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Who was Mordred?
on May 12, 2002
One of the most enigmatic and mysterious characters of Arthurian legend is Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred. Unfortunately, he is also one of the least explored. In a market flooded with preachy, badly-written Arthuriana, "I Am Mordred" shines like a rare, dark gem.
The book opens with King Arthur sadly setting dozens of newborn babies adrift on the ocean. Several years later, we see a young boy living peacefully with a fisherman and his wife. Their happy lives are interrupted when a woman named Nyneve rides in to bring Mordred back to his biological family, the royal family of Lothian. However, they are not pleased to see him.
He soon finds out why: he is the product of incest between King Arthur and his half-sister Morgause, and is destined to kill his father someday. Shocked by this, Mordred goes to Camelot and soon begins craving his father's love and acceptance. He is also terrified of the prophecy that he will kill Arthur, and does everything he can to fight it. But can he fight his destiny, or only fulfil it?
This is probably the best book I've read by Nancy Springer, a dark, beautiful, suspenseful and very sad novel. It's very rare to find an inspired Arthurian novel with any new material, but she pulls it off by creating a new Mordred -- this is not the monster who wants to kill Arthur for no reason, but a confused young man who only wants to be loved by his father, while knowing he is doomed to destroy him.
One of the primary themes is whether a person is "born bad"; Mordred has, in his lifetime, done nothing wrong. Yet he is treated as a pariah by the people around him. His loneliness is broken only by Arthur and by Mordred's dog, Gull. While traditional Arthurian legends seem to be based around the idea of Mordred being evil because of his incestuous conception, Springer simply breaks those ideas apart. Nobody is simply born to be evil. Destiny and fate are some of the items that are also explored: Mordred seeks a way to avoid fulfilling the prophecy, but risks fulfilling it through avoidance.
Mordred is an incredibly appealing character. He's merely a shy, introspective teenager who has been shunned by his relatives and by others in Camelot. His desperation is present on almost every page, as is his isolation, but Springer makes it sympathetic. Nobody will want to say "just shut up and quit whining"; rather, they'll be hoping that Mordred can somehow beat the prophecy, while knowing that he's all but certain to fail. Arthur is a good supporting character, surprisingly complex. Springer portrays him as an essentially good man who committed a terrible crime in an effort to save himself and his kingdom, and who regrets it. He wants to love Mordred as Mordred wants to be loved, but is as afraid of the prophecy as Mordred is.
Springer's writing is descriptive and evocative; it's a little flowery, but not too flowery. She has an excellent sense of buildup and suspense, that grows as the book progresses. The first and last chapters are written in third-person style, which may seem like a jolt when most of the book is written from Mordred's perspective; however, it becomes clear why this is necessary.
I would not advise this book for younger children. There's no objectionable content in it, but a great deal of focus on incest and the social stigmas attached to children born of it. The overall storyline is rather dark and occasionally violent, and Mordred's perpetual struggle against fate is a very psychologically intense storyline that may upset smaller children. Mature 9-12 kids and all teens ought to be able to handle this, and all the subtle undertones and nuances.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful and original Arthurian book published in recent years. "I Am Mordred" is an amazing addition to anyone's library, whether they are a fan of Camelot or not.