Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


“Turn, traitor untrew”:
Altering Arthur and Mordred in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

William David Floyd

The Alliterative Morte Arthure stands as a pivotal text in the range of Arthurian literature. The work provides a sort of stylistic segue from the kind of military models provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Layamon’s Brut, to the more romantic and chivalrous types suggested in Wace and developed to great success by Chrétien de Troyes and Malory. The work fulfills this role by performing two important technical functions that would later color most interpretations of Arthur’s legend. Firstly, it establishes a more human, imperfect, Arthur, whose flaws and weaknesses provide a new depth to the somewhat one-dimensional embodiment of medieval warfare previously offered. Secondly, it examines the peripheral endeavors of Arthur’s knights, not only lending to the concept of the court’s grandeur, but also bringing to the fore certain knights’ particular personalities and characteristics.

Due in part to this stylistic manner, the Alliterative Morte presents the reader with at least two questions in regard to characterization. One is the drastic change Arthur undergoes some halfway through, from prudent and virtuous king to cruel and reckless tyrant. The other involves the baffling change Mordred makes from humble and reluctant surrogate to murderous adulterer. Certain narrative gaps exist in the text wherein some explanation might otherwise justify these developments. However, we are offered some recourse to reconciling these factors. Because the poet saw it necessary to concentrate a good deal on the actions of these knights, it seems logical to consider their literary operation.

Such an approach necessitates addressing the technical function of the episodes featuring Gawain, Cador, and Priamus, which do not feature Arthur at all. Much of the criticism of the Alliterative Morte focuses purely on Arthur, but doing so not only disregards significant parts of the text, it ignores the corollary of their inclusion at key points of the story. Without being acknowledged as developmental techniques, the knight episodes suffer from appearing to be self-indulgent deviations lacking any real contribution to the tale other than mere entertainment. By stressing the importance of the knight episodes, the poet is able to comment on Arthur’s transformation through the medium of extraneous characters. By employing the chanson de gest tradition with episodes strategically placed within the work’s structure, he provides a response to and comment on the otherwise unexplained change Arthur undergoes, and, by extension, that of Mordred as well. This parallel development will culminate in the final conflict between the two at the poem’s end.

Because of some disagreement among scholars, it is important first to establish the fact that Arthur does in fact undergo a change during the story. John Eadie states that “the poem at no point offers any condemnation of Arthur’s conduct which it presents throughout as entirely consistent and entirely praiseworthy” (2), and that “there is no point in the development of the story . . . where anything occurs which in any way modifies the picture of Arthur as the valiant and just conqueror” (3). Jeff Westover, meanwhile, maintains that the king overplays the hand he is given and abuses his role as king (315). Arthur’s courage and willingness to confront his enemies certainly remain intact throughout the work, and we find Arthur at the beginning every bit as admirable and praiseworthy as Eadie maintains, but ultimately the king exhibits obvious faults in judgment that contribute to a clear deterioration of his character.

Arthur’s initial prudence is easily demonstrated in several early scenes. He is inclined to take counsel, assembling his knights to discuss the threat of Lucius. When Sir Cador displays excitement about the prospect of war, a level-headed Arthur reprimands an enthusiasm that “hurles forth upon heved, as thy herte thinkes” (“hurl out of your head what your heart thinks”; 262). 1 Arthur will later again extol Cador, whose impetuousness imperils the lives of Arthur’s knights. The king, too, shows prudence when the Roman senators appeal to him for mercy after the battle with Lucius; he does grant them mercy, but notably by his own power. To defer to any other authority when before the vanquished, even that of God, would suggest a weakness a victorious king would not wish to convey. Joseph L. Grossi calls Arthur’s conduct here “laudable because it is merciful but also because his diction ’civilizes’ the aftermath of battle by presenting the granting of life as an unmerited act of patronage” (294).

Of particular note is the episode featuring Arthur’s battle with the giant of Mont St Michel. While this episode features an Arthur who is, at this point, generally as admirable and praiseworthy as Eadie claims, the narrative even so early on contains subtle details that foreshadow the moral deterioration the king will undergo. In contrast to the giant, of course, Arthur is the embodiment of law and cultural structure. As much as the giant is all that society shuns and abhors, Arthur is the paragon of society. Arthur’s virtuousness is even further emphasized when he stabs the giant with a blow that does not kill, nor even seem to faze him, while a hit “just to the genitals and jagged them in sonder” (“just to the genitals, jaggedly severing them”; 1123) nearly accomplishes the task. The success of this wound reminds the reader of the more primal impulses that incite the giant to action, a kind of basic instinct that Arthur will later exhibit against Mordred. And we find within the giant’s consumption of children and his collection of beards premonitions of Arthur’s later, less civilized manner. We may note the symbolic aspect of Arthur’s retrieval of the giant’s club and kirtle, elements of war and attainment, about which Westover comments, “Perhaps the one relic he claimed after the battle reflects even so soon in the poem an incipient overreaching” (315).

This manner of overreaching is clearly evident as Arthur looks onto Lorraine and ponders, “how he may conquer by craft the kith that he claimes” (“how to conquer by ability the country he claimed”; 2393). Lucius has been defeated at this point, and we’ve only the mention of the rebel Duke of Lorraine to offer any justification for a military commencement into the area. As Arthur looks upon Lombardy, he states, “in yon likand land lord be I think” (“of this lovely land I intend to be lord”; 3109). Evidence of Arthur’s losing his rationale becomes more evident as he invades Lorraine. Here, we see a shockingly impetuous Arthur rushing without armor into the path of crossbowmen. Such zeal is comparable with that of Cador against the Middle Easterners, and while on one level it is admirable, it is nonetheless an unwarranted and reckless action that could have left Arthur’s realm with no ruler.

Ultimately, we witness, too, with Arthur’s commencement into Tuscany, a strain of unnecessary cruelty and destruction that is somewhat appalling in contrast to the civilized conduct of the same king who earlier wept upon hearing of casualties brought about by Lucius’ ambush. Of Arthur‘s military move, the text states that “ministeres and masondewes they mall to the erthe,/ Churches and chapels chalk-white blaunched” (“holy buildings and hospitals they hammered to the ground,/ churches and chapels painted chalk-white”; 3038-39), he “tourmentes the pople,/ Wrought widowes full wlonk wrotherayle singen,/ Oft werye and weep and wringen their handes” (“torments the people,/ worshipful widows he made wail in woe,/ cursing and crying and clasping their hands”; 3153-55). Far from being what Eadie calls “valiant and just,” Arthur, “spoiles dispiteously” (“plunders pitilessly”; 3159), “spendes unsparely that spared was long” (“consumes without stint what had been saved with care”; 3160), and is said to “revel with rich wine, riotes himselven” (“carouse with rich wine and revel joyously”; 3172) even while “despite is full huge” (“terrible was the bitterness”; 3163).

And later, when Arthur must leave to face Mordred, he leaves Sir Howell in charge. We may recall that it was Howell’s land that was ravaged by the giant, against whom Howell was evidently powerless. The choice of Howell to manage affairs in Arthur’s absence seems even more imprudent than the appointment of Mordred who, in his defense, expresses no desire to lead. The same king, then, who takes offense at Lucius’ claims to his lands lays his own claims to other lands and even decimates them in the process. The same military leader who has the sound mind to counsel with his men about Lucius’ threat later insists on attacking Mordred’s army of 60,000 with only 1,800 men. The same Christian hero who distributes wealth to the victims of the giant of Mont St Michel and has a church erected in honor of the murdered duchess later has monasteries, hospitals, and churches destroyed. It becomes clear that the valiant and just Arthur of the poem’s beginning eventually distorts into a creature ruled by a lust for power, an abuse of his dominion, and a lack of prudence.

How are we to reconcile this change in character? Clearly, we are to infer from this a lesson concerning the potential pitfalls of power and the moral complexities of warfare. But what of the aforementioned knight episodes? I argue that these episodes assist the reader in understanding the character shifts expressed by Arthur and Mordred. It is as though the knights were the facets of a diamond that comprise the totality of Arthur, and their experiences reveal aspects of his personality and, by extension, Mordred’s as well.

The episodes featuring Sir Gawain with the Romans and Sir Cador with the Middle Easterners are strategically placed after Arthur’s battle with the giant and prior to his defeat of Lucius. Placed where they are in the structure of the story, these two episodes offer insight into the change Arthur will undergo in subsequent episodes. For example, when Gawain skirmishes with the Romans, we see exemplified a temper and inability to curtail emotions that ultimately will prove to be one of Arthur’s failings. Gawain’s decapitation of Sir Gayous, followed by his abrupt departure, result in a conflict that possibly could have been avoided had Gawain shown the kind of tact and reserve, say, that Arthur exhibited in dealing with the Roman ambassadors. The reader is here given a foreshadowing of the impetuous and indiscreet kind of enthusiasm that incites Arthur later to rush unarmored into the hail of crossbowmens’ fire, or engage Mordred‘s army when sorely outnumbered.

We see the same foolhardy zeal in Sir Clegis’ challenge in the following episode, when the British army encounters the enemy in the forest. And afterwards, when Clegis informs Cador of the encounter, Cador reacts with a fury akin to Gawain’s previous display, desiring battle “whiles I in wrath lenge” (“while feeling such fury”; 1737). As we saw earlier in Arthur’s court, Cador shows the kind of unchecked lust for war that Arthur later will convey with his moves on Lumbardy and Tuscany. Positioned, then, as they are, the Gawain and Cador episodes comment strongly on those framing them. Gawain and Cador tend more toward the kind of primal urges found in the giant of Mont St Michel, and their volatile responses presage Arthur’s own eventual lapse of prudence.

The episode with Gawain and Priamus, meanwhile, cleverly precedes Arthur’s arguably unnecessary exertion of power, marching on Lorraine, Lombardy, Metz, and Tuscany after Lucius is defeated. Again we are presented with the impetuous Gawain, who this time rallies his forces against the Duke of Lorraine despite his being severely outnumbered. Sir Florent, the untried youth, in ironic contrast to the experienced Gawain, warns, “if any folly befall the faut shall be ours” (“if misfortune befall us, the fault will be ours”; 2737). Priamus, too proclaims that they have “fully too few to fight with them all” (“too few by far to fight with them all”; 2742). But Gawain persists, and another parallel emerges with the death of Gawain’s ward, Chastelayne, whose demise is a result of Gawain’s decision, and Arthur’s reaction to Gawain’s own death at the hands of Mordred.

We see in the Gawain and Priamus episode an encounter between two similar forces whose exertion of power is upon opponents not only of equal rank, but who ultimately are on the same side. Here the poet is given the opportunity to comment on two aspects of Arthur’s development: an unnecessary use of power, as Arthur will employ in his subsequent conquests; and a foretaste of the final conflict of Arthur and Mordred, where each is so seriously wounded that neither can claim victory. Gawain and Priamus join forces after their stalemate and are healed by magical means, but Arthur and Mordred, by contrast, formerly on the same side, find themselves opposing one another, both mortally wounded, and unaided by magic.

Reading the episodes featuring the knights in this manner allows us to trace the personality traits that might lead Arthur toward his eventual destruction. In following this kind of moral descent, hinted at through the actions of the knights, we are simultaneously lent subtle indications of how the modest Mordred of the beginning becomes the treacherous usurper of the end. Because we are privy to none of Mordred’s decline, we are forced to formulate a reading explaining this transformation. Such an analysis seems the only possible reconciliation we have when faced with a character whose personality so drastically alters within the course of the story.

Like Arthur, Mordred begins the poem as an honorable, even humble, man, but by the poem’s end, he too has become a tyrant. John William Sutton states that “Mordred’s own fall runs parallel to Arthur’s” (248). When we first encounter Mordred, Arthur has chosen him to reign in his stead, but Mordred reveals the reluctance of modesty, almost pleading, “I beseek you, sir, as my sib lord,/ That ye will for charitee chese you another” (“I beg you, sire, as my relative,/ choose another for this charge, for charity‘s sake”; 681-82). Then, after some 3,000 lines devoid of Mordred, the poet refers to him as “traitour” (“traitor”; 3856), a “cherles chicken” (“churlish offspring”; 4181) who conceals himself “for the king sholde not know the cautelous wretch” (“so that the king should not know him, the cunning wretch”; 4185). By his actions, Mordred assumes the role of anti-knight, with as much severity as Arthur has abused the role of king.

Both Arthur and Mordred seem to experience fleeting moments of realization concerning the results of their actions. After killing Gawain, Mordred appears to reckon the burden of the action, and “went weepand away and weryes the stounde/ That ever his werdes were wrought such wandreth to work” (“went weeping away and bewailing the hour/ his destiny doomed him to deal such woe”; 3888-89). Meanwhile, when Arthur discovers Gawain’s corpse, he laments that the fallen knight was “worthy to be king, though I the crown bare” (“worthy to be king, though I wore the crown”; 3962), as though through his misdeeds he sees himself as unworthy of the title. But although Mordred even “romed and repent him of all his rewth workes” (“groaned and regretted all his disgraceful deeds”; 3894), and Arthur claims that Gawain is “sakless surprised for sin of mine one” (“innocent, destroyed by sins of my own doing”; 3986), there lingers a sense that the destructive tendencies of both have gained such a momentum that their ultimate fruition cannot be avoided. And, in fact, Mordred quite soon is suddenly “trines in with a trayn tresoun to work” (“goes to work treason by trickery again”; 3901).

Gawain and Priamus were previously shown to be more or less equally matched, and equally wounded. Arthur and Mordred meet on an even plane as well, both wounding the other beyond hope of victory. But the symbolic aspect of their conflict, something more or less lacking in that of the knights, is of immense importance when considering the parallel development of the king and his usurper. During their final conflict, Mordred wields “a brand bright als ever any silver/ That was Sir Arthur owen, and Utere his faders” (“a bright sword shining like silver/ that was Arthur’s own, and had been Uther his father’s”; 4215-16). This same weapon, we are told, had been formerly kept in Arthur’s Walingford wardrobe, and has been given to Mordred by Arthur‘s wife. In addition to this phallic robbery of Arthur’s masculinity, we note, too, that not only has Mordred taken the wife of Arthur, who has no biological heir, but he has begotten children with her as well. “Arthur’s failure to produce an heir to his throne,” Westover writes, “symbolizes the destruction of all his accomplishments and spells the end of his legacy” (312). Furthermore, Mordred wounds the king “in ways that threaten Arthur’s masculinity” (Sutton 284). The text says that Mordred “strikes/ The felettes of the ferrer side” (“strikes/ the loins of the farther side”; 4236-37). The Benson edition indicates that this is a hit to Arthur’s loins (259), and Westover describes it as “a wound which marks the end of both the king’s heroic enterprise and his royal lineage” (310). Interestingly, Arthur receives the same wound that brought down the giant of Mont St Michel, reminding us that, by this point, Arthur is led not by reason and prudence, but by more primal urges.

Arthur, though, is still capable of retaliation. At first, he “swappes off the sword hand” (“slashes off the hand that held the sword”; 4244). But it is when he “the fente up-reres,/ Broches him in the brand to the bright hiltes” (“the vent raises,/ penetrates him with the sword up to the hilt”; 4249-50), that Arthur exacts an equally symbolic stroke. For, according to Sutton, the fente is the cover protecting Mordred’s rear, a detail lost in modern definitions, so Arthur actually kills the traitor by driving the sword into his backside. 2 With what Sutton calls “an act of symbolic retribution” (280), Arthur and Mordred are rendered equally emasculated.

Like Gawain and Priamus at their battle’s end, with Mordred slain and Arthur mortally wounded, the two have exerted their force to no avail. Each has crippled the other’s potential, and done symbolic and literal injury to the other’s masculinity. It is with this final conflict that the alliterative poet has brought to completion his rendering of both characters. Having subtly painted psychological portraits throughout the work by utilizing the idiosyncrasies of the knights, he has responded consistently to Arthur and Mordred’s respective moral declines, and brought their parallel development to its fruition.


1Translations are mine. Return.

2 The textual evidence for Sutton's reading comes from his interpretation of the word “fente,” which the MED defines as (a) a slit in a robe extending from the neck down (usually ornamented and closed with a brooch); (b) a slit in a coat of mail, or flap covering the slit. Definition (a) would suggest that the slit is in the front of the apparel, and Sutton admits to conflicting interpretations of the term but relies on a linguistic link of “fente” to "anus," noting its etymological relation to the Middle English vent, "which has among its definfitons 'the anus of a human being' (MED, s.v. vent n. (2)a)" (283). Return.


Works Cited

The Alliterative Morte Arthure. King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthure and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Rev. Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications for TEAMS, 1994.

Eadie, John. “The Alliterative Morte Arthure: Structure and Meaning.” English Studies 63 (1982): 1-12.

Grossi, Jr., Joseph L. “The Question of the King’s Grace in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, 2320.” Notes and Queries 47 (2000): 293-95.

Sutton, John William. “Mordred’s End: A Reevaluation of Mordred’s Death Scene in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” The Chaucer Review 37 (2003): 280-85.

Westover, Jeff. “Arthur’s End: The King’s Emasculation in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” The Chaucer Review 32 (1988): 310-24.