King Arthur and the Seven Deadly Sinsby Rebecca Silverman,
Like many Romantic proto-Goth teenage girls in the 1990s, I was in love with Marion Zimmer Bradley's Arthurian fantasy novel The Mists of Avalon. Primed by a generation of girls who had not only read but seen Anne Shirley pretend to be The Lady of Shallott, it was the book that spawned a thousand teenage feminist awakenings and myriad obsessions with Arthurian lore, and my fascination with the court of King Arthur, its people, and its places has survived to this day. King Arthur stories turn up in the strangest places, and ever since the start of my fascination, I have found myself looking for them. One of the odder places I've found the legend is Nakaba Suzuki's manga-turned-anime The Seven Deadly Sins. Sure, we all noticed that there's an Arthur and a Merlin running around Suzuki's kingdom of Britannia, but when you start to look beneath the surface, the entire story is actually filled with references to the Once and Future King...or at least, those who came before him in the legends. So grab your lances and tie on your favors and come with me in exploring the myths behind the manga. As a note, I'm not going to go into the more common names, so no Arthur or Merlin in this article. Also keep in mind that this is a very brief overview, so if anyone has any additional insights, please don't hesitate to share them in the forum.
Elizabeth is probably the easiest reference to miss – if you go back into British history, there are numerous Elizabeths floating around; most people think of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. But if you go even further back into the not-quite-real time of Arthurian legend, we find more Elizabeths: most notably the Princess of Cornwall. This Elizabeth was King Mark's sister, and since there's some evidence to suggest that Mark was a real Cornish ruler in the 6th century, she may well have existed too, albeit not as a waitress at the Boar Hat. Elizabeth didn't stay in Cornwall, however: she married the King of Liones and became the mother of one of Medieval literature's favorite tragic heroes, Tristan. And that guy she married? Well his name was...
That's right, romantics who favor this pairing, in Arthurian legend Elizabeth marries Meliodas. Rather than being a military captain, however, he's the king of the land of Liones and the father of Tristan, who would later run off with his aunt Isolde. He was apparently something of a difficult man, and when Elizabeth died, he didn't waste any time marrying a Breton princess. He at some point may have had an illegitimate son with the Queen of Scotland, also named Meliodas, because apparently subtly wasn't the Queen's thing. (Though all of these ladies could tie in with Meliodas' groping.) That Meliodas was set adrift and later rescued and raised by the famous Lady of the Lake, and I couldn't say for certain which one Suzuki's character is more based on. In either case, both are tied to the kingdom of Liones in one way or another, which is important because it is likely a form of the name Lyonesse. Lyonesse is one of the more romantic parts of Arthurian myth, a sunken kingdom off the coast of Cornwall that is said to have been submerged by Merlin's ghost when Mordred's army tried to take refuge there. Historically there is a theory that the Scillies were once a single island and that the portion that was washed away was Lyonesse, but I prefer the myth that says that when the tide is changing and the day is silent, you can hear the drowned church bells of Lyonesse tolling from beneath the waves.
Either way, it doesn't look good for Elizabeth's homeland in the story, does it?
Of course, Elizabeth and Meliodas aren't the only characters in The Seven Deadly Sins who will go on to become the parents of some of King Arthur's contemporaries. That honor also goes to
Okay, raise your hand if you've heard of Lancelot. That's right, the hotshot knight who had an affair with Arthur's wife Guinevere and, if some scholars are to be believed, replaced Sir Gawain in later Medieval stories. Well, Ban, King of Benwick, was his father. In the early days of Arthur's rule, Ban helped him to secure his place as the King of the Britons. As you can see from the picture, he wasn't particularly muscular or immortal, but he was a good guy, a staunch defender of Arthur's right to rule and a devoted husband to his wife (you guessed it) Elaine. Or was he? Some stories say that he had an illegitimate son named Ector and that it was when his castle was destroyed that he died of a broken heart, so there's definitely some literary wiggle room here. Much more interestingly, and to the point of Suzuki's interpretation of the character, there's some suggestion that he's less an Arthurian figure and more a corruption of the Celtic god Bran, who, although his body died in battle, remained semi-alive in that his head continued to speak after being removed from his corpse. This fits in a little better with The Seven Deadly Sins, as does the association with the Irish word for white, bán – Suzuki's version of the character has that white hair and pale skin to go with his immortality, suggesting that the Fox Sin of Greed owes his existence to both King Ban and the Irish god Bran.
He is not, however, the only character in The Seven Deadly Sins to be an amalgamation of multiple legendary people. Probably the character with the most sources would be his beloved
In The Seven Deadly Sins, Elaine is the sister of King, a fairy princess in charge of guarding both the Fountain of Youth and the entire forest it nourishes. In Arthurian legend, she's roughly 900 different people and arguably the most popular early Medieval woman's name ever. One Elaine, as I said before, was the wife of King Ban and the mother of Sir Lancelot, but probably the most famous one, and the Elaine Suzuki's is based on, is Elaine of Astolat, better known as The Lady of Shallott. This Elaine was sequestered in a tower, where she spent her time weaving tapestries, seeing the outside world only through the mirror on the underside of her loom, which also reflected the window behind her. (Tapestry patterns only show up on the part of the weaving that's been wound around to the underneath, so a mirror is the only way to see if what you're weaving is coming out right.) Through this mirror she saw the gorgeous knight Lancelot, fell in love with him, and basically committed suicide by leaving her tower to go see him at Camelot. We can see this influence in The Seven Deadly Sins' Elaine in that she's trapped in what is basically a tower guarding both the fountain and the forest, and it is love that eventually spells her doom – she dies so that Ban will live, giving up her life to prove her love. Fortunately for her, Ban is a nicer guy than Lancelot, who, according to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, just comments that she's pretty. Interestingly enough, Tennyson also has people refer to the Lady as “the fairy,” which is quite literal in Suzuki's version. Elaine also owes a little something to the Grail Maiden, who is yet another Elaine in Arthurian legend, who, very simply, protected the Holy Grail. This is probably the easiest link to see, since the Fountain of Youth is conveniently contained in an overflowing grail-like object...and when Elaine ceases to guard it, she dies.
Basically, being named “Elaine” in an Arthurian story is never a good sign.
It's a little better, however, if you're the king of the fairies, who, I feel obliged to mention, does not have a sister named Elaine anywhere in Arthurian myth. Most people are more familiar with the fairy king who goes by the name Oberon, but he's not the only fey ruler in the Arthurian legends, although he does have a role in some of the stories. No, the fairy king here is known alternatively as Harlequin or Hellekin (sometimes spelled “Hellequin”), and he's Morgan le Fey's lover as well as the leader of the Wild Hunt. We'll get to Morgan in a moment, but with King in the series, it's that Wild Hunt part that's important. The Wild Hunt, you see, is a group of fair folk who ride at night, chasing, depending on which story you read, the souls of the damned, those who have wronged the fairies, or any poor soul who crosses their path. This links to King because the Wild Hunt doesn't ride on the ground – they fly through the air on their enchanted steeds, unrelenting. And unless they choose to let their quarry go, the unfortunates will be chased by the Wild Hunt forever. We can see this in The Seven Deadly Sins with King's pursuit of Ban – Ban has, in King's mind, wronged the fairy court, and so King will pursue him until he is dead, which in Ban's case is something along the lines of forever. Even King's floating pillow can be seen as a reference to the horse Hellekin rides in the Hunt, as it allows him to fly through the air. (It's actually named after one of King Arthur's swords, though.) Technically King does give up his pursuit of Ban, but that's in the myth too – sometimes, the Wild Hunt will allow someone to escape, proving that maybe they aren't totally without compassion.
And speaking of compassion, most of King's seems to come out around Diane, the giantess he's madly in love with. Now obviously the go-to explanation here for most people is going to be the Roman Diana, goddess of the hunt (Artemis in Greek mythology), but there is actually a Diane in the Arthurian mythology who is a better fit. She's the goddess of the wood and mother of Vivianne, who is also known as Nimue. Diane (and Nimue) are associated with Rhiannon: in one myth she “demonstrates the powers of a giant” by carrying people and horses. All of these goddess references are even further compounded when Diane takes the name “Matrona” during the tournament in episodes 9 – 11: Matrona, or Modron, is an early form of Morgan, as in Morgan le Fay. She's a nature goddess, which ties in with Diane in the series sleeping the woods and having the powers of the earth, and in the earliest King Arthur stories she's a mystical, benevolent enchantress who takes the wounded King Arthur after his final battle. She's also, if you remember, the lover of Hellekin, the fairy king.
Now, in the show Diane remarks that she chose the name “Matrona” after someone she used to know, which could imply that she'll end up being a separate character entirely. But there are enough links between Suzuki's Diane and Matrona herself that maybe we can dream that King will get his giant in the end.
The final Sin we meet in the first season of the anime, and the eleven graphic novels of the manga available in English as of this writing, is Gowther, because most of you already know who Merlin is. Gowther is one of the more interesting translations from the legends, actually: he's a knight who inherited both Good and Evil from his parents and must cope with the two warring inside of him for mastery. (Basically he's the human embodiment of the literary term “psychomachy.”) In The Seven Deadly Sins, Gowther appears to have no understanding of basic human emotions or interactions, seeming totally blank, as he might be if he contained two opposite forces which might then cancel each other out. His struggles to understand people could also be seen as his internal difficulties in legend, or at least a result of them: he's so busy trying to get himself sorted out that he has had limited opportunities to figure out other people. It may be a stretch; but then, Gowther is one of the most obscure of Suzuki's picks, followed only by Escanor, the final sin we haven't met yet and who is essentially the male version of “Elaine” - there are tons of guys named “Escanor” peppering Arthurian mythology.
And there you have it – the legends behind the shounen action series. Isn't it funny how an old middle/high school fascination can resurface later on in life in a totally different form? It certainly lends some credence to the idea that there are only so many stories and we just keep retelling them. I'm not sure how the T. H. White would have felt about this new interpretation of the King Arthur story (I'm pretty sure Thomas Malory would approve), but I have to say that knowing the sources always makes me enjoy the story even more. I hope it does for you too, and don't forget to help fill in any gaps in the comments!
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