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The Trouble with Medrawd

David Hemmings as Mordred in 'Camelot'
Ford - drawing of Mordred

Guenevere believed in family values...especially with her nephew/stepson Mordred. MORDRED? - I can hear jaws dropping: years of conditioning take their toll - Arthur's son by his sister Gwyar/Anna/Morgause (not by Morgen - that's a 20C notion)? - He was Guenevere's lover?

You can see him clearly, pale-faced and furtive, dressed in black, skulking in castle corridors. Even hostile writers usually allow him beauty of a doom-haunted kind: the pale young man leaning on his sword among a great heap of dead men, his damascened armour catching the last light of the sun.

The archetypal Celtic triangle tells of an old King, his young bride, his handsome, gifted nephew/lieutenant: Fionn, Grainne, Diarmaid; March, Essylt, Drustan; Conchobar, Deirdre, Naoise; and Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, Medrawd.

But after Lancelot's introduction, Mordred lost half his rôle in the story, leaving his rebellion against Arthur still to be explained. He degenerated into a sneaky, backstabbing (literally, in the case of Sir Lamorak), cowardly villain, while Lancelot made off with the glamour and Guenevere -

Wouldn't YOU be bitter?!

Modern authors have usually followed the French romance tradition, largely inspired by Malory et al., or have strayed even further. T H White, in his tetralogy The Once and Future King, portrayed Mordred as a Gaelic Fascist. In the film version of the musical Camelot, he is a malicious cynic - although David Hemmings' subtle performance hints that this masks a moralist's disillusion with the older generation's sexual hypocrisy. Catherine Christian, in The Sword and the Flame, made him Agravain's lover - using unpleasant prejudices about disloyalty and homosexuality. Equally dubiously, other modern writers have depicted him as in some way physically deformed - the outward shape mirroring the twisted soul, just as Shakespeare depicted Richard III. In 20C-21C, this simply will not do!

Celtic tradition indicates that, as Medrawd, Mordred was once a more noble and attractive character: a Brythonic Diarmaid/Naoise to Arthur's Fionn/Conchobar, a poet like the Pictish Drustan. Medrawd was one of 'The Three Kingly Warriors of Arthur's Court', famous for his courtesy, courage, virtue and gentleness - although his later elopement with Gwenhwyfar earned his listing as one of 'The Three Dishonoured Men of the Island of Britain'. Thomas Gray's poem The Bard, drawing on Welsh tradition, names him among the long-dead poets and harpers. My old edition of Palgrave's Golden Treasury is fazed by this, and suggests bizarrely in the notes that Gray really must mean Merlin! Some prejudices die hard!

The Last Battle

As Synge's Deirdre remarks, it would be a pity "to see great lovers and they grown old"... The one enduring trace of Medrawd's original heroism is the account of his death in the classic mediæval versions, despite its utter inconsistency with these same authors' representation of him as a knavish coward. Pierced straight through the chest by Arthur's spear Gomyniad ('The Hewer'), he drags himself agonisingly up the shaft in order to strike back. It's enough to make Doc M reach for her First Aid kit and trusty tin-opener! (Well, how else do you get a pierced lorica off in a hurry? All those buckles are very fiddly!)

Despite the desperate courage of this last scene, Dante Alighieri placed Mordred uncharitably in the frozen circles of Hell: "He whose breast and shadow were broken/ By one blow of Arthur's hand". In John Boorman's film Excalibur it is Arthur, not his son, who has the heroic death on the spear; Bernard Cornwall makes the same rôle-reversal in his last Arthurian novel.

But thanks to John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy, Joy Chant and Fay Sampson, Dante's infernal ice may yet be thawing: with some modern writers at least, Medrawd has begun to make a comeback in his original rôle as Gwenhwyfar's lover, while Lancelot takes a turn on the scrap-heap of discarded characters. Poetic justice?

Well, it would be... but for Hollywood. The latest film, King Arthur (2004), has been much hyped for 'authenticity', because it sets the story in the post-Roman period, using a possible identification of Arthur with Lucius Artorius Castus... However, what do we find but Lancelot appearing in the character list?!!! Characters from the mediæval French Romance tradition being used in a Dark Age setting? - I despair!

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