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Today, I’ve asked author Nicole Evelina to be my guest and let me interview her about the novel for which she is currently seeking a publisher, titled Guinevere of Northgallis.

Author Nicole Evelina

Nicole Evelina is a writer from the Midwest. Guinevere of Northgallis is her first novel and is part of an anticipated trilogy. Nicole has spent the last 12 years researching Arthurian legend, Celtic Britain and the various peoples, cultures and religious practices that shaped the country after the withdrawal of Rome. She is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society.

Nicole holds a B.A. in English and M.A. in media communications, as well as accreditation from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), a distinction that tests writing and communications skill, and is held by only 8,000 people worldwide.

Tyler: Welcome, Nicole. As a writer of Arthurian novels myself (I plan to publish King Arthur’s Legacy in the fall of 2013), I’m excited for the opportunity to talk to you today. First, will you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the Arthurian legend and what made you decide to write novels about it?

Nicole: I’ve been a fan of Arthurian legend since I was a little girl. While most other kids had Disney princesses as idols, I had the queens, kings, and knights of Arthurian legend. I was so enamored with Guinevere that I wanted to take her name as my confirmation name, but the nuns wouldn’t let me because there’s no St. Guinevere.

How I came to write about it is kind of a funny story. I’d been avoiding reading The Mists of Avalon because everyone told me “don’t read that book if you like Guinevere.” Well, my freshman year of college, a friend gave it to me as a Christmas gift. As predicted, I hated Marion Zimmer Bradley’s portrayal of Guinevere, but loved the book overall, especially Avalon. Shortly thereafter, I read Parke Godwin’s Beloved Exile, which tells what happened to Guinevere after Arthur dies. His premise didn’t really resonate with me, but it got me wondering what did happen to her. You don’t hear much about that. Inspired by the two books, I started thinking about what Guinevere’s real story was, and then one autumn morning—I can still tell you the date—she walked into my head and told me she wanted to tell her side of things. That’s how Guinevere of Northgallis was born.

Tyler: Was Guinevere of Northgallis the first novel you wrote or did you write or attempt to write other novels about it?

Nicole: It is my first novel. I’ve been writing and re-writing it on and off (more off than on) for 13 years now, so it’s gone through several iterations and really has been several different books in that time. Prior to writing it, I wrote some short stories, but they were mostly fantasy and never really went anywhere.

Tyler: The Arthurian legend is rich with characters, and of course, after Arthur, Guinevere might arguably be the most important one, but many authors such as Persia Woolley, Nancy McKenzie, and Rosalind Miles have already devoted several books to Guinevere. What made you think you had something new or original to say?

Nicole: You’re right that several other authors have covered this territory. But my Guinevere is very different, mainly because of where I’ve placed her in history. She’s not a meek Christian wallflower like in previous legend. She’s a pagan Celt who was taught to fight by her mother, a noblewoman from the land of the Picts. Although living in Britain, Guinevere was raised in her mother’s matriarchal ways, so she’s a strong, smart woman who will stand up for what she believes in and fight for it, with her tongue or with her sword, as appropriate. But despite all of that feministic rhetoric, women were pawns during that time period and the strong ones were rare, so you’ll see the consequences of her unique outlook as well.

Also, while my story has elements of fantasy, it’s also very historically grounded. Guinevere lives in a time period (approximately 480-530 A.D.) that was in the throes of transition, both politically and religiously, so my books also deal with that upheaval. The transition from paganism to Christianity is central to the story, as is the shifting political landscape, as the Britons struggle to organize themselves after the withdrawal of Rome and fight against the encroaching influences of the Saxons and Picts.

Tyler: You must have had a lot to say since you plan to write an entire trilogy. Can you tell us a little about why you decided to write a trilogy rather than just one book, and give us a little overview of what the books will cover—is it Guinevere’s entire life story?

Nicole: Originally, I thought it was going to be just one huge book. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft of the first book that I realized it needed to be a trilogy, just for page count, if nothing else. The story begins when Guinevere is 11 and will encompass her entire life, before she meets Arthur, her time with him and her life after the fall of Camelot. That’s roughly how the books are divided.

Tyler: What do you find the most fun about rewriting the Arthurian legend?

Nicole: The fun part is how the characters come alive for me. They talk in my head and sometimes when I’m writing, they do things I didn’t expect or plan for. I love seeing the legend take on its own life through them. The most rewarding part is knowing this is a legend written in a way that will speak to people of our time—a way of preserving it as a living story that continues, rather than being a dusty, moldering tale from another time.

Tyler: I think we can break Arthurian novels down into two categories—fantasy and historical, and then there are books like my own that try to include a little of both—I would consider my novels historical fantasy. What genre would best define yours?

Nicole: Historical fantasy is probably best. I’ve tried to be very true to the time period, but I can’t imagine Arthurian legend without a little magic, so there’s an element of fantasy to it as well. But it’s not high fantasy by any means. The magic is more subtle, and is, I think, in keeping with the beliefs of the Celtic people.

Tyler: I know you’ve done extensive research in writing your novels. Will you tell us a little about your process and how you decided what to include?

Nicole: At the beginning, my process was to read anything I could get my hands on about Arthurian legend and the Celts—to really get the lay of the land, so to speak. Once the story started forming into an actual plot in my head, I was able to get more specific and research the elements that I knew would directly affect my characters. I must confess that my research still isn’t done; it probably won’t be until the last book hits the shelves because I’m always finding some new detail to verify. I do additional research as I come to the main plot elements of each book. For example, I’m getting ready to research the Holy Grail in-depth because that’s the part of the second book I’m on now. I’ll do more research into the tribes of the Gododdin and the Picts when I get ready to start book 3 because that’s where most of that book takes place. So much research, so little time!

Tyler: I know you’ve also visited England. How did that visit influence your research and your vision for the novels?

Nicole: England is such an amazing country. I was fortunate to visit about six months after I started writing the first book, so knowing the land has been extremely helpful. It’s completely different being there and feeling the energy of the places than just reading about them. I actually picked my location of Camelot based on an area I came to know very well. Oddly enough, I haven’t been to most of the places in the first book, but I’m planning to take a tour of south-western England next June that will remedy that!

Tyler: With so many Arthurian novels already published, what pitfalls do you see for writers of Arthurian literature? Did you fear being influenced too much by other writers who had already published their stories?

Nicole: There’s always the fear that you’ll be influenced by someone else. But in way, it’s a good thing because it forces you to really look at what you’re writing from a new perspective and really make things your own. One way I’ve tried to shield myself is that I haven’t read any other Arthurian fiction that deals with Guinevere since I decided I was going to write my own story. By that time I had seen enough of what was out there to know what’s unique and what is not, but there’s been enough time distance that I don’t have to worry about replicating someone else’s work.

One pitfall of writing in Arthurian tradition is that there isn’t a lot of source material out there for the Celts. If other writers have done their research (which they clearly have), you’re going to have some overlap in ideas. For example, Marion Zimmer Bradley did really great research into the beliefs and rituals of the Druids and the possibilities for Avalon. You can’t change something like that drastically without it becoming inauthentic, but you can look at it from another angle and try to add to what’s already been done.

Tyler: Thank you again, Nicole for joining me. I wish you much success with finding a publisher for Guinevere of Northgallis and its sequels. Before we go, tell us a little about how to find more information about you online. What is your blog or website, and what more can readers learn there about you, your books, and the Arthurian legend?

Nicole: My web site is http://nicoleevelina.com. From there you can read my blog, which is updated weekly, learn about my books and connect with me on social media sites like Twitter and Pinterest. My site also has an extensive research list and a playlist section where you can see what music has influenced Guinevere’s story. I blog mostly about Celtic history, Arthurian legend and writing, but as I get farther into the publishing process, I’ll keep all my readers updated on that as well.

Thank you for having me, Tyler, and for your well wishes. It has been a pleasure.

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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:

Sir Mordred at the Battle of Camlann

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.

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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

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) is a cult classic. As a lover of Arthurian lore, however, I found its slapstick and cheesy humor rather off-putting when I first saw this film back in 1994, and I waited that long to watch it because I didn’t like “stupid” humor. I only watched it then because I was in graduate school and took a course in the Arthurian legend and we watched it as our end of semester class party. I was about the only one in the class who thought it stupid while everyone else thought it funny.

2001 Special Edition Release Post for Monty Python and the Holy Grail

2001 Special Edition Release Post for Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And then I watched it again this past week. Either my sense of humor has gotten better (or worse), or watching it on a larger screen as a restored version did the trick (a special edition re-release came out in 2001), but I found the film very funny. A big problem with all Arthurian films, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is definitely such a film, is that we have preconceived notions about what the Arthurian legend should be before we watch the film, and consequently, we may fail to appreciate what the film is actually trying to do. Case in point, the first time I saw the musical film Camelot (1967), I thought it was kind of boring – when were they going to get to the quest for the Holy Grail? Well, they never do because the Arthurian legend has too much in it for any one film, even for a three hour film like Camelot, and that film focused on the love triangle between Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot and Arthur’s belief that Camelot’s ideal should be not “might is right but might for right.” Consequently, it took a second viewing for me to come to appreciate Camelot. And anyone who knows me well knows that for the last twenty-five years, I have claimed it as my favorite movie and I have worn out records, cassette tapes, and then CDs listening to the soundtrack–thank God for iTunes.

But back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I love musicals–Camelot is my favorite–and so consequently I had to listen to the Broadway Cast Recording soundtrack to Spamalot–I have yet to see the play–but I love the music. And the musical is a vast improvement on the film. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the film again, and knowing this time what to expect, sheer humor and no real closeness to the Arthurian legend, I was able to enjoy the film a great deal, to laugh out loud in numerous places. I love the cow being catapulted, and who doesn’t love the killer rabbit! And a few things, like the mention of Joseph of Arimathea, attest to some knowledge in the film of the real legend. Furthermore, I loved the sets, the castles, and some of the songs in Spamalot, such as “Brave Sir Robin,” originated in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Finally, I remember first watching this film and thinking it had that dull, gray ’70s look that most films of that period had, but the special edition version has made Monty Python and the Holy Grail visually beautiful. I was stunned by the colors, and in some scenes, I could forget for a minute that I was watching a comedy, and think instead that I was looking at some of N.C. Wyeth’s beautiful illustrations or even some Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The only other Arthurian film that I have found so visually stunning was the NBC TV series Merlin (1998).

All in all, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a film I can appreciate for what it tries to do–make fun of the Arthurian legend in a way that is funny and not solely demeaning. It is well worth watching and deserves its status as one of the best known and most popular films about the Arthurian legend. I do find the ending of the film very disappointing, and it is far inferior to Spamalot, but overall, it’s a film worth watching and enjoying more than once. I mean, it has even inspired people to wear pajamas with killer rabbits on them, and when a film influences pajama fashions, it has to have something of value!

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Since I don’t have Starz, I’ve been anxiously awaiting a chance to watch Camelot and finally found it online at http://www.watchseriesonlinehere.com/camelot-s01e01-episode-1/ thanks to a member of the Facebook King Arthur group. It’s an annoying website full of pop-ups, so if you’d rather wait to watch the show on TV, it will be airing on CBC this fall.

Camelot StarzThere is a lot to say about Camelot, so I’ll only discuss the first three episodes here. Of course, I’m eager to watch any program about the Arthurian legend, but I think this program has more marks against it than positive points, and I’m not surprised that it was announced recently that it would be cancelled, based not just on the cost to make a historical production piece but also for the flaws in the story and characters and that the episodes drag a bit. I’m not saying I dislike the show. I don’t think there’s much on TV worth watching anymore so it’s one of the better shows out there, but for lovers of the Arthurian legend, there’s much to complain about it. It’s too bad because nothing would make my TV viewing more pleasurable than a long-running Arthurian series.

Here are my issues with Camelot:

  • The actor playing King Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower, just doesn’t do it for me, and that’s a big problem since he has the lead role. He may be a good actor, and yes, Arthur was young and naive when he became king, but Bower’s Arthur looks more like a rock star wannabe bad boy than a young man capable of becoming king. Nor is he in any way an imposing or kingly figure–his bio on IMDB says he’s six feet tall, but Guinevere looks taller. And seriously, how can we believe Guinevere would pick this Arthur over Leontes, a trained warrior, better looking, better built. I don’t mean to be offensive to Bower, but King Arthur he just is not. As I watch the show, I keep wishing Peter Mooney, who is playing Kay, were playing Arthur; he much more looks the part.
  • Arthur’s sword – why is the Sword of Mars or Sword of the Gods, or whatever they are calling it being called anything but Excalibur? I suspect because in legend, there are two sword stories–the sword pulled out of the stone which Arthur loses, and then the sword the Lady of the Lake gives him. In the second episode of Camelot, Arthur manages to release the sword, but since it’s sticking out of the middle of a waterfall, when he pulls it out he loses his balance, and consequently loses the sword when he falls and goes underwater. The whole waterfall scene is rather stupid in my opinion, but I do like that the show makes a point that Merlin planted the sword there and planned out the entire thing, much like in Malory. But a smarter Merlin wouldn’t have put the sword where Arthur was likely to lose it.
  • King Lot – he dies in episode 2. That’s a big difference from the legends since he gives Morgan le Fay (or more commonly Morgause her sister; they are often confused and one or two people depending on the version) four children, namely Gawain, Gareth, Agrivaine, and Gaheris. Not to mention being a pseudo-father for Mordred once Morgause/Morgan gets pregnant by Arthur.
  • Gawaine – obviously, he’s not Lot and Morgan’s son in this version.
  • Vivian – why is she black? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not prejudiced, and in the Merlin series, while I was surprised that Guinevere was black, at least that series is far more like fantasy. Vivian is traditionally the Lady of the Lake; instead, here she’s acting like a servant to Morgan. What’s the reason? Perhaps there will later be a Nimue as Lady of the Lake since Nimue was the original Lady of the Lake while Tennyson renamed her Viviane.
  • Merlin – I know Joseph Fiennes is a fine actor, but I like my Merlin’s to have at least a little bit of beard–just a little gray to make me believe he’s old and wise–pretty please? Never mind, obviously this Merlin isn’t very smart. As if putting the sword where Arthur will lose it isn’t enough, he makes a totally idiotic decision when he and Arthur go to visit Morgan at her castle without bringing along any guards, or even that they go at all. And of course, Morgan uses her spells on them–they couldn’t see that coming? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Did what happened at the castle make good television viewing–sure, but not at the expense of logic and characters with common sense. If this Merlin were in a slasher film, he’d play the dumb blonde girl who goes back into the house with the ax murderer.
  • The Nudity – right off we have a nude scene in the first episode – Arthur fooling around with a girl whom Kay is apparently interested in. And what’s the point? Gratuitous nudity from the start. Merlin shows up to say Arthur is the true king of Britain, and Arthur rides off, taking Kay along–poor girl got naked for no reason. She’s not spoken of again. Taking your clothes off just isn’t enough for a long-term role in Camelot apparently. Later we get a wild sex scene between Morgan and Lot, and of course, sex between Arthur and Guinevere. I’m not going to complain though when Eva Green as Morgan drops her clothes to have sex with a wolf. She’s stunning–but seriously, a wolf–I know a metaphor for some dark spirit, but still–bestiality?
  • Leontes – the number one thing people have been Googling to lead them to my blog is Leontes. Everyone wants to know who he is–is he from the legend. NO. He’s completely fictional. Why is he in the story? I don’t know. He seems to be some sort of juxtaposed Lancelot figure. Traditionally in the legend, Arthur and Guinevere are married but Guinevere is in love with Lancelot. Camelot‘s creators apparently decided to twist the storyline and have Guinevere engaged to the made-up Leontes, and then have her in love with Arthur. By episode three, Guinevere and Leontes are married, after Guinevere had sex with Arthur. I can’t wait to see how this triangle is going to work out. I’ll bet Leontes ends up dead–or worse, it won’t be resolved because the program’s already been cancelled and it was planned to be on for five seasons. I will say that Philip Winchester, who plays Leontes, is a great actor and I used to enjoy watching him in the cancelled TV series Robinson Crusoe (2008-2009) on NBC. I hope a series picks him up that will make him a success.

Okay. That’s enough of ripping on the show. There are a few things I like about it. Here they are:

  • Camelot itself – the set of the castle is stunning. I love that it’s an old ruin that Arthur will revitalize. It’s beautiful. In fact, all the scenery and sets are very well done. It’s filmed on the Guinness estate outside Dublin according to an interview with Joseph Fiennes.
  • Eva Green as Morgan – as far as I’m concerned Eva Green is the reason to watch this show. Ever since I saw her in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), one of my all time favorite movies, I’ve thought she was one of the most distinctively beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She’s incredibly sensual–who doesn’t want to watch her suck food off her fingers like Orlando Bloom enjoys doing in the film? She’s equally beautiful, if not quite as exotic, in Camelot. She’s a wonderful actress but I feel like the script may be holding her back. Her character is a bit cliched, but still it’s an interesting role, and Morgan le Fay is perhaps my favorite Arthurian character anyway.
  • It’s a TV series about King Arthur – yes, there are some bad King Arthur films, but for the most part, Camelot is a good show. It’s entertaining. The episodes may drag a little. It’s not perfect, but similarly, I now really like the Merlin series, but it took half-a-dozen episodes to win me over and go from disgust actually to appreciate the talking dragon. Will Camelot have the power to win me over as I watch the rest of the episodes? I’m a bit more skeptical if it’s been cancelled already, but I’ll keep watching. I’m sure I’ll watch it several times over.

As I watch the rest of the episodes, I’ll be posting more of my impressions and where Camelot coincides or strays from the various versions of Arthurian legend. I don’t suppose I’ll be lucky enough to see the program create a child for Arthur, so I can add another chapter to King Arthur’s Children.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The Arthurian tradition in the Middle Ages provides two separate versions of Guinevere and Mordred’s relationship.  Depending upon the text, Guinevere may willingly marry Mordred and act as his accomplice in treason against Arthur, or she may flee from Mordred and lock herself in the Tower of London.  Such a vast difference between various tellings of the legend seems extreme;  however, these differences represent a division between two separate Arthurian traditions in the Middle Ages.

Maureen Fries states that Arthurian literature is conveniently divided into two mainstreams:  the chronicle and romance traditions (“Poem” 30) .  This division can also be divided on national lines, with the chronicles written by English authors while the romances were primarily of French origin.  The English used the Arthurian legend to glorify England’s past while the French were interested in the legend as a source for romances.

Guinevere by WiIlliam Morris

Queen Guinevere by William Morris

Corresponding with this division are the separate traditions of whether Guinevere is Mordred’s willing accomplice as she is in the chronicles, or if she rejects his proposals of marriage as she does in the romances.  My argument is that the romancers could not allow Guinevere to wed Mordred because they had made two important additions to the legend:  the introduction of Lancelot and the incestuous birth of Mordred.  If Guinevere loved Lancelot, she could not be unfaithful to him by loving Mordred, and if Mordred is Arthur’s son, a marriage between Guinevere and Mordred would be incestuous, and therefore, avoided by the romancers.  To understand how these differences led to two separate traditions in Arthurian literature, we must begin with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s original treatment of Guinevere and Mordred’s relationship.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae was completed about 1136.  In this work, Arthur goes overseas to fight the Roman emperor, while leaving Mordred as Britain’s regent.  Mordred is Arthur’s nephew, the son of Arthur’s sister, and no hint of incest exists to suggest that Mordred is Arthur’s son.  Only later would the incest motif be added to the legend.  While Arthur is away, Mordred attempts to seize the kingdom and to marry Guinevere.  Guinevere’s contradictory appearances in later texts all stem from this ambiguous scene in Geoffrey.  Geoffrey gives no insight into Guinevere’s emotions regarding the marriage to Mordred.  Therefore, it is unclear whether Guinevere is forced into marriage or willingly weds her husband’s nephew.

The ambiguity regarding the marriage begins at its first mention when a messenger arrives to tell Arthur that Mordred has seized the crown, and

“What is more, this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage. About this matter, most noble Duke, Geoffrey of Monmouth prefers to say nothing (257).”

If Geoffrey had preferred to say more, later Arthurian texts would have been less contradictory, but also perhaps, less rich.  Geoffrey then has Arthur return to England to fight Mordred, while Guinevere is in York.  When Guinevere learns Mordred is marching into Winchester, “she gave way to despair.  She fled from York to the City of the Legions and there, in the church of Julius the Martyr, she took her vows among the nuns, promising to lead a chaste life” (259).

These two passages make it difficult to determine the extent of Guinevere’s guilt.  Geoffrey suggests she is guilty by stating that she broke her marriage vows, but Mordred may have forced her into marriage.  More complicated is why Guinevere flees and from whom?  She cannot be fleeing from Mordred because by going to the City of the Legions (Caerleon), she is moving closer to him.  Mordred enters Winchester after Arthur has landed and defeated him at Richborough.  Perhaps learning of Arthur’s success is what makes Guinevere fearful.  In this case, she may flee to a nunnery as a place of clemency from fear of Arthur’s wrath.  Certainly, her going to a nunnery rather than joining Mordred suggests she is more concerned about her own fate than Mordred’s.  She might also hope that if Arthur finds her in a nunnery rather than with Mordred, he might believe her innocent.  While Geoffrey seems to suggest Guinevere’s guilt, the passages are vague enough to make her motives doubtful.  Geoffrey’s successors would seek to clarify this problem.

In 1155, Wace, of Normandy, France, translated Geoffrey’s Latin text into French verse, entitling it Roman de Brut.  The name reflects his intent to present the Arthurian stories as romance rather than history.  Wace’s translation was not closely tied to the Historia Regum Britanniae, but rather it was a free rendering of the work.  Then around 1190, the English writer Layamon decided to render Wace’s book into vernacular English verse under the title Brut.  In writing of Arthur in English, Layamon was reclaiming Arthur from the somewhat romantic embellishments Wace had added.  Furthermore, because Layamon was English, he sought to glorify English history by molding the British Arthur into a model of the brave and heroic Englishman (Jones xi).

Wace and Layamon both clarified Geoffrey’s ambiguities regarding Guinevere although Wace’s style is more romantic than Layamon’s.  Wace predates Chretien’s romances with their notion of courtly love, yet Fries points out that Wace credits Mordred with a type of courtly passion for Guinevere (“Poem” 33).

He had set his heart on Guenevere, his kinswoman, but such a love brought little honour to the queen.  Mordred had kept this love close, for easy enough it was to hide, since who would be so bold as to deem that he loved his uncle’s dame?  The lady on her side had given her love to a lord of whom much good was spoken;  but Mordred was of her husband’s kin!  This made the shame more shameworthy (79).

Nevertheless, Arthur is unaware of Mordred’s feelings for the queen, so he leaves Mordred as regent when he travels overseas to fight Rome.

Wace also clarifies Guinevere’s flight from York.  “She learned also that Mordred had fled from before the king, because he might not endure against him, and durst not abide in the field” (112).  Guinevere suspects Mordred will lose the war.  Fearing Arthur, she flees to Caerleon and takes the veil in the convent.  “This she did by reason of her exceeding sorrow for her trespass, and for the sin that she had wrought” (113).  Wace leaves the reader without doubt that Guinevere is guilty of adultery with Mordred.

Layamon goes further than Wace by cursing Mordred at the first mention of his name.  Wace states that Mordred loves Guinevere, but he does not foreshadow how this love will lead to the kingdom’s destruction.  Layamon, however, introduces Mordred as “Modred, wickedest of men;  truth he had none to ever any man . . . . to the queen was his resort–that was evilly done–to his uncle he did treachery” (235).  Layamon adds that Mordred and the queen did numerous sorrows to the land, losing their lives and souls as a result (235).  Mordred’s evil deeds are again foreshadowed in one of Arthur’s dreams.  Arthur dreams he and Gawain are seated on the roof of a hall.  Mordred approaches, and with a battle-axe, he destroys the posts holding up the hall, while Guinevere pulls down the roof.  Arthur grabs his sword and beheads Mordred, then hacks Guinevere into pieces.  When Arthur awakes, a messenger arrives from Britain to tell Arthur of Mordred and Guinevere’s treachery (258-9).  The dream clarifies that Guinevere and Mordred’s guilt is equal.

Although Wace and Layamon clarified Guinevere’s guilt, their additions created different treatments of Mordred.  Wace suggests that Mordred married Guinevere out of love, while Layamon says it was out of treachery.  Furthermore, Wace explains that Mordred has kept his love secret for a long time.  This inclusion of love is a looking ahead to the Arthurian romances that would develop in writers such as Chretien de Troyes.  Therefore, Wace and Layamon, rather than clarifying the legend, opened up additional complexities, beginning the division between the romance and chronicle traditions in Arthurian literature.

The differences between French romances and English chronicles becomes significant when Chretien de Troyes introduced Lancelot into Arthurian literature in his late twelfth century romance Le Chevalier de la Charette.  In the romance, Guinevere is abducted by Meleagant, Prince of Gorre.  Lancelot makes his first appearance in Arthurian literature as Guinevere’s rescuer and lover.  Because Chretien does not mention Mordred, Fries believes Chretien replaces Mordred with Meleagant as the abductor while making Lancelot the lover (“Poem” 40).  Such a reworking almost suggests Chretien’s adoption of Layamon’s treacherous Mordred as Meleagant, while Wace’s romantic Mordred becomes Lancelot.  Chretien never writes of Mordred or of Arthur’s death because he is more interested in romance than history.  However, by creating a lover for Guinevere, Chretien would significantly influence later developments of Mordred and Guinevere’s relationship.

The next work to show major changes in Guinevere’s reactions to Mordred is the Mort Artu, part of the Vulgate Cycle and written about 1230-35.  The author of this work manipulated the legend in a way which further complicated Mordred and Guinevere’s relationship.  The Mort Artu author revised the tales of Arthur’s death, so his work would complete the narrative of the earlier works in the cycle, the Prose Lancelot and Quest del Saint Graal.  However, Chretien had created a great problem for the Mort Artu author by adding Lancelot to the legend.  Lancelot was so popular, he was the primary character in the cycle the Mort Artu was meant to complete, so he could not be omitted from the plot.  Therefore, including Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair into the tale of Arthur’s death created complications.  If Guinevere faithfully loved Lancelot, she could not be in love with Mordred.  To resolve the difficulty created by Lancelot’s addition to the legend, the Mort Artu author found it necessary to make two additions of his own.

First, the author changed the relationship between Arthur and Mordred.  In the earlier works, Mordred was Arthur’s nephew, but now, he was turned into Arthur’s bastard son, and even worse, the child of Arthur’s sister, meaning that Arthur had committed incest.  Although Arthur is unaware that he sleeps with his own sister, he still commits a sin of lust that must be punished.  The result of lust and incest creates Mordred, who is himself lustful in his desire for his father’s crown and wife.  By making Mordred the result of Arthur’s sin, the Mort Artu author shows that in Arthur’s sin is created the punishment for that sin (Bruce, Evolution, vol. 1, 441).

Secondly, the Mort Artu author changed Arthur’s reason for leaving Britain in Mordred’s care.  In earlier works, Arthur is on a campaign against Rome.  In the Mort Artu, Arthur instead goes overseas to fight Lancelot who has committed adultery with Guinevere, and because Gawain desires revenge for the deaths of his brothers, Gareth and Agrivaine, who were slain when Lancelot rescued the queen.  During the war, Lancelot returns Guinevere to Arthur, and she is sent back to England.  There she is placed in Mordred’s care, while Arthur continues the war because Gawain refuses to stop fighting until he avenges his brothers’ deaths.

Once Guinevere returns to England, Mordred begans to solicit her affections.  Arthur’s incestuous act was repulsive, but at least it was an act committed unknowingly.  The Mort Artu author refused to allow Guinevere willingly to commit incest with her husband’s son.  Furthermore, if Guinevere truly loved Lancelot, she would not be unfaithful to him by sinning with Mordred.  In the Mort Artu, Guinevere clearly has no romantic feelings for Mordred when she is left in his safekeeping.  “The queen was very angry that she had been given over to his charge because she knew such wickedness and disloyalty in him that she was sure that suffering and ill will would come of it” (156).  Mordred, however, seeks not just power but also Guinevere’s love.  “Mordred was so often with the queen that he fell in love with her and did not see how he could fail to die of love, if his desires were not satisfied” (160).  Mordred’s romantic feelings clearly go back to Wace.  Mordred may even be considered sympathetic in his inability to control his love for Guinevere.  He attempts to trick her into marriage by forging a letter from Arthur which says the king is dying.  In the false letter, Arthur supposedly requests that Mordred marry Guinevere, because “if Lancelot knew she was not married, he would attack you and take her as his wife” (161).

Guinevere and the court believe the letter to be true.  However, Guinevere refuses to remarry, saying, “I could never have such a noble husband as I have had” (163).  Later, she tells her cousin, Labor, she will not marry Mordred because he is Arthur’s son, and “Even if he were not his son, he is so disloyal that I would not accept him for anything” (164).  Labor then helps Guinevere escape to London Tower.  The queen, hoping Arthur is not yet dead, then sends a messenger to him on the continent.  Of course, Arthur returns, and Mordred and Arthur slay each other in battle.

Guinevere in Tower besieged by Mordred

Guinevere besieged by Mordred in the Tower of London

The Mort Artu’s plot would become the standard for most future versions of the legend.  Works such as the Stanzaic Morte Arthur would also contain the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle, Mordred’s incestuous birth, Guinevere’s refusal to marry Mordred, and her locking herself in the Tower of London.  What makes the Stanzaic Morte Arthur important, however, is that it is an English text using the French Mort Artu as its source (Benson 2).  The author is the first English writer more interested in creating a romance than a chronicle, a sign that even in England the French romantic tradition was becoming accepted as the proper way to tell the Arthurian legend.

However, one other major English text, the Alliterative Morte Arthure,  would follow the chronicle format.  The Alliterative Morte Arthure, unlike the slightly earlier Stanzaic Morte Arthur, rejected French additions by returning to the plot of Guinevere willingly marrying Mordred.  The author of the Alliterative Morte Arthure was familiar with the French texts, but he chose to ignore them because he wanted to tell a structured history which had no room for romance (Matthews 144).  The poet first deleted the French romantic additions.  Then he added new details to Guinevere and Mordred’s relationship to make the queen’s guilt more substantial.  Like Layamon and Wace, the poet was largely clarifying Geoffrey of Monmouth’s statements.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure poet, in deleting French romantic additions, primarily reversed the work of the Mort Artu author.  He first removed Lancelot as Guinevere’s lover.  While Lancelot remains a character in the poem, he is introduced as merely one of Arthur’s “lesse men” (lines 368-81).  Mary Hamel believes that this statement early in the poem is the poet’s warning to the reader that the poem will not be concerned with the themes of the French romance tradition (King Arthur’s Death 266).  Rather than being Guinevere’s lover, Lancelot is simply one of Arthur’s many knights, who later dies in battle on the Continent.  Perhaps the poet’s only reason for even including Lancelot in the poem is to suggest that the romantic tales about Lancelot are not true.  Once Lancelot was removed as Guinevere’s lover, Arthur’s reason for leaving Britain could revert back to the original war against Rome.

The poet also deleted Mordred’s incestuous birth by simply omitting to state anywhere in the poem that Mordred is Arthur’s son;  therefore, if Guinevere marries Arthur’s nephew, it will not be as vile an act of incest.  Two passages suggest that the poet knew the tradition of Mordred’s incestuous birth, but they are too obscure to be definite proof that Mordred is intended as Arthur’s son in the poem.  In one passage, the poet refers to Mordred as “Sir Mordred the Malbranche” (line 4174), which Peck says calls attention to Mordred’s lineage as being the “mal” or ill branch of the family, and therefore, it reflects badly on Arthur as Mordred’s progenitor (173).  Benson argues that when Gawain, speaking of Mordred’s treason, says, “Of such a engendure  full little joy happens” (line 3743), that the word “engendure” might also be referring to Mordred’s incestuous origins (281).  However, both passages are too vague to determine that Mordred is Arthur’s bastard son.  Peck suggests that the poet only hints at Mordred as Arthur’s son to keep the blood tie obscure because the incest theme would be embarrassing both between Arthur and his sister, and between Guinevere and Mordred (161).  However, one might also argue that the poet is again showing, as he did by introducing Lancelot into the poem, that he knows the French romance tradition, but he is refuting it in this work.

Fries remarks that the Alliterative Morte Arthure poet even deleted any traces of romance Wace and Layamon had added (“Poem” 34), but I would argue that the Alliterative Morte Arthure is probably closer to Wace’s poem than any other text.  Despite the focus on history rather than romance, as in Wace, Mordred is in love with Guinevere, and she returns his love.  Unlike in the Roman de Brut, however, the reader does not immediately know Guinevere loves Mordred although it is clear she respects him.  When Arthur leaves England, he tells Guinevere “Sir Mordred, that thou has mikel praised,/  Shall be thy dictour, my dere,  to do what thee likes” (lines 711-2).  Only after Arthur is gone will Guinevere’s respect for Mordred turn into love.

Once the poet had removed the obstactles to Guinevere and Mordred’s love, he made some surprising additions to the legend to ensure Guinevere’s love for Mordred and her equal guilt in committing treason.  First is Mordred’s objection to being left as regent.  He does not want to remain in England when he could win glory through military deeds with the rest of Arthur’s knights.  In the Mort Artu, Mordred proposes himself as regent, and in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a council of knights proposes Mordred as the best candidate to be regent in Arthur’s absence.  However, when Mordred denies a desire for power in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, he appears less suspicious than in earlier works.  Nor does the author accuse Mordred of secretly wanting power despite his words, as Layamon alleges by condemning Mordred at the first mention of him.

A more striking addition in the Alliterative Morte Arthure is that Guinevere bears Mordred’s children as a sign of her and Mordred’s love for each other.  No other text makes Guinevere the mother of Mordred’s children.  Fries remarks that the poet may have been trying to explain the inclusion of Mordred’s sons in the Mort Artu, who attempt to rule the kingdom after Arthur and Mordred are dead, and who are slain by Bors and Lionel (“Poem” 38).  Fries overlooks that these sons are also mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth, where they are slain by Constantine (262).  Oddly enough, in both Geoffrey and the Mort Artu, Mordred’s sons are old enough to bear arms, but the time span of the  Alliterative Morte Arthure makes it impossible that Guinevere and Mordred’s sons would be old enough to bear arms immediately after Arthur and Mordred’s deaths.  Therefore, in Geoffrey and the Mort Artu, one must suspect that Mordred’s sons have a different mother than Guinevere.  To avoid confusion, the Alliterative Morte Arthure poet never mentions Mordred’s children as grown, simply that Guinevere gives birth to them.  Peck argues that the children are only included in the text to verify Guinevere and Mordred’s mutual affection (173).  Later, when Mordred warns Guinevere to flee with their children to Ireland because Arthur has returned to England (line 3907), it is because of his concern for Guinevere, but also a concern that his heirs will succeed him to create a dynasty.  Arthur orders the children slain to destroy this ambition of Mordred’s (Fries “Poem” 41).

The final addition the Alliterative Morte Arthure poet makes is to show Guinevere as aggressively committing treason against Arthur by giving Mordred Arthur’s sword, Clarent, which she has in her keeping (lines 4196-4208).  Guinevere is the only one Arthur trusted with the sword, so when she gives it to Mordred, she is actively betraying Arthur’s trust.  There is no more traitorous act she could commit than to use Arthur’s own sword against him.

Despite all Guinevere’s treason, Arthur holds no grudge against Guinevere in the poem.  He orders her children by Mordred slain, but says of her, “I forgive all gref,  for Cristes love of heven!/  If Waynor [Guinevere] have well wrought,  well her betide!” (lines 4324-5).  Guinevere, however, realizes her own guilt, so she takes the veil (Fries “Women” 31-2).  Despite Arthur’s forgiveness of Guinevere, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, unlike its many predecessors, leaves no doubt about Guinevere’s treasonous involvement with Mordred.

Mordred

Mordred

Although Malory was well versed in the French tradition, the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur are the only English romances we know he read  (Benson 3).  In compiling the Arthurian legends into Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory used both French romances and English chronicles.  Benson argues that Malory had a preference for the English versions, for when composing the final tale of the Le Morte d’Arthur if “the English and French versions differed, he almost always preferred the English version” (3-4).  The Stanzaic Morte Arthur is one of the English versions, but because of the French influence upon it, it is more French romance than English chronicle.  Because the Le Morte d’Arthur’s ending reflects the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, I believe Malory actually preferred the French version.  Therefore, the love triangle of Lancelot/Arthur/Guinevere and Mordred’s incestuous conception were both retained while Guinevere appears innocent of any involvement with Mordred.  Malory’s work would become the standard Arthurian tradition for centuries to come, making the romance tradition dominant over the chronicle, and freeing Guinevere from any charges of adultery or treason with Mordred.

Works Cited

Alliterative Morte Arthure. King Arthur’s Death:  The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Ed. Larry D. Benson. Kalamazoo, Mi.:  Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.

Benson, Larry D.  “Introduction.”  King Arthur’s Death:  The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Ed. Larry D. Benson.  Kalamazoo, Mi.:  Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.  1-7.

Bruce, J.D. Evolution of the Arthurian Romance.  2 vols.  Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.

Chretien de Troyes. The Knight of the Cart. The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes.  Trans. David Staines.  Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990.

Death of King Arthur, The.  Trans.  James Cable.  Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1971.

Fries, Maureen.  “The Poem in the Tradition of Arthurian Literature.”  The Alliterative Morte Arthure:  A Reassessment of the Poem.  Ed. Karl Heinz Goller.  D.S. Brewer:  Cambridge, Gr. Brit., 1981.  30-43.

Fries, Maureen.  “The Characterization of Women in the Alliterative Tradition.” The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century.  Ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach.  Kent, Ohio:  Kent State UP, 1981.  25-45.

Geoffrey of Monmouth.  The History of the Kings of Britain.  Trans. Lewis Thorpe. London, Eng.:  Penguin, 1966.

Jones, Gwyn.  “Introduction.”  1912.  Wace and Layamon:  Arthurian Chronicles. Trans. Eugene Mason.  Dent:  London, 1966.  v-xii.

Layamon.  BrutWace and Layamon:  Arthurian Chronicles.  Trans. Eugene Mason.  Dent:  London, 1966.

Malory, Thomas.  Malory Works.  Ed. Eugene Vinaver.  Oxford, Eng.:  Oxford UP, 1977.

Matthews, William.  The Tragedy of Arthur:  A Study of the Alliterative “Morte Arthure”.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1960.

Peck, Russell A.  “Willfulness and Wonders:  Boethian Tragedy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.”  The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century.  Eds. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach.  Kent, Ohio:  Kent State UP, 1981.  153-182.

Stanzaic Morte ArthurKing Arthur’s Death:  The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Ed. Larry D. Benson. Kalamazoo, Mi.:  Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.

Wace.  Roman de BrutWace and Layamon:  Arthurian Chronicles.  Trans. Eugene Mason.  Dent:  London, 1966.

________________________

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Check out the latest review of King Arthur’s Children at The World of Myth  written by none other than Edgar Allan Poe’s famous Madeline Usher of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I bet you didn’t know she has turned book reviewer, but she’s been reviewing books for a long time now.

King Arthur's Children

King Arthur's Children

Here are just a few of their comments about the book:

“Tichelaar has made a solid and scholarly effort to untangle the many threads in Arthur’s tapestry so that readers can come to their own conclusions and perhaps create further tales that enrich the Arthurian legend.

Though neither Agatha nor I are in any way serious scholars, we both enjoyed King Arthur’s Children with its earnest historian’s voice and fascinating subject matter.”

Don’t forget you can buy your own copy of King Arthur’s Children at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

 

 

 

 

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Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magnificent novel, The Mists of Avalon, although it is a retelling of the ancient Arthurian myths, is a novel that has definite connections to views from the women’s movement, particularily their beliefs toward patriarchial religions and the future downfall of Christianity.

In The Mists of Avalon, we have all the renowned characters of King Arthur’s Court, the love of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet, Arthur’s battles against the Saxons, the quest for the Holy Grail, and all the other traditional storylines that are found in Arthurian legend.  But if this novel had only been meant as a retelling, there would have been no purpose for its being written.  Instead, the novel retells the Arthurian legends from the women’s point of view, something that has never been done before, and it is done more splendidly than anyone else could have ever imagined.

But why did Marion Zimmer Bradley decide to retell the Arthurian legend from the feminist perspective, and what purpose did she think it would serve?  I believe she wished to express her own views on religion, in contrast to how far she thought the negative reactions of the women’s movement toward patriarchal religions were practical.

When the women’s movement began, one of its major goals was to overthrow the patriarchal society in which women lived.  This patriarchal society was largely formed as a result of the Jewish and Christian religions.  These religions worship the god, Yahweh, and because He is a male god, they hold the belief that men are superior to women.  Examples of this sexist behavior can be found in the Bible and the Judaic Christian traditions.  One example is the tale of Adam’s first wife, Lilith.  Because she refused to have Adam lie on top of her, therefore allowing him to be the dominant figure in the relationship, Lilith was thrown out of the Garden of Eden.  The Jewish tradition then turned her into a witch who curses men with sterility and wet dreams.  The first woman who sought to be liberated was cursed and ridiculed by men (Goldenberg  72-3).  Other examples can be found in the epistles of St. Paul when he tells women to be submissive to their husbands.

“Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because            the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church, as well as its savior.  As the church submits to Christ, so wives                             should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5: 22-4)

Marion Zimmer Bradley is a feminist who believes we must rewrite myth and history;   women should no longer be portrayed as evil because of things they did which were in conflict with patriarchal society;  instead, they should be credited for all the good they have accomplished for mankind.  This includes rewriting myth so that women, who were misunderstood by patriarchal societies, are not perverted in the retelling of the story as they have been in the patriarchal versions;  instead, in rewritten myth, the women should be depicted as they very probably were, rather than how patriarchal societies chose to view them.  By retelling the story through the character of King Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Fay, known as Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon, Bradley shows how the Arthurian legends were distorted by male writers.

The front page of the novel begins with a quote from Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, saying “Morgan le Fay was not married, but put to school in a nunnery, where she became a great mistress of magic” (Bradley n.p.)   Then in the prologue, Bradley allows Morgaine to speak for herself and refute Malory’s statement as being untrue:

“In my time I have been called many things:  sister, lover, priestess, wisewoman, queen.  Now in truth I have come to be wise-woman, and a time may come when these things may need to be known. But in sober truth, I think it is the Christians who will tell the last tale.  For ever the world of Fairy drifts further from the world in which the Christ holds sway.  I have no quarrel with the Christ, only with his priests, who call the Great Goddess a demon and deny that she ever held power in this world.  At best, they say that her power was of Satan.  Or else they clothe her in the blue robe of the Lady of Nazareth – who indeed had power in her way, too – and say that she was ever virgin.  But what can a virgin know of the sorrows and travail of mankind?” (Bradley ix)

These words begin the enticing novel, which then goes on to show us who the real Morgaine was … a priestess of the Great Goddess, and a woman who fought to preserve her religion against the spread of Christianity, which claimed the Goddess was evil and that Christianity was the only true religion.   Morgaine, as a priestess of Avalon, is a devotee of a matriarchal type of religion because her religion worships a Goddess, rather than a God.  Whenever a patriarchal religion such as Judaism or Christianity came into contact with a matriarchal religion, it tried to transform the matriarchal religion’s beliefs to be in agreement with their own.  What the patriarchal religions could not convert into their own beliefs, they then perverted to makeit appear evil.  In many cases, this meant that patriarchal religions believed religions where a goddess was worshipped had to be evil simply because women are evil.

And of course, women inherited this evil from Eve when she sinned in Eden.

“…it was through a woman that mankind had fallen into original Sin, and every woman must be aware that it was her work to atone for that  Original Sin in Eden.  No woman could ever be really good except for  Mary the Mother of Christ;  all other women were evil, they had never had any chance to be anything but evil” (Bradley 268)

In The Mists of Avalon, not only are women evil, but the Christian priests whose religion is replacing the religion of the Great Goddess in King Arthur’s Britain, are imposing evil interpretations upon Morgaine’s religion.  As Christianity compares all women to Eve, thus making them evil, so “the priests say that their Goddess is that same old serpent of evil whom our Lord drove from the Garden of Eden!” (Bradley 554).  What the priests are doing to the Goddess in Celtic Britain is exactly what their forebears in the patriarchal Jewish religion did to the matriarchal societies they came into contact with.  Archeological evidence shows that the worship of a Goddess at one time was common throughout most of the Western world, and probably existed even before the patriarchal religions.  Joseph Campbell believes the Goddess, which was originally an Indo-European belief that spread throughout the ancient world, survived longer and in a closer to the original form in Ireland than in any other part of the world.    Campbell discusses how  the patriarchal religions did not always wipe out the belief in the mother goddess, but instead they rewrote the belief in the mother goddess for their own benefit.  In the Levantine, before the Jewish people came in and rewrote the story of Adam and Eve to their own advantage,  there existed a belief in a goddess whose consort was a serpent;  this serpent’s title was Ningizzida, “Lord of the Tree of Truth” (Campbell 9).  The goddess and her serpent consort also had a son who had to follow a “quest for release from the bondages of birth, disease, old age, and death” (Campbell 16).  Joseph Campbell goes on to explain how this family, which was worshipped throughout the Middle East, was transformed by a patriarchal religion into the Biblical Adam and Eve story.  The goddess was transformed into Eve, and because she listened to the serpent, she became evil.  Ningizzida, “Lord of the Tree of Truth,” is of course, the serpent who already ate of the apple, and because he is wise, therefore the patriarchal religions decided that he was also sinful.  The son of Ningizzida and the Goddess is probably the Adam of the Bible story.  In the Biblical version, Adam is then made to be the spouse, rather than the son of Eve.  Whereas his mother should be dominant over him, the patriarchal religion then did something even worse, by stating that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, therefore again stating that men are superior to women. (Campbell 29-30)

In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley shows how this old Mother Goddess/ Serpent religion which had been wiped out by patriarchal religions in the Middle East, was still in existence in fifth century Celtic Britain.  Along with the worship of the Goddess, the serpent was also preserved in the Celtic religions.  In The Mists of Avalon, the kingmaking involved the king taking part in the Beltane festivals.  At this festival, the king would marry the land and pledge to support the holy isle of Avalon.  As a symbol of their support, kings would be given serpent bracelets or tattoos around their wrists.   At one point in the novel, Morgaine states that the story of how St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland is really a way of saying he drove out the Druids – which are the serpents of wisdom (Bradley 769).  The druids were renowned for their wisdom, and therefore their connection to serpents is not surprising;  furthermore, the connection of serpents to wisdom can obviously be seen as stemming from the old story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent is wise from eating of the apple, no matter whether you look at the Biblical or the more ancient version.  Furthermore, the idea of the apple as providing wisdom was also preserved in the Celtic world, because the name of the holy isle, Avalon, comes from the welsh word “aval” meaning “apple” (Westwood 21), and this isle was said to be filled with apple trees, as Bradley describes it in her novel.

In the novel, King Arthur’s reign is a time when Britain and the Celtic religions are in danger of succumbing to the patriarchal religion of Christianity.  Since Britain is one of the last strongholds of the “true religion,” the religion of the Great Goddess, Morgaine cannot allow Christianity to rewrite the Goddess and her religion as evil or to reinterpet it to suit their conventions.

Throughout the early part of the novel, Morgaine does not agree with the Christian priests, but she also feels that everyone has a right to believe what they want.  However, when her brother, King Arthur, marries Gwenhwyfar, the trouble begins.  King Arthur has been sworn to protect the isle of Avalon and promote the worship of the Goddess, since Avalon helped to set him on his throne.  Yet at the same time, he allows Christianity to exist in his realm, believing that all men have the right to choose their own religions.  However, Gwenhwyfar is a very strong Christian woman, and like the Christian priests, she believes that the Goddess and all religions other than her own are evil.

After several years of marriage to Arthur, Gwenhwyfar is still unable to produce an heir to the throne.  Her strong Christian faith leads her to believe that the reason she cannot have a child is because God is angry with Britain since the pagan religions are still allowed to exist in it.  Gwenhwyfar thinks that if Arthur truly makes Britain a Christian land, then God will look with favor on Britain, provide an heir for the throne, and continue Britain’s stability.  When Arthur’s army goes out to battle against the Saxons, Gwenhwyfar convinces her husband not to carry the banner of Avalon, but only the banner of Christ into battle.  After much argument, Arthur agrees with his wife, but this makes many of his people, who are followers of Avalon, angry enough with Arthur to desert his army.  Even with reduced numbers, Arthur still succeeds in winning a major victory against the Saxons.  Gwenhwyfar convinces him that it is God who has given him this victory because he has put away the old pagan ways and carried the banner of Christ into battle against the pagans.  When the King of Britain forsakes Avalon, which he has sworn to protect, by becoming a Christian, the religion of the Goddess cannot expect to survive.

Morgaine, of course, is furious that her brother has betrayed the holy isle.  The final straw for her is when peace is made with the Saxons, and Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, which is part of the holy regalia of Avalon, is flipped upside down to form a cross, upon which the Saxons and King Arthur swear an oath of peace.  Morgaine knows that if her religion continues to be treated with such disrespect, and the sacred regalia of Avalon continues to be desecrated, her religion will disappear.  She makes an attempt to kill her brother and establish her lover and fellow worshipper of the Goddess, Accolon, upon his throne, but instead Arthur slays Accolon, and Morgaine flees to Avalon where her brother can not reach her.

After several years of hiding, Morgaine decides that she must return to Camelot one last time to remind Arthur of his vows, by force if need be, and to try and preserve the religion of Avalon and the Goddess.  With her fellow priestess, Raven, she disguises herself as a peasant woman and journeys to Camelot.  The two priestesses arrive on Pentecost, the greatest feast day in Britain, when King Arthur hears petitions from his people.  On this particular feast day,  the Church and kingdom are celebrating Christianity’s conquering of the old pagan ways in Britain.  To solemnize this event, a mass is going to be held, and the bishop intends to use the holy cup of the Druids in the Mass to symbolize that Christianity has defeated the evil pagan ways.

Already, the sword of the Druid Regalia has been used sacriligeously, and Morgaine cannot allow such an act of sacrilege to also occur against the holy cup.  As one woman, there is not much she can do to stop it, but she prays to the Goddess to use her as a means to prevent this from happening.  Suddenly, her body is literally taken over, and she is transformed into the Goddess.  She picks up the holy cup of Avalon, and holding it in her hands, she appears as the Goddess before all of the court.  Morgaine floats about the room in the form of the Goddess while she brings the cup to everyone in the court and they drink from it;  they drink the holy water of the sacred well of Avalon, drink from the cup which represents the cauldron of Ceridwen, the Goddess, which is the cup of life.

After everyone has drunk from the cup, through the power of the Goddess, Morgaine makes the cup disappear from the court and return to Avalon so it can never be under threat of desecration again.  Morgaine then resumes her regular form, but this remains unnoticed by everyone because they are too overwhelmed at the miracle.  Before anyone realizes what they have actually seen, the bishop goes around the room telling everyone they have seen Mary, the Mother of God, and that the cup which they have all drunk from is nothing less than the Holy Grail, the cup which Christ used at the last supper.  Everyone believes this, and when Gawaine notices that the vessel is gone, the knights become determined to bring it back to Camelot, thus beginning the famous quest for the “Holy Grail.”

Meanwhile, Morgaine returns home to Avalon.  Years continue to pass as she hears tales of how the knights have left Camelot on their quest and how many of them have died.  Eventually, she also hears that Mordred, Arthur and Morgaine’s son who was conceived in an act of incest before Arthur and Morgaine realized they were brother and sister, attempted to steal the kingdom from Arthur, resulting in both father and son being slain.

Morgaine goes to Arthur as he is dying; she takes the holy sword, Excalibur, from him and throws it into the lake where it will forever be safe from the Christians.  As her brother now lies dying in her arms, she is no longer angry at him for his betrayal of Avalon.  He is simply her brother, the same brother who lay in her arms as a child.  While his kingdom is torn by war, and he lies dying in his sister’s embrace, he asks:

“Morgaine, was it all for nothing then, what we did, and all that we tried to do?  Why did we fail?”

[Morgaine replies,] “You did not fail, my brother, my love, my child.  You held this land in peace for many years, so that the Saxons did not destroy it.  You held back the darkness for a whole generation, until they were civilized men, with learning and music and faith in God, who will fight to save something of the beauty of the times that are past.  If this land had fallen to the Saxons when Uther died, then would all that was beautiful or good have perished forever from Britain.  And so you did not fail, my love.  None of us knows how she will do her will – only that it will be done.” (Bradley 867-8)

In the epilogue, Morgaine goes to Glastonbury to visit the graves of her brother, Guinevere, and her aunt, Viviane, who had once been Lady of the Lake.  They are all buried at Glastonbury, a Christian abbey.  Yet, despite the spread of Christianity throughout Britain, Morgaine is not upset.  This visit is an awakening for her – particularily when she is surprised to see that among the Christian saints, St. Brigid is venerated at the abbey.

“But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if Patricius thinks so.  That is the Goddess as she is worshippped in Ireland.  And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal.  Exile her as they may, she will prevail.  The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind.”  (Bradley 875).

Because the church has made Brigid a saint, another example of how patriarchal religions distort other religions to fit their own needs, the Goddess will live on in Christian form.

As the novel ends, Morgaine prays to the Goddess:

“Mother,” she whispered, “forgive me.  I thought I must do what I now see you can do for yourself.  The Goddess is within us, yes, but now I know that you are in the world too, now and always, just as you are in Avalon, and in the hearts of all men and women.  Be in me too now, and guide me, and tell me when I need only let you do your will….” (Bradley 876)

Morgaine realizes that even if the Goddess is not apparent in the world, she still exists there.  The same is true with the holy chalice of the Druid Regalia.  It is no longer in the world, but in the holy isle of Avalon, yet as Morgaine knows, “It is in Avalon, but it is here.  It is everywhere.  And those who have need of a sign in this world will see it always.” (Bradley 876)

The belief in the Goddess has returned to mankind because of the women’s movement.  Women are angry at patriarchy, and part of the patriarchal religions which have kept them down.  They are tired of a male God who works the way that men want Him to, and they are equally tired of hearing that women are evil as the Bible claims they are.  Because of this dissatisfaction with Christianity and other patriarchal religions, women are rediscovering the ancient Goddess whom the patriarchal religions oppressed and destroyed, just as men oppress women.  Because the Goddess has reemerged and women are turning to her, seeing themselves as having the Goddess within them, many in the women’s movement  believe patriarchal religions will come to an end.

Christianity is trying to make peace with the women’s movement by showing verses in the Bible that praise women, or state that God is not just a God for men.  One of the most often quoted verses for this purpose is that “in Christ ‘there is neither male or female’” (Goldenberg 80).  Christianity is trying to make God appear androgynous so He can be a god for both men and women.  The women’s movement, however, doesn’t seem to be buying this idea.

Today there is a large number of women seeking to become priests, ministers, or holders of other positions in the clergy which have traditionally been held by men.   Many denominations, including the Catholic Church, are against having women enter the clergy.  Pope Paul VI made a statement in 1977 that if women were to play at being priests, then they would play at being God, and Christianity can only afford to have men in that role (Goldenberg 7).  The women’s movement interprets this as men’s fear that women will take over religion and destroy the male god.  Women intend to do this.  They firmly believe that “Every woman working to improve her own position in society or that of women in general is bringing about the end of God” (Goldenberg 10).  When women become liberated, men will realize they are no longer the supreme rulers on earth, and if they cannot rule on earth anymore, shouldn’t they also realize that they can no longer rule in Heaven (Goldenberg 9)?  But men should not fear this – by toppling Yahweh and Christ, men will finally be able to free themselves from their Oedipal prisons, their fear of a supreme male figure which keeps them from being whole, self-reliant men themselves (Goldenberg 31,36).

Will this happen?  Will Christianity and other patriarchal religions fall because of the women’s movement?  Although there are women in favor of the fall of Christianity, there are also members of the women’s movement who believe the Goddess must be brought back, but at the same time, the continual presence of male gods won’t be harmful to women.  Women may even be able to find some value in keeping old patriarchal gods and finding places for them in religion (Goldenberg 82).  There are also some women who want to keep a male god simply so they have someone to yell at and blame for things that go wrong, and then they can turn toward the nurturing, caring Goddess for comfort.  In a way, even these ideas are being stolen from Christianity or at least rewriting it;  whereas now we have God who is good, and the Devil who is evil, if these women get their way, then God will become the bad guy, and the Goddess shall be the one mankind, and womenkind, turn to in their time of need.  Even if these changes take place, to put a single deity in charge of evil is a Christian tendency (Goldenberg 82), yet it is a tendency the women’s movement may not want to give up if they want to continue blaming men.

But how does The Mists of Avalon fit in with this desire to topple God and bring back the Goddess?  Marion Zimmer Bradley certainly believes that patriarchal religions have rewritten pagan religions to be evil, rather than the beautiful things that many of them were.  Her argument with Christianity, told through Morgaine’s voice, seems to be that the Celtic religions and the Goddess are needed because Christ is not enough for a religion to be.  The Celtic religion was very similar to Hinduism in that it also believed in the concept of reincarnation.  At one point in the novel, Morgaine and Arthur’s mother, Igraine, has the thought “Christians said they were free of the superstitions of the Druids, but they had their own, and Igraine felt that these were even more distressing, being separated from nature” (Bradley 48).  In truth, Christianity does not seem very connected to Nature because mankind is not supposed to be in communion with Nature, but the master of it, and therefore, above it.  However, Morgaine feels the need to commune with Nature because “Those who live in close kinship with the earth need something more than salvation” which is all that Christianity offers (Bradley 681).  Morgaine believes Christianity does not work because fear of priests, or God’s wrath “or anything else, will ever keep mankind from committing sins,” …. “but only when they have gained enough wisdom in all their lives that they know that error is useless and evil must be paid for, sooner or later” (Bradley 783).  Morgaine believes Christianity’s beliefs are wrong, that as a religion they have forgotten the true Mysteries, the ones which her religion follows, but then she realizes:

“They have not forgotten the Mysteries,” she said, “they have found them too difficult. They want a God who will care for them, who will not demand that they struggle for enlightenment, but who will accept them just as they are, with all their sins, and take away their sins with repentance.  It is not so, it will never be so, but perhaps it is the only way the unenlightened can bear to think of their Gods.”

Lancelet smiled bitterly.  “Perhaps a religion which demands that every man must work through lifetime after lifetime for his own salvation is too much for mankind.  They want not to wait for God’s justice, but to see it now.  And that is the lure which this new breed of priests has promised them.” (Bradley 808).

Morgaine, like her modern day counterparts in the women’s movement, seeks to overthrow Christianity, and make sure the Goddess is remembered, but by the end of the novel, she is no longer advocating this.  As at the beginning of the novel, Morgaine realizes that she has “no quarrel with the Christ, only with his priests…” (Bradley ix).  It is not necessarily the God the Christians worship who has made women subordinate to men, but the men who are in charge of running that religion.  As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “The first step in the elevation of women under all systems of religion is to convince them that the Great Spirit of the Universe is in no way responsible for any of these absurdities” (Daly 13).  Morgaine realizes that “the God they both worshipped was greater and less bigoted than any priesthood” (Bradley 118), and that “our differences make no difference at all to God” (Bradley 38). At the end of the novel, she has gone even a step further by stating,  that whatever is the will of the Goddess, it will happen, and no matter how mankind fights for or against this will, it will come to pass if it is what the Goddess wants to happen.  Perhaps this is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s view of the women’s movement and their feelings toward religion.  Patriarchal religions have repressed women and matriarchal religions.   Perhaps the women’s movement is right and we should pray to the Goddess instead of God, and perhaps God will be toppled, but Morgaine herself has no real argument with God, only with the religions that claim it is God who says women are evil and inferior.  Marion Zimmer Bradley may choose to believe in the Goddess, yet at the same time, she doesn’t seem to believe we have to get rid of God and Christ.  In one sense, she doesn’t take a definite stand on which side is right.  Instead she seems to be saying that whatever the truth is, and no matter what the women’s movement or any other groups say, what the Goddess, or Supreme Being wants to happen is what will happen.

Upon the publication of The Mists of Avalon, the reviewers did nothing but rave.  Isaac Asimov called it “The best retelling of the Arthurian saga I have ever read.  Completely compelling” (New York Times Book Review 8).  Other reviewers compared the novel to Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels written in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and also as of equal or greater value to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (Cassada 2351).  Even Christian reviewers applauded the novel.  One female Christian said that the novel raised fundamental questions about the relationship of the old Goddess religions to Christianity, and that it “Offers a feminist critique of patterns of power, sexuality, and salvation which the Christian Church and contemporary society take for granted.” (Zikmund 490)

The Mists of Avalon gives all of its readers a lot to think about, whether they are Arthurian Scholars, Christians, women seeking liberation, or simply lovers of books.  Members of the women’s movement, who are waiting for the fall of Christianity and patriarchal religions, believe that once this downfall occurs, patriarchal religious texts will no longer be useful in the new religions which are established.  Men and women will both have to find new stories and new scriptures (Goldenberg 120).  For many Christians, who may see this downfall coming, and for the women’s movement who wish it will come, The Mists of Avalon may very well become one of these texts.

Works Cited

Bradley, Marion Zimmer.  The Mists of Avalon.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 1984.

Campbell, Joseph.  The Masks of the Gods:  Occidental Mythology.  New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Cassada, Jackie.  Rev. of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Library Journal 107 (1982):  2351.

Daly, Mary.  Beyond God the Father:  Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston:  Beacon Press, 1973.

Goldenberg, Naomi R.  Changing of the Gods:  Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1979.

New York Times Book Review 11 (1983):  8.

Westwood, Jennifer.  Albion:  A Guide to Legendary Britain.  Gr. Brit:  Grafton, 1985.

Zikmund, Barbara Brown. “Favorite Books and How They Influence.”  Rev. of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Christian Century  104 (1987):  490.

Note: The above article was written in 1993, prior to Bradley’s death in 1999.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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