An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 1, 2020

Russo: 'Girls Make Better Kings'


“Girls Make Better Kings”: Queer YA Literature Saves Camelot


Keith C. Russo (


The duology Once & Future and Sword in the Stars stands as a lamppost between many worlds, illuminating the crossroads of a never-ending loop of neomedieval reiterations of the Arthurian legend, and by whose light the reader witnesses the authors champion teenagers of every LGBTQAIP+ type, joust at hyper-capitalism and racial genocide, and even venture into combatting ableism. Medieval literature is perceptible in the distant landscape while we peer into twenty-first century young adult literature, warmed by the conscious perception of deja vu winking at those that already know other medievalisms and medieval texts. Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy negotiate their position within a multiplicity of medievalisms to construct a more equitable version of Arthur. Simultaneously and in a myriad of ways, this innovation becomes the medieval, allowing a reader’s imaginations to replace history and legend. Indeed, the novels insist that the Arthurian legends must be rewritten for each new age in order to disrupt the Arthurian canon as a means to preserve it.


Initially set in our future, in which humanity has destroyed Earth and lives among the stars, the books belong to the space fantasy young adult section. But because Arthurian medievalisms must discourse with a hundred other versions, even as they continue the medieval process of reproducing its stories by using established auctoritas and infusing them with a new spark, it becomes useful to investigate the provenance of this medievalism by reading backward through the most recent versions in the play of reiterations. While one might be tempted to think of Arthurian space fantasy as C.S. Lewis’s moralistic re-envisioning of the Fisher King story, That Hideous Strength, or as Camelot 3000, the erstwhile Arthurian DC Comic series, these books come closer to Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and the Adventures of Merlin television series in their bildungsroman of Merlin and Arthur. The Mists of Avalon’s determined protest against masculinist heteronormativity in Arthuriana permeates the books with more than a soup├žon of Monty Python and the Holy Grail because metafictional hilarity substitutes our tolerant future for the Middle Ages when the teenaged space-knights become the legendary characters. However, Once & Future is more deeply indebted to T.H. White, whom Capetta and McCarthy thank in the Acknowledgements of the first book for “showing us that the Arthurian legend could be high-spirited, funny, sad, and resistance literature” (Once & Future 351). They are also a direct reaction against recent depictions, like when Cory McCarthy says in an interview, “Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur was the last straw” in the shelving of a long-time desire “to do a girl King Arthur.” It is not difficult to understand why the former hyper-masculine version would be answered by the “rainbow knights,” who seek to dismantle the prejudices of our own time and the Middles Ages.


The demolition begins with the co-protagonist, Ari Azar—written by McCarthy while Capetta wrote Merlin’s chapters—is a brown-skinned teenage girl orphaned from the quarantined world of Ketch and adopted by two mothers and their son, Kay. She is also the forty-second incarnation of the quondam et futurus rex because she is inhabited by the spirit of King Arthur. The device of the soul of Arthur cyclically repeating a version of the tragedy of le Morte Darthur is not more disruptive than any other contemporary medievalisms, until we consider that Arthur has chosen a girl in a future that is tolerant of all relationships between people. Ari meets her cohort—a “panoply of queerness” that reflects the reality of the authors—as children prior to the opening of the novels on the planet of Lionel, a global medieval faire that features a knight camp.  Guinevere, queen of Lionel when the novels open, and Ari marry and explicitly consummate it for more than just political reasons. The other post-medieval “knights” are Val, short for Percival, a Black genderfluid femboy, known by he/him, whose brother Lamarak identifies as non-binary, preferring the pronouns they/them. Kay is the only cis-gendered heterosexual character, and Jordan is an asexual female knight sworn to protect Gwen from all harm. Merlin, the other co-protagonist—who has been aging backwards from the proto-typical old wizard in the time of Camelot to a hormonal teenager in the future—attempts in every “cycle” or generation to “Find Arthur / Train Arthur / Nudge Arthur onto the nearest throne” and “[d]efeat the greatest evil in the world and Unite all of mankind” (O&F 24). As always, Merlin is trying to encourage Arthur to be the perfect king. But in this version, the humanist progressivism of White is adapted to the authors’ message of inclusivity and tolerance of people of all orientations and identities. as well as depicting displaced refugees, non-patriarchal families, and the differently abled. Unsurprisingly, Merlin is the link between the past, our present, and the future. 


Capetta and McCarthy retain Merlin as the authorial avatar, like White, Stewart, Malory, and authors as far back as Geoffrey of Monmouth, exploring the agendae of the moment and structuring the temporality of the narrative through him. The revision from canon versions is that this Merlin is simultaneously the reader’s avatar, too. Merlin makes several gendering mistakes early in Once & Future, like when he finds out Lamarak is present in this cycle of Arthur, Merlin refers to this knight as “he.” Kay corrects Merlin: “Lam is fluid. They,” to which Merlin apologizes, saying, “I come from a society with a history of gender assumptions based on physical markers, aesthetics…et cetera” (O&F 42). Contemporary readers uninitiated in the language of inclusive identities have a representative by which the audience might be tutored, much like White’s Wart. Merlin begins as inept student of gender identity and interaction but explores his love and attraction for Val throughout the duology. Proving Jes Battis correct that “magic is always gendered, sometimes transgendered” in young adult fantasy, Merlin’s elaborate magical shield around the planet Lionel—which is repelling the Evil Empire of hyper capitalism, the Mercer Corporation—collapses when he resists the urge to kiss Val in O&F. Merlin is only fulfilled when he expresses his desire for Val, linking Merlin to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s idea of a “gay child” who is “born backward” from the moment of their straight self’s death, which is usually after childhood. Merlin is always depicted in comparable temporal anomalies, but now it signifies his true self being set free rather than being entrapped in a cave by heterosexual romantic desire. Furthermore, the storyline reveals that his magic is also what makes him age backwards, until he becomes a teenager struggling with his sexual curiosity. Maria Sachiko Cecire unites all Queer theories in children’s fantasy by demonstrating the link between Bond’s and Carolyn Dinshaw’s ideas, saying “how amateurs’ promiscuous pairings of past and present can buck the expectations of linear temporality and produce queer alternatives.” The medievalism either works to imitate or disrupt the previous versions, but usually is reacting against the most recent medievalisms that deal in the same subject matter and the authentically pre-modern material. And, instead of recapitulating the tragedy of Camelot, through Merlin’s overlap between queerness, magic, and time, the authors have, I believe unwittingly, revived Merlin Silvestris as well as Merlin Ambrosius, who appears to sort out gender identities and social norms in the Roman de Silence.


In that poem, patriarchal avarice disinherits women, resulting in Cador using heteronormative marriage as a way to bully Eufemie into raising their female child as a male heir, saying, “Since my sweet, our flesh is one, /let our will be one as well” (Roche-Mahdi 1721-2). Because Cador “restrains” her noble female Nature and insists on mis-gendering his progeny, she is literally silenced in every agentive way, except being the greatest of knights. While the allegorical Nature of Silence is an essentialism that contemporary gender theory rejects, denying Silence’s true self makes her life miserable and awkward, culminating in a rape accusation that can only be rectified by Merlin. Silence is only able to catch him because she is a chaste woman, disproving the allegations by Queen Eufemme. But beyond this revelation, Merlin laughs at King Evan because he is fooled by the wife’s accusation when her illicit lover is dressed as a nun by which to tryst with her. He also reveals Silence’s true sex saying, “Only the clothes are masculine” (6537). This is the laughing Merlin, descended from the Vita Merlini, who is the arbiter of the truth of a situation, usually as the author employs dramatic irony. In Monmouth’s work, Merlin laughs at Rhydderch for being cuckolded by his wife, Ganeida. In an attempt to discredit the accusations, she dresses a boy up as a girl so that he will mispredict the boy’s death. As in the Vita, a bound feral Merlin in Silence laughs at a king dishonored by a faithless queen and ridicules judging people by their clothes. The irony of transvestite chicanery disappears in Merlin’s gaze. Unfortunately, Maistre Heldris uses Silence’s new-found correct assignment of gender to perfunctorily force the character into a heteronormative marriage. Merlin reestablishes patriarchal “nature” over nurture in Silence, but he proves to an audience conditioned to be receptive by the Capetta’s and McCarthy’s encouraging development of the Silvestris that Nature is the freedom to be “born this way.”


Similarly, when the rainbow knights travel through time to medieval “Camelot,” they are forced into a binary system of genders and heteronormativity and into the roles of the Arthurian canon, all of which is mostly expressed through their clothes. Ari is forced to become Lancelot, complete with breaking the first King Arthur’s heart by publicly courting Gweneviere, the one from the future posing as the legendary queen. The medievalism replaces the medieval legend when young Merlin realizes that Ari and Gwen “were the original love story of the Western canon, two girls from the future hidden in the folds of the past” (Sword in the Stars 86). While perhaps overstating the case for the primacy of Lancelot and Gweneviere, hiding their genders confirms Jody Norton’s thoughts that “Children are harmed by the male and female stereotypes developed in traditional literature,” especially when they are taught to suppress their own.  Ari asks Lam at one point in the second book: “how are you doing with the constant misgendering?” to which the non-binary character replies, “It’s breaking me.” However, Lamarack finds solace in counseling a girl named Roran who he tells Ari: “He’s trans. But he doesn’t know that word or that there are so many more like him. Or that one day someone like him won’t be stuffed into a dress, made to feel like he’s come out all wrong….I did get to give Roran hope—which fills me with joy” (SitS 59). Lamarack stays in the past, as their brother, Val, jokes, “to start humanity’s first GSA” (SitS 157). The reason Capetta and McCarthy chose to reinvent Camelot is because “When we go to schools: there are GSAs of queer kids; there are only token characters in most books in young adult” genre and the Round Table is “western civilization’s first fictive nod to equality.” Young adult Arthurian fantasy allows a space for inclusivity, despite the genre’s borrowing from two canons that stifled gender choice and identity as well as the agency of female characters. This medievalism replicates medieval authorship by adapting the story to the contemporary needs, but it also knowingly plays with the Arthuriana to reconstruct it into a simulacrum of past, present, and perhaps future.


The ending reconciles the two Merlin problem first raised by Gerald of Wales, completes the epicycle of medievalism continually replacing the medieval, and uses Cher’s “If I could Turn back Time” to defeat Nimue’s attempt to prevent the fulfilling of the quest. Completing the cycle of replacement, Merlin fashions a new sword named Kairos for Ari when they return to the future. The sword is in an amusement park on Earth’s moon called CAMELOT, Mercer’s false corporate medievalism—recalling Disney World’s Sword in the Stone in the Magic Kingdom—and can only be drawn by Ari and Gwen together, united and free to express their love. In an epilogue, the authors’ voices can be heard in the characters, when a happily queer Merlin explores the library on Ketch, which contains a collection of Arthuriana medievalisms curated by Val. He thinks, “the stories were never just a string of pretty words on a page or attractive strangers on a screen. They climbed inside your head, reordered things. Tore up parts of you by the roots and planted new ideas. Magic, really” (SitS 344). Merlin and the others being proud of their true identities is the magic that changes the world, defeats evil, and rehabilitates the aspects of the Arthurian legend that we now find problematic. It seems that love is the true power of Camelot, the power that compels authors like Capetta and McCarthy to repeatedly reimagine the legends and make them relevant to each era.


Keith C. Russo

Independent Scholar