Tuesday, August 16, 2005



Mordred (2002)

From David Nash Ford's "Early British Kingdoms":

Sir Mordred appears to have been an historical personage. Tradition makes him the youngest son of Queen Morgause of Orkney. He was raised as a son of her husband, King Lot, but - due to an unfortunate and uninformed encounter -- his real father was his own uncle, King Arthur. When the monarch discovered the truth, he tried to have the baby Mordred disposed off. Along with all the children born his birthday, he was set adrift in a large boat. The boat sank but Mordred survived and was washed up an island shore, from where he was taken in by Lord Nabur the Unruly. When he grew up, Mordred travelled to the Court of King Arthur and was reunited with his real parents. He capitalised on the reputation of his brother, Sir Gawain, and was made a Knight of the Round Table. For some time, he was the companion of Sir Lancelot, but the goodly knights influence did not rub off on Mordred. He is portrayed as having torrid affairs with married ladies while beating-up their husbands. He raped some ladies and murdered others. When his family came into conflict with sons of Pellinore, over the death of his father, Mordred was one of those who conspired in the murder of Sir Lamorak. Arthur, however, favoured Mordred and made him regent when he left Britain for the Continent -- either campaigning against the Roman Empire or pursuing the treacherous Lancelot. But Mordred was devious. He made alliances with the Saxons, Picts & Scots and faked news of Arthur's death, in order to have himself proclaimed King. He declared his intention to take Queen Guinevere as his wife, but the Queen's reaction is in dispute. She either eagerly agreed or fled to London and barricaded her self in the Tower. News reached Arthur of his son's treachery and he rushed home to reclaim his throne. Mordred's forces were defeated at the Battle of Richborough (or Dover), then at Winchester (or Barham Down) and he was pursued west into Cornwall. The two armies met for the final time at the Battle of Camlann. Mordred and Arthur were amongst the last warriors standing. A single combat led to Mordred being slain, but not before he had inflicted a mortal wound upon his father. One version of his end claims that Sir Mordred survived Camlann and was only later defeated by Sir Lancelot. Having executed Guinevere for compliance in plot against Arthur, the Knight of the Lake then incarcerated Mordred in the dead queen's tomb. He cannibalized his former lover before dying of starvation! His rebellion was continued for a while by his two sons, Melehan and Melou.

He'll go as was appointed by his fate / For my necessity.

Yet who shall snuff the light of what he knows
To blind the king he serves?

-- E. A. Robinson, "Mordred, A Fragment"

From Sir Mordred the Traitor:

A shadow is, as LeGuin days, "the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind. It is Cain, Caliban, Frankenstein's monster, Mr. Hyde . . . it is the serpent, Lucifer. The shadow stands on the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and we meet it in our dreams, as sister, brother, friend, beast, monster, enemy, guide. It is all we don't want to, can't admit into our conscious self, and the qualities and tendencies within us which have been repressed, denied, or not used. It is not evil, but it can only unmake. It is the animal side of human nature.

Not only is Mordred the product of incest (certainly a part of the dark side of Arthur's nature), but he seeks another incestuous relationship with Arthur's wife. He is filled with a hatred that Malory never really accounts for. He is malicious and vicious, yet without the rationale that the conscious mind would require. Though he does have reasons to desire revenge, the impetus to merely destroy is powerful in him. Nowadays, Arthurian authors are beginning to give him the benefit of the doubt, yet all through the ages, Mordred has been presented as pure malice and viciousness. Arthur refuses to acknowledge Mordred, for he cannot face him. In the end, Arthur does not get rid of Mordred permanently; instead, they kill each other. Without the Shadow, a person has only two dimensions, and that is why, figuratively speaking, Arthur and Mordred could not exist apart from each other.

Combat of Arthur and Mordred
[Illustration by Arthur Rackham]

Layamon's Brut conveys the pain that Arthur felt at the betrayal of Mordred, and the narrative sometimes reads like a chorus echoing Arthur's sentiments. He has dreams foreshadowing the disaster, and when he hears of Mordred's treachery, he responds with despair and anger.

It is interesting to note that Arthur and Gawain are much less lenient and much more powerful than they are in later centuries-- there is no pathetic hope of a Lancelot to come rescue Guinevere from the stake, no powerlessness in the face of one's own law. Arthur abandons the war against Lucius and goes back to "kill cunning Mordred and torch the queen / And destroy all those who are tied to this treason" (14,065-66). Walwain (Gawain) also is angry; he insists on pulling her to pieces.

The queen is also portrayed differently here than in later centuries. She is indeed a traitress against King Arthur, for Mordred has become her "dearest consort." She even counsels him against the king. In later versions of the tale, her guilt in this instance is partially cleared by the fact that Mordred tells her that the king is dead. Here, she is just as blameworthy as Mordred.

The war between Arthur and Mordred is terrible, but it gives Layamon an opportunity to show how wicked Mordred is, having the traitor sneaks away from his own supporters so as to stall Arthur's finding him and leaving them to be needlessly killed by Arthur. The queen hears of Arthur's fierce onslaughts, and predictably steals away and takes holy orders. Arthur, the "angriest of kings," hunts Mordred down and kills him and all his cowering companies. Arthur's valorous life is cut short by fifteen terrible wounds, but Merlin the magician prophecies that he will be healed and return to Britain.

And, finally, from "The Case of Sir Mordred" by Tyagi Mordred Nagasiva:

Mordred's motives are seldom addressed, or they are characterized as "evil" or unsavory in the extreme. Mordred is cast as a villain foil to a king hero; a rather two-dimensional caricature. I suggest that Mordred is more complex a character than is to be found in tales of Christian chivalry. Malory's Mordred is too shallow, too unknown, too inhuman to be believed.


Mordred may indeed have had the well-being of the realm in mind when he attempted to seize power. Arthur's handling of Guinevere's romance with Launcelot seems to validate this hypothesis. The king quickly condemns her in anger, yet later rescinds his judgements. Is a queen's love expressed to a man other than the king something which is treasonous and punishable by death? If so, then the law either needs to be changed or enforced to be called "just." Arthur does neither. Is he somehow above his own laws? This is definitely one of Arthur's key weaknesses -- his inability to balance his love for his wife and Launcelot with his regard for justice.

The Arthurian Tales fired my imagination as a child -- especially puzzling through the motives of Mordred. Later, as a teenager, the struggles of sons and fathers began to make more sense -- although, mercifully, not on Mallory's scale.

America's Camelot died in Dallas in 1963. Now, in the reign of King George of Crawford, the land sinks into chaos and darkness. Tonio K nailed such a transition when he sang in 1981:

You can face it now, or face it later
You will have to face it either way
You should hate them with a perfect hatred...

Wise up
Welcome to the new dark ages...

That sounds a little like someone from long ago who "had the well-being of the realm in mind" and was dreaming of regime change...


Anonymous said...

Mordred knows
His Generals lie
Melehan and Melou
His Generals lie
But a lie well told
Becomes truth over time

Sanctified by blood
Of peasants in the corps
Melehan and Melou
Rally their flag
For a lie well told
Becomes truth every time

Mordred embeds
Reporters in the ranks
Who repeat his Generals
Melehan and Melou
Until the lies retold
Become truth for all time

Melehan and Melou
Mordred knows
Conjoin by shouting
Everyone down
Braying their lies
Until truth soldiers truth

Mordred comes to believe
His very own lies
His freedom to command
Melehan and Melou
Who lie until lies
Become mythic truths

cruelanimal said...

I am enjoying the poems you write to correspond with the images.

I especially like this one -- updated with terrifying accuracy for the way we live now.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...