Francis, Christina.: Playing with gender in Arthur, King of Time and Space.
Arthuriana (vol 20: issue 4) , pp.31-47.
Arthuriana (vol 20: issue 4) , pp.31-47.
By developing characters with unstable and changeable sex identification, Paul Gadzikowski creates an Arthurian world with fluid gender boundaries in his webcomic Arthur, King of Time and Space. The effect of this fluidity is a cast of Arthurian characters that continuously confronts sex and gender stereotypes, inviting audiences to reconsider their own assumptions about sex and gender.
By developing characters with unstable and changeable sex identification, Paul Gadzikowski creates an Arthurian world with fluid gender boundaries in his webcomic Arthur, King of Time and Space. The effect of this fluidity is a cast of Arthurian characters that continuously confronts sex and gender stereotypes, inviting audiences to reconsider their own assumptions about sex and gender. (CF)
On May 21st, 2004, Paul Gadzikowski launched a daily webcomic entitled Arthur, King of Time and Space, which he intends 'to tell the story of King Arthur in real time in daily panel gags over twenty-five years,' a time period connected to the length of Arthur's reign.1 As the title suggests, Gadzikowski uses the characters of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as his inspiration. However, this webcomic does not simply retell Arthur's story in a chronological treatment of the narrative; instead, as the rest of his title might suggest, Gadzikowski plays with both time, by moving backward and forward through traditional elements of the Arthurian narrative, and space, by literally placing the Arthurian characters in multiple and concurrent settings, or genres if you will. The creator re-imagines the world of King Arthur by weaving together three primary story arcs-the fairy tale arc (also known as the medieval arc), the contemporary arc, and the space arc-into a narrative that follows Arthur as he is caught in a time travel anomaly. Within these multiple settings and times, Gadzikowski is able to offer his readers a Round Table that considers the gender and sex of its characters both changeable and open for interpretation. By developing a fluidity of sex identification, Gadzikowski is able to work outside of traditional gender boundaries, so that a character's most fixed attribute is a character's name.
The fluidity of sex and gender embodied in Arthur, King of Time and Space (hereafter AKOTAS) reflects discussions of gender performativity. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler posits that 'acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.'2 For example, a female batting her eyelashes is frequently construed as a feminine mannerism; however, nothing precludes a male from batting his eyelashes, a performance of the same mannerism, a fabricated signifier. For Butler, these corporeal signs function on the surface of the body and work to 'create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core.'3 This gender performance then denies the idea of a 'primary and stable identity' and invites parody, or 'an openness to resignification and recontextualization.'4 Denise Riley agrees: '"The body" is not, for all its corporeality, an originating point nor yet a terminus; it is a result or an effect.'5 The gendered body is a product of its history, established by context and usage. Additionally, as Moira Gatens explains, 'Significantly, the sexed body can no longer be conceived as the unproblematic biological and factual base upon which gender is inscribed, but must itself be recognized and constructed by discourses and practices that take the body both as their target and as their vehicle of expression.'6 By their very nature, comics subject the 'bodies' of their characters to new contexts and engage in different discourses on a sometimes daily basis. Through its use of multiple genres and storyline time periods, AKOTAS illustrates the instability of the body and the performance of gender.
Comic strips and comic books have been frequently scrutinized for their presentation of gender. In these texts, the visual plays a significant role, as our own cultural consumption of multimedia supports.7 Sheri Klein, having examined images of women and humor in comics, agrees: 'Comics and cartoons as part of our visual culture are laden with both multicultural and socially relevant content.'8 Maurice Horn's Women in the Comics provides a great visual history, with images and illustrations that trace the female form depicted in comics from the early 20th century through the 1970s.9 Trina Robbins offers another analysis of gender depiction from early mainstream strips to today's comics, noting the trend of the funny looking man paired with attractive females of the early 20th century (think Dagwood) to the stylized and 'exaggerate[ed] sexual characteristics on both male and female characters' of the later 20th century (think X-Men).10 In particular, those even casually familiar with comics can imagine the cover art of mainstream superhero comics in which a scantily clad female with large breasts and impossibly long legs stands provocatively in front of an exceptionally muscle-bound male with biceps bigger than his head.11 Despite visual appearances, female depiction is not necessarily that easy to pin down. In her book Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture Patrice A. Oppliger examines many facets of popular culture's representation of women and girls, including a brief nod at comics, asking a hard question: by authorizing sexual depiction, are women really in control or is this just another form of exploitation?12 The place to look for answers to this question may be in character behavior. Even with the standard mainstream depiction of male and female bodies as sexualized, not all the behaviors of these characters follow suit. Pamela A. Boker suggests that while the physical gender identity is fairly clear, the image offered by superheroes, 'in terms of gender subjectivity-a merging of cultural categories of femininity and masculinity,' is androgyny.13 For example, traits like aggressiveness or passivity are not so easily assigned to the sexes in these texts. Another site of inquiry, as Robbins points out, is in the world of independent comics which sometimes offers a more realistic representation of the physical body with all its flaws. Another option might include comics written by women. For example, Ana Merino discusses women comics writers of the 1970s and following. She believes that a new space has opened for women's voices in the comics world, one which presents new examples of drawing women, both aesthetically and psychologically.14 This does not mean that independent comic writers or female comic writers automatically represent the voices of women better; at the very least, it means that the scope of representation has broadened. Finally, daily comic strips even more dramatically capture the day-to-day concerns of their contexts, commenting upon values and trends in society such as perspectives on sex and gender.15
Webcomics, even more specifically, offer a space to challenge and confront social values through their images. According to Fenty, Houp, and Taylor, webcomics are a continuation of the Underground Comix movement of the 1960s.16 Like their predecessors, webcomics can be subversive as they enjoy greater freedoms than mainstream comic strips and books.17 For one, webcomics do not have to contend with the limitations of space and color. A webcomic can be as long or as compact as its writer deems necessary. Another characteristic of webcomics is the enabling of 'an enhanced interactive relationship between artists and readers.'18 For example, Paul Gadzikowski regularly posts comments about his creative process and narrative decisions, as well as sometimes clarifying a plot element or confusing drawing. Additionally, webcomics are self-published, so they do not answer to an editorial voice. The content of webcomics can step 'outside of the acceptable bounds of typical mass-related comics.'19 For example, the author of a webcomic has more freedom to test conceptual and/or narrative choices. At the same time, the immediacy of artist/reader interaction encourages webcomics to cultivate their audiences. As a result, webcomics employ parodies of that audience's interests.20 For Butler, parody specifically reveals gender performativity, as 'the parodic repetition of gender exposes . . . the illusion of gender identity.'21 AKOTAS frequently posts individual parody scenes of specific science-fiction shows/characters, such as Stargate SG-1, in addition to its main story arcs.22 These strips suggest something about the identity of Gadzikowski's readers as well as Gadzikowski's personal entertainment choices-most likely science-fiction and fantasy fare. Historically, Underground Comix dealt with drugs, sex, politics, and other taboo subject matter, perhaps answering consumer demands not being satisfied by mainstream fare. Webcomics have followed suit, continuing to confront those same topics. One result of these freedoms has been the presentation of female characters in webcomics as more representative of feminist perspectives.23 Thus, AKOTAS becomes an excellent specimen not only for discussing the depiction of sex and gender, but also for examining the reimagining of the Arthurian world in a limitless contemporary context.
AKOTAS is not the first comic to delve into Arthurian themes or redefine Arthurian characters. The long-running Prince Valiant comes quickly to mind. Both Michael A. Torregrossa and Jason Tondro have offered some insightful observations about Arthurian comics, particularly their scope and their breadth.24 One example bears closer scrutiny. In 1982, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland created the graphic novel Camelot 3000 that situates King Arthur and the other main characters in a modern world threatened by alien invasion.25 Here the motif of the 'Once and Future King' is very clear; Arthur is needed and has thus been reborn. Like many superhero comics, the female characters appear in revealing clothing with the all the right attributes (imagine a lingerie-draped Morgan le Fay), and the men sport the requisite bulging muscles, none more so than Arthur himself. No longer is he the sidelined king, but instead he is a battle-tested warrior. In this text, the authors choose to reincarnate Tristan as a female; however, she is a female with a severe identity crisis, as she remembers her previous life as a man, and she spends most of the narrative attempting to reclaim her male identity. Of course, as with much fantasy-driven teen fare, Tristan realizes she has no choice but to come to terms with being a woman, and the readers are treated to a celebration of the lesbian relationship between her and Isolde. The intention here does not seem to be to confront questions of what defines sex or gender, but rather to indulge in voyeurism, to allow readers to experience second-hand the transgressive sexuality of these characters.
AKOTAS offers something altogether new. As the daily comic strip unfolds, the narrative shifts between the three main story arcs. In the fairy tale arc (or medieval arc), the Arthurian characters occupy their traditional roles. It begins as Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and continues along the narrative as laid out by Malory's Morte Darthur. The storytelling deals with both major and minor plot points, from Lot's attempted uprising to Pellinor's pursuit of the Questing Beast. In this story arc, Gadzikowski tries to stay as true as possible to his original source.26 All characters in this timeline maintain their original sex identification. The second primary storyline is the contemporary arc. In this setting, Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are teenagers attending high school, eventually moving on to college. Geographically separated, these characters first encounter each other in the virtual world of a role-playing game that they all enjoy. Naturally, the role-playing game requires them to battle dragons and goblins, thereby providing a head nod to the characters' medieval origins. In this timeline, the characters of Tristram and Bedivere are made female. In the third storyline, the space arc, Gadzikowski draws his characters into the roles of starship officers, in homage to Star Trek. Here, Arthur commands the starship Excalibur, accompanied by a crew that includes Lancelot, Guinevere, and others. They travel the galaxy attempting to bring peace to Arthur's kingdom (they battle laser-sword wielding dragons as well). This is the only storyline in which the primary characters all occupy the same geographical space from the beginning of the narrative. Each character stands on equal plot footing; more specifically, all characters are familiar with each other from the very start. Bedivere and Tristram are also drawn as females in this arc. In addition to these primary story arcs, AKOTAS also pursues other less developed arcs, such as those that pay homage to M*A*S*H, the Justice League, and the Wild West. In these less frequently visited storylines, the Arthurian characters are recast into the roles appropriate to the respective story arc. For example, in the Wild West arc, Guinevere is a schoolteacher; Lancelot, a gunman; Arthur, a sheriff.27 In order to follow one character from one timeline to the next, the author maintains a rigid color code for each character.28 However, regardless of in which timeline the characters find themselves, the key events of the original medieval narrative dictate the interactions of other timelines.29
In some cases, the geographical spaces of AKOTAS allow for interesting explorations of gender. As part of the contemporary story arc, the three main characters immerse themselves frequently in the world of on-line gaming, or role-playing games (RPGs). Like all online spaces, individuals self select their identity-their appearance, their sex, their gender characteristics. Take for example the portrayal of Guinevere in the role-playing universe (06/07/04).30 As a large, red-headed Viking male, Guinevere's 'real' world sexual identity is not immediately evident. In the virtual space, she presents herself as strong and physically imposing, calling upon the associations of a Viking warrior's prowess, and revealing her 'unconscious desires' about her own identity.31 In the strip, Gadzikowski also draws her avatar as more physically imposing than the other characters. Guinevere even reinforces her avatar's identity by utilizing the username 'Never,' an abbreviated version of 'Guinevere.' Her name then connotes intractability and perhaps even commitment to the warrior code of the RPG. By contrast, Arthur chooses a dwarf as his avatar, drawn as half the size of Guinevere's persona. The diminutive size of his avatar suggests a comparable demeanor, e.g. meek, shy, etc.32 On the other hand, Lancelot, with the onscreen name of 'Lakeboi,' does not alter his virtual identity at all; his avatar is a cleric who possesses significant gaming (warrior) skills, and his real world character is planning to join the seminary.33 Each character has selected a figure that represents their gender traits and personality, not their physical sex. Additionally, through the virtual world, Gadzikowski masks the sex of the characters and their gaming personas and avatars. The 'real' world characters know very little about their online opponents, so judgments about worth and value occur devoid of physical bias that might develop in a face-to-face meeting. Guinevere meets Lancelot and Arthur for the first time as a male Viking, not as a female teenager. Gadzikowski even heightens the humor of this interaction by depicting the contemporary 'real' world Guinevere for the first time as a nudist (06/07/04). Her gender identity in the RPG-those qualities that she emphasizes to define herself-is juxtaposed for the viewer of the webcomic with her naked physical body (all depictions are perfectly PG-rated). The readers are treated to a true visual split of sex and gender.34 A naked female body does not read as capable of warrior skills (see Figure 1). Thus, in the contemporary arc at least, these characters form their relationships using a value system which judges gaming skills and verbal personality.
Gadzikowski demonstrates an awareness of these ironies when he introduces Tristram into the storyline. The first appearance of Tristram's character takes place in this virtual space: Never/Guinevere and Ursus/ Arthur meet a pink troll who quickly becomes a part of their warrior band (11/05/04). Like his other figures' names, Gadzikowski has some fun with the online persona, naming the character 'sadslacker,' a jab at Tristram's melancholy mooning over Isolde. Several observations about this strip come to mind. First, by choosing to play a troll, and displaying superior skills, Tristram is immediately coded male by the other players. His gaming skills, such as easily navigating gaming challenges and high kill ratios, may have more to do with that assumption than his troll avatar; these skills resemble those of Lancelot's 'Lakeboi' as well. The audience becomes complicit in this assumption,35 and perhaps being familiar with Arthurian myth, it might expect a male character to appear at this moment, particularly when Tristram appears for the first time in the medieval arc only a few days after the appearance of the pink troll. Gadzikowski allows this assumption to stand for several months. These assumptions are developed more fully in a later strip, when the characters draw conclusions about Tristram's sexual identity. Sadslacker remarks to his online group, 'I'd like to take her away from all this, but SHE's too honorable' (author's emphasis, 02/20/05). Sadslacker/Tristram's rant, as Ursus/Arthur suggests, delivers the most personal information that the other players have learned so far. 'His' comments lead the other gamers to confirm their assumptions: for them, the affections Tristram displays for Isolde insist on a gender normative relationship. Butler would agree that the performance of gender operates to reinforce 'reproductive heterosexuality.'36 Even Never/Guinevere fails to recognize her own faulty assumptions, as her comment about what they've learned about Tristram, 'Like your GENDER,' presents the punchline of the day's comic (author's emphasis). Only the very discerning reader would have caught the brief clue that Gadzikowski delivered in a strip earlier the same month-the image of a pink female warrior in the space arc (02/04/05). Tristram's sex in the contemporary arc is not revealed until all the characters connect their webcams (02/26/05). All of a sudden, Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are confronted with a female with long, wavy brown hair, not the male they had most likely envisioned. The revelation of Tristram's identity again raises questions about gender identity assumptions and allows readers of the webcomic to test their own biases along with the characters of AKOTAS.
Ultimately, Gadzikowski uses Tristram's flexible identity for humor, as seen when he relates the story of Tristram carrying Isolde across the river (02/27/05). In the medieval arc, she swears to Mark and his entourage that no man but the pilgrim (Tristram in disguise) and King Mark has been between her legs, but in the space arc, she can simply swear that no man except King Mark has been between her legs. Like the assumptions drawn about Tristram's sexual identity in the RPG, this joke exposes biases about sexual orientation harbored by both King Mark and potentially the readers. In this example, I think it is also interesting to note that the creator has chosen to draw Isolde as a much more androgynous character, with short cropped hair, despite the still evident female curves. In an example of homage to perhaps both author and reader favorites, Gadzikowski places Tristram in the role of the cross-dresser Klinger within the M*A*S*H minor story arc. While Klinger's donning of female garments may have garnered a few laughs from original M*A*S*H audiences, Gadzikowski uses the same role to highlight Tristram's questionable sexual identification. With every incarnation of the Tristram character, Gadzikowski can experiment with the stereotypes of sexual and gender identity.
Despite the fluidity of Tristram's sexual identity, the character's qualities remain unchanged. From his role within Malory, Tristram is the second best knight in Arthur's kingdom, possesses significant musical skill, and loves Isolde. Gadzikowski paints his Tristram with these same qualities. In the contemporary arc, female Tristram is still the second best warrior in the virtual world, she leads her own rock band, and she still loves Isolde. The same goes for the space arc: female Tristram and Lancelot even argue about which one embodies the best 'knight' (08/27/05). The minor Wild West plot line presents the same parameters, except, as might be expected for the western, Tristram is male. Clearly, the author seems willing to experiment with character identity but tends to remain conventional when constructing the character according to a particular genre. If anything, the genre (medieval adventure, high school soap opera, Star Trek, Wild West, etc.) of any particular arc suggests the gender expectations, and Gadzikowski exploits these expectations to develop the humor of his webcomic. Ultimately, these choices to shift the sexual identity of Tristram create an interesting question for assigning gender to Tristram. What qualities signify masculinity? Which feminity? Since his/her qualities never change, Gadzikowski's strip argues for a conflation of gender determiners. None of these questions seem to influence the direction of Gadzikowski's plot.
Gadzikowski continues to play with the sexual identity of several other characters. In the space arc, Gareth and Agravaine both become females, though their stories have yet to fully unfold (05/11/08 and 05/30/08, respectively).37 Despite these changes, the author continues to maintain the consistency of a character's name, regardless of whether it sounds masculine or feminine. Gareth, in the world of AKOTAS, is a perfectly acceptable name for a woman (05/16/08, see Figure 2). Another character, Bedivere, experiences this phenomenon of an unfixed sexual identity. As a relatively undeveloped character in Malory's Morte Darthur, Bedivere does not have much to do; he only very rarely appears in the background, as one of Arthur's knights. Gadzikowski acknowledges this fact in one strip through a speech by Kay to Bedivere: 'You and I were originally mainstays in Arthurian legends. Then Gawain got mixed in, and Lancelot got mixed in, and our roles were diminished. Now I only get remembered as a loudmouthed screwup, and you only get remembered if people read Tennyson in high school' (02/03/09). As expected, Bedivere is male in the medieval arc, but in the contemporary arc, where Bedivere and Kay act as Arthur's constant companions, he is portrayed as a female, as well as the sometimes frustrated girlfriend of the frequently clueless Kay. Dating woes occupy a central place in the appearance of Kay and Bedivere together. For example, Kay will abandon plans with Bedivere to attend a monster truck show (01/19/06). On another occasion, in a two-day sequence, Arthur inadvertently disrupts Kay's romantic plans with Bedivere by revealing the group's location to Merlin. When Merlin brings a young Nimue to the swimming creek, Nimue's care immediately transfers to Bedivere, as they depart for 'girls-only' ice cream (08/21/04, 08/23/04). This sequence might be read in two ways: 1) Bedivere has been cast as the 'mother' and traditional childcare figure, or 2) Bedivere recognizes the need to separate Nimue from 'male' influence. While the humorous intention of the strip is to highlight Arthur's cluelessness about Kay's romantic intentions towards Bedivere, the result is a visually sexual divide, with the females on one side of the frame, and the males on the other. In 2006, Bedivere becomes legal guardian to Kay and Arthur because she turns 18 before they do, furthering the image of her as caretaker, or at the very least responsible 'adult.' At the same time, both Bedivere and Kay join ROTC, a once traditionally male occupation. Bedivere's joining of the military acknowledges the continuing variance in the roles women occupy over time. In the space arc, Bedivere retains her status as female, and along with Kay, occupies the position of deputy regent to Arthur in the affairs of state (05/25/04). However, in February 2009, Gadzikowski decided to shift Bedivere's sex back to male and to maintain that sexual identity throughout all story arcs from that point forward. The author wanted to showcase a successful male homosexual relationship, having already displayed a lesbian relationship through Tristram and Isolde.38 While this newly characterized relationship has yet to receive any development, Gadzikowski does attempt to confront many other questions of sexual and gender identity with his webcomic. Even though Bedivere's sexual identity shifts, his/her role in the varying storylines remains the same: companion and helper to Arthur. In essence, the sexual identification of a character then becomes a means through which Gadzikowski can develop humor. Through this unstable sexual identification, Gadzikowski can also prevent readers from easily marking these characters' gender identities. Because the characters are sometimes male and sometimes female, it is hard for readers to attribute any one particular quality to notions of masculine or feminine.
With such shifts for these male/female characters, Gadzikowski also relies on another constant in addition to their names-the color scheme of said character. It is the only tangible physical quality that stays consistent throughout the world of AKOTAS.39 The bodies of these characters do not remain consistent. This is not necessarily because one character is male and then female; if so, one might imagine that Gadzikowski would have enough skill to draw similar facial features, despite the body inhabited by the character. He does. It is easy to tell each of these characters apart.40 This remains the case even when the author shifts the world of AKOTAS into the form of a comic within a comic. Within the contemporary arc, Merlin runs a comic book shop, pens his own comic strip, and mentors Arthur as a comic strip artist. Thus, sometimes the webcomic's audience experiences either Merlin's or Arthur's comic strip creations. In Arthur's comic strip, 'The Shape of Things to Come,' the characters are rendered as geometric shapes, such as squares and triangles (09/05/05).41 So occasionally readers will experience a version of Arthur's comic within the webcomic at large, and other times the regular AKOTAS characters will simply be rendered with triangles. This choice reinforces the importance of a consistent color scheme, but it also highlights the fluidity of the physical body within the webcomic, reinforcing Riley's argument that the body is a 'result or an effect.'42 For example, Guinevere becomes less clearly female, and Lancelot and Arthur become less distinctly male in appearance. The character's identities are already fixed; however, there are no physical determiners to reinforce something as inherently male or female. By doing this, Gadzikowski again forces his readers to confront all their reactions to character behavior without clear sex categorization.
Considering these qualities of AKOTAS, it may be no surprise that the author portrays women as equally capable as men. Even in the Wild West storyline, a genre generally dominated by clear gender divisions, Gadzikowski plays with stereotypes. In one strip, he displays a conversation between Sheriff Arthur and Ginny. Ginny is a schoolteacher recently engaged to Arthur (or Art as he is known in the Wild West); Morgan is a madam. Yet in this strip, Ginny points out the potential of female ingenuity in one panel and then in the next panel shows Morgan at work on some grand scheme, successfully debunking the stereotypical image of a female saloon owner as purely decorative. The strip also demonstrates the ignorance of making assumptions, as Arthur remarks: 'there are her kinda women wherever there are men' (06/18/05). The straight interpretation is that there are prostitutes always available to satisfy men's appetites, but the line could also suggest that there are smart, innovative women moving and shaking up the world. Again Gadzikowski has used the genre of a storyline, in this case the Wild West, to confuse gender roles, insisting on the ridiculousness of such divisions. In this example, readers can clearly identify sexual categories, but should not identify gender categories. A strip in the space arc further illustrates this point. In this strip, Guinevere, having just been made High Queen, makes a change to the starship uniforms. Previously, all of the characters have worn similar uniforms: a high-collared tunic with leggings and boots. In contrast, Guinevere sports a lower décolletage and a short skirt which bares her legs. When a shocked Lancelot responds to Guinevere's choice with the comment, 'I can't believe the first thing you do upon becoming queen is decree a Pendragon livery variant so women can show off their bodies,' she rebukes him, saying, 'For your information, Sir Chauvinist, my amendments to the uniform code make the new style available to everyone, without regard or even mention of gender' (10/12/05). Instead of immediately identifying women as sexual objects to be looked at, readers should challenge their gender assumptions: a skirt is not just a female article of clothing; a display of the female body does not necessarily signal seduction. As Arthur's character witnesses this exchange, his depiction changes from a smile in the first panel to stone-faced in subsequent panels. Clearly, Arthur appreciates the display of Guinevere's body. However, when Guinevere rebukes Lancelot, both Arthur and the readers feel the sting, for they also imagine the same thing as Lancelot. Gadzikowski uses the female body to challenge what might be interpreted as masculine and/or feminine behavior.
Assigning gender identity to any of the characters of AKOTAS presents similar challenges to readers. Take Guinevere, for example. From creating a medieval Guinevere with a keen grasp of knightly politics, to a contemporary free spirit Guinevere raised at nudist colonies, to a full-fledged space knight and medic Guinevere wielding a laser sword, Gadzikowski manipulates the gender expectations of his genres and his readers. As the character's personality never alters, the audience easily attributes all of these qualities to all Guineveres, regardless of the plot/time line. Repeatedly, Gadzikowski shows Guinevere as aggressive and Arthur as passive. On her first appearance in the medieval arc she urges her father to 'shut up' and let her handle things (09/14/04). While the author cannot make Guinevere a knight in the baseline arc without the risk of corrupting his retelling of Malory's story, he can insert Guinevere into those provocative roles in other timelines. In the space arc, Guinevere displays this aggressive personality when she asserts herself as Arthur's best warrior (08/08/04). Not only is she unwilling to shirk her responsibilities as ship's medic, but she also delivers a series of snappy zingers. She meets each character on equal footing. While an aggressive yet capable female is not unusual in the world of science fiction or comic books, the portrayal of Guinevere in this genre/timeline opens up possibilities for the Guineveres of other genres. Whenever he can, while remaining true to his original source, Gadzikowski allows Guinevere to assert some female influence in the medieval story arc. She gives Arthur advice, makes strategic decisions, operates as Arthur's regent unbeknownst to the other male characters, etc. These behaviors do not make Guinevere any less 'feminine.' As Cox et al argue, when women adopt 'masculine' traits-traits valued by both sexes-they better navigate the 'rapidly changing social roles and expectations' of their contexts.43 Ultimately, Guinevere's increased representation in the medieval arc, and her considerably enhanced usefulness to the contemporary and space arcs, once again argue that Gadzikowski portrays men and women as equally deserving a space at the Round Table.44 Gadzikowski redefines his female characters as more than the mothers, wives, and daughters of medieval storytelling.
The complexity of gender identity does not only affect the female characters. Even Malory's main hero, Lancelot, is subjected to the occasional blurring of his sexual/gender identity. For example, one talent Lancelot possesses, painting, appears in the contemporary and space arcs. Each time, his status as artist is used to throw a question mark upon Lancelot's sexual orientation. In one case, Lancelot asks Hercules if he might paint him- Hercules' 'musculature is so definitively sculpted and the lion skin shows it off so well . . .'-which receives a knowing comment from Hercules, 'Well, you sound rather as if-not that it's uncommon in my time-' (12/23/05). On another occasion, also in the space arc, Guinevere remarks to Lancelot, 'You're great to have around, Lancelot. You're like just one of the girls, you know?' (04/18/06). With strips like this, Gadzikowski asks his audience to consider their own stereotypes. Does having artistic tendencies signal something about sexuality? Does easy companionship with women say something about Lancelot's sexual orientation? Or is this merely a reflection of his clerical celibacy at work? The webcomic lets the readers decide. Lancelot's prowess on the battlefield, despite his painting and being 'one of the girls,' is never questioned, but rather, is reinforced again and again and again. After all, in Malory's text, Lancelot is the very best knight in the world, flaws and all. In fact, Lancelot's prowess as a knight becomes a focus for casting yet another ambiguous lens on him. In 2007, Gadzikowski deviates from Malory's text just a bit to explore the story of Galahaut and Lancelot's relationship from the Vulgate cycle. Here Galahaut's 'friendship' with Lancelot, his interest in Lancelot's well-being, is cast as a homosexual interest. In one strip, Arthur comments to Guinevere upon Galahaut's behavior, 'Doesn't Galahaut's manner rather remind you of a lady smitten with a knight?' (07/22/07, see Figure 3). Lancelot seems to remain completely ignorant of this undertone in his relationship with Galahaut. This mini story line continues for several strips intermittently over at least six months. Again readers are allowed to consider some provocative questions from the implications of the webcomic: Would Lancelot encourage the sexual advances of another male? Is Lancelot's desire to pursue the seminary an attempt to deny his homosexual tendencies? Each of these episodes highlights Gadzikowski's ability to take the characters of the Arthurian world, of Malory's world, and show how their behavior can expose interesting sexual and gender identity questions.
Additionally, while these hints and nuances provide humor for the webcomic, Gadzikowski continually makes a point that these qualities do not affect the importance of any one character to the whole group. He uses Lancelot's character to make this point quite clearly. In a space arc strip, Guinevere mediates what she sees as Lancelot's short-sightedness: how can Lancelot hold Tristram's sexual preference against her? However, Guinevere is shown to misinterpret Lancelot's objections. He remarks, 'You made me realize I was reacting to my own irrational phobia and trying to justify it with scripture. Sexual preference hasn't anything to do with a knight's worthiness' (03/22/05). For this strip, the punchline comes from the fact that Lancelot abhors Tristram's adultery with Isolde. It doesn't matter that Tristram is a lesbian, but it does matter that she is having an affair with a married woman. Of course, in this point of the space arc, Lancelot and Guinevere have not yet consummated their relationship, and Lancelot may not yet have realized his feelings for her. When they do come together, as might be expected, Lancelot is perpetually distraught. Either way, the condemnation and the implied hypocrisy of Lancelot by the author span all timelines. This consistency of character allows the reader to view all Lancelots with the same eye, injecting contemporary questions about sexual and gender identity effectively backward into the medieval story arc.
In the end, Gadzikowski has managed to create a contemporary product that sheds light on medieval material through this exploration of gender and sexual identity in his webcomic, Arthur, King of Time and Space, while simultaneously exposing the conventions of particular genres. The humor and the promise of this webcomic lie in how it urges readers to look beyond these boundaries. The potential of the characters stems not from their identity as male or female, or their mastery of qualities assigned to either sex, but in their individual personalities. The confrontation of multiple genres within the webcomic allows these possibilities. Ultimately, the characters' fluid movement between story arcs creatively illustrates the performativity of gender and the unstable sexed body. Gadzikowski's reading of the Arthurian world makes the characters specifically relevant to contemporary audiences. If he can continue to produce this webcomic as he intends, I believe that Arthur, King of Time and Space will prove a significant reminder of the vibrancy of Arthurian legend and its adaptability to the needs of future audiences.
bloomsburg university of pennsylvania
1 Paul Gadzikowski, Arthur, King of Time and Space (2004-2009 <http://www. arthurkingoftimeandspace.com>).
2 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 136.
3 Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 136.
4 Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 136-38.
5 Denise Riley, 'Bodies, Identities, Feminisms,' in Feminist Theory and the Body, ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 221 [pp. 220-26].
6 Moira Gatens, 'Powers, Bodies and Difference,' Feminist Theory and the Body, ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 230 [pp. 227-34].
7 Gustavo E. Fischman, 'Reflections about Images, Visual Culture, and Educational Research,' Educational Researcher 30.8 (2001): 29 [28-33].
8 Sheri Klein, 'Breaking the Mold with Humor: Images of Women in the Visual Media,' Art Education 46.5 (1993): 60 [60-65]. Ana Merino also sees comics as 'a space for cultural expression that absorbs these society dramas and re-writes and re-interprets them, as do both literature and movies' ('Women in Comics: A Space for Recognizing Other Voices,' trans. Derek Petrey, The Comics Journal [2001, retrieved 16 Jun 2009 <http://www.tcj.com/237/e_merino.html>]).
9 Maurice Horn, Women in the Comics (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1980).
10 Trina Robbins, 'Gender Differences in Comics,' Image & Narrative, ed. Heike Jungst, 4 (2002): online (retrieved 11 Mar 2008 <http://www.imageandnarrative. be/gender/trinarobbins.htm>).
11 Susan Bordo demonstrates how muscles represent masculinity, a way to code sexual difference ('Reading the Slender Body,' Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993], p. 193). Jeffrey A. Brown identifies these muscles as a clear division between masculine and feminine, between hard and soft ('Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero,' African American Review 33.1 : 27 [25-42]).
12 Patrice A. Oppliger, Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2008).
13 Boker discusses the empowerment that occurs despite representations of sexuality, as male and female bodies work against patriarchal systems that have failed (Pamela A. Boker, 'America's Women Superheroes: Power, Gender and the Comics,' Mid- Atlantic Almanack : 115 [107-18]).
14 Merino, 'Women in Comics,' online.
15 Mary Lynn Damhorst, 'Gender and Appearance in Daily Comic Strips' Dress 18.1 (1991): 59 [59-67]. Damhorst's article provides an interesting comparison between daily comics of the 1950s and 1987, paying specific attention to representations of appearance for both men and women.
16 Sean Fenty, Trena Houp, and Laurie Taylor, 'Webcomics: The Influence and Continuation of the Comix Revolution,' ImageText 1.2 (2005): online (retreived 11 Mar 2008 <http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v1_2/group/>). Horn's Women in the Comics also discusses some of the female representations in the Underground Comix movement of the 60s and 70s (pp. 189-91, 201-21). More recent discussion of some of these types of comics can be found in Mila Bongco's chapter 'A Glimpse at the Comics Scene after 1986' in Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books, which discusses briefly a variety of comics that take a look at life's more complicated dimensions: from the politics of gay life to psychological disorders and everything in between (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), pp. 197-212.
17 Most comics follow something called the Comics Code, designed to regulate the content of comics distributed to the public. For a look at how the Comics Code has evolved, see Amy Kiste Nyberg's book, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998). She does note that the 1989 version of the code finally acknowledges a place for 'non-code' comics.
18 Fenty, Houp, and Taylor, 'Webcomics,' online.
19 Fenty, Houp, and Taylor, 'Webcomics,' online.
20 Fenty, Houp, and Taylor, 'Webcomics,' online.
21 Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 146.
22 In such a parody, Gadzikowski configures his Arthurian characters into identifiable Stargate SG-1 characters. Arthur is Colonel Jack O'Neill; Guinevere is Major Samantha Carter; and so on.
23 Fenty, Houp, and Taylor, 'Webcomics,' online.
24 Michael A. Torregrossa provides a very thorough discussion of the ways in which the Arthurian world has appeared in comics from as early as the 1930s into more recent Marvel comics such as Uncanny X-Men and other superhero tales ('Once and Future Kings: The Return of King Arthur in the Comics,' in King Arthur in Popular Culture, ed. Elizabeth S. Sklar and Donald Hoffman [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002], pp. 243-53). Jason Tondro classifies Arthurian comics into five categories: 1) the traditional tale, in which a fairly faithful look at Arthurian subject matter occurs; 2) the Arthurian Toybox, in which unconnected comics pick and choose to employ Arthurian objects or characters; 3) Arthur as Translator, in which appears modern objects or characters within the Arthurian world (e.g. Connecticut Yankee storylines); 4) Arthur as Silent Collaborator, in which a text utilizes Arthurian symbols or theme (e.g. the once and future king); and 5) Arthur Transformed, in which Arthur is removed from his traditional setting ('Camelot in Comics,' in King Arthur in Popular Culture, ed. Elizabeth S. Sklar and Donald Hoffmann [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002], pp. 169-79).
25 Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland, Camelot 3000 (New York: DC Comics, 1997). Other graphic novels such as the Excalibur series depicting the X-Men merely dabble in Arthurian storytelling. In the Excalibur series of X-Men graphic novels, several original characters have died, leaving the others floundering. In an attempt to regain something of their identity and purpose, the remaining X-Men reconstitute themselves as 'Excalibur,' a fighting group based on the tenets of the Once and Future King. Like the knights of Arthur's Round Table, and the X-Men of old, they will dedicate themselves to 'might for right' (Chris Claremont, Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn [New York: Marvel Comics, 1987. Reprint 2005]).
26 It should also be noted that sometimes the writer will thrust his characters either forward or backward along the timeline of the narrative, so that readers encounter the story of Arthur's birth, or a scene that satisfies a joke established in the present and made humorous by the positioning of the characters in the future.
27 For an example of the M*A*S*H arc, see 03/30/05; for Justice League, see 10/19/05; and for the Wild West, see 07/29/04. Other briefly visited story arcs include: The Lord of the Rings (11/09/04); Peanuts (12/26/04); and Star Wars (12/27/04).
28 The color assignments are as follows: Arthur = yellow; Lancelot = red; Guinevere = blue; Tristram = pink; Merlin = brown; Mordred = black; Morgan = green; Gawain = light green; and Nimue = purple. Characters within family groups will be connected by varying shades of the same color (e.g. light/dark green for Morgan/Morgause) or be distinguishable by hairstyle or facial hair (e.g. Van Dyke beards, etc.). For those who become confused, the author provides a useful link to background information about characters and storylines.
29 For example, when Lancelot goes mad after betraying Guinevere a second time with Elaine in Malory's original text, he disappears from the narrative for a period of time in a fit of madness. In order to deal with this in the space timeline, the author places Lancelot on medication for his bipolar disorder, thereby erasing the need for him to run off into the 'wilderness' of space. Ultimately, Gadzikowski is careful to keep his characters relatively synchronized between story arcs.
30 All references to specific webcomic strips will occur in date form, indicating the date they were published. All webcomics are archived for easy access by new readers.
31 Michelle Nephew, 'Playing with Identity: Unconscious Desire and Role-Playing Games,' in Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games, ed. J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006), pp. 120-39. See also Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox, Philosophy through Video Games (New York: Routledge, 2009), particularly chapter one, 'I, Player: The Puzzle of Personal Identity (MMORPGs and Virtual Communities).'
32 Arthur's online name, 'Ursus,' is the designation for bears.
33 In the webcomic dated 07/10/04, Guinevere finally realizes that Lancelot has chosen to play a cleric in order to literally practice fighting evil. The lack of division between avatar and self might suggest that Lancelot does not ever question identity, constructed or otherwise.
34 It should be noted that the webcomic does not clearly reveal whether Arthur knows about Guinevere's sex in the 06/07/04 strip, but by the real world revelation that confirms her as a naturalist (09/26/04), Arthur and Guinevere have been interacting online for three and a half months.
35 The appearance of these particular webcomics is constructed so that the reader feels as if he or she is playing a RPG. The scrolling chatting that occurs between the characters will occasionally address the reader as 'You' so that the reader is placed as a character playing the game. See the 12/10/04 strip as an example.
36 Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 136.
37 As another example, Elaine of Corbenic is a male chaplain in the M*A*S*H arc (12/21/08).
38 See webcomic strips 2/1 through 2/4/09. In the final strip of this series, the author recognizes the potential reader dissatisfaction with this decision and has Kay respond, 'We were-and are-heroes, and heroes seek challenges. If being a happy gay couple in the face of possible charges of tokenism and our own characters is the quest to come our way, so be it.'
39 As previously indicated, Tristram first entered the text as a pink troll. For several strips prior to the appearance of the pink gaming troll, Tristram appeared as a male wearing pink armor in the medieval arc. The pink allows the readers to make the link between male knight, RPG troll, and female space warrior. However, the discerning audience member might wonder about Gadzikowski's choice of pink for Tristram's color, as it suggests the female sex, or perhaps even raise questions about sexual preference because of pink's association with things feminine.
40 As an amusing side note, once the landscape of AKOTAS becomes populated with various family members of characters, color distinctions are not enough. Gadzikowski then reverts to facial hair and hairstyles. For example, Morgause wears her hair up and Morgan wears her hair down. They belong to the same family and thus wear the same color, and their physical characteristics are not distinct enough to tell them apart. These details are meant to distinguish characters of the same sex, not to highlight sex differences.
41 Over time, Gadzikowski draws only triangles, instead of other geometric shapes.
42 Riley, 'Bodies,' in Feminist Theory, p. 221.
43 Ana Maria Cox, Freya Johnson, Annalee Newitz, and Jillian Sandell, 'Masculinity without Men: Women Reconciling Feminism and Male-Identification,' in Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, ed. Lesley Heywood and Jennifer Drake (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 199 [178-206].
44 Morgan le Fay offers another fascinating example of the portrayal of the female across varying genres of AKOTAS.
Zambreno, Mary Frances ‘Why Do Some Stories Keep Returning? Modern Arthurian Fiction and The Narrative Structure of Romance’ Essays in Medieval Studies (2010) Vol. 26 Issue 1, p117-127
Why Do Some Stories Keep Returning? Modern Arthurian
Fiction and the Narrative Structure of Romance
Given the extraordinary number of Arthurian narratives produced over the last few centuries, a modern scholar might be forgiven for hypothesizing that the famous epitaph “Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus” refers to the fictional returns of King Arthur rather than to any more mystical concept. Arthur is not the only figure from medieval literature to be reborn in modern dress, but he is certainly one of the most common, with representations in epic and lyric poetry, contemporary cinema, fantastic and historical fiction, comic books, and even role-playing games.
According to an impressive but incomplete online bibliography maintained by Curtis W. Bobbitt, between 1990 and 2005, approximately 200 Arthurian novels were published or republished in English, and 16 short story anthologies.1 By any standard, that is a lot of Arthur.
As significant, I believe, is the fact that in all this extravagance of Arthur, it is primarily the Arthur of romance who is best known to modern readers. Say the words “King Arthur” to any ten people, and at least nine will immediately think of noble knights in anachronistic plate armor and beautiful ladies in pointy hats.
The more sophisticated will remember the Lancelot-Guinivere triangle, Camelot, Excalibur, Merlin, the myth of the “Once and Future King,” and, of course, the Holy Grail, which has been sought by characters as diverse as Monty Python, Indiana Jones, and Batman.2 Despite occasional attempts by writers to tell the story of the “historical” Arthur, the British war-leader who fought Saxon invaders, it is most often King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table who return to fictional life. As testimony to the dominance of the Romance Arthur, even authors who begin by writing about the Historical Arthur sometimes find themselves writing romance as well. For example, Rosemary Sutcliffe published two novels about the “historical”
Arthur (The Lantern Bearers, 1959, and Sword at Sunset, 1963), but she also wrote
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a Young Adult trilogy based on Malory in the early 1980s. In fact, in the Author’s Note to the first volume of that Malory-based trilogy, Sutcliffe argues that “behind the legends of Arthur as we know them today, there stands a real man” even as she justifies using the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in her current narrative.3 Perhaps an even more telling commentary on the dominance of Romance Arthur is Gillian Bradshaw’s determinedly Celtic Gawain trilogy, Down the Long Wind, which contains no Lancelot, no Grail, and no Round Table—but which still somehow manages to describe Arthur’s Queen Gwenhwyfar as having a destructive and adulterous affair.4 Clearly, it is the Arthur of Camelot and not the Historical Arthur who speaks to us most often and most powerfully. In this essay I will discuss some of the reasons for why this is the case. What is it about Arthurian legend that keeps the stories being told and retold, sometimes changed but still recognizable? My answer is that the narrative structure of Arthurian romance, the way in which the tales were originally organized and presented, provides an opportunity for later generations to remake the Matter of Britain into something relevant to their own needs. Audiences and authors find that these tales serve to generate and encapsulate questions as important to the modern world as they were to the 12th century.
Several scholars have, in fact, already commented on the appeal of Arthur in terms of the mutability or plasticity of the legend—the ways in which the material can be and has been reshaped for new audiences. For example, Donald Hoffman and Elizabeth S. Sklar point out that “the Matter of Arthur may be seen as an empty receptacle, waiting to be filled with whatever substance may speak to the individual and cultural moment.”5 Separately, Sklar also discusses the “generous and infinitely expanding cast of characters” that gives Arthurian legend its “extraordinary adaptability.”6 Meanwhile, others have concentrated on the popularity of romance in general: W. P. Ker connects the popularity of the genre to its “mystery and fantasy”; Northrop Frye points to the sensationalism of romance as popular fiction “designed . . . to encourage irregular or excessive sexual activity”; John Finlayson focuses on the adventure and self-discovery contained in romances; Flo Keyes argues that the medieval romance and modern speculative fiction share an appeal that rests on the idealistic “belief that man can be more than he currently is”; and Nicola McDonald discusses English popular romance as “the pre-eminent imaginary space in medieval English literature” in part due to the pleasure that results from “the gap that exists between the conventions that structure romance . . . and the transgressions that its narrative produces.”7
As it happens, I do not disagree with these approaches to the popularity of romance in general or of Arthurian romance in particular. I suspect that they are all probably valid and certainly useful—they are not mutually exclusive, after all. Rather, I would simply like to add a consideration of the narrative structure of romance, particularly of Arthurian romance, to the discussion. It is, I believe, the very “piecemeal” nature of Arthurian narrative, the way in which it has been assembled
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from various sources, that encourages later adaptations. I deliberately take the word “piecemeal” from W.R.J. Barron’s discussion of the Malory in English Medieval Romance.8 However, while Barron focuses on Malory’s possible thematic unity in the Morte Darthur, I am more interested in the implications of the actual bits and pieces of Arthurian legend that were available for Malory to gather together—not the individual tales, really, but that a narrative tradition of intertwined tales existed at all. In his analysis of the beginnings of romance as a genre, D. H. Green notes that Chrétien’s romances are located in an undeveloped interlude between wars in Geoffrey’s more “historical” account, and that other romance authors make similar use of such blank spots in the historical record, including the non-Arthurian historical record.9 Green dubs these interludes “windows of opportunity,” a concept that I find worth exploring. It seems to me that by its very nature the Matter of Britain contains many such windows, gaps that may be filled in by other stories, new stories, and perspectives omitted from or slighted in the original narrative—and that these gaps may impact the human tendency to finish what is perceived as incomplete. Psychologists call this tendency “confabulation,” and believe it to be the source of a certain kind of false memories. To law enforcement officials, it is more properly known as “eyewitness confabulation”: basically, when eyewitnesses to a crime or an accident do not see some necessary linking action in a sequence of events, their minds fill in the blanks, creating a more coherent narrative out of otherwise confusing bits and pieces.10 One reason for the amazing durability of the Arthurian legend, I believe, is its specific appeal to a kind of literary confabulation inspired by the over-arching narrative structure of Arthurian romance: the space, or spaces, contained in the framework of the story allow the creative imagination of later authors room in which to work.
I locate an early and important acknowledgement of these gaps in Malory. The Morte Darthur is, of course, the immediate source for many later versions of the story, including those by Tennyson, Twain, and T.H. White (to name a few well-known examples). For a larger sample, I examined the Author’s Notes in later Arthurian novels, and Malory was consistently present. I have already mentioned that Rosemary Sutcliffe lists Malory as a source for her Young Adult trilogy. So does Catherine Christian in The Pendragon (1978); Peter David in his comic fantasy Knight Life (1987, revised 2002); Bernard Cornwall in The Winter King (1995); and Catherine MacKenzie in Guinevere’s Gift (2008). Jane Yolen opens her Sword of the Rightful King (2003) with an epigram from Malory, while Mike Barr, co-creator with Brian Bolland of the comic book maxi-series Camelot 3000, is even more emphatic, declaring that his own work “would not exist had not Sir Thomas Malory written Le Morte Darthur.”11 Malory’s importance as a direct source of Arthurian lore thus makes his version of the story a good place to begin.
Even more significant, perhaps, is that Malory is also a “reteller” —already filling in gaps in the legend by pulling disparate and diverse stories and text together, possibly even creating the occasional tale from analogues or from his own
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imagination. However, and more intriguingly for my purposes, he also frequently omits episodes that were contained in his sources and deliberately calls attention to those omissions by employing what Felicia Riddy has termed “open-ended closure” in the colophons to several tales.12 For example, in the colophon to Book One, Malory declares:
And this booke endyth whereas Sir Launcelot and Sir Trystrams com to courte. Who that woll make ony more, lette him seke other bookis of Kynge Arthure or of Sir Launcelot or Sir
Trystrams . . . (12)
In other words, if the reader wants more stories, he is going to have to go find them for himself—or write (“make”) them for himself. The Tale of Sir Launcelot and Quene Guenyvere ends with an even more pertinent reference to omitted material:
And so I leve here of this tale, and overlepe great bookis of Sir Launcelot, what grete adventures he ded whan he was called le Shyvalere de Charyot. For, as the Freynshe book sayth, because of dispyte that knyghtes and ladyes called hym “the Knight that rode in the Charyot,” lyke as he were juged to the jubett, therefore in the despite of all them that named hym so, he was caryed in a charyotte a twelvemonth . . . and bycause I have loste the very mater of Shevalere de Charyot, I departe from the tale of Sir Launcelot; and here I go unto the Morte Arthur. (644-645)
Malory may or may not be being disingenuous in declaring that he has lost Chrétien’s Knight of the Cart, but he has in any case pointed the reader to a gap in his own narrative that could be filled in by further reading—or by further storytelling. In this sense, the colophon is almost an invitation: it announces that the adventures of Sir Lancelot are not complete, “Hoole Booke of Kyng Arthur” or no, and that there are other stories remaining to be told. Malory’s recounting of the death or not-death of Arthur in his final tale seems to me to make this point even more profoundly. To be perfectly clear, I do not intend to argue that Malory and his colophons are responsible for the gaps in Arthurian legend; rather, I hypothesize that Malory codified what was inherent in his own sources.13 In this context, Malory’s version of the legend turns his conclusion into a “To Be Continued” in disguise. Although he appears to believe that Arthur is dead and buried, he also describes the ship and the three queens meant to convey the king to Avalon, quotes Arthur’s famous “Once and Future” epitaph, and repeats the legend of Arthur’s return in what I cannot resist calling a magnificent display of weasel-wording:
Yet som men say in many partys of Inglonde that Kynge Arthure
ys nat dede, but had by the wyll of Oure Lorde Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse. (689)
Why Do Some Stories Keep Returning? 121
“Some men say”—but not Malory. He is just repeating it. Furthermore, immediately after describing Bedivere fainting at Arthur’s tomb, Malory adds: “Thus of Arthur I fynde no more written in bokis that bene auctoryzed, nothir more of the verry sertaynté of hys dethe harde I never rede” (689). He does not know for certain that Arthur is dead, or that Arthur will return; he has never read the right book to be sure one way or another, and so he must leave the question still open. Given Malory’s earlier references to “other books,” tales that he has not told, the implication is inevitable: a book about the death or return of Arthur might still be out there, somewhere—or might still be written, by some other author. I defy any reader or writer of modern fiction, contemplating that passage, not to wonder just what might happen if Arthur did return—under what circumstances he might do so, and for what purpose.
At this point, we move from the inspiration for modern Arthurian fiction to its actuality. It is my contention that modern authors begin by noticing parts of the story of Arthur that must have occurred but that have not yet been told; they then tell those stories, filling in the gaps. Some are even aware of being attracted to a particular gap in the narrative, as when Mary Stewart writes in the Author’s Note to The Hollow Hills, her second Arthurian novel:
The story of The Hollow Hills covers the hidden years between that date [470 A.D., postulated by some authorities as the year of Arthur’s birth] and the raising of the young Arthur to be warleader (dux bellorum) or, as legend has had it for more than a thousand years, King of Britain. What I would like to trace here are the threads I have woven to make this story of a period of Arthur’s history which tradition barely touches, and history touches not at all.14
Obviously Arthur must have had a childhood, a young manhood—and that story remains available for the telling (or retelling, given that T. H. White has also covered this same ground). In fact, stories of the youth and coming of age of various Arthurian characters are relatively common in modern Arthurian fiction: there are several novels about Arthur’s childhood (by A. A. Attanasio, Parke Godwin, and Helen Hollick, as well as Stewart and White), Merlin’s childhood (Stewart again, as well as Jane Yolen and Thomas Barron), Gawain’s childhood (Gillian Bradshaw), and Mordred’s childhood (Nancy Springer, Elizabeth Wein, and Haydn Middleton).
We also have stories of what was going on in Uther Pendragon’s kingdom while Arthur was being conceived and born (see David Gemmell’s 1988 The Ghost King, one of his Atlantis novels; and Kathleen Guler’s Macsen’s Treasure series, 1998-2009) and of what happened in Britain during the years immediately following Arthur’s death (by Coningsby Dawson in 1911, Parke Godwin in 1984, and Patrick McCormick in the year 2000). Obviously, these spaces in the legend must necessarily have been filled by some events, even if the source material does not elaborate on them, and modern authors have provided new narratives to fill in the blanks.
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One particularly useful example of a novel focusing on such events—necessary, but not referred to in the legend—is Anne McCaffrey’s Black Horses for the King (Orlando, 1995); as McCaffrey points out in her Author’s Note, knights must have horses, and horses have certain needs that must be met—and that is the particular story she is creating for her readers “about a facet of those times.”15 In this case, it is not a part of the story that is missing, so much as the mundane details that must have surrounded the heroic event described by legend. Similarly, other authors offer stories not of the king or his noble knights, but of the servants, serfs and squires who must have attended them; for examples, see Gillian Bradshaw’s second Gawain novel Kingdom of Summer (1982), Cary James’ King and Raven (1995), and Peter Telep’s 1995-1996 Squire, Squire’s Blood, and Squire’s Honor, respectively. More, the existence of any individual character in the legend, however sketchily described, implies an untold story: a great many Arthurian novels focus on such individuals. Round Table knights who have received their own novels include Kay, Mordred, Tristan, Owain, Lancelot, Perceval, Galahad, Gawain, Gareth, Geraint, Bors, and Aglovale de Galis (Clemence Housman, The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis, 1905; rpt. 2000). Even the story of Arthur’s son Loholt, scarcely more than named in Malory, has received some attention.16 The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been retold and expanded by Anne Elliot Crompton in her 1997 novel, Gawain and Lady Green, as has the tale of Gawain and the Loathly Lady by Gwen Rowley (Knights of the Round Table: Gawain, 2007). Gawain is usually Arthur’s nephew, but in some novels he is Arthur’s heir (see Rowley), Merlin’s godson (H. Warner Munn, Merlin’s Godson, 1976), or a reluctant wizard in his own right (see Bradshaw). Lancelot is most often Guinevere’s lover, of course, but he has been depicted as her half-brother (Rowley, Knights of the Round Table: Lancelot, 2006), or as Mordred’s lover (Douglas Clegg, Mordred, Bastard Son, 2006). Merlin has also received attention from authors other than Mary Stewart: he has been a Machiavellian pedophile (Allan Massie, Arthur the King, 2003), the tutor of a relatively heroic Mordred (Clegg, again), and a zombie-hunter (in Robert Holdstock’s The Iron Grail, a 2002 novel that also features Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts). Thomas Barron’s series of five novels about the wizard’s youth and childhood is collectively titled The Lost Years of Merlin (1996-2000; that is also the title of the first book in the series), while Ray Cattie’s manipulative Merlin works to bring about Arthur’s birth and rule in a novel that covers only the years between the death of Ambrosius and Arthur’s victory over Lot (Ard Righ: The Sword on the Stone, 2005). Merlin has been a busy man.
The women of Arthurian legend have also been busy. A specifically female—if not actively feminist—perspective seems to be particularly attractive to many authors; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1982 Mists of Avalon was among the earliest and is probably the best-known of the novels from the female point of view, but there are others. To list just a few, Courtney Jones tells the story of Arthur from Morgan le Fay’s perspective in Witch of the North (1992), as does Nancy Springer in I Am
Why Do Some Stories Keep Returning? 123
Morgan le Fay (2001). Vera Chapman has written novels about Morgan, Morgan’s grand-niece Vivian, Lynett, Morgause, and King Arthur’s daughter Ursulet, while Rosalind Miles has produced both a recent trilogy about Isolde and an earlier one about Guinevere. Gillian Bradshaw’s third Gawain novel is narrated by Guinevere, and Parke Godwin uses her as the narrator for his Beloved Exile (1984). Mercedes Lackey’s 2009 Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit was inspired by the Welsh Triad of “The Three Guineveres” rather than by Malory, according to Lackey’s Author’s Note, but it is still about Guinevere. Alice Borchardt’s Tales of Guinevere books begin with Guinevere’s early childhood and describe her becoming a queen in her own right before ever meeting Arthur. Other authors intrigued by Guinevere include Nancy McKenzie (1994, 1995), Sharan Newman (1981, 1983, 1985), and Persia Woolley (1987, 1990, 1991), all of whom have written multiple novels about her. Clearly, wondering what the women were thinking and doing while the men were off on quests or fighting battles has inspired compelling elaborations on the Arthurian legend.
Not, however, as compelling as the stories of Arthur’s Return. Works dealing with the rebirth of Arthur in the modern or post-modern world are perhaps the largest single category of contemporary Arthurian fiction, and the To-Be-Continued gap of the Once and Future King’s story has been filled in an astonishing variety of ways.17 Arthur has been reborn to run for mayor of New York (Peter David, Knight Life, 1987; revised 2002) and later President of the United States (David’s sequel, One Knight Only, 2003), to fight alien invaders (Barr and Boland, Camelot 3000), to win World War II (Donald Barthelme, The King, 1990; Dennis Lee Anderson, Arthur King, 1995), and to restore civilization to a Britain devastated by nuclear holocaust (Pamela Service’s Young Adult novel, The Winter of Magic’s Return, the first volume of her Tomorrow’s Magic/New Magic series, 1985-2009). In one series, the king begins his new life as a vulnerable child being protected by the FBI (Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy, The Forever King, 1992), while in another he is asked to save a far future world of fairies, goblins, and oppressive technology (see Robert N. Charrette’s trilogy, 1994-1995). Often he can be accompanied by a court that has been reincarnated or rediscovered intact, with all of their problematical history; or else Merlin returns first and copes with the modern world by himself (Fred Saberhagen, Dominion, 1982; Simon Hawke, The Wizard of Camelot, 1995). He then might awaken Arthur to face his royal destiny, whatever it is (again, Pamela Service in The Winter of Magic’s Return)—or not, as in Saberhagen and Hawke. Finally, to offer one last offbeat premise, in Joan Aiken’s alternate world fantasy The Stolen Lake (2000), Arthur returns as a ship’s steward in the Royal Navy, who discovers that the very determined and repulsively undead Guinevere has been waiting impatiently for him—in Brazil.
One could not blame the king for being a little confused. That readers are not confused is, in my opinion, testimony to the enduring strength of the story, and to the tradition of adding to the story by filling in its empty spaces. For this reason,
124 Mary Frances Zambreno
it seems to me that the sheer variety of modern Arthurian fiction—as well as its exuberant vitality—owes its existence at least in part to the open spaces built into the broad sweep of Arthurian romance. There is room for Twain’s attack on hypocrisy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and for Bernard Cornwell’s condemnation of religious fanaticism in the Warlord Chronicles; the importance that Susan Cooper gives to the individual’s free choice in The Grey King (1975) speaks more to a modern world than a medieval one—but the legend easily opens up to express that concept as well as others.18 In his discussion of myth and folktale in The Secular Scripture, Northrop Frye mentions what may be a related attitude towards storytelling as a whole:
In secular literature, before copyright laws and individual claims to stories are set up, a standard relating to completeness in telling traditional stories seems often to be implied. Others have told this story before, the author give us to understand, but I’m going to tell it better and more fully, so you won’t have to refer to anything else for missing features.19
I call Frye’s “standard of completeness” a “related attitude” because it appears to have attracted authors of modern Arthurian fiction, too: in the same Author’s Note in which she claims to have followed Malory “in the main,” Rosemary Sutcliffe adds:
. . . but I have not followed him slavishly—no minstrel ever follows exactly the songs that have come down to him from the time before. Always he adds and leaves out and embroiders and puts something of himself into each retelling.20
Even more relevant, perhaps, is Joan Aiken’s comment in the Author’s Note to The Stolen Lake: “Everybody knows that the ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had.”21 By her own admission, then, Aiken is doing no more than filling a gap she has found in her source material, adding her own story to the Arthurian legend. Her wild tale of Arthur being reborn in Brazil is really just one more example of the kind of “finish-the-storytelling” impulse (as opposed to the story-telling impulse) that I have termed “literary confabulation”; it reinforces my belief that we are not done with Arthur yet. His story is still not fully told; indeed, it may never be fully told, at least in part because the needs of the audience keep changing.
The never-ending nature of the story is occasionally acknowledged by modern
authors themselves. For example, Barr and Boland’s Camelot 3000 ends not with the death of Arthur, but with the discovery and triumphant flourishing of Excalibur by a stereotypical Bug-Eyed-Monster, accompanied by a ghostly image of the king looming sternly over him/her/it/. Thus, the Arthurian legend continues, albeit on another world and in good tentacles rather than hands.22 More evocative is John M. Ford’s “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station,” the World-Fantasy Award-winning poem
Why Do Some Stories Keep Returning? 125
about Christmas arrivals at the Camelot railway terminal in which the literary and cultural references place Arthur at the center of a vast web of allusion, new stories entwined with old ones (Pellinore, for example, mutters about having been cheated by “Gutman and Cairo,” while Palomides travels via the Direct-Orient Express).23 After describing the appropriate arrival of each famous knight, Ford returns to the image of a bustling railway station, eternally in process:
At the great glass station, motion goes on,
The extras, the milk trains, the varnish, the limited . . .
The knowledge that the train may stop but the line goes on;
The train may stop
But the line goes on.
So too does Arthurian romance. The ending is not the end, but a new kind of fictional beginning—and there are always new stories to tell.
1 For instance, Bobbitt includes Jane Yolen’s 2003 Young Adult novel Sword of
the Rightful King but not her 1990s Young Merlin trilogy; nor does he reference
such variant “Arthurian” works as Jo Walton’s Sulien ap Gwien series
(2000-2004), which is based on Arthurian legend but which uses original
characters; see Curtis W. Bobbitt, “Bibliography of 213 Novels with Arthurian
Characters and Themes,” University of Great Falls-Montana, http://inkwire.
org/Arthurian-Novels.htm. Many, though not all, of the novels I will mention
later are listed and described in this bibliography.
2 In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones,
1975), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1989), and
Chuck Dixon and John Van Fleet, Batman: The Chalice (New York, 1999),
3 See Sutcliffe, The Sword and the Circle (New York, 1981), p. 7. Author’s Notes
are usually a list of sources that an author acknowledges using as background
or for research; they are especially common in Young Adult novels, where
they also tend to serve as a recommendation of works for Further Reading.
4 With Bedwyr, presumably since Lancelot is not available. See Hawk of May
(New York, 1980), Kingdom of Summer (New York, 1981), and especially In
Winter’s Shadow (New York, 1982).
5 Elizabeth S. Sklar and Donald Hoffman, Preface, King Arthur in Popular
Culture (Jefferson, 2002), p. 6.
6 Elizabeth S. Sklar, “Marketing King Arthur: The Commodification of Arthurian
Legend,” King Arthur in Popular Culture, p. 9.
7 See, respectively, W. P. Ker, Epic and Romance (London, 1922); Northrop
126 Mary Frances Zambreno
Frye, The Secular Scripture (Cambridge, 1976); John Finlayson, “Definitions
of Medieval Romance,” Chaucer Review 15.1-2 (1980): 44-62, 168-181; Flo
Keyes, The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today (Jefferson, 2006);
and Nicola McDonald, “A Polemical Introduction,” Pulp Fictions of Medieval
England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. Nicola McDonald (Manchester,
2004), pp. 1-18. McDonald’s spirited defense of romance as medieval popular
fiction is especially relevant to any discussion of modern popular fiction, I
8 See W.R.J. Barron, English Medieval Romance (London, 1987), pp. 132-176,
especially pp. 148-149.
9 D. H. Green, The Beginnings of Medieval Romance: Fact and Fiction (Cambridge,
2002), pp. 178ff.
10 For more technical discussion of the psychological concept of confabulation,
see William Hirstein, ed., Confabulation: Views from Neuroscience, Psychiatry,
Psychology, and Philosophy (Oxford, 2009).
11 See “Opening Knight,” Barr’s introduction to the graphic-novel reissue of
Mike W. Barr and Brian Boland, Camelot 3000 (New York, 1988).
12 See the excerpt from Riddy’s argument reprinted as “Divisions,” in Le Morte
Darthur, Ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd (New York, 2004), pp. 882-894, especially
p. 883. All of the following quotations from Malory’s text have been taken
from this edition.
13 K.S. Whetter, Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance (Ashgate, 2008),
has argued that the unhappy ending of the Morte Darthur turns Malory’s narrative
from a true romance into a “tragic-romance,” mixing “typical romance
features with something different and darker” (pp. 99-149). Without attempting
to define the genre of romance myself (especially since that definition has frequently
included what McDonald refers to as “the inviolable happy ending,” p.
16), I would like to point out that the ending of the Morte Darthur does provide
a certain amount of satisfactory closure, if not happiness: Malory’s entire tale
is told, including the ultimate destinies of all the main characters—except,
possibly, the final fate of the king himself.
14 See The Hollow Hills (New York, 1973), p. 494. Stewart is a firm proponent
of the historicity of Arthur, stating both here and in the Author’s Note to The
Crystal Cave (New York, 1970) that “Arthur was a real person” (The Crystal
Cave, p. 492). However, she is specific that her books are not intended to be
scholarship or history, and that she uses whatever sources seem to suit her
particular narrative; she opens the Author’s Note for The Last Enchantment
(New York, 1979) by commenting that “According to legend, of which the
main source is Malory’s Morte Darthur, Merlin stayed above ground only a
short while after Arthur was crowned” (p. 509)—and that the story of Merlin’s
last days is the one she has chosen to tell in this third book.
Why Do Some Stories Keep Returning? 127
15 See Anne McCaffrey, Black Horses for the King (Orlando, 1995), pp. 178-179.
16 Although Cherith Baldry’s Exiled from Camelot (2001) is more properly about
Kay, since Loholt’s arrival at court and subsequent murder is merely what
drives the initial plot.
17 The only other Arthurian plot-line to approach these numbers is the straightforward
retelling of the life and death of Arthur—and those retellings probably
should be further divided as either Historical Arthur novels (usually set in
Roman Britain) and Romance Arthur novels (set at Camelot, or the equivalent).
For a useful consideration of “categories” of modern Arthurian stories,
see Jason Tondro, “Camelot in Comics,” King Arthur in Popular Culture, pp.
169-181; Tondro is describing Arthur’s presence in recent comic books, but
his discussion is also applicable to other genres, in my opinion.
18 Cooper’s The Grey King is part of her five-volume YA fantasy series, The
Dark Is Rising (1965-1977); the Dark, or evil, oppresses (corrupts, uses, and
ultimately destroys) individuals, while the Light requires its adherents to choose
freely—though the choice is often bleak and the final price, a harsh one. See
Raymond H. Thompson, “Darkness over Camelot: Enemies of the Arthurian
Dream,” New Directions in Arthurian Studies, ed. Alan Lupack (Cambridge,
2002), pp. 97-104, for a more detailed discussion of the ways in which modern
Arthurian fiction stresses the modern “conflict between freedom and oppression”
19 Frye, The Secular Scripture, p. 12.
20 The Sword and the Circle, p. 8.
21 See Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake (New York, 1981). Aiken’s Author’s Note is
22 The panel is captioned: “ . . . And the road goes ever on . . .” Though neither
The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings is overtly Arthurian, I imagine that the
reference to Tolkien is entirely intentional, one 20th century version of epic
bowing to another.
23 See John M. Ford, “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station,” Invitation to Camelot,
ed. Parke Godwin (New York, 1988), pp. 243-250.