Something rotten

Henry Irving as Hamlet: Edwin Longsden Long (1829-1891)

If the Morte d’Arthur was ever played on the Victorian stage we all know at whom we would have hissed. If Judas is the villain of the New Testament, who betrays his lord and causes the break-up of the fellowship of the Last Supper, then Mordred is clearly the villain in Malory who betrays his lord and causes the break-up of the fellowship of the Round Table. if Judas dies on a tree like his lord, Mordred dies by the sword like his lord too.

Let’s take a closer look at this well-known rotter! He’s the nephew of King Arthur, some say his illegitimate son; he covets the throne and the power. The picture drawn by Malory [in Book One of the Winchester manuscript] seems to be borne out by the earlier Welsh Triads in which Medrawd came to Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall: there he ‘left neither food nor drink but, worst of all, dragged Gwenhwyfar from the royal chair and struck her a blow’. This was one of the Three Unrestrained Ravagings of Britain; the second was when Arthur did tit-for-tat at Medrawd’s court.

If Mordred is black through and through he strangely reminds us of another Dark Age figure who is traditionally associated with black. This one too has claims on the throne, plots against the king through what he regards as the queen’s infidelity and would strike the queen (through someone does try to restrain him). He too is a prince, a nephew of a king, but also a king’s son; and he kills, and is killed by, the king. If this too sounds like melodrama, it is; it’s part of the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But the difference is this: Hamlet is the hero, but Mordred the villain.

One might raise objections, of course. The blood relationships, though ambiguously described above, are different. Hamlet was possibly an historical Danish prince called Amleth, Mordred [Medraut in the earliest form of the name] a character in British legend. Moreover, history is full of royal intrigues, and to say that Mordred is like Hamlet in this respect is not a very profound conclusion. In other words, the differences are greater than the superficial similarities.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment.

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Arthur-types

10C warrior burial sculpted in stone, Middleton, Yorkshire

Amateur historians often like to take traditional tales of semi- or pseudohistorical figures as sources for the details of their heroes’ biographies.

This is especially the case with King Arthur where legendary and folkloric tales are presented as evidence for this or that campaign or as proof that Arthur should be identified with a known historical personage.

In this essay I want to suggest that the exploits of legendary heroes in other contexts parallel some of those of Arthur’s, rendering them suspect as historical facts and thus no basis for concocting a presumed biography.


In his youth the hero does menial tasks, but displays great strength and courage despite his humble upbringing. He defends the honour of women, but his beloved is much abducted. He gains possession of a magnificent steed, and discovers an almost supernatural sword under a stone. After a lifetime of great feats with a band of followers he is mortally wounded by treachery, though his renown protects his people from harm.

Sounds familiar? Of course it does — you knew I was outlining the romance of ‘Antar (also known as ‘Antara), a folk hero from the Abs tribe of central Arabia, whose exploits also ranged across Iraq, Persia and Syria. He died at a great age in a raid around 600CE, but already by the 8th century stories of his life and deeds were being developed (Ranelagh 1979).

The point is surely this: here we have a folk-hero who flourished not long after King Arthur is alleged to have existed but who also shares some similarities with the British hero as described in Arthurian epic and saga. Is there a direct relationship between them? Before we tackle this question, it might be instructive to look at another near-contemporary hero, but from a little closer to home.

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Construct

Pendragonry will feature my musings on Arthurian matters from the late 1960s onwards, mostly in an amateur British magazine called Pendragon but also supplemented by commentary elsewhere and by my current thoughts.

Half a century and more of reflection on obsessions — mine and others — with ‘King Arthur’ have led me to the inevitable conclusion that Arthur, his Round Table and associated paraphernalia are all wonderful constructs, existing in as many different forms as there are individuals to consider them.

The Pendragon Society was originally founded in 1959 in Winchester, Hampshire,  with the following aims:

    1. To stimulate interest in King Arthur and his contemporaries.
    2. To investigate the history and archaeology of the Matter of Britain.
    3. To study the significance — past, present and future — of the Arthurian legends. (This further clause was added later, when the Society was based in Bristol.)

Until it was voluntarily dissolved in 2009 (its golden jubilee year) the Society’s main activities were focused on projects, principally early medieval archaeology — a hillfort, Roman villa and Early Christian church site — and contributions to Pendragon, its magazine-style journal. The journal included news, views and reviews as well as articles, often substantial. Its members, many from overseas, included authors, academics and artists among its ranks as well as amateurs. For much of its existence I was contributing editor.

Pendragonry therefore will include many of my contributions to the journal, with additional commentary where necessary. Of course it will, since it’ll represent my opinions, be very opinionated. I do welcome comments, even criticisms (because opinions can change!) but naturally only those conducted politely.