Deciphering Mordred: The Enigma at the Heart of Arthurian Legend
In the vast realm of Arthurian legend, few characters evoke as much intrigue and controversy as Mordred. Described as the treacherous nephew of King Arthur, Mordred's role in the Arthurian saga is shrouded in mystery and myth. For ages, this character has been extensively studied by scholars and historians alike, as they tried to penetrate that prevailing mystery. Together, we will embark on a quest to decipher the enigma of Mordred by delving into the dichotomy between the legend and the historical context. Can we untangle the threads of myth and reality that surround this complex figure?
Mordred - in Myth and History
Mordred, in the traditional Arthurian narrative, is portrayed as a traitorous character. He is often depicted as the illegitimate son of King Arthur, a result of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Morgause. It is Mordred who ultimately precipitates the downfall of the Arthurian kingdom by rebelling against his uncle and initiating the catastrophic Battle of Camlann. In this battle, both Arthur and Mordred meet their tragic ends, symbolizing the end of an era.
Sculpture of Mordred - knight of the Round Table, one of the main negative characters in the legends about King Arthur. Russia, Samara region. (tramp51/Adobe Stock)
To better understand Mordred's place in the Arthurian legend, it is crucial to examine the historical context in which these myths were created. The Arthurian legend itself is believed to be a blend of myth and history, making it challenging to discern where fact ends and fiction begins. Moreover, the lack of concrete historical evidence for the existence of King Arthur and Mordred only deepens the mystery.
Numerous theories have emerged in an attempt to uncover the historical origins of Mordred. Some historians suggest that Mordred may have been based on a real historical figure who opposed King Arthur, representing a rival faction in post-Roman Britain. However, concrete evidence to substantiate such claims remains elusive. While archaeological findings and ancient texts occasionally provide intriguing clues, they fall short of confirming Mordred's existence as a historical figure. What are some potential clues in favor of the historicity of Mordred?
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Painting of the battle between King Arthur and Mordred by William Hatherell. (Public Domain)
Historical Detective Work
The earliest surviving mention of Mordred, who was also known as Mordredus or Medraut, is found in the 12th century AD work Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales), which are themselves a copy of a 10th century AD work. The mention of Mordred is found in the entry for the year 537 AD, where he is associated with the Battle of Camlann. The passage simply says:
Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
"The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell."
While this simple passage does not reveal much, further evidence can be discovered in the so-called “Welsh Triads”, a group of related medieval manuscript texts. They provide significant clues related to the Battle of Camlann and the events that led to it - events in which Mordred was a key figure. Triad 51, for example, tells us how Medrawd (Welsh for Mordred) rebels against King Arthur while the latter is campaigning on the continent and thus he usurps the throne. Ultimately, these actions lead to the fateful battle.
Further on, Triad 53 mentions a peculiar incident - a slap which Gwenhwyvach gave to her sister Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), wife of King Arthur. Seemingly, this was a shocking event that evolved into a great feud, and is named as one of the "Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain", also leading to the Battle of Camlann.
Gwenhwyvach slaps her sister Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), King Arthur´s wife. This slap was recorded in the Bardic Triads as one of the Three Fatal Slaps, F. H. Townsend's illustration from The Misfortunes of Elphin (1897) (Public domain)
Furthermore, Camlann is called one of Britain's "Three Futile Battles". That this was a serious feud is further documented in Triad 54, which describes Mordred raiding Arthur's court, throwing Guinevere (King’s wife) to the ground and beating her. All of this clearly indicates that - if they were historic figures - both Arthur and Mordred descended into a bitter feud which ultimately tore apart the Post-Roman British realm. There is a possibility that the feud began with a slap (an insult), and led to Mordred usurping the throne and beginning a civil war.
The Ages Shape History into Myth
Time has a way of distorting real events and historical figures. What was once a major event that shocked the world, is today a hazy myth soaked in legends. The same goes for the Arthurian stories. Mordred's character, for example, has undergone significant transformations in literature over the centuries. Authors and scholars have offered diverse interpretations, showcasing his complex nature. From the traditional villain to more nuanced portrayals, Mordred's evolution reflects the evolving perceptions of heroism and villainy in society. Ultimately, we cannot know if he was a villain for real, or if he was simply invented to complete the gaps in the history of Post-Roman Britain.
Sir Mordred — The Last Battle", from The Book of Romance, edited by Andrew Lang. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1902. (Public Domain)
Nevertheless, Mordred's presence extends far beyond medieval texts. He has become a staple in modern media, appearing in movies, TV shows, and books as a key figure in the Arthurian legend as a whole. These interpretations often draw inspiration from both the traditional Arthurian myths and the evolving literary interpretations. Mordred's character continues to captivate audiences, showcasing the enduring fascination with Arthurian legend. Still, he remains portrayed as a dark villain, clearly set on the furthest end of the light/dark dichotomy.
But either way, Mordred remains an enigmatic and multifaceted character. The question of whether myth matches reality when it comes to Mordred may never find a definitive answer. The ambiguity surrounding Mordred's historical existence adds to the allure of the Arthurian saga. As we explore the boundaries between myth and reality in history, we are reminded that some mysteries are destined to remain unsolved. Such is the way with ancient history - the passing of time simply has a way of burying the true facts so deep, that they may never be recovered.
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Myth Remains Myth
The enduring appeal of the Arthurian legend, with characters like Mordred at its heart, underscores the timeless nature of myth and storytelling. While we may never unearth the true identity of Mordred in the annals of history, his storied legacy endures in the narratives that continue to captivate our imaginations. Perhaps it is in the realm of myth that Mordred truly finds his place and meaning - as a symbol of the eternal struggle between heroism and betrayal that resonates through the ages. What truly happened, however, remains one of the greatest historical mysteries of our age.
Top image: A young knight illustration, representative of Mordred. Source: warmtail/Adobe Stock
Bromwich, R.l. 2006. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University of Wales Press.
Lacy, N. J. 2010. Lancelot-Grail: The death of Arthur. Boydell & Brewer.
Wolfson, E. 2014. Mythology of King Arthur and His Knights. Enslow Publishing, LLC.