Friday 20 October 2017

Fairytales Told Twice

Fairytales Told Twice, and the Idylls of the King

Guest post by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

When working on Winterglass, I wanted to thoroughly remove it from its milieu (white, Christian, Finnish, heteronormative). One of my inspirations for that relocation of culture and narrative? It came by a very odd, sideways manner — through Nasu Kinoko.

In Nasu’s extensive (famous or notorious, depending on your perspective) Fate/stay night franchise, King Arthur is a bisexual woman.

From left to right: Gawain, Mordred, Lancelot, Artoria, Bedivere, Tristan, Agravain. Yes, Mordred is a woman.
It’s not that she is reincarnated in an American high school as a girl — how wishy-washy — she has always been a woman, though her gender was kept a semi-secret, known mostly to her knights. Her son Mordred in the red armor: also a woman. Sir Gareth, not pictured here: also a woman. It’s not a big change, and gender-flipping in retellings is a common enough trope (though oddly, when it comes to Arthuriana specifically, this seems to be the first of its kind and hasn’t been replicated since). But Nasu also made a number of other changes: in classic Arthuriana, the court at Camelot is celebratory, a place of pageantry and performative gallantry — there are jousts, there are quests for the grail, and King Arthur pulled the sword from the stone without knowing what it meant. In Nasuverse, Artoria pulls the sword knowing exactly what it means, and she grows into a king best known for her perfection, aloof and removed from her people, a monarch without emotion who’s dedicated entirely to her duty. Arthuriana regards the land as owing a duty to its king; King Artoria sees kingship as making her subject to her people—it is she who owes Britain duty, not the other way around.

Artoria contradicts classic Arthuriana for more reasons than just her gender: it is crucial to the King Arthur figure to not know what the sword in the stone means, and for him to have yanked it out in innocence; it is crucial for him, pre-kingship, to be reluctant and naive to the idea of leadership. Him turning out to be the rightful heir and rightful king is supposed to be a surprise to him. Artoria fundamentally differs from her source counterpart in that, not only does she know what the sword means, she is forewarned that kingship is a terrible, lonely burden and that her reign will likely end in tragedy.

Merlin, either in Mallory or de Troyes or The Vulgate Cycle, never quite gives Arthur the same warning.

The battle of Camlann
The Arthuriana of Nasuverse is meticulously researched: Gawain possesses the Belt of Bertilak, a version of Artoria owns and wields the lance Rhongomyniad, a wealth of obscure minutiae from Mallory and the rest are surprisingly included. But what King Artoria does not concern herself with, what this retelling of Arthuriana doesn’t rate in high regard, is England. King Artoria is transported to Avalon to rest until a time of need arises, but it’s not Britain that she comes to aid; she is instead summoned into a duel of mages in contemporary Japan (twice). While Fate/stay night and its various spin-offs occasionally brings the action to England, usually London, Artoria herself is always absent from such outings. She appears in the fictional city of Fuyuki fully acclimated to its culture; she sits on tatami and sleeps on futon; she enjoys Japanese food and (thanks to magic) speaks the language perfectly. Her version of chivalry more closely resembles bushido than the European concept, and she doesn’t distinguish her national identity as a Welsh from the Japanese characters’ understanding that she is simply British. Not once, in her various appearances, does she ask how modern Britain is doing.

In other words, King Artoria — Saber — isn’t all that British beyond surface details; Nasu Kinoko (and the bevy of writers who have joined him over the years) is not that interested in the Matter of Britain. Artoria and her Knights of the Round Table, despite their source material, are not there to tell a British story. Their myths and legends are there, essentially, as window dressing.

This more than anything is what keeps me interested: that a team of writers (ever-expanding) would take a body of legend that is considered quintessentially English and then discards its Englishness entirely. It’s not something that white, western writers do — even limp retellings like Avalon High cleave to British origins, with the protagonists’ parents as professors of Arthuriana studies. Several darker-and-grittier fantasy makes a point of distinguishing the various English/British identities, down to the regional distinction between Caledonian and Saxon and Scottish or what have you, all distinctions that Nasuverse never even thinks about because to Japanese writers, all white Britons are more or less the same, belonging to a single amorphous culture (so much so that Lancelot being French is beside the point, he’s lumped in with the rest of the Round Table). There’s a hundred stories that claim to subvert the story through telling it from the point of view of Mordred, or to make Guinevere a warrior queen or chieftain (this is very popular), or to gritty-it-up by making Arthur and his knights a bunch of hooligans (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the 2017 film). There’s a lot of ‘King Arthur was actually a Roman soldier named Artorius’. But no one thinks to make King Arthur a woman, because that goes just a little too far. (Sorry, but Avalon High’s reincarnation deal is too limp for me.)

Lancelot du Lake
This is what interests me: the deep and fundamental difference between a retelling and its source material, especially when the source material belongs to a dominant culture and the retelling does not, especially when the writers of a non-dominant culture mixes, matches, and uses the details of the dominant culture as surface dressing with no regard for what’s underneath — to the extent that the new creation is almost its own independent thing, a second canon, a Japanese Arthuriana.

Nasu Kinoko may have read a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but it was probably to mine what skills and powers Gawain would have as a Heroic Spirit. It’s irreverent, not in the satirical slapstick manner of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but in simple disregard for anything English. This is a media property that mines Arthuriana for plenty of material while entirely decentering Britain and all things associated with it. Nasu’s Arthuriana is culturally removed from its source, and King Arthur is not just a bisexual woman but also an idealist who despises expansionism and colonization.

You couldn’t get any less British than that.