Why King Arthur Commits Incest — And What It Tells Us About Politics and Sex

Medieval knights seated around a table staring at an ornate ciborium
A 15th century depiction of the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail. Public domain.

Camelot. The sword in the stone. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The Quest for the Holy Grail.

These touchstones of the Arthurian romances conjure up flags streaming atop battlements, from which lovely maidens gaze upon jousting knights. This is the green, sunny world of chivalry and courtesy, lovers addressing each other in song and hiding out in posterns for midnight trysts, where adventures are sought for their own sake — a lost world, if it ever really existed.

Why Incest?

What then, in this almost saccharine-sweet vision so often called escapist or juvenile, is incest doing here, right at the heart of Camelot? In its most famous version, the whole legend begins with King Arthur sleeping with his half-sister and conceiving a son, Mordred, and it all comes crashing down when Mordred and Arthur deal each other mortal wounds.

Even in our world in which it is forbidden to forbid, where it seems that the only taboo is to have taboos, the word “incest” still retains the ability to shock, or at the very least, to generate nervous laughter. And it was no less a shock to medieval Europe — so why does incest sit at the center of the story of Arthur?

What’s the Master Text for the Arthur Story?

Part of the trouble with saying anything definitive about the story of Arthur, traditionally called “the Matter of Britain,” is that unlike Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or Virgil’s Aeneid, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, there isn’t one definitive telling of the legend. The Matter of Britain doesn’t have a single genius whose name is synonymous with the story. It developed slowly over time, poets and historians tending the great simmering cauldron, tossing in a new ingredient here, drawing forth an older one there.

Ladies watching the melee in a chivalric tournament, from the Codex Manesse. Public domain.

One of the earliest sources which might be reliable is the Annales Cambriae, from around 900 AD, which records in a succinct entry for the year 537: “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” Here we find Arthur and Mordred, and we will now follow them forward almost 1,000 years from the Battle of Camlann through countless poetic reinventions all the way to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, first published in 1485, and thus written as the Middle Ages came to a close. It is the closest we come in any individual text to an exhaustive telling of the Matter of Britain.

Exhaustive and at times, exhausting. What Malory lacks in concision though, he makes up for with comprehensiveness. And there was a lot of material to sift through. Within a matter of decades of the 1136 publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (more of a “history” than a history), which was the first developed account of the Arthur story, the rest of Europe had caught Arthurian fever. Imagine sitting down with 350 years’ worth of international fan fiction and trying to synthesize it — then you’ll appreciate the scope of Malory’s task.

King Arthur Sleeps with His Sister

Turning back, though, to the question of incest. If you’re not familiar with the story of Arthur, the plotline relevant to our questions runs like this (I’ll be using Malory’s version for the sake of ease):

Uther Pendragon, King of England, lusts after Igraine, the wife of Gorlois. Uther fights a war against Gorlois (in which Gorlois dies) and Uther tricks Igraine into sleeping with him. She conceives a son, Arthur. But this is not her first child — she and Gorlois had already three daughters: Margawse, Elaine, and Morgan. And this is where it gets weird.

Family tree starting with Uther, Igraine, and Gorlois; and terminating with Mordred and his four half-brothers.
Family tree starting with Uther, Igraine, and Gorlois; and terminating with Mordred and his four half-brothers.
The weird, weird Arthurian family tree

Margawse marries King Lot of Orkney with whom she has four sons (one of those sons, Gaheris, will later behead her in rage when he finds her in bed with Lamorak, the son of the man, Pellinore, who killed King Lot, Gaheris’ father). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Anyhow, the four brothers travel to King Arthur’s court, and their mother Margawse comes with them to spy on King Arthur. But since only Merlin knows the story of Arthur’s secret birth, neither Margawse nor Arthur realize that they are half-brother, half-sister.

Here’s Malory, describing the moment that Margawse arrives in King Arthur’s court:

For she [Margawse] was a passing fair lady, wherefor the king [Arthur] cast great love unto her, and desired to lie by her. So they were agreed, and he begat upon her Mordred, and she was his sister, on the mother side, Igraine.

Arthur is afflicted by a horrifying dream that night, and the next day, Merlin finds the disturbed king in the forest. He finally tells Arthur the truth of his parentage (since Arthur had been raised by foster parents), and then reveals the fact of his incest to him:

“But ye have done a thing late that God is displeased with you, for ye have lain by your sister, and on her ye have gotten a child that shall destroy you and all the knights of your realm… For it is God’s will your body to be punished for your foul deeds.”

This all occurs within the first 50 pages of (my edition) of Malory, after he’s spent considerable time establishing Arthur’s gentle nature — for example, he only pulled the sword out of the stone because he was looking for a sword for his older foster brother, Kay.

King Arthur, though, is not only gentle, but wily and competent. He successfully puts down the rebellion that arises after his coronation, because the lords of the land don’t want to be ruled by such a young man of questionable parentage. He is the founder of the Knights of the Round Table, that flower of chivalry, he is the redeemer of England, he is the once and future king.

Why Is Incest Bad, Anyways?

Why, then, does incest stain such noble king and such a glorious tale? The answer to that question begins with another question:

What’s wrong with incest?

Eww! Incest is icky!

But why?

The obvious response of a higher risk of birth defects naturally arises. But say that’s not an issue? What if the brother-sister lovers are past childbearing years? Or the mother has gone through menopause and her adult son falls in love with her? Or what if it’s a same-sex couple? Or if they agree to permanent sterilization? Would you then be OK with immediate family members getting married?

Incest seemed to be a temptation for royals, in particular, even when the concomitant health problems were obvious. King Tut, the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, was severely disabled and likely the progeny of a brother and sister marriage — but that didn’t stop him from marrying his own sister. The Spanish Habsburgs are famous for generations of inbreeding, which also led to profound physical impairment.

In neither of these societies (Ancient Egypt or early modern Europe) was incest seen as accceptable among the general populace, so historical context is not a clue. No, the problem with incest is not merely (or even primarily) biological. Incest is foremost a political problem.

Incest as a Political Problem

What does this mean? Well, ask the Greeks. After all, whose name has become synonymous with the incest? Oedipus.

Oedipus, the King of Thebes, famously killed his father and married his mother (without realizing it). Parricide and incest. Sound familiar to the Arthurian story?

Realizing what he has done, Oedipus blinds himself and eventually dies. A civil war in Thebes ensues between his two sons, both vying for rule, which Oedipus’ uncle (and brother-in-law) Creon resolves, but only after Oedipus’ daughter Antigone tries to defy Creon and give an unlawful burial to one of her dead brothers.

Creon, in turn, buries Antigone alive in retaliation, finally bringing the whole bloody, tawdry Theban affair to an end.

The Philosophy of Incest

The philosopher Patrick Downey explains in his book Desperately Wicked why the incest taboo is ultimately political at root:

Our erotic passion that wants to possess, to eat up and consume everything confronting it, has no intrinsic limits. But our body does. When we consume things they disappear and we must turn elsewhere. Our sexual desires check us even more. Even as they draw us to join with another body, our very bodies guarantee they will never succeed. At the very moment of orgasm, seeming object of desire and height of physical unity, our bodies betray us, recede and fall apart.

Desire, left to its own devices, will never stop desiring, and thus never stop consuming. Sex is the expression of desire to consume someone else into yourself, to achieve total unity — but it never actually works. And yet:

Out of this ephemeral union, a true union can take place in the form of a child, but that unity is radically not ourselves. It is a new body, as separated by its own skin as its mother remains separate from its father. Our erotic passion longs to become one with others through possession, but it cannot succeed because the means to that satisfaction are through the body. There can only be union in some third body that is partially of both bodies and yet finally neither.

So, in sex unity is achieved, of a kind. But it’s a unity-in-otherness. What does this have to do with incest?

What is prohibited in incest is the attempt, as much as the body can, to satisfy the erotic desire to possess oneself in sameness, to not lose onself in otherness… If we, like Oedipus, return to our mother’s womb during intercourse — are we not trying to give birth again only to ourselves? Bodies, of course, can never be the same, but if we give birth to brothers that are also our sons, or sisters that are also our daughters, or nieces that are also daughters, and so on, our very ‘blood ties’ are ties only to ourselves. We have expanded to encompass even our family into ourselves.

Book cover showing six different ancient and modern philosophers
Book cover showing six different ancient and modern philosophers
Desperately Wicked, by Patrick Downey

If the universal taboo of incest is completely overthrown, then my family is really just me. And therefore, when the unending character of desire comes up against no natural limits, it expands aggressively and indefinitely until I’ve assimilated the whole world into myself.

What is another word for indefinite expansion and assimilation of everything into myself? War — unending war of all against all.

Incest and Blood

This is why incest is so commonly linked to blood feuds: Oedipus kills his father, sleeps with his mother, and his death sets off a blood feud in which his sons kill each other and his uncle executes his daughter.

In another Greek tragedy, Euripides’ Bacchae, the boyish god Dionysus — clearly marked out as a simulacrum of the young, upstart King Pentheus — seduces and entrances Pentheus’ mother Agave into his band of orgiastic followers, the bacchantes. Pentheus attempts to put the madness to an end and actually imprisons Dionysus, but the play culminates in the bacchantes, led by Agave, tearing Pentheus to shreds. Agave, totally crazed, proudly carries her son Pentheus’ head back into town on a spike.

Now we can begin to understand why the Matter of Britain is bookended with incest and its consequences. It’s not about the ick factor or the biological consequences of inbreeding. Rather, incest is the universal solvent of politics. I use the word “politics” here in a broad sense — the human attempt to create communities in which to live together in peace and justice. Drop incest into the mix, and it dissolves like an acid any and every attempt to live together in peace and justice, as the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides make clear.

The Matter of Britain Is a Political Epic

The magnificence of Camelot endures for only a single generation — that is its great tragedy. The story of King Arthur, of course, cannot be boiled down to one moral or a single lesson. But it is unquestionably the story of a profoundly attractive political regime, or in other words, a chronicle of an attempt to create a community of genuine peace and justice.

Through the code of courtly love, in which the knight professes himself the slave of his beloved, Camelot transmutes raw sexual desire into gentleness and courtesy, producing peace. Through the code of chivalry, in which the knight observes strict rules of fair play and pledges himself to defend the innocent against the predations of the wicked, Camelot transmutes aggression and violence into adventure and excellence, producing justice.

Such a noble regime, however, even with the divine aid of saintly knights like Bors, Percival, and Galahad, and the marvelous works of Merlin, and the unsurpassed prowess of Lancelot, and the loyalty of Gawain, and the supreme majesty of King Arthur himself, cannot survive in the face of the corrosive effect of incest and adultery.

Arthurian Blood Feuds

Just as in the Greek tragedies, unbridled desire shows itself not only in sex, but also in blood feuds. Remember Margawse? Her own son, Gaheris, beheaded her in bed when he found her sleeping with his blood enemy, Lamorak, whose father Pellinore, killed King Lot.

Blood feuds are, similarly to incest, “anti-political” in that they pit “my blood” against “your blood.” Any legitimate attempt at a politics tries to transcend mere blood, mere family ties, in the name of justice and peace. To pursue a blood feud and take justice into your own hands is to reject the reigning political arrangement and make yourself king. It pits you against the world, just as incest does.

Unfortunately for the Lot-Margawse-Arthur clan, blood feuds ran in the family. The match is finally dropped into the Camelot powder keg when Agravain (Gaheris’ brother, also a son of Margawse and Lot) plots along with his half-brother Mordred to reveal to King Arthur Lancelot’s adultery with Queen Guinevere. In the aftermath, Lancelot kills all three of Gawain’s brothers (Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth), so eldest brother Gawain swears a blood oath against Lancelot.

Mordred and Arthur. Public domain.

Lancelot’s adultery found out, a war between King Arthur (egged on by Gawain) and Lancelot causes Arthur to leave England in Mordred’s stewardship while he goes off to fight Lancelot in France, a stewardship which Mordred promptly betrays.

Not only does Mordred attempt to take the kingdom from his father, but he also tries to take Guinevere, his father’s wife, as his own wife. The incestuous sin of the father repeated in the case of the son.

Hearing of his son’s incestuous treason, King Arthur calls off his war with Lancelot and returns from France to face his son. Here’s Malory, narrating the moment Camelot and King Arthur’s reign collapse:

And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And there King Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear, throughout the body, more than a fathom. And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death’s wound he thrust himself with the might that he had up to the bur of King Arthur’s spear. And right so he smote his father Arthur, with his sword holden in both his hands, on the side of the head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain pan, and therewithal Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth; and the noble Arthur fell in a swoon to the earth and there he swooned ofttimes.

The Arthurian legend is not a morality play (though I do like medieval morality plays — the slurs against them would be left unsaid by anyone who’d actually read them). There is not, in this case, one clear lesson to take from the Matter of Britain. It is much closer to an epic, which takes the broad picture of universal human experience, and out of that fabric fashions unforgettable characters and lets them act out a perennial human drama.

Critics of romance and fairy tales can criticize the Arthurian literature for its “idealized” image of a land of picture-perfect justice and peace. But the presence of incest as a controlling device of the entire legend should make clear that the Matter of Britain is deadly serious when it comes to human desire and the potential for human community.

Sir Bedivere is a technology executive in the Western United States.

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