Of Quests and Kings

Twelve months ago, I thought 2020 was getting its worst out of the way in January, because my country was on fire. This did not feel like optimism at the time. It’s been a long game of Apocalypse Bingo, everyone, how are you all doing? I truly hope that December has been kinder to you and that 2021 brings much less awful surprises for all of us.

In 2020 I committed to researching and writing twelve posts about different Arthurian legends and planned out work on a range of fiction projects. As it turns out, I picked the wrong year both for time-sensitive creative endeavours AND for getting sick every few weeks. I have to admit, this is making me a little anxious about making plans for 2021!

There were times it was very hard to keep up with Year of the Quest, but it was also one of the things that held the year together for me and made sense of months when linear time seemed to stop existing. It kept me writing, racking up just over 39 000 words, and allowed me to explore some of the more obscure stories of Arthurian legend, as well as rediscover the more famous ones. To recap the full list:

As I have said before, I am not an academic – I’m a storyteller, and one of the things that interested me was figuring out how these stories could fit together. They come from wildly disparate times, authors, countries and cultural contexts, which makes it all the more surprising and delightful to find continuity and consistent, if complex, characters. Gawain is a good example. The noble, self-sacrificing knight from The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle is very clearly the same man from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the same is true of the Gawain from Lancelot, who is widely trusted, admired and beloved. He is courtly and protective of women, quick to defend his uncle and friends, but capable of blunt speech where necessary. He is a more playful, flirtatious figure from Yvain and Perceval, but shows the same loyalty and sense of chivalry. Gawain has a temper and is capable of hot-headed decisions that he will later very much regret, but this is also the man who fought on behalf of a hurt, angry child to give her justice, the man who married for no other reason than to save his uncle’s life and then gave his cursed stranger of a wife control over her own life for the first time in a long time. He is a wonderful character.

Guinevere’s personality and motivations vary much more widely across these stories, which is hardly surprising. The goal posts for heroism in mythic women are changeable indeed. Still, setting aside the interpretation of Guinevere in Sir Launfal, where she was clearly positioned as the villain, there are certain traits that crop up in different versions. The queen is the standard of beauty for Arthur’s court, and it seems agreed that hers is a high standard, because whenever a story feels the need to emphasise for us how pretty a girl is, we’re told she outshines Guinevere. The queen herself, though, rarely seems to feel the need to compete with other women. In Geraint son of Erbin, she affectionately welcomes Enid to court and treats her like a little sister. When Gawain marries Ragnelle, Guinevere’s first concern is for her nephew, for whom she generally seems to have an uncomplicated familial love. Once his happiness is assured she is quick to publicly offer Ragnelle her praise and promises her lifelong friendship.

Guinevere is good friends with Gawain and Geraint/ Erec, but her relationships with other men tend to be pricklier. In Lancelot, she is loving towards Lancelot but also exacting and quite unforgiving, and little more than dutiful towards Arthur. There is a more united front with the king in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle, but Guinevere is very much a background character in both. I wonder what she would have said women desire most? In King Arthur and King Cornwall, she mocks Arthur and cheats on him with another king. She is bitingly sarcastic towards Kay in Yvain, refusing to tolerate his bullying behaviour, and Geraint son of Erbin, The Boy and the Mantle and Perceval all show her fury when she is insulted.

Guinevere’s infidelity is one continuity; her big heart and hot temper are another. She is an amazing, complicated woman.

And what about Arthur himself? He’s set up a powerful warrior king in How Culhwch Won Olwen, but not a particularly honourable one. He is an affectionate, somewhat homoerotic friend to the protagonist of The Lay of the Were-Wolf and is shown to miss the company of his knights in Perceval, but he’s prone to falling into danger and being dug out of trouble by other people (by Gawain, usually, sometimes Lancelot). He allows Guinevere to be carried off in Lancelot and does not seem to take the insult to her seriously in Geraint son of Erbin. Wine is thrown over her in Perceval and he appears to have done…nothing about it. In The Boy and the Mantle, nearly all the women of the court are humiliated by the boy and his magical, infidelity-detector cloak (which, notably, none of the men are asked to wear!) and Arthur is just fine with this. In most of these stories he is very much the king of a chess game, the most vital piece on the board in that the stories would have no focal point without him, but incredibly limited in his capacity for action.

There is a very well-known version of Arthurian legend I did not explore this year. Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was what renewed my interest in Arthurian legend when I read it several years ago, but it is very long and would take a long time to work through.

So that’s what I’m doing next year! For Year of the King, I will be posting weekly instalments for Patreon subscribers and monthly roundups for my main blog. Patreon subscribers will be getting extra content as I continue the Dreamline book club and record readings of Andrew Lang fairy tales. I have always sort of put Andrew Lang in the mental box of ‘Not Ruth Manning-Sanders’, as they wrote retellings of quite a few of the same stories, but that’s not a particularly fair way to look at it so in 2021 I’ll be giving more of his work a go.

Best wishes for a safer, healthier, happier 2021 for all of us.

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