Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Mabinogion’

Thomas Love Peacock was a writer of the Romantic Age known for his friendship with writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley and for books such as Nightmare Abbey (1818) a parody of Gothic novels. Being a lover of the Gothic, I read Nightmare Abbey many years ago, found its satire tedious, and never read another Peacock book until I heard that The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829) was an Arthurian novel.

An early edition of The Misfortunes of Elphin – note the peacock design – a tribute to the author’s name.

In fact, The Misfortunes of Elphin may be not only the first modern Arthurian novel but the first historical Arthurian novel, a designation that usually goes to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Sword at Sunset (1963).

That is not to say that Peacock tries to be historically accurate as a writer would be today, but nor does he set Arthur in a vague medieval period in England. Instead, he goes back to the Welsh legends to create an Arthurian world akin to what we find in the Mabinogion. Not until Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King (1988) would another author try to be so loyal to the Welsh legends in his depiction of the Arthurian story. For that reason alone, I find The Misfortunes of Elphin remarkable.

I was also surprised that Peacock does not mock his subject matter but treats it sincerely. The only really flaw in his style is that in a few places he has digressions where he compares the past to the present, thus breaking the fictional spell for the reader. Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit weak and disjointed, but Peacock’s use of the Welsh Triads and other Welsh sources still makes it of interest to the student of Arthurian literature.

The story begins with Gwythno, King of Caredigion, who has working for him Seithenyn, Lord of the Embankment. Seithenyn is not good about maintaining the embankment and eventually it fails and causes the land to flood, leading to the destruction of Gwythno’s kingdom. Gwythno’s son, Elphin, tries to prevent this from happening, but he is too late. Nevertheless, he falls in love with Seithenyn’s daughter, Angrahad, when he goes to speak with her father. Both Gwythno and Seithenyn feature in Welsh tradition (although Jenifer Westwood in Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain suggests that Gwythno is really Edward I “Longshanks”).

“She gave him a supper” an illustration from the novel. The scene shows a trick played by Angrahad to deceive Maelgon’s man into thinking she is not as virtuous as Elphin claims.

Living in new quarters because Gwythno’s castle has basically been destroyed—Elphin and Angrahad marry and Gwythno goes to live with them. After the destruction of the kingdom by the flooding, Elphin is reduced to fishing for a livelihood to feed his family. One day he rescues from the water the baby Taliesin, who will grow up to become a great bard. Elphin regrets rescuing the child because now there will be another mouth to feed, but Taliesin, who can talk as a baby, tells him someday he will rejoice for having done it. The rest of the novel shows why Taliesin is of value to the family.

One day, Maelgon, a neighboring king, raids the land but pretends to be a guest to Elphin. He then invites Elphin to his castle, but when Elphin returns the visit, trouble ensues when they argue over whose wife is better. In the end, Maelgon imprisons Elphin. By now, Taliesin is grown up. He goes to King Arthur, who is overlord of Britain, to ask for help to rescue Elphin, but Arthur has troubles of his own—Gwenyvar has been captured by Melvas. Taliesin aids Arthur in helping to negotiate Gwenyvar’s release. In exchange, Arthur then helps to free Elphin. All ends well, of course, and even Taliesin finds love to add to the happy ending.

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is that Gwenvach is a character in the novel. She is Gwenyvar’s half-sister and Mordred’s wife in the novel. She makes a remark after Gwenyvar is rescued that suggests Gwenyvar was not virtuous while Melvas’ captive. As a result, Gwenyvar slaps her, which Peacock says is one of the Three Fatal Slaps that caused the battle of Camlann since it increased the enmity between Arthur and Mordred. I love this inclusion of Gwenvach because in my own Children of Arthur series, Gwenvach is the primary villain, also based on this statement from the Welsh Triads, although I spell her name Gwenhwyvach. Peacock is digging for legitimate legends here and not just making up his storyline like too many modern Arthurian novelists. Another scene refers to one of the Three Chaste Kisses of Britain, a kiss given by Taliesin.

It’s also noteworthy that Peacock intersperses a lot of poetry throughout the novel. It is not great poetry, and most of it is sung by Taliesin, including a song of Ceridwen’s Cauldron. The poetry takes up a huge portion of the book and acts like filler for the undeveloped plot. It largely reminded me of opera, with a little plot, and then a bunch of songs that don’t really advance the plot, but it is an interesting mix of poetry and storyline anyway, and also a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s use of poetry in her novels. Peacock was just as well known for his poetry as his novels, and he had already published a longer Arthurian poem, “The Round Table, or King Arthur’s Feast” (1817) in which King Arthur is in Avalon and Merlin allows him to view all the monarchs who have sat on his throne up to the time of George III. The poem can be read online at: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/peacock-round-table.

Thomas Love Peacock, known today chiefly as a satirist and friend to Percy Shelley.

Ultimately, Peacock ends up being a mediocre poet and a mediocre novelist, but his writing is not completely without interest. The Misfortunes of Elphin is not a masterly novel, even though some critics have said it is Peacock’s best. I can’t say it has made me eager to read more of Peacock, but I think it a remarkable novel nonetheless for its early treatment of Welsh legends. It may seem surprising to us that it gives such a historical treatment to the Arthurian legend, considering no other writer will do so for another 130 years; however, it really isn’t that surprising given that Peacock was writing in the age of Sir Walter Scott, the great antiquary who not only wrote some of the first and most popular historical novels but collected ballads and legend and folklore, and so Peacock is following in his footsteps. It also predates the popular translations of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest (1838-1845), which shows Peacock likely read the early Pughe translations of 1795 and 1821 and early translations of the Welsh Triads by Iolo Morganwg published in 1801-1807. The Misfortunes of Elphin, then, is very much an Arthurian novel ahead of its time and yet of its time as ancient Welsh literature was being rediscovered in the early nineteenth century.

______________________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other historical novels. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

Read Full Post »

Marcus Pitcaithly has launched a new fiction series, beginning with The Realm of Albion. This series is sure to be a treat for anyone who loves British mythology and history. Educated at Oxford, Pitcaithly has had a lifelong interest in history, mythology, and the interplay between the two. He has previously written The Hereward Trilogy, set in England just after the Norman Conquest, as well as scholarly works on Shakespeare and medieval history. While a lot of authors have retold the Arthurian story, Pitcaithly has decided to go back farther and recreate its roots in pre-Roman Britain.

The Realm of Albion, a retelling of the King Lear story drawing on Welsh sources - by Marcus Pitcaithly.

The Realm of Albion, a retelling of the King Lear story drawing on Welsh sources – by Marcus Pitcaithly.

Drawing on an impressive range of sources, including Shakespeare, but also The Welsh Triads, The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, and the medieval French romance Perceforest, The Realm of Albion is a retelling of the King Lear story from the viewpoint of Lear’s forgotten wife, Penarddun. At age fourteen, this daughter of King Belin is sent to be wife to the elderly King Llyr, and the night before her wedding, she witnesses the famous scene when Llyr asks his daughters whether they love him. But while the basic frame of this novel’s plot follows the tale as told previously, plenty of twists are involved, and those twists are what made me fall in love with this book.

Before Penarddun arrives at Llyr’s court, she stops at Avalon, where she meets Urganda, servant to the goddess Latis. Urganda tells Penarddun that Urganda’s sister, Gogoniant, was Llyr’s first wife and the mother of his daughter Cordelia. Llyr also had a dwarf son he claimed was stillborn and had exposed, although he doesn’t know that son survived and now lives at Avalon. Llyr’s other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, were born to his concubines. Therefore, Cordelia is Llyr’s only truly legitimate daughter, and she is significant as well because of her link to Avalon.

For years, Avalon has been home to the Lady of the Lake and a religious center of Britain, but Llyr, in his lust for power and not wanting anyone to have power over him, invaded Avalon and forced and took Gogoniant away to be his wife. She was the rightful Lady of the Lake, and Cordelia, therefore, is her successor. The Lady of the Lake’s consort is known as the Penteyrnedd, and Llyr has taken that to mean the consort is also the High King. At the same time, he has made himself the enemy of Avalon, even if he has power over it.

The well-known scene between Llyr and his daughters turns out to be staged. Cordelia has been told how to answer her father beforehand and she does so obediently. Llyr asks his daughters how much they love him and Goneril and Regan please him with their answers while Cordelia says she has nothing to add, resulting in her being disinherited. Llyr wants it this way to demolish the power of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake so he remains powerful.

Penarddun witnesses and participates in the events that follow, which will be well-known to those familiar with Shakespeare’s play. In time, Goneril and Regan turn on Llyr and he goes mad, and Cordelia must return to set things right. I won’t say more about the plot because I don’t want to give away all the interesting changes and additions that Pitcaithly has made to the storyline.

I did, however, appreciate the Arthurian elements he is planting in this first book. The sword Excalibur is introduced into the novel. We are told that when Llyr invaded Avalon, it was thrown into the mere to prevent him from obtaining it since it is the sword of the Lady and wielded by her consort. Without it, Llyr would not be the true consort. After Cordelia has set all to rights, the sword is found when the mere dries up. It is given to Cordelia’s husband, with the understanding that he serves the Lady and the consort’s title is now changed to Pendragon.

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear - an 1873 painting by Sir John Gilbert

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear – an 1873 painting by Sir John Gilbert

Another interesting Arthurian element is the role of Merlin. Like Marion Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon, Pitcaithly uses “Merlin” as a title, but it is more than just a position. The “Merlin” in this novel is Awel, a young boy who is believed to be the god Mabon born in human form as happens every so many years. It is believed Awel fulfills this prophecy because he was born at the dawn of Beltane and because his father died three months before his birth, making him a “fatherless” boy. We are told that if Awel has the power of a god, a wise king will want him on his side, but a fearful king would want him dead. Consequently, his identity is kept from Llyr. Awel travels to Llyr’s castle as part of Penarddun’s bridal party, and when Llyr meets him, he thinks he’s a fool and has him dress in fool’s clothes. I really thought this twist on Pitcaithly’s part was brilliant since the fool in Shakespeare’s plays is typically the wisest person and utters prophecies, so it is a logical and intelligent twist for the fool to be the Merlin.

Finally, I really appreciated the scholarship and effort that Pitcaithly put into writing this book. Having written Arthurian fiction myself, I know how much research is required and also how one has to take texts that are often vague, obscure, or fragmented, or storylines that have been embellished over centuries and sift through them as well as embellish them to fill in the missing pieces of the story. In his introduction, Pitcaithly remarks that it “feels almost like detective work, as if I am uncovering a true history from flawed sources.” That’s a feeling I know very well. He has taken a very minor reference to Penarddun in Welsh literature and created an entire novel around it.

What’s to come next in the series? In his introduction, Pitcaithly tells us he was first inspired to write a novel about the Amadis legend based on his early reading of Lewis Spence’s Legends and Romances of Spain. Over time, he realized that despite that legend’s Spanish trappings, it felt distinctly Celtic to him. I am not familiar with the Amadis legend, but in The Realm of Albion, Pitcaithly mentions in passing a couple of times a young prince belonging to another royal family named Amadis—a clear sign that Amadis will figure in later books. But as for the next book, it will be titled Under the Clear Sky and will bring in characters involved in the Sertorian War and the Spartacus revolt, as well as covering the reign of Cordelia and the rise of Bran, son to Llyr and Penarddun.

I highly recommend The Realm of Albion. It is wonderful to see the fragmented stories of the ancient Britons given new life and to have someone enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his subject put together the pieces to create a compelling story for modern readers. Anyone interested in ancient British history or the Arthurian legend will enjoy this book. I don’t know of anyone else who has taken on such a grand and scholarly undertaking to explore in fiction the pre-Arthurian period and even pre-Roman period (the novel’s action takes place around 80 B.C.E.). Marion Zimmer Bradley, of course, wrote her Avalon novels that were prequels to The Mists of Avalon, but with the exception of Ravens of Avalon, completed by her successor, Diana Paxson, I don’t feel those books were very successful or convincing, and they did not have as authentic a feeling of ancient British lore as what Pitcaithly brings to this retelling. With a large cast of bigger than life legendary characters, new twists on old tales, and plenty of Arthurian references, The Realm of Albion is a fabulous start to a fascinating new series. I look forward to reading the next book.

The Realm of Albion is available at most online bookstores. For more information about Marcus Pitcaithly, visit http://marcuspitcaithly.wix.com/marcus-pitcaithly.

____________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

Read Full Post »

I am constantly being asked whether or not King Arthur was real. I usually reply that there is some historical basis for him and leave it at that. Although I have read several books about King Arthur that propose various theories to prove his existence, so many of these books seem to draw sweeping conclusions while lacking hard evidence, instead relying on mysterious manuscripts hidden away in the Vatican or the need to read forgotten languages, so honestly, I can’t judge whether their sources or theories are legitimate or not.

TheReignofKingArthurChristopher Gidlow’s The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend now has solved my dilemma. I am not a trained historian, linguist, nor an archeologist, but I do have a Ph.D. in English and understand the importance of close reading of literary sources. Gidlow, who is a graduate of Oxford University in history and the former president of the University Arthurian Society, also understands that we need to look closely at what the texts state to come to conclusions. He does his close reading of the major early Arthurian texts by looking at them in chronological order and tracing what does or does not appear from one text to the next.

The texts Gidlow explores are the usual suspects—works by Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and several others most Arthurian scholars will be familiar with. The conclusions Gidlow draws reflect how various authors borrowed information from their predecessors’ texts or where we might assume oral tradition was relied upon. What I appreciated about Gidlow’s argument was that he stayed focused on the literary evidence and stayed true to his primary purpose. Too many other authors stray off into questionable theories or try to cover everything, but Gidlow ends with discussing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia Regum Brittaniae, and rightly sees no purpose in looking at later texts by Chretien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, or other authors who clearly were creating works of fiction based on these earlier works that at least purported to be historical.

I won’t go into detail about all of Gidlow’s conclusions, but I think he makes a strong argument for why we have to believe there was a historical King Arthur. Just exactly who King Arthur was remains a bit of a mystery, but Gidlow assures us that he was not a mythological or fictional figure who has been inserted into history books, but rather a historical personage who has been used for fictional purposes. Gidlow’s analysis especially of Welsh sources, such as the Mabinogion, Annales Cambriae and various Lives of the Saints, especially add to this argument.

I think anyone who wants to know more about the historical King Arthur will find this book enlightening. It isn’t a page-turner that leads us to a mind-blowing discovery. It’s better than that—it’s the work of a methodical, level-headed author, who is willing to look at all the evidence and draw logical conclusions. I believe it is the most balanced discussion on the subject of King Arthur’s historicity I have ever read, and in the future, if people ask me, “Was King Arthur real?” I will refer them to The Reign of Arthur so they can examine the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

Gidlow is also the author of Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot, in which he moves beyond the texts to the archeological evidence for King Arthur’s historicity. I’ll be adding this book to my reading list. Both books are available at online bookstores.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Today, May 1st, May Day, or Beltane as it was known to the ancient Celtic people, is Mordred’s birthday. He is the greatest villain, or perhaps the most misunderstood in Arthurian legend. So in his honor, I am posting Chapter 5 from my book King Arthur’s Children, so we can have a closer look at his true character, or at least, what we may discern about it.

Chapter 5

The Character of Mordred 

            The name of Mordred is synonymous with traitor to those familiar with the Arthurian legends. If ever a cursed figure has existed in literature, it is Mordred, for how can one feel sorry for him when he is the murderer of King Arthur, the greatest, most noble king Britain ever had? Yet Mordred was not always an evil character in the legends. In the Welsh tradition, he was even honorable and admired.

The earliest written source we have for Mordred is the tenth century Annales Cambriae where it states that Arthur and Mordred fell at Camlann in 539, but no mention is made of their relationship or their being on opposite sides. Mordred may only be mentioned as falling with Arthur because he was one of the highest and greatest members of King Arthur’s court.

Sir Mordred

            The Welsh tradition describes Mordred as one of the three kingly knights of Arthur’s court, and it states that no one could deny him anything because of his courtliness. The curious qualities to which his persuasive powers were due were his calmness, mildness, and purity (Guest, Mabinogion, 344). Loomis also states that in a Welsh Triad Mordred is mentioned along with Nasiens, King of Denmark, as “men of such gentle, kindly, and fair words that anyone would be sorry to refuse them anything” (Loomis, Celtic Myth, 146-7). When the Welsh had such nice things to say about Mordred, we can hardly expect him to have become a traitor.

Whether Mordred was actually Arthur’s nephew before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings cannot be determined; in “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” he is mentioned as Arthur’s nephew (Jones, Mabinogion, 140), but this Welsh tale could have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth since it was not written down until the fourteenth century. Furthermore, we must notice that Mordred is described in the above passage as a “kingly” knight, and later he is grouped with the King of Denmark. “Kingly” would seem to mean that Mordred was himself a king, or at least of royal blood. He would be royal if he were the son of Arthur’s sister and King Lot; possibly, he would have even inherited a kingdom upon his father’s death. In some later versions of the legend, he was supposed to inherit Arthur’s throne, as will be further discussed in Chapter 9; therefore, the hint that Mordred may have been a king could be well founded.

Mordred’s ability to persuade people so that none could refuse him may need to be looked at a little more hesitantly. It sounds almost as if he were capable of manipulating people, but this interpretation may be false reading between the lines in an attempt to find sarcasm where it was not intended. Such a negative interpretation was often used by the later romancers in their portraits of Mordred. They may have simply been misinterpreting what the Welsh had said of Mordred, or the person who wrote these Welsh traditions down may have been fusing the Welsh traditions with other more recent concepts of Mordred’s character.

One quality attributed to Mordred that we cannot overlook is his purity. Mordred is perhaps the last character in the legends one would expect to have been pure. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mordred is so far from purity that he is trying to force Guinevere into marriage with him. However, the sin of marrying his father’s wife is a sin Mordred originally seems innocent of having committed since it is not mentioned in any of the earlier Welsh versions of the legend.

One final clue to what may have been Mordred’s true character is that the Welsh Triads give two reasons for the Battle of Camlann. One of these is the blow Gwenhyvar struck to Gwenhwyvach, said to be her sister in “Culhwch and Olwen” (Jones, Mabinogion, 106). The other, surprisingly enough, is the blow Arthur gave to Mordred (Guest, Mabinogion, 343). Here it appears as if Mordred is not even at fault, but rather Arthur! Does this statement mean Mordred is the good guy or on the right side in the battle? This interpretation may seem impossible, but we must keep it in mind because it will need to be further explored when we discuss the Battle of Camlann. Since the passage does not give Arthur’s reason for striking Mordred, it could also be interpreted that Mordred started the trouble and Arthur was merely retaliating.

Although the Welsh tales do depict Mordred as rebelling against Arthur, it is strange that if they were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth, they would have said so many nice things about Mordred which Geoffrey does not credit to Mordred. The writing of the Welsh tales may have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, but they may have also been drawing on independent Welsh traditions from which Geoffrey may have also drawn. Perhaps Geoffrey only borrowed the negative aspects of Mordred’s character, while The Mabinogion presents Mordred as a more rounded and realistic character.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s portrayal of Mordred as completely evil allowed Geoffrey’s successors to exaggerate this wickedness to extremes. Mordred’s character became darkest when the author of the Mort Artu (1205) decided to make him the child of incest. As we have seen, this incestuous birth may have been an almost forgotten tradition about Mordred; however, it also could have been invented to degrade Mordred further. A person born of incest was viewed as being nothing short of a devil by the Christian writers of the Middle Ages; these writers viewed Mordred’s incestuous birth as an act of lust, and through this act of lust, even greater lust was conceived; therefore, Mordred became the most despicable, lustful character in the romances, quickly losing his last good characteristic, his purity.

A few examples of the lustful deeds attributed to Mordred during the Middle Ages can be found in the Huth Merlin and Claris et Laris. In the former, Mordred is so lacking in gratitude toward his host that he seduces the girl who is his host’s amie (Bruce, Evolution vol. 2, 345). Even worse than seducing maidens, in Claris et Laris, Mordred attempts to rape a girl, but she is rescued before he can succeed. Later in the romance, he again attempts to rape a girl, but he is foiled in his attempt when the girl turns out to be a knight in disguise (Bruce, Evolution vol. 2, 271, 273). And of course Mordred is guilty of making attempts against Guinevere, which will be further explored in Chapters 6 and 7.

One reason why all this evil may have been attributed to Mordred could go back to our earlier discussion of his name origins. The Welsh form of Mordred’s name was Medraut or Medrawt, but it was later changed to Mordred, the Mor part of his name suggesting connotations to various European words for the sea. The stories of Mordred’s connection to the sea may have caused writers to believe he had some connection to death, specifically by drowning—hence his rescue from drowning at birth, so they borrowed from this new suggestive meaning in his name to depict him as evil. Of course, it could be that the name change was the result of writers wanting a name that more accurately depicted his already established evil character. In any case, Mordred’s character makes a change for the worse at approximately the same time as his name passes from the form of Medraut to Mordred.

Mordred’s wickedness, rather than growing into a more grotesque depiction, has received more sympathy from modern writers. We now live in an age of psychology where we look at the environment of the child that formed the adult. Consequently, trying to understand Mordred’s villainous behavior has provided him with a degree of sympathy; after all, how can he help hating his father, when that father tried to drown him, and furthermore, he must deal with the knowledge that he is the child of incest?

In some of the modern fiction, Mordred even appears to be regretful of his evil ways prior to the Battle of Camlann. Often he appears to be the victim of fate, trapped in a situation he is unable to avoid (Lacy, Arthurian Encyclopedia, 394). Even when he is not a sympathetic character, some writers depict him as not being completely at fault for the Battle of Camlann. Writers over the centuries, from Sir Thomas Malory to Mary Stewart in her novel The Wicked Day (1983), have arranged a meeting between Arthur and Mordred before the Battle of Camlann. In The Wicked Day, it is decided that Mordred will be king after Arthur’s death and have lands of his own until that time. In both Malory and Stewart, the Battle of Camlann begins during this meeting. While Mordred and Arthur are negotiating, one of their soldiers steps on an adder, which then attacks him; the soldier’s reflex is to draw his sword and kill the snake. The flash of the sword, at the same time Arthur happens to raise his arm, is interpreted by the two armies as the sign to start the battle, and so the wicked day begins. Here Mordred, although desiring the kingdom, was at least trying to make peace with Arthur so there need be no more battles, but it is Mordred and Arthur’s fate to slay each other, as Merlin predicted would happen when Mordred was born.

Occasionally in the modern texts, Mordred is even seen as having a purpose besides his own selfish desires for the throne. In The Mists of Avalon (1982), he is the arm of his mother, Morgan le Fay, sent to punish King Arthur for betraying the Isle of Avalon and forgetting his vows to the Goddess. Although Morgan seems a little fanatical at times in this work, the reader always sympathizes with her and so Mordred comes out on what is viewed as the side of good.

Perhaps the most unusual view of Mordred lies not so much in whether he was a good or an evil person, but in the theory that he, and not Arthur, was the rightful King of Britain, which would give a new understanding to his actions, making them merely an attempt to regain what was rightfully his. This interesting theory will be discussed more fully in Chapter 9. First, let us follow our chronological scheme of study and see what lies behind the tale of Mordred’s abduction of Guinevere since that is generally one of the causes for the Battle of Camlann.

For more information about Mordred or to purchase a copy of King Arthur’s Children, visit www.ChildrenofArthur.com

________________________

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

Read Full Post »