Assessing the Problem
The “Eternal Triangle” gets its name from its reliable omnipresence as a romantic trope. Two men love the same woman, or two women love the same man; and the two may themselves be friends.
There’s endless fuel for drama here. As Wikipedia observes, “The term ‘love triangle’ generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved.” As a result, some kind of resolution seems to be needed. (In the Western tradition, at least, simply setting up a menage à trois isn’t generally regarded as an option.)
Typically, a storyteller resolves the situation by having one “leg” of the triangle win out. It’s easier to do this if the third party, the one left out, is painted as undesirable or disreputable—they deserve to lose. But, on the other hand, the dramatic effect is heightened when the competing persons are each worthy of respect. Thus Aragorn says of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings: “Few other griefs among the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.” (Return of the King, V.8, “The Houses of Healing)
We’ve touched lightly before on the central role of the Eternal Triangle in the Arthurian tales. One of the reasons we continue to be fascinated with the Arthuriad is the unresolvable romance at its center. Typically we like and admire all three characters—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot. But there seems to be no way to bring about a happy ending for everybody. This part of the tragedy tends to preoccupy modern audiences more than the political or social tragedy of the fall of Camelot; it’s more personal.
The ways in which various authors have tried to manage the matter thus provides a useful survey of ways to address a romantic triangle generally.
One perfectly viable option is to give up the idea of a happy ending and treat the story as an unresolvable tragedy. This is how the basic Arthurian story works in Malory. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) follows the same path. White’s sympathy for all three characters is evident. But he doesn’t allow them an easy out. The story concludes as a tragedy—and a very good one. I believe the musical Camelot (1960), based on White, follows a similar course: no romance survives the ending.
The thoroughly weird movie Excalibur (1981) also follows Malory in this respect and accepts the tragic ending. Lancelot dies. Arthur, of course, dies too—or at least sails off to Avalon; as usual, whether Arthur will actually return in some fashion remains a mystery. (In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), Arthur is mentioned as residing with other luminaries on the paradisiacal planet Venus, awaiting his return at the Second Coming.) Guinevere joins a nunnery, as per the basic legend. The characters are disposed of, but no romance remains.
There is, however, a curious scene toward the end of Excalibur, at about 1:59, in which Arthur visits Guinevere in her nunnery, just before the final battle. She says she loved him as a king, sometimes as a husband. He says that someday, when he has finished his kingly duty of making a myth that will inspire later generations, he likes to think that he could come back to her, to meet her merely as a man. She nods. The scene hints that the romance might somehow be resolved after their deaths. We’ll consider that idea further below.
But the distinction between Arthur’s roles as king and as husband also illustrates a different approach: one can write the story in such a way that Arthur transcends romance. This seems to have been Charles Williams’ view in his uncompleted essay The Figure of Arthur (published in 1974 in the combined volume Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; Arthurian Torso). In Williams’ view of the myth, Arthur “was not to love, in that kind, at all” (p. 230). Arthur may be destined purely to serve as a model of the Good King, not to fall in love.
Yet the romancers continue to treat Arthur’s and Guinevere’s marriage as a love story. The triangle is not so easily disposed of.
Saving a Romance
If we do want a genuine romance, one way is to give Lancelot and Guinevere a happy ending, and essentially write off Arthur. We see this in First Knight (1995). Arthur, played by the redoubtable Sean Connery, seems genuinely fond of Guinevere (Julia Ormond). But he’s much older than she is (Connery was 65 at the time, Ormond 30). Lancelot (Richard Gere), much nearer her age, plays his usual role in rescuing Guinevere from various distresses. When Arthur dies, he commends Guinevere to Lancelot’s care. At the conclusion, contrary to the usual storyline, those two seem free to pair off, giving the audience the qualified satisfaction of a fulfilled romance. (Exactly what would have happened to the polity of Camelot in this alternate Arthurian history isn’t discussed.)
Another way is to dodge the issue entirely by simply leaving Lancelot out of the triangle. King Arthur (2004) depicts Arthur and Guinevere as true lovers, what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.” After adventures, heroic last stands, and the arrival of The Cavalry, the movie ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere. Lancelot is in the band of knights, but he doesn’t yet have a crush on Guinevere, or vice versa; so we have the rare case where the Arthur-Guinevere relationship is preserved. It’s a conventional happy ending, but it requires a considerable departure from the basic Arthurian story.
A different way to resolve the triangle is to add a fourth party, who can take over the member of the triangle who’s left behind. I’ve seen a couple of cases where the author gives Arthur an alternative love, letting Lancelot and Guinevere fall where they may. Ideally, the alternative is really Arthur’s first love, predating the whole Guinevere-Lancelot thing. Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988) has Arthur growing up with a strong and admirable girl named Morgan—a complete rewrite of Morgan le Fay, who usually serves as a villain. Arthur falls in love with this Morgan, and she with him. Things look bright until, just after pledging their troth, they discover that Morgan is actually his half-aunt, too closely related for marriage. Oops.
Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere is a political necessity; it’s not a betrayal, because he cannot marry Morgan. In this version, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar) is a not-especially-likable nonentity, who finds her love with Bedwyr (or Bedivere), a historically earlier version of Lancelot. While the story cleaves close enough to the myth to prohibit a really happy ending, Arthur does at least find his true love, of sorts, with Morgan.
Mary Jo Putney takes a more romantic tack with her short story Avalon (1998). This time “Morgana” is identified with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious personage frequently depicted as giving Arthur Excalibur. She dwells in Avalon, a faerie realm set apart from the mundane world. In this story, Arthur sleeps with Morgana at the beginning, long before his political marriage to Guinevere, and returns to her at the end, at his “death.” But he can be healed in Avalon, as some of the older tales suggest, and thus survives to a genuine “happy ever after” with Morgana.
The Fionavar Tapestry
I’ve saved for last this powerful and daunting trilogy (1984-86) by Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication. Kay’s approach is unique: he takes up the tragedy head-on, but offers a strange kind of hope at the end.
Five college students from our world are transported to another universe, Fionavar, which is said to be the first or most fundamental of all worlds—a little like Roger Zelazny’s Amber. To win the battle against evil in Fionavar, they must summon “The Warrior. Who always dies, and is not allowed to rest” (Summer Tree, p. 123). He fights in many worlds, because of “a great wrong done at the very beginning of his days,” but can only be called at darkest need, by magic, by his secret name. This Warrior is Arthur, and his secret name (rather unexpectedly) is “Childslayer”—based on an episode from Malory (Chapter I.XXVII) that is usually omitted from an Arthurian tale, in which the young Arthur, panicked at discovering that Mordred has been born, orders a whole set of newborns sent off in a ship to their deaths, rather like Herod.
It’s revealed in the second volume, The Wandering Fire, that one of the five students, Jennifer Lowell, is actually a reincarnation of Guinevere. Moreover, it becomes necessary to summon Lancelot, as well, awakened from an enchanted sleep. These three have met and fought the Dark heroically in many worlds, but always suffering in their doomed triangular relationship, as a punishment for their several sins (Arthur here is guilty of an even worse crime than his betrayal by the other two). All three love each other; “making all the angles equal, shaped most perfectly for grief” (Wandering Fire, p. 122). Indeed, theirs is the “[s]addest story of all the long tales told” (Wandering Fire, p. 187).
Kay doesn’t blink the tragedy. It would be an understatement to say that there’s enormous suffering and sorrow in this story. But there is astonishing moral and physical courage and heroism as well—as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. And Kay stresses (in his idiosyncratic way) the factor of free will in the “weaving” of the universe. Even the fate of Arthur and his companions is not forever foredoomed.
Once the threat to Fionavar has been vanquished, a new way opens. All three of them can leave the worlds forever, together, and fight no more. In the most Tolkien-like moment of the story, the three sail off into eternity, rising along what Tolkien called the Straight Road into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 332).
The scene is so moving that one hardly notices Kay has not actually resolved the romantic triangle at all. Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are surely worthy of Paradise—but we have no clue as to who ends up with whom. Is the only way to resolve this triangle to transcend it to some conclusion beyond mortal comprehension?
I want to mention one possibility that I haven’t seen tried in a modern story (although, in the innumerable variations on the Arthuriad, it’s quite possible that there’s an instance out there). Instead of coming up with an alternative for Arthur, one might try presenting an alternative for Lancelot, allowing Arthur and Guinevere to come back together as true lovers—perhaps sadder and wiser after what, in such a plot, would be a temporary breach of faith among the three of them.
The concept can in fact be found in a very old source: Williams mentions a French lay called Lanval (ca. 1170-1215), in which a Lancelot-equivalent, desired by the queen, ends up himself riding off to Avalon with a fairy mistress. But this is a quite different version of the Arthurian story. Is there an opening for a Lancelot-mate in the more canonical range of variations?
There’s Elaine. In Malory, Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and tricks him into sleeping with her thinking she’s Guinevere. Their son is Galahad, and in Malory they actually live together for some time as man and wife. Could something be made of this?
White’s Once and Future King treats Elaine as a weak and helpless character, hardly worthy of Lancelot. But she could easily be amped up to modern standards as a stronger individual. If Guinevere can be a Celtic warrior maid or a Canadian college student, Elaine could certainly be revised to an inventive author’s taste. Her relationship with Lancelot need not be the failed, one-sided romance depicted by White; she could become Lancelot’s real love.
Actually, there’s an interesting hint in The Fionavar Tapestry. A seemingly pointless side story concerns a kind of Luthien-figure, the supernally beautiful elf Leyse of the Swan Mark. She meets Lancelot briefly in the woods and falls in love with him—but of course he’s otherwise occupied. Leyse then herself sails off into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 233). It occurred to me that the name “Leyse” faintly resembles “Elaine”; and in preparing this post, I noticed her description on Wikipedia specifically refers to Elaine—although not necessarily the same Elaine (there are several characters by that name in the Arthuriad). If she too ends up in the West, the Isles of the Blest, or whatever unearthly paradise Kay’s world accommodates—is it conceivable that she provides a quadrilateral solution to the Eternal Triangle?
There always seem to be more possibilities to be explored—which is what makes this myth so fruitful.
6 thoughts on “Arthur’s Eternal Triangle”
Interesting post, Rick. I think that if one examines closely the triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, it becomes clear that we’re not dealing with a love story at all but with a story about narcissistic love and death (the same thing applies to the triangle between King Mark of Cornwall, Iseult and Tristan).
These stories reflect perfectly the Celtic worldview. In the ”Poetry of the Celtic Races” Ernest Renan writes that, ”the essential element in the Celt’s poetic life is the ”adventure”—that is to say, the pursuit of the unknown, an endless quest after an object ever flying from desire. This race desires the infinite, it thirsts for it, and pursues it at all costs, beyond the tomb, beyond hell itself.”
This quote sums up perfectly the tragedy of these tales masquerading as love stories. The lovers involved do not love each other. They are in love with the idea of love and in the end with death itself. All the troubles, all the separations and all the pain they go through fire their passion to new heights. And it is exactly this suffering they crave. That is why they do everything in their power to raise obstacles in their way to the consumation of this love dressed as passion. The only possible consumation that can be achieved is through death.
The Celts understood that very well and portrayed it accordingly to their mythology and literary tradition.
Of course myths remain alive and change according to the needs of a society. Artists reshape them and use them according to their artistic vision. However, it’s my humble opinion that when we try to alter the relationship between these figures and shoot for a happy end, we destroy the myth because we ultimately ignore the very spirit of it.
And there’s the question: what is the true spirit of the myth?
Certainly other ancient cultures also tended to the kind of fatalism attributed here to the Celts. The Greeks, for example, tended more to tragedy than comedy (though it would have been really interesting to see what Aristotle said about the latter in the lost latter part of his Poetics).
But the arrival of Christianity in the Western tradition brought with it an essentially positive spirit that underlies all the tragedy and sorrow of the world. Hence a good deal of debate about the Arthuriad — reflected in the different fictional treatments — flows from whether one conceives it as reflecting a pre-Christian Celtic world, or a Christian one.
I’m inclined to think that the Arthurian mythos is open to either approach — though one may have a preference as to which kind of treatment is truer to the story.
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I cannot speak for every facet of the Arthurian arc because I haven’t read its sources extensively. However, I feel that Christianity brought many negative aspects along with it. For instance, many of the female figures like Morgana le Fey, the Lady of the Lake, Guinevere and Morgause were demonized beyond recognition. I’m not saying that pre-Christian Celts were saints and that they depicted their women as angels, but I’m really turned off by the way Christianity made all these female figures so lust-crazed, selfish, cunning and vile. That portrayal is a far cry from the Celtic perception of women.
However, I believe I’m more ”entitled” (again within many quotation marks) to speak about the aspect of the love stories because it’s a topic that interests me greatly and a topic on which I’ve done some solid reading and research. Yes, it’s true that other cultures like the ancient Greeks and the Aztecs displayed enough fatalism. But this specific type of ”love story” (with the multple separations, the cuckolding, the courtly love and the various obstacles the characters themselves deliberately raise) is essentially Celtic in origin. When we ignore all this information and try to turn these ”love stories” into something entirely different, isn’t the core of the myth destroyed?
I admit I’m a Celtophile. I bear a great love and respect towards that culture. Therefore, I’m really disgruntled by any deviation in their mythology and tradition that alters their worldview in major ways because it actually turns them into someting else.
Of course writers and tv producers can do whatever they like. I won’t police them. Tha’s just my take on the matter.
Fionavar.. sounds like a great read, thanks for the rec! I’ll put it after what I have currently, an ever increasing list, lol. I’m afraid I can only read a book every two weeks, which isn’t that many.
Ah, the Arthurian legend. This fascinated me too, but because of the character of Merlin. Something-something nerdiness 😉 Not to say there are no romantic angles in Merlin’s story either. In fact, a miniseries on … Hallmark, I think, the one with Sam Neil as Merlin, Miranda Richardson as Mab (Merlin’s “mother”), and Isabella Rosellini as Nimue (Merlin’s love) plays up that aspect.
I liked said miniseries quite a lot, btw.
But I suppose the appeal, for me, was always Merlin as wizard, rather than Merlin as man who may also be in love and be loved. The good wizard, who’s wise, and powerful in perhaps not entirely kosher ways, but acting for the good of the land and his people.
And here there may even be a similarity between the appeal of the Arthurian romance and the more nerdy Merlin: all these heroes are flawed, and –because– they are flawed they are heroic. That is the tragedy.
It’s a darn shame the court of King Arthur suffers from the poison of lust, but men and women without passion also tend not to risk fighting dragons. The wizard may be the half-son of a fae, or worse, but someone who hasn’t been or at least seen the dirt of the world is ill equipped to understand it (something Father Brown would also say, though of course he wouldn’t consider demonic ancestry necessary 😉 ). Contentment and stability are placid. It is the conflict between passion and duty that is the spring to drive the heroes, the source of both their greatness and doom.
I’m hesitant to subscribe to this as a lesson about how things unambiguously are; but there seems to be some kind of truth being hinted at here. Classical heroes are often tragically internally conflicted, and either of the Sun or of hell in some capacity.
Merlin could provide a whole separate case study. I’ve seen Nimue portrayed as everything from an evil deceiver to a true love. (Leaving aside whatever it is that David Weber is doing by invoking those names in his Safehold series!)
I do question the familiar sense that stability is placid, or that passion must conflict with duty. A martial artist moves with the greatest force from a position of immense stability; duty itself can be a passion. Consider the running debate with Colonel Crane in Chesterton’s *Tales of the Long Bow* . . .
Great comments, Lilaia and Bland!
I’ll be getting to Tales of the Long Bow a bit sooner 😉
Chesterton, and in particular Tolkien were very keen on questioning the “stability-placidity” connection. The hobbits are stable and even placid, but in the end it’s one of them to bear the one ring. And the fact that both authors were Christians might indeed not be accidental to this questioning. The hero who is heroic because of a drive rooted in some tragic flaw is a classical, pagan trope.
I’m not at all familiar with the literary tradition of the East to know which tropes are common there. (I did read a Mongol fairy-tale once though, and it was by far the most complex, multi-generational spanning story of such a format that I’ve seen, but thoroughly approachable on Western pagan hero terms.) The image of the martial arts sage is a compelling one, but then again the apprentice is often young, impetuous, and passionate in all sorts of ways. Or so kung fu films tell me 😉 The apprentice learns to master himself, but I think there’s only one time when the spring of inner conflict is allowed to relax, and that is before death. The wise, balanced sage may be breathing, but he is in fact dead. It is the apprentice with all messy complications who lives.