“Medieval Folklore Garbage”: Buffy and Gothic Medievalism

The word Gothic is a loaded term. It was designed to be. The Gothic, as an aesthetic and a literary form, is deeply medievalist—in that it recasts the Middle Ages as a place and time of darkness, of threat, of ugliness that we modern folk (or the Renaissance folk who coined it) need to resist or overcome.

“Gothic,” of course comes from the Goths, a Germanic group who attacked the Roman Empire in the late Classical era. But the word was originally applied to a medieval architectural style in particular and the Middle Ages in general—as a pejorative. The Goths, of course, didn’t build the cathedrals and such that the Renaissance art historians slapped the “gothic” label on. As Jerrold Hogle puts it, “Gothic has long been a term used to project modern concerns into a deliberately vague, even fictionalized past”—it’s “an exploitation of the emptied-out past to symbolize and disguise present concerns, including prejudices.”

Which is the essence of medievalism in a nutshell.

The early Gothic—think Horace Walpole—was rife with “Dark Age” medievalism. They looked into the past and saw dirt, plague, rampaging barbarians, superstition, active suppression of anything resembling science—you know, the usual. They saw themselves as way more advanced, smarter, and better-dressed than their medieval forebears. And the literature reflected that. The past, especially past authorities such as the Church and rigid patriarchy, is a direct threat to the heroes and heroines of Gothic literature. In some cases, as in Dracula, that threat is an immortal, ongoing one that must be stopped from destroying the current society and despoiling its women.

Promotional still from “Buffy vs. Dracula,” season 5, episode 1

This is also a core theme of Buffy, as I went over in the intro to this series. The past—as blurry as Buffy’s understanding of history is—is a constant threat, a constant intrusion, into Buffy’s life both as a Slayer and as a girl. Buffy isn’t fully a Gothic text, of course. It’s got a lot of other stuff going on in it—second- and third-wave feminism, Romance, the perils of being a modern teenager, Satanic panic—but it clearly borrows from and pays tribute to the Gothic, partially just by being a show with heavy horror elements.

My purpose here isn’t to discuss at any length how Buffy is a Gothic text; that’s already been pretty well handled by Buffy-studies academics. Erin Hollis and Anna Free have discussed how Buffy and Angel use, subvert, and question Gothic tropes and themes. Elizabeth Gilliland has explored how Buffy is a Gothic heroine and her love interests reflect different aspects of herself and her internal conflicts. Michelle Callendar breaks down how Dracula and Buffy share similar cultural anxieties around female agency, technology, and exogamy. Renee Coulombe argues that Buffy is more of a critique or interrogation of the Gothic than truly Gothic itself, while Emily Gray says Buffy is a postmodern Gothic—except in the way it handles the Willow/Tara relationship. And that’s not nearly all of them.

So, yeah, you don’t need me for that bit.

What I do want to focus on is how Buffy’s medievalism is almost always Gothic in nature—in that its “medieval” (again, fuzzy) is frequently a site of horror and danger encroaching on Buffy’s modern world. It’s a central premise of the film; all the flashback scenes are vaguely medieval, and in one of them, the Slayer dies. Lothos himself, according to the Buffy “The Origin” comic (which sort of replaced the film as canon chronology), was born sometime in the 11th or 12th century. He is a medieval monster, stalking the Slayer across time into the 20th century, when she finally destroys him using modern girl-coded technology (a hairspray flamethrower).

We have less information on the Master, the show-verse version of Lothos, but he’s probably older than Lothos; by the 1600s, he’s already lost his human face and looks more like a bat (as seen in Angel’s “Darla”). Both the Master and Lothos have aesthetics that are extremely and theatrically Gothic, from Lothos’ spotlit coffin full of blood(?) to the Master’s underground, candlelit church lair. Luke’s preparations for the Harvest, likewise, are very feudal and liturgical (and homoerotic, but that’s a different essay), fitting in with the Master’s overall medievalist-Gothic schtick (and I’ll talk more about the religious aspect in another essay).

Amilyn approaches Lothos’ tomb thingy in the film

Interestingly, in “The Wish,” the Master has moved away from medievalist and religious and into industrial goth. Of course, scientific attempts to undermine the “natural order” of life and death are also a staple of Gothic fiction (see Frankenstein); in these cases, the future is also a threat.

In season two, Spike demands “a little less ritual and a little more fun,” doing away with the lingering medievalist threat of the Master’s Order of Aurelius and the Anointed, but that doesn’t mean that the medieval doesn’t still edge its way in throughout the rest of the series. Later in season two, in fact, Angelus attempts to wake Acathla, a demon who was last active in the Middle Ages. We know this because it was “a virtuous knight” who killed him before he could suck the world into hell, and the knight’s sword is still standing in the stone remains of the demon. We’re back to ritual here, too, as Angelus works to figure out the exact formula that will wake Acathla and end the world. And it’s Spike, again, who refuses to go along with it and helps Buffy stop him.

Angelus awakens Acathla in “Becoming, Part Two,” season 2, episode 22

Besides monsters dating back to the Middle Ages such as Moloch, the Gentlemen, and even Anyanka, Buffy also struggles with and against the extremely patriarchal Watchers’ Council, whose traditions are also often dated to the Middle Ages. The Cruciamentum, for example, is said to date back 1200 years. Quentin Travers calls it a “time-honored rite of passage”; Giles calls it “an archaic exercise in cruelty.” (My guess is it’s a way to get rid of Slayers who might be getting too old and powerful and starting to question authority.) Patriarchal dominance as tradition and history is a common theme for the Gothic, especially when it puts the heroine in immediate danger, as the Council does Buffy during the Cruciamentum. Not only does the trial put her and her mother in active danger, it requires Giles betraying her trust and violating her bodily autonomy (by injecting her with drugs to lessen her Slayer power). The Council is all about control, as Buffy points out to them when she asks for their help with Glory. Ultimately, the Council is wiped out by an even older threat—the First Evil itself.

As a Gothic heroine, Buffy is frequently haunted by the past, which introduces threats that disrupt her way of life and her desires to be a “normal” girl. And yet she can never truly escape from the ancient and medieval past, since her power is rooted in them. (There’s something to be said about the fact that, of all the Slayers in the show, Buffy, the young white woman, is the one to break free of the past, and not, say Kendra, but that’s an entirely different essay for sure.) Riley’s Initiative buddy Forrest might dismiss the existence of the Slayer as “medieval folklore garbage kooks dream up to explain the stuff we deal with every day” (that “stuff” being, well, demons and vampires), but Buffy is far more deeply involved with the “medieval folklore” than Forrest could imagine. She inhabits a liminal space between rejecting the past and relying on it, which is about as Gothic as it gets.

Thanks to Lo and Rhiannon for beta-reading and suggestions! Screencaps from the Whedonverse.us photo galleries.

References and Further Reading
“Becoming, Part One,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 21, 1998.
“Checkpoint,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5, episode 12, 2001.
“Darla,” Angel, season 2, episode 7, 2000.
“Doomed,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 4, episode 11, 2000.
“The Harvest,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 1, episode 2, 1997.
“Helpless,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 12, 1999.
“The Origin: Part Two,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics,1999.
“School Hard,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 3, 1997.
“The Wish,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 9, 1998.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.

Michelle Callendar, “Bram Stoker’s Buffy: Traditional Gothic and Contemporary Culture,” Slayage vol. 1, no. 3, 2001.
E.J. Clery, “The Genesis of ‘Gothic’ Fiction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, 2002.
Renee Coulombe, “‘I Had It All Wrong’: New Vampires, Grrrl Heroes and the Third Wave Body in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in Nostalgia or Perversion?: Gothic Rewriting from the Eighteenth Century Until the Present Day, 2007.
Anna Free, “Re-vamping the Gothic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Australian Screen Education vol. 46, 2007.
Elizabeth Gilliland, “Double Trouble: Gothic Shadows and Self-Discovery in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 16, no. 1, 2018.
Emily Gray, “Writing ‘Lesbian, Gay-Type Lovers’: Buffy, Postmodern Gothic, and Interruptions to the Lesbian Cliché,” in New Directions in 21st-century Gothic: The Gothic Compass, 2015.
Leigh Harbin, “‘You Know You Wanna Dance’: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Contemporary Gothic Heroine,” Studies in the Humanities vol. 31, no. 2, 2005.
Jerrold Hogle, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, 2002.
Erin Hollis, “Revisiting the Gothic: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel as Contemporary Gothic,” in Critical Insights: Good & Evil, 2012.

Appearance: The NotACast . . . Pod-Cast

This week, I’m pleased to join Emmett of the NotACast for a special episode on medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and other fun topics. The episode releases for patrons beginning today (May 13) and will be available for the general public on Monday (May 17).

“I’m Buffy and You’re History”: An Intro to BtVS and Medievalism

Not too long ago, I was considering writing a book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and medievalism. It seemed like the next logical thing after doing Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones; after all, I wrote my Master’s thesis on Buffy and work on Slayage and did some PhD work under the late Dr. David Lavery, the father of Buffy studies.

Unfortunately, as I rewatched the series in preparation for putting together a proposal, I discovered that there just wasn’t really enough there there. Not enough for a book, at any rate. Too much for a journal article if I wanted to tackle all of it; not enough if I took it in individual bits.

But really, that’s what these mini-essays have been about/for. Taking on smaller chunks of thematic material (for some definitions of “small”—looking at you, three-part series on Brienne and Jaime) and digging into them.

So let’s talk about Buffy and history. Specifically medieval history.

The 1992 film telegraphs the weird relationship the entire series has with history from the opening moments, which feature the unnamed Slayer and her Watcher in wildly anachronistic outfits under the caption “Europe: The Dark Ages.” This is then contrasted with present-day Buffy with her cheerleading team in “Southern California: The Lite Ages.” The movie doesn’t explain the origins of the Slayer beyond her role in fighting vampires “since the dawn of mankind.” But if that’s the case, why are we starting in (a Ren faire version of) the Middle Ages?

In fact, for the most part, the movie and the show don’t really deal with actual historical events older than about 200 years (for example, the 1900 CE Boxer Rebellion), and everything else is pretty much either vaguely medieval or vaguely pre-historical. Generally speaking, events before 1753, when Liam is turned to Angelus, are dated by century rather than exact year (with a couple of exceptions, but the dates tend to seem arbitrary and not linked to a specific event—there’s no reason Moloch had to be book-trapped in 1418 CE, for example).

Matthew Pateman has argued that this shallow and vague view of history is to be expected because of Buffy’s setting—a generic contemporary America that “exists in a continual state of the present; de-historicized, skimming the past with no real attachment to it except to allusion and nostalgia”—and also Buffy herself, who frequently expresses disinterest in history except when it provides the tools for her to fight the monster of the week. The movie-Buffy complains that a teacher told her she had “no sense of history,” while Giles puts it more gently: “She lives very much in the now. And history, of course, is very much about the, uh, the then” (“Angel”). Buffy’s job as a Slayer is immediate and focused on now, but her role as a Slayer is rooted in a mythological history spanning back to “prehistory,” when Sineya was made into the First Slayer. That makes for some interesting tension between now and then, history and contemporary.

This vagueness also slides the show’s use of the Middle Ages firmly over into the “neomedievalism” category—it’s not particularly worried about any sort of historical accuracy, using popular beliefs about or understanding of the Middle Ages to fill in the holes rather than making any solid claims about the historically medieval. The Buffy writers weren’t trying for historical accuracy; history is a backdrop—an intrusion, as Pateman put it—for Buffy’s world and her very modern struggles. This is probably clearest in the movie, where Buffy keeps dreaming about her previous fights with vampires in general and Lothos in particular, and in season one, with the Master’s ostentatiously medievalesque pseudo-religiosity. Buffy wants to date, and be a cheerleader, and go to prom; the monsters want to return the world to the primordial time when they were in charge and humans didn’t exist, effectively ending dating and cheerleading and proms entirely.

And yet history is important to the whole conceit of the show. History is how authority is conveyed; as Bruce McClelland has put it, “nothing legitimates like the past.” Buffy’s authority as the Slayer comes from the mystical history of the Slayers, dating back to pre-history. In the movie, in fact, she is reincarnated, not just a different girl chosen in each generation; Buffy has always been the Slayer. The struggle between humans and demons is even older than the Slayer. As Giles explains in “The Harvest”:

This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their . . . their Hell. But in time they lost their purchase on this reality. The way was made for mortal animals, for, for man. All that remains of the old ones are vestiges, certain magicks, certain creatures.

Giles, in particular, frequently invokes the history of things to impress on Buffy how much responsibility she carries—not just in fighting the demons and vampires, but in continuing long-established traditions.

Age is power, but it is also a threat. Buffy fights not only vampires, demons, and the occasional god, but the very traditions that make her who she is. She quits the patriarchally-controlling, less-than-helpful, and ancient Watchers Council, and even before that, she rejects most of their rules for Slayers. In season seven, the core theme is about doing away with the ancient and the binding—Buffy fights and seriously weakens the First Evil and eliminates the one-girl-in-all-the-world tradition that has been in place since the Shadowmen forced a demon into Sineya’s body and created the line of Slayers.

Buffy’s relationship with history is fraught. It’s necessary for establishing a long mythological tradition and giving Buffy her power, but the past is an active threat to the present. Buffy is a thoroughly modern girl in a role that requires the use of medieval-coded weaponry and submission to a male authority. Sometimes the past is a blurry watercolor of difference, and sometimes the writers use Buffy’s fuzzy grasp of history as a punchline (see, for example, her attempt at explaining the Viking discovery of America 400 years late in “Checkpoint”). But it’s this very fraughtness that creates a fascinating stew of medievalism that I’ll spend the next couple of months teasing out and focusing in on.

References/Further Reading
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.
“Angel.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, episode 7, 1997.
“Checkpoint.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 5, episode 12, 2001.
“The Harvest.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, episode 2, 1997.
“I Robot, You Jane.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1, episode 8, 1997.
Bruce McClelland, “By Whose Authority?: The Magical Tradition, Violence, and the Legitimization of the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 1, no. 1, 2001.
Matthew Pateman, The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, McFarland, 2006.

Forget and Be Comforted

This story earned an honorable mention from the Writers of the Future contest in 2018

They come to my shrine to forget.

Forget love. Forget loss. Forget the long years of pain and loneliness. The waters wash memories away and they leave to create new ones. The well is here for comfort, and many find comfort in forgetting, so as the reputation of the well spread, forgetting became its function.

They are young, and old, and in between. They are wise, and foolish, and neither. Some worship me. Some do not know who I am. Some know only the well’s power.

A couple comes, arguing as they climb. They have fought and made up so many times they have decided it would be easier to forget they love each other and go their separate ways. They forget their love, and they forget each other, and all the fights and the joy and the passion. In a few years, they will meet again and love and fight and hate and return again and again, never learning, never changing.

There is more to comfort than forgetting.

A woman with hair the color of night and eyes as blue as dawn comes, limping and beaten, after her caravan is ambushed by bandits. She merely wishes to stop hurting. She bathes in my waters, which grow warm and gentle, easing her pain and lending her strength to rebuild.

Sometimes they come to forget to breathe. Forget to keep their hearts beating. Forget to live.

An old man, the very last of a tribe lost to drought and famine, plants his walking stick at the edge of the water. He bends to drink, his age-spotted hands shaking, and yearns for an end. The waters grant his wish, and when he is gone, the land envelops him and his walking stick sprouts into a young baobab tree.

Sometimes the water gives what is wanted, sometimes what is needed.

A young woman, afflicted with endless despair, drags her heavy heart to the shrine. She thinks she wants to die, but she wishes to truly live without the despair and the pain. She is comforted, and she lives, and the sun comes up and color returns to the world and she descends the mountain with bright eyes and light heart.

I am a lonely goddess, up here on my mountain, but I have many visitors. All have different needs, different stories, different ideas of comfort. And the waters accommodate all, bestowing forgetfulness or healing or death or a sense that they, despite their trials and hardships, are not alone. For I am here, I see them, and I care for them.

A few people recognize that I am here, and they bring gifts. I have no need of material objects, but their acknowledgement and respect is food enough, providing the strength I need to continue to exist here on the mountain, tending these waters, watching the shrine grow into a chapel, crumble back into an abandoned well, grow over with flowers, gain and lose a statue that is meant to be me. All is a cycle, everything and nothing changes, everything that has happened before will happen again.

Comfort is not restricted to warm baths and healing of mind and body. At times, vengeance can be as comforting as a lover’s embrace, and when an army appeared to terrorize the village at the foot of my slopes, a young woman came to beg for help. She was beaten, bruised, crawling the last yards up the path to my shrine. Her tears flowed into the well and I flowed into her, and stood straight, and with her hands I took up my spear and my shield, and on her body I donned my armor, and we descended into the valley with fire and fury, flashing eyes and flowing hair, and the sight of us drove the army back.

But vengeance is not only comfort. Sometimes it is shame that manifests in anger, and the army returned to prove that we had not frightened them and burned the village to the ground. My vessel alone survived, and she served me as a priestess to the end of her days. Her hair grew long and grey, and when she died, they buried her beneath the baobab tree.

Even goddesses have regrets. The comfort of my waters is denied me, as I am the one who gives the well its power, and so I remember everything forever. And still the pilgrims come, seeking comfort, seeking forgetfulness, seeking life, seeking death, and still I am here.

Jaime, Brienne, Romance, and Arthuriana (Part 3)

Part 1 | Part 2

If Jaime can (sometimes) be read as Lancelot and Brienne can (sometimes) be read as Galahad and (sometimes) as Elaine, then obviously, their interactions should show parallel similarities to their Arthurian counterparts. And they do—up to a point.

As with all the characters and their archetypes, Martin spends a lot of time complicating those archetypes and bringing a measure of realism—primarily through internal conflict—to the characters. For Jaime and Brienne, that complication happens when they’re thrown together in the narrative. Before they meet, we think we know who they are by seeing them through other characters’ eyes: Jaime is the charming but sinister Kingslayer; Brienne is the shy, naïve warrior-maiden. Once we’re in their heads, however, we start to see how much more there is to them—and that also helps to illuminate how they reflect their Arthurian antecedents. (Among other things; the Arthurian is, again, only one possible way to read these characters, and Martin doesn’t do one-to-one mapping. That would be predictable and boring.)

George Fredrick Watts, Sir Galahad, 1860

For Lancelot, Galahad is a reminder of who he could have been if it weren’t for his affair with Guinevere. Galahad is the Best Knight in the World, pure, chivalrous, and godly. During the Grail Quest, Lancelot is confronted with the fact that Galahad has replaced him; a lady approaches after Galahad has unhorsed Lancelot in a tilt and greets the best knight of the world, and she’s not talking to Lancelot. In White, Lancelot explains:

“I am a bad man, I know, but I was always good with arms. It was a consolation to me in my badness, sometimes, to think—to know that I was the best knight of the world. [. . .] [A]t the time, I couldn’t bear it. I felt as if my prop had been taken from me, and I knew that she only said the simple truth. I felt as if she had broken the last piece of my heart.”

The Once and Future King chapter XXXII

(Compare this to Jaime’s “is that all I was? A sword hand?”) Because Galahad is also boring, Martin brings this dynamic a bit more down to earth with Jaime and Brienne, so that Brienne is a reminder for Jaime of what knighthood is supposed to look like and what he wanted to be. The revelation that he’s not the best comes on a bit more gradually, starting when Jaime realizes that Aerys II didn’t name him to the Kingsguard because of his prowess, but to spite Tywin. When he loses his hand, he has to completely reassess his identity and his worth, and Brienne’s presence—and stubbornness, and prowess with a sword, and insistence on keeping her vows—adds a layer to his introspection and pushes him to be good. (He’s still pretty bad at being good, but then, so is Lancelot.)

He’s had those models before, most notably Ser Arthur Dayne, but he thinks that Dayne might be an impossible standard to live up to:

The world was simpler in those days, Jaime thought, and men as well as swords were made of finer steel. Or was it only that he had been fifteen?

A Storm of Swords Jaime VIII

His realization that he’s failed to be the best knight in the world is far more succinct than White’s Lancelot, but still just as gutting:

And me, that boy I was . . . when did he die, I wonder? When I donned the white cloak? When I opened Aerys’s throat? That boy had wanted to be Ser Arthur Dayne, but someplace along the way he had become the Smiling Knight instead.

ASOS Jaime VIII

As mentioned in Part 2, while Jaime may react to Brienne much as Lancelot does to Galahad—and, on her own, her knight-errant storyline looks like Galahad’s—Brienne’s actual role in his story seems much more Elaine-y.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, “Lancelot and Elaine,” 1912

Lancelot meets Elaine when the inhabitants of Corbenic castle come to him and beg him to free their lady from a curse. She is trapped in a boiling bath—“naked as a needle,” as Malory puts it—and is in need of rescue. After the miraculous rescue, Elaine uses magic to trick Lancelot into sleeping with her (this is when she conceives Galahad), then does it again while she’s visiting Camelot. (Lancelot is expected in Guinevere’s chambers this time, and it’s a Whole Thing when he doesn’t show up.)

A bath is the setting for a heavily significant Jaime/Brienne scene, as well, though Martin does a bit of swapping with the who’s rescuing who.

In the Harrenhal bathhouse, Jaime does encounter Brienne, naked as a needle, though she’s quite a bit less thrilled about him joining her than Elaine is to be rescued. It is here, of course, that Jaime first opens up about what happened during Robert’s Rebellion that led to him killing Aerys and being named “the Kingslayer.” Then, succumbing to his fever, wounds, and trauma, he faints, and Brienne saves him from drowning. The reversal of rescue fits with the ways in which Jaime, after losing his hand, is frequently discussed as if he is a bride or other trade good—like a woman, in other words (Chloe and Eliana of Girls Gone Canon have discussed this at some length in their Jaime episodes).

Jaime and Brienne in Harrenhal’s bathhouse

While Jaime doesn’t tend to consciously think of Brienne in sexual terms, he does compare her to Cersei constantly. From the beginning of his first chapter, he’s comparing them (unfavorably to Brienne, of course):

He amused himself by picturing her in one of Cersei’s silken gowns in place of her studded leather jerkin. As well dress a cow in silk as this one.

ASOS Jaime I

Cersei comes up in his thoughts in parallel to Brienne so frequently in ASOS that an exhaustive list would be entirely too much to put here. Chloe and Eliana have pointed to this as evidence that Jaime is attracted to Brienne and falling in love with her from the start, though he doesn’t admit it to himself because of his obsession with Cersei. By A Feast for Crows, he’s thinking of Brienne on her own rather than in comparison to Cersei. This is partly because of his growing disillusionment with Cersei after Tyrion’s “Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and probably Moon Boy for all I know” revelation (ASOS Tyrion XI). And by the middle of AFFC, he’s defending her from statements not unlike those he’d have made himself a book ago; when Red Ronnet Connington tells Jaime about their short-lived betrothal and makes fun of Brienne’s appearance, Jaime smacks him (with his golden hand) and orders Ronnet to call the highborn lady by her name (Jaime III).

Perhaps the most Lancelot/Elaine interaction Jaime and Brienne have is in his lone A Dance with Dragons chapter. Just previous, in his final AFFC chapter, Jaime received the letter from Cersei begging him to come serve as her champion in a trial by combat. This is where one of the fractures from Arthurian legend appears: unlike Lancelot, who would overcome tremendous odds to champion Guinevere whenever she called, Jaime chooses instead to burn the letter and not go defend her. However, when Brienne appears at Pennytree claiming to have found Sansa, he goes with her almost without question. Readers know that she has come to bring him to Lady Stoneheart—though what her plan is after that is still murky. That he goes with her rather than Cersei, that she is being less than honest with him to get him to go with her, that she’s been “the other woman” in spirit if not in practice for two books, all cements the Lancelot/Elaine parallels.

(Ironically, Cersei thinks in ADWD Cersei I that “Jaime would never abandon me for such a creature,” when that’s pretty much exactly what happened—and further sets up Cersei/Guinevere parallels, as well, since Guinevere tends to be furiously jealous of Elaine.)

So what does all of this (plus the final season of Game of Thrones) mean for Jaime and Brienne by the end of A Dream of Spring? There are several possibilities based both on the Arthurian parallels and their so-far-published trajectories (and, of course, several more should Martin choose not to follow the Arthurian parallels that far—which I don’t think he will).

I do think that the Lancelot/Elaine parallel holds long enough for Jaime and Brienne to have a sexual relationship—but not a child, and they definitely don’t live together as man and wife for any length of time. Partly because the narrative doesn’t have space for it, and partly because life as a wife and mother wouldn’t be true to Brienne’s character. On her own, she is far more Galahad than Elaine.

After their encounter, however, Jaime will almost certainly return to Cersei (though I don’t think it will have the same emotional whiplash that it did in the show). At that point, the valonquar prophecy may play itself out. Either way, I think they both die (probably not pointlessly crushed by rocks), bound together in death as they were in life, their relationship just as toxic as it always was. Even without the prophecy, there are too many hints and too much foreshadowing to believe that they live at all, let alone happily ever after.

Jaime and Brienne part in season 8

Brienne’s own fate is more difficult to predict because, again, I think Martin will move away from the Arthurian framework for the ending. (A possible hint of this comes from a theory from Matt “Joe Magician” that Pretty Meris, who appears in Quentyn Martell’s story in A Dance with Dragons, was meant to be Brienne when Martin still planned to include a 5-year gap.)As a fan of Brienne’s character, I’m glad of it, because both Elaine and Galahad die at the end of their stories. In Malory, Pelles tells Lancelot that Elaine has died while he’s on the Grail quest; there’s no explanation as to how it happened. White’s Elaine is, as I mentioned in Part 1, conflated with Elaine of Astolat and kills herself, floating on a death-barge down the river to Camelot. Malory’s Galahad dies suddenly after finding the Grail and is taken up to heaven; White’s disappears because Lancelot doesn’t see what happens to him (it’s probably safe to assume he also died).

I don’t think Brienne dies, mostly because she’s not the type of character Martin tends to kill off. I think there are a few precise narrative reasons Martin will kill a character (and I really don’t have room to discuss them here; maybe later), and none of them apply to Brienne as of the end of A Dance with Dragons.

However, I also don’t quite see Brienne’s show fate playing out—Commander of the Kingsguard, preserving Jaime’s legacy. I think that was a consequence of Benioff and Weiss cutting out too many characters and then trying to tie everything up in a neat bow, whether that bow made sense or not (Bronn as Master of Coin? Really?).

What I hope will happen for Brienne is that she ends up serving Sansa when she becomes Queen in the North. But unlike Jaime, Martin hasn’t projected Brienne’s ending quite as obviously—perhaps because she was a later addition as a character and an even later addition as a POV. She started out very much as a foil to Jaime before becoming a well-rounded character in her own right.

Any projections of the ending of the series are, of course, pure speculation, no matter how well-supported they might be by the existing text. Martin could still surprise us all and make good on his 1999 joke that “no one will be alive by the last book. In fact, they all die in the fifth. The sixth book will just be a thousand-page description of snow blowing across the graves.” Martin draws on so many historical, mythological, and literary antecedents, then throws them in a blender, “file[s] off the serial numbers,” and “turn[s] it up to eleven,” per his interview for the Game of Thrones season five special features, that guessing where he’s going, while fun (and really, what else do we have to do while waiting for The Winds of Winter?), is still purely speculative. But isn’t that what makes the books worth reading, after all?

Thanks to the entire Girls Gone Canon discord for some interesting and thought-provoking discussion as well as emotional support, and Rhiannon and Lo for beta-reading.

References and Further Reading
George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (Modern English translation by Dorsey Armstrong)
T.H. White, The Once and Future King
Event Horizon chat transcript with GRRM, 18 March 1999
Girls Gone Canon episode 80 (ASOS Jaime Intro/I)
Girls Gone Canon episode 84 (ASOS Jaime V)
JoeMagician, “How Brienne the Beauty Became Pretty,” r/asoiaf, 16 May 2017
“The Real History behind Game of Thrones: Part I,” Game of Thrones Season 5 DVD special feature
Inbar Shaham, “Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister: A Romantic Comedy within HBO’s Game of Thrones,” Mythlore 33.2, 2015
Kurth Sprague, “The Troubled Heart of T.H. White: Women and The Once and Future King,” Arthuriana 16.3, 2006

Jaime, Brienne, Romance, and Arthuriana (Part 2)

(Part 1 is here.)

Brienne’s Arthurian parallels are, admittedly, harder to lay out than Jaime’s. This is partly because I can make arguments that line her up with two different Arthurian characters, and partly because so many of the parallels are only clear when you consider her relationship with Jaime. Her similarities are far less obvious when she’s on her own than Jaime’s are.

Generally speaking, Brienne falls into a medieval romance archetype and plot; her story tends toward the episodic, is focused far more on the journey than the destination, and is geared toward strengthening her as a character. Jonathan Evans has discussed how medieval romance narratives seem, to modern readers, to send their characters “rid[ing] interminably from place to place beset by an unending string of foes, challenges, tests, and other obstacles.” How many of us have heard people complaining (or complained ourselves) that “nothing happens” in Brienne’s A Feast for Crows arc? After all, her actual goal—to find Sansa and/or Arya Stark—might as well be a quest for the Holy Grail, and in pursuing it, she’s just wandering around the Riverlands encountering and sometimes fighting terrible people. Boring. (It’s not boring.)

Brienne and Pod in the Riverlands

Brienne is, like Galahad, the ideal of knighthood, even though she’s not a knight (yet). She keeps her vows, or at least strives to keep them. She protects the weak. She fights evil, even when she has no hope of winning. One of the most poignant examples of this is in A Feast for Crows:

Seven, Brienne thought again, despairing. She had no chance against seven, she knew. No chance, and no choice.

Brienne VII

Like T.H. White’s version of Galahad (who, interestingly, never actually appears on-page), Brienne is often disliked or mocked because of her idealism. In White, as knights return, unsuccessfully, from the Grail quest, they complain about how annoying and prudish Galahad is. Gawain calls him “a vegetarian and teetotaller, and he makes believe he is a vairgin” (Chapter XXVIII). Lionel has similar complaints:

“You know,” said Lionel, pausing, “it may be all very well to be holy and invincible, and I don’t hold it against Galahad for being a virgin, but don’t you think that people might be a little human? I don’t want to be catty, but that young man makes my hair go the wrong way.”

Chapter XXX

(Jeorg Fichte theorizes that White’s particular dislike of Galahad is based in homophobia and his personal ideas of utopia; he has no use for a chaste knight with no interest in women, especially one of such unearthly, holy perfection as Galahad.)

Sir Galahad – The Quest for the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes, 1870

A Song of Ice and Fire characters are often just as dismissive or disdainful of Brienne, thinking her as unnatural as White’s knights do Galahad. Jaime tells Loras that Brienne is “ugly, and pighead stubborn. But she lacks the wits to be a liar, and she is loyal past the point of sense.” Loras responds a bit later that Renly thought she was “absurd” (A Storm of Swords, Jaime VIII). Randyll Tarly tells her to her face that she’s “a freak of nature” (A Feast for Crows, Brienne V).

Like Galahad, Brienne is chaste—Hyle Hunt says (nastily) that he thought “Brienne the Beauty had no use for men” (A Feast for Crows Brienne III)—though not quite asexual, as Megan Arkenberg has suggested of Malory’s Galahad. Yet she’s deeply uncomfortable with her own sexuality, constantly projecting it onto Renly, who is first gay, and then dead, and ultimately unobtainable. And yet even her thoughts of Renly are chaste; all she wanted was to serve and protect him in return for the kindness he showed her:

She had loved him since first he came to Tarth on his leisurely lord’s progress, to mark his coming of age. [. . .] Renly Baratheon had shown her every courtesy, as if she were a proper maid, and pretty. He even danced with her, and in his arms she’d felt graceful, and her feet had floated across the floor. Later others begged a dance of her, because of his example. From that day forth, she wanted only to be close to Lord Renly, to serve him and protect him.

A Feast for Crows, Brienne I

If the knighting seen in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” holds true (which I believe it will), Brienne will have another parallel with Galahad in that she’s knighted by Jaime/Lancelot.

I’d argue, ultimately, that Brienne is a much more interesting character than Galahad, partly because she has to work to be good. Malory’s Galahad just sort of shows up, is the best knight in the world, does some miracles, wanders off, does some more miracles, finds the Holy Grail, and dies. White’s Galahad doesn’t even get a straight-on narrative view; all of his adventures are told through the other knights. Brienne is much more human, prone to anger, despair, and love rather than being a mere plot device for the quest for the Holy Grail.

Brienne’s relationship with Jaime is another reason she doesn’t map quite so easily onto Galahad. Galahad is Lancelot’s son, after all, and they’re both men. And if (if) the show is correct and Brienne and Jaime do end up in a sexual relationship, that puts Brienne in a position much more akin to Elaine of Corbenic.

“How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad”, from The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, by Alfred W. Pollard, 1917

Elaine is the “other woman” in Lancelot’s relationships; while his first love and primary loyalty is to Guinevere, he spends a lot of time with Elaine, helping to raise Galahad after Guinevere kicks Lancelot out of court. She is the daughter of a Fisher King figure, King Pelles of Corbenic, and an odd figure for an Arthurian woman. Elizabeth Edwards has argued that there are two types of women in Malory—those confined to court (like Guinevere) and those who are out in the world providing adventures for the knights. They’re sorceresses or love interests, bad or good, threatening or innocent.

Elaine is both. She provides Lancelot with an adventure—rescuing her from a boiling bath—but also bears and raises his child. She tricks him into bed with the help of a sorceress, but also heals him when he runs mad. She actively fights Guinevere for Lancelot; after Guinevere expels Lancelot from court, causing said madness, Elaine stands up to the queen:

You have done a great sin and yourself a great dishonor, for you have a noble lord of your own, and it is your duty to love him; there is no queen in the world who has a king such as you have!

Le Morte Darthur, C XI.9

In the Vulgate, Elaine is also the Grail Maiden, though Malory is much less clear on this and White ignores it entirely.

In other words, Elaine is complicated. Much more complicated than Arthurian women are usually allowed to be—by the male authors who tend to shape these legends for us. She breaks the patriarchal norms to the point that when scholars write about her at all, they tend to use words like “sinister” (Elizabeth Edwards), and “lured” (Marian MacCurdy), or blame her for Lancelot’s madness because her seduction caused Lancelot to be “unfaithful” to Guinevere (Jerome Mandel).

All of this sounds suspiciously similar to how the men of Westeros talk about or to Brienne. Randyll Tarly (seriously, fuck that guy) accuses her of “behaving like a camp follower” and tells her to go home and put on a dress—essentially, get back into her acceptable gender role (A Feast for Crows Brienne III)—and refers to her as a “curse” that should not have been inflicted on her father (Brienne V). Any time she’s at someone’s mercy (or the mercy of their hospitality), they put her in dresses rather than her preferred breeches and armor. Jaime is surprised by her fighting ability—because she’s a woman. Brienne doesn’t fit the mold of Westerosi high lady any more than Elaine fits the mold of Arthurian woman.

It is fascinating, then, that Brienne, a gender non-conforming character, bears clear similarities to both a male and female character from Arthurian legend—and that both said characters also diverge from traditional gender roles in Malory and White. Galahad does not perform chivalric romance, but remains holy and chaste; Elaine is independent and assertive. Lo has written fairly extensively about Brienne’s gender presentation and self-conception, and I definitely suggest reading those essays.

The similarities really come together when Jaime and Brienne are considered as a pair, when their relationship and plotline trajectories are put together. And that’s where we’ll be able to begin to parse out what their endgame might look like—in Part 3.

Thanks again to Leah Komar and Lo the Lynx (WBA #002) for thorough and thought-provoking beta reading.

References and Further Reading
George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Game of Thrones season 8, episode 2, written by Bryan Cogman, directed by David Nutter, aired 21 April 2019.
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. (Modern English translation by Dorsey Armstrong.)
T.H. White, The Once and Future King.

Megan Arkenberg, “‘A Mayde, and Last of Youre Blood’: Galahad’s Asexuality and its Significance in Le Morte Darthur,” Arthuriana 24.3, 2014.
Elizabeth Edwards, “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald and A.S.G. Edwards, 1996.
Jeorg Fichte, “‘If You Achieve Perfection, You Die’: The Treatment of Galahad in Modern Arthurian Literature,” in Of Remembraunce the Keye: Medieval Literature and its Impact Through the Ages, edited by Uwe Böker, 2004.
Jonathan Evans, “Episodes in Analysis of Medieval Narrative,” Style 20.2, 1986.
Marian MacCurdy, “Bitch or Goddess: Polarized Images of Women in Arthurian Literature and Films,” The Platte Valley Review 18.1, 1990.
Jerome Mandel, “Constraint and Motivation in Malory’s ‘Lancelot and Elaine,’” Papers in Language and Literature 20.3, 1984.
Elizabeth Sklar, “Malory’s Other(ed) Elaine,” in On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Fiona Tollhurst, 2001.

Jaime, Brienne, Romance, and Arthuriana (Part 1)

In what is arguably* the best episode of Game of Thrones season 8, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jaime Lannister rights a societal wrong by knighting Brienne of Tarth. Two episodes later, in “The Last of the Starks,” they consummate their slow-burn relationship with an endearingly awkward scene. Then he practically immediately abandons her to return to Cersei.

Brienne and Jaime in 8.4, “The Last of the Starks,” HBO

Fan discourse came down heavily on this set of scenes, overjoyed at Brienne’s knighting (finally!), mixed on their relationship becoming sexual, and then generally infuriated at what was often seen as abandoning Jaime’s character development. Leaving aside the clear changes from Jaime’s book trajectory, George R.R. Martin, some declared, would never send Jaime back into his self-destructive, incestuous relationship with his sister. Others declared that Brienne and Jaime’s relationship won’t (can’t possibly, will never!!!) be sexual in the books.

While I believe that season eight was sloppy, rushed, and in many ways insulting to the fans, there is an argument to be made that this is generally where Jaime and Brienne will end up at the end of A Song of Ice and Fire. And I do mean generally. But a lot depends on how Martin intends to play out the archetypes he’s written with Jaime and Brienne. For which I turn, probably unsurprisingly, to Arthuriana.

As I have argued before (see chapter one of Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones), sizable chunks of A Song of Ice and Fire are meant to undercut Victorian romanticism. This has caused the narrative structures and themes to fall, whether purposefully or accidentally, back into actual medieval romance. The most popular romances for modern audiences are, of course, the Arthurian ones. We know Martin is familiar with Arthurian stories at least through T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which in turn was broadly based on Sir (Ser) Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Martin’s connection to the Morte is less clear, but it’s probably safe to assume he’s read it at least once.

I’m hardly the first to draw parallels between A Song of Ice and Fire and Arthurian myth. It seems everyone who does so finds different links between Martin’s characters and the Arthurian characters. (See, for example, Lady Gwynhyfvar’s “Rethinking Arthurian Influences in ASoIaF” project.) Nor am I arguing that Arthurian myth is the only way to read, interpret, and predict the character outcomes in ASOIAF. But this is one possible way of looking at it.

The relationship between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth bears notable similarities to that of Lancelot du Lac and Galahad—but also to Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic (not Elaine of Astolat, though they get conflated a lot, including in White). For the sake of coherence (and not writing another dissertation), I’m using only Malory and White for this analysis rather than the dozens of other treatments of Arthurian legend.

Game of Thrones, HBO

In broad strokes, the similarities between Lancelot and Jaime are obvious. Both are knighted by Arthur—Lancelot by King Arthur, Jaime by Ser Arthur Dayne. Both express a desire to be the best knight in the world but fall short. White’s Lancelot tells Guenever:

all my life I have wanted to do miracles. I have wanted to be holy. I suppose it was ambition or pride or some other unworthy thing. It was not enough for me to conquer the world—I wanted to conquer heaven, too. I was so grasping that it was not enough to be the strongest knight—I had to be the best as well.

T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Chapter XIV

Jaime does similar introspection in A Storm of Swords, though only to himself and not to Cersei:

The world was simpler in those days, Jaime thought, and men as well as swords were made of finer steel. Or was it only that he had been fifteen? They were all in their graves now, the Sword of the Morning and the Smiling Knight, the White Bull and Prince Lewyn, Ser Oswell Whent with his black humor, earnest Jon Darry, Simon Toyne and his Kingswood Brotherhood, bluff old Sumner Crakehall. And me, that boy I was . . . when did he die, I wonder? When I donned the white cloak? When I opened Aerys’s throat? That boy had wanted to be Ser Arthur Dayne, but someplace along the way he had become the Smiling Knight instead.

George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, Jaime VIII

Both Lancelot and Jaime are part of the inner circle—the Round Table and the Kingsguard. Both have a treasonous sexual relationship with the queen. Both leave said queen to go out questing and adventuring while internally wrestling with that relationship. And both are ultimately seeking redemption for their sins. (Sort of. Lancelot for sure; he spends a lot of time in prayer and hair shirts. Jaime’s motivations are more complicated and probably less pure, but he generally wants people to think well of him rather than calling him the Kingslayer—for example, his “Goldenhands the Just” thinking in A Feast for Crows Jaime III.)

Game of Thrones, HBO

I don’t think that Jaime’s narrative trajectory puts him in the same place as Lancelot at the end of Morte or OAFK, mostly because the larger thematic tone is quite different from ASOIAF. Lancelot’s main sin is his relationship with Guinevere, compounded by his own pride and impure motivations that ultimately keep him from obtaining the Grail and thus being definitively named The Best Knight in the World. Jaime is much more complicated, piling other crimes on top of his relationship with Cersei (the murder of Aerys Targaryen. The attempted murder of Bran Stark. Incest. Lying to his brother. Etc.). Add to that the valonqar prophecy, and Lancelot’s end of being separated from Guinevere forever while they both retreat to prayer and repentance would be deeply unsatisfying for Jaime’s narrative arc. (Much as his death in “The Bells” was unsatisfying for other reasons that I’m not going to get in to here.)

Ultimately, I think ASOIAF ends with Jaime either dead or in exile, either of which would be thematically and narratively appropriate for what we have of his story so far. But what I’ll get into in part 2 of this essay is how his relationship with Brienne (who has notable similarities both to Galahad and Elaine) intensifies the Lancelot parallels and where that relationship might end up based on the Arthurian parallels.

*I am not going to argue with you about it.

Thanks to Erin M. (WBA #044) for clarifying discussion of this topic, and Lo the Lynx (WBA #002) and Jillian Kuhlmann for beta reading.

References and Further Reading
George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
“The Bells,” Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, aired 12 May 2019.
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Game of Thrones season 8, episode 2, written by Bryan Cogman, directed by David Nutter, aired 21 April 2019.
“The Last of the Starks,” Game of Thrones season 8, episode 4, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter, aired 5 May 2019.
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. (Modern English translation by Dorsey Armstrong.)
T.H. White, The Once and Future King.
Lady Gwynhyfvar, “Rethinking Arthurian Influences in ASoIaF

Power, Names, and Death in “Cluracan’s Tale” (Sandman #52)

Spoilers for Sandman to follow!

Neil Gaiman regards “Cluracan’s Tale,” one of a collection of stories in his Chaucerian “Worlds’ End” arc of Sandman, as a failure.

Specifically, he sees it as a failure of a “swashbuckler Errol Flynn movie.” That may be true, but what he did not fail at was an exploration of naming, power, death, and the divide between secular and religious governance.

There’s a lot going on in “Cluracan’s Tale,” but what first caught my attention was Gaiman’s use of the moniker “Innocent” for the leader of Aurelia—as well as his combined titles of “psychopomp” and “carnifex.”

“Cluracan’s Tale” comes near the end of Sandman’s run. A disparate group of people are trapped in the Worlds’ End, a tavern outside any known realm, during a reality storm. While waiting for the storm to abate, the travelers tell each other stories in a familiar structure—both Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales use this framing. As the stories continue, it is revealed that the reality storm is the result of Morpheus the Dream King’s death—which hasn’t yet officially happened and won’t until the end of the next arc, “The Kindly Ones.”

Cluracan, after much equivocation about how poor his story is about to be (to the point that the Hostess assumes he doesn’t want to tell it), relates the tale of his adventure just before arriving at the Worlds’ End. Mab, the Queen of Faerie, sent him to the city of Aurelia to disrupt its leader’s attempts to build an alliance with the other cities of the plains. Cluracan, being a mischief faerie, manages this handily, though not without some danger to himself. And, of course, how much of what he tells the other travelers is true is left open to question and interpretation.

Aurelia used to be a thriving, Romanesque city built around the tomb of its eighth emperor, Carys Carnifex. The name Aurelia means “golden,” was the name of Julius Caesar’s mother, and was the name of the 44th emperor, Aurelian, who made great strides in unifying Rome. Which of these Gaiman had in mind when naming the city is unclear, but regardless if he meant one or all of them, the state of Aurelia when Cluracan revisits it—run down, dirty, physically collapsing on itself—is ironic. The city is dying, which is only appropriate for a place whose palace is built on the tombs of its emperors. As Cluracan puts it, “the city belonged as much to the dead as the living.”

Cluracan recalls Aurelia’s glory days.

The choice of titles also points to a certain fascination with death on the part of the Aurelians. The secular leader is called the Carnifex, and the religious leader the Psychopomp. “Carnifex” is Latin for “butcher,” and is what the Romans called their executioners. A “psychopomp” is a person or creature who ushers the dead into the afterlife—much like Gaiman’s own Death of the Endless.

Cluracan learns, when he arrives in Aurelia, that the Psychopomp of the Plains and the Carnifex of Aurelia are, against all tradition, the same person:

Psychopomp Innocent XI. Or Carnifex Carys XXXV. Depends on whether he’s holding the keys to the afterlife, and has the power to escort you to heaven or hell; or whether he has the power of life and death over all the fleshly bodies in Aurelia.

Innocent/Carys was born Mairon, as his uncle explains to Cluracan, and worked his way into this position “through death and lies,” as the prophecy that speaks through Cluracan puts it. It’s interesting to note that Mairon is the original name of Sauron, though it’s impossible to tell whether Gaiman intended this link. (And while I don’t have space to dig into it here, it’s worth noting that Mairon/Innocent/Carys is a rare male three-in-one in a series that relies heavily on the tripartite goddess for many of its themes and plot points.)

Mairon’s ultimate goal is complete control over all the Plains cities as Carnifex as well as Psychopomp, essentially as Pope and Emperor, leader of both the religious and secular state. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Gaiman chose Innocent as Mairon’s psychopomp name.

In the history of the Catholic Church, there have been 13 Popes Innocent, but probably the most (in)famous is Innocent III. Pope from 1198-1216 CE, he exerted the full range of his power over matters religious and secular throughout Europe. He decided the Pope had the final say over the selection of the German Emperor. He annulled England’s Magna Carta. He arranged the Fourth Crusade, imposing taxes on clergy and crusaders and pardoning crusaders who attacked Christian cities despite his orders not to. He endorsed the formation of the Franciscan Order. And he opened the Fourth Lateran Council, which resulted in 70 decrees, including specific clothing for Jews and Muslims and banning Jews from public office.

Innocent III, fresco at the cloister Sacro Speco

In short, dude was mad power hungry.

Cluracan’s mission to Aurelia is to stop exactly that sort of power-creep from Mairon, and he goes about doing so with unholy glee. He whips up a riot in the city, driving Mairon to hide in the oldest part of the palace—the tombs of the previous Carnifexes (which appear to somehow both be underground and at the top of a tower). He plans, once the riot is over, to exercise his power as both Carnifex and Psychopomp to sentence one-tenth of the city to death, then condemn their souls to hell.

He’s stopped by his predecessor, Carys XXXIV, whose corpse rises from its seat, accuses Mairon of killing his son and stealing his throne, and throws Mairon out a window. Cluracan tells his audience he doesn’t know how or why the corpse came to life and refuses to answer any more questions about it.

Mairon plunges to his death, propelled by the corpse of his predecessor.

The Doylist explanation, of course, is that Gaiman ran out of space to tell the story and rushed the ending. But what other way could the story end but with Mairon’s death, at the hands of a dead predecessor, in the crypts of Aurelia? Death infuses the story, from the foundations of the city to the titles of its leaders to its current crumbling state.

Death is, of course, the theme of the entire “Worlds’ End” arc; each story deals with it in some way, even “Hob’s Leviathan,” which features two of Sandman’s immortals. “World’s End” serves as a bridge between “Brief Lives” (in which Morpheus seeks out Destruction and kills his son) and “The Kindly Ones” (in which Morpheus is hunted by the Furies and chooses death), equal parts intermission and foreshadowing for Morpheus’ ultimate fate.

Thanks again to Leah Komar for feedback and discussion.

References and Further Reading
Sandman Issue #52, “Cluracan’s Tale”
DrLori, “The Language of the Night: The Sandman’s Worlds’ End
John Moore, “Pope Innocent III, Sardinia, and the Papal State,” Speculum 62.1, 1987.
The Deeds of Pope Innocent III, translated by James Powell, 2004
Janet Sayers, Innocent III: Leader of Europe, 1198-1216, 1994.
Stuart Warren, “Aurelia, Restitutor Orbis: Meddling with Sovereignty in Sandman #52

Sandman and the Faerie Tiend to Hell

Spoilers for Sandman and The Books of Magic!

Hell stands empty and locked, and its fate is in the hands of the Lord of Dreams. Dozens of guests have descended on the Dreaming, each with their own reason for wanting Hell turned over to them. Among these petitioners are two fae, Cluracan and his sister Nuala, who have a different request—to leave the realm empty, and thus free Faerie from its debt to Hell.

This could, to the casual reader, be confusing. After all, the fae and the Christian Hell are from entirely different sets of mythology. So why in the world would Faerie be linked to Hell in such a way?

Cluracan makes his case in Sandman

The faerie tithe to hell is a late addition to faerie mythology. It seems to be based almost entirely on two Scottish ballads dated to around the 14th century, “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer.” In “Tam Lin,” the eponymous hero explains to Janet that:

Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

Tam Lin wants Janet to rescue him from faerie, not because faerie is terrible (he says it’s “pleasant”), but because he’s so very pretty that he’s sure to be picked as the next offering to Hell. Similarly, the queen of faerieland sends Thomas the Rhymer away out of fear that the devil will choose him as his next offering:

Ffor sothe, Thomas, als I þe tells,
þou base bene here thre ȝere and more;
Bot langere here þou may noghte duelle;
The skylle I sall þe tells whare-fore.
To morne of belle þe foulle fende
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And þon arts mekill mane and hende;
I trowe full wele he wolde chose the.

(Basically, the devil is coming tomorrow to collect his fee, and you’re so pretty I know he’ll take you, so you have to go home now.)

And that’s it! There really aren’t any more literary references to the fae owing a tithe to Hell. As far as I can tell, there isn’t even a single clear explanation about why Faerie owes this debt. In The Annotated Sandman, Leslie Klinger offers a couple of possibilities: the fae are fallen angels that didn’t quite become demons, or they predate humanity, so they’re under Hell’s jurisdiction.

James Herbert McNair, Tamlaine, 1905

Katharine Briggs, in her study of the various mythologies of the fae, says that faeries:

are often said to live very long but to perish on death, as having no souls, though they are sometimes thought capable of acquiring them. Sometimes they are held to be in a pendulous state between salvation and damnation, like mankind, sometimes already damned. Sometimes they are only compelled to pay a teind to Hell.

She also speculates that the faerie habit of kidnapping humans might have been specifically to pay the tithe to Hell. Despite the lack of origin of this particular bit of faerie lore, “Tam Lin” has become popular enough among fantasy writers and folk music artists that the idea isn’t entirely unknown, even outside Scotland.

Gaiman adds just a bit to the folklore; Cluracan says that the debt is because of an “ancient compact,” and that the tithe involves actual sacrifice of “nine of our wisest, our most beautiful.” Whether those are fae or humans or both, he doesn’t say. Gaiman mentions it again in The Books of Magic, but again, the terms are fuzzy; we are told only that “Faerie and [Hell] have always been linked—by right of tithe, if nothing else.” It is worth noting that the “ancient compact” doesn’t appear to be with Lucifer, as Lucifer’s abdication apparently doesn’t end the debt. Given that Hell doesn’t seem to have existed before Lucifer arrived ten billion years ago, this does raise questions about the exact terms of the compact.

However, the compact itself is, narratively, hardly more than an excuse to bring the fae into the Dreaming. (This may actually be thematically appropriate; E.B. Lyle has theorized that the tithe only appears in “Tam Lin”and “Thomas the Rhymer” as a narrative device to get the men in question out of faerie and back home.) Cluracan has no hope or expectation that their petition will be the one Morpheus accepts. The compact isn’t mentioned again, not even when Morpheus ultimately turns Hell over to a pair of angels, essentially reinstating the status quo. Instead, two panel-heavy pages are given over to Cluracan informing Morpheus (and Nuala) that Nuala is a gift from Titania, and Titania’s gifts are a no-taksie-backsies deal.

What Cluracan doesn’t say, but that Gaiman explores in The Books of Magic, is that gifts from faerie are essentially compulsory favors; Titania tells Tim that “You in your turn now owe a gift to me, Timothy, a gift of equal value and worth. Otherwise, I will be forced to take . . . you.” And as shown both in Sandman and The Books of Magic, Titania isn’t above forcing or tricking people into taking her gifts.

Titania explains Tim’s predicament in The Books of Magic

The implication is that she expects a gift equivalent to Nuala from Morpheus at some point. In Vertigo Jam #1, Nuala herself explains that she’s a “present. Or a bribe. Or a way of removing a problem.” However, when Titania hears that Cluracan has witnessed Morpheus’ funeral, she instead takes Nuala back, probably anticipating that Morpheus will not be able to repay her before his death—either with a gift or with his servitude.

One of the main strengths of Gaiman’s writing in general, and Sandman in particular, is his ability to interweave various mythologies into a mostly coherent whole. In the case of Sandman, he’s gone with an “all the myths are true” approach, one which doesn’t favor any one mythology over another. Faerie may owe a debt to Hell, but it’s not because the early theologians who cast pagan gods/spirits as “demons” were right. Faerie is its own realm in its own right, only this one odd quirk of mythology tying it to the (mostly) Christian version of Hell. This quirk, however, allows Gaiman to bring the fae into the dispute over Hell and introduce Nuala to the narrative, putting in place one of the factors that ultimately leads to Morpheus’ death.

Big thanks to Dr. Martha Hixon, Dr. Linda Lee, Kimberly Bea, Stacie Turner, and Leah Komar for helping provide sources and ideas.

References and Further Reading
Sandman Issues 21-28, “Season of Mists”
Sandman Issue 58, “The Kindly Ones: Part 2”
The Books of Magic
Vertigo Jam #1, “The Castle”
Sarah Allison, “The Fairy Tithe to Hell in Scottish Tradition
Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales, 1971.
Katharine Briggs, “The English Fairies,” Folklore 68.1, 1957.
Morgan Daimler, Faeries: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk, 2017.
Martha Hixon, “Tam Lin, Fair Janet, and the Sexual Revolution: Traditional Ballads, Fairy Tales, and Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature,” Marvels & Tales 18.1, 2004.
E.B. Lyle, “The Teind to Hell in ‘Tam Lin’,” Folklore 81.3, 1970.

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