Academic journal article Arthuriana

From Thebes to Camelot: Incest, Civil War, and Kin-Slaying in the Fall of Arthur's Kingdom

Academic journal article Arthuriana

From Thebes to Camelot: Incest, Civil War, and Kin-Slaying in the Fall of Arthur's Kingdom

Article excerpt

Because the legend of Thebes enjoyed great popularity in France when many Arthurian texts were being composed, critics have long sought to unearth connections between Camelot1 and Thebes. To date, however, they have turned up only a few isolated parallels.2 In the early twentieth century, scholars investigating the Arthur-Mordred relationship sought after, but failed to find, significant borrowing from the story of Laius and Oedipus;3 subsequent editors and critics have all but dismissed the influence ofTheban legend upon Arthurian tradition.4 The standard source-studies of the relevant Arthurian works, such as the Mort Artu, do not record the influence ofTheban narratives.5 More recently, M. Victoria Guerin has pointed out a number of parallels between the Roman de Thebes and the Vulgate cycle, but even she hesitates to definitively assert a source-influence relationship.6 One reason why scholars have found so few Theban resonances in Arthurian literature is that they have mostly looked for them in the wrong places, concentrating on Oedipus and the Vulgate cycle's Mordred. Yet Oedipus is not the central protagonist of the legend of Thebes in the Middle Ages. Ultimately basing their works on Statius' Thebaid, medieval authors instead focus upon the conflict between Polynices and Eteocles, the incestuously born sons of Oedipus whose struggle to claim the rule ofThebes tears apart the kingdom. Oedipus, whose story figures so prominently in the ancient Greek legend of Thebes, barely features in the Thebaid and its medieval retellings. Once one looks beyond Oedipus to the characters, scenes, and motifs that loom largest in the medieval reworkings ofTheban legend, their extensive influence upon Arthurian texts becomes obvious. As this article will show, Theban narratives constitute one of the most important bodies of literary intertexts for the medieval Arthurian tradition.

Alongside Troy, the city-state of Thebes furnished a famous classical antecedent to which authors and audiences looked to make sense of the history of Arthur's kingdom. However, whereas connections to Troy cast a mantle of fame and legitimacy upon the monarch's shoulders, references to Thebes served as a means for Arthur's biographers to explore the darker side of Camelot. The Theban elements in Arthurian tradition grow progressively stronger in successive retellings of Arthur's biography. A nascent general parallel to the story ofThebes can already be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, for civil war and kin-slaying destroy Arthur's kingdom. The authors of the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles solidify this link by adding increasingly detailed references to Theban motifs of incest, fraternal war, and patricide; subsequently, these elements become a fixed part of Arthurian tradition, appearing in the works of many later authors. The references are sparsest in the earliest work of the original Lancelot-Grail trilogy, the Prose Lancelot; they grow stronger and more explicit in the Mort Artu and Estoire de Merlin; and, finally, in the Post-Vulgate revision of the Merlin-story, the Suite du Merlin (also known as Huth Merlin), they become central to plot and theme. This suggests that the authors of the later works recognize the allusions present in the earlier texts and expand upon them.7 Thus, the interweaving of Arthurian and Theban legends occurs in several phases: the Lancelot-Grail trilogy introduces the motifs of incest and patricide; these are developed more fully in the Estoire de Merlin; then, the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin makes them central to the rise and fall of Arthur's kingdom. Moreover, the engagement of Arthurian writers with the matter ofThebes does not stop there; later authors, such as Sir Thomas Malory and the poet of the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure add Theban echoes of their own. Throughout the Middle Ages, Arthurian writers keep drawing connections between Camelot and Thebes, furnishing their stories with motifs and scenes that evoke the distinctly Theban constellation of incest, civil war, and kinslaying. …

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