Le Morte dArthur
Brief Analytical Essay: The Fall of the Round Table and English Society
What can the fall of the Round Table tell us about Malory’s view of English society and politics in the 15th century? Malory views the nature of the knight’s loyalties as destructive forces in themselves. Malory’s version of the King Arthur legend differs greatly from previous entries. The tale of the Round Table is given a more gritty and realistic telling. There is betrayal, adultery, blood feuds, among many other violent events described in visceral detail. The characters are also driven by complex motivations. There is greed, lust and revenge. Friends fight friends, brothers kill brothers, and lovers kill lovers. It bears a foreboding atmosphere well-suited for the tragedies that occur within the tale. All of these themes reflect the woe that England experienced during the War of the Roses. The civil war between England’s House of Lancaster and House of York marred the society and politics of 15th century England. It is a time of great uncertainty where loyalties are strained and betrayal is rife among lords in their desperate plays for power and prestige. The role of the knight in this chaotic period is also greatly challenged and redefined. Knights are forced to contradict their chivalric values by the turbulent political landscape as alliances are built and destroyed. The presence of these troubling events is reflected within Arthur’s own court in Malory’s works. In fact, Malory’s tales could be described as an allegory for the War of the Roses itself. The Knights of the Round Table must face these same issues concerning loyalty in The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere and The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur Saunz Guerdon with desolate results. The knightly virtues of loyalty to love, king, and knightly brotherhood become a source of great tension for the knights. Often the loyalties come into conflict with one another. In many ways the fall of the Round Table is used to make a commentary on the destructive force of the knight’s loyalties during the War of the Roses.The loyalty to love is particularly disruptive to Lancelot in the The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere. In the books first chapter, Poisoned Apple, Lancelot has just returned from the quest for the Holy Grail in this part of Malory’s tales. After the many tribulations of that quest and the many near deaths, Lancelot makes it back to Arthur’s castle. He realizes that his affair with Queen Guinevere held him back in his quest for the Holy Grail. “ And if that I had nat had my prevy thoughtis to return to youre love as I do, I had sene as grete mysteryes as ever saw my sonne sir Galahad, Percivale, other sir Bors” (Malory, Book 1, Lines 36-39). Aggravayne and Mordred are of particular concern to Lancelot. He tells Queen Guinevere that he fears dishonor, shame, and punishment for her if they continue the affair. Of course Guinevere decides to kick him out of the court. Here Lancelot is forced to contradict his knightly values. Lancelot truly loves Guinevere and he is loyal to her but in this case, he is forced to leave Guinevere for the sake of his honor as well as Guinevere’s honor. He must forsake loyalty to Guinevere to keep his loyalty to his own knighthood. As a result of this choice Lancelot compromises his position as a knight in King Arthur’s court. Lancelot is the ideal knight in this tale. The greatest knight in the world and he still gets kicked out of the court. Lancelot’s loyalty to the knightly code (and maybe fear of dishonor) and disloyalty to love loses him his spot on the Round Table. In previous tales, such as Chretien de Troyes Knight of the Cart, Lancelot chose to openly dishonor himself by riding in a cart because of his great love for Guinevere. Lancelot was completely guided by his love for Guinevere. Now, Lancelot possesses a different attitude, one driven towards preserving honor and the pursuit of further honor. Lancelot clearly mentions that had he not been so concerned with thinking of Guinevere, he could have succeeded in finding the Holy Grail. The tension between Lancelot in defending his love for Guinevere and Lancelot’s defense of his own honor is an important contrast from earlier Arthurian tales where both love and honor are conjoined. The tension between loyalty to love and pursuit of honor is complicated in Malory’s works to resemble real life. Not all quests for honor will gain love and love will not always gain prestige for the respective knight.Another example of tension in loyalty is the loyalty to king. This is one of the major virtues of the knight stretching back all the way to the beginning of the Arthurian legends. All knights are completely loyal to King Arthur. This idea changes significantly in Malory’s tales. King Arthur is treated on a level equal to the knights. Of course The Round Table is supposed to be a place where there knights are equal to their king but in this tale the knights are able to charge crimes against Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, and King Arthur must go along. This is the case in Poisoned Apple. After banishing Lancelot, Queen Guinevere hosts a dinner for the Knights of the Round Table. At the dinner, one of the knights, Sir Pynell, decides to get revenge on Sir Gawain for the murder of Sir Lamerock. He pursues this goal by poisoning the fruit set up for Gawain. Patrise eats of the pieces of fruit and dies. As a result of this the whole Round Table blames Guinevere for his death. They also come to believe that Guinevere is trying to kill Gawain. Sir Mador, Sir Patrice’s cousin, makes a case against Queen Guinevere and demands justice. Arthur doesn’t absolve the charge, and he doesn’t kill Mador however. He says that he would defend Guinevere but he must remain impartial as king and so grants Mador his case. It is a trial by battle and if Guinevere is unable to find a knight to fight for her, she will “brente” at the stake. King Arthur tells Guinevere to talk to Sir Bors when it is revealed that Sir Lancelot, the knight who would have fought for her, has been banished. Sir Bors is reluctant at first but concedes when King Arthur tells him to defend Guinevere. What is interesting about this exchange is that King Arthur has to point blank ask Sir Bors to defend his wife. This is different from previous entries. Knights would clamor to defend the Queen in earlier tales but now they act as if they wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole. Indeed Sir Bors tells King Arthur that if he defends Queen Guinevere, his brother knights will be angry. At this point loyalty to knightly brotherhood directly takes precedent over any loyalty to the King. This situation illustrates how loyalty to brother knights would often contradict or supersede loyalty to King and Queen. The knights are all mad at Guinevere and hold her responsible for Patrise’s death. They even go so far as to call her a “destroyer of good knights” (Malory, Book 1, lines 13-14). And yet none of the knights consider the possibility that the poisoning could be devised by one of their own. No one pays attention to the fact that the culprit might be the knight whose brother was slain by Gawain. It doesn’t even cross their minds. This is important to 15th century society because of how the kingship has become corrupted. The country is divided into warring factions, it makes sense that knights would start to distrust royalty and question that loyalty. Knights are forced to take a side that could lead to their execution. So the conflicted loyalty in “Poisoned Apple” makes plenty of sense.Loyalty to one’s knightly brother is also a great cause for tensions in Malory’s King Arthur. In the “Poisoned Apple”, the idea of knightly brotherhood almost brings about Queen Guinevere’s death. The poisoning of Sir Patrise is blamed upon Queen Guinevere completely by the Knights of the Round Table. They alienate her and none are willing to defend her against Sir Mador’s charge. When Sir Bors meets with the other knights, they are angry with him that he would consider defending Queen Guinevere. Even after explaining the situation and defending her as a “maintainer of good knights”, there are still knights who are angry with the idea. This is consistent in 15th century society because knights have devolved into roving bands of mercenaries and indeed the only people they can trust and remain truly loyal to is each other. There was no telling which alliance they would need to join. It was a part of self-preservation. But even their loyalty to each other is tested in the Malory tales. Many Knights of the Round Table bear grudges against one another as the case was with Pynell plot to kill Gawain with poisoned fruit.While the tale of King Arthur commonly depicts the strong bonds of loyalty to brotherhood, lordship and love, Malory puts these ideas in opposition during the fall of the Round Table. Why does he do so? It illustrates disillusionment with the ideals represented by the Arthurian legends. The War of the Roses strained everyone’s loyalty and in many cases the loyalties prove destructive to the knight. Loyalty to one’s love made the knight weak and made them a target. The knight’s loyalty to their king or lord was regarded with anxiety because one never knew whether they would be betrayed by their lord. Even the solace of knightly brotherhood is sullied by common betrayal. The fall of the Round Table represents a wakeup call to England. The message is that loyalty is fleeting.Works CitedLuminarium. 18 May 2010. Web. 4 November 2012.Malory, Sir Thomas. Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print.
Magic in Malory’s Arthurian Tales
Sir Thomas Malory’s masterpiece version of the Arthurian tales captures the spirit of the classic tales and brings something new to the heart of the stories. An important element in the traditional Arthurian legends is the presence of magic and sorcery. Ideally, magic could coexist peacefully with the real world, used as a means of benevolent action. This ideal is crushed, however, when most of the magic used throughout Malory is wielded in sinister ways with limited purposes. Sir Thomas Malory’s use of magic in his adaptation of the tales of Arthur is very different than any other version of the story. Although these powers exist in Malory’s retelling of the tales, magic is limited to pragmatic ends. While previous installments of the great Arthurian tales recognize magic as an otherworldly presence, magic in Malory is an accepted element in the Arthurian world, with no real sense of wonder. The character of Merlin is an example of how magic could realistically coexist with the Arthurian world. Merlin is wise and experienced from his years as a sorcerer, but he is far from perfect. Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. says of Merlin, “Neither devil, nor man, nor god, Merlin wears the masks of all three. He is equally capable of the miraculous feats of heroes and gods, or the undignified failings of devils and men. Empowered with extraordinary perceptions, he is also enfeebled, as in his lust for Nynyve, with weaknesses common to men” (Fritscher 3). Although Merlin is “popularly conceived as the epitome of the supernatural” (Fritscher 3), Merlin is also part human, which is where Malory ties a believable amount of reality into the story. Merlin’s supernatural nature does not equal a heavenly nature. Although we know him to be wise and cunning, he is as flawed as any fully human character in the stories. For example, he blindly teaches Nynyve all that he knows, and she traps him a cave sealed with a magic stone. Although Merlin knew that he would die by being buried alive, he is powerless to stop it, and his own magic is useless in attempting to free himself from his grave. Merlin’s story serves to show how magic, as an ideal element that may have done great good in the Arthurian world, has failed. While Merlin is certainly the most popular magical character in the Arthurian tales, other characters in Le Morte D’Arthur also have mystic powers. Merlin, who was undeniably an ally of King Arthur, departs early in the story, leaving way for characters such as Morgan la Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Nynyve to be the main magical personalities. According to Jack Fritscher, Morgan la Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Nynyve are three highly supernatural characters. Each associate, for good or ill, with a particular character: Morgan with Arthur, the Lady with Lancelot, Nynyve with Merlin (Fritscher 3), who is the agent of Merlin’s demise. Myra Olstead of Folklore magazine says of these women: “Arthurian enchantresses generally react only to specific insults, and are seldom jealous of a mortal maiden’s beauty unless she interferes with their own designs. Two enchantresses rarely, if ever, work a single enchantment because an enchantress is usually seeking a highly personal result: the love of a knight, or the death or discomfiture of some political figure in order to advance the status or fortunes of her own paramour” (Olstead 49). Although the women of Le Morte D’Arthur are cunning and sinister in their use of magic, their use of magic is for personal purposes, and is not always successful. Nynyve and Morgan le Fay initially have their own agendas, but eventually reconcile to being allied to King Arthur. Morgan le Fay is generally motivated by her attempt to assist one of her lovers, as shown in the theft of Excalibur for her lover Accolon, yet she appears on the boat that bears Arthur to Avalon. Nynyve uses her magic to a fatal end for Merlin, yet she develops into a loyal ally and servant of the king later in the story despite her ruthless disposal of Merlin. Ideals and reality tie into this aspect of the story in a very unique way. Jack Fritscher says that “Malory constantly opted for a realistic background instead of the fairytale settings of his sources” (3). Although the reason that Malory chose this kind of setting was never explicitly stated by Malory himself, one can conjecture that perhaps the reason Malory decided to portray a realistic background over the fairy world setting is that Malory wanted his readers, and perhaps himself, to believe that these events did occur in our world, just in a different era. Choosing to select a realistic background meant the inevitable reduction of the power and influence of magic, yet by limiting magic’s role in Arthur’s world, Malory essentially created a world where magic and common lives could coexist harmoniously, each with their own roles in the world, making the arrangement entirely realistic. In Malory’s Arthurian world, magic is not particularly miraculous or wondrous to the characters. As previously stated, the magic is limited in uses and purposes, and usually employed in mischievous ways. Despite these facts, it would be inaccurate to assume that Malory’s ideal world is one completely devoid of magic. Yet we must acknowledge simultaneously that Malory makes a point of demonstrating the damage that is done by the use of magic – Uther’s seduction of Igraine, Nynyve’s termination of Merlin, etc. Regardless of the misuse of supernatural powers, Malory does not denounce them altogether. The point that can be drawn from the study of magic in Le Morte D’Arthur is that magic, like any weapon, is not inherently evil or good, but depends on its user to determine the outcome. While Morgan has her mischief and Nynyve her moments of mercilessness, both women come to be respected and honored ladies. Malory’s ideal world is one in which magic coexists with all other elements in the world harmoniously, and is used to good and helpful purposes. For example, when Arthur departs to Avalon to await the day of his return, magic surrounds his leaving. Yet here, as King Arthur makes his final exit from the world and into legend, there is no hint of suspicion, no ominous air of impending danger, only a bittersweet end to the great king. This is the final glimpse of an ideal world. No sooner have we finally glimpsed the marriage of an ideal with reality that we see it disappear with Arthur, into the mists, out of our world, and into legend. Holbrook, S. E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum 53.4 (1978): 761-777. Fritscher Ph.D, Jack. When Malory met Arthur 1 Jan 1967. Loyola University Library, Chicago IL. 1-3. http://www.jackfritscher.com/NonFiction/Malory%20Met%20Arthur/MortDarthur.html
Evolution of the Modern Heroic Archetype
The evolution of the tragic heroic archetype in post-roman literature can be traced from one of the most well known of medieval heroes, King Arthur of Camelot, to such fictional creations as Aragorn, from Tolkien’s twentieth century masterwork The Lord of the Rings. The definition of a tragic hero is generally accepted as pertaining to characters who are morally good, but who contain a ‘tragic’ flaw that is responsible for their defeat. Taken from the Aristotelian definitions which define good tragedy on a classical Greek scale, these general terms are easily applied to the Arthurian myths and their modern heirs. The question of whether or not Arthur was a real person in Britain’s stormy history must be addressed prior to assessing the validity of his status as a tragic hero. While it does not affect the presentation of the myths and the points in them which pertain to this analyses, it is a controversy which includes the very nature of the myths themselves, streamlining them into either exaggerated supernatural versions of real events, or the mythos of a legendary pagan god-king. Several points as presented in classical Arthurian mythology are debatable in the simplest of manners – temporal possibility. The traditional “knight in shining armor” that is presented as the model for both Arthur and his knights of the round table, was not present in the world until well into what are now known as the middle ages. The use of splint, chain, and especially plate mail did not come into common use until the eleventh and twelfth century, and plate mail was cumbersome and awkward for knights in the saddle until developments in design and construction allowed for greater dexterity and range of motion in the mid fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. While assorted forms of chain mail and leather armor had been in use since the period of classical Greece, these forms of armor did not reach Britain until the mid-twelfth century; Roman legionnaires wore splint and chain mail armor, but it was a mark of the Empire and was refused by the native Britons despite the advantages it offered in combat. Historians have localized the possible time periods in which Arthur could have lived, based on historical records from medieval times, as well as the earliest known references to Arthur’s mythology. If Arthur lived, it was most likely between the fourth and sixth centuries, as the King of a tribe or group of tribes of Britons, half a millennium from the time of the knight in armor. While the possibility of the romanticizing of medieval scholars provides impetus that disregards such impossibilities, it has been the gradual conclusion of most historians that no such person with a life of such apparent importance in local British history ever existed. It is at the point of determining that Arthur is indeed a purely mythological figure where the evolution of an entire mythos can be said to begin. Tales of the sword Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake, Morgan Le Fay, Merlin, and the isle of Avalon abound in classical and modern works, reinterpreted, renamed, and presented in every fictional format from televised series to bedtime storybooks. But all of them wind inextricably around one man. From his mythology, Arthur appears to be the most perfectly chivalrous of knights, able to win both the love of the shy Guinevere and any military battle, no matter how difficult. Indeed, Arthur represents all that was considered good and noble in any gentleman of the era in which his myths first began to become standard fictional material, through the scholarly interest and writings of Sir Thomas Malory. He was an English nobleman with a slightly stained reputation, but excellent skills in compilation and revision, as evidenced by his Le Morte D’Arthur, perhaps the most celebrated of classical Arthurian works. Finished in the ninth year of King Edward IV (therefore between March 4th of 1469 and 1470), Le Morte D’Arthur chronicles the events of Arthur’s life, from the union of his parents due to the magical trickery of Merlin, through his claiming of the throne of England, and ending with his confrontation with Sir Tristram, who bore a shield detailing the affair between Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and Lancelot, his most trusted knight. As a work of literature, the book is sadly lacking, having been compiled and edited rather roughly by one Caxton, within ten or so years of Thomas Malory’s death. The chronicle remains, however, one of the most complete and chronologically ordered works concerning the life of King Arthur, as well as certain adventures and misadventures of his knights. Those qualities thought to be most exemplary in a truly chivalrous knight of the fifteenth century are generally known, and specifically documented. Piety, chastity, courtesy, and generosity are all listed as major requirements of chivalry, and it is important to note that the first of these plays perhaps the most important role, in conjunction with the second. Based around the ideals of a perfect Christian morality, the concepts of piety and chastity go hand in hand. Piety refers not only to attendance at church, but to an utmost devotion of self and soul to the perpetuation of the Christian cause. Chastity, as defined in the fifteenth century was not restricted to sexuality, but also concerned personality. It denoted a chasteness of thought and action that goes beyond explicit sexual conduct and contrived courtly games of seduction and innocence that force natural human desires into complicated linguistic travails. It is Arthur’s embodiment of these characteristics which seem make him the perfect fodder for the hero mill, and yet while he has been presented as a noble and great King, one must take into account both his origins, and several accounts of his actions during life which contradict the chivalry with which he is gifted by popular account. Most tales agree that Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, who was the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, a mortal enemy of Uther, who claimed Kingship of all England. The sorcery of Merlin allowed Uther to sleep with Igraine in the guise of her husband for a single night, during which Arthur was conceived; three hours before his conception, the Duke of Cornwall died on the battlefield, and it was later concluded by Merlin that his death previous to the sexual act that was responsible for Arthur’s life meant that he could be considered a legitimate child of the then deceased Uther Pendragon. Whether or not Arthur was legally the legitimate son of Uther, it is quite obvious from the story that his origins are far from pure, and the culture of the time considered bastardy to be a fault of the child, rather than the parents. Later in his life, a crowned King and survivor of his first war, in which he demonstrated admirable efficacy of strategy and feats of arms, (as befits a legendary hero) it is discovered that Arthur has fathered Mordred, a son by his half sister, Morgan Le Fey. The mythology differs as to the woman, whether she was actually the evil queen who was Arthur’s bane, or another woman who was his half sister, but it is an accepted part of the mythology that Arthur’s son was conceived with his half-sister. It is this action that constitutes Arthur’s ‘tragic flaw’, though he is unaware of his relationship to the woman at the time of the act. It is later, by Mordred’s sword, that he is either slain or sent to the mystical isle of Avalon to await the time of Britain’s greatest need, when he will be called up from the Otherworld and sent back to protect the land. It is the fact of his death (or disappearance) by Mordred’s hand which counts most importantly towards the analysis – the tragic flaw must be responsible for the destruction of the hero, and Mordred is most directly responsible for Arthur’s destruction. Even if it is considers lustfulness to be his tragic flaw, it is Morgan Le Fey, working through Mordred, who plans the battle which defeats the great king, and the same conclusion is reached. Arthur is thus securely defined as a tragic hero: mythological, containing those virtues which support moral goodness, and possessed of a tragic flaw he is unaware of, which causes his ultimate destruction. The question remains, however, of how a single mythos could inspire an evolution of an entire archetype that permeates modern western literature. The answer may be found in the simplicity of the myths themselves, however complex the ideas they present may be upon analysis. In their most honest and open form, they are stories of adventure and romance, based upon courtly ideals amongst valiant men who vie for the favor of a beautiful woman. There are of course tales of defeat and sorrow woven in amongst the more heroically traditional, but the stories of Arthur are a saga more complete than those of Homer, though without the flowing grace of epic poetry. A saga requires defeat and sorrow in order to make victory and joy more poignant and meaningful, because it gives the characters a depth of life which is missing in shorter myths that do not encompass the entirety of a heroe’s life. The latest evolution of the Arthurian myth appears in the twentieth century, far past the time of the knight-errant, but in the dawn of a new form of fiction writing that expands into a mythical and mystical world that is completely dependent on the creative capabilities of the author: fantasy writing. In the same way that Jules Verne pioneered science fiction in a time before it was a popular style of writing in the literary community, J.R.R. Tolkien pioneered fantasy writing. A British bred author, it is not surprising that he would turn to British mythology for a source of inspiration, and as is noted by his critics, Tolkien’s linguistic feats and astonishing detail in planning the world of Middle Earth is due partially to the rich cultural and traditional history of his homeland. As one of the most prominent of British myths, Arthur has an obvious appeal for any fantasy-inclined western authors, but it is the character of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings that appeals most directly both to the figure of King Arthur and to the heroic archetype that he spawned.The proofs that apply to Arthur are not as difficult to apply to his fantastical doppelganger. Aragorn is a fictional character, and therefore obviously “mythical” in the most basic sense of the word. His virtue is displayed multifariously by selfless abandon in the face of danger, ultimate devotion to an ultimately unforgiving quest, and devotion to a love that is defied by socially and culturally structured boundaries. It is the idea of the tragic flaw that seems most difficult to pin on Aragorn, and it is in this area that the discrepency between Arthur the tragic hero and Aragorn, the tragic hero, is most plainly seen. Arthur’s flaw destroys him in a physical manner, causing his death and, following his death, the destruction of the values which he had fought for. At the end of The Lord of the Rings however, we see in the Appendices that Aragorn has not only won the battle against the evil Sauron and aided Frodo in accomplishing his quest to destroy an artifact of great evil. He has reclaimed a kingship vacant for generations and won the hand of his elven princess, the bond of true love proving stronger than social or cultural restraints. He fathers sons, who are sure to carry on his dynasty and assure the stability and positive rule of the kingdom. It is apparent that he is not destroyed by any sort of flaw; rather, exercising a power of his ancestors, he chooses to end his own life in quiet sleep in a comfortable old age rather than slip slowly into a degenerate senility. In a very real way, the triumph of the evolution of the tragic hero is the ability of the hero to evade destruction by recognizing and overcoming the tragic flaw. In this manner, Aragorn’s tragic flaw is his very humanity, the fact that he carries the blood of Isildur, the man that succumbed to the lure of the ring that Aragorn fought to destory, in his veins. The aspect of penance is also apparent in this updated version of a tragic hero; rather than be destroyed, Aragorn toils for long years in order to make right the arrogant mistake of his ancestor, seeking to clean his blood of the taint of evil power. The moment when Aragorn consciously chooses to leave the ring of power in Frodo’s care, against what might seem like good sense and all vestige of hope, is most important. It is Aragorn’s recognition of his own frailty as a human that allows him to overcome the aspiration to inhuman greatness that destroyed his ancestor. The evolution of the tragic hero shows an important quality in mythological literature that seems out of sync with the idea of mythology as an unchanging tradition, against which the new can be measured. While it remains true that the tragic hero faces a mortal flaw, it is a flaw which is recognized by the character, something they may successfully overcome rather than an overweening disturbance of basic moral character which makes disaster ultimately inevitable. The fine line between moral humanity and moral perfection which a hero walks upon must be trod even more carefully than in ancient days, due both to a more complicated set of social proscriptions and to a sense that the myths of humanity must evolve as humanity evolves. The insurmountable obstacles of the past have been overcome by the twin tides of human ingenuity and sheer stubbornness, and it is these two traits, more than any other virtue, which endure as the defining, evolution-defying characteristics of the tragic hero.
Violence in Malory
By focusing on sex and violence, Malory’s rendering of the Arthurian legend becomes something quite distinct from the French originals. Malory unveils a complex cast of characters including Arthur, who is both Christ-like and Herod-like by turns. Sex and violence, while certainly sensational, lends a poignant, yet gritty realism to the Arthurian legend. It is through this violent, and jarring realism that Malory unveils a distinctly political and worldly agenda. Malory focuses on Camelot as a worldly ideal. His reign is linked to the coming of the Christian church. Sanctioned by God, the sword test is the means by which Arthur is able to rise from obscurity and eventually rule England. Arthur, as the chosen one, is anticipated and proclaimed at the onset of the Works and a new form of political society may be expected. From its inception, however, his order is shown to be steeped in sin and violence. He is marred, personally, by the sins of lechery, incest and pride, while his political tactics invariably involve some form of terror. Arthur’s rise to rule is intertwined with Christ imagery, but it is also contradicted by markedly Herodic overtones.After committing state wide infanticide, Arthur escapes public derision because his subjects, “for drede and for love… helde their pece,” (Malory 37). Fear is placed significantly before love, in this instance. In Book XXI, we learn that “with kynge Arthur was never othir lyff but warre and stryff (Malory 708). Clearly, Arthur’s conception of order involves a strong and violent hand, and Malory’s rendering of Arthur reveals both a worldly sinner and a political saviour. This is a complex rendering of human nature. Arthur may be the “once and future king,” but he readily succumbs to imperfect passions, such as pride, revenge and lust.Malory is a gritty storyteller. As a man who has been involved in a considerable amount bloodshed, he brings his own unique perspective to the Arthurian legend. While bloody and violent, war proves instrumental in demonstrating the worldly code that Arthur heralds and Malory champions. The King’s early battles are based on the idea of courtesy (Moorman 62). The opposing armies seem more determined to out vie each other in courtesy than in battle. Knights are unhorsed far more frequently than they are slain. The general tone of war, while tumultuous, is of propriety and mutual respect. Enemy armies do not fail to complement each other’s valor and prowess. Malory’s detailed battles do not only convey a sense of military propriety, but they also reveal the importance of strong leadership. Arthur’s prominent presence in battle is necessary for victory, as Merlin points out in Book I, Arthur must fight alongside his forces. The king’s figure seems to have magical properties as it propels the army to victory.Strong, able government is manifested in young Arthur and his ability to unify various noble families should be noted. The families of Lot, Pellinor and Ban are traditional enemies, yet Arthur is able to bring them all together, however briefly, at the Round Table. Although this volatile collection of families appears to be unified at Arthur’s Court, sinister undertones ripple beneath the surface. The feud between Gawain and Pellinor is an early outbreak of this rancorous rash. Plots, intrigues and personal vendettas threaten to tear the Round Table apart. This downward movement of the Round Table begins in Book VI where, as the critic Terrence McCarthy points out, “The one quest that the whole of the round table undertakes, the one which therefore reflects their perfect unity, is the one whick will disunite them and prove their imperfection” (McCarthy 40). By the end of the Works, the realm has been so thoroughly disintegrated that strife between families is replaced by strife within families. Arthur’s final battle is against his own son, Mordred. Ties of kinship may have once offered Arthur an essential power base, but the rot of sin finally reaches the core. Mordred, a product of incest, returns to his father, to share the final unity of death. As the critic Beverly Kennedy observes, “This deadly embrace of father and son is a fitting emblem of the destructive power of vengeance (Kennedy 342). No image could be as poignant as Mordred climbing the spear of his father to deliver a shared death.The fall of the realm is immediately noticeable. Malory describes a terrible scene, in which the fallen knights are ravaged by a horde of looting peasants. The dying are dispatched without mercy and stripped of all their finery. Malory’s aim is unmistakable. Without strong government, subjects will naturally fall into an animalistic state of chaos. In this case, the writer’s use of riveting, jarring imagery makes a powerful suggestion. Arthur’s regime, though one of terror and violence, is a political necessity.Ultimately, Arthur’s power rests not so much in his personal virtue, but in his political guiles. The battle to maintain his power base is Arthur’s true challenge. For this end, Arthur would tolerate the abuses of Gawain and even the scandalous hints of Lancelot’s dalliance with the Queen. This is a king whose priorities are never in doubt. At the onset of the Grail quest, Arthur is made wretched by Gawain’s proposal to recover the Holy Grail. He accurately predicts that the Round Table will never again host such a noble collection of warriors. The Round Table empowers Arthur’s will. As such, holding it together is of fundamental importance. What we find in Malory is an acute interest in politics and how kings maintain power. The text offers a detailed depiction of the rise and fall of a kingdom as well as that of the ideology that nurtured it. Arthur’s realm is backed by a new, Christian sense of morality. Notions of honour, courtesy and, most importantly, kinship hold the realm together, but standards of mercy, charity and piety arise to direct the Round Table’s strength. The failure of the political system is the failure to maintain this exalted ideal in a less than perfect world. It must, like all things transient, fade. During Arthur’s wars of ascendancy, we see knights engaged in righteous battle. Even the young king’s enemies, such as Lot of Orkney, fight valiantly because they are driven with purpose. However, what motivates Arthur’s later military campaigns? He pursues a repentant Lancelot into France and wages a bloody struggle over a vendetta. Indeed, this vendetta is not even his own. Guinevere has been restored to him, but Gawain is still without his brother and blind to forgiveness.Arthur’s French war is madness, and for the most part, the French battles are entirely void of honor. As Lancelot observes, Arthur will “gette here no worshyp,” (Malory 691). It is a meaningless crusade propelled by Gawain’s desire for vengeance. Knights like Balyn and Lamorak are no longer catching the King’s eye with incredible feats of slaughter. War’s changing aspect from glorious to shameful is an essential element in this presentation of Arthur’s rise and fall. Arthur’s is a police state, but as Malory suggests, such a circumstance is a necessity of the times. The true tragedy lies in Arthur’s inability to police his own policemen. His weakness, as a king, becomes increasingly obvious from the moment that Balyn decapitates the Lady of the Lake at court. At the time, she stood under Arthur’s protection. Balyn seems to escape lightly with exile, but later his personal prowess returns him to the King’s favour. Arthur expresses an interest in keeping Balyn at court, despite the knight’s heinous transgression. Physical might is in great demand in troubled times. It is Arthur’s only surety of maintaining authority and it takes precedence over all other concerns. Even love must take a backseat to power as Arthur articulates in Book XX: “much more I am soryar for my good knyghtes losse than for the losse of my fayre quene; for quenys I myght have inow, but such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs in no company,” (Malory 685).Unfortunately, in order to rule, Arthur must reconcile himself to the unruly. Gawain provides our most obvious example. His underhanded, thuggish tactics in dealing with Pellinor’s family as well as his endorsement of his own mother’s murder are outrages to Arthur’s government. All too frequently, Arthur is portrayed as helpless in relation to his own knights, trying fruitlessly to hold onto what he calls, “the fayryst and the trewyst of knyghthode that ever was sene togydir in ony realme of the worlde,” (Malory 522). The threat of losing a knight of Gawain’s caliber is a greater source of concern for Arthur than the erosion of evil.Force is admirable when organized and terrifying when at large. As Arthur’s great enterprise spirals downward, friends become foes and sons rise against fathers. All forms of social bonds unravel completely. Violence is the inevitable symptom of a fallen world, but the effort to direct and draw moral strength from it is a truly elevated principle. Arthur arrives, according to Heaven’s mandate, to herald a new kind of order, but this is not the seamless otherworld that Galahad hints at. It is a world inhabited by humans and governed by their imperfect nature. The world is naturally turbulent, and Malory’s interest lies in how order may be imposed upon such a place (Benson 236). His flair for violence and spectacle is instrumental in emphasizing the volatility of Arthur’s realm. The King’s efforts to keep everything together are nothing short of epic. Random violence may only be countered with organized violence. Malory’s world is a vibrant and dynamic one, inhabited by men of fierce passions and faultless integrity. Even when Malory inserts the grisly detail of how Lucan lay “fomyng at the mowth and parte of his guttes lay at hys fyete,” we can not justly attribute it to the author’s taste for sensationalism (Malory 716). Instead, we are struck with an image of loyalty that is magnificently memorable. This is not an ugly moment, but a sublime testament to a glorious king and the values that he heralded. Lucan, without regard for his own condition and literally falling apart at the seams, will serve Arthur until his very last breath. After Arthur’s death, the great king and all of the admirable knights are gone forever. While another king may take the throne, a glory like that of Arthur’s Round Table is gone forever.Works CitedBenson, Larry D. Malory’s Morte Darthur. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976.Kennedy, Beverly. Knighthood in the Morte Darthur. Great Britain: St. Edmundsburg Press Ltd., 1992.Malory, Thomas. Malory: Works. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.McCarthy, Terence. Reading the Morte Darthur. Great Britain: St. Edmundsburg Press Ltd., 1988.Moorman, Charles. The Book of King Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s Morte Darthur. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.
Boundaries Set for Women in Arthurian Romance: Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot
In Sir Thomas Mallory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur, the majority of the characters face serious conflicts with chivalry and romance. This essay however will analyze female characters and their roles in Mallory’s rendition of Le Morte d’Arthur and how these female characters handle the pressures and restrictions placed on them as women. Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot represent the ideals of women in Arthurian romance; both Guinevere and Elaine are beautiful, Arthurian, aristocratic ladies that love hard and are willing to put everything they care about on the line for the sake of their love and their lover. Although Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot are both considered ideal lovers by Mallory, their gender reveals the boundaries set for women in chivalry and romance through their similar struggles with the patriarchy and their differences in how they express their love.
The similarities between Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot follow a common theme of women being controlled or repressed by men. We see this in many examples with Guinevere because she is constantly being accused of some kind of heinous crime and then needs to be defended by a man, specifically Lancelot. She can never defend herself; she always needs a man to do it, even when she uses her words to try and defend herself she more or less gets nowhere with Arthur’s court because she is a woman and her words are considered meaningless. Which is why a man, or Lancelot, has to come in and fight on her behalf and save the day. Here we see Guinevere trying to explain herself for the mysterious death of a knight who happened to die after eating a dinner she had prepared: “‘I made this dinner for a good intent, and never for no evil; so Almighty Jesu me help in my right, as I was never purposed to do such evil deeds, and that I report me unto God’” (Mallory, 407). She really could not have been any clearer in what she was trying to saying to defend herself against the accusations the court was rising against her. Yet a few lines later we see Arthur dismissing what she says and asking where Lancelot is to defend her word. Why does she need a man to defend her word? This proves that judicial outcomes in Camelot and within Arthurian romance are only considered just or truthful when a man is defending the case or issue. “‘Where is Sir Lancelot?’ Said King Arthur. ‘And he were here he would not grudge to do battle for you’” (Mallory, 407). This is a perfect example of how Guinevere is put down by a patriarchal society, and although she is an ideal lover and even though she is a member of high society, her opinion is still regarded as unimportant or less important than a man’s opinion. However, Guinevere is not the only female character who gets ignored and abused by the patriarchy.
Elaine of Ascolot, another female character, is again described as an ideal lover: “So this maiden Elaine never went from Sir Lancelot, but watched him day and night, and did such attendance to him that the French book saith there was never woman did never more kindlier for man” (Mallory, 427). Elaine is described as ideal; however, even though she is described as the most kind and loving woman, she still gets taken advantage of when it comes to romance and chivalry. As the tale continues, poor Elaine gets completely manipulated and used by Lancelot; her good nature and his selfishness creates a toxic combination and ends up getting her heartbroken and ultimately results in her death. We see in many examples with Elaine, how she is confined to a certain feminine role because of her gender. An example of this inequality would be when Lancelot tells Elaine and her family that he has to leave to go back to Camelot. Lancelot explains that he has no intentions of marrying Elaine even though he had led her on by wearing her sleeve to a tournament which is an obvious symbol of love in Arthurian romance and he also expressed his fondness of her earlier when she nursed him back to health. However the scene continues and we see clear sexist gender roles when Elaine’s brother, Sir Lavain, professes his love for Lancelot also and says he wants to stay with him and understands why his sister wants to kill herself if she looses Lancelot. Lancelot says, “Father,’ … ‘I dare make good she is a clean maiden as for my lord Sir Lancelot; but she doth as I do, for sithen I saw first my lord Sir Lancelot, I could never depart from him, nor nought I will and I may follow him” (Mallory, 433). This quotation shows how a man can do something a woman cannot in Arthurian romance. Elaine wants to stay with Lancelot and be with him forever, but she cannot, because she is a woman. However, her brother, because he is a man, can be made a knight and follow Lancelot and be with him forever. Even though Elaine saved Lancelot and nurses him back to health and had a very active feminine role, she still cannot be made a knight and as a result she can never stay or be with Lancelot. The only way Elaine could still be with Lancelot would be if she was his lover or his wife, both possibilities were rejected by Lancelot.
Although Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot are described as ideal lovers, they do express their love differently. While Queen Guinevere has a more demanding approach to how she handles her love with Lancelot, Elaine has a generous or endowing way of expressing her love. While Lancelot rejects Elaine and serves Guinevere, the issue at hand is still gender. Elaine’s love is not seen as legitimate to Lancelot because she is not his lover, therefore a woman’s love is only considered valuable if she is his lover, which is a double-standard within Arthurian society. Queen Guinevere tends to be considered the perfect Arthurian lady and lover; she is beautiful, graceful, and puts her love for Lancelot above all, she truly believes and inflicts all the ideals of romance and chivalry, as does Elaine. However, Guinevere tends to be more taxing and demands Lancelot’s full attention and devotion, if he does not comply with her demands or expectations Guinevere will think that he does not love her because he is not demonstrating the ideals of chivalry. An example of Guinevere’s overdramatic expectations would be in the very beginning of The Tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, a few lines in we see Guinevere scolding Lancelot for his lack of attention: “Sir Lancelot, I see and feel daily that thy love beginneth to slacken, for ye have no joy to be in my presence, but ever ye are out of this court. And quarrels and matters ye have nowadays for ladies, maidens, and gentlewomen, more than ever ye were wont to have beforehand” (Mallory, 403). These idealistic attributes that Guinevere lives up to and strives to achieve are simply expected of her, they are expected of her because she is a beautiful woman. If Guinevere were a peasant, or a less attractive woman, such strict ideals would not be as critical to her life. Therefore proving that these dramatic ideals and rules she expects from herself and Lancelot are just implemented in her by the patriarchal society she lives in. However, the debate is not about class or beauty, because Elaine was also an aristocrat and she was also very beautiful, the point is that women can only be loved by a man if she is his lover. A woman who is not his lover, such as Elaine, is considered meaningless, and her love and feelings are disregarded because she is a woman who he is not in a relationship with.
As for Elaine of Ascolot, her approach to loving Lancelot differs from Guinevere’s in the sense that she does still believe in the ideals of romance but she executes them differently. Guinevere shows her belief in chivalrous ideals by expecting perfection and expecting the ideals of romance to be executed fully. While Guinevere demands perfection from Lancelot and waits for him to make a change, Elaine takes a more active approach and instead of demanding Lancelot’s attention she provides attention and care towards him, such as when she rode out in the middle of the night to find him or when she nursed him back to health after he was wounded in the tournament. Guinevere never took that kind approach to loving Lancelot, she simply called for him and he would come and do her bidding. If Elaine felt she needed to see Lancelot she would go and find him herself and take on a more progressive feminist role, she does in fact bend gender roles in many scenes such as when she goes to find Lancelot. Eventually Elaine becomes the martyr for women in romance as a whole because she is so wronged by the romantic ideals she believed in so much at the beginning of the tale.
After Lancelot breaks Elaine’s heart by selfishly leading her on and then leaving her and telling her that he will never marry her, but will instead pay her off every year after she does find a husband, Elaine sees the serious flaws within romance and the roles women have in it. Elaine has an awakening and she decides that without Lancelot, and because of the way he has hurt her and shattered her dreams, that she will kill herself as a martyr and take control of the situation to prove a point about how women are being mistreated by men. Elaine starves herself and sends her dead body down a river to Camelot with a letter attached to her body for Arthur’s court to read. A section of her letter stated: “Therefore unto all ladies I make my moan; yet for my soul ye pray and bury me at the least, and offer ye my masspenny, this is my last request. And a clean maiden I died, I take God to witness. And pray for my soul, Sir Lancelot, as thou art peerless” (Mallory, 435). Her letter is directly calling on women to see the flaws in the romantic society they are forced into, she asks them to pray for her soul and also calls out Lancelot for hurting her and altering her view of romance. She is trying to warn and advocate for all the women who have been mistreated by men in romance. Overall Elaine takes a much more active role than Guinevere because she not only actively pursues Lancelot and has a much more generous attitude towards romance, she also literally kills herself for the cause of women being treated unfairly in romance. Elaine dies for the ideals of chivalry and romance, whereas Guinevere suffers with self pity and guilt after the fall of Camelot and ultimately believes that the ideals of romance are flawed themselves, while Elaine believes that men are just not living up to the standard that ideal romanticism requires which is why she made herself a martyr after Lancelot left her.
Although Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot are both considered ideal lovers, their gender reveals the boundaries set for women in chivalry and romance through their similar struggles with the patriarchy and their differences in how they express their love. Elaine expresses the boundaries set for women in romance by making herself a martyr for the cause and recognizes that there are aspects of her society that limit her opportunities because she is a woman. Queen Guinevere on the other hand, is still also considered an ideal and true lover, but she takes on a less active role when it comes to loving Lancelot and demands more of the romantic expectations she had been taught to care about by the patriarchal society she lives in. Overall, both female characters’ roles are key to showing the boundaries set for women in Arthurian society and romance.
A Flawed Code: Chivalric Ideals in Morte D’Arthur
Malory’s Morte D’Arthur explores chivalric ideals in the late Middle Ages through the actions of King Arthur and the rest of his knights. Through his exploration of chivalry, however, he also explores the problems that arise from having such a strict code of conduct based on honor and unflinching loyalty to oaths. Morte D’Arthur does so by addressing the removal of autonomy and the damage of interpersonal relationships, and rather than presenting solutions to these problems, it explains that the best way to resolve issues caused by chivalry is to forgive infractions caused by chivalric code.
Morte Darthur addresses the removal of personal choice and the toxic obligation to authority that stems from chivalric codes. Chivalric codes in the time of Malory created unbreakable oaths between men and their rulers, and between individual knights, that could result in unspeakable violence. When Mordred and Arthur’s armies meet on the battlefield, the two sides could have come to a truce and walked away unharmed. As the two sides swear oaths that “ye say any manner of sword drawn, look that ye come on fiercely, and so slay all that ever before you standeth” (492), however, countless men are murdered simply because a man “drew his sword to slay the adder” (492) who bit him, because no one stops to ask why a sword was been drawn or to try to understand the situation better: the oaths caused by chivalry force the men into blind, bloody obedience. A similar situation occurs when Lancelot accidentally kills two unarmed men in the tournament for Guinevere’s life; although Gawain views Lancelot as his friend and “may never believe that Sir Lancelot slew my brethren” (489), the chivalric codes that determine vendettas and blood feuds drive him to “seek Sir Lancelot throughout seven realms, but I shall slay him” (490). This will cause additional violence to people that Gawain cares for, and will eventually end with his own death, but any choice Gawain may have had is taken away because his actions are dictated by the vendetta-infused honor code of chivalry. Arthur laments that the death of Gaheris and Gareth will cause “the greatest mortal war that ever was” (489), as war will be waged against Lancelot by Gawain and, by obligation, Arthur, until “I have destroyed Sir Lancelot’s kin and himself both, other else he to destroy me” (489). Arthur has no wish to kill his friend and start this horrific cycle of violence, but chivalry binds him to a rigid set of codes that dictate his actions and take away his choices.
This system of unwavering oaths leads to unspeakable violence. The final battle between Arthur and Mordred is described as being “more dolefuller [than all others] in Christian land” (492), and the fighting doesn’t stop until “an hundred thousand laid dead upon the down” (492), and Arthur is too enraged to continue. Rather than stopping the battle once it became clear that neither side would win, or even stopping to question why a sword had been drawn in the first place, the oaths caused by chivalry force the two armies to fight until continuing on is physically impossible. Arthur is also bound by honor to punish Lancelot and Guinevere harshly after learning of the affair: while Lancelot is his friend and he says that “my heart was never so heavy as it is now” (489) at the thought of having to punish him, chivalry dictates how he must act in light of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. Arthur’s feelings mean nothing; he must instead act based on a toxic set of regulations set in place for knights and rulers.
Chivalry distorts interpersonal relationships because of honor and duty. There is still friendship between Lancelot and Arthur, as Arthur laments that he is “sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen” (489), and Arthur ultimately blames Agravain and Mordred for what has happened and says that they “haddest unto Sir Lancelot hath caused all this sorrow” (489). He himself harbors little personal hatred for Lancelot, but his obligation to chivalry destroys their friendship by dictating Arthur’s actions. Codes of honor also repel Guinevere from Lancelot: following Arthur’s death, the guilt that Guinevere feels for being unfaithful to her husband prevents her from ever seeking out Lancelot again. She “enters a convent at Amesbury” and “commands him never to see her again” (496), and drives him to life in a monastery as well. The two of them are separated for the rest of their lives even though they could have happily reconciled. Arthur is also forced to make his personal life public as a result of the honor codes that dictate his society. After Lancelot and Guinevere are found to have been having an affair, he’s forced to publicly address the scandal, and in doing so he damages his relationships with both of them. While the matter of an affair is one that could have been dealt with quietly between three people, Morte D’Arthur addresses the implications of chivalric codes turning personal matters into public ones and forcing people to feel that their interpersonal relationships are dictated by codes of honor.
Chivalry creates a hierarchy that forces people to feel inferior to those society deems superior. Following the deaths of Arthur and Guinevere, Lancelot feels that he can’t mourn them properly as his friends and people he cared about, and the hermit in the church tells him that “ye displease God with such manner of sorrow-making” (497). Lancelot sees himself as inferior and sinful, and hates himself for his sin in relation to them. When he remembers “how by my defaute and mine orgule and my pride that they were both laid full low, that were peerless that ever was living of Christian people” (497), he becomes extremely upset; he views himself as the downfall of two exceptional people, despite the fact that both Arthur and Guinevere were regular people whose own actions caused them problems just as much as his actions did, and that Guinevere participated in the exact same affair that he did. In the end, Lancelot’s incredible grief and self-hatred drives him into the grave because he “never after ate but little meat, nor drank… for then he sickened more and more and dried and dwined away” (492). He not only sees himself as supremely inferior to Guinevere and Arthur as a result of his sinful actions; he views himself as unworthy of living any longer because his sins negatively impacted the two of them.
Malory proposes the resolution of problems caused by chivalry by promoting forgiveness for behavior infractions caused by the rigid codes of chivalry, and acceptance of the fact that problems will arise from chivalric codes. Despite his anger with Lancelot, Gawain eventually “[writes] to Lancelot to come to the aid of his former lord” (491) before he dies. He realizes that Lancelot is needed to help in the fighting and that he needs to forgive Lancelot for accidental murders committed in the middle of a confusing fight instigated by honor codes and obligations. While chivalry may force individuals to make decisions they otherwise may not have made, therefore causing violence, suffering and the crumbling of relationships, the problems associated with chivalry can be solved if people acknowledge that chivalry inherently leads to problems and that they must be willing to forgive people for the damage they caused while obeying the laws of chivalry. The attacks against Lancelot as a result of chivalry and honor codes are also reversed after his death: in spite of the fact that many knights despised him for accidentally killing two unarmed men and led a brutal vendetta against him, and the fact that his king exiled him in disgrace, he’s praised relentlessly after he dies and is called “the courteoust knight that ever bore shield… the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse… the kindest man that ever struck with sword” (499). Malory proposes forgiveness and praise for good people whose reputations have been destroyed and whose lives have been ruined as a result of the unflinching code of chivalry. He never attempts to argue that chivalry is without its consequences; in fact he offers several examples depicting the fact that this is absolutely not the case. Rather, he offers ways to cope with the issues caused by such a rigid code of ethics, through forgiveness of violent and unkind behaviors and an understanding that the laws of chivalry are not ones that can be broken.
Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur explores the issue of chivalry, the rigid code of honor and ethics that knights had to follow during King Arthur’s time. He discusses the problems that arise from such a strict code of behavior, from a removal of personal choice as characters are forced to make decisions based on what chivalry dictates rather than their own personal emotions and opinions, to extreme violence caused by a culture that values relentlessness in battle, to ruination of interpersonal relationships as characters turn on their friends and loved ones because the chivalric code of honor forces them to ignore personal obligations. The suggestion he offers to solve these problems is to forgive infractions caused by behavior dictated by chivalry, a solution that suggests at the inevitability of chivalry: the solution is not to resist, not to ignore the codes in place, but to accept what will happen because of those codes and forgiven any problems that may occur as a result. Chivalry was not seen as something that could be broken, its rules not things that could be ignored, and Malory’s presentation of it reflects that.
Overlapping Female Identities and Feminine Contexts in Medieval Romances
The manner in which amorphous female identities overlap and echo each other in Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wife of Bath’s Tale and La Morte D’Arthur may appear to represent the ambiguity of distinguishable female personalities in romances beyond their status as ideological representations or roles in the story of the male hero. In these texts, however, the challenges that the hero is set by women imply that the men portrayed here are pawns in a larger scheme rather than an equal in any battle of the sexes, and the overlapping female identities are a result of them not understanding this wider femininecontext.
Geraldine Heng proposes this alternate context as an actual second ‘feminine text’ that can be found where the logic of the masculine, Gawain-focused narrative fails, as in the seemingly arbitrary rules of Morgan La Fey’s game of exchanges. What initially appears like Gawain’s story, with women serving only as representations of his motivations, becomes a struggle over him ‘within the psychomania of a feminine narrative’ that he does not understand. He wears the Virgin as a talisman on his shield at first, making her into an object to inspire him, but in the final confrontation with Morgan, the Virgin claims ‘hir knyȜt’ (1769) from the sorceress, inverting the active and passive roles they had. This passage also clarifies that the struggle is between holy and heathen female representatives (one a part of Christian iconography, the other called ‘goddess’), and that various female roles are also drawn into comparison by the text on many occasions. Morgan’s plan is ultimately antagonistic towards Guinevere, but the Lady she uses as a ‘ventriloquized double’ is also caught in parallels with the queen. Guinevere is positioned near Gawain in court (109) in a scene very similar to his later seat near the Lady (1003), and the description of the Lady as ‘wener þen Wenore’ evokes Guinevere’s name so unmistakably that Griffith proposed the Lady to be a second, ‘false Guenevere’ herself.
Paul Battles has analysed how editors have altered ‘Þaʒ I were burde bryʒtest, þe burde in mynde hade’ (1283) or ‘Though I were the most beautiful of ladies," the lady thought’, by changing ‘I to ‘ho’ and changing the second ‘burde’ to ‘burne’, so that the first encounter between Gawain and the Lady remains entirely from his perspective. This choice not only actively marginalises a female perspective, but prevents a significant moment of intercrossing knowledge, as the passage goes on to mention the specifics of the Green Knight’s challenge, which the Lady should not know. That moment hints at the connection of the Lady and Morgan that must have existed, and at a wider female conspiracy beyond Gawain. The Lady and Morgan are drawn into physical comparison in lines 950-69, as one is fresh and the other withered in equal amounts (‘For if þe ȝonge watz ȝep, ȝolȝe watz þat oþer’) and this contrast is represented structurally by the equal balance of lines describing either. Despite these opposite appearances, their roles overlap through shifts in power, as the only female character who speaks, the Lady, is proven to be an instrument of Morgan’s wishes. Their respective roles within the narrative, within the accepted court system of society and on the margins, blur so that the purpose of Gawain’s challenge itself is confused by the interwoven ideological representations.
Some critics have decided that all Chaucer’s characters serve more to illustrate ideologies and moral positions, than as recreations of realistic interiority. D.W. Robertson imposed the same view on the Wife of Bath in particular, declaring that ‘Alisoun of Bath is not a ‘character’ in the modern sense at all, but an elaborate iconographic figure designed to show the manifold implications of an attitude.’ In ‘Can We Trust the Wife of Bath?’, however, David Parker argues that she is written as a fallible individual who also represents a moral position, and there are clear contradictions in her character which arguably prove her to be the most human of all Chaucer’s pilgrims. Hers is the longest Prologue of all the Tales, allowing for disparities such as her fifth husband being called initially ‘to me the mooste shrewe’ (505) and later kind enough to give her ‘governance of hous and lond’ (814). Since she is not simply a representation of a moral argument, but instead a defined character, the reason for the parallels between her and the female characters of her tale cannot be as simple as women being indistinguishable beyond their societal roles. The queen setting a challenge for the knight mirrors the narrator herself challenging the male listeners, just as the hag’s conclusion that she can be ‘good andtrewe’ (1243) as a wife if given governance in the marriage echoes the denouement of the Prologue, that Alisoun was ‘kynde… and also trewe’ (823-5), with the necessary caveat ‘so was he to me’.
Just as the hag consciously deceives the knight to impart a lesson by disguising herself, Alisoun deceives her audience by only revealing the information of her true appearance as the knight learns it rather than maintaining the garrulous style that leads to extended Ovid references. In a foreshadowing of the character’s mutability in the service of proving a lesson, the hag had previously appeared as twenty-four dancing young maidens, and his approach to them is described in the line ‘toward the whiche daunce hedrow ful yerne’(993) as eager, contrasting the repulsion felt by him towards the old hag in the line ‘a fouler wight ther may no man devyse’(999). A man’s actions, hypothetical or literal, are emphasized in the descriptions of these female apparitions, as the way a man may choose to act towards them seemingly decides their importance. This emphasis of his actions demonstrates his journey towards choosing a lack of action at the end, and putting himself in his wife’s ‘governance’ instead. The transformation of women already hints at a ‘governance’ of nature and flexibility of roles beyond his knowledge, however. The enticing young maidens in a forest serve a different traditional role in chivalric tales (that of tempting the knight) than an old hag representing wisdom, and the woman’s active choice to embody both in addition to her actual appearance to teach the knight a lesson connects her to Alisoun as storyteller. They are both challenging him to discover what knowledge they already possess by confronting him with different overlapping female forms.
In Morte D’Arthur, Elaine of Corbin purposefully disguises herself as Guinevere, in a deliberately confusing seduction similar to Morgan la Fey’s deception of Gawain using the courtly role of the Lady. Due to this deception, Elaine encompasses both the female role typical of romances, the beautiful queen representing ideal Christian femininity, and the deceptive enchantment usually associated with marginal, otherized figures like Morgan le Fey or the scheming Dame Brisen who tricks Lancelot in this section. Even Elaine’s name connects her to another character within Morte D’Arthur, Elaine of Ascolat, who also loves Lancelot in vain and uses her body to barter with him. 8 Malory allows the reader to empathize with this more deceptive Elaine by having the offspring of this union be the virtuous Galahad, and by having her appeal to the reader for understanding directly: ‘A grete cause I have to love hym, for he hadde my madynhode’ (472/11:9). This justification allows for greater understanding of their encounters outside of Lancelot’s misunderstanding, and echoes Malory’s defense of Guinevere’s adultery with Lancelot: ‘she was a trew lover, and therefor she had a good ende’ (625/18:25). She is also connected through imagery to the dove that greets Lancelot at the entrance of Pelles’ castle, as it has ‘a little censer of gold’ in its mouth, while she has ‘a vessel of gold betwixt her hands’ at first meeting. Being connected to an animal by a symbol of monetary value may appear dehumanising, but the biblical associations of a dove demonstrates that God and fate have selected her for this fateful union in a manner similar to the Spirit of God landing as a dove on Christ’s shoulder after his baptism to claim him 9 , validating her deception and emotional motivation as part of a larger scheme. The parallel may also connect her further to Guinevere: Elaine’s deception will soon be redeemed by her child, but Guinevere repents for her adultery with the piousness Malory details in later books.
While Elaine’s scheme may echo Uther previously fathering Arthur by pretending to be Ygraine’s husband in Book One, the consequences of this coupling arguably remain within the ‘feminine context’ unknown to Lancelot. The female body of Elaine again shifts but this time into the role of mother through pregnancy, which she welcomes and uses to defend herself from his anger (‘slay me not, for I shall have a son by thee that shall be the most noblest knight of the world’: appealing to his desire for an heir in order to manipulate him), rather than being a woman being drawn against her will into a male plan to continue his lineage. The feminine context frames this as another challenge for the man where both the plan and outcome are beyond his reach, and although her father is aware of the prophecy, Malory emphasizes Elayne’s love and that she was ‘glad’ to have him in her bed, prioritizing her emotions over thoughts of legacy. Siobhan M. Wyatt posits that another consequence, his regret over his initially violent outburst, ‘prepares him for the necessary penitential mood of the Grail quest’. This interpretation may seem to reduce Elaine as a character, but by tying her body’s mutability to the powers of fate which guides knights’ quests, the feminine deception she embodies again becomes part of a wider scheme beyond Lancelot’s understanding.
Female characters overlap and parallel each other because of how they are framed by fate or the narrative, but also because of their own actions in deliberately deceiving and challenging men. Rather than detracting from their individuality, therefore, these connections can portray the schemes of women as beyond the understanding of the male chivalric figure, hinting at the second ‘feminine text’ beneath the conventional focus of the genre.
Works Cited1. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, in: The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, ed. Andrew and Waldron, University of California Press (reprinted 1982)2. ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, Oxford University Press (reissued 2008), pp. 105-121.3. Thomas Malory, Morte D’Arthur, published as Malory’s Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, Oxford University Press (reprinted 1971)4. Geraldine Heng, ‘Feminine Knots and the other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, in: PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 3 (May, 1991), pp. 500-5145. Griffith, Richard R. “Bertilak’s Lady: The French Background of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”Machaut’s World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century. Ed. Madelaine Pelner Cosman and Bruce Chandler. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 314. New York: New York Acad. of Sciences, 1978. 249-66.6. Paul Battles, ‘Amended Texts, Emended Ladies: Female Agency and the Textual Editing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in: The Chaucer Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, Penn State University Press (2010)7. D.W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer, Princeton, London (1963), p.2488. David Parker, ‘Can We Trust the Wife of Bath?’ The Chaucer Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, Penn State University Press (Fall, 1969), pp. 90-989. Karen Cherewatuk, ‘Marriageable Daughters: The Two Elaines’, in: Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance in Malory's Morte Darthur, Boydell & Brewer (2006) pp. 56-74.10. Matthew 3:16-17, King James Bible11. Siobhan M. Wyatt, Women of Words in Le Morte D’Arthur: The Autonomy of Speech in Malory’s Female Characters, Springer (2016) p.10.
The Connection of Medieval Romances to Chivalry and Society
The romances Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, and Le Morte d’Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory, tell of the heroic adventures and chivalrous deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Through characterization, conflict, imagery, and diction, both works are able to express on a deeper level that every knight, no matter how great, struggles to fully exemplify the code of chivalry that medieval society values.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain’s actions after accepting the Green Knight’s challenge highlight the values of medieval society, reinforcing the importance of chivalry that dictates the ideal behavior of every knight. Gawain exemplifies a courageous, chivalrous knight by humbly requesting that King Arthur allow that “this melee may be mine” (Borroff 116), and accepts the Green Knight’s challenge in the king’s stead. In addition, Gawain’s courtesy in asking Lady Guenevere if “my liege…misliked [his request] not” (120); his display of respect when he “bows low to his lord” (141); and his encounter with the Green Knight in which he “abashed not a whit” (149) all display examples of a knight who upholds the values of determination, respect to women, and loyalty to the king. The chivalrous acts of Sir Gawain add to his portrayal of an ideal and exemplary knight who reflects the values important to those in the medieval society.
The valiant deeds of Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere in Le Morte d’Arthur reiterate the importance of a knight’s duty to their king, reminding readers of the obligation of a knight to chivalry which was valued in medieval society. Sir Lucan, who helps carry the wounded King Arthur in the aftermath of the battle with Sir Mordred, dies after “his guts fell out of his body” which resulted in “the noble knight’s heart [bursting]” (Malory 191). The diction used in the vivid imagery of Sir Lucan’s death emphasizes how much pain he went through to faithfully serve King Arthur. King Arthur also acknowledges Sir Lucan’s selfless sacrifice with sorrow and gratitude, saying that “he would have helped me that had more need of help than I” (191). Arthur’s lament further portrays Lucan as a chivalrous knight and commends the decisive sacrifice that he makes for his king. Sir Bedivere, despite betraying King Arthur “for the riches of [Excalibur]” (192), eventually redeems himself by fulfilling Arthur’s dying request and remains at the chapel to pray for his deceased king for “all the days of [his] life” (194). Even beyond death, Sir Bedivere’s loyalty to King Arthur inspires him to remain steadfast and honor him. The chivalry of Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere portray how far the extent of loyalty to a king can be and how important it is to honor and uphold the relationship between knight and king.
The values in the code of chivalry and the theme redemption represent aspects that were important to medieval society, suggesting that the effort to become an ideal knight, despite shortcomings, was paramount. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates the struggle to become an ideal knight through Sir Gawain who is distraught from the “villainy and vice” (Borroff 465) of deceiving the Green Knight committed by his “cowardly and covetous heart” (464). Sir Gawain’s resulting resolve to better himself as a knight despite his shortcoming inspires himself to work harder towards the goal of the medieval knight. Acknowledging Sir Gawain as “free of fault” (483) since birth, the Green Knight’s redemption of Gawain highlights the Christian-influenced strive towards virtue and the obligation to forgive for Gawain making his “failings made known” (480). In Le Morte d’Arthur, King Arthur tries to act in accord with chivalry by fighting the evil Sir Mordred and his army “as a noble king should do” (Malory 187), but the anger and anguish brought to himself because of his routed army compel him to kill Mordred in aftermath which Arthur and his army only survives due to “God of his great goodness” (189). King Arthur’s tragic death afterwards illustrates that even the legendary and mighty King Arthur is not infallible, and Christian-influenced chivalry pushes a knight to not only be loyal to the country, but to God as well. Both of these medieval romances praise the deeds of loyal warriors, but also portray the difficulties that they endure in becoming ideal, chivalrous knights. The romance perspective of fallibility through the strife of becoming an ideal, chivalrous knight gives insight to what was important to medieval society. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte d’Arthur mirror the familiar struggle to achieve near perfection of a skill or principle regardless of the limitations of imperfection in people.
Legend vs. Pop Culture: The Dual Characterization of Merlin
Merlin has existed as the quintessential imaginary magical figure for centuries. Recognizable by name before even the writing of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, the Merlin figure pervades art throughout time, featured in numerous books, paintings, and films. Although the general consensus on Merlin’s demeanor persists as his being a wise, mysterious counselor, a second version of the character has arisen due to animated children’s films, specifically Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. This film’s portrayal of Merlin as a kooky, strange hermit who borders on foolishness at times has influenced many other adaptations of the character including the one depicted in DreamWorks’ Shrek the Third. While an eccentric and odd Merlin opposes his traditional characterization, the medium calls for the necessity of Merlin being presented this way. As animation’s target audience is generally children, the realistic and dark aspects of the character are dropped in favor of entertainment and appeal. This opposing characterization both adds and detracts from the canonical Merlin, infringing on the legendary perception of him while adding more depth and arguably more mystery to the character. J. Hillis Miller’s “Narrative” argues that society craves the same story in repetition, so the skewing of the traditional aspects of the cultural figure not only adds a form of entertainment but also forces the new Merlin to act in conjunction with the old. Due to animated films altering the character of Merlin, a dual characterization has arisen which both adds and detracts from the original Merlin described in Arthurian legends and alters the character’s overall canonical personality.
Merlin in the Morte D’arthur offers an example of the traditional “Merlin” figure. Sir Thomas Malory’s wizard character is mysterious, wise, and drives the plot along. Upon his first introduction, it appears that Malory assumes his reader already understands who Merlin is as he offers no exposition on the character and merely immediately thrusts him into the action. Merlin then occasionally pops into the story, giving King Arthur advice and exhibiting some magical power. Even when not directly in the story itself, other characters refer to Merlin in reverence and remembering his power. While Malory never explores the extent of Merlin’s personality or power, it is stated that he has powers of disguise and prophesy along with extensive knowledge of both magical and real elements. Merlin himself never reveals aspects of his character beyond being a wise counselor who obeys his king, and little of Merlin’s own story is written in Malory’s work. Unlike other versions of Merlin, Malory’s character acts solely as the static and one-dimensional sagacious, mysterious sorcerer who is necessary for the plot to continue at times.
While Malory’s Merlin offers the traditional perception of the character, Walt Disney’s film The Sword in the Stone introduced a different version of Merlin. Unlike the unexpected visitor role Merlin plays in the Morte D’arthur, Disney’s Merlin has a much greater role in Arthur’s life, guiding him for essentially the entire movie. While this Merlin also acts as a counselor for Arthur, he is both a friend and holds more power over Arthur and his decisions. He also possesses great wisdom, however, unlike the foreboding and stiff Merlin Malory presents, Disney’s Merlin is silly, clumsy, and absent-minded. Although he possesses the power of prophecy, this ability, along with many others, is not entirely full-proof. This Merlin offers little mystery, instead playing the role of a kooky old man. Despite the extreme discrepancies between Malory and Disney’s characterizations of Merlin, the Disney version of the character has become quite popular, enough so to be included in Arthurian parody.
DreamWorks’ Shrek the Third, a children’s film which parodies Arthurian legends, takes both versions of Merlin previously discussed, spoofs the original, and furthers the ridiculousness of the character introduced in The Sword in the Stone. DreamWorks’ Merlin plays little role in the plot itself, existing what appears to be solely an opportunity to spoof another Arthurian aspect of the legends. While aforementioned Merlins played the role as mentor to Arthur, this aspect of Merlin is unnecessary in the film as the titular character Shrek fulfills this role. Instead, the film parodies this aspect of Merlin by portraying him as insane, mentioned that he was once a teacher before his “nervous breakdown” (Shrek the Third). This Merlin eats rocks, is quite dramatic, and wears cliché Merlin attire—wizards hat and robe, however, this is also spoofed. DreamWorks’ version of Merlin is not the great and powerful sorcerer as described in previous lore, but rather possesses more mediocre “special effects”-type magic and doubts himself and his abilities. Even when he performs more advanced magic, it only works partly as to add to the comedic elements of the film. DreamWorks’ foolish characterization of Merlin represents how much the idea of who Merlin is has changed over time, especially in thanks to children’s films.
The change of Merlins characterization overtime is mostly due to the necessity of adapting the character to the films’ targeted audience. Generally designed for children, such films rely on stereotypical tropes as to allow for juvenile audiences to understand the plot and characters. If the Merlin character was the powerful, mysterious figure he is in Morte D’arthur, he would not fit into a children’s film where generally “good guys” are more lighthearted and open. As children’s films call upon certain types of character, Merlin’s personality must then be changed as to appeal to the target audience. Similarly, the animated style of the films requires a specific type of character that differs from the traditional characterization of Merlin. Since animation removes the realism from the story, so must the realistic aspects of the characters be removed. Therefore, the original version of Merlin is dropped in favor of a more fantastic adaptation as to befit the medium; the loss of the realism associated with the dark and mysterious figure allows for the addition of more comedy and imaginative aspects of the character.
Also, if Merlin were similar to his Morte D’arthur counterpart, there would be no shock factor for those that know the canonical version of the character thus removing some of the comedy related to him. This would also detract from the entertainment, making the targeted audience bored and unamused by seeing an adult as normally seen in everyday life. As this man is an elderly wizard, an authority figure in society, he must have a sense of absurdity in order to appeal to children while also appealing to adults who know what the character normally is and add to the comedy/parody of the film(s). Therefore, the foolish adaptations of Merlin appeal to all audiences, both young and old, which also allows for the characterization to become popular.
By having such a ridiculous version of the character become so common in pop culture, this adaptation of Merlin infringes upon the original canonical version of the sorcerer. What was once only perceived and referenced as the epitome of wisdom and magic, children’s films have warped into a silly, old man trope. Not only do these adaptations of Merlin seemingly reduce him to a static figure meant only for entertainment, but also allow for a silly Merlin to become the “original” version of the character for many. Many children’s first introduction to the character may be through these comedic films which then infringes upon the canonical character, effectively instilling a new “original” Merlin, depending on the generation, and slowly replacing the Morte D’arthur version of Merlin as the primary characterization.
Although these comedic Merlins do detract from and somewhat replace the Morte D’arthur Merlin, it could be argued that by introducing the new trope—Merlin being a kooky hermit—allows for the character to be adapted for modern audiences and expanded upon, thus making him more dynamic and perhaps even more mysterious as his true nature is debatable. The adaptations of Merlin revamp the character and make it something new while still relying on its past interpretations. Miller’s chapter “Narrative” discusses how “we need the same story over and over” (70) for we crave recognizable content as it asserts “the basic ideology of our culture” (72). In this way, the adaptations of Merlin that make him out as foolish rely on the basic human desire for repetition of a familiar trope through people’s past experiences with the character whilst offering a new and interesting version to keep audiences interested. Then, as the “new” Merlin is assimilated into the culture and story canon, the new character traits become associated with the character and craved by audiences to be repeated.
As the new adaptation of Merlin becomes more used in our culture, it does not override the preexisting ideas of the character, but rather adds to the cultural interpretation of Merlin instating a dual characterization. The Morte D’arthur-type Merlin still prevails as a recognizable character, known for power, wisdom, and magic, but once The Sword in the Stone warped this version of the character to create a new adaptation, making Merlin kooky, foolish, and magically unreliable, he lost his aspects of realism and thus sank further into a mythical lore of our culture. By having opposing versions of the character so present in our culture, the character can be adapted however the adapters see fit like with Shrek the Third who chose to further the ridiculousness of Merlin as introduced in the Disney film. While the newer Merlin characterization does detract from the original canon version, it cannot be ignored that through the existence of another perception of the character, Merlin becomes more dynamic and a more mysterious figure as his nature does not have a consensus. By having a dual characterization of Merlin, thanks to animated children’s films, the character appeals to a wider audience and modernizes the character, making the Arthurian legendary figure relevant in modern culture.
Malory, Thomas, Sir. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript. Trans. Dorsey Armstrong. Anderson: Parlor Press, 2009. Print.
“Merlin.” Disney Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Merlin (Shrek the Third).” WikiShrek. N.p., n.d. Web.
Miller, J. Hillis. “Narrative.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1995. N. pag. Print.
Seanny, and Liambonez. “Ask John: Why is Animation Associated with Children’s Entertainment?” AnimeNation Anime News Blog. N.p., n.d. Web.
Shrek the Third. Dir. Chris Miller. DreamWorks, 2007.
The Sword in the Stone. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney, 1963.
The Destructive Effects of Lovesickness in Le Morte d’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur presents an intent focus on the ill effects of anything not in accordance with Christian morality and teaching. Malory portrays these elements of his story negatively—showcasing how they alter the mind and deny characters the ability to properly function in a chivalric and penitent society. The most common of these drug-like aspects of Malory’s tale is love. Conflated with lust, love drives the conflict of the Arthurian narrative and both psychologically and physically damages those who fall prey to it. Mary Wack’s Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The Viaticum and its Commentaries discusses how lovesickness acts as a disease that injures the soul, thus hindering spirituality. Although intensely pleasurable, love consumes the minds of those affected—rendering them unable to focus on God or reality. The adulterous relationship between Guenevere and Lancelot reveals the intense psychological and spiritual effects of lovesickness and how love removes the ability to exist in a penitent society.
Lovesickness in Le Morte d’Arthur is quite prevalent and afflicts many characters. The characters in Malory’s narrative who claim to love someone tend emphasize their sexual desires and exhibit more symptoms of lust than the traditional notion of love. Those who experience love become completely enchanted and have intense sexual desires and excessive thoughts—hindering their mental and physical abilities—effectively falling into lovesickness. This behavior supports Mary Wack’s claim that love acts as a disease of the brain “for it is a great longing with intense sexual desire and affliction of the thoughts” (Wack 2) and derives from the “intense natural need to expel a great excess of humors” (Wack 3). Wack’s definition presents lovesickness as Malory does in his text—as a physical need of the body. Wack explains how then this need affects the mind, “this illness has more serious consequences for the soul, that is, excessive thoughts…because of the soul’s thoughts [and] worries to find and possess what they desire” (Wack 3). The psychological and physiological effects of lovesickness allow it to become a disease which in turn has spiritual ramifications.
The most notable depiction of lovesickness in Malory’s text is the affair between Guenevere and Lancelot. Not only do they harbor intense sexual cravings for one another, “the queen sent for Sir Lancelot and bade him to come to her chamber that night” (Malory 430), but their lovesickness inflicts psychological damage upon both characters. Guenevere experiences intense mood swings, quickly switching between extreme hostility and affection for Lancelot. Throughout Chapter 62, Guenevere shifts between these two moods several times. At the beginning of the chapter Malory depicts how easily Guenevere’s mood changes, “Queen Guenevere was angry. She rebuked Sir Lancelot constantly and called him a false knight. Then Sir Lancelot told the queen everything that happened…So the queen forgave Sir Lancelot” (429). Although the queen forgives Lancelot and returns to loving him, a short time later she once again becomes extremely angered by him and wishes to never see him again, “she was angry beyond measure…and she said, ‘You false traitor knight! See that you leave my court and my chamber immediately! Do not be so foolish false traitor knight, to ever come into my presence again!” (431), only to change her mind almost immediately and begs her knights to “spare no expense until he is found” (432). Due to her intense feelings for Lancelot, Guenevere is unable to control her volatile emotions and quickly switches between love and hatred for Lancelot for she does not truly understand what is happening to her mind and body. Guenevere’s severe mood swings directed solely at her lover expose how her lovesickness has psychologically affected her.
While Guenevere’s lovesickness manifests as intense mood swings, Lancelot experiences complete madness. The madness of Lancelot derives from his lovesickness; he wishes to have an erotic release with the one he loves and if refuted or manipulated in some way, that release will be tainted and rejected by the body. After his night with Elaine, Lancelot realizes he is not with the woman he loves, and his body rejects the release it had the night before causing him to descend into a maddened state, “he well knew that he was not with the queen. He then leapt out of his bed in only his nightshirt, like a madman” (431). Once Guenevere rebukes him, Lancelot cannot bear the rejection and loss of his lover and loses control body, “he felt such anguish and sorrow at her words that he fell to the floor in a swoon” (431). Once he awakes from his faint, Lancelot “leap[s] out a bay window into the garden below…[running] forth, he knew not where, and was as crazy a man had been. He ran thus for two years; no one ever recognized him” (431). The effects of both the false sexual release and rejection from the queen cause Lancelot to have a physical and mental breakdown in which he loses his entire identity.
In conjunction with these physical and psychological effects of Lancelot and Guenevere’s lovesickness, the pair also displays the most prevalent symptom of the disease—excessive thoughts. More than just the want to “find and possess” (Wack 3) what is desired, this aspect of the illness results in sleeplessness and utter consumption of one’s mind and soul. Both Guenevere and Lancelot experience such symptoms, further revealing their lovesickness and its toll. Through Lancelot’s sleep-talking, Malory reveals how even while unconscious thoughts about his lover pervade Lancelot’s mind: “In his sleep he talked and chattered like a jaybird about the love that was between Queen Guenevere and him” (431). Guenevere also exhibits signs of excessive thoughts when she cannot sleep because of her concern for Lancelot, “the queen went nearly out of her mind, writhing and tossing about like a madwoman, and unable to sleep for four or five hours” (430). This consumption of thought then transcribes to the soul. According to Wack: “If the patient sinks into thoughts, the action of the soul and body is damaged since the body follows the soul in its action, and the soul accompanies the body in its passion” (3), meaning that lovesickness has a detrimental effect on the soul—tainting it and leading to spiritual deterioration.
If a mind is entirely consumed by thoughts for their lover due to their lovesickness, then little room is left for focus on anything else—a dangerous state in medieval society. Malory emphasizes the importance of Christian ideals and having God be the primary focus throughout the tale, and with Lancelot unable to think of anything other than Guenevere, he cannot fully devote himself to his faith, thus hindering him spiritually, “if Sir Lancelot had not been so focused on the queen in all his innermost thoughts and feelings while only outwardly seeming to serve God, no knight would have been able to surpass him in the quest for the Holy Grail” (538). By dismissing his penitence and thinking only of Guenevere, Lancelot shows how lovesickness causes utter devotion to the object of the affections and a dearth of spirituality.
Once those who have lovesickness fully surrender to the disease, the one they love becomes their motivation and focus in life. The intense infatuation becomes nearly impossible to stay, and the ill individual becomes willing to do anything for the one they love. When Guenevere requires a champion in Chapter 78, Sir Bors tells her “[Lancelot] would not have failed to fight for you whether your cause was right or wrong” (542), and Lancelot comes out of exile just to defend her. By allowing Guenevere to become the most important aspect of his life, Lancelot replaces God as his primary focus. Even when Lancelot promises to be holy and follow the morals of his faith, he quickly dismisses those oaths and once again begins an adulterous affair, “Sir Lancelot began to renew his attentions to Queen Guenevere, forgetting the promise he had made and the perfection he had attained while on the quest” (538). This refusal to follow the spiritual principles of his society due to his lovesickness keeps Lancelot from achieving his full potential and being entirely faithful to God and the Christian faith he is expected to follow.
Lancelot’s spiritual detachment becomes most damaging when on the quest for the Holy Grail and reveals how lovesickness disallows someone to be entirely pure of heart and moral, thus destroying their ability to be completely functional in a moral and Christian society. During his search for the grail, the holy vessel passes by him, however, because of his lovesickness, Lancelot has “no power to awake when the holy vessel was brought hither” (474). This physical inability to have the grail causes him to realize that due to his sin, he cannot “seek holy things” (475). Even though Lancelot eventually confesses his sin, his insincerity and underlying lovesickness still inhibit him from seeing the grail and fully pursue a moral Christian life.
By applying Mary Wack’s definition of lovesickness to Guenevere and Lancelot in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, we can see how lovesickness affects and hinders spirituality. The physical effects of lovesickness cause it to become a disease which affects both the mind and the soul. Causing volatile emotions and even madness, lovesickness forces its victims into excessive thinking—making the object of affection the only thing the lovesick individual can focus on—effectively becoming the most important aspect of the person’s life. In a society where God is meant to be the primary focus, replacing religion with love—especially a lustful one—causes a spiritual deterioration of the soul. With the lovesick person unable to achieve true morality and devote themselves entirely to their faith due to their physical, psychological, and spiritual impairments, they then cannot function properly in the penitent society in which they live.
Malory, Thomas, Sir. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript. Trans. Dorsey Armstrong. Anderson: Parlor Press, 2009. Print.
Wack, Mary Frances., and Constantinus. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: the Viaticum and its commentaries. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Print.