Mordred

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"Sir Mordred" (1902) by H. J. Ford

Mordred or Modred (/ˈmdrɛd/; Welsh: Medraut, Medrod, etc.) is a character in the Arthurian legend, known as a notorious traitor who fought King Arthur at the Battle of Camlann, where he was killed and Arthur fatally wounded. Tradition varies on his relationship to Arthur, but he is best known today as Arthur's illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgause, though in many modern adaptations Morgause is merged with the character of Morgan le Fay. In earlier literature, he was considered the legitimate son of Morgause, also known as Anna, with her husband King Lot of Orkney. His brothers or half-brothers are Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth. The name (from either Old Welsh Medraut, Cornish Modred, or Old Breton Modrot) is ultimately derived from Latin Moderātus.[1]

Historicity[edit]

The first surviving mention of Mordred (here called Medraut), occurs in the Annales Cambriae entry for the year 537:[2]

Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
"The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell."

The Annales themselves were completed between 960 and 970, though their authors drew on older material.[3] Mordred was associated with Camlann even at that early date, but as Leslie Alcock points out, this brief entry gives no information as to whether he killed or was killed by Arthur, or even if he was fighting against him; the reader assumes this in the light of later tradition.[4]

In Arthurian legend[edit]

The earliest full account of Mordred is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, where he, for the first time in literature, plays the role of traitor to Arthur. Geoffrey introduced the figure of Mordred (whom he calls Modredus) to the world beyond Wales, detailing that Arthur left Mordred in charge of his throne as he crossed the English Channel to wage war on Emperor Lucius of Rome. During Arthur's absence Mordred crowns himself king and marries Guinevere, forcing Arthur to return to Britain. The Battle of Camlann is fought, and Mordred dies while Arthur is taken to Avalon.

A number of Welsh sources also refer to Medraut, usually in relation to Camlann. One triad, based on Geoffrey's Historia, provides an account of his betrayal of Arthur;[5] in another, he is described as the author of one of the "Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Isle of Britain" – he came to Arthur's court at Kelliwic in Cornwall, devoured all of the food and drink, and even dragged Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) from her throne and beat her.[6] Medraut is never considered Arthur's son in Welsh texts, only his nephew, though The Dream of Rhonabwy mentions that the king had been his foster father. However, Mordred's later characterization as the king's villainous son has a precedent in the figure of Amr, a son of Arthur's known from only two references. The more important of these, found in an appendix to the Historia Britonum, describes his marvelous grave beside the Herefordshire spring where he had been slain by his own father in some unchronicled tragedy.[7][8] What connection exists between the stories of Amr and Mordred, if there is one, has never been satisfactorily explained.

In Geoffrey and certain other sources such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Mordred marries Guinevere, seemingly consensually, after he steals the throne. However, in later writings like the Lancelot-Grail Cycle and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is not treated as a traitor and she flees Mordred's proposal and hides in the Tower of London. Adultery is still tied to her role in these later romances, however, but Mordred has been replaced with Lancelot.

Two sons[edit]

Geoffrey and the Lancelot-Grail Cycle have Mordred being succeeded by his sons. Stories always number them as two, though they are usually not named, nor is their mother.

In Geoffrey's version, after the Battle of Camlann, Constantine is appointed Arthur's successor. However, Mordred's two sons and their Saxon allies rise against him.[9] He defeats them, and one of them flees to sanctuary in the Church of Amphibalus in Winchester while the other hides in a London friary.[10] Constantine tracks them down, and kills them before the altars in their respective hiding places.[10] This act invokes the vengeance of God, and three years later Constantine is killed by his nephew Aurelius Conanus.[10] Geoffrey's account of the episode may be based on Constantine's murder of two "royal youths" as mentioned by the 6th-century writer Gildas.[11]

The elder of Mordred's sons is named Melehan or some derivation in the Lancelot-Grail and Post-Vulgate Cycles. In these texts, Lancelot and his men return to Britain to dispatch Melehan and his brother after receiving a letter from the dying Gawain. In the ensuing battle Melehan slays Sir Lionel, son of King Bors the Elder and brother to Sir Bors the Younger. Bors kills him to avenge his brother's death, while Lancelot slays the unnamed younger brother.

In later works[edit]

Virtually everywhere Mordred appears, his name is synonymous with treachery. He appears in Dante's Inferno in the lowest circle of Hell, set apart for traitors: "him who, at one blow, had chest and shadow / shattered by Arthur's hand;"[12] (Canto XXXII).

A few works of the Middle Ages and today, however, portray Mordred as less a traitor and more a conflicted opportunist, or even a victim of fate. The 14th century Scottish chronicler John of Fordun even claimed that Mordred was the rightful heir to the throne of Britain, as Arthur was an illegitimate child (in his account, Mordred was the legitimate son of Lot and Anna.) This sentiment was elaborated upon by Walter Bower and by Hector Boece, who in his Historia Gentis Scotorum goes so far as to say Arthur and Gawain were traitors and villains who stole the throne from Mordred. Even Malory, who depicts Mordred as a villain, notes that the people of England rallied to him because, "with Arthur was none other life but war and strife, and with Sir Mordred was great joy and bliss".

Mordred is especially prominent in popular Arthurian texts of the modern era, especially in fiction, film, and television, and the comics medium.[13]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Cane, Meredith. Personal Names of Men in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany 400-1400 AD, University of Wales Ph.D. thesis, 2003, pp. 273-4.
  2. ^ Lupack, Alan (translator). "Arthurian References in the 'Annales Cambriae'. Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Retrieved December 1, 2006.
  3. ^ Ashe, Geoffrey (1991). "Annales Cambriae". In Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 8–9. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  4. ^ Alcock, Arthur's Britain, p. 88.
  5. ^ Triad 51. In Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein.
  6. ^ Triad 54. In Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein.
  7. ^ Nennius, Historia Brittonum, ch. 73. From Lupack, Alan (translator). "From the 'History of the Britons' ('Historia Brittonum') by Nennius. The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Retrieved December 1, 2006.
  8. ^ The Arthurian Handbook, p. 15; p. 277.
  9. ^ Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 11, ch. 3.
  10. ^ a b c Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 11, ch. 4.
  11. ^ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, ch. 28–29.
  12. ^ Inferno, Canto XXXII, lines 61–62, Mandelbaum translation.
  13. ^ Torregrossa, Michael A., “Will the ‘Reel’ Mordred Please Stand Up? Strategies for Representing Mordred in American and British Arthurian Film” in Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays (Rev. edn.), ed. Kevin J. Harty. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002 (pb. 2009), pp. 199-210.

References[edit]

External links[edit]