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Not the Great Pendragon Campaign: Unbundling Tristan and Arthur


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It’s a tiny, niggly, point, but a Tristan who dies in his mid-fifties, as in the  GPC, just feels wrong to me.

Obviously, you can change that just by compressing the timescale — it wouldn’t break the GPC if Tristan were born later and died a little earlier.   But what about a more radical alternative?  How about a Tristan who has a relatively short career *after* Arthur is gone?

Tristan’s story was originally independent of anything Arthurian, but became integrated with Arthurian romance due to the Prose Tristan.  For me personally, Tristan as a Round Table knight doesn’t do any favors for Tristan’s own story, although it makes him an interesting counterpoint for Lancelot.  

There are plenty of treatments that omit any Arthurian reference and assume that Tristan is in his own setting, especially Gottfried of Strassburg’s.  However, Thomas of Britain seems to have wanted his version to take place after Arthur (although how long after Arthur Tristan, Mark, Iseult and the rest are supposed to have lived is obscure), so there is some warrant in *a* medieval author for simply saying that Tristan’s story gets going after Arthur is gone.

So stick a relatively short (decade plus) new period after Arthur falls, coinciding with Tristan’s adult years.  The action of the campaign moves to Cornwall, Brittany, and Ireland.  The politics are easy to work out if one worries about making them plausible, as it’s obvious why, with the vanishing of a dominant overall king of Britain, these other areas might become more important.

  • This would work best with a compressed reign of Arthur, as Tizun Thane suggested in connection with moving the Roman War back to the end of Arthur’s reign.    
  • If one were to combine it with that move, then the parallelism between Mark-Iseult-Tristan and Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot would become less significant as well.  This would allow one to emphasize romance as the main aspect of the “Tristan” period, as a compressed Arthur reign will probably stick to the “twelve years of peace” as the time of adventures and tend to collapse Romance and Tournament periods into one another without a lot of differentiation.  This heightened emphasis on love would suit modeling Tristan’s career on the version in Gottfried, and one might take other things from Gottfried, such as the high degree of importance placed on expertise across many different areas.
  • Also, without the need to differentiate Mark so extremely from Arthur, one could draw on the sources that have a less one-sidedly villainous version of Mark than the GPC tends to present.
  • It might obviously be worthwhile to play through a very short Pendragon mini-campaign that was based exclusively around the Tristan material, with no Arthur at all.  Same rules, different story, and, with fewer major characters, more room for PKs to be important.
  • Removing Tristan from the Round Table also unclutters the Arthurian side a little.  If Lancelot is the greatest, then Tristan has to be the next greatest — which isn’t a really a problem for the sources that integrate him, because Gawain being a bastard who’s Not All That is part of the agenda.  But the GPC’s Gawain is something of a compromise — it’s really noticeable how much the GPC upgrades Gawain from 3e Gawain — , and the result is that one never quite gets the sense, reading the GPC, that “Tristram” is what he’s supposed to be in the sources on which the GPC mostly draws, which is clearly the greatest knight after Lancelot.  Gawain obviously deserves his own Not the Great Pendragon Campaign thread, though.
  • Anyone adapting anything to do with Tristan and Iseult obviously needs to make a decision about what to do with the fact that a driving motor of the plot is in our terms a horrific violation of consent, the love potion.  A Tristan who is not literally having his career at the same time as Lancelot might be more suitable to just biting the bullet and having him and Iseult fall in love with one another with no potion, as there is less need for him to be different from Lancelot.  (Brangaine I would like to keep around, as that relative rarety, a genuinely significant secondary female character, but perhaps she could be Iseult‘s confidant who persuades her to accept her feelings, rather than someone whose mistake causes Tristan and Iseult to drink the potion.)
Edited by Voord 99
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I think a key change here would be handling Mark. He's present in the action by Anarchy, provides the default plot for people not going after the Grail during the quest, and is nearly a century old by the end of the campaign.

It would seem that some re-arrangement of the timeline for Cornwall's rulers might be appropriate.

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Oh, indeed  — I’m assuming any necessary rewrite of how Cornwall appears in the GPC.  The conceit here is that this is for players who’ve played through the GPC, and so it is positively good if something piques their interest by being different from what they know.

As far as the specifics go, the Anarchy is almost completely open to being rewritten as the GM prefers, as very little of it comes from any of the Arthurian source material, and so, it is largely free of consequences from the point of view of the long-term plot.  The most important thing that happens in the Anarchy is negative, that no-one succeeds in dominating Logres or becoming High King.  So I think one can eliminate Mark freely from the Anarchy — the reason why he is there is to introduce the character, really, and if he comes in later, then you introduce him later.

On the other hand, eliminating Mark’s invasion is a significant change if you’re sticking with the existing Grail GPC, as one needs to come up with something else for PKs to do.  So “later Tristan” might be best if combined with an alternate Grail story (e.g. Percival-only — no need for PKs to have anything special to do if there isn’t a general Grail quest for all Round Table knights).

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1 hour ago, Voord 99 said:

It’s a tiny, niggly, point, but a Tristan who dies in his mid-fifties, as in the  GPC, just feels wrong to me.

Tristram's birthyear, 501 in the Gamemaster Characters in GPC, is off by a decade. It should, IMHO, be 511, which then matches up with him being eighteen (as in Malory) when he duels Marhaus to the death in 529. Also, this fits with The Child's Mercy (Year 522) better when Tristram is 11 rather than 21!

So that helps to shave of a decade from Tristram's life, even in a 'canonical' campaign.

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Yes, 511 would be better than 501.

If Meliodas is a famous knight by about 480 (as the Book of Uther implies) it’d mean that he was getting on a bit if one wanted to use the stuff from Palamedes.

But who really cares that much about Meliodas?    And a 511 birth of Tristan would suit a Meliodas who wasn’t famous in the reign of Uther but did have adventures when Tristan was a child, and the events described in Palamedes could be fitted into the GPC in the 510s.

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2 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

For me personally, Tristan as a Round Table knight doesn’t do any favors for Tristan’s own story, although it makes him an interesting counterpoint for Lancelot.  

Yeah, it makes little sense, and I did not follow the GPC on that either.

2 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

Tristan’s story was originally independent of anything Arthurian, but became integrated with Arthurian romance due to the Prose Tristan.

For the record, the involvement of Tristan with Arthur's court is much older than the Prose Tristan. It's a shared universe even in the time of Béroul or Thomas. In Beroul's work, Yseult swears an oath in front of the king Arthur to "prove" she is faithful to her husband for example. It's the infamous ambiguous oath.

https://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html#Oath

Tristan (and Yseut) could both die in the 540' without altering the GPC. Maybe 544 (in his 33th year ^^) or 545. 

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39 minutes ago, Tizun Thane said:

For the record, the involvement of Tristan with Arthur's court is much older than the Prose Tristan. It's a shared universe even in the time of Béroul or Thomas. In Beroul's work, Yseult swears an oath in front of the king Arthur to "prove" she is faithful to her husband for example. It's the infamous ambiguous oath.

That’s what I get for posting from memory without checking!

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There's also the infamous Triad telling how Tristram looked after King Mark's pigs while the regular swineherd was delivering a message to Iseult, and stopped Arthur, Kay, and Bedivere from stealing them (though I can't see this incident as taking place in a conventional "Pendragon" campaign; an "Arthur dux bellorum" one, on the other hand....).

Most of the experts have held that Tristram's incorporation into the Arthurian legend weakened his story (all the more because it included a lot of knight-errantry that distracted from the love story that was the focus of the original tale) - apart from the characterization of the complex rival Sir Palomides.

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21 hours ago, Morien said:

Tristram's birthyear, 501 in the Gamemaster Characters in GPC, is off by a decade. It should, IMHO, be 511, which then matches up with him being eighteen (as in Malory) when he duels Marhaus to the death in 529. Also, this fits with The Child's Mercy (Year 522) better when Tristram is 11 rather than 21!

So that helps to shave of a decade from Tristram's life, even in a 'canonical' campaign.

"Child" could be interpreted as "childe", meaning a noble youth who has not yet been knighted, rather than as a child in the modern sense.  But I agree that this change to the chronology works better.

The Great Pendragon Campaign does stretch Arthur's reign out; in the Annales Cambriae, only twenty-one years separate the battles of Badon and Camlann, a timeline that Geoffrey of Monmouth apparently adheres to when he divides the period between the two battles as twelve years of peace and nine years campaigning in Gaul.  On the other hand, the Mort du Roi Artu, as I recall, describes Arthur as close to a hundred years old by the end of his reign.  I suspect that a lot of that might be thanks to needing to stretch out the reign to fit in more and more adventures.

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1 hour ago, merlyn said:

in the Annales Cambriae, only twenty-one years separate the battles of Badon and Camlann, a timeline that Geoffrey of Monmouth apparently adheres to when he divides the period between the two battles as twelve years of peace and nine years campaigning in Gaul.

Minor nitpick:
In HRB, the 12 years of peace follows after Arthur has spent an additional year after Badon to conquer Ireland ("When the next summer came on he fitted out his fleet and sailed unto the island of Hibernia") and even Iceland (why would you bother?). "At the end of winter he returned into Britain, and re-establishing his peace firmly throughout the realm, did abide therein for the next twelve years."

Also, it is not that obvious to me how long the gap between this peace and the start of Arthur's new expansionist urges were: "At the end of this time [the aforementioned next twelve years] he invited unto him all soever of most prowess from far-off kingdoms and began to multiply his household retinue... [snip] ...At last the fame of his bounty and his prowess was upon every man's tongue". So we are told that Arthur really started becoming more internationally-minded after those 12 years, but then there is just a vague 'At last', which to me would indicate passage of some significant amount of time.

Granted, I didn't read HRB in such exacting detail to find out if there are chronological events that would pinpoint the exact total time interval to 21 years, nor did I start counting the winters from the end of the peace to Camlann. The actual Roman War part seems to happen in a single year (and quite late in the year, at that), with Arthur wintering in Gaul and then getting informed of Mordred's treachery the following summer.

HRB does give a date for Camlann to be AD 542. I did not spot a date for Badon, on a quick look.

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Even more nitpicky observation: the  Variant Version of Geoffrey edited by Hammer (the only Latin text available online, unfortunately) doesn’t say, “after this time” — it says “at that time, then” (tunc), which can mean “next,” but in this context would more probably mean that Arthur increased his household during the twelve years.  (It is not precisely equivalent to English “then.”). 

“At last” (denique) in this version fairly clearly means “towards the end of the period of peace,” as it starts the narrative of how the peace comes to an end.  (When I say, “in this version,” this bit is not in all the manuscripts of which Hammer provides the texts, and right now I don’t have time to sort through his introduction for how they relate to one another and to other versions that were out there.  At any rate, there are at least two different versions of this section, one that seems to present Arthur somewhat negatively for ending the peace, another that doesn’t.)

So as far as the versions of Geoffrey go that people were actually reading in the Middle Ages (as distinct from what he originally wrote),  there were Geoffreys in circulation who were saying that it was 12 years of peace and then the Norwegian war begins.  That broadly seems to be how Wace understood Geoffrey, although he’s not 100% explicit.  

I’m curious as to what Reeve prints in his 2007 critical edition, if anyone has access to it.  I may buy it, as it’s not too expensive in paperback, and it doesn’t seem like my local university library will be opening any time soon.

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On 2/18/2021 at 6:25 AM, Voord 99 said:

I’m curious as to what Reeve prints in his 2007 critical edition, if anyone has access to it.

Quote

That spring, Arthur returned to Britain, restored lasting peace throughout the land and remained there for twelve years.

Then Arthur began to increase his household by inviting all the best men from far-off kingdoms and conducted his court with such charm that he was envied by distant nations.  All the noblest were stirred to count themselves as worthless if they were not dressed or armed in the manner of Arthur's knights.  As his reputation for generosity and excellence spread to the farthest corners of the world, kings of nations became very frightened that he would attack and deprive them of their subjects.

 

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Thank you — I assume that the Latin Reeve and Wright print for “then” is tunc? 

I’ve had time to sort out what the different versions in Hammer represent, although it’s clear that as an edition of the First Variant Version it’s got problems, and it’s been superseded.  But anyway, it’s clear that tunc is the vulgate reading as well as the First Variant Version reading, and it looks from what Ringan says that Reeve and Wright confirm that tunc is the correct reading.

Upshot: “at the end of this time” looks like it is either a moderately serious mistranslation — in which case, I’m curious as to who the translator was —‚ or else is translating a copyist’s error in some manuscript somewhere (which would be more forgivable).  In either case, it’s misleading at best: Geoffrey is more likely saying that Arthur increased his household during the twelve years, and he absolutely is not unambiguously saying that it came at the end of the period.

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9 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

Upshot: “at the end of this time” looks like it is either a moderately serious mistranslation — in which case, I’m curious as to who the translator was

https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.htm

Translation by Sebastian Evans (1904)

If Arthur increasing his household and fame is concurrent with those 12 years, that would resolve one issue. There is still an issue of that extra year between Badon and the 12 years of peace that would need to be accounted for.

The wars in Norway, Denmark and Gaul seem to be accomplished in the span of the next nine years (mainly in Gaul): "After a space of nine years, when he had subdued all the parts of Gaul unto his dominion, Arthur again came unto Paris and there held his court."

Arthur then returns to Britain, at the beginning of spring. He receives the Roman emissaries at Whitsuntide, and then invades Gaul in August, wintering in Gaul.

Arthur receives word of Mordred's treachery in the following summer, and heads back to Britain to meet Mordred at the battle of Camlann.

So, the reconstructed timeline (as far as I can tell) is as follows:

Year 1: Battle of Badon
Year 2: Conquest of Ireland and Iceland
Year 3-14: Peace and the gathering of the knights, assuming they are concurrent
Year 15: War against Norway, Denmark and Gaul, Duel with Flollo. (Most generous assumption is that this year counts as one of the nine, although I don't think it should, based on the translation. Instead, it seems we should count nine years onwards from the end of the Duel, so we should be at the end of year 24 and Arthur returning on Year 25.)
Year 16-23: War in Gaul (the other 8 years)
Year 24: Arthur returns to Britain, receives emissaries, declares war on Rome, defeats the Romans in Gaul.
Year 25: Arthur is informed of Mordred's treachery and returns to Britain. Battle of Camlann.

Now I can see shaving maybe a year off, if you count Year 24 as the ninth year of the War in Gaul instead of as its own year, But this would still leave 23 years between Badon and Camlann, not 21. Counting also the war years of 2 and 15 as part of the 12-year peace is the only way I can make it fit 21 years, and that is a somewhat torturous interpretation of 12 years of peace. As I said, my reading would be the opposite to this generous interpretation, having Arthur winter in Gaul after organizing things and then return the following spring, i.e. Year 25, and Camlann happening in Year 26, 25 years after Badon.

I am more than happy to admit that I am not reading the original Latin (nor can I) and the translation might be out of date. I am simply commenting on the translation I have easy access to.

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On 2/22/2021 at 5:56 AM, Morien said:

https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.htm

Translation by Sebastian Evans (1904)

[snippage]

I am more than happy to admit that I am not reading the original Latin (nor can I) and the translation might be out of date. I am simply commenting on the translation I have easy access to.

Oh, not to worry.  There’s a lot more interpretation going on in pretty much any translation than is apparent to the reader who isn’t comparing it systematically with the original.

Evans was an interesting figure, a poet, painter, journalist, and barrister aside from his activity as a translator (from multiple languages) — one certainly can’t say that he was overspecialized.  It’s not impossible that he was translating a bad text accurately, but I have to wonder if as an Englishman at the height of the British Empire he translated (perhaps unconsciously) in a way that minimized the possibility of negative readings of Arthur’s behavior.  If I’m ever in a position to look at the edition he used (San-Marte’s, 1854), I might see if a comparison can turn up other instances.

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