Once And Future #2: Arthurian Annotations

by Olly MacNamee

[+++Warning, this article contains SPOILERS for Once and Future #2+++]

Having tried my best to offer up a suggestion of the reading Kieron Gillen may well have done in preparation for his new sell out series, Once and Future, with Dan Mora on art, Tamara Bonvillain on colors, and Ed Dukeshire on letters, I found myself loving my return to the King Arthur legend and revisiting old books once again. And so, onto the second issue and what seems to be a regular series by yours truly of annotations and information to help you get more out of this amazing comic book.
King Arthur’s story is a rich and diverse tapestry that has been spun for over 1,500 years, and what started off as a Celtic legend (probably having grown out of the Romans’ retreat to their crumbling empire in the late 400’s) has grown, evolved and adapted itself into the familiar story of Round Table knights, infidelities, and the Holy Grail as encapsulated by Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

In this second issue, two specificities knights of yore are name-checked, but for the sake of this column we’ll stick with the first – Gawain – and take a look at how he has evolved over the centuries as a good indicator of some of the foreign flavours that have lent themselves to this legend that we all consider to be wholly British. Far from it, as we will see in columns to come. But for now, let’s stick with Gawain.
Like many elements of the Arthurian legend, Gawain’s origins come from a less chivalrous age. The Celts were there when the Romans arrived, and they were there again when they left. And, it’s the starting point for this knight, who’s greatest hit must surely be Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.
Like so much of the Arthurian legend, there are roots in the Welsh collection of folk tales, the Mabinogion, in which Gawain is known as Gwalchmei, and is merely one of six knights Arthur sends to help Culhwch in the tale, Culhwch and Olwen. Here he is but a bit-part player, but in the writings of French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, he becomes the headline act, and by the 12th century he had plenty of starring roles in popular poems of the time. It took a French writer to elevate the status of Gawain from uncouth Celt to the very spirit of chivalry. Although, as we shall see, it wasn’t too long until he became something of an uncouth character again.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manuscript

But, it is in the later alliterative Morte Arthure (15th century?) that we have a Gawain that may well be more in keeping with this Alt-Right Arthur of Gillen and Mora’s Once and Future. Here, Gawain, like Arthur riding into Rome, is a would-be invader and kills the king of Gothland (Southern Sweden), suggesting this may well be the version we will be seeing more of in issues to come. After all, it’s the corpse of a fascist he now resides in, after the events of this issue.
It’s not the only presentation of Gawain as something of a murderous, unchivalrous character either. In the earlier Post-Vulgate Arthurian cycle (effectively a re-write of earlier works collected together to create yet another definitive version of the Arthurian legend somewhere between 1240 and 1250) Gawain is portrayed as a blood-thirsty, ignoble knight. By this point, Gawain seemed to be switched out for the very saintly Galahad as the favoured knight of the day in many of the stories of the time. More on him at another date, methinks.
However, I think the most recognisable version of Gawain must surely be that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century) who, in this narrative poem, is the epitome of chivalrous behaviour as he goes on his own Hero’s Journey over the course of a year and a day. Hot-headed and young, maybe – he rushes into a challenge on New Year’s Day at King Arthur’s court – but by the end of this entertaining and often humorous poem, like so many other would-be heroes, Gawain has grown in both maturity and stature. In facing what he believes to be his death-by-beheading, Gawain shows he is truly worthy to be one of the fabled Knights of the Round Table. That’s the way I like to think of him.
As an interesting side note – linguistics fans – this poem and a further one attributed to the same unknown writer (Pearl), is an interesting insight into the development of Modern standard English. While the Midlands was known for its alliterative tradition, in London The Canterbury Tales was being written by Geoffrey Chaucer. What’s interesting is that it is Chaucer’s version of Middle English that morphed into our modern version, indicating once again the importance of London – even today – in the development of the country, its culture and so much more. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to work for the king of the day, either (King John II). But, it is interesting how some things never change. If you want to make it big; get down to the capital!
What’s interesting, to me, is that in L’Morte d’Arthur, Gawain seems to be an amalgamation of both aspects of his presentation – the good and the bad –  showing his anger, and his loyalty to Arthur, in taking on Lancelot after the latter was responsible for the death of his two sons. Maybe this is his true identity? Although, even in this, Gawain is redeemed. But, in this all too human portrayal lay the seeds to transform him into something less than heroic, as he was later presented. Seems he’ll be more in keeping with the Vulgate Cycle’s take on this man. After all, after this issue, Gawain is resurrected in the body of a now-dead fascist. Who needs to punch Nazis when you can simply kill them outright?


And so endeth this month’s closer look at Once and Future. But, rather than list a set of books worth checking out, here’s a BBC documentary that tells you all you need to know about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presented by one of my favourite modern poets, Simon Armitage. Well worth your time.

Once and Future #2 is out now from Boom! Studios.

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