Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

— Lord Alfred Tennyson, “Ulysses”

 

Fate’s threads entangle all in an infinite web, unbeknownst to the players of the tragedy. What happens when a character is aware of his fate and acts towards preventing it? Can destiny, with all its predetermined points in time, be altered? Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day (2003) tells the story of Mordred, as he struggles to fight against the prophecy of King Arthur’s death by his hands.

Mordred’s life begins and ends with Arthur. Oblivious to their family connection, Arthur sleeps with his half-sister Morgause. From their incestuous union, Mordred is born. Following Merlin’s prophecy of Mordred causing the death of Arthur and his kingdom, Arthur gathers all the babies born in the same month as Mordred and casts them away in a ship to perish. However, Mordred survives. He is raised by a fisherman and his wife, and later on, by Morgause herself. Despite Morgause’s attempts to turn Mordred into an instrument of her will and work against Arthur, Mordred resists and chooses to act according to his own unconditional love and loyalty to Arthur.

Stewart portrays Mordred as a person who is ambitious but also holds unconditional love and loyalty for Arthur. Well-loved by Arthur and Guinevere, he is soon recognised in the court’s eyes as Prince Mordred. The title distinguishes him from Gawain and his other half-brothers, as his intelligence and cool demeanor sets him apart from their love of discord and violence. Mordred serves Arthur to the best of his ability and seeks to protect Arthur by trying to prevent his fate.

 
He seeks Nimue (Merlin’s successor) and asks for her counsel. He confides to her his familial love for Arthur and his intentions, where “[he] would not willingly bring evil to the King” (225) since he feels indebted to Arthur for knowing “[the] prophecy from the start, believing it, [and] yet, [taking Mordred] into the court and [accepting him] as his son” (225). However, Nimue tells him that she cannot aid him and avoid a predetermined destiny. Frustrated, Mordred draws his dagger and threatens to kill himself, asking “[w]ould [it] not avert the fate that [she] say[s] hangs in the stars?” (225). In response, Nimue simply replies that “Fate has more than one arrow” (226), and killing himself would only bring Arthur closer to death, since the prophecy does not mention how “Arthur would meet his doom by [his] hand or even by [his] action” (226), only through Mordred’s existence. Furthermore, Nimue mentions that an alternate course of action may have led to possible fatal consequences. For example, if Arthur had succeeded in slaying Mordred as an infant, “it might have happened that men would have risen against him for his cruelty” (226) and he would have been killed in the process.

Stewart plays with the concept of destiny and predetermined events through the flexibility of fate and through free will. She also brings up the notion of perception, arbitrary chance and coincidence influencing the progression of events to their final conclusion.

Stewart plays with the concept of destiny and predetermined events through the flexibility of fate and through free will. She also brings up the notion of perception, arbitrary chance and coincidence influencing the progression of events to their final conclusion.

When Arthur leaves to fight against the Roman army, Mordred acts as regent in his place. Prior to his departure, Arthur tells Mordred of the treaties he must negotiate with the Saxons, their long-time enemy, if he happens to die in battle. Moreover, upon his return or in the event of his death, Arthur grants Mordred the right to inherit and rule his kingdom. Wounded in battle, Arthur sends a messenger to Mordred and the Queen. However, unbeknownst to them, the messenger who bears the news of Arthur’s death is an agent of the Roman army who replaced Arthur’s messenger. As a result, Mordred follows through in his procedures of treaties and assumes the throne. When Arthur discovers Mordred’s actions through a letter, he misinterprets Mordred’s intentions and actions but remains reserved in judging Mordred. Gawain, Mordred’s half-brother, is convinced of Mordred’s evil intentions and tries to persuade Arthur into fighting him. As they enter Saxon territory by ship on their way home, Arthur and Gawain are attacked by Saxon forces, unaware of the new treaty made by Mordred and their leader. When Gawain dies from his wounds, Arthur grieves for him and is persuaded by his words of Mordred’s treachery.

By believing in the truth of the prophecy, Arthur hastens towards his prophesied death.  However, the wise Merlin’s position on the matter of destiny and the role of free will are in opposition to Nimue’s understanding of destiny. He believes destiny can be overwritten through actions and active choices toward preventing it. On the day before Arthur and Mordred’s treaty negotiation, Merlin visits Arthur in his dream. Merlin believes they have “let [themselves] be blinded by prophecy…[their] own follies, not the gods, foredoom [them]” (396). Merlin tells him the nature of destiny relies on free will and choice, where men can refuse to concede to the fate assigned to them by the gods and take their own destiny in their hands. He counsels Arthur to make peace with Mordred, resist his own fate and “lay down his sword [,]…[t]ake no other counsel but talk with [Mordred], listen, and learn” (396). Merlin reassures him of Mordred’s intentions, guaranteeing he will not carry out the prophecy by his will, and confides in Arthur Mordred’s numerous attempts in seeking Merlin out and almost killing himself to save Arthur from him. Lastly, Merlin predicts Arthur and Mordred “may hold Britain safe between [their] clasped hands” (396) if Arthur trusts in and makes peace with Mordred. But if they fail, Arthur’s kingdom will be lost forever.

 

 
However, fate has a strange way of fulfilling itself, beyond the reach of free will, through moments of chance and coincidence. Arthur follows Merlin’s advice and clears out any misunderstanding and makes peace with his son, once again promising Mordred to rule after his death. As Arthur and Mordred reach the conclusion of their truce talks, One of Arthur’s knights steps on an adder. By instinct, the knight draws his sword and slays it. Both armies mistake the knight’s drawing of the sword as the signal to fight and the truce ending in failure. The armies rush towards each other, Arthur and Mordred swept away in the confusion. Meeting once more, Arthur and Mordred face each other as enemies. Thus, father and son sever the binding bond of blood, love lost in the wicked day of destiny.

 
 


Works Cited

Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “Ulysses”. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses.

Stewart, Mary. The Wicked Day. Eos. 2003.
 
 
Images

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Crystal Ball by George Hodan via PublicDomainPictures. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.

Image via MaxPixel. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.