I have a paper due tonight, 3000-4000 words. I started writing it yesterday, which is the absolute earliest I could find time to sit my butt down and start writing. It is no reflection on the calibre of my instructor, the course, or the institution, though, which are all excellent.
Once upon a time in literature, a boy pulled a sword from a stone and Arthurian literature was born. However, there is no one genesis of the Arthur legend. Correspondingly, various changes take place throughout the canon, from the way the knights’ armour looks to the way the characters themselves are portrayed. A character who has undergone a great deal of change over time is Mordred. From various medieval texts to J.R.R. Tolkien’s interpretation, Mordred’s competence, approach to leadership, and relationship with Gwenhwyfar are woven together to create a highly complex, often misunderstood character.
Mordred’s complexity begins with the Vulgate Mort Artu, a medieval French cycle of texts. In these texts, Mordred is first identified as the incestuous product of a relationship between Arthur and his half-sister, sometimes identified as Morgause or less often as Morgan le Fay (Lacy). Prior to that, medieval Welsh texts were “generally favorable to Mordred, whose name (as Medraut) appears almost as early as does that of Arthur” (Lacy 328). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain is the first to identify Mordred as Arthur’s nephew by his sister Anna, and as the brother of Gawain. Monmouth may have influenced other medieval texts and was among the first medieval texts to imply that Arthur and Mordred were opponents at the Battle of Camlann after Mordred had attempted to seize Arthur’s throne as well as his queen. Clearly, Mordred’s origins lend complexity to an already fraught character.
The Alliterative Morte Arthure portrays Mordred as a man who is complicated, sympathetic, and even remorseful. In this text, he is a competent steward whom Arthur appoints to run the kingdom in his absence. Arthur announces to the council, “I set you here a soveraign, assent yif you likes,/ That is my sib, my sister son; Sir Mordred himselven/ Shall be my leutenant, with lordshippes ynow/ Of all my lele lege-men that my landes yemes” (Alliterative ll. 644-647). Arthur is telling his men who will be in charge of his kingdom while they are away, as is his right as king. He then proceeds to run down a long list of duties for Mordred to perform in his role as steward. This shows to Mordred and everyone else that Arthur believes Mordred is perfectly capable of performing all these tasks and more. The confidence Arthur shows in Mordred highlights the fact that Mordred was already likely in high esteem, not only with Arthur himself, but with the rest of the Knights of the Round Table. If he had not been, it seems unlikely that Arthur would have advanced him to the vital role of steward during his absence. There was no question that Mordred would be accepted by the other men as a stand-in for Arthur himself, able to wield kingly authority with grace and justice. Mordred himself wishes not to be chosen, saying, “I beseek you, sir, as my sib lord,/ That ye will for charitee chese you another” (Alliterative ll. 681-682). He goes on to say that he doesn’t have the skill to carry out the duties of a great lord. He feels more at ease as a knight than he does managing kingdom and has always planned to go with Arthur and his other knights (Alliterative ll. 683-688). In saying this, Mordred reveals a thoughtful and humble nature as well as taking his role within the king’s household very seriously; he is acknowledging his limits. Yet when Arthur refuses his request to go to battle with the other knights, Mordred appears to accept his duties as steward. He acquiesces to the command of his liege lord and protests no further, a dutiful and obedient vassal.
The portrayal of Mordred in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur is more complex. Whereas the Alliterative initially depicts him as thoughtful and even humble, the first mention of Mordred in the Stanzaic implies that he is a person who likes to cause trouble. The narrator calls him “Mordred, that mikel couthe of wrake” (Stanzaic l. 1675), saying he knows much of trouble-making. The other knights seem oblivious to this aspect of Mordred’s nature at this point, though, and the narrator is left, unchecked, to sow suspicion and mistrust in the mind of the reader with regard to Mordred. Throughout the narrative, Mordred is described in various ways as trouble-making, though the men around him remain unaware of his duplicitous nature. In fact, when Arthur and the men are later preparing to go to war, Arthur asks his council to nominate a knight as England’s steward and to a man they select Mordred:
The knightes answerd, withoute lees,
And said, for sooth, that so them thought
That Sir Mordred the sekerest was
Though men the reme throughoute sought,
To save the reme in trews and pees.
Was a book before him brought;
Sir Mordred they to steward chese;
That many a bold sithen abought. (Stanzaic l. 2516-2523)
The knights elect Mordred as steward here rather than Arthur appointing him. This is a major difference because in the Alliterative, while the men could have protested if they felt Mordred was unfit, the choice to name him as steward was still Arthur’s and his decision would have been final. In the Stanzaic, the knights themselves were responsible for Mordred’s rise to power. In a sense, they are the reason Arthur loses Britain; in the Alliterative, Arthur himself is the cause. The Stanzaic removes a bit of the agency from Arthur by having the knights place Mordred as steward.
Tolkien’s interpretation of Mordred, however, is entirely villainous right from the outset. Mordred’s first introduction in The Fall of Arthur depicts him in disturbing terms: “…with malice Mordred his mind hardened,/ saying that war was wisdom and waiting folly” (Tolkien 18). This line is striking for its proto-Orwellian double-speak and latent malevolence. The sinister tone ratchets up when Mordred puts himself forward to Arthur as England’s steward and praises himself: “And Britain the blessed, thy broad kingdom,/ I will hold unharmed till thy home-coming./ Faithful hast thou found me” (18). From here, Arthur’s knights praise him, too, and the text goes so far as to specify that Gawain, Arthur’s best knight, does not suspect “guile or treason in this bold counsel” (18). This short scene sets the stage for Mordred’s later treachery as well as highlights his inherently devious nature. More importantly, it allows Mordred to remove all of Arthur’s agency in ruling his kingdom without him even noticing, and in full view of the Knights of the Round Table.
Agency opens the question of ruling and different approaches to kingship in the texts as well. The various texts differ greatly in their approach to Mordred’s leadership. The Alliterative gives a short description of Mordred’s actions when he takes Britain’s throne. It states how he divides the realm; destroys cities; hires mercenaries, outlaws, Picts, and pagans to his cause; and now has an army under his command (Alliterative, ll. 3525-3535). To this point, Mordred’s actions, treason aside, seem sound for raising an army and preparing for a war or uprising. The treason is always debatable, depending on whether Arthur’s reign was legitimate to begin with. However, the next lines reveal Mordred’s evil nature in this narrative:
They rob thy religious and ravish thy nunnes
And redy rides with his rout to ransoun the poor…
But yet a word, witterly, thou wot not the worst!
He has wedded Waynor and her his wife holdes,
And has wrought her with child, as witness telles! (Alliterative ll. 3539-3540, 3549-3552)
Mordred and his army, at this point, are acting without honor, for they are raping nuns and robbing the poor, the people a genuine king would be sworn to protect. However, a layer of complication is added with Gwenhwyfar’s apparent pregnancy by Mordred. After years of childless marriage to Arthur, a pregnancy so soon after her marriage to Mordred would imply that Mordred’s claim to the throne is perhaps legitimate through the laws of sacral kingship. Mordred may not be acting as an ideal king would, but it is entirely possible that the narrator is implying he is, in fact, the true king.
Mordred’s right to rule is somewhat upheld later in the Alliterative when his attitude changes into something more becoming of a king. In battle, he marshalls his troops admirably and they fight with honor. The true test of Mordred’s mettle comes when he, apparently through sheer luck, kills Gawain, and Mordred seems genuinely bereft by his former comrade’s death. He gives Gawain a moving battlefield eulogy, proclaiming him to be
makless on molde…
… the gladdest of other,
And the graciouest gome that under God lived,
Man hardiest of hand, happiest in armes,
And the hendest in hall under heven-rich,
And the lordliest in leding whiles he live might,
… Had thou knowen him…
Thou wolde have dole for his dede the dayes of thy life. (Alliterative, ll. 3875-3885)
Even more tellingly, Mordred then turns away from the comrade who had asked him about Gawain and weeps, bitterly regretting the actions that have brought him to this point, calling it fate that drew him away from his kinship and into treason against Arthur. This is the turning point in the Alliterative for Mordred’s kingship. Had he simply mourned Gawain’s death as the passing of a former friend and a worthy opponent, Mordred’s claim to the throne could potentially have continued uncontested. However, “he romed and repent him of all his rewth workes” (Alliterative, l. 3894), effectively divesting himself of any right to kingship. He abandons his leadership at that point, even as he prepares to face Arthur in battle one last time. Mordred’s right to the throne is utterly severed when, after his death, Arthur commands his men to find and kill any of Mordred’s children so that “no wicked weed [will] wax ne writhe on this erthe” (Alliterative, l. 4322). Arthur has ensured that, even though Mordred is dead, none of his children can return to lay claim to the throne in the future. Mordred’s kingship, once potentially legitimate, is now at an end.
The Stanzaic text portrays Mordred as a false king from the start, particularly once Arthur and the knights learn of his treachery. In the Stanzaic, Mordred claimed the throne not through political and battle prowess, as he did in the Alliterative, but through lying. He sent letters to Arthur’s vassals, telling them Arthur had been killed in battle and that they must choose a new king: “False lettres he made be wrought,/ …That Arthur was to grounde brought/ And chese they moste another king” (Stanzaic, ll. 2970-2973). The text goes on to say that the people choose Mordred because Arthur always loved battling and pursuing his own interests more than anything and it is unsurprising that he came to such an end. The obvious implication Mordred is making is that Arthur is unfit to be king since he abandoned his people to go gallivanting across Europe on his own pursuits while Mordred himself responsibly stayed behind to look after the kingdom.
Very soon after, though, Mordred reveals himself to be an unfit king, both through his treatment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he threatens to have drawn and quartered, but also in the way he commands his troops in battle against Arthur. By now, the world realizes that Mordred is devious, and Arthur is described as fighting “with herte good;/ A nobler knight was never none./ Through helmes into hede it yode/ And sterred knightes both blood and bone” (Stanzaic, ll. 3106-3109). He is brave and bold, stirring his men into greater valor. Mordred, on the other hand, is depicted as nearly out of his mind with fury and lacking skill at motivational speeches: “Mordred for wrath was nighe wode,/ Called his folk and said to them one:/ ‘Releve you, for Cross on Rood!/ Alas! This day so soon is gone!’” (Stanzaic, ll. 3110-3113). Mordred’s inability to muster his troops’ courage the way Arthur can is a symptom of his failing kingship, which is further underscored by his behavior after Gawain’s death. Whereas in the Alliterative, Mordred regrets Gawain’s death and mourns his loss, in the Stanzaic, Mordred refuses to heed Arthur’s formal request to halt battle for a month to mourn for Gawain. Arthur’s emissary asks, “A monthe-day to stint this stour,/ For His love that died on Rood” (Stanzaic, ll. 3246-3247). By invoking the name of Christ, the request to cease battle takes on religious significance; Mordred’s refusal to acquiesce to the request implies that not only is he in the wrong regarding his kingship of England, but he is also fallen from God’s grace. At this point in the narrative, there is no hope of redemption for Mordred.
Tolkien’s account of Mordred’s kingship is interesting. The Battle of Camlann is not exactly included in this text. Rather, there is an epic sea battle between Arthur and Mordred’s forces preceding what would certainly be the iconic Battle of Camlann. However, it provides enough material to give a glimpse of Mordred’s kingship and leadership of his troops, and they are formidable indeed. Mordred, in this narrative, appears to be a highly competent king and administrator. When Arthur learns that Mordred has seized the crown, the first bit of information he receives is that Mordred made alliances with Arthur’s enemies, a shrewd political move (Tolkien 23). Later, when word comes that Arthur is returning to England to reclaim his throne, Mordred is depicted as making plans and preparing for battle:
Watchmen he posted
by the sea’s margin in the south-country,
by night and day the narrow waters
from the hills to heed. There on high raised he
builded beacons that should blaze with fire,
if Arthur came, to his aid calling
his men to muster where he most needed.
This he watched and waited and the wind studied. (47)
He has proven himself, in this regard, to be a well-prepared king, ready to defend what he sees as his kingdom from an invading force. Whether he is the king or not, Mordred is taking all the correct steps that a good king should do in these circumstances. Later, Mordred is thinking about politics and wondering if the Queen sent word to Lancelot (49). He is trying to factor in all the elements that could impact the upcoming battle, again as a good leader should. He is worried but not fearful about the coming conflict; he is not a coward. These actions, taken together, create an image of a good, competent leader who is very aware of his duties. Tolkien’s Mordred takes his role as king very seriously and lends gravitas to the idea that kingship is sacred. In true Tolkien fashion, Mordred is a very worthy adversary for Arthur, which, if this poem had been completed, makes Arthur’s eventual victory all the more righteous and reinforces the notion that he, not Mordred, is the true king of England.
Aside from his seizing of the throne, Mordred is most famous for his relationship with Gwenhwyfar. Indeed, in some narratives, his relationship with her is possibly the driving motive for him taking the crown in the first place. In the Alliterative, the relationship between the two is actually barely described. This is in line with the chronicle-like tone of the text. It states merely that Mordred “has wedded Waynor and her his wife holdes,/ And wonnes in the wild boundes of the west marches,/ And has wrought her with child…” (Alliterative, ll. 3550-3552). Little more is said about it than that. However, much can be inferenced with these few words. As mentioned previously, the idea of sacral kingship comes heavily into play here. One of the king’s duties is to sire children, preferably male ones, to ensure the line of succession. For Mordred to have gotten a child on Gwenhwyfar so quickly implies that his right to the throne is not without merit, especially considering that she had previously been childless with Arthur. Additionally, though it was not a very common practice, bride abduction and forced marriage was sometimes a way for a family to attain greater lands or wealth by marrying an heiress. A famous example is that of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was almost abducted before marrying Henry of Anjou (later Henry II of England) (Mullally). There was precedent for bride abduction and forced marriage at the time the Alliterative was written, and it is possible that was Mordred’s sole intent in wedding Gwenhwyfar. Marrying her and getting her with child would strengthen his claim to the throne as surely as killing Arthur would, and medieval readers of the text would be aware of that.
The Stanzaic text shows a similar theme – Mordred will force Gwenhwyfar to marry him, thus strengthening his claim on the throne – yet there are nuances in this text which are missing from the Alliterative. Mordred has every intention of forcing the marriage, even threatening the Archbishop with drawing and quartering if he does not comply in blessing the marriage:
“A, nice clerk,” then Mordred said,
“Trowest thou to warn me of my will?
By Him that for us suffred pain,
These words shalt thou like full ill!
With wilde horse thou shalt be drayn
And hanged high upon a hill!” (Stanzaic, ll. 3010-3015)
Yet even as he threatens the Archbishop, Mordred seems to want Gwenhwyfar to come to him of her own accord. He planned a rich bridal feast for her and plans to hold their wedding in summer when the weather is nicest (Stanzaic, ll. 2985-2986). He grants her request to go to London so that she and her bridesmaids may get new gowns for the wedding (Stanzaic, ll. 2990-2993), an act of a man who seems to want his bride to be happy. If Mordred’s sole purpose in marrying her was to further secure the throne, it would make more sense for him to deny the request and take her immediately to a compliant priest to marry them right away. Instead, he does her a kindness, thinking that it would please her, not anticipating that she would trick him and barricade herself in the Tower of London rather than marry him. His actions toward her up to now speak of a man who cares for her and wants her to requite, to the point that he puts himself and his crown in jeopardy over her.
Tolkien’s narrative is, by far, the most poignant of the three with regard to Mordred and Gwenhwyfar’s relationship. When Arthur learns that Mordred has taken the throne for himself, no mention is made of him claiming the Queen. It is only later that Mordred reveals the depth of his feelings for her: “his heart returned/ to its long thraldom lust-tormented,/ to Guinever the golden with gleaming limbs, as fair and fell as fay-woman…/ Towers he might conquer,/ and thrones o’erthrow yet the thought quench not” (Tolkien 27). At this point, it is unclear if Mordred truly loves her or if he simply wishes to possess her like an object; regardless, having Gwenhwyfar as his own is obviously a driving motivation for why Mordred claims Arthur’s throne for himself. Even Mordred himself seems unsure of his own position in the matter, at times being a solicitous suitor and others, hunting her down like a trophy. When he first goes to her, Mordred acts very much the suitor who wants to win her heart. He says she has long had loveless and lordless days, barren and without life. But now, he says, “‘Nor less than queen/ with dimmed glory thy days revile/ though chances change – if thou choose aright./ A king courts thee his crown to share,/ his love offering and loyal service’” (31). Mordred is implying to her that she is childless because Arthur is unable, but if she chooses correctly and marries him, she will have love and life, i.e., children. He is toying with the idea of sacral kingship here, though it is subtle and he is allowing her to accept his proposal of her own accord. Mordred’s conflicted feelings become more apparent in the next few lines when, despite wanting Gwenhwyfar to come to him on her own, he clearly displays his power over her:
New tides are running in the narrow waters.
False or faithful, only fearless man
shall ride the rapids from ruin snatching
power and glory. I purpose so.
Thou at my side shall lie, slave or lady,
as thou wilt or wilt not, wife or captive.
This treasure take I, ere towers crumble,
and thrones are o’erturned, thirst first will I slake. (32)
Mordred, at this point, seems to view her merely as an object to be obtained or won, not as a woman he loves, and he appears to be enjoying the cat-and-mouse game. The idea that he is attempting to court her simply to strengthen his claim on the throne is given further credence when she, stalling for time, asks him to prove that he would retain the throne and stay by her side even if Arthur comes back to claim her. Mordred tells her, “‘What proof of power shall prisoner seek,/ captive of captor? Be I king or earl,/ ‘twixt bride and bond brief be the choosing’” (33). He is telling her not only that there is little difference between being a wife and being a prisoner, but that he has all the power in their relationship and they both know it. These are the actions of a man who views women as objects, mere pawns in his power-play. However, when thinking about the Queen and Lancelot, the text states, “Mordred in secret mirthless watched them/ betwixt hate and envy, hope and torment” (37). He was jealous of the love she gave freely to Lancelot, and that jealousy spurred Mordred to act as he did, taking the throne and attempting to force her into a marriage with him. After Gwenhwyfar escapes and Mordred’s men are hunting her like an animal to be trapped, he still waits with a sense of breathless hope that she will be returned to him. When his retainer, Ivor, tells him that they have lost her trail but that few people care about her and he should forget her and all other women and turn his mind to war, Mordred becomes enraged. “‘Begone!’ cried he./ ‘The master’s hour the master chooseth./ Nought thou knowest. At need failing/ from vain errand dost venture home/ with tongue untamed to teach Mordred/ thy fool’s counsel? Flee mine anger/ unto foul fortune. The fiend take thee!’” (48). Reading this passage simply as the tantrum of a man who has lost a possession he wanted would be very easy. However, doing so would be a disservice to the complex man portrayed in Tolkien’s work, and it would disregard the poignancy of the unrequited love Mordred undoubtedly felt.
Every villain has his redeeming qualities; every dragon has a soft spot. Even the least of the characters in Arthurian literature has hidden depths, and Mordred is not the least of the characters. In all the variations of Arthurian legend, from medieval texts to Tolkien’s own interpretations and even to 21st century feminist retellings, Mordred remains a character who is often maligned and misunderstood. And yet, it is the misunderstood character who often has the greatest depths of all.
Benson, Larry D., ed. King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, 1966.
Lacy, Norris J., ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.
Mullally, Evelyn. “The Reciprocal Loyalty of Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall.” Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 237-245.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Mariner Books, 2014.