Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Dark Side of the Moon

Fair warning: Today's the day wherein I crush all your youthful ideals.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about Camelot.

Arthur's Camelot, Alan Lee
The name itself is a universal shorthand for perfection, for a time of ideals, for the realization of a few impossible dreams. It's about as rose-colored as you can get. And for good reason: the whole point of having a legend like Camelot is to believe that things can be better, that justice can win over brute force, that one brief shining moment of good is worth all the suffering it takes to win.

So all things considered, we've done a really good job at forgetting that every single one of Camelot's turning points is rooted in betrayal (at best) and rape (at worst).

Take five minutes. Make a list. The moments where everything changes. I'll bet it includes:
- the conception of Arthur
- the sword in the stone
- the conception of Mordred
- Merlin and Nimue
- Galahad
- Lancelot and Guinevere's affair
- the death of Arthur

Let's go through it one thing at a time.

Arthur's very existence is due to betrayal and rape, depending on who tells the story. After fighting the Saxons back to the shores, Uther and his kingdom figure they can settle in for some well-deserved peace. Instead, Uther falls wildly in lust with Igraine, the wife of his most stalwart supporter in the war that just ended five seconds ago, and provokes a whole new war against Gorlois because the man gets touchy at the thought that the king wants to sleep with his wife. Ultimately, unable to prevail against Gorlois' forces, Uther resorts to magic and trickery: he has Merlin enchant him to look like Gorlois, so he can pass through the defenses of invincible Tintagel and sleep with Igraine. While wearing her husband's face.

I don't care how you interpret that. It's messed up. And it's wrong.

To be fair, interpretations vary wildly, mostly in how they deal with Igraine's reaction to this whole mess. Malory casts her as loyal wife to Gorlois, who in fact proposes the flight to Tintagel herself. Mary Stewart has a proud but lovesick Igraine conspire with Uther and Merlin to trap Gorlois. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Igraine loves Uther, but refuses to betray her husband (up until he betrays her, that is). On the whole, people shy away from the notion of rape. But in Malory's version, that's what Arthur's conception is. Uther intentionally misleads Igraine to trick her into sex, when she already refused consent to his face.

The once and future king is a child of rape. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The sword in the stone is far less drastic, but treachery is still involved. Young Arthur, in search of a sword for his forgetful foster brother Kay, turns to the unclaimed sword stuck randomly through a stone in the churchyard. He pulls it out as easy as blinking and gives it to Kay. Problem solved! Go Arthur, savior of the day!

Until Kay recognizes the sword and what it means, and decides that the best possible option is to lie.

Granted, Kay is not the nicest guy, and certainly not nominated for brother awards in this or any century. But this is low, even for him. He knows Arthur pulled out the sword. He knows exactly what that makes Arthur. And instead of being a man about it, accepting that his annoying younger brother might actually be the long-awaited king (who, by the way, is supposed to SAVE THE KINGDOM), Kay's first instinctive move is to grab the glory for himself. You can argue that Camelot owes its existence more to Sir Ector's ability to smell a lie than to Arthur's go-getting nature; young Arthur certainly gives the impression of wanting to please, and it's not hard to imagine that he'd back Kay's lie in hopes of impressing his brother.

Nigel Terry and Helen Mirren as Arthur and Morgana, Excalibur, Warner Bros.
We don't even need to discuss why the conception of Mordred is betrayal and rape, right? It doesn't matter if the treacherous sister is Morgause or Morgan; if she wore Guinevere's face to fool Arthur; if Arthur was young and raw when it happened, or if he was already king. Mordred's mother does the exact same thing to Arthur that Uther did to Igraine: deliberately lies and distorts events for the sake of her own agenda, regardless of Arthur's consent or input.

The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones
Merlin and Nimue... yeah, I'm going to go ahead and skip the rape charge on that one. Merlin's consent is a weird issue here, since he knows from the start that he will fall for her and she will betray him, but he's an absurdly powerful magician: if he really wanted to avoid her, he would have. (Besides, I've seen versions where her final treachery comes by promising him sex if he'll just climb inside that tree for two seconds, in which case the rape question is a moot point.) Betrayal, on the other hand, is all over this. Merlin gives Nimue everything she asks for, teaching her all his most powerful magics, and in return she seals him alive inside a tree. (Or in a cave, as your preference may be. I like the tree, personally.) Despite the rather fantastic revisionist versions I've read over the years, this story has never really been about anything but betrayal. Even though Nimue takes her mentor's place at Arthur's right hand, and saves him as many times as Merlin had, you get the sense that she'd have to do it to make up for taking Merlin away.

Lancelot and Elaine, Henrietta Rae
Lancelot and Elaine's relationship is the most unhealthy in the whole damn mythos. Yes, that's a bold statement; yes, I stand by it completely. Elaine may be the first stalker fangirl on literary record. She willfully fails to realize that nursing Lancelot back to health does not entitle her to love-of-his-life status. She thrills to find that he wore her token to a tournament, and conveniently ignores the fact that he wore it (like a cad, I must admit) only to assist in fighting incognito. When he rejects her (again, not with the best grace), what's her gut impulse? Is it to get over him? Is it to find another love? Is it to plot bloody vengeance?

It's to force him to marry her by raping him.

Oh, yeah. Elaine-on-Lancelot action is the most straightforward case of rape in the stories. He doesn't want her; he doesn't like her; he's told her no multiple times. Sometimes she only uses magic to make herself look like Guinevere; sometimes she also roofies Lancelot. And then she just doesn't understand why he literally goes insane at the revelation of what's happened.

The irony of it all is that out of this appalling encounter is born Galahad, the perfect knight. But for Lancelot at least, the ends don't justify the means. He never returns to Elaine. He and Galahad have a nonexistant father-son relationship; Galahad saves Lancelot on the Grail Quest, but that's about it for bonding time. And it's hard not to imagine that Lancelot would be grateful that his unwanted son wasn't around after the Grail Quest to remind him of the absolute darkest chapter in his life.

Lancelot and Guinevere, Herbert Draper

Not to mention that Lancelot's got his own bit of betraying to do back home.

Again, no explanation needed. This might be the world's most famous love triangle. It's not supposed to happen, but it does, and the exploitation of Lancelot and Guinevere's affair destroys Camelot.

The Rescue of Guinevere, William Hatherell
The betrayal here is colossal: betrayal of a spouse, betrayal of a friend, betrayal of loyalty, betrayal of a lifetime of work, betrayal of a dream. I'm not saying that Lancelot and Guinevere are singlehandedly responsible for all this betrayal; a lot of it was done by Mordred and his cadre of jealous knights. But this was the fulcrum they used to move their world, and it worked so well because they didn't have to make anything up. They just had to enhance what was already there.

Which leads us to the most unkindest cut of all: Mordred's betrayal of Arthur.

How Mordred was Slain by Arthur, Arthur Rackham
To give Mordred his due, Arthur was an absentee dad who tried to have him killed at birth. But just destroying Arthur's kingdom, marriage, and closest friendship wasn't enough for Mordred; he had to go that extra mile and mess deeply with Arthur's head, winning his trust, appearing to support him, and then backstabbing him at the earliest opportunity. Arthur's last stand at Camlann is one of hopelessness. He's had everything stripped from him in a breathtakingly short amount of time, and all by the long-lost son he wanted to trust. To be honest, I tend to forgive him for the child-murder thing, if only because he suffers so much by the end that I feel like he's atoned and then some. Mordred, on the other hand... for his sheer cold-blooded viciousness, for his total dedication to making Arthur's life hell just because he can, Mordred can never suffer enough. (Yes, I'm biased. I love Arthur. Arthur the person does not get enough love.)

Could you argue that the incredibly depressing roots of the legend are the reason why its trappings are so bright and hopeful? Sure. All that agony and betrayal is ten times worse if it's pointless. If it's endured in the service of a higher ideal, that makes it a little easier to bear. And I don't think we'd still be telling these stories if their surrounding framework didn't provide more hope than they do on their own.

But it's still depressing. The heart of Camelot is very dark. And it makes the legend too simple if we forget that.

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