Recently, the two anime that have been sticking with me the most on a double digit anime series binge have been GARO: The Animation and Fate/Apocrypha. The characters in both are fantastic and give plenty to chew on as not only the episodes go on, but long after the finales. I really want to write on the two, especially the latter, but I know we have had quite a few articles related to it, so I’ll probably just can my thoughts on it for another day. Something from those thoughts I do want to talk about on its own, however, is a very specific character in the series. This character has fascinating backstory to read up on with other works of fiction and made the overall experience of Fate/Apocrypha much better. Mordred. In many regards, Mordred is a prime example of an antihero done right.
In traditional Arthurian legend, Mordred is the bastard son of the great King Arthur and the result of the king, put bluntly, having incest with his sister. In Fate/Apocrypha, this story is worked with a little storytelling gymnastics since the King of Knights is actually a woman, and essentially boils down to sisters Morgan le Fay and Arthur (or, in Fate’s case, Artoria) having the same encounter and by magic Morgan le Fay incubating a baby. This doesn’t get any easier to explain even for the series, so we can overlook this detail (it really isn’t important)- what is important is what comes next. Fate has the character a little bit different, but I think the two stories of Fate Mordred and traditional Arthurian legend Mordred compliment one another.
Now it isn’t really spelled out in Fate/Apocrypha, but Mordred is a homunculus (the way her properties were explained to me made it sound like clones within the Metal Gear lore- shortened lives, accelerated growth, etc.) brought up directly by Morgan le Fay with the idea planted in her mind that she was the rightful heir to the throne King Arthur sat on. In the meantime, however, she was to serve as a loyal knight at the Round Table.
In traditional Arthurian legend (I make sure to double down on “traditional” because you will find dozens of different tellings of the adventures of King Arthur, usually ranging in tone based off of whomever the author is of the work), the story for Mordred is a little rougher. I imagine there weren’t editors of visual novels making Arthur a female to add in some h-scenes to the original stories, so we’re just running with the idea that it was a male that bedded his sister for an entire month. When he got home, as it would go, he had a messed up epiphany that he had a sister that was, in fact, Morgan le Fay. This next part is sometimes washed over in different tellings. First off, I want to get it out of the way, I get this story is fiction, but ethics are ethics.
Realizing what he did, and not knowing where his bastard incest child was, Arthur had his men collect every child under the age of one (to fit the age of his son/daughter depending on which Mordred we’re talking about here) from the various families in his kingdom with the promise to the parents that they were going to receive elite training at Camelot. It probably should be no surprise that the parents readily gave up their children for this opportunity (especially the impoverished ones). Once all of the infants were out on a boat, he ordered his men to set fire to the boat, and leave no survivors. To cover his tracks up (with the excuse of his child bringing the end of his country), Arthur had the entire youth populus go down in what would be called in storytelling as the Mayday Massacre.
Karma, beautifully, had one child survive the fires that brought down the boat. This child, of course, was Mordred.
Bringing things back to the Fate lore, Mordred spent her knighthood pushing herself to be the best knight in hopes of what she assumed was the throne that was hers to lose. Long afterward, she discovered that she was not to be what she thought and in a life-shattered fury, turned on King Arthur. Seeing as it is all just fiction and really doesn’t matter how its history is written, I like to think it is here that someone who desperately wanted approval of a parent that went to great lengths to bury over their mistake of a child finally broke and let a broken heart be filled with the flames of rage (we’ll be back to this argument in a bit, trust me).
Artoria, of course, would prove successful in quelling the rebellion, at the cost of her own life. As for the anime versions of the series, this battle has been briefly alluded to in both Fate/stay night and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works as well Fate/Zero and in more depth from Mordred’s perspective in Fate/Apocrypha.
Despite how her life came to an end, it is obvious throughout the series that Mordred had a heart as big as King Arthur. Whereas the King of Knights was stoic, Mordred was much more vocal about what she stood for and what she detested. In a very telling exchange in the series’ second cour, Apocrypha’s protagonist, Sieg, questions Mordred for her motives and what makes someone good or evil. While dismissive most of the conversation, a final question is posed to her, asking what kind of king she wanted to be: an evil one, or a good king.
“A good king, of course. What kind of question is that?”
Just because she isn’t blasting through enemies with the “I’m the good guy” banner flying or the flawless character that gives a bore akin to something like the kid who wants to play as Superman because he has no flaws doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the desire to do right. The real core of her ethos wouldn’t be fleshed out until her partner for the Holy Grail War, Kairi Sisigou, finds part of his own desires for life in her. Kairi loses his adopted daughter and carries a sort of burden that not only will his legacy never live on, but that he had failed on an opportunity for fatherhood and mentorship. With Mordred, he finds one last shot at redemption.
Mordred’s mentor isn’t a lot unlike Arthur’s, either. Never knowing his (or, again, in Fate lore, we’ll say Artoria never knew her) father and was raised by the humble Sir Ector, a simple landlord, and brought up in ways corrupt politics could never mold a king to be. In Kairi, Mordred finds lessons in much humbler ways than she had in life (albeit significantly brief). The payoff comes when Kairi, with the answer Mordred secretly searches a lifetime and beyond for figured out, gives his partner a hint in a wonderful exchange (conversation goes Kairi, Mordred, Kairi etc).
“I’ve got a suggestion, if you’re willing to hear it.”
“What is it?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious you’re going to have to confront your old man sooner or later.”
“...Are you serious?”
“From what I understand you feel hatred and admiration towards him.”
“Are you frickin’ kidding me?! I don’t have admir-”
“However, all those conflicting feelings stem from you following in his footsteps. If you wanna surpass him, analyze him. Your father, mankind as a whole, and yourself.”
It’s from this conversation that when the chips are down, Mordred finds the resolve to fight nobally on her last legs and confirm what she knew all along. All she wanted to do was make things easier for her father, and live to be as successful as the noble king. It was only when these flames of desire to help her own hero were not only proven to be fruitless, but the acknowledgement for her entire reason for being was unrequited, that the cracks in her heart tore open and those same flames that drove her took over.
I think these inner conflicts are beautiful in characters, and without them, we get those sort of “Superman” like characters people are so disinterested in, or just forgetful heroes- they aren’t flawed, they don’t have emotions that steer them outside of what we would traditionally call “heroic”. A huge complaint the Fate series gets is that the ideologies of the heroes are incredibly flawed, and I am inclined to agree with it. However, a character like Mordred gives an antihero into the mix and elevates what works for the medium as well as avoid the pitfalls of the “perfect hero” arguments. She is short tempered, driven by a fire of rage and a broken heart, and yet she has a huge heart and has a very realistic reason for her actions (both the good and the bad). If the character didn’t have heart, then something like a broken heart driving such rage as the turn on the Round Table wouldn’t stick. Being cast away along with the youth of Britton wouldn’t be the same. This is what makes a memorable character. An antihero shouldn’t be an edgy comic book character that sometimes teams up with the flawless heroes, or even a villian that has a tragic backstory, but rather what reality would have a hero be.
I’ve been ridiculed for months about my affinity for the character, but that’s where it stands: Mordred is an example of how to construct a real hero. Flawed, emotionally charged, and yet a beating heart.