Why I Love Mordred in the Arthurian Legend

I have loved the legends of King Arthur since I was a small child watching The Sword in the Stone, and eventually reading the full novel of The Once and Future King, but it wasn’t until high school that I really began to understand the sheer extent of the tapestry of Arthurian canon. The complexity of the legends can be mind-boggling, even as some of the renditions and individual stories are very basic and simple, even sweet. The work that really set me on the journey of becoming an Arthuriana enthusiast and scholar was Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, in particular the author’s experiments with viewpoint. I had never realized that viewpoint could be such a pivotal concept in retellings of the legend, and I immediately set out to devour all versions of the legend I could find, the more different the better.

The first “different” version I read was, of course, the direct follow-up to the Merlin Trilogy, Mary Stewart’s own novel The Wicked Day, which retells much of the last book in the trilogy from Mordred’s viewpoint, before adding events to the end which go beyond the scope of The Last Enchantment, the last novel in the trilogy. From that point on, I was fascinated with the character of Mordred, and his history in the Arthurian canon.

At Bryn Mawr College, I took a course on the legends of Arthur. One of the big assignments was a large paper on a character, chosen from the list, and we were to research the canonical history of that character, his or her first appearances, later development through the different Arthurian sources, and the way she or he is interpreted by modern fiction. The professor, after discussing the expectations with the class, asked how many of us had already picked our character; most of us had. She asked how many were planning to write about Morgan. Almost a third of the seventy-five or so students in the class raised their hands. This being Bryn Mawr, this was not tremendously surprising. She then asked, curiously, if anyone was planning to write about Mordred. My hand shot up at the back of the room. I was the only one. The professor laughed. “Ah yes,” she said. “The Mordred people. There’s one in every class. Good to know which one you are. You guys keep us honest.”

That comment struck me, as did the assumption that a bunch of scholars discussing the Arthurian legend would need someone to keep them honest. As it turned out, the prediction was quite correct, and I learned why: the sources, from medieval to modern, generally espouse a certain moral code, and take for granted certain concepts. One of Mordred’s roles in the legend, and therefore one of my roles in the class, was to constantly call those concepts into question, often playing devil’s advocate (I don’t normally do this, but for some reason this class really brought it out in me). It made people angry with me, just as it made people angry with Mordred in the legend. Fortunately, in a modern liberal arts college, there was a much greater expectation of open-mindedness than would be found in a medieval court.

One can tell so much about the purpose of any piece of Arthuriana by watching how Mordred is portrayed. The reason for this is that Mordred is key to how Arthur himself is portrayed: they are nemeses. In the same way that Batman would not be as brilliant without the presence of the Joker to oppose him, or Superman without Lex Luthor, the list goes on, Arthur needs his Mordred for contrast. The difference between this pair and those others, though, is that Mordred can be just about anything the author wants — which means that Mordred becomes a vehicle for making Arthur anything the author wants. It is very revealing of the portrayal of Arthur, to view his opposite, or sometimes just a foil, or even just a tragic circumstance, in Mordred.

When I first read Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, and read up on the character, much of the critique I saw of the novel mentioned her “new” take on the character. This seemed odd to me, as Stewart specifically mentions in her author’s notes that Mordred was not originally a villain. He is barely a footnote in the first source in which he is mentioned (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and we cannot even tell on which side he fought in the battle of Camlann. When I did my research in college, I discovered there are numerous other old sources which have a complex or even sympathetic portrayal of the character. I think my favorite is the Alliterative Morte Arthur, which portrays Mordred as fighting against Arthur for reasons he believes valid, and refusing to back down from his own honor and convictions. The two are set against each other in a conflict that cannot be resolved except through death, and everyone, including both Arthur and Mordred, recognizes the tragic waste. The moment that gave me chills, though, was when I read about Mordred, having just killed Gawain, weeping over the body, realizing that at this point there is no going back even if they should find some way to resolve all of their other issues, and fully understanding the waste of all the brilliant men and ideas that will perish in the battle. This, from a piece written in the late 1300’s. The idea of a sympathetic character in Mordred is definitely not “new.” If anything, the sneering madman of The Once and Future King is the new interpretation. Even Thomas Malory portrays him as bitter and treacherous, but sane and practical.

If you read my earlier post about Game of Thrones and why I love Jaime Lannister, it should come as no surprise that I love Mordred to pieces, and for many of the same reasons. I love characters who call everyone’s assumptions into question. I love complex characters.

Mordred may be one of the most complex characters in all of literature. This comes in part from the sheer number of versions: the evil wizard counterpart to Merlin; the disgruntled brat prince; the smooth-talking madman; the dangerously charismatic and treacherous rebel leader; the misguided and bitter youth; the abused boy manipulated by his vindictive mother; the terrified knight caught up in a destiny he cannot escape; the politician who makes hard decisions; the nobleman who is a victim of circumstance; the leader of a resistance against a regime that has outgrown its usefulness to its kingdom. These are just a few of the thousands of versions of this character that now exist. There’s even gay erotica about Mordred (it was brilliant Arthuriana, actually).

Fun piece of trivia: If you watch Monty Python’s Quest for The Holy Grail, it is possible to determine the identify of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. He is Mordred. The proof is two-fold, beyond the fact that Mordred does not in fact appear in the film: 1) He is a baby in the image, and Mordred is the youngest of Arthur’s knights in most of the Grail legends. 2) He is wrapped in swaddling that is green, with embroidered dragons. Green signifies Lothian, the realm of Arthur’s sister; the dragon signifies Arthur himself. The child of Arthur and his sister? Mordred. QED. The Python crew has confirmed this analysis.