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In Genre

In Genre: ARTHURIAN ROMANCE

by RJ Grady
Nov 26,2003

 

In Genre: ARTHURIAN ROMANCE

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

The Arthurian saga both arose from, and shaped, essential elements of Anglo-Saxon mythology. Camelot, Arthur, and the Knights of the Round today represent the highest ideals of nobility. Our popular imagery of wizardry and magic come from Merlin, Morgan le Fey, the enchantresses, and the mysterious Lady of the Lake. The stories themselves fuse many different elements, including the tale of the Grail we know also as the Black Cauldron in Alexander's Prydain Chronicles and the broken sword Excalibur, which we know also as Aragorn's shattered blade and the hero's sword in Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. Part historical romance, part fairy tale, part Christian mysticism, and part monarchial proverb, the Arthurian tales have been with us long enough to constitute their own branch of literature.

Arthur Pendragon is called the first King of All England (or all Britain). According to myth, he was the son of Uther, a powerful king, and wielder of the sword Excalibur (also known as Caliburn). But Uther's triumphs could not quite match his ambitions, and his final battles brought ruin. He drove the sword of power through an anvil, into a stone, vowing that none could retrieve it but himself. Merlin used his sorcery to lessen the power of the oath somewhat, that Uther's blood might take the sword. Merlin fostered Arthur to an old friend. Arthur, by accident, discovered his birthright, and was acknowledged as rightful ruler. He proved his worth in battle, word, and heart, and united all of England under his rule. Over time he brought peace and prosperity throughout the land. Dissatisfaction brought about the end of Camelot. Arthur's knights, having vanquished all foes, fell into brawling, and his wife committed adultery with Arthur's own friend and champion, Lancelot. Arthur conceived one last way that Camelot might be saved; through the grace of God. He sent his knights to quest for the Cup of the Lord, the Holy Grail. They failed, Arthur died, and Mordred sundered Camelot into the warring kingdoms it arose from. Merlin was trapped by seduction and magic, never to be seen again. In the twilight of Camelot, two of Arthur's bravest knights beheld the Grail, but failed to attain it. Only Galahad, purest of all knights, won the Grail. From beyond the grave, Arthur was heard to promise to return when he would be needed again. It is a uniquely Christian story, neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It differs from earlier epics, such as Beowulf, in that it sends a message of hope. Arthur's triumphs are not diminished by death. Fate brought ruin, but not senseless ruin. We understand the fallibility of the human heart. Camelot is an expression of the desire for something better, and purer, than our fallible natures. The building of Camelot mirrors the ascension of the wicked man toward Heaven. At the same time, the story contains numerous links to the pagan past.

Arthur himself might have been a British warchief who lived in or about London during the era of the Roman abandonment of England. Rome in those days had too many problems at home, cultural and militarily, to bother with colonies. Their surrender left behind soldiers, landed nobles, and technology that in England, as elsewhere, led the way to feudalism, out of the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages. The actual first ruler of All England was a man named Egbert. English history as we know it, however, begins with the Norman Conquest in 1066 by William the Conqueror. He introduced Continental European customs to Anglo-Saxon law, and is probably the party most responsible for the peculiarities of the many-fathered English tongue. T.H. White, in his Sword and the Stone, with a cheerful disregard for historical fact, calls Uther "The Conqueror," but in some ways, Arthur himself embodies the spiritual birth of England through conquest and diplomacy by William.

The stories arise from a number of sources. First, the original Arthurian saga might have been the story of a British, or Roman-British, warlord by the name of Artorus, magnified appropriately after his death as befits a legend. While it is hard to say with any certainty, this is the commonly accepted explanation of how the story begin. The story become fused with other British legends, such as the sword Caliburn, the Cauldron of Plenty, the Fisher King, and other tales of Germanic and Celtic gods, magic, and heroes. Later re-tellings Christianized the story. During the early Renaissance, a time when knighthood and heroism were idealized, the stories took on parallels to the rise of Charlemagne (Arthur's Knights of the Round mirroring Charlemagne's creation of the Paladins, the original knights, for instance) and the reign of William I, the Conqueror, as well as elements of classical tragedy and Biblical allegory. The stories were so popular that a French author adopted them and created a character with a French identity, Lancelot du Lac, who took over the role of Arthur's champion, Bedwyr, in many stories, relegating Bedivere to a background role. The stories took their final forms in the works of Malory and Tennyson. Further versions and homages continue to be popular today, ranging from the spectacular film Excalibur to the dark science-fantasy Star of the Guardians, by Margaret Weis.

Arthurian Romance is a high-action, high-intrigue genre with generally low realism. The stories tend to be episodic, but with a distinct arc, whether in the life of one hero (such as Gawaine) or in the course of history (as with Arthur, Mordred, and Camelot). Characters tend to be of the highest competence, the most mortally capable individuals of their time, with extraordinary martial, magical, or virtuous gifts. Interpretations range from light-hearted, idealistic tales of valor to truly dark tales of moral struggle, with only faith and love lighting the darkness of pride, war, confusion, duty, and temptation.

A Time of Darkness

Arthurian Romance is set in a mythic England. Arthur is supposedly the first King of All England, finishing the work of his ambitious father. His historical analogs lived in the 10th century. However, the stories themselves are laden with heathenism, faerie magic, and enormous savagery. The Dark Ages, from which Arthur led England, were historically from the 6th to 9th centuries, from the collapse of the outlying Roman Empire until the foundation of powerful monarchies. The ethos of chivalry espoused is that of the Crusades (from the 11th to 13th centuries); the knights of those times looked back in admiration on the Knights of the Round Table. Later yet, the poets of the Renaissance looked back with admiration on the Crusades, and impressed upon them their own conception of warfare: aristocratic, heavily armored, and courteous. Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire was a historical Camelot of sorts, never re-forged since its fall. In legendry, all knights derived their station in an unbroken lineage stretching back to Charlemagne's Paladins. In short, the time period for a chivalric campaign is somewhere between the spread of knighthood in the 8th century, until the end of the Crusades in the 13th century (after which time chivalry changed in many significant ways). Generally speaking, Arthurian Romane is set in England, with forays to Lancelot's estates in France and weird expeditions to British isles, real and imagined.

There are basically thee versions of the Arthurian world. The first is a historical romance type campaign, which we will call Mock Historical. Historical inaccuracies are kept to the minimum necessary, armaments and technology are restricted to an era of about a hundred years, and magic is treated as very mysterious, New Age-y, or as a terrifying supernatural element in a mundane world. The second is a very magical, wildly anachronistic version, High Fantasy. This version shares elements with other high fantasy worlds: magic is everywhere, technology is defined by what is dramatically or visually appropriate, and events center on characters. The third version is somewhere in between. We'll call it the Popular, or Cinematic, version. It attempts to tie as much of the mythos together as possible in a digestible, believable form. It often has the appearance of the Mock Historical game, but many outlandish supernatural or anachronistic elements are an integral, not strange part of the setting. Magic can be very powerful, but often has a subtle way to it, especially when performed in view of ordinary mortals.

The arms of knights did not change much for centuries, consisting of the helm, the mail hauberk (shirt or coat), a sturdy shield, a hand weapon (such as a longsword, axe, or mace), and the lance. Articulated plate armor, which symbolizes knighthood in popular media, is actually a late invention, as is the two-handed sword. The barbarians of Europe had been expertly forging skill for some time, but it took many centuries to learn how to shape steel as easily as bronze, yet retain its rigid strength. A game with a historical, dark ages feel should probably dress its knights in mail, or perhaps slightly improved lorica segmentata (Roman plate armor). A highly romantic game may armor its knights in glittering, invulnerable steel. Any of the three campaign styles can set the technology level at any desired point. A Mock Historical game should strive to keep various technologies within a century or two to avoid problems.

Besides technology, a level of social development should be chosen. Surviving Arthurian tales invariably hold to a highly idealized, Renaissance conception of chivalry, nobility, courtesy, and romance. However, it is not difficult to imagine a more realisitic degree of pragmatism in the characters and still stay true to the stories. If setting the tales in a barbaric era, the central characters' motivations may be historically unusual, but aren't likely to be truly implausible. From the time the Romans first stepped foot on British soil until the loss of the American colonies by the English, the central motivations of royalty have been basically the same: preservation of the royal line, enlargement and enrichment of the realm, and glory. Arthur's feelings of conflict between his station and his personal feelings are essential drama for any place and any era where responsibility can fall onto a man who desires neither power nor privilege, but takes on the burden of leadership with a sense of righteousness.

Magic is a tricky consideration. On the one hand, without Merlin and Excalibur, you have no Arthur at all. On the other hand, too much flashy magic diminishes what should be the focus of the stories: the lives and deeds of knights bringing the light of justice to a lawless world. There is a curious paradox to the tales. It is from old magic, Merlin, the sword, the Grail, that Arthur gains the power to fight evil. But the rise of Camelot marks the end of the age of unicorns, enchantresses, and ogres, and the beginning of an age of Christianty, order, and reason. In a High Fantasy game, it's hard to over-do the magical aspect, as it seems sometimes that any knight is just begging to be ensorcelled if he falls asleep by a pleasant pond in the woods. A Mock Historical game requires a more delicate touch. Perhaps Merlin is a learned druid, maybe with prophetic powers, and Excalibur is a masterwork, forged of a unique and durable alloy surpassing all blades of its time in sharpness and strength. The most difficult campaign to balance is probably the default one: the Popular, Cinematic game. In such a world, Merlin must be given enough powers to seem more than a humbug or counselor, yet not so powerful as to be incongruous in what is ostensibly the historical past. Dragons are right out for such a game, at least more than sparingly, but Merlin or Morgaine might be able to call up a lightning bolt if needed. Only in a Mock Historical game should ogres, the powers of Excalibur, and magical hypnotism be circumscribed.

Finally there is the matter of religion. In the historical 11th century, the Church wielded vast temporal and emotional power. Only the most powerful rulers could contend with the Church's will. Curiously, you will find few priests, and only a handful of abbeys in Arthurian tales. Priests appear when they are needed to perform weddings, coronations, or confessions. They never appear themselves as worldly powers. The Pardoner of Chaucer is not to be found in these tales. One possible reason is that many of the tales are pre-Christian, and therefore simply don't require a priest because the priest wasn't there to begin with. Another point to consider is that the versions of the stories we know are of a much later era... a time when the Church had receded, both as a political power, and as the primary compass of what a human being should be. Instead, religion became a separate domain, not the supreme rulership of a human being's life, but a special focus removed from the temporal. In any case, religion does not appear in the tales as a powerful social force. It is invisible because the Church's authority is assumed. What does appear is piety. And impiety. Characters in the stories can feel God's Will all around. A victory is God's gift. Excalibur is God's gift. Mordred is God's punishment. Galahad is God's messenger. Rather than priests, the characters in these stories rely on faith, visions, and their knowledge of good and evil. The Arthurian stories are strongly mystical.

Tales of Glory

There are several ways to play the Arthurian campaign. The first is the iconic characters game. The PCs are the characters from the stories or their associates. Unless a great deal of PC freedom is restricted, and therefore a great deal of game, this is almost necessarily an alternative or re-interpretive version of the stories. It is appropriate for all three styles of play, Mock Historical, High Fantasy, or Pop Culture. It has the advantage of providing the clearest rationale for playing in the Arthurian mythos. The second is the low character game. The characters are less important characters in the story. They can act with a great deal of freedom, because their deeds are not chronicled. The disadvantage is that the characters can affect, but never choose, the outcome of the most important events in the world. If the campaign is set within a fairly short time period, with a clear scope, this is not necessarily a problem. If the campaign is open-ended, with competent PCs, that can led to a feeling of constriction, of being trapped inside an arbitrary storyline. This can be lessened somewhat by allowing the campaign to take an alternative or re-interprative course, as with an iconic characters game. The main disadvantage is that all the coolest characters, from Merlin to Arthur to Mordred, are controlled by the GM. The third style is the consciously alternative, re-interprative, or crossover campaign. This is a freeform campaign style that simply uses the Arthurian tales as a starting point. There is certainly plenty of material to be mined for your adventures. The game can be comedic, or it can focus on the complex psychologies of the Arthurian characters, or it can be a narrative stunt, a way of sparking creativity by dipping into a deep well of popular culture. What if Arthur was fostered in secret by Merlin, because Arthur is medically intersexual, identified as female at birth, but developing as a man since puberty? What if Arthur was the last of a line of crashed space travellers, and Excalibur is a lightsaber? What if Arthur had not used Excalibur to defeat Lancelot, and had to find other means to cement his rule? More modest options simply allow the PCs to alter the course of the stories, creating a new Arthurian saga with a new outcome.

There are several themes central to the stories. The first is mystery. It is not clear where Excalibur comes from. Was it forged by a man? By a magician? By an angel? If Merlin is its protector, why is it the instrument of the Christian God? If it is a pagan weapon, why does it serve a Christian king? One very important question is, "Who is Merlin?" The son of the Devil and a mortal woman? A druid with fey ancestry? A psychic? A prophet of God, like John the Baptist? A fraud? Something not quite human? More than one of those things? In Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, Merlin is an instrument of the divine. He knows the old ways, and Arthur follows the ways of Christianity. Merlin can see both the Christian Lord and the magic of the old gods at work, and has an intuitive understanding of both. However, he is not even sure which it is he serves, or if perhaps his power comes from a different source than either. Another recurring theme is personal failure. Arthur and Gawain suffer from pride, Uther from lust, Gawain from rage, Lancelot from temptation, Guinevere from vanity, Merlin from loneliness. All face ruin of their own making. A third theme is piety. Characters tend to be defined by either their love of God and their attempts to adhere to the chivalric code, or their opposition to morality and restraint. A fourth theme is glory. Camelot is a dream that becomes a land, and passes on, because glory is fleeting. Knights live for victories, enchantresses and wizards struggle for influence over the mighty, and men and women live to love one another, even at the deepest possible cost. A fifth theme is hope. In a time of darkness, Arthur becomes King and brings light. Camelot reaches its zenith, and then it fades. But Arthur promises to return. Camelot began as a dream, and lives on as a Dream. Just as Jesus offers a hope for Heaven, Arthur offers a hope of justice on Earth.

Several motifs to consider are various oppositions and paradoxes. Glory vs. humility, magic vs. piety, love vs. duty, civilization vs. savagery, freedom vs. tyranny, free will vs. destiny, chivalry vs. cunning, and vengeance vs. self-interest are just a few of the choices faced by characters in the stories. Consider Arthur's decision concerning Lancelot and Guinivere. As a King, he must punish them. But as a man of God, he must forgive them. As a man, he desires vengeance. But as a better man, he wishes no harm to his friend or his wife. As a matter of justice and honor, he must try them as traitors, but as a man of the people, he does not wish to divide his kingdom over the decisions of a few, even a King. God has left him no easy choice, and Merlin has offered no counsel. What must he decide? What is the choice for a good man, who is a King?

There are many different choices for PCs. Besides the named characters, there are several hundred Knights of the Round Table, as well as squires, pages, wives, servants, magicians, travellers, barbarians, and common folk. One Knight began as a thief in the forest. Galahad is the result of his fallen father's, Lancelot's, dalliance with the Lady of the Lake; he is part sorcery and part divine, well-trained in the combat arts and possessed of uncanny knowledge. Gawain is a a furious and proud barbarian who becomes a knight of excellent humility and devotion.

In potting the campaign, the GM should familiarize himself with the stories, make some decisions about era and style, and choose a starting point in time for the campaign. At least some of the PCs should be knights, but the GM is free to declare all manner of characters fair game. An interesting campaign could be spun around a character trying to persuade the secrets of magic from one of Merlin's students just as they seduce it from him.

Bibliography

Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The Idylls of the King.
A later, more pious, and yet more artistic version of the story than Malory's. After Malory, the most important source.

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon.
A re-interpretation of the Arthurian story from the viewpoint of strong female characters.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D'Arthur.
Definitive version of the tale. The language is not quite modern, not quite medieval, and a translated version is advised for the casual reader. Perhaps the most required reading for the Arthurian enthusiast.

McDowell, Ian. Mordred's Curse.
A dark, satirical version of the story, still true to the original. Mordred is the protagonst, and Arthur is his father in more ways than one. Mordred idolizes Arthur at first, but is rejected by Arthur, who sees in Mordred his own sins, and who cannot look past the scars of Mordred's twisted upbrining. Mordred's love becomes a consuming hatred, especially of Arthur's hypocrisy. Strong high fantasy flavor, full of sex and violence. Excellent reading.

Morris, Gerland. Parsifal's Page.
A humorous, adventurous, and enchanting version of Parsifal's story, told through the eyes of Piers, his well-meaning but supercilious page. The crux of the story is an encounter with the Fisher King and a question of great importance.

Raffel, Burton Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Translation of the 14th century poem. Gawain makes a rash vow, and has his courage and truthfulness mortally tested. Magic abounds. There are various versions available. Raffel's version is well-regarded, both faithful and poetic.

Beowulf. Another translation by Raffel.
Beowulf is an early English story with even stronger marks of its pagan origins than the Arthurian stories. Well worth reading, especially for those intending to run an early era, high fantasy game.

Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave.
Who is Merlin? Whom does the sword serve? This gripping novel answers neither question. The appendix includes many interesting historical and mythological notes. In this version of the story, Merlin is powerful seer whose magic is as much a mystery as a gift. Essential reading.

Weis, Margaret. The Long King.
First of the magnificent Star of the Guardians series. A dark, enchanting science fantasy that mixes Star Wars, Dune, and King Arthur and creates something very original.

White, T.H. The Sword and the Stone (The Once and Future King).
A unique presentation of the story, at once definitive and eccentric. White's version melds the humanity of Malory with the moral musings of Tennyson, and sprinkles it all with a magical mix of anachronism, insightful narration, and comedy. A novel as essential as it is uncategorizable.

Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch's Mythology.
Overview of classical mythology and tales, including Charlemagne, Roland, and Arthur.

Boutell, Charles. Arms and Armour in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Early 20th century work by a hobbyist. Boutell had access to many museum pieces that have now been lost. This translation by Charles Lacombe. An excellent look at the weaponry of medieval warriors, high and low.

Filmography

The Sword and the Stone (1963)
Disney animated film based on White's book. A light, but excellent treatment of the young Arthur and Merlin's attempts to school a medieval boy in humanistic thought.

Dragonslayer (1981)
Medieval fantasy about the last wizards, the last dragons, and the last days of legends. Not Arthurian, but an excellent fantasy in which legend intersects with life in the Middle Ages.

Excalibur (1981)
A visually stunning film with a stirring score (from Orff's Carmina Burana). This film attempts to capture the whole saga, focusing on the important events, and the interplay of Merlin's foresight and human fallibility. Merlin is hypnotic and the other actors well-cast. The costuming is superb and the fighting above-average. The endgame, with Mordred, is weird, but improves with watching.

Merlin (1988)
Excellent grade B entertainment starring Sam Neill. This made for TV movie focuses on Merlin and the last days of magic and legend. The Arthurian saga is a side-story. Mostly, we saw Merlin, wise, proud, cunning, fallible. This movie offers an interesting perspective on the Lancelot story.

Henry V (1989)
An excellent presentation of Shakespeare by Branagh. Of value to fans of Arthurian stories because of its focus on the burden of leadership, the conflict of personal and royal duties, and Henry's personal heroism. It also well illustrates the idea of high plot and low plot; the high plot concerns armies and kings, the low plot, a night's watch and common men. In Henry V, the King dons the disguise of a common soldier, allowing him to move between social worlds.

Quest for Camelot (1998)
Amusing animated feature for kids. A wild, high fantasy version of Camelot. This movie shows there are other stories in Camelot to tell besides Arthur's and Gawain's, and other villains than Mordred and Morgaine. Thoroughly anachronistic, and therefore, true to the Arthurian stories.

Gameography

Pendragon (Chaosium/Green Knight)
An early entry. The original used a variation of the Call of Cthuhlu/Runequest system, with additional rules about Virtues and generational characters. The game is now in its fourth edition, with Green Knight. Characters are generally knights; spellcasting is largely left to NPCs. This game is close in spirit to the original stories, with its focus on Glory. Requires the main rulebook. Various supplements from the current and previous editions will be helpful.

GURPS Camelot (Steve Jackson Games)
This sourcebook for GURPS covers various flavors of the stories and numerous suggestions for adventuring in Camelot. Above average for content, but provides little in the way of campaign guidance. Like many GURPS books, this one could serve as a valuable quick reference for another game system. To buy in, you'll need GURPS Camelot, and either the GURPS Basic Set Third Edition, or GURPS Lite (the latter available online at www.sjgames.com). Other sourcebooks that could be very useful include Middle Ages I, Low-Tech, Religion, Celtic Myth, Faeries, and Compendium I and II.

Fantasy Hero (Hero Games/DOJ)
One of the earliest HERO products, now a sourcebook for Hero System Fifth Edition. The Hero System is highly configurable in terms of combat deadliness. The rules offer numerous and excellent options for fighting styles, warrior frenzies, unusual magic spells, and curses. The online community at www.herogames.com is second to none. To buy in, you'll need a copy of Fred (the Fifth Edition rules). Fantasy Hero is offers a wealth of information and assistance. The Fantasy Hero Grimoire and the Hero System Beastiary are excellent acquisitions.

Ars Magica (Atlas Games)
Ars Magica has changed hands many times, the fourth edition owned by Atlas Games. The PCs are magicians. Ars Magica offers a definitive spell design system, as well as rules for ageing, seasons, training, and so forth. Ars Magica could either be used for a game centering on magicians, or could be stripped down and used as a heroic fantasy game. The setting itself is Mythic Europe, in which Arthur and Merlin are historical past. The rulebook is availbable free from www.atlas-games.com. Yes, the whole rulebook, free. Happy birthday.

D&D (Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro)
Now in it's, er, 3.5th edition. D&D has strong roots in the Arthurian myths. Lancelot and Galahad provided the mold for Paladins, wihle D&D's Clerics may wield maces because of a reference in The Once and Future King to apocrypha concerning the Templars. There are older products for various editions of D&D that cover figures of Arthurian myth. However, the basic rules are readily adaptable to the purpose. To buy in, you'll need the Player's Handbook. The GM will also need the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual.

Prince Valiant (Chaosium)
Out of print gem focused on storytelling aspects. It uses coins for resolution. Of both historical and gaming interest. Based on the graphical stories of the same name, telling the story of a prince who became a Knight of the Round Table.

Links Museum Replicas Limited
Excellent visual guide to weapons and armor.

Chronique
Amazing collection of information about chivalry.

The Bits Box Great feasts at which deeds of glory and honor are recited, the questing beast, transgressions of the flesh, hidden places of magic, enchantresses, tournaments, jousts, betrayal, honor, rage, pride, secrets, rashly pronounced vows, picnics that end in curses and enchantments, ogres, people being knocked bodily from their horses by heroic blows, jealous lords who challenge and defeat Knights of the Round Table causing more Knights to show up and be defeated, kidnapping, magical disguises, prophecy, curses of the blood, rogues and villains who become Knights because of good example, Arthur sending a knight on a quest that turns out to have dramatic consequences on the Knight's life and outlook, "What ails thee, my lord?", magical artifacts with minds of their own, Merlin not telling the whole story, courtly love, secret trysts, Knights so moved by love they go mad or perform wicked deeds, retiring to abbeys, Lancelot sulking only to be drawn back by Mordred's misdeeds, proud knights being commanded to perform deeds in honor of a lady, dilemmas of the heart and soul, cowardly foes, great warriors lacking Arthur's leadership to be made good men, magical ancestry granting powers of magic, Merlin's crystal cave, Lancelot's estate, the Orkney islands, quests being fulfilled only after the questor has abandoned all hope and pride and happiness and lives only for faith, the sword in the stone, the empty chair at the Table, the Siege Perilous, Excalibur's scabbard, knights in black armor, ransoming armor, knights guarding bridges or passes, justice for all men, "The land is the King, the King is the land," wounds of sin that cannot heal, nobility of spirit appearing in the commonest and lowest men, Arthur's blindness towards those he loves, "Only a knight can make a knight," and strangers who are more than they appear.

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