The Betrayal of Arthur has been one of the exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. It was big, it was cumbersome, it caused me many sleepless nights, but it was enormous fun and very illuminating. The idea came when I was approached several years ago to work on a CD game based on the heroes of the Dark Ages. The CD game deal fell through, but I combined the interest generated by that project with my teaching on the Arthurian legend to come up with a book that examines the betrayal of King Arthur: he was great, he was glorious and good and golden – but his wife ran off with someone else, his best friend cuckolded him, his son decided to murder him, his people abandoned him en masse, and – not surprisingly, given the degree to which he was betrayed – Arthur failed, and his realm came crashing down about him.
From my teaching programmes on the Arthurian legends I already had a fair understanding of the ‘why’, but for many months I immersed myself in scores of the rarely-read medieval manuscript poems and romances. The results were surprising. Firstly (and uncomfortably for our modern age which doesn’t like such things), the Arthurian legend as it was developed in the medieval period was a moralistic tragedy. Arthur failed for a reason – he was a moral failure. King Arthur was a man steeped in sexual sin and the sins of Eve. His was conceived amid a rape, and committed incest with abandon: all the women in his life (his mother Ygerna, his wife Guenevere, his sisters Morgan le Fay and Morgause) are representations of Eve. They all betray him as Eve betrayed Adam. A typical medieval theme! No wonder poor Arthur succumbed in the end: his wife’s sexual sin with Lancelot initiated the civil war (and reflected Arthur’s mother’s sin with his father) which gave Arthur’s incestuous son, Mordred, the chance to seize both throne and realm.
Secondly (and this is bound to be an unpopular theme), Arthur failed because he was himself a flawed king and man. He ‘went bad’, ‘went off the rails’ … use any cliché you like. Arthur’s early years as king was a time of great achievement-politically, culturally and socially – but his later years were marked with examples of such cruelty and injustice on Arthur’s part that he was abandoned by God, and his fortunes fell into the morass of familial betrayal.
Very few people have ever read the entire legend, or truly understand the medieval themes that underpin it (most people have a vague knowledge of the Arthur – Guenevere – Lancelot triangle, as something about Merlin’s role in Arthur’s life); but the entire core legend is vastly more complicated than, for example, modern film treatments of the Arthurian legend or the glossy coffee table books that purport to be “handbooks” of the legend. The Betrayal of Arthur is an attempt to explain the legend, its development over the past 1,000 years, and particularly the reasons behind Arthur’s betrayal by examining the various members of his immediate household, including Arthur himself, and their role in his ultimate failure.
Here’s the contents page, as a glimpse into the forthcoming book:
Preface and Acknowledgements
The Arthurian Family Tree
The Core Arthurian Legend
PART I: The Birth of a Legend
1. The Historic Background
2. The Legend is Born
3. Development of the Legend
4. The Betrayal Theme
PART II: Arthur’s Household
5. The Bed of Betrayal: Ygerna, Uther and Gorlois
6. Guenevere: The Empty Vessel, the Shore Without a Sea
7. Lancelot: Best of Lovers, Most Secret of Foes
8. The Witches: Eve at the Edge of Chaos
9. Mordred: Guilt Made Flesh
10. Merlin: The Inept Shepherd
PART III: Arthur the King
11. The Public Arthur: King, War Leader and Christian Icon
12. The Private Arthur: Son, Lover, Husband and Father
PART IV: The Quest for Arthur
13. Did Arthur Exist?
14. Arthur’s Journey Through History
15. The Once and Future King: Arthur as Saviour
Appendix A: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian Story
Appendix B: Key Texts Used in This Study
Part I deals with the historical background: part of what I do is put the Arthurian legend in its cultural, social, religious and political perspective, and all of things things have helped mould the legend in its journey through the past thousand years. I spend a fair bit of time on Geoffrey of Monmouth – the man who, to all intents and purposes, invented the legend that we know today. Arthur as a mythical figure existed before Monmouth (who wrote in 1136), but he was a very different character (for instance, in some early Welsh literature he was a ravager of some renown – the countryside lay wasted for years after he passed – and a hopeful, although failed, rapist). The Arthur we know today is as a result of Geoffrey of Monmouth as well the European romancers.
Part II examines each of the major figures in Arthur’s household – his parents, wife, son, best friend, sisters, and Merlin – to see how each of them contribute to his downfall. All of them do … yes, even Merlin … even though none of them directly want to.
Part III deals with Arthur himself. What sort of man was he, and how did he contribute to his own destruction? Arthur is basically a normal man, as stained with sin as are all human beings, but who is thrust into an extraordinary situation. For long years he copes, then it all begins to go bad. Even though Arthur’s fall is partly due to the actions of his immediate household, Arthur also contributes to his own destruction. Glorious king he might be, but he is also a sinner. For instance, were you aware that after Arthur had unwittingly conceived Mordred on his own sister, he then, Herod-like, ordered the murder of all male infants born nine months after the seduction? What king would do that? In the end it is no wonder his son eventually turns against him – Arthur tried to murder him first.
Part IV looks at how Arthur the man and legend has been used and manipulated through the ages. It examines the existence for a historical Arthur, and looks at the Arthur-mania today, and the reasons for it. Why should we hero-worship a man who was so stained by sin, who was ultimately cruel and unjust, and who was a failure? Part of the answer to that is that very few people are aware of the true legend – they’ve only read the glossy coffee table books, the light and airy stuff aimed at the new age and neo-pagan movements, or seen the odd appalling Hollywood film (and all film treatments, apart from one or two European films, do a stunning injustice to the legend). Very few people today ever go back and read the original medieval legends, easily available in modern translations. But ignorance is only part of the answer to discovering why Arthur is so revered in our age. We need a secular Christ, a saviour for our modern world, and, as the millennium approaches, the name ‘Arthur’ has been seized upon and waved about as a call to arms by people who, generally, have got no idea about the king’s true character at all. Many people believe that Arthur is going to return from his un-dead existence to save us. If he does as bad a job as he did with Camelot, I personally hope he stays mouldering in his grave a while yet!
The Betrayal of Arthur is not a sop to popular culture, expectations or needs. My interpretation of the legend, its meaning and its moral is going to be highly controversial. My Arthur, as the original Arthur, is not going to be the faultless, stainless king of popular imagination.
Pan Macmillan published The Betrayal of Arthur in Australia and New Zealand in September 1999.
©1999 Sara Douglass
Editors note: The Betrayal of Arthur was originally published in 1999. It was re-released as a ebook and for Kindle on the 1st October 2013, you can download it from Momentum here.