Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about Camelot.
|Arthur's Camelot, Alan Lee|
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
- 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.|
|The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones|
|Lancelot and Elaine, Henrietta Rae|
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|
Which leads us to the most unkindest cut of all: Mordred's betrayal of Arthur.
|How Mordred was Slain by Arthur, Arthur Rackham|
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.