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.
Hamlet is founded on paradoxes, as Hamlet tells his mother Gertrude:
You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,
And would it were not so, you are my mother.
He calls his uncle Claudius his “dear Mother”:
Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so, my mother.
Celtic thinking too is full of such paradoxes. The usual tradition is that Mordred’s mother is Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, and by Malory’s time Mordred is the bastard son of Arthur, who has committed both adultery and incest with his step-sister, Queen Margause. Thus Mordred is both Arthur’s son and step-nephew, while Hamlet is Claudius’ stepson and nephew.
Amleth and Medraut may well have been historical but the stories they are involved in are patently archetypal, and not in the generalised sense of the rise and fall of dynasties. It’s been suggested that this tale of revenge, familiar in European tradition (as in the Greek story of Orestes), was carried to Scandinavia from Ireland and written down in the 12th century, and again in the 13th by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus; however, there are also other analogues, such as Livy’s tale of an ancestor of Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins.
Of Mordred’s origins we know little. In the earlier Welsh traditions he is not even obviously a villain. When we come to Malory we learn of Arthur commanding that all babes of noble birth born on May Day (conceived therefore at Lammastide) were to be set adrift in an unmanned vessel to founder. But Mordred survives, as does the adult Hamlet sent to sea to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be executed by England’s king, but turning the tables on his former friends and escaping in a pirate ship.
Mordred’s black name is relatively recent, perhaps partly by the similarity of his name with ‘murder’. There is in Welsh tradition a certain Medr (whose name means marksman) who might put us in mind of Amleth, who killed his enemies with sharpened staves. In Irish tradition we are reminded of Mider who, like the British hero Tristan, abducts the reigning king’s wife. None of these are villains, and in the Scottish John of Fordun’s account Mordred is even a legitimate claimant to the throne, and it is Arthur who is the bastard usurper.
If there is no clearcut answer to the questions of Hamlet-Mordred’s moral position, then the question must be of a different order. A clue may be found in Tennyson, at present an unfashionable poet but for all that one whose comments may still be valid. In The Passing of Arthur we read
And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new …’
That the order is not just a mundane knightly order is confirmed by Sir Bedivere:
‘But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world.’
The authors of Hamlet’s Mill assert that “Myth is essentially cosmological.” We may, if we like, agree in interpreting myths like the overthrow of the Round Table order by Mordred’s machinations as symbolic of new world orders initiated by precession of the equinoxes.
Or we may, instead, look to lesser but no less vital cycles. Henry Treece’s The Green Man brings the Dark Age figures of Amleth and Arthur together in a kind of mythic history, which he explains in a more down-to-earth manner in the preface to his novel:
All myth, most legend, and much of history follow the archetypal pattern of the seeding, burgeoning, dying year. Sometimes this pattern seems to be a coarse one; but it is one which we know to be real.
So, the “something rotten in the state”, which Hamlet’s friend took to be the prevailing power, and from which mischief-maker Mordred’s point of view was his father-uncle Arthur’s regime, might be regarded as the necessary decay which precedes death and resurrection.
Which, perhaps, is what the Once and Future King is all about.
Thomas Malory. Morte d’Arthur. Edited by Eugène Vinaver (1947)
Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet’s Mill (1969)
Henry Treece. The Green Man (1966)
• Originally published as ‘Mordred: or something rotten in the state!’ in 1978 in Vol XI No 3 of the Journal of the Pendragon Society and then republished in Pendragon Jubilee Anthology (Vol XXXVI Nos 3-4) in 2010. This third outing (slightly edited for inaccuracies and infelicities) is another examination of how archetypes can determine aspects of the Arthurian legend