Mordred: Villain or Hero?

Hi folks! I’m finally back and ready to go with the article I’ve been promising about a major character in The Retreat to Avalon. As you can see, we’re going to talk about Modred. For people even slightly familiar with Arthurian legend, his name, later spelled more ominously as “Mordred”, evokes visions of malice, betrayal, and outright evil. But is it deserved? That is one of the questions addressed in my telling of the story of King Arthur. And it’s a big one, because it is central to the story of the end of Arthur’s Golden Age and the fall of “Camelot”.

With a few other Arthurian characters, Modred seems to have been an actual person. The earliest mention of Modred (Medraut in Old Welsh) comes from a manuscript called The Annals of Wales, first written down by monks in the 900’s. The Annals are a list of dates and events from about AD 445 to 954. The entry for the year 537 reports:

The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.

(You may note how I came up with the title of Book 2 of The Arthurian Age.)

That’s it. Just a name. Not even a mention of whether Arthur and Medraut were enemies or allies, or why the battle occurred. Intriguing! Investigating stuff like this is what makes writing historical fiction so much fun.

Back to the Future

Let’s jump forward to 700 years after Arthur’s life, when French and Norman-influenced writers began penning the Arthurian Romances that most people are familiar with. Unfortunately, we don’t get history from the Romances. These were the equivalent of fan-fiction novels based loosely, at best, on the ancient legends of King Arthur that came from the Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons descended from the Britons of Arthur’s era.

Sir Mordred
H.J. Ford, 1902

The “loosely based” part is where we find clues to what Camlann was about, and why Modred and Arthur are both said to have died there. There are variations to the story in the Romances, but they all revolve around the theme that Mordred tried to usurp the crown from Arthur.

There are more ancient hints about the deaths of Arthur and Modred at Camlann, but the oldest (surviving) complete story comes from The History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth around 1136. According to this version, when Arthur leaves Britain to fight the Romans in Gaul, he leaves Modred and Guinevere in charge of running the kingdom. Arthur is busy giving the uppity Romans a good lesson in manners when news comes that Modred has taken the crown of Britain for himself, and that Guinevere has broken her vows and married Modred. Arthur returns to Britain and after a series of battles, kills Mordred, but is mortally wounded. Guinevere becomes a nun and Arthur goes to the Isle of Avalon to be cured of his wounds after giving up the crown to his cousin, Constantine.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History is the basis for the surge of interest in King Arthur across Europe in the middle ages and set the overall theme that lives on through today. Changes occur with different writers. For instance, Geoffrey says that Modred is Arthur’s nephew, by his sister, Anna, and Lot, the king of Lothian. Gawain is Modred’s brother. The Welsh legends never describe Modred as Arthur’s son.

About a century after Geoffrey’s book, the Lancelot and Grail stories develop, and Mordred becomes the incestuous offspring of Arthur and his half-sister, Morganna. His character takes on a more sinister aspect than even in Geoffrey’s History.

Mordred and Morgan Le Fay
Morganna and Modred, from Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur

Mordred in The Arthurian Age

If you’ve read The Retreat to Avalon, you’ll recognize some of the details about Modred, like being the son of Lot, king of the Gododdin (an area that later becomes Lothian, a region of Scotland to this day). However, he is only second-cousin to Gawain, and not related to Arthur at all. Medieval writers seemed to believe that anyone famous must be related to their other famous contemporaries. You might also notice that Modred is extremely likeable. Charismatic, handsome, brave, and kind. He has some baggage, but who doesn’t? I didn’t just make up these details, like the story of his sister, myself.

In Welsh legend, Modred is by no means described as evil. In fact, some elegies favorably compare later Welsh warlords to the valor and good-nature of Modred. The Mabinogion describes his courtliness, calmness and purity. In the Welsh Triads poem entitled The Twenty-Four Knights of Arthur’s Court, Modred is called one of the “Three Royal Knights” of Arthur’s Court because:

There was neither king nor emperor of the world who could refuse them, on account of their beauty and wisdom in peace; while in war no warrior or champion could withstand them, despite the excellence of his arms. And therefore they were called Royal Knights.

Some legends suggest Modred acted justly, or that the deadly battle may have been avoided. There are other details, such as who he marries, which I won’t share now because of major spoilers. So why would Modred try to dethrone Arthur and end Britain’s Golden Age? History and legend suggests the motives behind Arthur’s final battle may have been more complex. Read The Strife of Camlann, out this year, to find out.

Coming Soon!

8 thoughts on “Mordred: Villain or Hero?”

  1. Looking forward to reading it. Quite appropriate as tomorrow and Sunday Margaret and I will be once again on the site of the Battle of Camlann with our a display and a bit of archery.

  2. Wow! This was an absolutely amazing read! Thank you very much for this wonderful article. Previously, while clinging only to the rather Romanticized Arthurian legend(s), I thought Mordred was the usurper incestuous son of Arthur Pendragon and his witch sister Morgana. I also watched the film ‘Excalibur’ from 1981 way back when I was still in high school (2014 to be more specific; and at that time I haven’t had enough time or tremendous interest to search for the historical truth behind King Arthur… it was one year later that I started digging deep into the Welsh origin of the whole myth/legend).

    Anyway, according to the most valuable information that I read and learnt from your website, I came to the conclusion that the, shall we say, real (or historical accurate) Mordred was far from a villain, but rather one of the most loyal knights of King Arthur himself. A hero, in a nutshell, in stark contrast to what I perceived him based on a Hollywood film. Amazing! Thank you so much, sir!

    P.S.: As I mentioned above, years later I tried to search for the truth myself and draw parallels between the fact and fiction shrouding the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. A solid proof to this is one brief article on my website:

    • Really glad you enjoyed the article! I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Modred was definitely a hero, though. Like today, there can be a lot of grey area and someone might be heroic in some ways, villainous in others. Using the clues from history and legend, I tried using some logical guesses as to what happened at Camlann, why, and how Modred gained his reputation.
      I’ll check out your blog, thanks!

      • You are very right indeed! Thank you for your balanced viewpoints and for your interest in my blog as well! Cheers, all the best, much success, health, wealth, and keep up the good work! 🙂

        P.S.: I’m a more of a Viking Age enthusiast but for some time I have seriously delving into various Celtic myths, other than that of King Arthur, and I’ve been tremendously fascinated by them, I have to admit. I will be writing more on them and publish a brand new series of articles strictly on the Celts as soon as possible. Also, let us not forget Enya’s brilliant ‘The Celts’ (a 1992 re-issue of her eponymous 1987 studio album). Sláinte! 🙂

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