Arthur’s Eternal Triangle

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.

Triangle illustration (Pixabay)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.


Camelot movie posterOne 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.

Taliessin Through Logres coverBut 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

First Knight (movie) - Arthur, Guinevere, LancelotIf 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.

Arthur’s Alternative

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.

Fionavar Trilogy covers (Tor)

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?

Lancelot’s Alternative?

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?

Lancelot and ElaineThere’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.


A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.


We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.

Civilization and Chaos

Last time, we talked about Star Trek and Star Wars—but especially Star Trek—as expressing the ideal of a certain type of civilization.  Now we can broaden the range of examples.  Science fiction and fantasy make an excellent laboratory for thought-experiments here, as in so many things.

Staving Off the Fall

The threat that civilization will fail and collapse is a classic way to create a dramatic situation for a SF story.  The most common historical analogue, of course, is the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Foundation's Edge cover artIsaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series (1942-1953) deliberately drew on that model; Asimov had been reading Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  In the Foundation universe, Hari Seldon has developed a science of “psychohistory” that predicts the Galactic Empire’s inevitable decline.  There’s no chance of preventing the fall.  But Seldon’s psychohistory offers a way to cut short the ensuing dark age from thirty thousand years to a single thousand.  The emotional charge of the original Foundation stories centers on the Seldon Plan’s bid to minimize the period of barbarism, with its chaos, violence, tyranny and suffering.  (Later developments of the series, too involved to discuss here, go off in somewhat different directions.)

I’ve mentioned H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, which includes at least one such decline-and-fall.  The novel Space Viking (1963) gives us a whole culture of space-traveling barbarians, raiding the decadent worlds of the old Federation.  The events of the story suggest the hope of a return to lawfulness in the formation of a “League of Civilized Worlds.”  But given Piper’s cyclical theory of history, this initiative will yield no permanent resolution; the story has a happy ending, but the history does not.

Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about Sir Dominic Flandry, a dashing secret agent of the Terran Empire reminiscent of a far-future James Bond (though Flandry first appeared in 1951, Bond in 1953).  When he can spare a moment from chasing women and loose living, Flandry devotes his efforts to shoring up the decaying Empire, though he realizes that in the end the “Long Night” is inevitable.

There’s a certain kind of romance, a mood of grandeur and doom, about these falling empires.  Naturally, they tend toward the somber and the tragic.

Defending Civilization

A more upbeat tone characterizes stories in which the fight to preserve civilization has a chance of succeeding.

Lensman imageIn the Lensman series, E.E. Smith actually refers to the heroes’ multispecies galactic community simply as “Civilization.”  That polity reflects the cooperative, yet freedom-loving, nature of the beneficent Arisians, who have nurtured it in secret over millions of years.  The Lensmen’s opponent is “Boskone,” which originally appears to be a mere conspiracy of space pirates or drug dealers.  When Boskone eventually turns out to be a whole independent culture of its own, based in another galaxy, the conflict becomes one of diametrically opposed cultures, rather than simply of order vs. disorder.

But the Boskonian culture is one of thoroughgoing tyranny, from top to bottom.  At every level, those in power scheme against each other.  Lacking any honor or ethical code, they engage in assassination and undermine each other’s plans.  Those at the bottom are essentially slaves.  The Civilization led by humans, on the contrary, respects human dignity and freedom—although the fact that these cultures have been essentially on a war footing throughout their entire history renders that freedom a little less far-ranging than we might imagine.

The Lensman example reminds us that the defenders of civilization are not always fighting against barbarians.  Autocracy and regimentation bring their own kind of chaos, as lawless warlords battle among themselves, not caring what common folk are trampled in the process.  It’s a particular kind of civilization that’s worth preserving.

This is true whether we’re in the future or the past.  We’ve seen that the power of the Arthurian legend stems partly from the theme of defending order and decency against the chaos that lies in wait.  (We may also mention Arthur’s more historically-based successor, King Alfred, who defended England against the real (not Space) Vikings.)

The embattled Arthurian Camelot is frequently connected with Rome itself, the ur-example.  The Last Legion (book and movie) provides a good example.  The waning Roman presence in Britain, as the Dark Ages set in, is a natural setting for the ideal of the lonely, valiant defender.  One example is brought up indirectly by a character’s name.  As Wikipedia puts it,  “Legio XX Valeria Victrix lends its name to the character Valeria Matuchek in Poul Anderson‘s Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna; her mother is said to describe this legion as the last to leave Britain—‘the last that stood against Chaos.’”

To Valeria’s mother Virginia, “the last that stood against Chaos” is a phrase to conjure with.  That’s true for me, too.

The Right Kind of Order

If civilization represents a certain kind of order—that of the Lensmen, not Boskone—what kind are we talking about?  It’s not always easy to explain.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly around at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.”  The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.  It has done so many things.  But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY:  Image Books, 1959), ch. 6, p. 83)

Chesterton’s random examples do cast some light on the question.  A community that has bookcases has books—implying a continuity of knowledge and literature, as well as the leisure to read them.  Coals to keep one warm in winter suggest both the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the whole machinery of society and technology that brings the fuel from the mine to the fireside.  Pianos reflect art and a developed culture.  And policemen indicate a society in which there is at least some attempt to defend the ordinary citizen against the depredations of the powerful and unscrupulous—the rule of law, of which more anon.

In the particular culture to which I belong, when we hold up a certain sort of civilization as an ideal worth defending, what we have in mind is a good order in which spontaneity and creativity can flourish, and people can live their lives without constant fear or privation.  There’s an order that protects the weak against the strong, but there is also enough looseness for individual variation, experiment, and adaptation.  In the “alignment” terms we discussed last time, you might say the position I’m taking is neutral good, tending to lawful.

Greco-Roman sceneThe classical roots of this ideal are found in the Greek notion of the polis and the Roman notion of civitas.  But it’s been shaped by the whole history of Western thought into what’s sometimes called the “liberal” ideal of a free society—“liberal” not in the political sense, but the root sense of “free.”

There’s one particular aspect of this ideal, though, that science fiction is peculiarly suited to address.  We’ll talk next time about civilization and science.

Arthurian Variations (Part II)

We’ve seen that the Arthuriad has generated a wide variety of retellings over the years.  What makes these legends so adaptable, and so congenial to storytellers of all kinds?

To begin with . . .

A few reasons leap out at us.

As we’ve seen before, it helps if there’s no one canonical version of a story.  Without a single clear source, later authors are free from the need to conform to the “classic” tale.  The Wikipedia article says outright, “there is no one canonical version” (¶ 3).

It’s true that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is the central reference point, at least in English.  But his version is so far from current norms that it would be hard to try and reproduce it faithfully—as Steinbeck perhaps found.  Malory serves more as a library or resource for story elements that can be adapted and recombined at will.

The sheer breadth of that source material is a second factor.  All those knights, all those adventures, even the numerous events of the main storyline:  the Arthuriad is its own ‘Pot of Story,’ a stew full of nutritious narrative elements.  “It held a treasure for every seeker.”  (The Mabinogion, tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, Introduction, p. xxx.)

The story also occupies a colorful historical setting, whether in the plate-mail-and-castles “high road” approach, or in the more historically plausible “low road” approach.  Many readers have a fondness for this quasi-medieval environment—which is why versions of that milieu are used in so many fantasy stories and games.

A Plethora of Characters

In particular, the Arthuriad is filled with strong and interesting characters.  An author can focus on, say, the character of Percival, or Morgan le Fay, or Gawain, and take off from there.  Or she can ring the changes on the main story by redefining the characters and their relationships, as we saw in the examples from Part I.

Arthur himself can be played in many ways.  Generally he tends to have a certain innocence, a certain earnestness and candor about him.  But this can be realized in the psychologically wounded but charismatic leader of Wolf’s tale, in the essential simplicity of the idealist in White’s Once and Future King, or in the clever but dedicated warleader of “King Arthur.”  (It can also be seen in the weak and waffling character of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot”—if we include what I consider a failed implementation.)

Other characters are equally mutable.  Mordred is subtle and evil in White; he’s an innocent and rather likable kid in Wolf.  Lancelot contains enough contradictions in himself—loyal friend, betrayer of a marriage, devoted lover, peerless warrior—that an intense character study of this champion is almost unavoidable if we let him into the story at all.

Guinevere is a particularly tricky case.  It’s hard to play her as truly admirable—since so much of her traditional role lies in being untrue, at least after a fashion.  (She’s untrue to Arthur, but true to Lancelot, and the story seems largely willing to forgive the first in light of the second.)  If she isn’t handled carefully, she’s likely to default into being silly, or weak, or fickle.  The challenge of giving her a better role may appeal to an author.  Both books and films have taken up that challenge, though I’m not familiar with those treatments.

Compelling Drama

The story of Arthur contains many events that lend themselves to high drama.  For example—

His origin.  It seems essential for Arthur’s ascent to the throne to exemplify the theme of the lowly raised high, the rise from humble beginnings to glory.  His childhood is modest, in one way or another.  In the traditional formulation, Arthur doesn’t know who he is until he is almost grown, and it may take a magic token (the sword in the stone) to demonstrate his true nature.  As a result, Arthur generally has the humility that I’ve argued characterizes our archetype of the Good King.

This Cinderella-type story appeals to our fondness for the underdog, and the reversal of fortunes is inherently dramatic.  There are a lot of possibilities for how that revelation occurs, and how Arthur and those around him react.

Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur (King Arthur)The love stories.  An eternal triangle necessarily involves passion, betrayal, and drama.  But there are a lot of possible ways to construe the relations among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (along with Morgan and other possible players, as we saw last time).

In the central love story, Arthur tends to lose out.  As White puts it (Book Three, beginning of ch. 45):  “Merlyn had not intended him for private happiness.  He had been made for royal joys, for the fortunes of a nation.”

Since Arthur is on the scene first, Lancelot must share some strong bond with Guinevere in order to draw her away from Arthur—unless the Arthur-Guinevere bond isn’t that strong to begin with, as in Wolf.  If we idealize Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance, we have to push Arthur away.

There’s a strong impulse to rescue the love story somehow.  We have three characters, each of whom we love and admire, trapped in this untenable situation.  We don’t want any of them to lose out, but someone has to.

So we get retellings that pare down the triangle.  In The Road to Avalon, Arthur and Morgan are the real romance; it doesn’t matter if Guinevere seeks solace elsewhere (except for political reasons).  In “First Knight,” Arthur is too old for Guinevere; after his inevitable death, Lancelot and Guinevere seem to be left free to marry.  “King Arthur” ends early, in terms of the overall myth, and skips the entire triangular problem.  Arthur and Guinevere marry at the end in a traditional romantic consummation, and Lancelot remains a minor character.

Moreover, if we choose as our main character someone other than the Big Three—one of the numerous other knights or ladies of the Arthurian court—the possibilities for love stories are endless.

The Holy Grail (Indiana Jones)The Holy Grail.  It’s hard to know what to make of the Holy Grail as a storytelling hub.  The Grail’s religious origins (although they are subject to dispute by some literary historians) may cause this part of the story to be bypassed entirely by those writers who prefer to dodge the Christian aspects of the Arthuriad.  White introduces the Grail quest rather ignobly as a distraction to keep the knights busy when there are no wars for them to fight.

Nonetheless, the mythic resonances of this ultimate quest MacGuffin have let it play a role in a surprising number of modern treatments—from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”—even where, as in the last example, the Arthurian tales are not otherwise involved.  For those who want an air of mystery and the numinous, rather than just clashing swords, the Grail is a natural choice.

Key Themes

Finally, the Arthuriad carries a number of themes of lasting interest.  These themes can also draw storytellers to the court of Camelot.

Knights of the Round Table (Excalibur)True companions.  For Western culture, Arthur’s Round Table knights may be the archetypal example of the tight-knit group of comrades fighting together for the right.  The basic story also includes some inversions of this band-of-brothers relationship—betrayals of several kinds—but that only serves to make the ideal seem more dramatic and memorable.  The Round Table is explicitly portrayed in “First Knight” and (without the table) in “King Arthur.”  It’s satirized, yet mourned, in White.  It does not play a major role in Wolf’s version.  But if an author wants to invoke the ideal of comradeship to the death, Arthur’s court is as likely a touchstone as the Three Musketeers or Robin Hood’s woodland band.

Chivalry.  The Arthurian knights represent the archetype of the ideal of chivalry.  Now, our era has a love-hate relationship with this notion.  We frequently prefer to satirize or criticize the ideals that were held up as models for the Arthurian knights.  Yet there remains a certain appeal to what TV Tropes calls Old-School Chivalry, a less literal version that can turn up in cases as varied as Captain America and “Kate and Leopold.”  These later varieties look back to the hazy memory of a medieval ideal that we associate with Arthur’s court.

Civilization is at stake.  Almost all versions of the tale depict Arthur as standing in some sense for the defense of imperiled civilization against the chaotic forces that threaten it.  The opposition may be literal, as in The Road to Avalon, where Arthur leads armies against the invading Saxons.  Or it may be more subtle, as when The Once and Future King shows Arthur striving to achieve the rule of law as a principle to contain the depredations of warlords.  Not Might makes Right, but Right makes Might, protecting the weak from the strong, ordinary people from the powerful:  this is the chivalric ideal Arthur pursues under the tutelage of Merlyn.

You could call it civilization.  What I meant by civilization when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness—not violate maidens, and rob widows, and kill a man when he was down.  People ought to be civil.  (Book Two, chapter 9)

The most poignant aspect of the Arthurian tale is that he achieves this ideal, for a fleeting moment—an island of light in an age of darkness—yet it fails.  The Round Table is broken, Camelot goes down in war and betrayal, Arthur does not found a virtuous dynasty.  This chiaroscuro of success and failure has a dramatic appeal that is hard for a storyteller to resist.

CamelotCamelot falls.  And yet, the story does not quite end in despair.  Arthur may die—but he is not entirely lost; he will somehow return.  In White’s touching ending, Arthur hands on the story itself, the memory of Camelot, to a young page named Tom—Tom Malory.  The ideal remains an ideal, and we are reassured that someday Arthur and the ideals he champions will reawaken.

It is no wonder that this kind of ambiguous, yet hopeful, ending attracts storytellers.  It attracts readers too.  All but the most hardened cynics would like to look forward to such a return.  Arthur’s story, like Arthur himself, never quite dies.

Arthurian Variations (Part I)

A Multitude of Arthurs

Sword in stone, in forestA few months ago I mentioned that the tales of King Arthur and his court—the Arthuriad—make up one of the most adaptable mythologies of all.  We can take a look at some of these variations (Part I), and follow up by considering what makes these legends so endlessly fascinating and malleable (Part II).

Wikipedia hosts two separate pages that enumerate versions of the Arthuriad:  List of works based on Arthurian legends and List of media based on Arthurian legend.  Tendrils of the Arthurian tree reach into such distant nooks as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which relies centrally on the Grail legend.

And new branches keep sprouting:  a new film version is coming out from Warner Bros. in 2017.  Even Tolkien worked on one, which I blush to admit I haven’t read:  The Fall of Arthur (composed in the 1930s, published 2013).  The introduction to my copy of The Mabinogion sums it up:  Arthur “is at the centre of British story.”  (Tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, 1949, 1974, p. xxv.)

History of the Myth

The Arthuriad grew from many sources.  A number of originally unconnected legends were gradually brought together under one roof—one reason there’s such a plenitude of material in the legendry.  A few brief mentions of Arthur in medieval histories gave rise to tales and poems in England, in France, and in Wales.  Writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory assembled these various tales into more or less connected narratives.

The resulting mythology is the central part of the “Matter of Britain”—one of the three subjects that the medievals considered of paramount importance for literary development, along with the “Matter of France” (tales of Charlemagne and his court) and the “Matter of Rome” (the ancient myths that focused on the Trojan War and its ramifications).

It would take a scholarly treatise to deal with this history, not a blog post, even if I were qualified to write such an account.  Here I just want to note a few of the more interesting variations I’ve come across.

The High Road and the Low Road

I like to divide treatments of the Arthuriad into “high road” and “low road” versions.  On the high road we find the kind of setting that we usually think of in connection with the mythical Round Table:  knights in plate mail, ladies in silks and satins, magic from Merlin to the Green Knight round every corner.  This is Malory’s version, which reflected the customs and cultural level of Malory’s own time, rather than the historical setting in which Arthur was supposed to be placed.

The low road takes us to adaptations that hew more closely to actual history.  Here the writer seeks to make an Arthurian chronicle compatible with what we know of the real fifth or sixth century.  Magic and mysticism are minimized, and naturalistic explanations may be given for paranatural features of the original legends, such as the Sword in the Stone.  Contemporary retellings generally prefer the low road, grittier and less idealized than the plate-mail versions.

On the High Road

The high-fantasy Arthur is exemplified by Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), which holds a central place:  to quote Charles Williams in The Figure of Arthur (p. 246), “it is Malory’s book which is for English readers the record book of Arthur and of the Grail.”  Traditional versions, particularly in the movies, tend to track Malory—at least in part, because no single novel or movie can possibly touch on the vast trove of material in Le Morte d’Arthur.

The trouble is that Malory is hard to read.  The language is archaic, and the mode of storytelling is far removed from contemporary styles.  Malory spends inordinate amounts of time on things like catalogues of knights at a tournament, and less than we would expect on characters’ thoughts and motivations.  We are thus inclined to search for a version more accessible to the modern reader.

The Once and Future King book coverA leading candidate is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  I grew up with White and still think of his as the canonical version.  It generated two popular movies—Lerner & Loewe’s musical “Camelot,” and Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.”

Personally, I’m not pleased with either of those dramatic offspring.  The treatment of the main characters in “Camelot”is terrible (at least in the movie version), and “The Sword in the Stone” is Disneyfied in the bad sense, written down and trivialized.

There’s a different problem with the book itself:  The Once and Future King is very nearly a spoof of the Arthuriad.  White does a very good job with the main characters, but he fills the book with deliberate anachronisms and doesn’t take the actual quests and missions of the knights very seriously.  He keeps poking fun at Malory’s text.  The spoofery is often justified, and generally good fun.  But it does make White’s fanciful “high road” version a secondary rendering—parasitic, in a sense, on the original—and not really a good candidate for a ‘centric’ version.  (Not to mention the oddity of Part V, the “Book of Merlyn,” which was not published until after White’s death and conflicts in tone and substance, to my mind, with the main novel.)

John Steinbeck began a treatment that can be found under the title The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  This might have been a candidate for a canonical modern version, if Steinbeck had ever completed it.  The book starts as a quasi-translation of Malory, but starts to develop more independently as it goes along.  It didn’t get very far, however, before Steinbeck abandoned it—perhaps because he hadn’t decided whether to keep diverging from his source material.

First Knight movie posterOn the screen, the 1995 film “First Knight,” with Sean Connery and Richard Gere, may be the best modern example of the high-road approach.  The main plot of the story is the tragic love story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, though in this iteration Lancelot and Guinevere are left alive and apparently free to marry at Arthur’s death—an example of how those who favor romantic happy endings try to sort out the central romantic triangle.  Along with some gritty realism, the film does give us an idealized Camelot, shown more straightforwardly than in most modern adaptations.

On the Low Road

1981’s “Excalibur” may have started the trend toward more realistic versions in the movies.  Based purely on Malory, according to Wikipedia, the movie includes more explicit violence and more primitive settings than in “First Knight” or “Camelot.”  Nonetheless, “Excalibur” does incorporate the Grail theme and the mystical notion of the Fisher-King.

King Arthur movie posterA more recent example of the low-road movie is “King Arthur.”  Here Arthur is a Roman warleader, upholding the last of the fading Roman civilization in Britain, and Guinevere is a Celtic warrior maiden.  In this version, Lancelot dies (without real romantic entanglement) and the movie ends with Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage, stopping short of all the difficult tragic material later in the legend.

On the book side, the low road may be represented by Mary Stewart’s quintet that begins with The Crystal Cave.  In one classic example of a non-magical explanation for a traditional scene, Merlin leaves the sword Caliburn for many years in a cave where dripping water gradually deposits a limestone crust over the blade, from which Arthur breaks it free when he recovers the sword—a neat nod to Malory’s magical sword in the stone.

More Exotic Variants

It really gets interesting when authors start tugging and pulling at the legend to develop stories that depart more strikingly from the Malory-based legends.

Road to Avalon coverOne of my favorites is The Road to Avalon (1988), by Joan Wolf.  This novel takes a low-road approach, with almost nothing in the way of magic or the paranormal.  Here again Arthur is primarily a warleader, Comes Brittaniarum.  But he is also fiercely dedicated to preserving against barbarism the civilized culture represented by Rome—an aspect we shall have occasion to revisit.

Arthur’s task is to unite the British people against the Saxons.  (These Saxons are the invading enemy at this time, but they’ve become the defenders against barbarism by the time of King Alfred, and the underdogs by Robin Hood’s period.  British history is complicated.)

Wolf’s character treatment is what’s most interesting.  Here Morgan (usually “Morgan le Fay,” portrayed as a dangerous fairy or sorceress) is the female lead and Arthur’s real true love.  Gwenhwyfar is sympathetic, if a little shallow, but she never did have much more than a dynastic connection with Arthur, which makes her unfaithfulness with Bedwyr (this version’s Lancelot) more palatable.  In other words, the traditional romantic triangle is skewed—to the good, in this case.

In Wolf,  Mordred, usually the arch-enemy, is a likable boy; Agravaine is the real villain.  There’s a Round Table, for the right reason (to make those who sit at it equals, with no “head of the table” precedence).  But there are no knights in the plate-mail sense.  Religion hardly plays a role, much less the Grail.  But the story is very satisfying, and is followed by two sequels, one set in the generation after Arthur and the other taking up the life of Alfred.

There are lots more.  Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a feminist version, again with Morgaine as the heroine.  Stephen Lawhead’s five-book Pendragon Cycle starts out in Atlantis—from which we can see how eccentric the plotline has become.  The Last Legion (both book and movie) again stress the Roman connection, with the last emperor of Rome traveling to Britain to found the dynasty that will produce Arthur.  And of course, in the slapstick comedy category, we have Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Future King

I’ve seen surprisingly few stories that build on the tradition of Arthur as the “once and future king”—rex quondam rexque futurus.  Arthur is supposed to return; but the tales generally leave him ambiguously ensconced in Avalon.  In C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, we do see a revived Merlin in the present day, and we’re told in Perelandra that Arthur waits on Venus to come back to Earth for a final battle—but we don’t see that in the stories.

Tim Powers’ oddball The Drawing of the Dark has an eccentric return for Arthur—focusing mostly on beer.  Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry promotes a resolution of the Arthurian tragedy that takes place in another world, but draws in characters from our contemporary world.  I remember fondly, for some reason, a 1970 children’s book by Tom McGowen, Sir MacHinery, in which an experimental robot is perceived by a group of present-day Scottish Brownies as an armored knight—the crate is stenciled MACHINERY—where the inventor happens to bear the name Simon Arthur Smith.

But I haven’t run across as many stories about the return of Arthur as one might expect.  Some interesting potential there . . .

The Next Step

This spate of examples illustrates the wide range of variations to which the Arthurian legends are susceptible.  What makes them so adaptable, and so attractive to storytellers of all kinds?  We’ll take those questions up in the next episode.