Adultery, Incest, and the Evolution of a Villain

Mordred's entrance into the King Arthur myth appears to be a gradual one. While it is claimed by some, like M. Victoria Guerin, that Mordred was a part of the legend from the very start, the nature of his role in the legend has undergone a number of permutations throughout the ages. The earliest mention of Mordred as a character appears to have been in the Annals of Cambria, and it is extremely brief. They state, "539 A. D. The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut [Mordred] both fell; and there was widespread death in Britain and Ireland."1 It is certainly of note that the reference does not specify whether Arthur and Medraut killed each other, fought against each other, or even knew each other. There is no indication that Medraut is Arthur's son or that they were necessarily enemies. Thus, there is no real indication that the character of Mordred as he exists today was a part of the Arthurian consciousness in the 900's A. D. However, Richard White notes that a later version of the Annals states instead, "The battle of Camlann, in which the famous Arthur king of the British and Mordred his betrayer, fell by wounds inflicted by each other."2 He does not, unfortunately, date the later manuscript, nor is there any indication as to whether it was influenced by other subsequent tales of Arthur.

Interestingly, both references are predated by a Welsh reference to a character that, while having a name that bears no similarity to Mordred or its Welsh equivalent Medraut, shares some interesting features with the later Arthurian character. Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum, writes, "There is another wonder in the region called Ercing. It is a tomb near a brook that is called the Mound of Anir, for Anir is the man buried there. He was the son of Arthur the soldier, who killed him and buried him there." 3 While Arthur is not yet imagined to be slain by his son, he does appear to have killed a son in battle, setting the stage perhaps for Arthur to have been betrayed by his son.

Wilhelm also refers to another early Welsh text that has an interesting reference to Medrawd, an alternate spelling of Medraut (Mordred). Unfortunately, he does not date that text either, but it seems likely it came after all of the aforementioned texts but before Geoffrey of Monmouth's account due to the space in which he situates it and its content. It states, "Three Unbridled Ravagings of the Isle of Britain: The first of them, when Medrawd came to Arthur's court in Celli Wig in Cornwall; he left neither food nor drink in the court he did not consume, and he also pulled Gwenhwyfar [Guinevere] out of her chair of state, and then he struck a blow upon her. And the second Unbridled Ravaging, when Arthur came to Medrawd's court; he left neither food nor drink in either the court or the cantref [district]."4 This begins to establish Mordred as offending Arthur through Guinevere, something picked up on and expanded on by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first great narrative of Arthur's life.

It is really Geoffrey that establishes Mordred as the primary villain of the Arthurian saga. Rather than Arthur's son, however, Mordred is his nephew in Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain. In the supposed history, Arthur dies in battle against Mordred after he returns home from Europe because he hears of an affair between Mordred and Guinevere. Loomis writes,

"When Arthur is about to move against Rome, to establish the principle that Britain is not obliged to pay tribute to the emperor, word comes to him that he has been betrayed, primal bonds of feudal loyalty have been broken: his nephew Modred has joined Guinevere in adulterous love and has usurped Arthur's crown. Arthur returns to Britain to engage in a civil war that culminates in his being mortally wounded."5

The notion of Arthur's end being at the hands of his own son conceived in incest with his sister Morgause, is not proposed until Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, in which Malory writes, "And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death-wound, he thrust himself with the might that he had up to the bur [hand-guard] of King Arthur's spear. And right so he smote his father Arthur…"6 It Malory that created the notion of Arthur's unknowing sin finally bringing about his downfall.

However, the notion of sin causing Arthur's fall can be traced back to Geoffrey's account. In that sense, it is not Arthur's own sin, but the sin of his father Uther with Ygerne that is the demise of the great king. Indeed there are many parallels between the undoing of Arthur and the circumstances of the death of the Duke, Ygerne's previous husband. Even in Malory's account, this sin may be just as significant or even more than Arthur's, for it is the sin and deceptions of the father that make possible Arthur's incestuous encounter in his youth. Uther's conception of Arthur in this sense is a single act which predestines all that is to come. Whether or not this is indeed the case, Mordred is an evolved character, and at least in part an amalgamation. Older legends of Arthur and Medraut falling on the battle field and Arthur killing his son Anir eventually appear to have combined and eventually refined into the character of Mordred.

 

Notes

1. James J. Wilhelm, "Arthur in the Latin Chronicles," in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of 
Medieval Texts in Translation, James J. Wilhelm, ed.  (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), 6.

 2. Richard White, ed.,King Arthur in Legend and History (New York: Rutledge, 1998), 6.
  
3. Wilhelm, 5.

4. John K. Bollard,  "Arthur in the Early Welsh Tradition," in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of 
Medieval Texts in Translation, James J. Wilhelm, ed.  (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), 22.

  5.Richard M. Loomis, "Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth," in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of 
Medieval  Texts in Translation, James J. Wilhelm, ed.  (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), 61.
  
6. James J. Wilhelm, "Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte Darthur," in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval 
Texts in Translation, James J. Wilhelm, ed.  (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), 566.

 

Bibliography

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Kennedy, Edward Donald. "Morte Arthur: The Adaption of a French Romance for an English 
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