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.

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


Author: Calmgrove

Book review blogger and piano accompanist

7 thoughts on “Something rotten”

  1. I still hate Mordred 😉 He might be a victim of circumstance, his similarity to Hamlet more than just passing, and yet he signals the doom of the Arthurian rule, spelling an end of a mythical golden age. I wonder how close this archetypal figure could be linked to the Olympic gods and their fight with Titans… A good food for thought here – thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! Yes, he’s definitely a villain we love to hate, though I know there’ve been revisionist novels which paint him as a tragic figure, the victim of circumstances. Maybe it’s a bit like fake news: depends on who’s doing the telling, what ‘facts’ or assertions they choose to include or omit and what audience they’re addressing. Anyway, glad you found this stimulating!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Are you familiar with the short story, “King of Shreds and Patches”, by P. N Elrod ? It is narrated by Claudius. He describes his efforts to deduce who killed his brother, King Hamlet. Nothing is changed from Shakespeare’s account, except for the revelation of the identity of the murderer.
    What is your take on the two Guineveres theory ? It alters the dynamics of the relationships between Arthur, Lancelot, and Mordred.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I’d not heard of it before, but — needless to say — I’m intrigued … by the intrigue!

      Tell me what you mean by the two Guineveres theory, Joseph. The Welsh tradition has two Gwens: Gwenhwyfar and Gwenhwyfach or Big Gwens and Little Gwen, but I don’t think that’s what you’re thinking of. Medieval romances have so many different takes on stories, especially in the French repertoire, that I’d need to have a particular reference. If Malory, then I have to say it’s so long since I immersed myself in the shallows of the Morte that I can’t recall him treating this episode.


      1. The short story appears in an anthology edited by Denise Little, Rotten Relations. The stories feature “questionable branches of ” family trees featured fantasy, fable, and other genres. Picked it up in a bargain book rack at the local grocery store.

        The story hinges on the idea that Claudius was a scholar, more suited to a life of study than to kingship. The irony is that he is knowledgeable in poisons, and is both best suited to solving the crime & being the main suspect. The truth rests in discovering the tragic motivation for the crime.

        I do not have the range of background in Arthurian lore that you possess. I came across a reference, can not place the source, years ago, that there were two ladies named Guinevere connected to Arthur’s life and over time narratives blended the older with the younger into one individual, Unfortunately that is all I’ve got on that theory, so I do not know if it is a well researched opinion or someone blowing it out of his castle turret. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The Wikipedia entry conveniently summarises what we know of the earliest lore concerning Guinevere, in the section marked Origins …

        You’ll see from here that the Welsh Triads have three wives for Arthur with the same name, though whether serially or concurrently is not clear. It also mentions the Gwenhwyfar and Gwenhwyfach tradition.

        On consideration, I think you may also have imbibed the Glastonbury tradition that has Arthur buried there ‘with Guinevere his second wife’, according to an anecdote from the 12th century. This of course doesn’t imply both wives had the same name!

        I do like the plot of the story you outline; though it’s unlikely I’ll get to acquire this collection, you never know, and I’ll certainly know to look out for it, thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for the info. I do recall something about the burial of the second wife. The multiple wives reminds me of the Bob Newart Show. – “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl!”

        Liked by 1 person

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