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Esther Bernstein is a longtime lover of the Arthurian legend. Before she even started her Ph.D. in English at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, she already had her dissertation planned out—a complete overview of the Arthurian legend from the Middle Ages to contemporary literature. While she may end up refining that plan before she’s finished, her love for the legend continues. Recently, she was invited to attend a summer course in Arthurian literature at the University of Exeter in England. She’s eager to go, but she needs some financial help, so I’ve invited her to be my guest and tell us why she loves the Arthurian legend and how we can help support her Indiegogo campaign.

Tyler: Welcome, Esther. You sound like a girl after my own heart since I wrote my MA Thesis on the Arthurian legend and also earned a Ph.D. in English. For starters, tell us a little about how you first fell in love with the King Arthur legend and what about it appeals to you so much?

Esther: Thank you!

Ph.D. Candidate Esther Bernstein is raising money to further her studies with an Arthurian course at the University of Exeter this summer.

Ph.D. Candidate Esther Bernstein is raising money to further her studies with an Arthurian course at the University of Exeter this summer.

Part of what appeals to me about the Arthurian legend is that I don’t know when I first heard about it. It’s like it was just always a part of my general knowledge. To me, that pervasiveness of the legend, the way it just is and permeates even twentieth and twenty-first-century thought so much, is so intriguing.

But more than that—the Arthurian legend is just so much fun! The tales, especially the medieval tales, are usually really long and convoluted, and there’s plenty of exaggerated chivalry, love and lovesickness, bravery and violence, pleading and forgiving.

There’s also a certain appeal to knowing I can meet these characters and not have to part with them after one or two books. Knowing I can simply find the next text, and that no matter how many books I read or how quickly I read them, I will never exhaust all that’s been written and is still being written about it—knowing I can leave these characters for a while but always come back to them—there’s a sense of comfort in that, and also of adventure. This specific quest may have ended, but never fear—another one will spring up real soon.

Tyler: Do you have a favorite Arthurian book, film, and/or television show, and what about it appeals to you?

Esther: I think the first time I actually read about King Arthur was an abridged version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain when I was about ten years old. I remember being amazed at the year—528 AD! It was the first time I’d read about a year that wasn’t four digits.

The beginning, as Hank thinks everyone is crazy until it finally dawns on him that he’s the only different one, made a huge impression on me. There was the interesting question of what’s normal, and it was fascinating to think about how “normal” changes over time. And when Hank introduces all the new technology, and the effects of that on all of society—wow.

I think my ten-year-old self was intrigued by the way different times interact. Now it’s one of my favorites because of the way it plays with Arthurian legend, just has fun with all of it. It incorporates so many details that show up in various texts and traditions, but introducing a “Connecticut Yankee” allows for viewing all of that in a totally different way than the original texts do.

I also love the 1967 movie Camelot. What most appeals to me in that one is the blooming love between Arthur and Guinevere. That scene where she runs away from her traveling party and she and Arthur accidentally meet in the snowy woods—I love that. I watched that scene about a million times. The whiteness, the stillness, the little buds of Guinevere thinking she might be able to love this man—so romantic. (I skip the parts about Lancelot in this one. I love Lancelot, but this movie I reserve for Arthur and Guinevere! Their romance is so often overlooked because of the burning passion between Guinevere and Lancelot, but the simple romance deserves its own attention, too.)

Tyler: I think an abridged “Connecticut Yankee” was my first reading of the legend also and I love Camelot. My whole family got sick of listening to me play the record over and over until it was scratched and I still listen to the music almost every day. There are lots of people like us who are enthusiasts of the legend, but not everyone wants to be a scholar of it. What about studying the legend appeals to you so much?

Esther: Arthurian legend is so adaptable. Not only does it survive and thrive in modern times—Monty Python (which plays with it but in a very different way than Mark Twain!), the movie King Arthur, the TV show Merlin, countless video games, novels like your own—but various political powers have appropriated the legend for their own use—like John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot.”

What that says to me is that something deep within the legend and the tradition speaks to people in wildly different circumstances, and I want to find out what that “something” is.

I think one way of doing that is the kind of thing I did with my undergraduate senior thesis, where I looked at Chrétien de Troyes’s Old French Arthurian tales and the Arthurian tales included in the Old Welsh Mabinogion. It was really fascinating to see the ways that each culture and society influenced the way the same tales were written.

That just looked at the differences, though. I want to use that kind of analysis to look at what is the same among the adaptations of the legend in all these languages, cultures, and time periods.

One way I plan on doing that is looking at contemporary Young Adult literature, both books that are explicitly Arthurian and books that don’t mention Arthur at all. I read a lot of YA literature, and I’ve always felt that there are some Arthurian undertones to a lot of what I read. But I don’t yet know enough about the broad sweep of the legend and tradition to start writing about that.

Tyler: Yes, there are undertones to so many of our modern stories, young adult and adult—Star Wars is just one example with its father-son, Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker conflict. Well, we could talk about this topic all day, but tell us about the program at Exeter this summer. What do you hope to learn as a result of attending it?

Esther: The program is arranged to cover one topic per day, in two two-hour sessions per day. Some of the topics are of course the historical background, the theme of chivalry, the life of the court, and magic in Arthurian legend. Besides the class discussions, I will write a final paper for the class on a topic I’ll choose with the guidance of the instructor.

The way the class is arranged is perfect for what I want to gain from it, because we’ll be looking at the way each of these themes appears in the broad sweep of Arthurian literature—which will allow me to study how and why each one appeals to all the different audiences.

I’ve just begun thinking about creating my orals lists—three lists of books that I will read over a period of about a year, after which I’ll sit for a two-hour oral examination on these books as part of the process to earn my Ph.D. No matter how I think about organizing these lists, what “title” to give each list, Arthurian literature shows up in all of them.

Again, that points to the way Arthurian legend permeates so much of everything else. But the same way I’ve just felt Arthurian undertones in YA literature but couldn’t necessarily explain what I thought it was, most of the time I can’t fully rationalize why I think Arthurian texts should be on all of my lists. After this course, I should be able to do that, which will of course enrich the way I create these lists in the first place.

Tyler: I understand you also hope to visit some Arthurian sites in England and France. What do you hope to see?

Esther: Yes! The program will take us to some places, like Stonehenge and the archeological site at Glastonbury, but I want to visit other places like Caerleon where Arthur’s court was, Tintagel, and the site of Merlin’s grave. In France, I want to visit Poitiers, where Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Chrétien de Troyes’s patroness Marie de Champagne, ostensibly held “courts of love” and ruled on such things as whether love in marriage or adulterous love is preferable. (Spoiler: adulterous love is preferable because marriage imposes obligation, and adulterous love like that between Guinevere and Lancelot is based on passion and not obligation. Of course, that had no effect on the reality of the times.) I’m still building the rest of my list of Arthurian places I want to see.

Regardless of whether or not Arthur ever existed, I know I won’t see any Arthurian remnants in these places. But there’s something about standing in a place that I’ve read about so much and so often, something about being able to picture the landscape when I read about it in the future.

Tyler: Tell us about your fundraising campaign. How much do you need to raise, how soon, where do we go to contribute, and what rewards are you offering?

Esther: I’ve been awarded a scholarship of ₤800, and I need to submit a deposit of ₤250 by April 25. The rest of the tuition, ₤1395, is due by May 23. (In American currency, that’s a total of about $2800.) I also need to book a flight as soon as possible, which right now is about $1500, but will of course increase the closer I get to the date of the flight.

The Indiegogo campaign includes “perks,” and I’m offering a few of those for donations from $10 to $500. They are:

  • $10 – a postcard sent during my stay, with details of what I’ve been reading and doing
  • $25 – a souvenir, which you can request to be from a specific place I’ll be visiting!
  • $50 – a poem I’ll write personalized for you according to your request
  • $100 – a short story I’ll write, again personalized for you according to your request
  • $500 – my services as an editor or copyeditor for your writing, whether poetry, short stories, or a novel

(The Indiegogo page includes links to samples of my writing, both poetry and short stories, and I’ve worked as a writing tutor and freelance editor for a number of years.)

Anyone who donates any amount will also get a detailed update from me once I get back about what I’ve learned and how I think I’ll be able to use it in the future.

The link for the campaign is https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/guest-of-the-round-table-studying-medieval-arthur.

Tyler: Thank you for joining me, Esther. I hope you have a wonderful trip, get all the funding you need, and if you bump into Merlin or figure out how to get to Avalon, please come back and tell us all about it.

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As I noted in my last blog post, Sarah Luddington’s novel Lancelot and the Wolf has gained a lot of attention for its explicit sex scenes between Lancelot and Arthur. While the sex scenes are fairly spicy, the truth is that there’s little else in this novel to make a fuss over. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but it’s obviously a self-published book (not a bad thing in itself) and one badly in need of a good editor.

Lancelot and the WolfFor those who want to explore the love between Arthur and Lancelot, they will find a few explicit sex scenes, but also a convoluted plot. The story begins with Lancelot having left Camelot in shame and in exile in France (although I was well into the book before I realized he was in France). Why he left has something to do with his love for Guinevere, but it’s never really clear what happened until halfway or better through the book (not because the author is purposely withholding information for suspense, I’m afraid). Lancelot ends up returning to Camelot after he meets Else, who turns out to be Merlin’s daughter and part fey. Her real name is Eleanor de Clare, and that’s where the string of anachronisms in the novel begins….I’ll get to those in a minute. Anyway, through his interactions with Eleanor de Clare, Lancelot comes to learn that evil spirits are threatening Camelot and he must return there to save Arthur. The plot has its twists and turns and moments where I had to go back to reread because I got bored and wasn’t paying attention to what I was reading, although at other times, the story moves forward quickly.

As for the anachronisms, Luddington drops words and names and doesn’t always follow through or explain them. At one point, she refers to Wessex—where and what is that? King Arthur lived probably in the 6th century—Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, was in its infancy if it even existed then and there are no Saxons in this novel; nor is it clear whether the story takes place in Wessex. Happy is the reader whose author provides a map. Later, there are references to England. Whatever happened to Britain? As for Eleanor de Clare, there was a historical woman of that name who was niece to King Edward II and married to Hugh le Despenser (read Susan Higginbotham’s wonderful novel The Traitor’s Wife for Eleanor de Clare’s story). Luddington’s Eleanor de Clare is not the historical woman and her Norman surname has no place in an Arthurian novel.

In her afterword, Luddington states that she likes the Arthurian world of Malory more than the historical Arthur. She has set her Camelot in a time equal to that of the Hundred Years War of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and that’s fine. A good editor could have helped clean up, smooth over, and explain the anachronisms to her later medieval period story. And Luddington does have a good imagination and an ability to write prose that moves the plot forward and can be a fun and easy read. She just needs to work at it more or find a good editor to help her. Perhaps the other novels in this series show improvement.

Unlike Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame, who claims she never read a vampire novel or saw a vampire film (a claim I don’t believe but that’s another blog and it would be hard to say whether Luddington or Meyer is the better or worse writer—but at least Meyer had a decent editor), Luddington states in her afterword, “see I’m educated, even if I can’t use commas properly” (I’m glad she realizes her punctuation problem because her comma use or lack of use irritated me quite a bit). Her use of “educated” means she has read other Arthurian works and is familiar with the literary tradition, citing such authors as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes—so she does have some knowledge, but fact checking we apparently can’t expect, considering she mentions that “In the space of the two hundred years between Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes we’ve seen a vast sea change in the way the myths are presented.” Hmm, I’ll pass over the “myth vs. legend” issue here and point out that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain around 1135 and Chretien de Troyes wrote The Knight and the Cart around 1180—hardly a 200-year difference. A good editor would have caught that mistake as well.

I read the “Special Edition” of Lancelot and the Wolf which included two extra stories and a novella in it, which left me wondering just how many gay men lived in Camelot—seems like a lot to me. By the way, the novella “Taliesin’s Song” I actually think I enjoyed more than the novel itself.

Lancelot and the Wolf is a fun book to read if you don’t have high expectations for it. If you’ve already read the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, Jack Whyte, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen Lawhead, and about a dozen other authors I could name, then you will find Lancelot and the Wolf disappointing, but you’ll maybe read it because like me, you read all the Arthuriana you can. On a scale of 1-5, I will give it 3 stars. If you are looking for gay Arthuriana, you might be more likely to enjoy it, but it’s still a 3 star book. That said, if you buy it, buy the special edition Kindle version for $3 because the proceeds go to Stonewall to fight gay discrimination. The greatest strength of this book is Luddington’s willingness and courage to write a gay Arthurian novel. I doubt it will go down in literary history as a great book, but one of those books that nevertheless made an impact and hopefully paved the way for greater books.

The ultimate question is: Was Lancelot and the Wolf good enough to make me read the next book in the series, Lancelot and the Sword? Yes, I think there’s a 50/50 chance that I will, although I won’t be rushing to buy it right away but it might be something to read while I wait for the next season of Merlin.

For more information about Luddington and her novels, visit her website http://www.darkfiction.eu/ and the site devoted specifically to the Lancelot novels, www.theknightsofcamelot.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.

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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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