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Lady Gwynhyfvar

A closer look at Arthur, Gwenhyfar and Lancelot

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Most of us recognize a great many Arthurian parallels in ASoIaF, although they don't all seem to go in straight lines. Of course GRRM had given us a work that also mirrors the Wars of the Roses, but not in clearly defined or lineal parallels-- why would his Arthurian references be any different? With that in mind I recently embarked on a comparison of the main characters in ASoIaF to those of Arthurian legend. A lot of this is ground that has been covered (I especially like this thread) but this journey has led me to some insights that in some ways raise more questions than they answer. I'm looking for thoughtful contributions to the questions posed here.
"Standard" assumptions of Arthurian parallels based on received wisdom of the events of ASoIaF are: Rhaegar and Lyanna as Uther and Igraine and their son Jon, as King Arthur (raised unknowing of his birthright under an assumed name) However, Rhaegar also has strong Arthurian parallels: one is/one has a child of incest, a noble and universally respected Prince with a lovely yet barren wife (Elia/Gwenhyfar) We assume non-lineal parallels to be the norm with GRRM. In other words, he takes the elements he likes and applies them where he will. I never thought much about possible Gwenhyfar-Lancelot parallels until I saw a theory suggesting that perhaps Elia Martell had a relationship with Arthur Dayne. This suggestion was made in a thread without a hint Arthurian discussion, but when I read it something clicked.
In order to keep posts (relatively) short, I've decided to present my ideas as a series of separate posts, each focused on a different character. It's probably best to read the entire series, but I've made every effort to make them function as stand alones if necessary. There are many parallels and inversions suggested below; one can get the feeling of standing on constantly shifting ground. I'm looking forward to feedback on these suggestions as acceptable analogies and what the implications are to the story.


Adding links to individual posts for ease of navigation:

Arthur Dayne: Sir Lancelot

Lyanna Stark: Elaine of Corbenic transforms into Gwenhyfar

Rhaegar Targaryen: The many faces of the “princely youth”

Ashara Dayne: The Lady of Shallott

Lord Stark: The Fisher King

Jon Snow: Arthur/Galahad, The Prince that was Promised/Azor Ahai Reborn

Elia Martell: Gwenhyfar Redux

Edit-clarity

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Arthur Dayne: Sir Lancelot

At first glance, who better to fulfill the role of First Knight than Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning, almost universally reckoned to be the finest knight who ever lived? Wikipedia cites this scholarly description of Lancelot:

According to Pamela Raabe, in Chretien de Troyes’ work Lancelot is portrayed as not only the bravest of knights, but one that everyone he meets is forced to describe as uniquely perfect
Raabe, Pamela (1987) Chretien’s Lancelot and the Sublimity of Adultery. Toronto Quarterly. 57:259-270

Compare with:

The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who would have killed me but for Howland Reed
Eddard Stark to Bran Stark, ACoK, ch.21

I learned from Ser Arthur Dayne , the Sword of the Morning, who could have slain all five of you with his left hand while he was taking a piss with his right
Jaime Lannister to Loras Tyrell, ASoS, Ch.67

Another detail about Lancelot: His castle and the location of his final resting place? Joyous Gard. Formerly called Dolorous Gard, the name was changed to Joyous Gard after Arthur and Gwenhyfar visit as his guests. If it were a tower, it might well be called… the Tower of Joy.

In Chretien de Troyes tale “The Knight of the Cart” which introduced the Lancelot-Gwenhyfar affair to the medieval world, Lancelot rescues Gwenhyfar, who has been abducted by Melwas (Meleagant) His quest portrays the struggles to balance his role as King Arthur’s warrior within the framework of courtly love and his affair with Gwenhyfar. In order to reach her to effect the rescue, he must travel in a cart which the audience understands to be a mode of transport usually reserved for criminals. This foreshadows the consummation of the affair, which occurs after the rescue. Essentially, Lancelot breaks his contract with his king and becomes a criminal or social outcast through his actions. Critically, his role as the King’s First Knight does not change, but has been sullied. There is a possible parallel here with Arthur Dayne and Elia Martell. If Arthur has broken his vows and betrayed his King/Prince we may have a compelling reason for him to become involved in the murky affair of Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark.

So now we have Rhaegar as Arthur married to Elia as Gwenhyfar. By all accounts, R+E (like A+G) had a marriage of mutual respect and fondness, if not passion. Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning and “bravest of knights” is Lancelot, King Arthur’s First Knight who before he learned his true name was known only as “The White Knight.” Here’s where it gets sticky. If there was a relationship between Arthur and Elia, then we would have a compelling reason for Rhaegar to set Elia aside and pave the way for R+L. Can we find anything in the text to support this? And how does Lyanna Stark fit in?

More on that to come.

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Very nice. I'm not sure about Elia and Arthur (in part, because it also leaves open the parallel applying to Arthur and Lya—and that's complicated enough, imo). It was a political marriage and had little to do with love from the start, so it's no wonder how Rhaegar could've fallen for someone else. It's good theory though.

Also, there's Lancel and Lancelot—but that's probably too obvious.

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I'd always thought that the main Arthurian parallel was Robert = Arthur (the King who fought for justice then watched as everything fell apart before) and Jaime and Cersei = Lancelot and Gwen (the peerless knight and beautiful queen who cuckold the king).

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Very nice. I'm not sure about Elia and Arthur (in part, because it also leaves open the parallel applying to Arthur and Lya—and that's complicated enough, imo). It was a political marriage and had little to do with love from the start, so it's no wonder how Rhaegar could've fallen for someone else. It's good theory though.

Also, there's Lancel and Lancelot—but that's probably too obvious.

The Arthur-Lyanna thing troubled me a bit too. (More than a bit, tbh) There's more to this concerning Lyanna, which I'm about to post...

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Lyanna Stark: Elaine of Corbenic transforms into Gwenhyfar

Lancelot has a son called Galahad with a woman named Elaine of Corbenic. The father of Elaine of Corbenic is the Fisher King, sometimes called King Pelles, the guardian of the Holy Grail. Legend has it that he is descended from Bron who was a follower of Joseph of Arimathea, who brought the Grail to Britain. He is also thought to be derived from the character of Bran the Blessed from the Welsh Mabinogian. Bran possessed a magic cauldron that could resurrect the dead. This seems likely the province of Heresy, with the North being closely connected to the cauldron, the resurrected dead of the LoAW, the name Bran, and Welsh mythology in general. Given that, I would assume a Stark connection to the characters of Elaine and Pelles.

Malory describes Elaine as “passing fair and young.” Compare that to Eddard Stark’s memory of his sister (AGoT, ch.4) “Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child woman of surpassing loveliness.” After Lancelot rescues Elaine from a scalding bath (something favored by at least one Targ we know) she falls in love with him. Applying this to Lyanna, could she have been in trouble with a Targaryen? Did Aerys actually discover the truth behind tKotLT only to have someone save her from punishment at the tournament? Was Rhaegar’s crowning her QoLaB a symbolic message to his father that she was under his protection? In the story of Elaine of Corbenic and Lancelot, Elaine must ultimately resort to a magical disguise to trick him into lying with her and conceiving Galahad. I propose that, with typical Martinism, the analogy is now given a different twist.

Lancelot is closely connected with a traditional folk story that has three main elements: a child raised by a water sidhe, the reappearance of the (now grown) hero at a tournament on three consecutive days in three different disguises, and the rescue of a kidnapped queen.

If we assume the Lyanna Stark is tKotLT and also analogous to Elaine of Corbenic, we see that she is associated with disguises. The disguise Elaine assumes is of Gwenhyfar. If we assign the role of sidhe child to the crannogman (I know, a bit of a stretch…) and agree that Lyanna’s disguise as tKotLT and defeat of three champions satisfies the second element we have two of the elements of the original topos present. This may be a hint that Lyanna is now moving into the third element or the role of Gwenhyfar, the captive queen.

ETA- A note about the etymology of Corbenic, which I believe ties Corbenic, Elaine and the Fisher King very closely to the Starks. There are a number of possible linguistic connections, among them the Brythonic Caer Bran (literally Fort of Bran, or Fort of the Raven) and the middle French corbin, also meaning Raven, thought by many to be an allusion to Bran the Blessed with whom the Fisher King is closely connected)

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Oh, wow, I doubt Arthur Dayne would betray Rhaegar like that

It's important to remember we know almost nothing about Ser Arthur Dayne's personal life, besides for the legendary way he's spoken of (and mostly by characters that were in love with him, like Jaime).

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Oh, wow, I doubt Arthur Dayne would betray Rhaegar like that

Don't worry. It's just a parallel :)

A lot of people think Lancelot and Gwenhyfar loved each other passionately but platonically

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Don't worry. It's just a parallel :)

A lot of people think Lancelot and Gwenhyfar loved each other passionately but platonically

Then that would make Lancelot the perfect knight and worthy of the Holy Grail, which we know he was not. Aemon the Dragonknight is probably the most accurate reflection of Lancelot and in a twisted way Jaime. Jon Snow is the closest connection with Arthur himself, not Rhaegar for me. If Jon is Rhaegar's son then he is the classic king hidden away to protect him from his enemies.

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Agreed, the Dragonknight has always to me seemed to be an almost literal Lancelot. When you say Arthur/child of incest, do you mean Mordred/Morgan?

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Then that would make Lancelot the perfect knight and worthy of the Holy Grail, which we know he was not. Aemon the Dragonknight is probably the most accurate reflection of Lancelot and in a twisted way Jaime. Jon Snow is the closest connection with Arthur himself, not Rhaegar for me. If Jon is Rhaegar's son then he is the classic king hidden away to protect him from his enemies.

Actually I'm pretty sure Lancelot was flawed. The Knight of the Cart is the 12th c story that presents Lancelot and Gwenhyfar as lovers for the first time. Previously, Lancelot was most likely the hero of a story that involved a hidden child, a three day reveal and a rescued queen. In the 12th C the ideas that were later described as "courtly love" were gaining prominence. This was a very modern idea at the time, which is utterly foreign to us today, that involved passionate, erotic love with a spiritual quest and did not always involve consummation of the affair. It is believed by some to have been widely practiced, but rarely between husbands and wives. So, while Chretien de Troyes (or more correctly, the poet who finished his story when he gave it up as a bad job) described a physical affair between L&G, others believe it remained platonic. However, because it was based on sexual attraction it was still erotic in nature and represented a betrayal of the code between knight and king. This introduced a new conflict in the character and created an element of angst to the story that didn't exist before.

As far as the child in hiding- that's a common enough theme and part of a hero's journey. Even in the Arthurian cycle, it isn't limited to Arthur as Lancelot and his son Galahad are also raised in hiding.

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Don't worry. It's just a parallel :)

A lot of people think Lancelot and Gwenhyfar loved each other passionately but platonically

It's interesting how many versions there are/continue to evolve. The most recent one I have seen expressed often was the understood triangle, where Arthur sympathizes with their love/tribulation, as though all 3 were caught in something bigger than themselves and are trying to make the best of it.

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Agreed, the Dragonknight has always to me seemed to be an almost literal Lancelot. When you say Arthur/child of incest, do you mean Mordred/Morgan?

My point here is that Martin isn't using mirror images, but non-lineal parallels. No reason why the Dragonknight couldn't be a Lancelot parallel. We are dealing with topos that have been repeated in stories in our world for milennia.

And yes, I think I need a clarity edit there- Rhaegar is a child of incest, Arthur has a child by incest (in the most widely known versions of the story, that is)

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It's interesting how many versions there are/continue to evolve. The most recent one I have seen expressed often was the understood triangle, where Arthur sympathizes with their love/tribulation, as though all 3 were caught in something bigger than themselves and are trying to make the best of it.

That's the struggle/tragedy that I find very interesting. It answers some lingering questions about motivations if you apply it to R+E+A with an open mind. Have to also keep in mind that GRRM does not do exact copies though, so here's a twist...

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Actually I'm pretty sure Lancelot was flawed. The Knight of the Cart is the 12th c story that presents Lancelot and Gwenhyfar as lovers for the first time. Previously, Lancelot was most likely the hero of a story that involved a hidden child, a three day reveal and a rescued queen. In the 12th C the ideas that were later described as "courtly love" were gaining prominence. This was a very modern idea at the time, which is utterly foreign to us today, that involved passionate, erotic love with a spiritual quest and did not always involve consummation of the affair. It is believed by some to have been widely practiced, but rarely between husbands and wives. So, while Chretien de Troyes (or more correctly, the poet who finished his story when he gave it up as a bad job) described a physical affair between L&G, others believe it remained platonic. However, because it was based on sexual attraction it was still erotic in nature and represented a betrayal of the code between knight and king. This introduced a new conflict in the character and created an element of angst to the story that didn't exist before.

As far as the child in hiding- that's a common enough theme and part of a hero's journey. Even in the Arthurian cycle, it isn't limited to Arthur as Lancelot and his son Galahad are also raised in hiding.

I meant if Lancelot did not give into his lust then he remains the perfect knight. The 12 century Arthurian legends took the prominence from the British Arthur and gave it to the French knights. Those are the stories that have molded Arthurian legend before that they were centered around Arthur. On most accounts of the story the question is whether it was one night of betrayal or a 1000.

I realise the child in hiding is a common theme and was used for Lancelot, but once again this was due to the hero shifting from Arthur to Lancelot.

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Rhaegar Targaryen: The many faces of the “princely youth”

In most versions of the Gwenhyfar abduction story, the abductor is Melwas (or Meleagant) also known as the “Summer King”, whose name means “princely youth.” Melwas holds Gwenhyfvar captive in his tower for nearly a year. In later versions, the kidnapper is Arthur’s own nephew/son Mordred and the end comes with the Battle of Camlann, with Arthur killing Mordred and receiving in turn the grievous wound that leads to his departure for Avalon. It is important to recognize that in some versions of the Lancelot story, the kidnapper is Lancelot himself and is simultaneously a kidnapping and a rescue. In these versions of the story, Gwenhyfar has been sentenced to be burned to death due to her betrayal of the king and Lancelot transports her to Joyous Gard for her own safety. This is too strong a parallel to ignore and I wonder again: what if Aerys knew of Lyanna's deception? Would his son and Kingsguard stand by as he threatened to burn a highborn maiden for an imagined slight? We know from Ser Jaime that this was his preferred method of dealing with all who displeased him. We also know that he was a paranoid maniac who held a grudge. What if Aerys himself, a year following the tourney, sent men to seize Lyanna Stark as she travelled to Riverrun with the intent of bringing her to face the King’s “Justice”? Might Rhaegar and the KG closest to him not have staged a rescue? Can we find the logic in shifting the role of Lancelot to Rhaegar?

The Melwas version also has clear parallels to the Rhaegar-Lyanna story, if we once again shift analogies and treat Rhaegar (the reported abductor) as Melwas (the “princely youth”) The captivity and its length are direct parallels, as is the dramatic Battle of the Trident with the Battle of Camlann. Gwenhyfar went to her deathbed filled with guilt for the lives lost in her name, as I have always imagined Lyanna Stark must have done. I think here is the justification for shifting the role of Lancelot to Rhaegar: the reverse path from Mordred/Rhaegar, who perished at Camlann/Trident, to Melwas/Rhaegar, the “princely youth” who held the queen in his tower for a year, to Lancelot, who rescued the queen from the fire, all playing the same role of abductor. Rhaegar as Lancelot adds a new dimension to the adulterous nature of R+L, as seen in Chretien de Troyes “Knight of the Cart” If we could support the speculation about Arthur Dayne and Elia with a shred of textual evidence, the elements of the “abduction” that many find so troublesome begin to look quite different.

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You could argue that the original 'Arthurian' legends were more centered around Merlin than Arthur. (the Welsh cycle)

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I meant if Lancelot did not give into his lust then he remains the perfect knight. The 12 century Arthurian legends took the prominence from the British Arthur and gave it to the French knights. Those are the stories that have molded Arthurian legend before that they were centered around Arthur. On most accounts of the story the question is whether it was one night of betrayal or a 1000.

I realise the child in hiding is a common theme and was used for Lancelot, but once again this was due to the hero shifting from Arthur to Lancelot.

I don't think he does remain perfect just for not consummating the affair. If he's playing the game as it was played then, there is still an element of betrayal, of lust and of conflict. The Grail Quest actually preceded The Knight of the Cart and the original perfect Knight was Perceval, who was later transposed into Lancelot's son Galahad. In terms of Arthurian legend, Lancelot was always flawed, though not always guilty of actual adultery. It's a petty difference, but in terms of telling Swan Targ not to worry, because a Lancelot:Arthur Dayne parallel may not mean an actual adulterous affair, it's an important one.

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Now for a brief aside, because I noticed...

Ashara Dayne: The Lady of Shallott

Lancelot is closely associated with three women named Elaine (one of many applications of triplism in the Arthurian cycle) His mother is Elaine, the wife of King Ban of Benioc. When they are forced to flee their lands, Lancelot is taken by the Lady of the Lake and raised, as was Arthur, in ignorance of his identity. Elaine of Astolat (better known to many as the Lady of Shallott) falls in love with Lancelot at a tournament, is rejected by him and later when she dies of a broken heart, her body is floated downstream to Camelot, where the reason for her death becomes known to the court and all mourn the tragedy of her demise. While not completely analogous, this story has strong elements of the Ashara Dayne story as we know it: a noble young woman, a lover at a tourney, death from a broken heart and her body floating away. Of the possible candidates I would place Brandon Stark here in the role of Lancelot. A young man who fought in the tourney and was unhorsed by Rhaegar, as Lancelot was unhorsed by his cousin Bors at the Astolat Touney. In the case of Elaine and Lancelot, she tended the wounds he sustained. This is a possible scenario for Ashara and Brandon, although never mentioned, and a situation like that of Robb Stark and Jeyne Westerling may have arisen. Brandon, we have every reason to believe, did not possess the extreme sense of honor that his nephew, the son of the honorable Eddard, would later show. He would leave in the morning, pleading his commitment to Catelyn Stark and leave Ashara to cope with the consequences. Taking Ashara’s story and its parallels to Elaine of Astolat at face value doesn’t rule out other possibilities, such as a faked death or a baby swap. The analogy rather enhances all possible outcomes.

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