or Modred (Welsh: Medraut,
Medrod, etc.) is a character in the
Arthurian legend, known as a
notorious traitor. He fought King Arthur at the
Battle of Camlann.There he was killed and Arthur fatally wounded.
Tradition varies on Mordred's relationship to
King Arthur, but he is best
known today as Arthur's illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgause.
In earlier literature, he was considered the
legitimate son of Morgause, also known as Anna, with her husband
King Lot of Orkney. His brothers or half-brothers are
Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth.
The illegitimacy angle was introduced in the Lancelot-Grail
or Vulgate Cycle, and has been taken up in most subsequent
versions. In those versions, the incest is usually accidental;
the participants are ignorant of their kinship.
In one version Morgause mistakes
King Arthur for her husband visiting her in the
night. In another Arthur rapes his sister, overtaken by lust for
her. In any case, the discovery of the incest is usually
disastrous; after hearing a prophecy that a child born on May
Day, as Mordred was, will destroy him and his kingdom, Arthur
rounds up all the noble May Babies and sends them away on a
rickety ship. The ship sinks, and the only child to survive is
Mordred, who is rescued and eventually returned to his parents.
Mordred in Arthurian Legend
Mordred appears very early in
Arthurian literature. The first
mention of him, as Medraut, occurs in the Annales Cambriae entry
for the year 537:
"The Strife (Battle) of Camlann; in which Arthur and Medraut
The Annales Cambriae themselves were completed
between 960 and 970, though their authors drew on older
material. Mordred was
associated with the Battle of Camlann even at that early date. Leslie Alcock points out this brief entry gives no information as to
whether he killed or was killed by King Arthur, or even if he was
fighting against him; the reader assumes this in the light of
later tradition. But even if he was not the notorious villain
he would later become, his appearances in the
Welsh Triads and
genealogies show he was at least a well known personage.
The earliest full account of Mordred is found in
Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, where he debuts already in
his villainous role.
Geoffrey introduces the figure of Mordred
to the world beyond Wales.
King Arthur leaves Mordred in
charge of his throne as he crossed the English Channel to wage
war on Emperor Lucius of Rome. During King Arthur's absence Mordred
crowns himself king and marries Guinevere, forcing Arthur to
return to Britain. The Battle of Camlann is fought, and Mordred
dies, while Arthur is taken across the waters to the
Isle of Avalon. Arthur's successor,
Constantine III of Britain, has to deal with the remainder of Mordred's army, led by his two sons.
A number of Welsh sources also refer to Medraut, usually in
relation to the Battle of Camlann.
One triad, based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia
Regum Britanniae, provides an account of
his betrayal of King Arthur; in another, he
is described as the author of one of the "Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Isle of Britain".
In this story he came to
King Arthur's court at Kelliwic in
Cornwall, devoured all of the food and drink, and
even dragged Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere)
from her throne and beat her.
Medraut is never considered King Arthur's son in Welsh texts,
only his nephew, though The Dream of Rhonabwy mentions that the
king had been his foster father.
However, Mordred's later
characterization as King Arthur's villainous son has a precedent in
the figure of Amr, a son of Arthur's known from only two
references. The more important of these, found in an appendix to
the Historia Britonum, describes his marvellous grave beside the
Herefordshire spring where he had been slain by his own father
in some unchronicled tragedy. What connection exists
between the stories of Amr and Mordred, if there is one, has
never been satisfactorily explained.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth and certain other sources such as the Alliterative
Morte Arthure, Mordred marries
consensually, after he steals the throne. However, in later
writings like the Lancelot-Grail or
Vulgate Cycle and Thomas Malory's
Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is not treated as a traitor and she
flees Mordred's proposal and hides in the Tower of London.
Adultery is still tied to her role in these later romances,
however, but Mordred has been replaced with Lancelot.
Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Lancelot-Grail or
Vulgate Cycle have Mordred being
succeeded by his two sons. In Geoffrey, Arthur's successor
Constantine tracks them down and kills them in their
sanctuaries; in the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle, the elder son, Melehan, is
killed by Bors, while Lancelot slays his brother.
Virtually everywhere Mordred appears, his name is synonymous
with treachery, a fate shared by Ganelon from the Song of
few works of the Middle Ages and even today,
portray Mordred as less a traitor and more a conflicted
opportunist, or even a victim of fate.
The 14th century Scottish
chronicler John of Fordun even claimed that Mordred was the
rightful heir to the throne of Britain, as Arthur was an
illegitimate child (in his account, Mordred was the legitimate
son of Lot and Anna.)
This sentiment was elaborated upon by
Walter Bower and by Hector Boece, who in his
Scotorum goes so far as to say Arthur and
Gawain were traitors
and villains who stole the throne from Mordred.
Some modern Arthurian
literature such as Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon have Morgause's sister Morgan le Fay as
Mordred's mother. Mordred remains a major villain in many modern
takes on the legend, including John Boorman's film Excalibur,
T.H. White's novel
The Once and Future King (where Mordred plays
the role of a bitter but successful populist and faux-Bolshevik)
and Hal Foster's popular comic strip Prince Valiant.
Other works treat the character differently. The Victorian poet
George Augustus Simcox wrote a poem titled Mordred My Master
from the perspective of Mordred's dog.
Mary Stewart's The Wicked
Day is told from his perspective and portrays him more
sympathetically than usual, as a victim of fate and the
machinations of his mother, whom Stewart identifies as Morgause,
illegitimate daughter of Uther.
Elizabeth Wein's The Winter
Prince portrays him similarly, as a conflicted young man doomed
by his mother's manipulations and his own jealousy of his
legitimate half-brother Lleu.
In Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord
Chronicles, Mordred is the legitimate grandson and heir of
Pendragon, and Arthur serves as the
kingdom's regent during his
In Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Medraut is
even half-Atlantean (as is Myrddin), since Lawhead makes his
mother Morgian (here Myrddin's aunt) a refugee from Atlantis.
Vivian Vande Velde's The Book of Mordred, Mordred is portrayed
as the protagonist of the story, killing an evil wizard and
saving a telepathic girl, her mother, and a witch named Nimue,
who was Merlin's student.
Similarly, Douglas Clegg's Mordred,
Bastard Son portrays the character as not only sympathetic but
heroic (he and Lancelot save
Guinevere from a murderous plot),
and in a new twist, he is Lancelot's lover.
In Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles Mordred is the illegitimate son of Arthur,
but is a good son who is not treacherous and is unjustly blamed
for his father's fall in rumours after the fact.
In the the book
Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen, Mordred is the real
name of the Winter King who plagued "The Archipelago", a world
that resembles a combination of a multitude of usually famous,
real literary works.