So, in my review of the Hollow Hills, I said that I didn’t really give a shit that a fourteen year old having sex with a woman eight years his senior would have been acceptable in medieval times. It was unacceptable, in my mind, to present that in a modern retelling and not call it rape. And that ties in completely with how I view Arthurian Legends. To me, Camelot does not exist in a vacuum of the 5th-6th century. This is a legend that has consistently attempted to present an idealized world where all are equal and justice is overseen by a fair hand. Camelot was built by the best society has to offer and even though it was destroyed by the worst in society the legend ends with the promise that all the best of Camelot will one day be seen again. Arthur is the Once and Future King. His legend does not exist in the vacuum of one time and place. The mixture of medieval and renaissance ideas, culture and tools in even the most staunchly historical retellings are proof enough of that.
So with this reading of the legends in mind, I just wanted to put something forth that’s been bouncing around in my mind since I read the third book of Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy. I think that there are four very clear generations within the Arthurian Mythos and that these generations, especially as they are portrayed in the more modern retellings, pretty clearly line up with four of the western, modern cultural generations- The Greatest Generation, The Baby Boomers, Gen X and the Millenials.
(Note- any Arthurian geek knows that ages mean nothing in Arthurian literature. Characters get older and younger depending on whose telling the story. The generations I’ve assigned here have nothing to do with actual ages of the characters but more to do with the stories told about them.)
We start with the Greatest Generation. In Western culture, this is the group that grew up during the Great Depression and fought in WWII. In the Arthurian Mythos, this is Aurelius, Uther, Gorlois, Igraine… those who grew up under Vortigern and the Saxon reign of terror and ultimately defeated him. We’ll skip the Silent Generation because no one ever covers what goes on while Arthur was growing up in secrecy. Arthur, Kay, Guinevere, Lancelot… these would be the Baby Boomers. The Boomers grew up in a time of great uncertainty due to the Cold War (Saxon threat) but also oversaw the end of it (Badon Hill). And with that they oversaw one of the most prosperous ages (golden age of Camelot). Gen X would be the Orkney brothers, Tristan and Isolde, Palamedes, Yvain. These characters also grew up to an extent during the Cold War (Saxon threat) but the ending came just as they were coming into their own as adults and they really didn’t participate in that battle. Instead of focusing on the whole or being participants in Arthur’s great dream for a better world, these knights are much more focused on their own individual stories. Galahad, Percival, Mordred and Nimue—these would be the Millennials. And this is where things start to get interesting.
But before I get into the subject matter of this essay, I want to again comment on what I believe is the core aspect of Arthurian Legends. When you get into a retelling, there is sort of this understood promise or contract between author and reader that is going to be at the very heart of the story and that if the author is going to deconstruct that idea, he or she needs to do a damn good job of it
else they’ll be entered into the annals of quickly forgotten 80s lit that was
all about deconstructive antiheroes for shits and giggles and didn’t really add
anything to the mythos. This
promise, of course, is the Golden Age of Arthur’s Round Table: all who come
before it for justice are treated fairly, their voices are heard and anyone who
sits at the table is no greater than his or her companions.
This promise of the Round Table and what it represents is, I think, what draws people to the legends. This is why Arthur is the Once and Future King. It’s why there is such a desire to see him come again. It’s why these legends have been told over and over again set in different times, different places and different cultures. From Atlantis to ancient Greece to medieval fortresses to renaissance castles to the White House to the street gangs of Indianapolis to Aksum to the year 3000 to a Universe where each Celtic kingdom is its own planet to the fairy otherworld to a separate fantasy landscape. This promise of the Round Table speaks to people. This promise of equality and justice is why this story has been retold hundreds if not thousands of times over 1500 years. It’s why a person can read this story over and over again and never be bored by the retellings. Because over time our sense of what is equal and what is justice has changed. And because this sense of justice and equality is so core to the legends, modern ideals now find their way into the story. It’s impossible to tell this story while holding true to a medieval justice system. Because the promise is that Arthur will be better than what came before. But it’s not that he will be better than what came before him because he is the Once and Future King. He has to be better than what came before the audience.
(And it’s not like there hasn’t been some give and take over the centuries. Some of the early legends were leagues ahead of their Victorian counterparts. Characters who added a great deal of diversity to the legends such as Tor (bastard son of a farmer who was raised by a farmer but eventually became one of Arthur’s finest knights), Palamedes, Safir and Segwarides (Saracen/Arab knights who were members of the Round Table) were slowly written out while strong ladies like Guinevere, Lynette, Luneta, Ragnell, Morgan Le Fay and Nimue either had their roles diminished or became evil. But things are changing again. Palamedes was a super important character in Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy. Elizabeth Wein has a whole series dedicated to Mordred being Arthur’s ambassador to the African country of Aksum and the son he conceived while there. Peter David and Bernard Cornwall have reimagined the characters of Percival and Sagramor as black men. Gwen is a woman of color in Merlin BBC and as was Vivian in Starz Camelot. Maurice Broaddus had the whole cast reincarnated as POC struggling on the streets of Indianapolis. Camelot 3000 had Tristan reincarnated as a woman who still loves Isolde. Guinevere, Lynette, Luneta, Ragnell are all reclaiming their former strong roles while Morgan and Nimue are often gray characters with good reasons for their actions. Even Tor is making a comeback in some stories.)
So, back to the point of this rather meandering essay (yeah, yeah, I can hear the entire cast of Monty Python and the Holy Gail yelling ‘Get on with it!’)—the generational divide in the legends from the perspective of a Millennial. My generation grew up under a very different set of circumstances from the two before us. The Cold War was over before we could really grasp what was going on (or before some of us were even born). Instead we grew up during the War on Terror. We were old enough to know that going to war in Iraq was a really stupid idea but we weren’t old enough to do anything about it. As soon as we were old enough, especially in the US, we made our presence felt. First with the election of President Obama and now with the Occupy Movement.
In the US, since the Greatest Generation, each successive generation has been more diverse and more tolerant than the one before it. And this diversity has caused us to demand the more tolerant landscape that our upbringing has taught us can and should exist. And this is where the generational divide comes in. Because the powerful members of older generations have already fought for and won the more tolerant world they demanded when they were younger and can’t possibly imagine making and further strides. They don’t understand what the benefits of the world they sought would have on the generations who came after them—they can only conceive the effects it would have on themselves. And this disconnect (we already fought for that and won it—what more do you want?) is why the younger generations are often see as demanding, rowdy and even dangerous by the older generations. Because they honestly can’t comprehend how much more diverse, tolerant and progressive our upbringing was compared to their own because of their own actions.
So here’s the million dollar question (Get on with it!). Why, when the younger generations are moving towards being more peaceful and more tolerant, are the youth in Arthurian retellings still consistently portrayed as warmongering and dangerous?
Actually, a better question is why Arthur’s story is the one most often retold? Is it surprising that most of the modern retellings that focus so heavily on Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot were written by Boomers (Nancy McKenzie, Helen Hollick, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen Lawhead)? Mary Stewart is a member of the Greatest Generation and her series focused on Merlin
would probably be Silent Generation in her books but traditionally might be
older than the Greatest Generation so I’m just going to go with this. Gerald Morris and Sarah Zettel who both wrote
series that a- focused heavily on the Orkney brothers (Morris branches out to
others such as Dinadan and Yvain) and b- focused on the individual tale to such
an extent that Arthur’s legend is merely a backdrop are members of Generation
X. In this context it makes a lot of
sense that the Millennials—writers who are mostly posting their stories on the
internet—are focusing on the Millennials of the Arthurian mythos. (This list is just a general pattern I
noticed while perusing my bookshelf. Of
course there are holes and outliers but in general I am willing to stand behind
Most of the modern Arthurian myth at this point has been written by Boomers. In these modern Arthurian retellings, the Millennial generation of knights are villainized as warmongers who ripped Camelot apart. They are shown to be the worst of society that destroyed the best of it. But that simply doesn’t fit with the world we live in now. Not just from a society standpoint, but from a writing standpoint. Making Mordred and Nimue evil Evil EVIL while Percival and Galahad are so saintly and good they achieve the ultimate quest ‘just cause’ doesn’t fly anymore. And yet these are characters who very rarely in modern retellings are fleshed out into three dimensional characters (Nimue probably comes the closest but that seems more to keep Merlin from coming off as a total creeper who totally deserved to be locked in a tree than any concern for her character). The accepted standard seems to be that Galahad and Percival are good because they didn’t ask questions, they followed the path that was set out for them and they never challenged their elders (and died young). Mordred and Nimue are evil because they did demand the power they believed to be rightfully theirs and they didn’t back down when it was refused.
It was so fascinating in Guinevere, The Legend in Autumn to see Woolley flirt with the possibility that Mordred was completely within his rights to challenge Arthur. I don’t know if this reading was her intent, but it was a fascinating take to my youthful eyes. In the story, Mordred does everything to try and prove himself worthy of something—anything—in Arthur’s eyes. But Arthur will not budge in his avoidance and hostility to Mordred (you can read the reasoning behind that in my review here). So Mordred takes on a new project. If he can’t get any recognition from Arthur for himself, he’s damn well going to get it for the Saxons. Once an enemy and a threat to Arthur’s kingdom, the Saxons have been peaceful for several years at this point and many of them have been living in Britain for generations. They live under Arthur’s law but they have no standing in his court. Here Arthur has broken the promise of the Round Table—the Saxons are not welcome there and they will not be treated with justice or fairness. They are disenfranchised—denied the rights given to every other citizen in Britain. And there is Mordred—standing before Arthur and demanding that he give it to them. And when Arthur refuses, Mordred goes to war against him to see that the Saxons are given the standing they have earned.
That is the youth of the Arthurian Mythos. I cannot see a generation that grew up under Arthur’s golden age of Camelot demanding more war or the chance to prove themselves through the spilling of blood. But I can see them seeing so clearly the rot in Arthur’s kingdom and demanding that it be addressed—seeing that the promise that every person is welcome at the Round Table and will be received fairly isn’t being fulfilled. And I can see the Boomer generation not getting it because look how much they did to make the world better. And you want to treaty with the Saxons and give them full rights offered to every Britain? Are you mad? And I can see that disconnect between ‘do better’ and ‘we’ve done enough’ translating to ‘those crazy, violent youth want to drive us to another war’.
And Percival and Galahad have undergone changes too. They can be taken as some sort stand-in for children who grow up in super conservative houses. The ones who are out with their parents holding up hate-filled signs they can’t possibly understand. They don’t question, they grow up with hate and possibly end up dying in some sort of act of right wing terrorism. An act which, to them, appears to be their ultimate salvation. But the original legend as written by Chrétien de Troyes seems to admonish that sort of blind loyalty. In the original Grail Quest, Percival doesn’t ask questions and loses his chance to make the world a better place. In his own story, Percival fades into obscurity as the story turns to the noble deeds of Sir Gawain. Of course, de Troyes died before he could finish Percival’s tale and it’s hard to know what his intent was for the Knight’s success. But it’s interesting that a tale so centered on the importance of asking questions soon takes a shift to focusing on a knight who does not ask questions. Galahad doesn’t have to do anything to prove he has earned the Grail. In every challenge he is fated to succeed. He is led to the Grail while leaving a great deal of death and suffering in his wake.
But Millennials relate to these two characters. Some of us grew up in these super conservative homes and have struggled to escape. The importance of Percival’s need to ask questions he’s been told not to voice is one that a great many young people can understand as they struggle with their identity while being told that any identity aside from the one their parents have set for them is wrong and they will be punished for pursing anything different. Galahad is often written as a homosexual. He is the child who has been put through conversion/reparative ‘therapy’. The child who so wants to prove that he can be the person his parents insist he should be that he goes to the extremes. And to Millennials, the Grail is no longer seen as the source of ultimate salvation, but as a denial of one’s self and the destruction that comes with the denial of identity, choices and questions.
Most fascinating, of course, is the recent portrayal of Galahad and Mordred as friends or lovers. These are two characters initially presented as the antithesis of each other. Galahad stands for all that is good in the world while Mordred stands for all that is evil. And yet they couldn’t be more similar. Both bastard sons—each fathered by the two most important men in modern retellings (Lancelot and Arthur). They were raised by their mothers away from court and their mothers were both aware of the great destiny each of their children carried. And in both cases, their actions led to the destruction of the Round Table. Many knights follow Galahad on the quest for the Holy Grail and most of them don’t return. Arthur’s Round Table is already broken by Galahad’s actions which is what gives Mordred the chance to seize his denied power and destroy Camelot for good. Older generations work their damnedest to turn the younger ones against each other so that they can retain their power. And in doing so, they deny their legacy.
But Arthur has a legacy. And it’s not just a story that has been told for 1500 years. Arthur’s legacy is the promise of his return. The promise that he will be better than everything that has come before him. And this is where the Millennial view becomes so important because Galahad and Mordred are the lessons he must learn to be better. He needs to learn the importance of self and identity. He needs to learn the importance of asking questions and challenging the status quo. He needs to learn progress needs to continue to grow and can never be stifled. That there is never a moment of ‘we’ve done enough’. He needs to learn that there will always be the disenfranchised and it his duty to see that they have a place at the Round Table to be heard. He needs to learn that the youth cannot be divided but must be brought together so his true legacy can be attained. It is only then that Arthur truly becomes the Once and Future King.