The Making of a Villain
by Christina Franke
Arthurian legend comprises many different characters and includes many different plot lines, even though the authors usually work off of the same general outline. Some items of plot have remained rather consistent since Geoffrey of Monmouth, such as Uther and Igraine's relationship around the time of the death of her husband, Arthur's betrayal by Guinevere and Mordred's role in the downfall of the glorious Camelot. Despite the importance of his character though, comparatively little focus has been given to Mordred by scholars of Arthuriana. Only in modern times has Mordred become a more central figure in some reworkings of the legend due to the postmodernist popularity of looking sympathetically at the antagonists of old stories by examining the motives behind the actions of the bad guys and why they come to act the way they do. Mostly though, Mordred is seen only as Arthur's closest male relative, who sits next in line to the throne and decides to seize power when Arthur's back is turned. Through a possible misinterpretation of the Annals of Wales Mordred becomes the character who purposely causes Arthur's downfall and death, ultimately becoming tied to incest when Christianity comes to the forefront, making him undeniably and irredeemably an antagonist.
One of Mordred's earliest appearances occurs in the Annales Cambriae and from this short entry the character of Mordred becomes set as Arthur's enemy. The Annales Cambriae state only that in the year 539 "The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Modred perished" occurred (Alcock 45). The Annals make no other mention of Arthur or Mordred; from this one instance Mordred's role in the legend is drawn. In fact, the Annals do not even actually say that Arthur and Mordred fought each other, simply that they both fell, which could be said of two valiant warriors fighting on the same side. The importance of the Annals in reference to Arthurian legend is that they hint at the actual existence of these men, as "all the other people – popes, saints, kings and princes – mentioned in the British Easter Annals are genuine, not mythical, fabulous or otherwise fictitious" (48). Of course, that does not make the legend as it is known today any more true and scholars definitely doubt the accuracy of the Annals' date for the death of Arthur and Mordred, but this certainly seems a reason to believe that not only may a historical Arthur have existed but Mordred as well. From one unclear statement in the Annals, Mordred becomes an evil villain of Arthurian literature.
Medraut may actually have originally been an honored figure until he became combined with Mordred and Melwas in Geoffrey of Monmouth. Some early medieval poems support the idea that "Medrawd was traditionally a paragon of valour and courtesy" (Trioedd Ynys Prydein 445). The reliability of such sources can be called into question but the possibility definitely does exist that a historical Mordred lived that was a benevolent man. In earlier sources, Mordred actually shares Arthur's grave, "a strange interment for enemies" (Varin 174). Such an arrangement suggests that Mordred and Arthur fought together on the same side before their deaths, because why would a traitor be buried with the honored king? Later sources will claim that the second purported body in Arthur's grave might be Lucan, who dies at the same time as Arthur. Before Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mordred was "not claimed to be Arthur's nephew" (The Arthur of the Welsh 112). Geoffrey's interpretations of the sources really create the Arthurian legend as it will be known from then on. One scholar, B.F. Roberts believes that "Geoffrey derived the form Modredus from a Cornish or from a Breton source and that he conflated it with the already existing cognate W. Medrawt" (Trioedd Ynys Prydein 446). Whether Mordred really derivates from Medraut or that is a mistake made by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the names now are accepted as applying to the same character. Medraut has become Mordred in Arthurian literature, even if he possibly should not be. Whoever the historical Medraut might have been, his character has been inextricably entangled with the Modredus of Geoffrey's account.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's work had a tremendous impact upon the character of Mordred, firmly setting his role and personality in Arthurian literature for hundreds of years. Arthur replaces Melwas as Guinevere's abductor and "this change appears to have brought about the degrading of Medrawt in Welsh sources; he had previously been presented as a heroic figure by the Gogynfeirdd" (Trioedd Ynys Prydein 380). Melwas, whose name evolves into Meleagant later on in the legend, originally captured the queen and still does in many texts. By having Mordred capture Queen Guinevere in his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, due to the popularity and eminence of his work, alters Mordred into an even more villainous character and associates him, likely for the first time, with incest, as Mordred sleeps with his aunt in order to cement his claim to the throne: "this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage" (Geoffrey 257). Though Guinevere and Mordred are related by marriage not blood, their relationship is close enough to make it disturbingly close to incest, in addition to adultery, which may give the authors of the Vulgate the idea of making Mordred a product of incest.
Monmouth establishes Mordred's character, but really does not say much
specific about him. During the time
of Ambrosius Aurelianus Loth married Arthur's sister and "had two sons by
her, Gawain and Mordred" (221). Arthur
leaves his nephew, Mordred, and his Queen in charge of the kingdom while he and
most of his knights go to the mainland to fight the Romans.
This turns out to be one of the worst decisions Arthur could have made,
because Mordred proceeds to take control of Arthur's wife and kingdom in the
King's absence. Mordred then
allies himself with the Saxons, Scots, Picts, Irish and "anyone else whom he
knew to be filled with hatred for his uncle" (258).
Their armies clash a few times, concluding in the battle at which Arthur
kills Mordred and receives severe wounds himself, such that he goes to the Isle
of Avalon to be healed. Not much
about Mordred's personality comes through in The
History of the Kings of
After Geoffrey of
Monmouth's The History of the Kings of
Britain, some Scottish chronicles were written with a contrary perspective
of Mordred and King Arthur. The
general plot of these stories seems to be that Arthur, not Mordred, is in fact
illegitimate and his sister Anna deserves the throne, making Mordred the
rightful king before Arthur. The Scotorum
Historia by Hector Boece in 1527 even claims that the Picts and the Britons
only accept Arthur's rule on the condition that he declare Mordred his
successor, which he agrees to but later reneges on, which causes Mordred to
renew hostilities against Arthur (Fletcher 247).
Arthur and Mordred then meet in battle and are both killed.
In these Scottish tales,
Mordred receives mention in one of the tales of The Mabinogion, "The Dream of Rhonabwy," which casts Mordred still as in opposition to Arthur but otherwise differs greatly from other Arthurian tales. This story tells of a man who travels back in time to Arthur's realm in a dream. He happens upon a knight by the name of Iddawc who tells of the Battle of Camlann. Apparently Mordred and Arthur, his uncle, were conversing through messengers trying to avoid war until Iddawc, one of these said messengers, eager for war, relayed harsh words to Mordred instead of "the fairest sayings [Arthur] could think of" (Guest 96). Interestingly enough, Mordred and Arthur seem to be of a fairly equal rank, perhaps both kings of different areas as in the Scottish tales mentioned previously. The two men also evidently work for peace fairly successfully until a bloodthirsty, bored, young knight changes a message of peace to one of war. The guilt here lies with Iddawc more than Mordred or Arthur based upon this tale's treatment of the characters. Another odd change stems from the fact that Rhonabwy finds himself spending time with Arthur seven years after the Battle of Camlan concluded (96). Arthur definitely did not die at Camlan then in this interpretation and no mention is made of what happened to Mordred during or after this confrontation. Perhaps the differences result from the nature of the story, as it is merely one man's dream of Arthur's kingdom, but whatever the cause, this story presents an interesting depiction of Mordred. "The Dream of Rhonabwy" differs greatly from the main Arthurian story, containing a more favorable perspective of Mordred, because someone else shoulders much of the blame for the Battle of Camlan.
By making Mordred
a product of incest, and in a shady situation at that, the Vulgate Cycle makes
Arthur less admirable and shows him literally creating his own downfall.
The Vulgate Cycle takes great pains to emphasize that Arthur fathered
Mordred through incest: "all those who have heard of Mordred and think he was
King Lot's son know that he was not; without a doubt he was King Arthur's
son" (Lancelot-Grail Voume. I 154).
The author of The History of the
Holy Grail seems to be rubbing in Arthur's guilt, although in his next
sentences he assures the reader that Arthur had not known his relationship to
the lady and, when he learned, repented of his actions. The
Christian composers of the Vulgate Cycle uphold Arthur's example and condemn
it as well, hating the adulterous courtly love that the knights of Arthur's
Round Table practice. The conception
of Mordred happens by Arthur's device and plotting in a way rather comparable
to Uther's begetting of Arthur on Ygraine, in which she lay with Uther
believing herself to be with her husband, Gorlois.
Arthur found himself greatly attracted to
Despite Mordred's incestuous beginnings, much of his childhood passed
by happily enough with him an accepted member of
Mordred actually gets to go on adventures in the Lancelot-Grail, which reveal the steadfast evil of his character. While riding around the forest, a dwarf shoots Mordred's horse with an arrow, killing the poor creature, and so the incensed Mordred kills the knight who runs out to protect the dwarf by "striking the knight so hard that despite the helmet he drove the sword into his brain" (109). Interestingly, Mordred does not chase after the dwarf and kill him, satisfied with his first kill. Instead he continues on his journey, on which he comes to a tent, where he begs of a beautiful lady for lodging. She agrees to allow him to spend the night, so long as her lord minds not, and then "he entreated her so long" to lay with him that she gives in (109). Her lord arrives and sees nothing wrong with letting Mordred spend a night, and, to repay his hospitality, Mordred convinces this man's lady to sleep with her husband first and then sneak out to enjoy more pleasure at Mordred's hands. Mordred and the lady are, of course, caught and a fight ensues, which Mordred wins; surprisingly, Mordred gives the other knight his life when he asks for mercy, but even so he has ruined the lives of these two people, because the lord "could never love the lady because of what happened" (110). While many of Arthur's knights enjoy such exploits, Mordred shows a disdain for the feelings of others that clearly demonstrates his character. His exploits continue in such a manner throughout the Vulgate Cycle, culminating in the battle in which he and Arthur mortally wound one another. He does what pleases him without reference to how that will affect anyone else, which fits with the nature of his birth, so selfishly done on the part of Arthur. Mordred's iniquity stems from that of his creation; he could not escape his destiny, written the moment Arthur's sister conceived him.
The Vulgate introduces Mordred's use of Guinevere and Lancelot's affair to weaken Arthur, so that he can seize power. He works with his brother Agravain to catch the Queen and Lancelot in their affair, forcing Arthur's hand against them by making knowledge of the adultery public. When Lancelot runs off, Arthur must raise an army to wage war against Lancelot; he leaves Mordred in charge at home, giving him "the keys to all his treasuries" and leaving the Queen in his care (Lancelot-Grail IV 134). Mordred apparently has the capacity to appear extremely trustworthy or else Arthur really did not possess the mental capacity to rule the kingdom. Being able to act reliable would suit Mordred's cause well and is probably the only way he would be able to get to the position where he could challenge Arthur. His façade of decency also plays into the Christian element of the tale, in which he serves as the devil figure, leading people to believe in his lies for his own benefit. Once Arthur has left him in power, Mordred decides to "take both the kingdom and the wife for his own" (Senior 41). In opposition to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Guinevere does not give in to Mordred and instead runs away from Camelot. Arthur hears of the betrayal and returns to defend his kingdom against the usurping Mordred, whom he eventually manages to kill though it takes his own life. The Vulgate Cycle does the most to flesh out the character of Mordred that Geoffrey created.
keeps most of the plot the same, but adds more Christian condemnation of
Arthur's begetting of Mordred. Once
again Arthur and Morgause are unaware of their connection when they knew each
other carnally, "and the lady carried the one who later betrayed and killed
his father and put the land to torture and destruction" (Lancelot-Grail Volume IV 167). Using
the word carnally clearly marks a value judgment being made.
The connection of such biblical diction followed by the knowledge that
Mordred will wreak such havoc upon the world implies that Arthur and his sister
sinned and Mordred punishes the world for their wrongdoing.
In an attempt to prevent the scourge that Mordred would unleash upon the
people and his own death, Arthur endeavors to find the child by ordering all
children born within that month, both high and low, to be sent to him, at which
point he puts them into a tower. When
Morgause gives birth to Mordred, she and
Mordred's begetting occurs because of a weakness in Arthur's character, which corresponds to a flaw in the chivalric code. In Malory, Mordred comes from the incestuous union of Arthur and Margawse, who "was sister on the mother's side, Igraine, unto Arthur" (Malory 21). Malory continues the tradition of Mordred's being born of incest that began in the Vulgate Cycle. At this point Arthur does not know that he had sex with his half-sister, but he still looks ridiculous, because he decides to bed her merely because he finds her attractive, even though he knows her to be wedded to King Lot who will ever after hold against King Arthur. King Arthur fails completely to exhibit the good kingship for which he becomes famous. This scene does nothing to Arthur's credit and reveals the negative side of his character; Mordred, born of both adultery and incest, represents the negative elements of this kingdom that will eventually lead to Camelot's downfall.
contribution to the character of Mordred is that Mordred continues to bring out
the worst in King Arthur, causing him to order mass infanticide, which
ironically seems to put Mordred into what would traditionally be the role of the
hero. Merlin foretells that Mordred
would destroy his father, so Arthur "let send for all the children that were
born on Mayday, begotten of lords and ladies" and "all were put in a ship to
the sea" (31). Such a violent
action certainly could not have been popular with the people of Arthur's
kingdom, especially those who have a child taken away from them and put to sea
to die of exposure, drowning or thirst. The
Post-Vulgate clearly inspired Malory with the idea, but the changes he makes are
most intriguing. Mordred enjoys what
would be more traditionally a hero's birth, surviving against the odds: "the
ship drove unto a castle and was all to-riven, and destroyed the most part save
that Mordred was cast up" (31). Arthur
attempts to have his son killed due to Merlin's prophecy and fails, losing
both honor and safety from the danger Mordred presents to him.
The threat lives on and he sent many babies to their death for nothing.
Arthur's attempt to kill Mordred, places Mordred's birth among the
ranks of "Oedipus, Atalanta, Perseus, or
Another interesting aspect of Arthur's behavior is that he takes such strong action against Mordred on Merlin's word, but when Merlin warns of Guinevere's unfaithfulness, Arthur ignores him. Arthur's distrust of Mordred could stem from the nature of the uncle-nephew relationship, as well as the father-son relationship. Senior suggests that "the nephew is entitled to make certain claims on the uncle," that "there is a close, almost sacred bond between them," and that "the uncle displays a tendency to want to kill the nephew," trends which he observed through many different Celtic and Welsh stories (53). This pattern fits particularly well with the case of Arthur and Mordred, as Mordred certainly can make claims on his uncle unless Arthur wants it known that he is his nephew's father. Their sacred bond can be seen as fate or in the idea that Mordred represents the darker side of Arthur that precipitates his own end. The desire to kill Mordred appears in his sending the babies out to die in the boat. Perhaps this is the reason for the King to take this particular prophecy so much to heart, or else he knows that Mordred reveals the evils within Arthur and hopes to wipe his own slate clean, which turns out to be more difficult than he thought, if not impossible. Malory's Mordred exemplifies why Camelot could not survive, more a symptom brought about to begin the inevitable decline than an independent agent bent on selfish destruction.
of Avalon gives the character of Mordred a more significant back-story,
which does not excuse his actions but does explain them, making him more
realistic. In Marion Zimmer
Bradley's version of the Arthurian legend Mordred remains the product of
incest but his mother switches to Morgaine.
She and Arthur have sex as God and Goddess during a ritual, but they do
not realize until they awaken in the morning and he recognizes her in the light
of day (Bradley 181). Despite her
training as a Priestess of Avalon, Morgaine cannot see this as acceptable and
almost aborts the child. She ends up
keeping her baby, but through plotting and negligence, she has no part in
raising him, and neither does Arthur, considering that he does not even know of
Mordred's existence. Morgause
discovers that Arthur fathered Morgaine's child and decides to make use of
this situation: "this will be
Mordred's role within Arthurian literature becomes set with Geoffrey of Monmouth's interpretation and his character with the Vulgate Cycle's portrayal of him. Before Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mordred very likely could have been a brave knight who fought and died on Arthur's side of the battle, but once Geoffrey's influential history declares Mordred a traitor, he will be one ever more in popular literature; Mordred's treachery becomes one of the immovable plot points of the legend. The Vulgate Cycle keeps Arthur's sister as the mother of Mordred, but changes the father to Arthur himself, making Mordred born of incest and necessarily messed-up and evil. The religious implications of the time paint him as a devil, because the authors wanted to paint Camelot as a society that could not stand due to its un-Christian aspects. Mordred's character gets a boost in modern literature because he gets a more realistic personality and the reader can sympathize with him, seeing why he feels the way he does. Authors cannot remove the aspect of his treachery to Arthur, but they can diminish his guilt somewhat and can give him better motivations for his actions.
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