The Evolution of Arthurian and Medieval Romances

GOT Arthurian literature comparison collage v1b

Nowadays people complain that Game of Thrones, The Shannara Chronicles or any other modern dark fantasy is too violent. ‘Everything on TV is too violent.’ And then they go Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons: ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ But did you know that there was a plenty of violence in all the medieval romances where George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks and countless other fantasy authors have taken inspiration from?

sir gawain and the green knight iii
This medieval drawing depicts a scene from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Sir Gawain uses the latter’s axe to cut off his head. The Green knight’s head speaks a prophecy before the (now) headless horseman rides off.

We think that this is something recent. That authors in the good old days did not shock their audiences with vivid descriptions of brains splattered all over the stony ground (or wherever it was they did battle), and depraved carnal acts.
They knew better than that!

Well, boys and girls, that’s not how it went down. That is how the late 18th and 19th century writers would want you to believe (and some contemporary novelists) but in reality, medieval romances were filled with carnage and sex.

Just read Le MorteD’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, written at a time when England was embroiled in a violent civil war and you will see what I am talking about. Or better yet, read Chretien de Troyes. You do not have to go through all of his poem, just pick one at random dealing with the legend of King Arthur, and you will see nothing romantic about this legend. That is because our concept of romance is VERY DIFFERENT from what the medieval people saw as romance.

The more I revisit medieval romances, the more I fall in love with them (all over again). They are gory, sadder, than anything written recently. In a way, they were trying to copy their predecessors, Greek and Roman writers.

chretien de troyes
Chretien de Troyes

The way that Chretien, Sir Thomas Mallory, and several other medieval authors portrayed these legendary figures left a lot to be desired. And I do not mean this in a bad way. Arthur was a flawed character, his knights were less than perfect. Whoever wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” perfectly shows this. Sir Gawain sleeps with the Green Knight and (spoilers) after finding out that it was all a trap by the magical Green Knight (whom he previously chopped his head off), he gets angry but his anger turns to regret as he begs his opponent to absolve him.

Chivalry was one of the core tenets of medieval society. People aspired to be greater than their ordinary selves. This code of conduct was reserved for the rich, and only a select class of rich people. Aristocrats, Kings, and Queens, were seen as the moral arbiters of society. They were held to a higher standard than anyone else, people lived and died by their example.
But we are all human; we make mistakes. Some people learn from their mistakes, others refuse to accept any responsibility and continue to make them.
The Arthurian characters erred many times. Most of them picked themselves up and did their best to rectify their mistakes by becoming better people starting with them admitting they had done something wrong.

Arthur death Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

What the 18th and 19th century monarchs were smarter than their predecessors was in their approach to these figures. Rather than aspiring to live up to their example, they took a step back, read between the lives, examined their lives and used their failures as a way to reinforce their moral codes unto society.
What Victorians ended up getting was a morality play set in a pristine place that was ruined by human vice.

A Yankee in king arthur's court book cover

Out of all the writers of this era, the only one that didn’t follow this formula was Mark Twain with his science fantasy novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ Originally intended to be satire, the author’s brutal depiction of the medieval era and use of sarcasm is truer to the medieval romances that popularized this legend than anything his contemporary Victorians wrote.

Gone was the sex and violence and acts that were too much for the Victorians to handle. Gone was also the political commentary. Some scholars believe that Sir Thomas Mallory used the Arthurian legend to criticize the two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty that had plunged England into a bloody dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Victorian writers did not want their audience to read between the lines. It was okay if aristocrats did it with older version of the novels that depicted a cruder and less civilized age, but not for the common populace who wanted something different (and far less complicated).

The end result is the medieval era as the new protagonist of Arthurian lore. An Eden-like setting filled with magic and beauty; the ideal place to escape.
This formula became so successful that it is still employed in TV, movies and other pop culture mediums.
To loosely quote what the character Fry from Futurama said, people do not want to be reminded of their dreary existence. They want to be spoon-fed the same old tired formula because otherwise, they will get confused or scared.

Sources:

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Dorne and Burgundy: Unbent, unbound, unbroken and hell bent on revenge

Margaret of York Ellaria Doran
Revenge is a dish best served cold, but for some people, it sets them off on a more dangerous path where they end up deceiving themselves to justify their actions. That is how I perceive Ellaria/Doran’s actions in the TV show, books and their historical counterpart, Margaret of York.
Dorne has similarities with other influential kingdoms in Western Europe from the middle ages and early modern era, but for the current events in game of thrones/ a song of ice and fire, it has taken on the role of Burgundy during the early Tudor era.
Margaret of York couldn’t accept her brother died in battle. He gambled, he lost and -I am sorry for Oberyn fans (I love him too but let’s be fair)- the same is said for the Red Viper.
Oberyn’s death was horrible, but he lost fair and square. Sorry for his widow (or lover, whatever you want to call her) and his daughters, but that’s life, especially in game of thrones.
But Ellaria can’t come to terms with it and what does she do? She goes down on a dangerous path where she is willing to make alliances with former enemies (the Tyrells and the Martells have always hated each other) and support people she doesn’t fully trust just so she can see the Lannisters burn.
She is determined to have her revenge through any means necessary -even if it means killing her family.
Like Game of Thrones’ Ellaria, Margaret was a ruthless woman. This is a strong comparison to Margaret of York, Duchess Dowager of Burgundy who became in charge of the duchy after her husband died and her stepdaughter became the new ruler. Mary of Burgundy grew very close to her stepmother and recognized her intellect early on -like her father. She trusted her stepmother to take care of business, doing her best to learn from her and as time went on, the two ensured the duchy’s independence and protection from France.
Though she never killed anyone, she did finance many plots led by Yorkist sympathizers to dethrone Henry VII, even though he was married to her niece and already had children with her.

Margaret had seen the ascension of her dynasty and heard of its fall. Like most in her family, she had high hopes for the future, she took Richard III’s death pretty heard. It didn’t matter if the people claiming to be her nephews were real or not, all that mattered was that Henry was out of that throne and if possible, his family pushed to the end of the food chain.

We can only imagine what would’ve become of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s offspring, if the last pretender, Perkin Warbeck, had succeeded. Would Margaret have gone along, as well as her supporters, that he was Richard of Shrewsbury for long before it came to bite her in the ass? Would she have disposed of him (not necessarily kill him but cast him aside after she ‘discovered’ the truth and pulled ‘I didn’t know I had been deceived so I have to do what is right and support someone else who descends from Richard, Duke of York to take on the mantle of King’)? It is possible that she would have because a woman as cunning and meticulous as Margaret would have wanted to cover all her bases. There were others supporting these pretenders who were also descendants of the Duke of York via her older sisters. The throne would have likely passed on to them.
But again, what about Henry and Elizabeth’s children? Would they have gone on to suffer a similar fate like the Princes in the tower? Or would they have been placed under protective custody like their cousin, the Earl of Warwick, during their father’s reign?
It is possible that the latter would come true for the boys while the girls would be raised in separate households with their paternal relatives.

Ellaria stabs Doran

In the show, Ellaria is murderous and not the careful planner that Doran is since Doran has become useless. She kills Doran, rules in her stepdaughters and daughters’ names, and sets the former to do her dirty work against her nephew, Prince Trystanne. While Margaret of York never went this far, she was willing to act against her own family to restore the Yorkist dynasty on the throne. It didn’t matter that Henry VII had married her niece or that they had children. She wanted him gone and supported an impostor and pretender to achieve her means. Both attempts failed but she never stopped plotting against him until her nobles basically went ‘enough is enough’ and she realized she had a good run acting as the all powerful mastermind but her time was up and if she continued to act like this, she was going to lose everything so she backed down.
Perkin confessed that he wasn’t the youngest prince in the tower, and later he and Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick (whom the first rebellion Margaret supported, where Lambert Simnel claimed to be him) were sentenced to die. Both were hung and that was that.

“Elia Martell, raped and murdered and you did nothing. Oberyn Martell and you did nothing. You are not a Dornish man. You are not a Prince … Weak men will never rule Dorne again.” -Ellaria to Prince Doran Martell, ruler of Dorne after she stabs him.

Clearly, the show has taken many liberties but the storyline with Dorne remains the same, except that instead of supporting Young Griff (since they’ve written him out of the show), they are supporting Dany and whoever else that shares their agenda. Like Margaret of York, as long as Ellaria calls the shots, Dorne will continue to plot against the throne until someone comes and says enough is enough making her back down or someone else to take her place. As for the books, if Young Griff doesn’t win, it will be the end of Dorne. Not now or in a few years, but that principality’s days are numbered. It is sad since Dorne has many good tales of warrior princes and princesses, and conniving politicians who bested the Targaryens, not one but many times and even killed a dragon! But their last rulers’ gamble has not paid off.

Princess Arianne Martell
Fan rendition of Princess Arianne Martell, firstborn and heir of Prince Doran.

Prine Doran tells Arianne in a sorrowful voice that he never hated her but wishes she would be cunning like him and knew how to win the people over like Ellaria with her smile and her cousin Tyene with her fake sweetness and apparent religious devotion. His tone changes as he remembers his siblings and tells Arianne that his first plan to put Viserys on the throne failed, and had it not, she would have been his Queen and manipulated events around her, so their final champion would have become King and restored Dorne to its former glory.

Perkin_Warbeck
Perkin Warbeck, a man who acted, walked and talked like a prince. Surely he must’ve been what he claimed? One of the lost princes in the tower, right? Not quite.

Throughout the entire series, it is not clear whether the Martells truly believe that Aegon, the supposed prince who escaped the Lannister and Baratheon purge is the real deal or he’s fake. Given that Martin has been inspired by medieval and early modern history, it’s safe to say that his Aegon is his version of Perkin Warbeck which like the real one, is often alluded to being fake.

Young Griff
Young Griff, the alias that Aegon Targaryen goes by to avoid arousing suspicion. He acts, walks and talks like a Prince so he must be a Prince, right? Unless we remember Dany’s vision about the mummer’s dragon and how suspicious his story sounds.

In ‘A Clash of Kings’, when Daenerys goes into the house of the undying she is given a warning through her visions and before that by the Quaithe, who tell her that she will be betrayed three times, and she will be approached by cunning men. She should not trust either of them, and one of the men she is warned against is Varys and his pretender. She sees a vision of the mummer’s dragon, a young man acclaimed by the people whose strings are being pulled by a deceptive figure.
Martin has created his own version of Perkin Warbeck and just like his historical counterpart, no intelligent person believes his BS.
Aegon was rescued from the Mountain by some loyal servant who exchanged him with a servant’s baby (which nobody happened to notice) and has been in hiding all these years. And then, when the world is going to hell, he comes out of hiding to reclaim the throne and set things right.

Yeah … not buying it.

 

The first person to point this out is Tyrion Lannister who realizes who he is but doesn’t believe Young Griff (fake Aegon’s alias) story but knows that he does. Unlike Perkin though, Young Griff was raised from birth to be the perfect prince. He was taught how to sing and dance, act like a prince and that kingship was a responsibility and not a right. Naturally the poor young man believes what he has been fed all these years.

Similarly, Perkin was taught everything from philosophy, etiquette, and given new clothes that deceived many people and made them believe that he was one of the lost princes in the tower, youngest son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and rightful king of England. But if there is one thing that history has taught us, is that things seldom go as planned.

Doran is eager to see his ‘nephew’ on the throne, but the last book gave clues that he might not be entirely sold on the idea that he is his nephew. It could be that like Margaret of York, he and Ellaria want to see their enemies suffer so badly, that they don’t care about who they are supporting anymore.

Meg of York GOT Ellaria

My advice to Doran and Ellaria is to hold on to their seats and be prepared to be disappointed (again) because not only did the Perkin Warbeck fiasco fail, it forced Margaret to withdraw her support and forget about the whole shameful ordeal lest she wanted to lose her hold over the duchy and it strengthened the Tudor Dynasty.
This is lamentable because Dorne has a rich history and I for one would love to see some of it being shown in the upcoming spin-offs, but as for now, it seems that their days are numbered. If Aegon doesn’t get to be King, then Dorne will lose whatever independence it has left.  Its customs, riches, and authority will wither away in time until it becomes one of many other realms ruled by the Crown. If Ellaria has some common sense left, she will stop plotting now and tend to make Dorne, to make her principality great again before one of Oberyn’s daughters inherits a crippled state.

Sources:

  • Martin, George R.R. A Song of Ice and Fire (1-5). Bantman. 2012.
  • Martin, George, et. al. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros. Bantam. 2014.
  • Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant presented by David Starkey, directed by David Sington, BBC, 2009.
  • Lisle, Leanda. Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public. 2013.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Jones, Dan. The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. Penguin. 2014.
  • Weiss, Daniel Brett and Benioff, David, creators. Game of Thrones. HBO. 2011-?
  • Gristwood, Sarah. Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses. Harper Collins. 2012.