Arthurian Legend 201

Miss Evelina has her chalk board (do they even still make those?)  and textbook ready to go, so your course in the basics of Arthurian legend is back in session. Is everyone present and accounted for? Amberr, Tyler, Daya, Courtney, Chris, I know you’re here. Bueller? Bueller? (Come on, you know I had to say it.) Good. Before we take a look at some of those crazy kids who populate Arthurian legend in secondary roles, why don’t you take a minute to refresh yourself on the main characters, so we’re all on the same page.

So now that you know the basics, here are five characters you may not know as much about:

1. Mordred – If you know anything about Arthurian legend, chances are good just the mention of his name makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Mordred is sometimes Arthur’s nephew (via his sister Anna and King Lot), but usually his son, most commonly by his sister Morgan (those medieval writers really did like incest). Usually, Mordred grows up ignorant of his paternity, only to be acknowledged by Arthur around the time he becomes a man. Mordred is the ultimate traitor, being one of two responsible for exposing Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair (the other being Agravain). Once they are shamed and Arthur is distracted, Mordred makes his own bid for the throne (sometimes kidnapping/marrying Guinevere and allying with the Saxons in the process), bringing on the battle of Camlann, where he and Arthur are both fatally wounded.

2. Elaine – There are actually several Elaines in Arthurian legend, but two seem to be the most common. One is the daughter of Pelles, who is sometimes represented as the Fisher King. She used magic to trick Lancelot into thinking he was sleeping with Guinevere, instead of her, and thus conceived Galahad. The other is the daughter of Bernard of Astolat. She fell in love with Lancelot, who wore her token during a joust. She died for love of him and was found in a boat on the river near Camelot. She is Tennyson’s famous Lady of Shalott. For simplicity’s sake (and because its WAY more fun), I’ve combined the two in my books. She’s a character I love to hate. You’ll see why.

3. Viviane/Nimue – This character, by whatever name she is called, is usually identified with the Lady of the Lake. She is a powerful sorceress who catches the eye of Merlin, who, in his obsessive love for her, teaches her everything he knows. She then betrays him by using his magic against him to kill or imprison him (in a tower, cave, oak tree, depending on the source) where she can visit him, but from which he cannot escape. I have treated these two as separate characters in my books, with very different personalities and ambitions.

4. and 5. Isolde and Tristan – It’s difficult to tell the story of one without the other, so I’m going to tell them together.  Isolde (also called Iseult) is the daughter of the king (or queen) of Ireland. King Mark of Cornwall falls in love with her and sends his nephew, Tristan, to bring her back for their wedding. On the journey back to England, Tristan and Isolde unwittingly drink a love potion meant for Isolde and Mark, and become lovers. In some versions, she marries Mark anyway, but in others, her maid stands in for her at the wedding so that she and Mark are never truly wed. Isolde and Tristan carry on an affair for years until Mark finally finds out. He tries to kill Isolde in a number of preposterous ways (beheading her, drowning her, throwing her into a leper colony) but each time, Tristan saves her. Eventually, Tristan goes into exile in Brittany (sometimes voluntarily) and weds another woman named Isolde (of the White Hands). Tristan is fatally wounded and the Irish Isolde is sent for (because of her skill in healing) under the agreement that if she is aboard, the ship will have white sails, if not, black. The Breton Isolde, jealous of her Irish counterpart, tells Tristan the ship has black sails and he dies of a broken heart. When the Irish Isolde arrives and finds him dead, she either dies of a broken heart or commits suicide. (Romeo and Juliet, anyone?) The plot involves more, but that’s the short version.

Some say the legend of Tristan and Isolde was tacked on to Arthurian stories late in the game, but I treat them as interwoven for a reason. You’ll meet Isolde in books 1 and 2 and she’ll get a chance to tell her side of the story in book 4.

Someday we’ll look at the Knights of the Round Table as well, but this is enough for one day. Class dismissed!  If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.  If you want to know more, I recommend The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legend by Ronan Coghlan.

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4 thoughts on “Arthurian Legend 201

  1. I hope there won’t be a test on all this later! (Well, you did take attendance, after all. LOL)

    I think I may have to get my hands on a copy of that encyclopedia someday. Every time I think I know each of the characters, I find out something new. (But that’s probably because there are so many different versions of Arthur’s life and about those of the people surrounding him.)

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