The Evil Child/Good Child Dyad in Excalibur, The Sixth Sense, and The Good Son
In the following blog post, I try to link the story of Arthur's bastard son Mordred, who in the Arthurian Legend, comes back to seize control of Camelot from his father, as an example of the "bad seed" trope in contemporary film and fiction.
It is easy to see how much the Mordred story is edited, conflated, or even omitted in popular Arthurian retellings. Most film versions omit Mordred as in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone (1963) or Camelot (1967) or they conflate his story, like in Knightriders (1981), where he is Morgan, a bad-guy motorcycle nut, his name a mixture of Morgan Le Fay and Mordred. And of the Arthurian films that do include him, he is either: 1.) Arthur’s nephew or a knight "gone bad" as in First Knight (1995) or 2.) the incest taboo is breeched and Mordred is recognized as Arthur’s illegitimate son, as in Excalibur (1981) or the TV mini-series version of Mists of Avalon (2000) (Torregrossa 200-201). In films without mention of the incest plot, the incest taboo is sublimated into a villainous character who desires, at any price, to storm Camelot, to take Guinevere as either a wife or slave and to kill Arthur. Either Mordred is conflated into an evil nemesis that vies for Arthur’s throne, or he is seen as a son, but, universally as a bad seed. This bad seed element is what I am interested in here as an outcrop of a problematic good child/bad child dyad that popular tellings of the Arthurian tale have generated.
This illustrates at what length the story, even Malory, to some extent, avoids discussing the crux of the Mordred story, the “bad seed” part: which is basically a story of taboo desire between a brother, (Arthur) and a sister (Morgauswe) and the product of this desire, an evil child, (Mordred). The boundary is transgressed and the child born from the brother/sister pairing is marked as impure — hence, perhaps the name Mordred: a distortion of “morte,” the Romance derivative of the Latin word, “mortus,” in English, “death.”
In most cultures, a child made impure by a violation of the incest taboo does not bode well for the tribe. It marks death. From a Structuralist point of view, all cultures, in some form or another, have an incest taboo, for it separates us from the animals and makes us uniquely human — our rage or our sex drive is not mere animalistic fecundity, but we tend to inscribe meaning to our actions which precipitates limitation (Bataille 83). Most cultures include a narrative to limit transgression and also to speak about possible violations of the boundary as a cautionary tale. In other words: Don’t sleep with your sister because it will bring a taint on your house. Stories like this are powerful and interwoven into cultural narratives because the taboo is so strong, we need stories of its transgression to release some of the pent-up energy generated by its suppression.
But how we tell the story is what is of importance.
The story of Arthur’s son, Mordred, fits into this basic narrative of incest, not only as a historical figure but as a raw narrative-type fitted into whichever form of the Arthurian strand the artist wishes to take, whether he casts Mordred as a nephew or a son, or an evil traitor, the simple ingredients of the primordial story are preserved. The raw form of Mordred as an evil son, an irreducibly evil son, apparently, has become fodder for a retelling of the Arthurian myth that chooses to emphasize the mythological structure of the story rather than the anthropological structure. From an anthropological standpoint, the Mordred narrative tells of a transgression of a culturally inscribed taboo that needs to be dealt with within the society.
This anthropological, scientific viewpoint has been challenged by the mythopoetic, or Jungian view touted first by Joseph Campbell. In this view, Mordred or any character in the Arthurian narrative is a creation of mythic imagination, not necessarily rooted in historical reality. While, there may be cause to suggest that a person such as Arthur or Guinevere did, in fact, exist in some form of the distant past, the cause of their presence in history is not inherent in their facticity, per se, but in the raw mythological power that they exert on the human imagination.
Mordred, while the facts of his historical existence are in doubt, exerts a powerful influence on the popular imagination, especially in films that utilize the rhetoric of the Men’s Movement of the 1980s by such figures as Robert Bly and Sam Keen. The Men’s Movement addresses the so-called “crisis in masculinity” that was used as a counter-attack to second-wave feminism, that stated that there is something innate about woman and that womanhood ought to be celebrated and recognized, as inherently bound up with a woman’s own sense of self and power, represented in works like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Men, by their own, admission, deny women of this acceptance of their womanhood by disavowing their political rights and metaphysical dignity
The Men’s Movement, or Mythopoesis, as it is sometimes called, countered this, especially in the works of Robert Bly, by saying that there is also something innate about men, but men have not been allowed to express their true feelings like women and are therefore just as much oppressed as women. Bly warned that men should not associate themselves too readily with women, lest they ally themselves with their interests, and only please their mothers and their wives (2). Writers like Bly argued that men should not only get in touch with their more sensitive, nurturing side, or their true selves, but their wild side, or their warrior side as an expression of authentic masculinity. This not only spawned a pate of men’s clubs and book tours celebrating men and men’s interests but also films have expropriated this mythopoetic rhetoric, often times to an inevitable disaster.
In Films, like Excalibur,, First Knight, The Sixth Sense, The Good Son, and the Star Wars films, the Mordred myth has been expropriated into a mythopoesis that reduces the problem into a good child/evil child dyad. If there is something to be saved in men today, the men’s movement suggests, it is our boys who are in the direst need of help. This emphasis on boys in need of help, seen in books by Michael Gurian and James Pollack, with titles like, The Wonder of Boys or Raising Cain: Saving the Emotional Lives of Boys. This frenzy (or panic) to save our boys from the clutches of soft feminism creates, ineluctably, what I call the Mordred problem, spawned in part by this duality that our children are either good or evil, right or wrong, soft or hard, gay or straight, legitimate or illegitimate, with the emphasis that right, good, hard, straight, and legitimate are the privileged labels. Mordred is a type of the “bad seed,” the bad label, or the evil child and his inverse, the good child, or the virtuous child.
Reinhard Kuhn, in his book Corruption in Paradise: The Child in Western Literature says that the evil child in literature stems from our fascination with innocence in the child and this innocence is corrupted by society (40-41). He says that evil children in books and films demonstrate “an insatiable appetite for even the most vulgar of such menacing children, and the viewing public has assured a similar success for the many films dealing with the same topic” (43-44). Kuhn remarks that the result of our fascination with corruption of childhood innocence has garnered a proliferation “of evil children on such a scale that one might fear it is they who will inherit the earth” (44).
The Mordred-myth generates such evil children bent on destroying the father figure, the mother figure — in fact, the entire family. The incest theme is usually downplayed in these films and the villainy of the child is emphasized. These films tap into the archetype of the evil child that seems to fascinate modern audiences. It also presents us with a problematic binary. Especially when seen in context with the recent rhetoric of a “crisis of masculinity” that deems anything not of the moral norm as suspect and thus should be expunged.
Excalibur, for example, is the first Arthurian film to depict Mordred as a boy. In one disturbing scene, the boy Mordred leads the quest-knight Percival to a forest of decomposing, dead quest knights who were not good enough for the “holy grail,” and hung there by Morgana, his mother. He tells Percival, “They were looking for it too. But they weren't good enough.”
Tellingly, the boy is grinning menacingly, dressed in armor, jubilant that he has lured one of Arthur quest-knights to his mother. And we are supposed to feel sickened by this boy’s apparent corruption and lack of innocence, juxtaposed with his grinning smile and cherubic face. The images of the scene are supposed to at once show us the evilness of Mordred, in his apparent lack of knowledge of the “good” and the sad fact that he is only a child corrupted by his evil sorceress mother, Morgana.
The bond between mother and son is intensified in an interesting scene when Morgan bathes her son, as a boy, and Mordred, in a special effects shot, turns from a boy into a man, as if Morgan’s preparation has been finished and Mordred is ready to be unleashed onto the world. Right before our eyes, we have watched the child corrupted and transmogrified both to our horror and to our delight. In this retelling, the incest problem is recognized — but it is not seen as the root of Mordred’s problem. Boorman not only breeches the incest taboo to show how the mother corrupts the child as a way to use him to secure her own power. From this, we can see the litigation against softness, or nurturance in the male, as ultimately a mark for failure. The child in this movie is corrupted by society, a female society, made, or better yet, generated, to destroy Arthur and his world. And because the film is saturated in the language of mythopoesis, Mordred’s corruption is seen vis-a-vis Arthur’s goodness, the tint of green that surrounds the sword when he pulls it out of the stone. The mythopoetic language of the story attempts to show the effects of bad masculinity (e.g., mother, water, magic) versus a good one (rock, earth, sword, patriarchy). Arthur, vested in patriarchy, spurred by the friendship of the people, is able to pull the sword out of the stone, wounded only by his best friend’s infidelity with his wife. Mordred, on the other hand, is corrupted by mother, made too soft, and not able to be saved by the father as the father is able to save his best friend.
When Arthur offers him his son his love, the son rejects it.
Arthur: I cannot give you the land. Only my love. Mordred: That's the one thing of yours I don't want! The quest knights have failed. They're all dead. And YOU... are dead, too. I shall come back and take Camelot by force!
In the last scene, when Mordred and Arthur finally battle it out to the death on Mount Badon, Mordred says, to Arthur, “Come father. Let us embrace at last.” The tableaux scene is a gruesome depiction of the father’s sword thrust into his son’s chest and the son’s spear thrust into father as they both lean on one another in a last, death embrace. The crisis of masculinity turns into abject failure. The binary fails.
The Sixth Sense
In the movie The Sixth Sense (1999), the evil child / good child dyad is also explored with troubling duality. The film opens after Bruce Willis, a psychoanalyst named Malcolm, wins an award for psychiatry and celebrates the victory with his wife. But the movie doesn’t allow us to revel in his accomplishments for long.
The doomed evil Mordred-child comes back to haunt us. Apparently, a man Malcolm treated as a patient when he was a boy has come back to wreak revenge. The Man-boy, standing in their bathroom, broken glass on the bedroom floor, clad only in his underwear, inexorably vulnerable, but frighteningly menacing, screams at the doctor that he didn’t help him. After the doctor tries to convince him that he was a compassionate child, “unusually compassionate,” the Mordred-boy-now-adult says, “you forgot ‘cursed’” and shoots him with a revolver hidden, it seems, in the medicine cabinet. The psychoanalyst apparently survives and goes into a depression, seemingly has difficulty relating to his wife and spends his time righting his “wrongs” by counseling another boy, Cole Sear (note the last name) played convincingly by Haley Joel Osment. This boy, about nine or ten years old, has similar symptoms with the former boy gone awry and the Doc hopes for a kind of restoration of past sins. The doctor, a sort of Merlin figure, is able to heal the boy, and to help him come to terms with his problems — that he sees dead people — and to use his curse as a gift, to help others.
As Harty has pointed out, the boy recognizes his gifts at the same time he plays the part of the boy Arthur in his school play, pulling the sword from the stone (29). In realizing his power, he is able to transform his curse into a gift into a kind of Arthurian return. In a scene, where he is wielding the sword prop, he counsels the doctor to talk to his wife in her sleep, and maybe she will listen to him, then, and not ignore him. This works, because the doctor, (warning: spoiler) who is also really dead — we shockingly realize —- when his wife drops their wedding ring, which she has been clutching in her hands, and Malcolm realizes that when he was shot, he died. And he is a ghost, the dead people the seer Cole claimed to have seen. This brings a resolution of sorts for him and he is able to come to terms with his own death, and apparently transmit this resolution to his wife, who in a tender moment, tells him good-bye.
- Cole also helps his mother come to terms with the death of her own mother:
- Cole Sear: She wanted me to tell you…
- Lynn Sear: Cole, please stop...
- Cole Sear: She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance. She said, when you were little, you and her had a fight, right before your dance recital. You thought she didn't come see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn't see. She said you were like an angel. She said you came to the place where they buried her. Asked her a question? She said the answer is..."Every day." What did you ask?
- Lynn Sear: Do... Do I make her proud?
In the Sixth Sense, the good child image is triumphant, over and against, the evil child, the earlier boy Cole could have become. This turn toward the good is in direct contradistinction to the evil child and therefore sets up a binary that is difficult to resist. Again, this movie, while celebrating the return to goodness, to a sense of restoration of past wrongs, uses the duality of the good/bad doubling as either one or another, nothing in between. These films either present us with a child who is good and virtuous, or an evil child who is irreducibly scarred and without a conscience. The child both blesses us with his presence, as depicted by the cute face of Osment or scars us with his menace, the evil man-child at the beginning of the film. This is the same pairing we saw in Excalibur with the boy Mordred who is both cute and menacing, but rather than keep him this way, we chalk him up as “evil” and dismiss him as ever having been cute.
The Good Son
This duality is brought out ad absurdum in the film, The Good Son (1993). The Mordred tale is reincorporated, quite horribly, into 20th century New England. Mark, a boy of about nine or ten, played by Elijah Wood is sent to stay with his Uncle and Aunt in Maine after the death of his mother. He quickly learns that his cousin Henry, played by Macaulay Culkin is in fact evil. He shoots dogs, wears a spooky paper-maché mask, drowns his brother, almost kills his sister, and attempts to push his mother over a dangerous precipice. The movie, with cute child actors to boot, is almost certainly playing on their star appeal — remember, Culkin had just completed Home Alone and Elijah Wood had recently starred in a series of cutesy movies— plays with this duality, the virtuous, innocent boy versus the abject opposite, an evil child, with no apparent explanation to why he does the cruelty he does — and why, no one, except Mark, Elijah Wood’s character, realizes his evilness.
Mark, the good child, is all-knowing and incredibly intuitive. When his mother dies in the first scene, he literally believes that she will not leave him, and, almost immediately, transfers the mother image to his aunt, as if he knows this must be the case. We do not agree with his logic, perhaps, but we cheer his innocent intuition and allow it to endear him to ourselves, thus creating a suitable matrix to explain the Mother/Aunt Son/Nephew bonding.
The evil child is also all-knowing and incredibly intuitive, but he uses his “gifts” to curse, convince people to fly, smoke cigarettes (the epitome of evil?) — and we are made to revel in this only as a ploy to convince us that he really ought to die! Both boys, consequently, are inverses of each other: Culkin is blonde, blue-eyed and light, the other, Wood, is brown haired, blue eyed and darker complexion. The silver screen has managed to take the Mordred myth and generate its most horrible doubling in a kind of fatalistic battle to the death. There is no Arthurian Return in this film, no mythopoetic hope of restoration, nor is there the notion that the evil child can be restored. While, Excalibur and The Sixth Sense, play with the notion of restoration of past wrongs, this movie presents us with no options for transformation: either we choose the good child or we choose the evil child. There is no concession.
In the movie’s final scene, as James Kincaid brilliantly observed (and I am ashamed to say I have capitalized on his argument), the mother dangles both boys from a Maine precipice in the hopes of saving both children, ostensibly her sons. Her strength is not enough to hoist both children up, so she has to let one of them go to save the other or risk losing both. What would you do? Do you destroy the good child or the evil child? As Kincaid notes, audiences cheered when she destroyed the evil child (159-60) and we thought nothing of it, deeply satisfied that the Mordred myth has finally been done and abolished. We can now wash our hands of the problem once and for all. We have saved the good child from obliteration and we somehow seem sated by this fact.
Necessary Concluding Notes
This brings us back to the Arthurian legend and how the stories we tell from our mythic past are often generated and created for popular consumption. It is in fact, Balin and Balin, most likely, that serve as the prototype for the horrible doubling that seems to have been created in our creation of the Mordred myth (See Ellis), that perhaps, is too limiting and stultifying, and needs to breathe a little air. I think the most destructive element of the Mordred myth, is not its troubling nature, but actually, how we make Mordred to be the scape-goat for a story that we ourselves have perpetuated.
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Ellis, Deborah S. “Balin, Mordred and Malory’s Idea of Treachery”. English Studies. 1987. 66-74.
Ellis, Deborah S. “Balin, Mordred and Malory’s Idea of Treachery”. English Studies. 1987. 66-74.
Excalibur. Directed by John Boorman. Starring, Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay and
Cherie Lunghi. Orion Pictures Company. 1981
The Good Son. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Starring, Macauley Culkin, Elijah Wood.
The Good Son. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Starring, Macauley Culkin, Elijah Wood.
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