Jump to content

Not the Great Pendragon Campaign: moving the Roman War back where it should be. :)


Recommended Posts

Since Morien mentioned it, and, as it happens, I’ve been thinking of throwing it out for discussion: what if one put the Conquest era at the end of the campaign, or at least put the Roman War there?

Which is, obviously, where it originally was, and where it stayed through quite a lot of the tradition. The idea that Arthur’s reign ends in tragedy because of Lancelot and Guinevere is a comparatively late one that developed on the continent. Prior to that, it was because he overreached by engaging in wars too far from home, and, if I’m remembering correctly, that remains the case in English treatments that aren’t Malory. Even in the Vulgate, although the Roman War is early, the Romans and Saxons crop up again at the end in a sort of ghost of the previous versions.

Arguably, from a modern perspective, the older idea might be worth exploring with a group who’ve gone through the GPC already and might find something that departs from Malory an interesting change. An Arthur who falls because of imperial arrogance might possess certain modern resonances that might speak to people in ways in which an Arthur who falls because of his wife’s extramarital affair does not.

Thoughts? You’d obviously have to restructure the GPC , and if you didn’t want to eliminate Lancelot entirely, you might want to reduce him to his dimensions in Chrétien, so that he’s the knight who loves the queen, not the absolutely best knight ever.

Edited by Voord 99
Link to post
Share on other sites

Given how often the story of Lancelot and Guinevere and their tragic love affair has resonated in the public imagination, I suspect that a version which downplays that element might not go down that well with many.

But I can see some appeal to returning to the older approach.  For a start, the familiar Love Affair as portrayed in Malory revolves more around Lancelot than around Arthur and his kingdom; it's a tragedy more because of how it wrecks Lancelot's private life than because it destroys the kingdom.  Until the exposure of the lovers, most of the stories about Lancelot and Guinevere focus more on the consequences for Lancelot (Guinevere's jealousy drives him mad, Elaine of Astolat falls in love with him, and when he turns her down, she dies of a broken heart, Lancelot is denied the Grail because of his adultery and is devastated about it), and even when the war breaks out, the attention is more on what this means for Lancelot than for Arthur and the kingdom (to the point where we even have Lancelot making a long speech, after he's banished, about how devastating it is to be exiled from the kingdom where he won so much honor and glory, though trying to console himself with the thought that similar misfortunes befell the great men of classical antiquity, such as Hector of Troy and Alexander the Great).  Not to mention that the focus after the departure of Arthur is almost exclusively on Lancelot and Guinevere's religious retirement and Lancelot's repentance (and being forgiven by God and admitted into Heaven on his death), with Constantine of Cornwall's succeeding Arthur to the throne treated as only an afterthought.

It would also make Mordred's treachery more conclusive if he usurps the throne just as Arthur is winning a major victory over the Romans (even though it costs him a few of his best knights, such as Kay), than if he's mired in a tragic stalemate with his former best knight (a stalemate since the war's turned into a series of single combats between Gawain and Lancelot, but Gawain cannot kill Lancelot and Lancelot will not kill Gawain) - indeed, in the Malory version, Mordred's rebellion might have been a hidden blessing (the kingdom was going down in ruin anyway; at least Arthur will be fighting his last battle against the traitor and his confederates, not against the de Ganis clan in a lamentable rift, and it brings Gawain to his senses).

Edited by merlyn
  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
15 hours ago, merlyn said:

Given how often the story of Lancelot and Guinevere and their tragic love affair has resonated in the public imagination, I suspect that a version which downplays that element might not go down that well with many.

I think you’d have to tell your players up front that this will be a different Arthur that deliberately draws on things that aren’t the familiar version, but were at one time normal.  (Go with Scottish writers’ argument that Arthur was a usurper and Gawain was the rightful king all along! :))

It is interesting how persistent the “doomed by adultery” element is in the modern imagination.  “Historical Arthur” fiction that purports to imagine a post-Roman Arthur repeatedly includes it, going back at least to Rosemary Sutcliff — even though this is one element that (if you’re a believer in the historical Arthur) you can be absolutely certain was added many centuries later.  Arthur’s incest with his sister is also very often retained in that sort of novel.

As you point out, though, the modern take on the adultery element is a bit different from the medieval one:

15 hours ago, merlyn said:

 For a start, the familiar Love Affair as portrayed in Malory revolves more around Lancelot than around Arthur and his kingdom; it's a tragedy more because of how it wrecks Lancelot's private life than because it destroys the kingdom.  

I think that’s a very sharp comment: Malory moves away from the characterization of the Vulgate Arthur (who is a bit of a [expletive deleted], obviously) in favor of a more positive English portrayal , but on the level of focus and interest he replicates the French take: it’s still basically a story about Lancelot.  To some extent, I think that’s more generally true of a lot of the material: Arthur is often more of a setting element, the king whose court contains all these amazing knights, or at most a secondary character.

It’s really in modernity that people come so strongly to fuse Arthur as the great king, on the one hand, and the adultery/incest elements, on the other, into one composite story about a perfect king brought down by these two illicit sexual acts.  Both sides are there in the medieval sources, but they’re focused on in different parts of the tradition, and even Malory doesn’t assemble them in quite the way that we do. 

Edited by Voord 99
Link to post
Share on other sites

I think that Tennyson deserves the credit for the matching that you mention (for the adultery, that is, not the incest, which he omitted); his "Idylls of the King" definitely give the Love Triangle the role of destroying Arthur's kingdom - with the further touch that it's here the Love Triangle itself, rather than its mere exposure, which dooms Camelot.  In Malory and the Vulgate, it's the exposure of the Affair that ends Arthur's reign; as long as it was kept secret, the kingdom flourished, and only when Agravain and Mordred brought it into the open did the civil wars erupt.  In Tennyson, the Love Affair was dangerous even before the war began, by setting a bad example to the knights and ladies of Arthur's court (Tennyson revising a few originally unconnected tales, such as Balin and Balan, or Pelleas and Ettarde, to stress this interpretation).

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
On 1/30/2021 at 11:42 PM, Voord 99 said:

Since Morien mentioned it, and, as it happens, I’ve been thinking of throwing it out for discussion: what if one put the Conquest era at the end of the campaign, or at least put the Roman War there?

In Historia Regum Britanniae, the war with Rome is the greatest success of Arthur, and his biggest failure as well. Mordred (and Guinever) betrayed him, and usurped the throne. There is no Lancelot in this tale, and Mordred is just the nephew (no hint of incest here).

It's a good twist for sure ^^. I am not sure however it's the best story to tell. There is something really powerful about the incest, the adultery, the best knight in the world loving his queen, betraying his vows...

On 1/30/2021 at 11:42 PM, Voord 99 said:

n Arthur who falls because of imperial arrogance might possess certain modern resonances that might speak to people in ways in which an Arthur who falls because of his wife’s extramarital affair does not.

In HRB, Arthur was victorious against the Romans. The fall came from the betrayal of Mordred and Guenever, not from Arthur's hubris.

In the GPC as written, many allies of Mordred are precisely the victims of the imperial arrogance of the Britons seeking revenge.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Even in Geoffrey, it’s the fact that Arthur is away from Britain that gives Mordred his opportunity (although Geoffrey certainly sees the Roman War itself as God’s vengeance upon the Romans), reflecting a standard medieval worry about the way in which a ruler’s power was closely related to his physical proximity to his subjects.

But I am thinking more of the tradition that comes out of Geoffrey, specifically the alliterative Morte Arthure, where there is a definite case to be made that Arthur is presented as someone who takes the Roman War beyond the point at which it is just and so brings about his own downfall.  (People argue about the interpretation, but I believe it’s still considered a viable way to read the poem.  Not a Middle English specialist, and happy to be corrected.)

EDIT: This is useful: https://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/344wars.htm    See esp. the William of Rennes passage near the end, explicitly about the idea that Arthur should have been content to stay within his British kingdom.

Edited by Voord 99
  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

In Geoffrey's version, the Roman War begins just after Arthur's returned to Britain after nine years away conquering Gaul (his conquest of Gaul, incidentally, is one of the causes of the Roman War; Rome demands, not just tribute from Arthur, but that he face trial for seizing Gaul from the Roman Empire); he's just been home for a short while, and heads off for fresh conquests.  It's tempting to imagine Mordred offering himself as a king who will stay home and rule over Britain, rather than a constant absentee ruler who might even have aspirations to stay in Rome as its emperor and treat Britain as just an outlying province which he won't return to, but govern through subordinates.  (The mention in Malory that Mordred's propaganda - though Malory treats it as propaganda - claims that under Arthur was nothing but war, while Mordred brings peace, could be an echo of that.)

The Romance of Perceval in Prose (also known as the Didot-Perceval) offers its own take on the reason for Arthur's foreign wars and conquests.  After Perceval achieves the Grail, the "Adventures of Britain" disappear.  The knights of the Round Table, disappointed at the prospect of no further quests and adventures, decide to leave Arthur's kingdom and go somewhere else that does still have adventures.  Kay, alarmed, reports this to Arthur, who embarks on his wars abroad (first the conquest of Gaul, then the war with the Romans) to offer his knights activity and keep them from leaving.  (It seems almost like a foreshadowing of T. H. White's theory that the real reason why Arthur's kingdom fell was because the knights had run out of adventures, though White had a different take on that.)

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Found an 1862* edition of William of Rennes’ Gesta Regum Britanniae and skimmed the Arthur section to get a sense of exactly what his take is.  A couple of interesting points:

1) Arthur’s decision to conquer outside the British Isles is explicitly attributed to him realizing that other kings are terrified of him, which does look rather like it might be meant to suggest growing pride.  (Not explicit, though.)  The Norwegian campaign is then given careful justification, but the attack on Gaul (a much more developed narrative) isn’t.  

2) The Roman War is definitely not a good thing, and William in fact attributes it to the devil, who causes such things by inspiring human beings with sin.  The relevant sin here ends up being pride (superbia), not that this stops William from going on at some length about the other ones.  He blames the Britons and the Romans both at the start, but when he sums up, he focuses more on Roman pride as being responsible for starting the war.

3) As in other chronicle treatments,  news of Mordred’s usurpation comes after the Roman War is won.  In this version, Arthur is about to conquer more, and William says that God was opposed to these ambitions of Arthur (lit. Arthur’s vota, “vows”).  Although Mordred is presumably therefore God’s instrument, he is not at all a good person, largely because he allies himself with pagans.

So overall, it’s an interestingly complicated take on Arthur, where he does seem to be at fault for going too far beyond the just war, but this is not a matter of him being straightforwardly the main person in the wrong.  William was a distinguished expert in canon law, I believe, so I imagine there’s quite a lot of this where an educated person at the time would be going, “Aha! So that action would mean...”

 

*Siân Echard’s translation on her webpage linked above corresponds to lines at two different places in the text I looked at.  Since she’s one of the world’s leading experts on medieval Latin treatments of Arthur and I am, umm, not at all that, I suspect that there are significant variant versions, and she’s translating a better text than I have available to me.

Edited by Voord 99
Link to post
Share on other sites
20 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

As in other chronicle treatments,  news of Mordred’s usurpation comes after the Roman War is won.

As I mentioned above, that gives the chronicle version one advantage over the romance version (as found in the Vulgate Cycle and Malory), despite the romance version having greater pathos.  In the romance version, when Mordred's treachery takes place, the kingdom is already doomed by the war between Arthur and Lancelot; it's like kicking down an already tottering building.  (One could blame Mordred for the civil war, since he was one of the conspirators who exposed Lancelot and Guinevere's affair, but the evidence in both Malory and the Vulgate indicates that Agravain was the leader of the conspiracy.  At least, he's the one who speaks up first and proposes bringing the Affair out in the open.)

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
19 hours ago, merlyn said:

but the evidence in both Malory and the Vulgate indicates that Agravain was the leader of the conspiracy

In my canon, Aggravain spoke, but it was with Mordred's words.

I always thought that Aggravain was genuinely concerned about the shame for his king and uncle, whereas Mordred was scheming for the fall of the kingdom. He was manipulated by his little brother. Poor guy ^^

Otherwise, I think if you move the Roman war toward the end (as an act of hubris), you have to:

  • cancel/minor Lancelot (and all of his kin). It's a massive change for the GPC.
  • Ask yourself the question: What of the Grail Quest?
  • decide if Guenever is scheming with Mordred, or is a victim. The sources are unclear. 
  • replace the war with Rome in 526/527 with the war in Norway (for Lot's rights according to the sources).
  • shorten the reign of Arthur. The war with Rome could occur in 540, 550 maybe.
  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

I should probably have been clearer that the point of the thread is indeed to explore a massive change to the GPC, and the idea is to discuss things that one might do with a group that had played through it and was interested in seeing what else you could do that would still be based in the sources, especially places where maybe an alternative version might speak to us in a different (not necessarily better) way in 2021.

- I think you can minor Lancelot rather than remove him — after all, he is a character in the alliterative Morte Arthure, and this started with me wondering what would happen if you undid Malory’s decision to keep the plot from that poem but adopt the Vulgate’s chronology.   But one might actually want to remove him.  This is a change that would go well with restoring Gawain to Top Knight position, and while you don’t need to remove Lancelot to do that, it obviously helps.

- The Grail deserves its own Not the Great Pendragon Campaign thread, I think — I was thinking of proposing a series of these for discussion here, if people are agreeable.  Confining this strictly to the Roman War change, I don’t know that it’s a serious problem if one has a version of it happen immediately before.  The Grail story is sort of in its own box.

-Agreed on the rest (not that the above points were disagreement, but I had actual thoughts there).  Shortening the reign of Arthur is arguably a good thing from a playing-through-the-whole-campaign standpoint.

Edited by Voord 99
Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Tizun Thane said:

In my canon, Aggravain spoke, but it was with Mordred's words.

I always thought that Aggravain was genuinely concerned about the shame for his king and uncle, whereas Mordred was scheming for the fall of the kingdom. He was manipulated by his little brother. Poor guy ^^

 

My own take on Agravain and his confederates is that they're tired of constantly getting unhorsed by Lancelot in tournaments and of Lancelot winning all the glory, and that the exposure of his affair with Guinevere is designed to secure his disgrace and banishment (or execution), after which they might have better hopes of achieving more renown.  With the possible exception of Mordred, I doubt that any of them had intended it to turn into an actual war between Arthur and Lancelot - though they ought to have anticipated that possibility in light of how many enthusiastic followers Lancelot had.  On the other hand, were it not for Lancelot accidentally killing Gaheris and Gareth in the Battle at the Stake, the Pope's intervention (much more easy to predict) would have halted the war and might have saved the kingdom.

(One other possible take on Agravain and his allies' hostility towards Lancelot; remember that he's from the Continent, as are the rest of the de Ganis clan.  Note, also, that many of the other knights from abroad, like Sir Palomides the Saracen and Sir Urre of Hungary, side with Lancelot in Malory.  This lays the foundations for a "Foreigners out" agenda for Agravain and his followers, a tone of "Lancelot and his kinsmen are not Britons.  They're outlanders, who've only come to court and joined the Round Table to provide themselves with a home base while out having adventures in our land.  They owe no true allegiance to our king.  Let us be rid of them.")

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

 

- The Grail deserves its own Not the Great Pendragon Campaign thread, I think — I was thinking of proposing a series of these for discussion here, if people are agreeable.  Confining this strictly to the Roman War change, I don’t know that it’s a serious problem if one has a version of it happen immediately before.  The Grail story is sort of in its own box.

 

I look forward to seeing it; I have my own thoughts on adjusting it, but will save those for the Grail thread.

Link to post
Share on other sites
19 hours ago, merlyn said:

They owe no true allegiance to our king.  Let us be rid of them.")

The worst part is: they were right ^^

19 hours ago, merlyn said:

My own take on Agravain and his confederates is that they're tired of constantly getting unhorsed by Lancelot in tournaments and of Lancelot winning all the glory

It's not contradictory... Imagine this french holier-than-thou, winning all the tournaments, and the smiles of the ladies. Then, you realize he is cuckolding the king, your respected uncle. And that is the man who is always talking about honor... What a hypocrite!

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...