My latest project involves examining the ancient mythology behind King Arthur and his knights and subjects. 18th Wall Productions put forth an anthology call for stories about what happens in the aftermath of King Arthur’s death — “After Avalon”.
Can I tell you how tickled pink I am over this theme? Over the moon. Who hasn’t seen all the permutations of King Arthur and his adventures in one form of another? My earliest exposure was easily the Disney movie Sword in the Stone and paging through my mother’s musty tomes on Merlin and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
Nowadays we have a lot sexier, updated takes on the immortal myths, like the more recent BBC’s Merlin series and King Arthur with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.
When I sat down to think out the story idea, I realized I would have to go back to the source. But what was the source? That’s one of the ironies of culture. We retell these stories ad infinitum but there’s no definitive canon. After digging around, I hit on the figure that fired my inspiration: Mordred.
I fell down a rabbit hole attempting to get a handle on Mordred’s mythology and it turns out, things are not what they appear. Versions prior to Christen de Troyes (a writer who set down some of these early myths before Geoffrey of Monmouth picked up the thread much later) do not have a knight called Lancelot in them — because Mordred had taken his place as Guinevere’s forbidden lover.
In addition, these earlier variants called him “Medraut” and Medraut was not only Arthur’s illegitmate child, but a recognized son who was trusted enough to look after the throne while Arthur led his war compaign and went off to Rome. The scene was deliciously set — the lonely halls of an absent king with a complicated and conflicted figure sharing space with a powerful queen — what’s not to love? Mordred is no longer so black and white in this narrative, and it’s not enough to paint Mordred as a clean cut traitor. King Arthur could be seen in this light as a war-hungry lord who abandons others to the difficult work of diplomacy at home, exhausting the coffers with his endless campaigning.
What happened to this version of Medraut in the wake of Arthur’s death? What are the consequences for being responsible for that death, but also loving the one you killed?
Fast forward to the Victorian Age. The interesting thing about this period as industrialization ramped up was the presence of the Pre-Raphaelites, artists who looked back to the middle ages and incorporated those same myths and tales into their paintings, poetry, and crafts, and among them were Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Jane Burden, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and many, many others.
The Beguiling of Merlin represents a tumultuous period in Edward Burne-Jones’s life. Fresh from the culmination of an affair with his mistress Maria Zambaco, he painted her as Nimue, and painted himself as Merlin. I read somewhere, memory escapes me, that Oscar Wilde purchased a rare photo of this painting, and hung it in his rooms. There is certainly something magnetic in the composition of the painting. Burne-Jones was self-taught, and in some ways that shows — the placement of the figures seems from certain perspectives to be awkward, yet, I can’t imagine it improved upon. He started an earlier version, which was scrapped — and it’s this, the idea of a painting which for some reason did not survive.
This lost painting, the precursor to The Beguiling of Merlin we know now, became the focal point for Mordred’s presence in 19th century England, gathering together with William Morris and Edward “Ned” Burne-Jones at the Kelmscott house. How might Mordred’s presence have influenced them? How did Mordred survive for so long? What happened, how did we get here, and what does it all mean?
All these things became the prima materia which went into my story, “Mordred, Beguiled.”