Dark Prophecies and Evil Half-brothers – more of why I love sf/f

A scan of my own copy of The Wicked Day, by Mary Stewart, purchased back in 1983. (Click to embiggen)
A scan of my own copy of The Wicked Day, by Mary Stewart, purchased back in 1983. (Click to embiggen)
In the last two weeks I have written about the first three books in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series. The first three books are first-person narratives told from Merlin’s point of view, while the fourth book is told in third-person, mostly from both Mordred and Arthur’s points of view. Part this choice was necessitate by the fact that the crucial parts of Mordred’s story happen after the death of Merlin, so Merlin can’t narrate it. And if you’re familiar with the classic Arthurian legend, you know that both Mordred and Arthur die at the same time, so neither of them could be the narrator.

Even within the third-person narrative, Stewart shifts perspective. The opening of the book is told in an omniscient viewpoint, the narrator revealing the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. While the bulk of the book is subjective, in some chapters the reader is privy to Mordred thoughts but sees all the other characters through his eyes only. In other chapter’s we are in Arthur’s perspective. Then at the end, she moves t a more objective viewpoint, though not fully omniscient. Anyway, I’m spending so much time talking about this viewpoint stuff, which you might be inclined to think of as the mere mechanics of writing, because in a completely different sense, The Wicked Day is all about viewpoints. Several important plot points turn on the fact that one or more characters is operating on incomplete or completely mistaken understanding. And the theme is about perspectives…

The Wicked Day was different for me, personally. It was the only one out of the series that I knew about before it was published. I couldn’t afford the hardback, so I wound up waiting anxiously for the paperback. Once a release date was announced, I was counting the days. That’s how much I loved the first three. One of the two friends I spent so much time debating the third book with was just as anxious for the fouth book to come out as I was.

As she did with the rest of the legend, Stewart concocted a series of plausible events that could explain all of the contradictory portions of traditional stories. In doing so, she makes Mordred a sympathetic character, rather than the villain of pure evil that he is usually portrayed as. Which is why so much of the plot hinges on misunderstandings and misinformation.

During the first part of the book, Merlin is still alive. Mordred is a baby being raised in secret by a fisherman and is wife somewhere in the Orkney Islands. The fisherman is under the mistaken notion that the baby is the bastard child of King Lot of Orkney. His wife is more astute, and realizes the the child is the bastard of Lot’s wife, Queen Morgause. She’s also smart enough to suspect that the father of the baby is Lot’s ally and Morgause’s half-brother, Arthur.

Mordred’s innocent childhood is interrupted. After King Lot’s death, Queen Morgause brings Mordred home, telling him that he is the bastard son of Lot, and that she has tracked him down out of the goodness of her heart. He is suddenly saddled with a bunch of half-brothers (Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth). For a while Morgause is successful at convincing Mordred, as she has already convinced her other sons, that she is wise and good, and that it is only because of the evil and conniving Merlin that Arthur and other people think she is evil. Her indoctrination of Mordred goes well until she tries to seduce him, which backfires rather spectacularly.

The five boys wind up in Camelot, Mordred learns that he is actual Arthur and Morgause’s son. Arthur tries to establish a relationship with his son, while encouraging the other four to becoming great knights. There is a lot of intrigue with the brothers. One of them, Gaheris, is obviously in love with their mother (and not in the wholesome way), and so goes particularly crazy when they find out their mother has taken a lover. Gaheris kills Morgause and tries to kill the nobleman she was having an affair with, and is barely prevented from doing so by Mordred and the other brothers.

Mordred, meanwhile, has developed an unhealthy fixation on his father’s wife. Later, when the rumors begin circulating of an affair going on between Sir Bedwyr and Guinevere, the half-brothers have little difficulty convincing Mordred to assist in the plot against Bedwyr. Unfortunately, the trap results in two of the brothers being killed, and Mordred seriously wounded.

This is particularly bad because it happens while Arthur is away fighting a small war somewhere, and Bedwyr and Mordred had been left as co-regents. The whole fight with Bedwyr certainly makes it look as if Mordred is trying to steal his father’s kingdom. Later, when news that Arthur has died in battle arrives at Camelot, Mordred proceeds to secure the kingdom, not because he’s trying to steal it, but because he believes his father is dead. Except the message had been wrong, Arthur is still alive. But by the time Mordred knows that, the other stories that seem to indicate Mordred has seized the kingdom, have reached Arthur.

And so on.

Eventually they meet, each at the head of an army. Arthur and Mordred each indicate they are willing to negotiate. There is a private conversation which, to those observing from a distance, appears to go well, perhaps peace and reconciliation is possible. Except someone on one side or the other draws a sword because of a snake, someone on the other side thinks it was a hidden signal, and battle is joined. And it all ends more or less the way the legends say.

Each of the books in this series included a section in the back where Stewart summarizes the classic legends, and then explains the sources she used for inspiration, and why she made the choices she made. Mordred story is probably the most contradictory of any of the Arthurian legends, and it was a very tricky task to try to make something coherent out of them.

The Wicked Day is not just a tragedy, it is a tragedy sandwiched between misfortunes, wrapped in calamity, and covered with heartbreak. In an interview I read while waiting for the book to come out in paperback, Stewart said that the hardest part about writing the book was that she came to sympathize with Mordred so much, she kept trying to think of ways for him the escape his fate. Specifically, she admitted that in the earlier books she had Merlin make his dark prophecies simply because in all the legends, Mordred is Arthur’s downfall.

Just as with The Last Enchantment, I wound up getting into an argument with one friend about the book. He was fixated on the sexuality. The legends surrounding Mordred are all about incest. He’s conceived during an incestuous tryst between Arthur (unaware) and Morgause, and all subsequent events in his myth seem to be either tainted or cursed by that original sin—which wasn’t Mordred’s fault. I thought the lesson to draw from that is that our lives can be burdened, even ruined, by actions outside our control; just because bad things happen to us, it doesn’t mean we deserve them. My friend thought that the lesson was if sin touches your life, no matter who obliquely, you must resist and renounce it or it will ensnare you, too.

Like many of our arguments at stage in our friendship, there was a lot of subtext. I was no longer clinging to the facade of my faith, trying to find a way to keep believing. By that point I was conscious that it was a facade I was holding up just to keep from being rejected by my family and friends. I absolutely knew that I wasn’t strictly heterosexual, and was inching closer and closer to admitting to myself that I was gay. My friend was quite deeply ensconced in the fundamentalist evangelical camp, and never missed an opportunity to shut down any conversational hint I made about bisexuality or fluid sexualities, et cetera.

I didn’t generally like tragedies, but The Wicked Day gave me a new appreciation for them. And the lesson I drew from it wasn’t just that bad things can happen to good people, but that good people can make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, and suffer great tragedies, but that still didn’t mean that they were essentially bad. That evil was about intention. While many claim that death is the wage of sin, death is really just the wage of life. It doesn’t matter that we can’t prevent the ultimate fate, what matters is what we try to do with the time we have before it happens.

Or, as Angel put it in one of that show’s best moments, “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”

2 thoughts on “Dark Prophecies and Evil Half-brothers – more of why I love sf/f

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