I’ve been looking at the stories of Camelot from a different perspective as of late. And I think I’ve come to a conclusion that the way in which love is broken in the Arthurian Mythos. Moreover that the Kingdom which was based on high ideals basically falls apart because of love and I have to wonder, should Arthur had ever loved at all? After all what good was the love between Guinevere and Lancelot? Or for that matter what was the good between the love that Gawain shared for his brothers and his fellow knights?
I suppose if I’m to talk about love I need to look firstly at the story of Merlin and Nimue (or whatever name you prefer for her). Nimue’s big claim to fame comes down to the fact that it is she who seals the grand wizard Merlin. Of course you have to wonder then if Nimue is an evil wretch or just perplexing girl? “The Fickle Nimue” as T.H. White puts it in the Ill made knight. In all the legends Merlin falls for the girl, some of them it’s a genuine love others it’s a magical enchantment which causes him to fall in love. Of course the same has to be wondered about Nimue does she love the old wizard or just another one of those evil temptresses? In the French vulgate Estoire de Merlin her love is genuine and wanting the wizard all for herself is the whole reason for the trapping. In Tennyson works she’s a rather evil character, Le Morte it seems more out of annoyance than any sort of evil act.
But even in the best of situations where both of the characters love one another, Arthur is still deprived of his best advisor because of love. Which is just the first step into the eventual downfall of Arthur’s kingdom and one wonders why Merlin and Nimue had to love at all? Of course losing an advisor however powerful one may be is just one step. Besides Arthur has been taught from boyhood (in some of the tales) by Merlin so even without Merlin Arthur should be able to rule a kingdom. Merlin is taken away from Arthur due to the effects of love what good was it?
The best knights of the kingdom are also affected by love, Lancelot has his whole fling with Guinevere (which will be dealt with below), but we also have Sir Tristan and Isolde. Tristan’s story is in many ways a mirror of Lancelot’s. Both are said to be among the greatest knights in the realm. In Marlory’s work these knights are claimed as both the best Knight and Lovers in the realm. Lancelot usually coming out on top, but Tristan is never far behind. Yet Tristan like Lancelot loves one who meant for another. Isolde is meant for King Mark, Tristan’s uncle. The one thing this knight does have going for him that Lancelot doesn’t is that their whole love affair is produce from drinking a love potion that wasn’t meant for Isolde and him but Isolde and Mark.
In some of legends it could also be noted that Mark is from kindly King Arthur and may even been seen as quite the sadistic man in his vengeance against Tristan. It is by the King’s hands that Tristan is killed in a rather unheroic way. Love with Tristan is nothing but a bloody mess. It robs Arthur of one of his greatest knights, wreaks havoc in the Cornish kingdom, and leaves Tristan to die in quite the unhonorable way. What use then would Tristan’s love for Isolde? Love potions aside this love did little good for the grand Arthurian Kingdom, except perhaps as a warning to Lancelot and the good queen. Though it would seem the two took little heed to their fellow knight’s sad adventure.
Which I suppose brings us into the tragedy which makes the legend of Arthur. That is the love between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot which ultimately brings down the kingdom. Arthur sees the lovely girl and finds that he has fallen for her, he decides that it is she whom he wishes to wed. Merlin warns against this, but hey love’s overflowing the mind of Arthur. In the earliest of legends good ol’ Gwen is a decent girl, but in the later and the vast majority she and Lancelot are meant for each other. Merlin warning that she meant for another man Arthur doesn’t heed. One has to ponder how Camelot would have gone if Arthur had married another or if Lancelot had never stepped into the kingdom. But he does and like Guinevere his first meeting fills his heart with love for the girl. Wonderful, just absolutely wonderful, The Queen and Arthur’s best knight love each other.
Good grief the sadness that this love causes. After by the time everyone finds out and everyone does find out the kingdom goes down the tubes. Arthur who is nothing like the vile King Mark is torn between what to do and what the law states and besides the knights are calling something to be done. Arthur’s reputation has been tarnished and something must be done. In T.H. White’s account it is something he does with a heavy heart. Their love splits the kingdom and what’s all the more sad is why it should even be upheld as some great love. It was adultery and besides the warning Merlin gives to Arthur which he ignores what causes did the Good Queen have to do it?
Of course they’re found out, these sorts of things are always found out and Art hur must burn her or whatever the law says. Lancelot loving the queen goes to save, but kills two knights of importance while doing so, one of whom Lancelot purports to love as his favorite; Sir Gareth brother of Sir Gawain. This is where Gawain’s love gets into the mix of things and they just screw up. He loves his brothers, but then again who doesn’t love Sir Gareth? He’s one of the most gentlest of knights, actually upholds the codes of knighthood, won his own fair maiden in some sort of manner, does the wish of the king, refuses to harm the man who he’s adored since well for ever. But Gareth is killed for the love he holds for Lancelot, refusing to wear armor or bear sword against his fellow knight.
His death along with Sir Gaheris (who is sometimes fused into Sir Gareth anyhow) breaks whatever love Gawain has for Lancelot and he persuades Arthur to war. It is this war which cripples the kingdom and doesn’t do any good; save give Mordred a try for the throne, which ends in Arthur’s death and the death of Camelot. In the end one once more has to ponder what in the world did love do for the good of Camelot? The well proclaimed love of Lancelot and Guinevere splits the kingdom apart, good knights die because of it, Lancelot could have had the lovely Elaine had his love for Guinevere not been, and so she dies as well. There love does nothing but cause strife.
The love which Gawain has for his brother, a love which is very much one of the few which ought to not have repercussion does. After all he does mix in vengeance with his love as he time and time again forces Arthur to keep the battle up. His love does nothing but make an already bad situation worse. He ends up and then at last repents, but still the damage of his love has been done. Guinevere and Lancelot both survive the war only to find that the love they have has been tarnished. They die as monk and a nun, funny how the love they had when it was wrong was so strong, but when at last it not as bad the bad taste of what has happen lasts in their mouth.
Love ruined Camelot. Ironically since it was a kingdom that didn’t want to rule with might but ideals and love. Love killed the kingdom which would have let it flourish, causes the downfall of the greatest knights in the land, it causes the departure of Arthur’s wise wizard, it splits the kingdom and causes Camelot to die. Arthur in the end dies without any of his favorite knights, without his advisor, or the woman who should have been his lover. The tragedy of love I suppose is the sad truth of how so often instead of building up it can tear things apart. The tragedy of Arthur is that love ruined him where it ought to have saved him.
– Le Bel Inconnu