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arthur lancelotT.H. White was writing Gary Stus long before the term was coined, and he wasn’t content with just one authorial insert. His most obvious projection in The Once and Future King, Merlyn, is also the most benign: an elderly tutor, fond of nature and hopeful of shaping young minds, an English professor in a wizard’s cape. More interesting are the key male characters of The Once and Future King, Arthur himself and his most beloved knight Lancelot.

White’s Lancelot is ugly, self-loathing, suicidal, flawed yet strangely whole: a far cry from the glorious hero of Tennyson and a warped version of the cavalier in Malory. At the same time, White’s self-conception is also evident in Arthur: well-intentioned, doggedly political, blind to faults he does not wish to see. The author is generous to the “spineless cuckold,” as Arthur is generous with his best beloveds, but White is not interested in placing either man on the pedestals they are typically found on. In his notes for “The Ill-Made Knight,” he conjectured that Lancelot was possibly homosexual and that this was the root of his self-esteem issues.

17. Homosexual? Can a person be ambi-sexual–bisexual or whatever? His treatment of young boys like Gareth and Cote Male Tale is very tender and profound…it seems to me that no. 17 is the operative number on this list. What was the lack?…There was definitely something “wrong” with Lancelot, in the common sense, and this is what turned him into a genius. It is very troublesome.

Not the most forward-thinking of perspectives, perhaps–but White himself was, according to his biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner and other friends and colleagues, a mostly-closeted gay man, writing about the struggle between a man’s god and his love. He projected his own experience into his history, from sadistic prefects at a boys’ school to a smothering, cruel mother, most obviously onto the character of Lancelot. There is no tirra-lirra for this knight, only introspection that deepens as the book hews inexorably toward tragedy. If White intended to place some of his own fears and proclivities into this character–expressed in earlier works such as They Winter Abroad and apparently defeated by psychoanalysis–still, he did so covertly. Kurth Sprague further quotes him in T.H. White’s Troubled Heart as having no inclination to write a “modern novel” for Lancelot, as in the 1950s a novel about gay male romance would have been.

Another popular version of the King Arthur story, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magnum opus, has no such compunction. Alternately spurned and celebrated for its “pagan” sex rituals, The Mists of Avalon took the implied affection between Arthur and his finest knight and wrote it large, featuring a Lancelet who was simultaneously lusty for both Arthur and his queen. Sexual desire drives a good deal of the book’s action, with time devoted to Morgaine’s affairs and hopes, and most significantly the triangle between Arthur, Lancelet, and Gwenhwyfar. It’s a slow burn, but that’s what Bradley is best at–drawing out tension, harping on desire, until all parties collide in inevitable tragedy. Nearly five hundred pages are spent before the infamous Beltane night arrives, vaulting Lancelet, Gwenhwyfar, and Arthur into a shared bed and shared passions. This culmination ultimately provides no real release; instead it deepens Gwenhwyfar’s doubt and guilt and Lancelet’s confusion and shame.

“…I should take Gwenhwyfar and be gone from here, before it becomes a scandal to all the courts of the world, that I love the wife of my king, and yet…yet it is Arthur I cannot leave…I know not but what I love her only because I come close, thus, to him.”

White does frankly state that there existed a love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever–in fact a love quadrangle once Lancelot’s God is brought into the equation–but he shied from the full implications, couching the younger man’s love in terms of boyhood hero worship and liege loyalty turned to genuine affection of friendship. The explanation of Lancelot’s obsession with Arthur paints the king as the picture of the masculine martial ideal, and Lancelot falls in love, devoting himself to that ideal and its physical manifestation.

…So they had sailed away from England–the boy standing in the front of the ship and refusing to look back, because he did not want to show his feelings. He had already fallen in love with Arthur on the night of the wedding feast, and he carried with him in his heart to France the picture of that bright northern king, at supper, flushed and glorious from his wars.

Lancelot’s love for Guenever in contrast is romantically heterosexual–the click of two magnets! heart-sacks bursting in his wame!–and Arthur’s love for both is that of an older brother or father (no sex scenes between king and queen are even hinted at); for her part Guenever thinks of Arthur as her “faithful bear.” Her love for him is true, but not a patch on her fervor for Lancelot, which plays out in all the modes of romantic tragedy, beginning with Lancelot’s jealous resentment that she has taken a coveted place at Arthur’s side and culminating in taking Arthur’s place at hers.

And yet even with these “famous lovers” there are underpinnings of impropriety–White speculates that part of Guenever’s love for Lancelot stems from her unfulfilled desire for sons. Not even the most generously written and fully developed of White’s female characters is free from the shade of Constance White. In Mists, Lancelet’s bisexuality is White’s hedging in Technicolor: Lancelet curses himself and considers himself cursed, detailing to Morgaine his actions during the Beltane-eve threesome. His shame is not that he loves another man’s wife and she a queen, but that he loves her husband.

Characterized by narration and dialogue as “flamboyant,” well-dressed, slender and beautiful, Lancelet according to Morgaine has “denied the touch of the Goddess within himself.” His mother Viviane wonders if he is a man who prefers other men, while Lancelet himself remembers being a “pretty boy,” intimating that he drew the eyes of men in his youth. All told, Bradley’s Lancelet bears the burden of certain stereotypes of gay men, dabbling in that place that White’s Lancelot “preferred to keep hidden.”

Shades of male homosexual desire and action are found throughout the Arthurian canon, from Lancelot’s famous loyalty to Arthur to Gawain’s submission to and smoochies with the Green Knight to Dinadan, “lover of all valiant knights,” who makes great joy with Sir Palomides in a shared bed. The tenets of courtly love emphasized the love of a knight for his lady, who was often in reality and sexually speaking someone else’s lady; the princesse lointaine, the queen on the hill, untouchable by the knight. Knights moved in all-male cohorts, and in both White and Bradley the friendships of knights are referred to as love.

Bradley writes Arthur as defending his actions on Beltane thus: “Is it a sin, then, to love my kinsman and to think, too, of his pleasure? It is true, I love you both.” Knights of the medieval romantic tradition were bound by chivalric code to respect and honor women; ideally this meant abstaining from sex with women outside of wedlock. At one point Lancelot observes that his situation as a knight-errant makes having a wife impossible, while he considers that having a mistress is “no good;” the reader of course knows why, understands that Lancelot has tied his skill at arms inextricably to the purity of his body and his loyalty to Arthur.

This tendency extends to Arthur as well; the legend of the Fisher King links the king’s bodily failings–a never-healing wound, often in the thigh or groin–to the desolation of his kingdom.The implications are clear for Arthur: fundamentally infertile, his queen is childless and his kingdom falls. It could even be said that there is a strand of gynophobia in the emphasis on sexual purity for male heroes such as Galahad, the virgin knight, and Lancelot’s mania after being seduced (kind word) by Elaine. In White’s rendering a rather black-and-white thinker, after having sex for the first time with Elaine Lancelot figures he might as well go whole hog and surrenders to his relationship with Guenever; he considers that Elaine has stolen his fabulous martial prowess in a literal sapping of male power by contact with female (sexual) power.

“It was treachery! You have betrayed me.”

“Why?”

“You have made me–taken from me–stolen–“

He threw his sword into a corner and sat down on the chest. When he began to cry, the gross lines of his face screwed themselves up fantastically. The thing which Elaine had stolen from him was his might. She had stolen his strength of ten. Children believe such things to this day, and think that they will only be able to bowl well in the cricket match tomorrow, provided that they are good today.

Similarly, White plants the root of Arthur’s downfall in Morgause, his half-sister, who ensorcells him and becomes pregnant with Mordred. Mordred and Galahad are two sides of the same coin, being illegitimate and the products of sexual assault upon men by women. As shades of their famous fathers, Mordred degenerates in the opposite direction of Arthur, toward destruction and single-minded hatred, while Galahad climbs Jacob’s ladder, becoming ever closer to the God Lancelot longs for. Both sons are bitter reminders of unsought female sexuality, though the actions of Elaine and Morgause are rarely termed assault or rape, even by White, who actively loathed his creation Morgause.

Another indicator of the terrible power of women’s sexual appetites is Merlyn, consigned to death or imprisonment at the hands of a female mentee (whether Nimue, Vivian, or Niniane). Bradley writes this with a double-whammy, with Kevin the Merlin being sex-magicked by Nimue and imprisoned in the oak at Morgaine’s order. This trope is magnified in the case of Merlyn, since it is the combination of female wiles and knowledge gleaned from a masculine source that takes the wizard down; the female lover is usually an apprentice as well, who uses Merlyn’s magic against him, connoting wisdom with masculinity and wiliness with femininity. This connotation is played for keeps in the figure of White’s Morgause, thoroughly laced with the hated figure of Constance White, the author’s mother. A bona-fide sorceress who kills cats for the power of invisibility and witches Arthur into sleeping with her, both tricks referred to by White as “little magics,” Morgause is the true villain of the novel, even after her own death.

Mordred, though the lone truly faithless male character in the story, has his personality overwritten by his mother’s, in the final rendition of White’s preoccupation with Oedipal themes. In both White and Bradley, the queen is notably barren, having children by neither lord nor lover, a sorrow compounded by the fact that her affair is treason. As Guenever’s body is property of the state, so Arthur’s is its metonym; the “marriage of the land” that Arthur and Morgaine undergo in The Mists of Avalon is a bald version of Arthur as father of a nation. Jo Walton, another female author writing in the Arthurian tradition, takes this to a non-metaphorical conclusion, with the king’s body literally becoming part of the land upon his death in battle. Yet in the scene of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s desecrated thrones, Bradley does insert the significance of the royal bed. Camelot’s tragedy is irrevocably linked to sexual deviance, exacerbated by Mordred’s rumors and whispers, and illustrated by a grotesque banner depicting homosexual orgies, women consorting with demons, and Lancelet trampling king and queen underfoot. Though both authors utilize incest themes in different ways, White and Bradley converge on the topic of Fate, with White sorrowfully concluding that Mordred was impossible to avoid, and Bradley reiterating a New Age-influenced motif of destiny beyond the judgment of human societal mores.

White was a misogynist, writing that “I dislike the shape of women very much and can scarcely bring myself to draw it”–a tendency most evident in his treatment of Morgause and less overt in the Queen of Flanders’ daughter “Piggy,” Mother Morlan and Dame Brisen, Morgan le Fay, and even Elaine, who does the “ungraceful thing” and gains weight after her rejection by Lancelot. White seems to have felt least uncomfortable with unsexed, older women, generally eyeing female sexuality with doubt and distaste.

Morgause’s is quintessentially monstrous, displayed both in her mothering skills and her tendency “eat” younger men; her sons, by turns loyal and horrified, murder her in her bed along with her young lover Lamorak. Guenever remains White’s triumph, one of the great figures of Western literature, entirely worthy of her lovers and her status. For all his sympathy with Lancelot and Arthur, White seems to have understood Queen Jenny best. Most importantly, he resisted her ideal (though that may be due to mother Constance “bitching up my loving women”), for The Once and Future King is at core a novel uninterested in lionizing anyone.

Bradley was a second-wave feminist, keen to shine a light on the women of Arthuriana for good or ill. Arthur and Lancelet, despite being significant men of the legend, are not viewpoint characters in her novel, and the audience’s feelings about them are generated through Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar. The majority of sexual desire and action portrayed in-text is on the part of these two women. Though at the outset the audience is allied with Morgaine, representative of agency, empowerment, and independence, ultimately Gwenhwyfar is shown as the other side of the coin, as different but not lesser than Morgaine.

As a reader might expect from early-eighties feminist writing, the women’s sexual empowerment is a strong theme throughout the novel. Bradley celebrated and emphasized rather than feared female sexual expression (with varying degrees of success to be discussed, obviously, in comments). It’s more probable that Bradley was writing in reaction to the entire, largely masculine establishment of Arthuriana rather than to White directly, but often the directions her plots and characters take are the photographic negative of White’s: overt sex scenes and sexualities, numerous sharply drawn female characters, and an unexpected version of Lancelet. More lowbrow, more crude, less “important,” perhaps, but still holding its own in the canon, The Mists of Avalon is not without agenda but then neither was The Once and Future King. The sureties and urges that drove White to create an intractable Guenever, suicidal Lancelot, and sacrifical Arthur were reshaped by Bradley in turn for equally shocking interpretations in her own day. New reworkings of Arthuriana appear every year, and though slash is big biz, we’ve yet to see an openly gay, unashamed, stable Lancelot or Arthur enter the canon.

As Lancelot says in Spamalot, “in a thousand years time this will still be controversial.”

Books Referenced

“The Pearl Poet,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Amazon | Indiebound)

Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon (Amazon | Indiebound)

Kurth Sprague, T.H. White’s Troubled Heart: Women in The Once and Future King (Amazon | Indiebound)

Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot, Knight of the Cart (Amazon | Indiebound)

Chretien de Troyes, Perceval (Amazon | Indiebound)

Jo Walton, The King’s Name (Amazon | Indiebound)

Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: A Biography (Amazon | Indiebound)

T.H. White, The Once and Future King (Amazon | Indiebound)

T.H. White, They Winter Abroad (Amazon only)

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Diana is a corporate librarian in Cleveland. She spends a lot of time thinking about heavy metal subgenres.

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