Mordred, Bastard Son
by Douglas Clegg
2006 • 360 pages • Alyson Books
What’s the dividing line between fiction and fan fiction?
Obviously, there’s the major demarcation between your intellectual property and someone else’s intellectual property, but even that hard and fast legal definition ignores the fact that the vast majority of historical fiction is real person fic and the widespread plundering of the public domain by everyone under the sun. Creatively, though, the artistic impulses behind original fiction and fan fiction are totally different. The writer of fan fiction isn’t writing in a fandom because she lacks imagination (this is me pulling out my bullhorn and bellowing “DIANA GABALDON” at the top of my not inconsiderable lungs); she’s writing in that fandom because she’s responding to that text in a very specific way. That response can be as simple as “I think John and Sherlock should make out, so I’ll write some smut” to “Watchmen doesn’t have enough female characters, so I’ll genderflip the whole thing.” And so we stumble across another line: how far away from a text can your fan fiction (or retelling, homage, or “reimagining,” as the legal and published ones are advertised) get before it simply circles back and becomes your own story in a way that is decidedly different from a fan reclaiming Doctor Who for herself from Moffat? If it’s simply keeping the names the same, what does it say that an alternative universe fic like Master of the Universe can, with little to no effort, become Fifty Shades of Grey?
So perhaps we can answer today’s first question with today’s last question, purloined from Shakespeare, that great writer of fic—what’s in a name?
In his introductory remarks to Mordred, Bastard Son, Douglas Clegg states that his intention in writing the now cancelled Mordred trilogy is to both tell Mordred’s side of the story and inject some gay representation into the Arthurian myths. These are classic fan writer impulses, and I was prepared to tuck into something along the lines of The Mists of Avalon—to see the complex motivations behind the choices we know from the canonical text.
But Mordred, Bastard Son doesn’t really tell the story of a man maligned by history for his acts in defense of the old religion. In fact, it doesn’t really tell the story of Mordred as we know it, because it never gets there. This is not something I can entirely lay at Clegg’s feet, as the trilogy was abandoned by his publisher after its publication. (He has said, as of this year, that he plans on publishing the other two installments, but they have not materialized.) And yet, for a novel about a character whose involvement in Arthur’s downfall is certainly the most iconic part of his story, Clegg is in little to no rush to get Mordred to Camelot. There’s a little bit of The Name of the Wind in Mordred, Bastard Son, as Mordred tells his story to a curious onlooker over the course of several days (with the frame story still technically in media res), neatly separating out three acts into three novels. Of course, that only works if those three acts have acts of their own. That’s the eternal difficulty of constructing a satisfying trilogy.
Telling the story of Mordred’s childhood, raised by his mother Morgan le Fay on the idyllic but isolated Isle of Glass, could have been a satisfying story in itself. With little external plot required until Mordred ventures to Camelot, it would have been a perfect opportunity to dig into everyone’s motivations, explore Mordred’s sexuality, and lay the groundwork for the story ahead. But the story Clegg ends up telling is the story of a young hero destined for greatness, whose complex relationship with his mother and his aunt, who both have very legitimate reasons for despising Arthur (Arthur raped Morgan; Morgause tried to play by the rules of the new world order and lost everything), is flattened when Morgause simply cracks, turns evil, and raises an army of the dead to kill Guinevere for reasons. Mordred must ride to her rescue. That’s one way to rehabilitate a character: completely rewrite him and leave him at the mercy of fate.
Without the Arthurian names, in fact, you would probably mistake it for a pretty generic fantasy novel notable only for its representational value. Clegg’s invented culture for Mordred and Morgan’s people sit oddly with the vaguely historical events going on, even though it fondly reminded me of gorging on mediocre fantasy novels as a preteen. There are some interesting changes to Arthurian legend that would have been fascinating to see play out against the traditional story (which we do not get to)—Merlin as a gruff bear of a man, Excalibur as a cursed, One Ring-like sword, and Mordred having to swear a vow of chastity in order to learn magic. But they fizzle. I’ll grant Clegg Excalibur, as we do not even encounter it in this installment, but Mordred’s chastity becomes the bane of his existence once he encounters a handsome hermit.
Given the novel’s fondness for telling instead of showing, despite the passing of the years in the story, this means that the topic that is discussed the most in Mordred, Bastard Son is Mordred complaining that he can’t have sex—because he’s the only gay kid in the village at first, and then because of his magical vow of chastity. Mordred as the only gay kid in the village is an odd choice, given that it’s talked about—at length—that the Isle of Glass is so pro-queer that it hosts same-sex hand fastings. Mordred’s situation is clearly meant to echo alienated queer kids in straight spaces, but the Isle of Glass is explicitly a welcoming space.
I realize that The Mists of Avalon, especially given that I read it as an impressionable preteen, has set a bar for Arthurian retellings for me that few can match. But Mordred, Bastard Son is not very interested in even trying.
I rented this book from the public library.