Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Once and Future Childslayer: Guy Gavriel Kay's Inversion of Malory's Morte Darthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Once and Future Childslayer: Guy Gavriel Kay's Inversion of Malory's Morte Darthur

Article excerpt

The range of responses to the Arthurian legends in modern fantasy fiction is overwhelming. From momentary 'grace-notes' to whole-sale adaptation of the legend, late-twentieth-century fantasy writers have made Arthur a staple of the fantasy genre. The Arthur story has been used in almost every way imaginable, though some aspects have proven more fruitful than others. The Grail legend, the symbol of the Fisher King, and the doomed love-triangle of Tristan and Iseult loom large; many fantasy and science-fiction writers also capitalize on the 'time travel' element opened up by Sir Thomas Malory's 'once and future king' phrase in The Morte Darthur.1 Interestingly, Merlin and other characters travel in time more often in modern fantasy than Arthur himself, the original 'once and future' character.2 Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian fantasy writer, does use a time-traveling Arthur in his fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry; however, unlike many fantasy authors, Kay uses the Arthurian story and the 'return of the king' angle not just as a popular legend or trendy motif, but as a means of staking out a philosophical argument about the nature of freedom and free will. Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry is unique among modern fantasy in its reading of Malory's rex quondam rexque futurus prophecy: Kay reads the return of Arthur not as an honor but rather, as a curse.3 Moreover, the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle is envisioned, in the series, not as a cause of the fall of Camelot but as a punishment for the young Arthur's killing of the boatload of children on Mayday in his attempt to forestall Merlin's prophecy about Mordred. A minor incident in Malory is thus reinterpreted by Kay as the defining moment in Arthur's reign.4 Most importantly, these changes are not merely 'plot' revisions or 'updatings' of the story. Rather, through these changes Kay offers a profound commentary on key themes of Malory's work: the roles prophecy, fate, and free will play in the lives of both commoners and kings. In Malory, fate is inevitable and the characters are inexorably moved to the tragic ending; in Kay, the characters have free will and can choose to act against prophecy or 'fate'. Kay thus both points up the feeling of inevitability in the Morte Darthur and shows that actually, Arthur did make choices that could have averted the tragedy.

THOMAS MALORY'S 'OTHER' MAY PASSAGE

In Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, two key stories open with the invocation of the month of May, when 'every lusty harte begynnyth to blossom and to burgyne.'5 The importance of the 'May passages' is a commonplace among scholars of the Morte Darthur. The significance or meaning of the passages is debated; nonetheless, few Malory scholars would dispute the claim that one's interpretation of at least the first 'May passage' fundamentally colors one's interpretation of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere and, ultimately, the causes of the fall of Camelot.6 Both 'May passages' draw on the trope, pervasive in medieval literature, of the 'May morning,' which links the renewal of springtime with the onset of human romantic love.7 The first passage explicitly connects the 'May morning' literary trope with the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, calling Guinevere a 'trew lover' (Vinaver III.1120.12, Field I.842.11); the second passage inverts the trope to increase the shock to the reader when 'wynter wyth hys rowghe wyndis and blastis' metaphorically interrupts the May morning, and the 'floure of chyvalry' is destroyed and slain (Vinaver III.1161.4-8; Field I.870.6-10).

What few scholarly critics have noted, however, is that there are not two but three 'May' passages in the Morte Darthur. The first one comes well before the later, better-known passages, well before Lancelot and Guinevere are even introduced, and stands in stark contrast to the later passages. When Arthur is still a young king, Malory tells us, he

lette sende for all the children that were borne in May-day, begotyn of lordis and borne of ladyes; for Merlyon tolde kynge Arthure that he that sholde destroy hym and all the londe sholde be borne on May-day. …

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