Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Paladin (Part 3E): The King and his Knights

Initially I was planning on summarizing only the key characters in the Arthurian legends and keep it to one blog post. However, it did not seem right to me to keep my listing to just a few knights, as there were quite a few that had significant roles to play in the greater mythos. In fact, I would go on to say that depending on which version of the story one reads, the different knights play a larger or smaller role depending on what the writer is trying to illustrate. In my previous blogs, I have tried to keep the summaries at a high level that is in keeping with the most common understanding of their part in the legends.

For this blog, I am going to hit on what I consider to be the most important six knights in the legend. I am sure that there are readers out there that have their favorites and would be more than willing to quibble with me on my selection, and that is fine with me. If everyone agreed on every topic, there would not be much enjoyment in the passion of the debate. This is perhaps why I enjoy discussing sports so much, as before the game is play, no one really knows what is going to happen, but I digress. In addition to the summaries for the knights, I will also include my brief commentary on the knights in question; in order to better illustrate what is significant about that knight in the large myth cycle.

King Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. He was raised by Ector, and at a tournament in London pulled Excalibur from the stone and became King of the Brits. Following a successful campaign against the rebel kings, he united the kingdom and married Guinevere. He then proceeded to create the Round Table of knights to celebrate chivalry and the code of knighthood, with Lancelot as his champion. Unfortunately, Lancelot’s affair with the queen destroyed all that he had created and led to civil war. With his attention diverted, Mordred seized the throne, which ultimately led to the Battle of Camlann, where they both perish.

Commentary: King Arthur is ultimately the tragic hero of the myth cycle. He starts with such promise, and then falls as the kingdom is divided by war. There is much hope at the beginning of his reign. The rebel kings are defeated and they come to terms with him. The noble ideals of the round table are put into place. One can not be but optimistic about such a beginning. I tend to think of him as a King David of sorts, in that David had a humble beginning, but then falters as he gets older. There is a great line spoken by Merlin in Excalibur that I think has special meaning here:

And look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then... this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, 'I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!' For it is the doom of men that they forget.

And forget they did. There is a cycle here that is repeated in tragic literature. It starts with the grace of humble beginning, which is followed by extreme confidence that encroaches to arrogance that is ultimately the downfall of kings. In Homer this is the hubris of heroes, and in this tale it is no different. In Malory’s tale, Arthur represents the ideal of the royal monarchy and medieval institutions, but that ideal can not hold up under the weight of reality and will eventual succumb to corruption and incompetence which will be its downfall.

Sir Lancelot was generally considered to be the greatest of King Arthur's knights and plays a significant part in many of Arthur's victories. He was most famous for his affair with Arthur's wife Guinevere and the role he played in the search for the Holy Grail. In addition, he was also the father of Galahad. Prior to the quest for the Grail, Lancelot was seduced by Elaine, daughter of the Fisher King, into believing that she was Guinevere, and he sleeps with her, with the end result being the birth of Galahad. When he realized what had happened, Lancelot lost himself and was exiled from the court for many years. Upon his return to court, Lancelot took part in the Grail Quest with Perceval and Galahad, though as an adulterer, he was only allowed a glimpse of the Grail itself. It was instead his son, Galahad, who achieved the Grail. Ultimately, Lancelot's affair with Guinevere was the destructive force of the kingdom, resulting in the death of Gawain's brothers, the estrangement of Lancelot and Gawain, and Mordred's betrayal of King Arthur.

Commentary: Lancelot is the other tragic hero in this story. He is blessed with the strength and valor that can not be matched in battle, and he wins glory and fame for himself. An obvious comparison in this regard can be made to Achilles, as they are both unbeatable in battle. In Lancelot’s case, it is not battle that does him in, but it is in the adulterous affair with the Queen, which can only end badly. For the first part of the story, he does control his lust, but he does not hold out, and it only becomes a matter of time before the opportunistic take advantage of this flaw in his armour. His fate is sealed with his first kiss, and betrayal follows shortly there after. A tragic finish to what should have been the shinning example of Camelot.

Sir Galahad was the son of Lancelot and is renowned for his gallantry and purity. He was the knight that successfully completed the Quest of the Holy Grail.

Commentary: In contrast to both King Arthur and Lancelot is Galahad. Galahad does represent the best of the best in terms of knightly character. He his beyond reproaches, and reaches a piety that borders on the divine. It is easy to look at Galahad as ultimate example of the Paladin, and I agree, but it is ultimately an unplayable paladin, which I will expand upon in my upcoming blogs. Galahad represents more than just an ideal of knighthood. He is the persona of Christ, complete with his ascension into heaven upon complete of the Grail Quest. He is the shinning beacon that opposes (and sometimes repulses) the tarnished characters of the rest of the knights. Clearly one can point to Galahad and declare victory for the ideals of the Round Table, but I would have to say nay, he is the extreme example of why it will not work, and why the hubris of man cannot be made righteous by lofty ideals. One can argue that Galahad specifically did not associate with the knights, as if he did, his purity would become tarnished as well. When I first read The Once and Future King, one of my first thoughts was, “Why do the knights hate him so.” That was a very interesting observation, as I think deep down inside the other knights had judged themselves, and found that they had come up short on the scale, and to be in his presence was a harsh reminder of how far short of the goal they were. To sum it up, Galahad was not human, but rather divine.

Sir Percival was the son of Pellinore, and was most famous for his involvement in the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Commentary: In my mind, Percival is a ‘tweener character. He did not gain glory in physical battle, but he was the companion that made it to the Holy Grail, and was witness to the glory that was Galahad. He is the bridge between the noble Galahad and the other knights. In some versions, Percival was the one that found the Grail. In this scenario, the flawed character or Percival (flawed in comparison to Galahad) is allowed to touch that which is holy, which is symbolic of the Christian themes of the salvation of our flawed condition. There is much hope in this symbolism. Yet, to me, it feels right to have Galahad be the Grail hero, even though it casts doubt on our own ability to save ourselves. Between Galahad and Percival, the Christian themes burst out, and serve as the contrasts to the fading pagan religions. This ultimately is the victory of Christianity, as Merlin, who represents the old ways, was not able go on the quest for the holy relic, and thus had not chance for victory.

Sir Tristan was the main character of the Tristan and Isolde story. He was the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, sent to fetch Isolde back from Ireland to wed the king. However, he and Isolde accidentally consume a love potion while en route and fall helplessly in love. The pair undergo numerous trials that test their secret affair. He was frequently cited as the second best knight behind Lancelot.

Commentary: In Malory’s work, Tristan has a whole section devoted to the tale. To be honest, it has a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel to it. Two star crossed lovers, unable to make right their situation, as King Mark stands right in the way. In essence, this is a mini version of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle, without the dire consequences that would come out of that doomed situation.

Sir Mordred was Arthur's illegitimate son by his half sister Morgause. He was the main villain of the Arthurian legends and considered to be the destroyer of the kingdom. His end came at the Battle of Camlann, where both he and Arthur perish.

Commentary: Mordred is the villain of the story, and what a villain he makes. He is a backstabber, an opportunist, and a destroyer of kingdoms. He is the architect of destruction. When it comes to villainy, what is not to like about Mordred. Even in his birth, he is illegitimate, which sings to what is to come. In some of the tales, he is watered down, and that strikes me as a bit anti-climatic. With a tale this large, we need a villain that is up to the part. The best part about tragedy is that the heroes have set it up. All it needs is a little push that the house of cards that is Camelot comes crumbling down. In the end, this is the statement on the medieval institutions of royal lineage. It can not hold up over time, and will end in failure as sustained system of government. However romantic the tale of a young knight pulling out Excalibur from the stone is, and there is a definitely an epic feel to that story, the buzz saw of reality will always rip away the dreams from practicality. Mordred, in this case, is that saw.
Paladin Series Summary
For ease of reading, I will provide the links to all the blogs in the series:

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