Mordred: 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. 

Geoffrey of 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 Britain , except that "Mordred was indeed the boldest of men and always the first to launch an attack" (260).  From this comment, Mordred appears to be strong and brave, which a knight truly ought to be.  Besides this, Mordred's main personality trait appears to be untrustworthiness.  Geoffrey gives no reasons for Mordred's behavior and no look into his motivations, since his goal was to write a history, in which only external struggles really mattered.  While Geoffrey did not invent Mordred, he realized "that the death of Arthur was the great climax of the theory" (Brown 620).  In a history, the death of a king would be undoubtedly essential, but even more so when that king's death means invasion by the Saxons which gives shape to the modern world.  Mordred becomes an important character because he forms a core part of Arthur's death, upon which most Arthurian stories after Geoffrey focus.  Geoffrey of Monmouth establishes Mordred's character as treacherous and creates the plot line that almost all later Arthurian stories will follow.

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, Lot , Anna and Mordred rule the Pictish tribes rather than a British kingdom, thus tying them to the Scots that would read these histories.  These Scottish histories essentially reverse the roles of good guy and bad guy without changing the frame of the story too drastically, essentially doing with Mordred and Arthur's characters what Marion Zimmer Bradley will do with Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon.

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 Lot 's lady and strongly desires her, but "the lady did not heed this, for she was very faithful to her husband" (237).  Unwilling to accept his rejection, Arthur waits until Lot leaves and sneaks into his lady's bed; she has sex with Arthur because she assumes that it must be her husband lying beside her.  From this moment of deception and manipulation, Mordred will come into being and his personality will match the way in which he was conceived.

  Despite Mordred's incestuous beginnings, much of his childhood passed by happily enough with him an accepted member of Lot 's family.  Gawainet refers to Mordred as his brother and the lady, Mordred and Gawainet's mother, heaves a "sigh from her heart" when she discovers that Mordred survived a Saxon attack when she thought that he had not (279).  The rest of the family seems to feel a true affection for Mordred and to count him one of their own.  Gawainet chooses Mordred, along with eight others, to accompany him on a quest in search of Lancelot, giving Mordred a chance to have honorable adventures.  Apparently though, acceptance cannot change a naturally bad character, because Mordred, physically beautiful though he is, remains ugly due to his wickedness, enviousness and deceitfulness: "this man was truly the devil" (Lancelot-Grail III 109).  There does not seem to be any reason for Mordred's character to be so very bad, except for the taint of his incestuous conception.  Mordred works as a devilish character because his beauty and high birth make him a temptation; people will follow him, even though they should support the superior Arthur.  This characterization of Mordred also reveals the Christian influences upon the story with the addition of sin and devilry, which makes the Arthurian legend a struggle betwixt good and evil.   

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.

The Post-Vulgate 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 Lot agree to send him off to Arthur by ship, but "a large storm blew up at sea" and "all those on the ship perished except the child who lay in the cradle" (183).  A fisherman finds Mordred and takes the baby to the local lord, who raises Mordred, unaware of his parentage, as his own son and brother to Sagremor.  Meanwhile, Arthur plans to put all of the other babies to death, believing that Mordred must be amongst them, but one night he dreams of a large man who tells him that he should have all the babies "put into a ship on the sea and let it go where the wind will take it," so that if they escape the danger, "Jesus Christ will have shown clearly that He loves them" (184).  In this version of the story, Arthur has unholy intentions, but allows himself to be ruled by God, who prevents him from murdering the innocent children.  With the introduction of God into the equation like this, Mordred is obviously intended to live, since God saved him as well.  Mordred, despite being a necessary force that God saved, does not come through the Post-Vulgate looking any better as a character.  His unholy, incestuous birth stains him and he will do evil deeds.

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.

Malory's main 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 Romulus and Remus," who were all "exposed or thrown into the sea at birth" (Varin 167).  Mordred enjoys a hero's birth; even the day on which Morgawse gives birth to him leans towards him being a hero rather than a villain. 

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.

Mists 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 Lot 's fosterling, and we will always have a weapon against Arthur" (251).  In The Mists of Avalon  Mordred's incestuous birth really makes him an antagonist, because his parentage means that neither mother nor father wants to spend time with him.  Even though Morgause cares for him, Mordred desires love from his parents, often wondering why Morgaine never comes to see him and who his father is.  Viviane tells him at a young, impressionable age, that he is the son of the High King and Morgaine, Arthur's sister (474).  Living with Morgause and then with the Druids instills in this strange, unloved child a love of power and a desire for revenge upon the parents that never cared for him.  Mordred still serves as an opponent to Arthur, but he has motivations for acting the way he does.  Modern literature cannot change Mordred's role in the legend, but it can give readers a window into his thoughts and paint a more balanced picture of the character.

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.

Works Cited

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