Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Arthurian Legend and Guild Wars 2

I've never played World of Warcraft. Or Guild Wars, or most of the other fantasy MMO's out there, and the days I spent on Tera and Rift could be counted on one hand. There are only a couple of fantasy MMO's which have seemed worth the time to me, and they are Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan. Thematically, visually, the two games are worlds apart, but they have one fact in common: they are based on some really great books. That's what grabs me: a game which interacts with my other great loves, in this case literature.

So it was while I was surfing for the next game that I would try that I stumbled over an interview with the creators of Guild Wars 2 and, in a conversation about the new race in the game, I read that the Sylvari's stories were explicitly informed by Arthurian legend. They threw red meat at me, and I had to respond. Challenge accepted.

I've spent a couple of weeks in the game now, and much of that time has been spent on a Sylvari warrior, exploring Arthurian themes in the game. Are there, in fact, Arthurian themes in this game? How are they used and portrayed? Are they more than token gestures? To what extent are stories the Sylvari tell in harmony with the stories Malory and others told? These are the questions I am eager to answer, and I thought I would focus on one specific story at the beginning of the game, at least today. That is the story of the Green Knight.

Now, in modern re-interpretations of the Green Knight, there has been a great effort to portray him as an environmentally-aware character, sometimes a guardian of the forest or even as a supernaturally empowered avatar of nature. (See, for example, Marvel UK's Knights of Pendragon.) That is, the Green Knight is, politically, Green. He recycles.

None of that is in the myth. The story of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight survives in one manuscript written in the 15th century by an anonymous poet who may have also written the religiously themes poems "Pearl", "Patience", and "Cleanness". For those who have not read it, I really do recommend it. It is not terribly long and will take you only a couple of hours. It has been translated from a northern dialect of Middle English into modern English by many people over the years, but for sheer nerd value you really ought to read the one by JRR Tolkien, he of the hobbits and the wizards, who of course was also an Oxford language professor.

In the poem, Gawaine -- who is the paragon of courtly and chivalrous behavior, not the rude murderer he is in Malory -- is hanging out with his uncle Arthur and the Queen in Camelot when they are interrupted by a mysterious intruder who is dressed and painted entirely green. (Even his beard is green!) The Knight issues a challenge, the beheading game, which is an old trope in legend and myth. No one is willing to take the challenge except for Gawaine, who accepts the offer to take a swing at the Knight's head if, when he is done, the Knight gets a return stroke. Gawaine does well, cutting off the head, but the magic is revealed when the Knight walks over, picks up his head, and puts it back on. Now Gawaine must let the return stoke be swung, but the Knight gives him a year to put his things in order before -- presumably -- he will be executed. After commanding Gawaine to come to "the Green Chapel" in a year for the end of the contest, the Knight rides off.

Gawaine wastes the year partying and hanging out with the court. Finally, with only weeks left, he rides off to look for the Green Chapel, coming to grips with the fact he is probably going to die. He cannot find the Chapel, however, until he stops at a castle belonging to one Sir Bercilak and his gorgeous wife. Bercilak knows where the Chapel is, and it's just a few hours away; Gawaine can stay at Bercilak's home for a few days and, on New Year's, ride to the Chapel. Gawaine, perhaps thanks to the lady's charm, good looks, and earnest appeal, agrees to stay.

Bercilak's hobby is hunting, but Gawaine wants to stay home with the hot wife, so they make a deal. (You'd think Gawaine would have learned, but whatever.) Bercilak agrees to give Gawaine everything he gets on the hunt, but Gawaine must agree to give everything he gets during the day, too. And you get the idea that this is no idle game, since, while Bercilak is away each day, his wife engages in an all out full court press to seduce Gawaine into sex. She finds him in his bed, cuddles up and kisses him, but he tells her no each day. Each of the first two nights, Bercilak comes back with the remains of some beast and gives it all to Gawaine, while the knight gives Bercilak a nice smooch on the lips: his own trophy for the day.

The real test comes the third day when Bercilak's wife reveals that she wears a sash which, so long as it is worn, keeps you from dying. She offers it to Gawaine and he, suddenly seeing a way out of certain death, accepts it. When he meets Bercilak that night, he gives him the kiss he got earlier in the day, but not the sash. That, he keeps for himself, and in so doing breaks his word.

Bercilak leads Gawaine out to the Green Chapel the next day and reveals that he, himself, is the Green Knight. Ready to claim Gawaine's head, he tells the knight to bend over and he makes two fake swings at Gawaine's neck, missing each time on purpose. But the third stroke nicks Gawaine's neck, drawing blood, and Bercilak explains that he knows everything that transpired with his wife during Gawaine's visit. Because Gawaine was honest on the first two days, Bercilak misses the neck, but because Gawaine lied on the third day, he got hurt. But it's only a scratch, instead of a death blow, because Gawaine's lie was understandable: the young knight did not want to die. And because he wanted to live, he lied. Who would not do the same? So Bercilak shows mercy, and Gawaine is humiliated but alive. He returns to Camelot and tells the story, leading Arthur and the court to adopt the wearing of green sashes which, for Gawaine, is a badge of his shame and his failure, but which for the king and court are just a fashion statement. It is worth noting that the story about the sash preventing you from harm is a lie: if Bercilak wanted, he could have killed Gawaine. The spell of invulnerability which Bercilak had was provided by Morgan le Fey, who is probably to be identified with an old woman who shows up once in the poem, accompanying Bercilak's wife.

Sylvari players are confronted with the green knight in their personal story; they can choose to have Dreamed of the Green Knight, a mysterious White Hart, or of the moon. (The White Hart is also an explicit Arthurian reference, which we will unpack another day.) The Knight, whose name is also Bercilak, has just slain Eladus, beloved of Dagdar, in battle. Eladus and Dagdar are both male but there seems little doubt of their romantic relationship when Dagdar refers to "my beloved". This homoerotic relationship stands out in the game because it comes so early; it is literally the first romantic relationship many Sylvari players encounter. But it's also a nice call-out to the homoerotic elements of the original story, in which Gawaine plants three lusty kisses on his host.

The player character's fight with Bercilak here echoes the Knight's first arrival in Camelot, with the PC triumphant but denied his victory due to magic; Bercilak cannot be killed. But the beheading game specifically is absent, replaced by a more traditional duel between knights (or "valiants", to use the Sylvari term). Rather than wasting a year at court before slowly finding his way to the rematch, the Guild Wars hero actively seeks out Bercilak and the source of his powers in order to deliver justice on a guy who is much less morally ambiguous and more clearly wicked than the source material.

The quest leads to a female Sylvari named Gairwen, a nice Gawaine reference. This Bercilak is not married, and is instead courting a female Sylvari whose (male) lover he has already slain. Arthurian myth has plenty of examples of knights killing a rival only to claim the rival's wife, so Bercilak can perhaps be excused for thinking Gairwen would fall head over heels for him. His inability to understand Gairwen's dislike echoes another famous Gawaine story, the tale of Dame Ragnell, in which Gawaine is sent questing to learn the answer to the question "What do women want?" (Chaucer told this story in the Wife of Bath's Tale, but he edited out Gawaine to make it about an anonymous knight.) The answer is that women want to call the shots, they want the power to decide their own destiny, rather than be forced to let men make the decisions for them. But Gairwen, though she resents Bercilak's attempts to force her, is quite willing to let the PC make the decisions. She tells us that Bercilak's invulnerability comes from his magic armor, a play on the idea that the green sash really does make you immune to harm.

This sends the PC off on a quest to find the smith who made the armor, a reference not to an explicitly Arthurian tale, but rather to Norse and Celtic tales of a godlike smith. Our smith is named Occam, presumably after Occam's Razor, which would be a cool name for a sword but which is actually a principle of logic and deduction which states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. Occam can be compared to characters like Weyland, the Norse smith who, in Mary Stewart's influential Arthurian novels, forged Excalibur. In our story, Occam fills the role of Morgan le Fey, the magical source for Bercilak's spell of invulnerability.

Occam has been kidnapped, which leads us back to Gairwen and a cunning plan: if we can trick Bercilak into kissing Gairwen -- an act which you all will recognize by now -- we can deprive him of his helmet and, thus, allow his head to be chopped off. This is a Reverse Green Knight: instead of a challenge in which we chop off Bercilak's head and he is not harmed, we instead have a rematch in which we chop off the head and it works. Gairwen is still grieving for her lost love, but she agrees and persuades Bercilak to kiss her before stealing the helmet. This leads to a pretty straight forward fight with a tough boss with a knockdown attack that, I cannot help but wonder, might be referencing Bercilak's requirement that Gawaine get down on his knees to accept the sword stroke. With Bercilak defeated, Gairwen moves in with the PC, which I found interesting. Sadly, there is no Green Sash costuming item from Bercilak. It's a real shame, and would make a wonderful memento of a fun quest chain. Perhaps it was left out because only those Sylvari who choose this personal quest chain would be able to get this reward. Regardless, I would have liked to see a green belt or chest piece awarded to those who defeat the Green Knight. This, by the way, is where the British Order of the Knights of the Garter come from: the garter is specifically a reference to the sash Gawaine wears.

The story of Bercilak the Green Knight of Guild Wars 2 is loosely inspired by the original poem, but owes more to that poem than to other, popular, conceptions of the Green Knight. In that sense, and in its uses of the kissing motif, of love between two men, and in its portrayal of a man who cannot understand why a woman would not enjoy being forced to have sex, the quest honors and plays with medieval source material. It's not as morally ambiguous as the original tale, and it recasts the whole business from a test of moral character to one of combat prowess, but this seems fitting considering how early in the game this story is encountered. There are hard choices which players must make in this game -- and in this story the player must choose to save Gairwen or Occam -- but trying to portray Gawaine's refusal to have sex with Bercilak's wife, and then his willingness to hide the garter from Bercilak himself, is perhaps a bit too nuanced for an action adventure game like GW2, especially when players might be experiencing the game for the first time on their first character.


  1. I've always enjoyed the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I think this was the clearest explanation I've heard read about what was going on. Thank you for that.

  2. You've officially interested me in Guild Wars 2 Tondro. I must say I've missed Arthurian lore. I think I'll do a bit of going back and sinking my teeth into some Sir Mallory and Layamon interpretations.

    I hope all has been well. Remember I'm always in need of a good recommendation.

  3. Well made article. Interesting and hats of to you.

  4. Just caught up to your blog, and excellent read there. One of my favorite things has always been the Arthurian legends.

  5. Great article, exactly what I was looking for!

  6. Sorry to comment just under my comment but could you please do something similar about The White Stag quest? I rember there was stag chasing in Mists of Avalon.