Friday, March 11, 2011

You know, I don't think I've really gone into detail about my interpretation of the story of King Arthur, Morgan le Fay, Lancelot and Guinevere. It's a little involved, so bear with me.

I've always thought there were some missing pieces to the King Arthur story.

Let's start with Arthur's kids. He doesn't have any. Not legitimate ones, at least. Guinevere never gives him any kids.

Now, I have lots of friends who don't have kids. But they also don't have kingdoms. In medieval times, for a king not to have an heir was terrifying. It was practically a guarantee of civil war. Uther Pendragon, for example, had no heir -- because Merlin takes Arthur away. After Uther dies, Britain collapses into anarchy.

And think what Henry VIII was willing to do in order to get a male heir. A devout Catholic (he earned his title Defender of the Faith) who loved his queen, he nonetheless divorced her and made England Protestant, all so he could marry Anne Boleyn, in the hopes of getting a son. You know the rest of the story: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

And yet Britain's legendary king has no legitimate heir by Guinevere and nobody says anything about it. Nobody urges Arthur to divorce her. No mention of prayers for the Queen to bear a son. They search for the Holy Grail for its own sake, not in the hopes that the Queen's barrenness will be lifted and the kingdom blessed with an heir.


The best reason I can think of, is that everyone is terribly embarrassed about it. I think they don't mention it because they know exactly why the king doesn't have an heir, and to talk about it would be to humiliate the King.

I think the King is either not sleeping with Guinevere, or he can't consummate their marriage.

And yet he clearly adores her. So what's up?

The way it makes sense to me, Arthur can't do it with Guinevere because he does not love her as a woman. He loves her as an ideal. She is his Queen, but she is not truly his wife. He adores her, the way millions of Catholics adore the Virgin Mary.

And that is why her affair with Lancelot goes on so long. Arthur has to know she's got the hots for Lance. And it's got to be obvious to everyone that Lance has the hots for her. But he can't blame them. After all, he's not being a proper husband to his wife.

That's why it's not till after years of what had to be an open secret that Gawain and his buddies nab Lancelot in flagrante delicto and the King is forced to deal with it.

So who does Arthur have the hots for?

Well, who does he actually have a child by? Morgan le Fay. She bears him a son, Mordred.

Now we get into the time in which Arthur lived. According to Geoffrey Ashe's DISCOVER OF KING ARTHUR and other books, the historical Arthur would have flourished around 500 AD. (That's why my novel is set then.) Britain is still Celtic, with a thin overlay of Roman civilization. Britain is partly Christian, but even Rome has only been officially Christian since 313 AD, so it's likely that many, many families still worship the old Celtic religion, and even more families worship Christ and the Celtic gods, just to be safe. (If you consider that there are still a few Zoroastrians in Persia, 1400 years after the Muslim conquest... old gods die hard.)

The people around Arthur would have had two ways of looking at him having a romance with his half-sister.

The Christians would have been appalled. Arthur is not only an adulterer, he's an incestuous adulterer? The thought is too hideous. They would have considered Mordred the bastard progeny of incest. No wonder they couldn't consider him an heir.

However, the followers of Lugos and Bellona Morigenos (known in Ireland as the Morrígan) would have not seen the problem. Marriages between brother and sister weren't unheard of, especially among the ruling class. (If you think that's odd, consider the Egyptian pharoahs, who almost always married their sister. Cleopatra married her brother before she married Caesar.)

The Celts also weren't quite so formal about marriage. If you were living with a woman, she was your woman.

So to the Celts, Mordred was the obvious heir to the throne. And thank Lugos there finally was one!

And Mordred would have felt entirely righteous when he came to court and demanded to be treated like the King's son that he was, and the heir that he ought to be. And Morgan le Fay would have felt entirely within her rights to support her son's demands.

Another King than Arthur would have simply ditched Guinevere as a barren failure and welcomed Mordred.

But Arthur is an idealist. And a purist. He has a vision of Camelot as a place of laws and honor and modesty and dignity and all those other good Christian ideals. He looks at the pagan Celtic world and sees bloody vendettas enshrined as glorious epic legend. He can see that Britain needs a single god in order to survive the barbarian Saxon onslaught.

And so he rejects Morgan, and Mordred. And calamity ensues.

From Morgan's side, the story is equally fraught. She loves Arthur as a lover, and as a brother. (I suspect she falls in love with him before she knows he's her brother. But once you've fallen in love, it's hard to put it away.) But she hates him as the offspring of her mother's rape and her father's murder. And she hates him as the man who denies their son his birthright. Which explains why she is both the woman who destroys him at the battle of Camlann, and one of the three Queens who comes to take him, mortally wounded, to Avalon, to be healed.

(Perhaps if he is the King Who Sleeps, she sleeps by his side?)

Okay, a caveat. I'm describing the legend as it is in my head. It has coalesced there out of historical research, and movies, and modern novels of King Arthur like The Once and Future King. There isn't an Official King Arthur Legend™. It's a coherent version of the story. But of course Marion Zimmer Bradley is entitled to her, very different, version.

The closest "original" canonical version is Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Of course that makes Arthur into a medieval Christian king, because Malory is writing in the Middle Ages about king from legendary times. In Malory, if I remember correctly, Arthur has three half-sisters. Morgause is the one who has the bastard by Arthur. Morgan le Fay is the sorceress. But I think we can all agree that one sister makes for a better story, can't we?

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