in Mordred’s own mythological background. This background suggests that Mordred may have traditionally been Arthur’s son from the beginning, a son born through incest rather than originating as a nephew who was then twisted into the child of incest by the romancers.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He is currently working on a series of novels about the Children of Arthur. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com