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‘Camlann’

July 15, 2011

All through the crop of blood and iron and death
The grass grew quickly, and the water-reeds.
The shadows lifted over Avalon:
The sun broke through the heavy-hanging mist
And kindled life amongst the apple-seeds.

Time passed. The lake is dry, the river gone;
A road curls, lazy, snakelike, through the field
Where half the grace of Logres met their ends;
Somewhere along that ley King Arthur stood,
And drove Excalibur through Mordred’s shield.

Far down beneath the skin of modern stone
A shape half-holds its impress in the earth;
A skein of rust and leather round the bone
Outlines the outflung arm, the shattered wrist;
And faintly lies along the rotten wood
A memory of black and silver bends.

*

Notes

Title: Camlann is the name of the place where, according to the Annales Cambriae “Arthur and Medraut [Mordred] fell”. The Annales are ancient, and from them we can infer that the name Camlann has been attached to the Arthurian mythos pretty much since its genesis. Nobody knows where it is. Many places have been suggested.

4: The mist encircling Avalon has been part of its otherworldly mystique since the beginning. Hence the title of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, one of the most famous reimaginings of the Arthurian legend in modern times.

5: The Welsh Otherworld from which Avalon is partly drawn is often associated with apple-trees. It’s speculated, too, that the name Avalon is ultimately from the Welsh afallach, meaning ‘apple’.

8: Logres is the name given to Arthur’s kingdom in many medieval sources. It derives from the Welsh word Lloegyr, which originally referred to that part of Romanised Britain south of a line drawn between Humber and Severn (minus Celtic Devon and Cornwall). It lives on in the modern Welsh name for England, Lloegr.

16:

Who is captain of that fellowship? said the king. Then for to fear him Sir Dinadan said that it was Sir Launcelot. O Jesu, said the king, might I know Sir Launcelot by his shield? Yea, said Dinadan, for he beareth a shield of silver and black bends. All this he said to fear the king, for Sir Launcelot was not in his fellowship. Now I pray you, said King Mark, that ye will ride in my fellowship. That is me loath to do, said Sir Dinadan, because ye forsook my fellowship.

Right so Sir Dinadan went from King Mark, and went to his own fellowship; and so they mounted upon their horses, and rode on their ways, and talked of the Cornish knight, for Dinadan told them that he was in the castle where they were lodged. It is well said, said Sir Griflet, for here have I brought Sir Dagonet, King Arthur’s fool, that is the best fellow and the merriest in the world. Will ye do well? said Sir Dinadan: I have told the Cornish knight that here is Sir Launcelot, and the Cornish knight asked me what shield he bare. Truly, I told him that he bare the same shield that Sir Mordred beareth. Will ye do well? said Sir Mordred; I am hurt and may not well bear my shield nor harness, and therefore put my shield and my harness upon Sir Dagonet, and let him set upon the Cornish knight. That shall be done, said Sir Dagonet, by my faith. Then anon was Dagonet armed him in Mordred’s harness and his shield, and he was set on a great horse, and a spear in his hand.

– Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur

Every edition is divided differently, unfortunately, but this quote is from somewhere deep in the Book of Sir Tristram. I took it from an online text of Malory here, which gives it as Book 10, Chapter 12.

The Book of Sir Tristram is a huge and sprawling segment of Malory’s opus which is very little studied considering its sheer size. Most pertinently to my interests, it’s in this bloated middle section of the Morte, in the background to other people’s stories, that Mordred actually gets a bit of characterisation. Here, we get a rare glimpse of the actual interaction between Mordred and his fellow Round Tablers before Mordred’s gone full-on villainous, and it is infinitely intriguing in the context of what happens later – a little like how everything little Anakin Skywalker did took on new nuances viewed through the lens of Vader. What do we see? Dinadan using Mordred as the patsy for a stupid joke on the bumbling King Mark; Mordred injured – he spends a lot of his time injured, being the only one of the five Orkney brothers who’s not all that great at tournament – and responding to Dinadan with a kind of tiredness suggesting this happens a lot. “Will you do well?” he says, mimicking Dinadan’s chirpiness back at him.

It’s a tiny snapshot of a character who even now, years before the rot sets in, doesn’t fit. He’s poor in combat and actually feels the injuries (as opposed to everyone else, who either heal super-fast or carry valiantly on with their livers showing) in a world where battle-prowess is the paramount measure of one’s worth. He’s the butt of the joke in a society where knights behave with the utmost politeness even to their enemies. And he’s sarcastic about it.

And the device on his arms is a field of silver and black bends.

(A bend is a stripe on a shield running from the top left to bottom right as you look. A field of bends is when the whole shield is striped in that direction. The Wikipedia page on the heraldic bend chronicles further variations.)

Malory talks about arms and armour a lot. A lot. I could write a whole paper on the significance of heraldry and armour to knightly identity in Malory, and I probably will one of these days once my dissertation is out of the way. But it’s rare that the actual crests are mentioned. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time Malory makes even passing reference to Mordred’s heraldic colours. It’s a striking design – simple, in contrasting colours, and ones that seem kind of apt to Mordred’s later role as the villain of the piece. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it used in an illustration, though, which seems a pity.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2011 3:38 pm

    This is–awesome. I love your writings about Arthur.

  2. Seamus permalink
    July 24, 2011 1:40 pm

    I read this a few days ago but didn’t have time to comment because class was about to start. Phrases from the poem have been going round my head ever since; I love it.

    Do you think I should read some of Sir Tristram? If it’s that huge, I probably won’t be able to read all of it, but are there any highlights I should home in on?

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