Before Voldemort and Sauron wreaked havoc on the pages of "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings," there was Mordred, the treacherous villain of Arthurian legend. As King Arthur's son from an incestuous relationship, Mordred's tangled history creates tension throughout the story, ultimately reaching a climax when he and Arthur kill each other in battle. The death of Mordred not only provides a clear resolution to one of the legend's most important conflicts but sheds light on its themes of betrayal and fate.
A Twisted History
The majority of Arthurian texts establish Mordred as Arthur's illegitimate son from an affair with his half-sister, Morgause. The wizard Merlin foretells Mordred's death when he reveals that the man who will cause Arthur's downfall will be born on May Day. Ashamed of his actions and believing that the resulting child could fulfill the prophecy, Arthur orders the death of all children born in early May. Mordred, however, escapes his edict and another family raises him until age 14, when he returns to Arthur's court. This backstory sets the stage for Mordred's eventual destruction, as his dark history with Arthur only fuels his hatred for him.
An Act of Betrayal
Mordred unknowingly begins building the path toward his death through the attacks he launches against Arthur. In Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur," regarded as the definitive manuscript of Arthurian legend, Mordred learns of an affair between Lancelot, the greatest of Arthur's knights, and Queen Guinevere. In an attempt to destroy the king, Mordred relays this information to Arthur, who orders the queen burned at the stake for treachery. When Lancelot rescues her, Arthur and his army set off in search for them. In Arthur's absence, Mordred seizes control of the kingdom and plots to turn the king's people against him.
A Final Battle
When word of Mordred's betrayal reaches Arthur, he returns home to restore order. By this time, Mordred has convinced Arthur's people that the king only seeks control over them, while Mordred claims to bring peace and unity. According to Malory's account, Mordred and Arthur stage a battle to the death, each bringing an army of 14 men. In this final confrontation, Arthur impales Mordred through the body; in turn, Mordred uses his remaining strength to mortally wound Arthur in the head before he dies.
A Significant Ending
Mordred's death and final act of vengeance against Arthur conclude their antagonistic relationship. Arthurian scholar William David Floyd writes that the deaths of the story's hero and villain reveal the futile nature of their attempts to triumph over each other. Despite their best efforts, Merlin's prophecy is ultimately fulfilled: Even though he doesn't live to see its effects, Mordred delivers the wound that will kill King Arthur. In the end, Mordred and Arthur end their sordid history through mutual destruction.
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