“Girls Make Better Kings”: Queer YA Literature Saves Camelot
Keith C. Russo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 soupçon 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
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 whow 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
Lamarack stays in the past, as their brother, Val, jokes, “to start humanity’s first GSA” (SitS 157). 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, “
Keith C. RussoIndependent Scholar