Le Morte dArthur


Boundaries Set for Women in Arthurian Romance: Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot

June 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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A Flawed Code: Chivalric Ideals in Morte D’Arthur

June 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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Overlapping Female Identities and Feminine Contexts in Medieval Romances

May 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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The Connection of Medieval Romances to Chivalry and Society

May 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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The Flawed Characters of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot

April 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

There was a trend toward well-rounded, realistic characters during and throughout the Renaissance that arguably began with, or at least along roughly the time frame as, Thomas Malory’s famed Le Morte D’Arthur. The characters in older pieces of fiction were often unrealistic and one-dimensional. They were designed very specifically to reflect particular characteristics and lacked the flaws and intricate details of sophisticated and well-rounded characters. In the case of the fabliau, a style of storytelling that originated in France and is seen in flashes in the works of Chaucer, characters are deliberately absurd, caricatures of realistic personality traits. Malory, however, designed characters with obvious, as well as realistic, flaws. Over a century after Malory’s work, Shakespeare would create some of the most well-known characters in the history of fiction, characters that were popular due to their accurate representation of the human condition. The moral, yet flawed protagonists of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, such as King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, laid the groundwork for an entirely new era of fiction.

In The Middle Ages, knights were evaluated by something called the “Chivalric Code.” The Chivalric Code was an extensive list of rules that dictated a knight’s conduct both on and off the battlefield. With rules such as, “At all times to speak the truth,” and, “To fight for the welfare of all,” it was essentially impossible to full follow the Chivalric Code at all times (“Knights Code of Chivalry”); therefore, the best knights were those that came the closest. Even the famed, and fictional, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot were incapable of living up to the high moral standard of the Chivalric Code. However, their failure to behave perfectly makes them more compelling characters.

King Arthur, for example, is a just and mighty ruler. He is well-loved by his knights and subjects, and conquers many lands. Arthur is also known to be honest, a quality that Lancelot seems to lack. Sir Bors says of Arthur, “…for there was never yet man could prove King Arthur untrue of his promise,” (Malory XX.VI). These traits are the ones present in every telling of King Arthur’s tale, the ones that he is known for. For all of his good qualities, however, Arthur has a few fatal flaws.

When Arthur is made aware of Guinevere’s unfaithfulness he is filled with rage. Malory writes, “These proofs and experiences caused King Arthur to command the queen to the fire there to be brent,” (Malory XX.VII). Without a second thought, he orders his wife to be burned. Gawaine, his nephew and one of his best knights, advises Arthur to give the judgement more consideration. “My lord Arthur, I would counsel you not to be over-hasty, but that ye would put it in respite, this judgement of my lady the queen, for many causes,” (Malory XX.VII). The main reason he puts forth is that, though Lancelot was indeed in the queen’s chambers, no one actually witnessed him doing anything unsavory. However, Arthur will not be swayed, and orders his wife to be burned regardless of his lack of proof. Arthur’s quest for vengeance extends to Lancelot as well. He says, “And if I may get Sir Launcelot, wit you well he shall have a shameful death,” (Malory XX.VII). Once Arthur’s most trusted knight, Lancelot is now his biggest rival.

Eventually, Arthur does come to his senses, as any righteous king would, and wishes to make amends with Lancelot and his wife. When overcome with sudden guilt, Arthur says, “Alas, that ever I bare crown upon my head! For now have I lost the fairest fellowship of noble knights that ever held Christian king together,” (Malory XX.IX). The King finally shows some remorse for breaking the bond that his Knights of the Round Table shared. In fact, it was Gawaine who perpetuated Arthur’s war against Lancelot. The text says that, “…the noble King Arthur would have taken his queen again, and have been accorded with Sir Launcelot, but Sir Gawaine would not suffer him by no manner of mean,” (Malory XX.XII). Seemingly incapable of holding a grudge, Arthur is willing to end his feud with Lancelot even though his affair with Guinevere was, “one of the many destructive elements that precipitated the fall of the Round Table,” (MacBain 60). In this passage, Arthur redeems himself to an extent by displaying his great capacity for forgiveness.

However, Arthur does not seem to show much concern for his wife at any point in the tale. First, he rushed her to the stake at the mere mention of an affair, and then in the midst of his feud with Lancelot, just as he is expressing his guilt, he remarks, “…much more I am sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company,” (Malory XX.IX). Arthur considers his wife to be replaceable, less important than his precious knights. This attitude is likely what drove Guinevere into Lancelot’s arms in the first place. Malory does an excellent job of creating a more realistic King Arthur, one who retains all of his most famous qualities, but is also a little rough around the edges.

The same can be said of Sir Lancelot. The famous knight retains his most well-known qualities, such as strength, prowess in battle, and chivalry toward women. There are many mentions of Lancelot’s strength. King Arthur claims that, “Sir Launcelot is an hardy knight, and all ye know he is the best knight among us all… and I know no knight that is able to match him,” (Malory XX.II). This claim is proven true when Agravaine and a small company of knights attempt to ambush him in the queen’s chambers. The author writes that, “…there was none of the twelve that might stand Sir Launcelot one buffet,” (Malory XX.IV).

On other, numerous occasions, Lancelot’s trademark quests are mentioned. While speaking to Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred in defense of Lancelot, Gawaine references these very exploits saying, “…ye must remember how ofttimes Sir Launcelot hath rescued the king and the queen… he rescued me from King Carados of the Dolorous Tower, and slew him, and saved my life. Also, brother Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred, in like wise Sire Launcelot rescued you both, and threescore and two, from Sir Turquin,” (Malory XX.I). The author also notes that, “Sir Launcelot had done so much for [King Arthur] and the queen so many times,” (Malory XX.II). In her article, “Disarming Lancelot,” Elizabeth Scala explains that, “It is through his actions, the extent to which he proves successful in armed battle, that Lancelot is known. But Malory also depicts scenes in which Lancelot is disarmed that offer a significant challenge to his conception of Lancelot’s identity,” (Scala 1). Lancelot’s strength and prowess in battle are intact in Le Morte D’Arthur, but Malory also puts the knight’s lesser known dark side on full display.

Though he is traditionally considered to be the poster boy of chivalry, there are two particular passages in Le Morte D’Arthur that demonstrate clear contradictions in Lancelot’s moral code. The first takes place in the queen’s chamber when Sir Agravaine, Sir Mordred, and a group of twelve other knights catch Lancelot sleeping with Guinevere. First, Lancelot violates the Chivalric Code by lying about his affair with Guinevere. He does this repeatedly throughout the book. When confronted by Sir Agravaine and the others, Lancelot calls through the door and declares that if they would let him declare his case before King Arthur rather than killing him that he would, “…answer you as a knight should, that hither I came to the queen for no manner of mal engin, and that will I prove and make it good upon you with my hands,” (Malory XX.IV). In other words, he claims that he is in the queen’s chamber for no unsavory purpose. Then, reasoning that he has no other choice, Lancelot slays all of the knights except Mordred, who he wounds, and flees the castle. Before he does so, however, he delivers a speech to his lover, Lady Guinevere:

Then he took the queen in his arms, and kissed her, and said: Most noble Christian queen, I beseech you as ye have been every my special good lady, and I at all times your true poor knight unto my power, and as I never failed you in right nor in wrong sithen the first day King Arthur made me knight, that ye will pray for my soul if that I here be slain. (Malory XX, III)

This scene is important to truly grasp the nature of Lancelot’s fatal flaw. Lancelot’s eloquent speech to the woman he loves is phrased so that it appears he is taking the moral high road; however, at its conclusion, Lancelot slays thirteen knights that were merely carrying out the king’s orders, and who he at one time considered friends. It is as if Lancelot emphasizes the parts of the Chivalric Code that pertain to courtly love and the treatment of women, and ignores those that have to do with honor and honesty.

As if Lancelot’s remorseless slaughter was not bad enough, in the following chapter Lancelot recounts the night’s events to his nephew, Sir Bors, and some others. He says, “I suppose it was made by treason, howbeit I dare largely excuse her person, notwithstanding I was there by a forecast near slain, but as Jesu provided me I escaped all their malice and treason,” (Malory XX.V). Lancelot still refuses to admit his wrongdoing, and even goes so far as to accuse Sir Agravaine and the others of committing treason by attempting to capture him.

The second scene which exposes Lancelot’s contradictions takes place when he rescues Guinevere from being burned at the stake. There are many knights there who have no choice but to protest Lancelot’s mission, and as a result are slain. “Then when Sir Launcelot had thus done, and slain and put to flight all that would withstand him, then he rode straight forward unto Dame Guenever, and made a kirtle and a gown to be cast upon her; and then he made her to be set behind him, and prayed her to be of good cheer,” (Malory XX.VIII). This passage is another perfect example of how Lancelot over-emphasizes the sections of the Chivalric Code that pertain to courtly love and the proper treatment of women, and neglects those that refer to loyalty and honor. The description is almost humorous. Lancelot plows through dozens of knights that were once his comrades without a second thought, but goes to such extreme lengths to ensure that Guinevere is comfortable riding on his horse. According to Danielle MacBain, “These actions can be said to introduce a greater realism into the tale even as they darken lancelot by showing him violating (quite brutally) the provision of the Arthurian code,” (MacBain 62). Malory does not pull any punches when it comes to degrading his protagonists; however, both Arthur and Lancelot make amends for their wrongdoings in the end, once again cementing their status as honorable men of renown despite their flaws.

In conclusion, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot are each bona fide heroes in their own right, but they achieve their hero status realistically, by overcoming both physical and ethical obstacles. They are characters of superior morality, but they are far from perfect. A similar trend toward imperfection took place in Hollywood during the second half of the twentieth century. While perfect human specimens such as Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe dominated screens in the forties and fifties, Hollywood eventually discovered that audiences enjoyed and more closely related to lead characters that genuinely reflected the human condition. That is, flawed audiences enjoy flawed characters. Malory caught hold of this idea long before many authors did, and that fact contributed greatly to the success of Le Morte D’Arthur and the polarizing image of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table that lasts to this day.

Works Cited:

“Knights Code of Chivalry.” Lordsandladies.org. Siteseen Ltd. Web. 20 June 2015.

MacBain, Danielle Morgan. “The Tristramization Of Malory’s Lancelot.” English Studies 74.1 (1993): 57. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 June 2015.

Malory, Thomas, Sir. Le Morte D’Arthur. Sacred-texts.com. Evinity Publishing Inc. Web. 20 June 2015.

Scala, Elizabeth. “Disarming Lancelot.” Studies in Philology 99.4 (2002): 380-403. ProQuest. Web. 21 June 2015.

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Tragedy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure and Le Morte Darthur

March 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

As one of the most important figures of bravery, goodness and heroism in British legend, the idea that, as a tragic hero, Arthur Pendragon might have deserved his fate, is an uncomfortable one. However according to Aristotle’s Poetics, there can be no escaping the fact that the protagonist’s tragic flaw is the sole cause for their downfall. While the Alliterative Morte Arthure’s Arthur is certainly a flawed man, and elements of the reversal and recognition we might expect are present, the poet’s introduction of the wheel of fortune suggests that there are more factors at work. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, whilst certainly tragic in tone, similarly subverts the readers’ expectations of the genre, creating less of a personal tragedy than a tragedy of the whole realm, using this to comment on the failures of chivalry.

In the Alliterative Morte Arthure it is not difficult to determine a tragic flaw in Arthur, as his pride almost overwhelms the reader at times. Although his campaign against Lucius is initially just in nature, his military success soon causes him to become arrogant and corrupt, fighting instead ‘for raunson of red gold’.[1] This is perhaps best demonstrated through the parallels between Arthur and the giant of St. Michael. The giant’s demands for ‘the berdes of burlich kinges’[2] initially seems outrageously arrogant to the reader, however before long Arthur similarly attempts to humiliate the defeated Roman Senators, as we are told that ‘They shoven these shalkes shapely thereafter/To reckon these Romanes recreant and yelden’.[3] Most telling, however, is that both Arthur and the giant are said to rule ‘as lord in his owen’.[4] These similarities reveal that Arthur’s pride has changed him from the heroic figure we see towards the beginning of the text into a greedy tyrant, exactly the same as the monsters he set out to defeat.

Indeed, even the narrator seems to judge Arthur’s actions, asking in the opening lines for God to shield him and the reader from ‘shamesdeede and sinful workes’ such as will be found in the text.[5] This gradual diminution in legitimacy is thrown into sharp focus when a cardinal ‘kneeles to the conquerour’[6] and begs Arthur ‘to have pitee of the Pope, that put was at-under’ by his forces.[7] No longer waging a just crusade against Saracens, Arthur has begun to wage war on the Pope and even the Church itself, something which Matthews notes is ‘in defiance of medieval doctrine’.[8] Combined with Arthur’s borderline blasphemous statement at the siege of Metz that as a ‘crownd king’ he cannot be harmed, it quickly becomes clear that his hubris has reached an almost frenzied level.[9] Towards the end of his campaign, Arthur’s pride becomes so great that he seems determined to conquer all within his sight. As this desire increases, the reader cannot help but be reminded of Alexander the Great, also a conqueror of the known world from, at that time, a small and insignificant country.

The poet makes effective use of this by reminding the reader through Arthur’s dreams that he too was brought low by his hubris. Like Arthur, Alexander is said to have ‘rought I nought elles/But rivaye and revel and raunson the pople’,[10] and we are clearly shown that Arthur’s reward for this behaviour is to be ‘damned forever!’.[11] Karl Heinz Goller suggests that Arthur’s bloodthirsty nature and warmongering in this text may be ‘a pacifist indictment of warfare itself’, and this comparison with and judgement of Alexander would certainly support his theory.[12] Like Arthur and Alexander, Edward III, the most likely monarch at the time of writing, waged endless military campaigns that became disastrous later in his reign. Similarly, these campaigns were largely based upon a proud, greedy desire for a crown that he arguably had no right to. By creating a link between Arthur and Alexander, the poet may have been subtly suggesting the illegitimacy of his own king’s actions through their tragic falls from glory.

Arthur’s reversal comes swiftly on the heels of his greatest triumph, not even having time to be crowned before receiving the news of Mordred’s betrayal. His eventual anagnorisis is amongst the most moving scenes in Arthurian literature, Arthur is describing himself as being ‘utterly undone’[13] as he cradles Gawain’s lifeless body, lamenting the fact that ‘he is sakless surprised for sin of mine one!’.[14] However there does not appear to be any recognizable sense of catharsis for Arthur’s knights or for the realm as a whole. While this prevents the Alliterative Morte Arthure from being considered an Aristotelian tragedy, catharsis is not an essential part of a medieval variation on this: the tragedy of fortune. Matthews states that, much like an Aristotelian tragedy, ‘the medieval tragedy of fortune normally describes the fall of some ruler or other noble person from success or happiness into ruin or misery’.[15] The hero is often still brought low by some sinful quality rather than fate, however the theme of the fickleness of fortune is introduced as a way to comment upon the inevitability of the hero’s downfall.

In the Alliterative Morte Arthure this theme is explored through Arthur’s dream of the Duchess of Fortune and her wheel, who initially will ‘lift [him] up lightly with lene handes’,[16] yet soon shows her fickle nature ‘and whirles [him] under,/Til all [his] quarters that while were quasht all to peces’.[17] It is worth noting that the six fallen kings do not blame the wheel of fortune for their fall, but rather their own hubris. This further emphasizes that, although the fickleness of fortune is a factor in Arthur’s tragedy, he is still ultimately responsible for his own undoing. The Duchess’ exclamation, ‘Crist that me made!’ suggests that she is actually meting out God’s justice through her punishments, rather than simply causing strife for the sake of it.[18] The Alliterative Morte Arthure certainly demonstrates the balanced structure characteristic of this form of tragedy, with Arthur’s victorious conquest taking up roughly the same proportion of the text as his downfall.

This sense of balance is only heightened by the parallels between Arthur and his former enemies, as previously discussed. Where Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is concerned, the difficulty is not whether or not the protagonist can be considered a tragic hero, but rather finding a character that could not be considered so. Indeed, Malory depicts the dissolution of the Round Table as a universal tragedy affecting all involved. However this is not simply a melancholy parade of dark fates intended to evoke pathos, as nearly every character suffers from the same tragic flaw: devotion to a limited and unpractical chivalric code, upon which the Round Table is built. The inadequacy of this code is primarily demonstrated through the downfall of Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain, each of whom demonstrate a distinctly dangerous aspect of chivalry. From the very beginning of Arthur’s rule, the contrast between his style of ruling and his father’s is stark. Uther demands unquestioning obedience from his subjects, going so far as to make war on the Duke of Tingatel simply for ‘departyng [court] soo sodenly’.[19] In contrast, Arthur’s very installation of a round table reveals that he has attempted to create a relationship that is more fraternal than patriarchal. While this relationship with his lords creates deeper bonds of affection between them and creates the ‘fayryst felyshyp of noble knyghtes that ever hylde Crystyn kynge togydirs’,[20] it also weakens his power over them. By founding the Round Table and lowering his own status to first among equals, Arthur has moved from the absolute monarchy of his father into a more unstable feudal monarchy. As a result he is entirely dependent on the good will of his lords and his ability to ‘holde hem togydirs with [his] worshyp’ to keep control of the realm.[21]

Perhaps the best example of this is Arthur’s response to Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. Agravain expresses his disgust that the Knights of the Round Table ‘be nat ashamed bothe to se and to know how Sir Launcelot lyeth dayly and nyghtly by the Quene – and all we know well that hit ys so’.[22] This statement suggests that the lovers are so openly involved that Arthur himself may know of their affair. Indeed, we are told that he has a ‘demyng of hit’, yet initially chooses to ignore Guinevere’s betrayal rather than risk destabilizing the kingdom by confronting Lancelot and admitting one of his own knights has cuckolded him.[23] So long as it is not acknowledged, Arthur is able to maintain the illusion of control, as emphasized through Gawain’s plea that Agravain forget the matter, lest ‘thys realm [is] holy destroyed and myscheved, and the noble felyshyp of the Rounde Table shall be disparbeled’.[24] Yet once Agravain insists on making it a public matter, Arthur is forced to publicly respond to save face. However the damage has already been done, as demonstrated by Sir Madore’s refusal to accept Arthur’s word of Guinevere’s innocence and insistence that she be tried, as despite his kingship, Arthur’s lords have realized that he is ‘but a knight as [they] ar, and [he is] sworne unto knyghthode als welle as [they] be’, and is therefore vulnerable.[25] The chivalric code of the Round Table, based on personal relationships rather than unquestioning loyalty to the king, forces Arthur to act according to Gawain’s wishes in attacking Lancelot to retain his support rather than reconciling the two parties for the good of the realm.

Lancelot’s own strict adherence to the Round Table’s chivalric code establishes him as, in Moorman’s words, ‘the perfect earthly knight’, yet this is precisely the problem, as Malory demonstrates that the ‘earthly’, secular focus of the code conflicts with the religious code that Lancelot should instead aspire to.[26] This incompatibility is initially revealed through his failure to attain the grail. As the most audacious quest set before the Round Table, it would seem natural to the reader that the grail should be won by its greatest knight, yet Lancelot is deemed to be unworthy by the hermit due to him being ‘lyckly to turne agayne’ to Guinevere.[27] Whilst chivalry encourages this behavior as courtly love, Christianity condemns his lechery, therefore he cannot attain the grail and remain true to himself as the ‘the best exemplar of Round Table civilization’.[28] Indeed Gawain remarks that in rescuing Guinevere from Arthur’s punishment ‘he hath done but knyghtly’, despite the fact that being knightly in this context has meant going against the justice of an anointed king.[29] As Lumianski states, according to the code of chivalry ‘all challenges must be met and all fellows must be revenged’,[30] regardless of how just one’s cause is or the effect on the realm, making it almost impossible to ‘take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell’.[31]

This is demonstrated particularly poignantly through Gawain’s insistence on avenging the death of Gareth despite the knowledge such an action would not only destroy the Round Table, but also force him to kill his brother in arms. By forcing Gawain to choose between his loyalty to Lancelot and the chivalric need to preserve the honor of his family at any expense, Malory reveals that the code of the Round Table is so focused on maintaining appearances that it does not allow its followers to compromise for the greater good. The tragic irony of Gawain’s adherence to the code is that, in waging a pointless war against Lancelot on the grounds that he has been ‘false unto [his] uncle Kynge Arthur’, he actually facilitates Mordred’s genuine treachery.[32] Gawain’s recognition on his deathbed is perhaps the most tragic of all, as he not only realizes that ‘thorow [his] wylfulnesse [he] was causer of [his] own dethe’ P681, he sees the greater implications of his dedication to chivalry on the realm, as he states that his refusal to ‘accord with [Lancelot]’ P681 has cause ‘all thys shame and disease’ throughout the land.[33] The chivalry of medieval romance is, at its core, too idealistic to be of any practical use in a less than ideal world. In a medieval society largely founded on the concept of original sin, any attempt to create a perfect kingdom with imperfect man alone is doomed to fail before it begins.

Vinaver states that Malory was unconcerned with the ‘internal and spiritual problems that confront a political body’, yet just the opposite is true.[34] It is Arthur who does not give enough attention to spirituality in the creation of the Round Table, and Malory clearly reveals how catastrophic such an oversight can be. The code of the Round Table is repeatedly shown to be uncompromising and too secular because it assumes the best in men, that they have already reached individual spiritual stability, and leaves no room for the inevitability of human nature. England in Malory’s own time was just as tumultuous as in his work, as the War of the Roses was well under way. Vinaver notes that ‘as a Warwickshire man, Malory must have followed the shifting policies of Warwick’.[35] In and out of jail but never formally tried or convicted, it is reasonable to assume that Malory’s imprisonment was politically motivated due to this. Whilst the tragedy of Arthur’s downfall in the Alliterative Morte Arthure is a personal tragedy commenting on the sins of one man, Malory’s tragedy affects the whole realm, as the elite’s disagreements plunge the kingdom into civil war. Much like the Houses of Lancaster and Tudor, Malory reveals that personal feuds in the highest ranks of the country has a serious effect on all, not just the king. The Alliterative Arthur’s fall is arguably a blessing for the world he intends to conquer, however in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur the fall of the Round Table has terrible implications for Britain. By exposing the flaws in chivalry in this manner, Malory has not only shown the reader the collapse of a perfect society; he has also revealed that such a society is unsustainable in our imperfect world, that the romantic dream of chivalry is a lie and that in a real world our unreal heroes would fail.

In conclusion, both the Alliterative Morte Arthure Arthur and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur can be considered tragedies; however the Alliterative Arthur’s fall is a more traditional tragedy of fortune, focusing on the downfall of one man due to pride, whilst Malory’s text has several characters who could be seen as tragic heroes. This being the case, the Alliterative poet has created a far more personal tale, which does not consider the effects on his downfall on the realm beyond catharsis. In contrast Malory, by exploring the breakdown of personal relationships and personal conflict, has explored the wider effect on society and civil war. By revealing the inadequacy of chivalry and the code of the Round Table, Malory has instead essentially created a tragedy of idealism. It is this that ultimately makes Malory’s Le Morte Darthur the more poignantly tragic retelling of the legend, as the Alliterative Arthur has brought about his own downfall through pride and greed, whereas Malory’s Knights of the Round Table, despite their flaws and inability to choose between morality and chivalry, consistently have the best of intentions at heart.

Bibilography ‘Alliterative Morte Arthure’, in King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. by Benson, Larry D. (Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994), [accessed 3 January 2016]

Bennett, J. A. W, Essays On Malory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963)

Göller, Karl Heinz, The Alliterative Morte Arthure (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1981) Keiser, George R., “Edward III And The Alliterative Morte Arthure”, Speculum, 48 (1973), 37

Kennedy, Beverly, Knighthood In The Morte D’arthur (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1985)

Krishna, Valerie, The Alliterative Morte Arthure (New York: B. Franklin, 1976)

Loomis, Roger Sherman, Arthurian Literature In The Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959)

Lumiansky, R. M, Malory’s Originality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964)

Lynch, Andrew, Malory’s Book Of Arms (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1997)

Malory, Thomas, and Stephen H. A Shepherd, Le Morte Darthur, Or, The Hoole Book Of Kyng Arthur And Of His Noble Knyghtes Of The Rounde Table (New York: Norton, 2004)

Matthews, William, The Tragedy Of Arthur: A Study Of The Alliterative “Morte Arthure” (University of California Press, 1960), p. 134

McCarthy, Terence, Reading The Morte Darthur (Cambridge: Brewer, 1988)

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Francis Golffing, The Birth Of Tragedy And The Genealogy Of Morals (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956)

Pochoda, Elizabeth T, Arthurian Propaganda (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971) [1] ‘Alliterative Morte Arthure’, in King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994), [accessed 3 January 2016]

l. 1528 [2] Ibid. l.1002 [3] Ibid. l.2234-5 [4] Ibid. l.997, 3092 [5] Ibid. l.3 [6] Ibid. l.3178 [7] Ibid. l.3180 [8] William Matthews, The Tragedy Of Arthur: A Study Of The Alliterative “Morte Arthure” (University of California Press, 1960), p. 134. [9] ‘Alliterative Morte Arthure’, l.2447 [10] Ibid. l.3274-5 [11] Ibid. l.3277 [12] Karl Heinz Göller, The Alliterative Morte Arthure (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1981), p. 446 [13] Ibid. l.3966 [14] Ibid. l.3986 [15] Matthews, The Tragedy of Arthur, p. 105 [16] Ibid. l.3349 [17] Ibid. l.3388-9 [18] Ibid. l.3385 [19] Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. by Stephen H. A. Shepherd (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004) p. 3 [20] Ibid. p. 657 [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid. p. 646 [23] Ibid. p. 647 [24] Ibid. [25] Ibid. p.591 [26] Charles Moorman, “The Tale of the Sankgreall” in Malory’s Originality, ed. by R. M Lumiansky, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964) p. 191 [27] Malory, Le Morte Darthur, p. 948 [28] Moorman, “The Tale of the Sankgreall”, p. 191 [29] Malory, Le Morte Darthur, p. 658 [30] R. M Lumianski, “The Tale of Lancelot” in Malory’s Originality, ed. by R. M Lumiansky, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964) pp.133-4 [31] Malory, Le Morte Darthur, p. 77 [32] Ibid. p. 669 [33] Ibid. p. 681 [34] Lumianski, “The Tale of Lancelot”, p. 109 [35] Euguene Vinaver, “Sir Thomas Malory” in Arthurian Literature In The Middle Ages, ed. by Roger Sherman Loomis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959) p. 542

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Malory and His Launcelot: Returning to God

March 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the years between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (1136) History of the Kings of Britain, which featured tales of a young warrior who would become ruler of an empire, and the prison-inked Le Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory, the religious landscape of Europe began to shift from thoroughly Christian to a mixture of traditional beliefs and newfound spiritualism. In detailed study on the religion of the period, Tanner (2009) highlights a declining population due to the Black Death, the spread of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and general disillusionment with the church following the Western Schism as reasons for waning support for the church. Due to the rise of other religious beliefs during its composition and passages selected from the work, some critics have argued Malory’s (1485) Morte is a secularized telling of Arthurian lore rather than being influenced by Christianity. Even the seminal Holy Grail section, The Noble Tale of the Sankgreall, has been argued as a simplified telling of the divine chalice that eschews the overly Christian elements in favor of a secularized account. Eugene Vinaver (1947) argues Malory’s Grail section is the least original of the author’s work. Writing of the translation from the source material, the French Vulgate Cycle La Queste de Saint Graal, Vinaver says:

His attitude [toward the source] may be described without much risk of over-simplification as that of a man to whom the quest of the Grail was primarily an Arthurian adventure and who regarded the intrusion of the Grail upon Arthur’s kingdom not as a means of contrasting earthly and divine chivalry and condemning the former, but as an opportunity offered to the knights of the Round Table to achieve still greater glory in this world. (1)

This argument claims Malory’s work is secular in nature rather than inspired by Christian themes. The claim is flawed on its face as this research will prove. Vinaver’s argument is refuted by Charles Moorman in his 1956 essay “Malory’s Treatment of the Sankgreall.” In a detailed response to Vinaver, Moorman argues the Grail story must be viewed in context of the Morte as a whole. Furthermore, rather than seeking glory as Vinaver posits, Moorman argues Malory’s Grail adventure is symbolic of man’s fall from God’s grace – “presenting the failure of the Grail knights as one of the major causes of the downfall of the Round Table” (497). However, Moorman’s opinion is somewhat narrow in scope. Not only is Malory’s work brimming with Christian influence, it can be argued the entire work was inspired by the author’s desire to return to God. The Sankgreall is a Christian story, not a secular one, and functions as a message about the importance of true redemption. Even though another knight in the tale – Galahad – achieves ultimate greatness, the story belongs to Launcelot, who also serves as the metaphorical vessel by which Malory begins his own redemption following a life of ill deeds.

In the closing lines of Le Morte Darthur, Malory makes a plea to his reader to pray for his soul. Specifically, the scribe writes:

I praye you all, jentylmen and jentylwymmen that redeth this book of Arthur and his knyghtes from the begynnyng to the endynge, praye for me whyle I am on lyve that God sende me good delyveraunce; and whan I am deed, I praye you all praye for my soule. For this book was ended the ninth yere of the regyne of Kyng Edward the Fourth, by Syr Thomas Maleore, knyght, as Jesu helpe hym, for hys grete might, as he is the servaunt of Jesu both day and nyght. Amen. (698)

Malory, the wordsmith most associated with Arthurian tradition, was a troubled man who spent significant time in prison. The very work for which he is famous, Morte, was composed while incarcerated for a series of violent crimes. Most notable among these crimes was the rape of a woman by the name of Joan Smith. In her essay “Malory and Rape,” Catherine Batt (1997) outlines that legal documents of the day reveal Malory of Newbold Revel engaged in these wanton acts in the year 1450. On May 23rd of that year and then again on August 6th, Malory invaded the home of Hugh Smith in Leicester where he “feloniously raped and carnally lay by” the man’s wife and then stole goods from the family. He was subsequently pursued by local authorities, arrested, and made to serve a not unsubstantial term in the mire of an English prison for his obscenities. However, behind those cold walls, Malory achieved greatness. His Arthurian prose retold legends, added new wrinkles, and produced a coherent, concise, canon for the King of Camelot and his Knights of the Roundtable. But as a lowly criminal, one charged with the heinous crime of rape, how is it appropriate for such a man to write of morals, God, and appropriate decorum and behavior? His stories are not of despair but of salvation. Malory’s writing, while brimming with violence, murder, deception, and betrayal, is at its core a story of men seeking redemption, cautionary tales of the tragedies brought about by sin, and a guide for how humans should treat one another.

It is firmly my contention that if not for Malory’s crimes and subsequent punishment, the author would have never produced the Morte, and Arthurian lore would not have its current lofty perch in the annals of British literature. It is important to realize because of the very nature of his writings and the overt moral plea he makes in the work, that Malory was heavily influenced by Christian doctrine and ideology. Furthermore, his closing lines in the Morte – “praye for me …that God sende me good deliverance” – as well as his promise that he had become a servant of Jesus Christ in the day and the night was a profession of faith, perhaps a faith he gained while in prison and pondering his own wicked deeds. Malory’s writing and final plea indicate a man who achieved greatness, lost his way from God, and was committed to being restored. The story of the lost soul who finds God is a narrative of several characters in the Morte most noticeably Launcelot, who is an exemplary knight of the order but strays from God. And, like Malory himself, the knight finds God by his narrative conclusion.

While we know little of Malory’s days in prison, his writing indicates a devout man who placed heavy emphasis on church attendance and knowing God on an intimate and personal level. Though a criminal, Malory was fascinated with church and the act of communing with God. McCarthy (1991) argues that Malory ranks his knights in a simple and singular way with piety serving as the measuring stick. This argument is bolstered by David Eugene Clark (2015) in his essay “Constructing Spiritual Hierarchy through Mass Attendance in Morte Darthur.” In the Morte, Malory parallels the weakness and strength of all mankind to those of Arthur and his knights. Clark issues a tier ranking to the Grail knights which places Gawain at the base and Perceval and Galahad as the most exemplary. This ranking establishes the belief that Malory attributed closeness to God as being vital to the soul. Malory’s own journey to return to God begins with his Grail knights, who are the best of us yet still falter. None of these knights are of low moral standing, however. The base ranking of Gawain is simply a delineation to separate the noblest knights from those with more corrupted souls. Clark points out Malory’s tying of mass attendance to the piety of Arthur’s knights. The more frequent the mass attendance, the closer the knight’s place is to God (136). However, simply attending mass is not enough to exalt a knight. He must also be as free of sin and lead as clean a life as possible. Gawain only attends mass during “communal” times when everyone else is going (128). The higher tier knights spend a greater amount of time in mass, making it part of their daily rituals. What separates Launcelot, a tier 3 knight, from the upper echelon of Galahad and Perceval (tier 4) is not his lack of mass attendance but rather how he strays from God after being granted a glimpse of the Grail. After Launcelot’s moment of clarity with the Grail, he pledges his soul to God but then returns to Camelot and is once again a slave to sins of the flesh. He continues his affair with Guinevere, slaughters an innocent in Gareth, and is the catalyst for the demise of Arthur’s kingdom. Launcelot is symbolic of every person who finds himself close to God only to waver when time or inconvenience prove greater than the call for piety. It is ironic that despite the violence in which these men engage, they are still considered noble and even godly because of their church attendance. They put king (and queen in Launcelot’s case) above or at the very least next to God, and they violate God’s commandment not to kill with impunity. While they are seen as the utmost of righteous by laypeople, Malory’s writing indicates God sees them for what they are – broken men. Clark writes that both Launcelot and Bors are guilty of grievous, even “deadly sin,” but to move closer to God they confess their crimes as well as repent, serve penance and prove themselves through “clean living” (144). The task proves too great in the long term, and Launcelot’s faltering proves to be the detriment of all involved.

This idea of the fall from grace of the soldier could be a testimony Malory writes of himself. From Batt’s research as well as from the work of others, we know that Malory was a soldier and someone of reverence as he was elected to parliament. He was also a political activist in the most aggressive sense of the term as he engaged in raids to weaken and raise the ire of the Duke of Buckingham. The rape crimes as well as countless other wicked acts were carried out in a seemingly more brazen manner before his incarceration. The more criminal acts in which he engaged, the greater their severity became. But as he sat in prison, his stories created an idyllic world where good triumphed over evil until petty squabbles grew into major grievances. Cracks appeared in the foundations of the chivalrous oath the king established, and man’s sin proved too great for the kingdom to bear. Whether these writings were politically motivated or Malory’s statements on the sad state of his own life remain unclear. Writing during the era of the War of Roses, Malory’s stories have parallels to the real world in which he lived. However, his constant use of chivalric notions in the writing indicates he was influenced not only by Christian teachings but also by his own desire to make amends for his violation of the chivalric code he created. While Malory could have been simply telling a tale, the dedication, care, and detailed and intricate expression he gave to each page indicates a man attempting to impart a message. The character of Launcelot, with his failings and triumphs, indicates an author living vicariously through his creation. Malory’s final plea in the book, for readers to pray for his soul, also indicates a man seeking forgiveness and his own redemption.

At this juncture, it is important to return to the notion of chivalry and Malory’s own violation of the code. The Pentecostal Oath first appeared in the Morte and has not been found in any earlier incarnations of Arthurian lore. At its core, the oath is what Arthur believes to be the key virtues of a knight. By taking the oath, a knight becomes a member of the Round Table and is granted riches and lands. One of the chief tenets of the code regards the treatment of women. As it pertains to Malory’s crimes, there is one section of the oath to consider: “…and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour], strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe…” (77). The author failed to live up to this portion of his own code (and it can be argued that any author’s words, especially codes of conduct, are their own beliefs). While Malory violated his own oath, we still must contend the Morte is a testament of repentance and a plea to follow the Christian virtues therein. The prose clearly illustrates a man with an overt message of hope and a plea for readers to follow the virtues therein. If Malory remained a callous criminal, what purpose would it serve to write messages of hope unless he was seeking forgiveness for his crimes and had perhaps already discovered God? What has a cold criminal to gain by writing messages of love, piety, and crafting tales that are cautionary in nature and illustrate the suffering from sin? Malory was inspired, asked for the light of the Christian God, and according to his own words, found that light. However, despite these revelations, some have argued Malory’s work was not inspired by a Christian influence. Among the detractors is Alastair Minnis (2006), who argued just because the “Sankgreall” tale deals exclusively with the Holy Grail, the entire Morte should not be deemed a Christian work (34). He says the work contains Christian elements but only in limited form, likening the work to being many individual keys for many separate beliefs rather than a skeleton key that opens the entirety of the work to Christianity. The challenge then, as Hodges (2007) explains, is to know which keys to use when they appear and how audiences are “invited to respond to what they find when the locks are opened.” Secularization aside as well as any arguments for or against Christian influence, the narrative of Launcelot and his path toward the Grail are keys to unlock Malory’s own hidden plea for redemption.

Before an argument can be made that Launcelot was a representation of Malory himself, we must examine the literary character as well as the author’s influences in the knight’s shaping. From a variety of sources across Europe, Malory pieced together an official Arthurian “canon.” Some of the canon, including much of Launcelot’s story, was tweaked for his own purposes, and others, such as the tale of Perceval, were altered considerably. The Sankgreall was inspired by the French text La Queste de Saint Graal. However, Malory trimmed the work to nearly one third of its original length. In his removal, the imprisoned author excised lengthy dogmatic dialogue. Mary Hynes Berry (2001) says the cuts create new perceptions of the Grail story and writes, “While we can never be sure of precisely what Malory did or did not understand, his deletions unquestionably follow a clear and consistent pattern” (244). That pattern is to focus extensively on Launcelot. There are other knights – Bors, Perceval, Galahad – but it is Launcelot who is at the center of the plot. Specifically, the story focuses on one man’s desire to repent and please God while struggling with his own nature and the desires of the flesh. Malory’s hero is deeply flawed, yet not unsalvageable. In the end, before the story’s final act, Malory reaches his symbolic conclusion as he writes of Launcelot’s partial success in seeing the Grail, being denied the full glory because of his sin, and then promising to rededicate his life to God. The thematic lesson of the story is to constantly work to better one self. Launcelot is the best Earth has to offer. He is contrasted with Galahad, who Malory uses as the epitome of what all should strive to be. Galahad is the ideal. Launcelot is the reality. This father/son dynamic is also intriguing and will be discussed later in the work.

Returning to Malory’s excisions, he essentially trims the fat of the French text by excluding sermons and lengthy spiritual sections that, as Berry explains, “develop significance but do not advance the plot” (246). This dogma drags down the text and while Berry and other Arthurian experts believe the cuts are made to keenly focus the message of hope and a return to God, some critics argue Malory’s Grail story secularizes the material. This is a return to the Vinaver argument laid out previously. Snyder (1974) disagrees with Vinaver and contends Malory’s Grail story is a larger statement on society and a man’s place in it as he struggles to go with God rather than go with greed of the flesh. Snyder realizes the Morte must be viewed as a whole and that the reader must understand the reason why the cuts were made.

As a complement to Snyder’s points, Moorman contends the failure of the Grail knights is not only the catalyst for the downfall of the Roundtable but also Malory’s metaphor for man’s failure in finding God. Moorman: “He pares away from the hermits’ comments the purely religious commentary which is alien to his purpose, yet he is always careful to keep, usually in summation, the religious core of the argument presented” (498). He agrees with the thesis of this essay and that Vinaver’s secularization statement is flawed. Had it been Malory’s desire to secularize the Grail, he could have very easily completely excluded the words of the hermits. Their inclusion, in fact, continues to slow down the narrative. If Malory had only been interested in continuing his tradition of detailed description of war and battle (the soldier in him) it would have been easier to go from one perilous adventure to the next on the Grail path rather than stop for life lessons from those who are passed on the trail. This was evidently not Malory’s wish. He had no intention of making the work about blood and violence. Malory’s Grail tale is an effort to illustrate a man’s repentance from his sin and a desire to find God once more.

Continuing this line of thought, Riddy (1987) says Malory’s trimming of the source text was a “reaction against the too explicit . . . literary mode” (113-114). He continues noting the tone of the French text was “too didactic and Malory’s rejection was simply to trim the fat no matter if it was religious or secular.” Kennedy (1985) posits Malory’s treatment of the Grail story “reflects fifteenth century writers’ attempts to reconcile religion with their own experience of life” (286). And considering Malory’s life experiences and his station in life as he wrote the Morte, it is quite easy to argue Launcelot was Malory himself on the page. The writing adage “write what you know” was true in the Middle Ages as it is true today. Launcelot was Malory and Malory was Launcelot.

Launcelot’s fall is foreshadowed in the very beginning of the Grail story as he kindly rejects his king’s order to pull the sword from the stone: “Sir, hit ys nat my swerde. Also, I have no hardiness to sette my honed thereto, for hit longith nat to hange be my syde” (498). While this act may seem small, it is a betrayal of one of the key decrees of Arthur’s Pentecost Oath. It is a parallel between Christian knighthood and its failings to the failings in our lives. Throughout the story, Launcelot meets hermits and damsels as well as other knights and is always deemed the “best of any synfull man.” He is the best in a sinful world and can achieve no more. When comparing Malory as a person to his creation in Launcelot, it is important to remember Malory does not condone Launcelot’s failings or sins. He paints a grim picture about what Launcelot (who is a stand in for Malory as well as humanity) brings about to those he loves simply because of his vanity, hubris, and pride. He outlines the common problem in men throughout time. Repenting and undertaking penance are not enough if you do not continue along the righteous path. The essential flaw in Launcelot is his instability. It is not his past sins that cost him but the continued failure to direct himself exclusively toward God. Like all humans, it is not about good and evil. There are far too many shades of gray. It is about the path toward God.

Malory, writing of Launcelot in the weeks before entering Corbenic Castle, describes a man who is in constant prayer: “And the wynde arose and drove Sir Launcelot more than a moneth thorow the se, where he sleped lititll, but prayded to God that he might se some tydynges of the Sankgreall” (575). He arrives at the castle, sees a guard of lions, and returns to his vessel to arm himself. Then a voice: “…wherefore trustist thou more on thy harneyese than in thy Maker? For He might more avayle the than thyne amour in what servyse that thou arte sette in” (576). Launcelot obeys the voice, walks freely into the castle. After a period of searching, he finds his way to a barred door that opens and Launcelot is granted a glimpse of the Grail. Awestruck and wanting to move closer, the voice tells him not to enter for he is not worthy to go further. The critical mistake comes when he sees a figure appear to be in distress. Disobeying the voice, he rationalizes, “Fayre Fadir, Jesu Cryste, ne take hit for no synne if I helpe the good man which hath grete nede of help” (577). Launcelot is thrown from the room and found the next morning by the people. He slumbers in a coma for 24 days.

The door is shut; the way is shut, simply because Launcelot does not put his trust in God. The knight herein is cast back because he once again ignores advice and commands in pursuit of knightly chivalry. Rather than ignoring the warning and trying to aid the ill figure, Launcelot should have placed faith in God that the deity would protect those who have faith in Him. In other instances in the story, Launcelot has not taken to heart the words of hermits. These hermits arguably serve as messengers of God who deliver key information that can be followed or ignored. Ignoring the advice, however, has consequences. There are also numerous tempters and temptresses along the path to the Grail that all knights encounter. Chief among them would be the devil posing as a beautiful woman who tempts Perceval. A religious gesture (the sign of the Cross) saves the knight. So it is not all Launcelot’s fault, for how is a man to know who is friend and who is foe? In the instance of being on the Grail’s literal doorstep, Launcelot’s ignoring the warnings results in the knight’s failure to realize God will help those who have faith. Perhaps if Launcelot had not been so rash and had faith, just as Daniel survived the lions’ den, the knight’s story may have had a different ending. But even Launcelot had been granted more than a glimpse, he continues to fail his requirements of the Christian knighthood upon his return to Camelot.

If Launcelot is a stand-in for Malory in this instance, what can be said of Galahad? As Galahad’s illegitimate son, an argument could be made to the parallel of the virgin birth of Christ in so much as he enters the world in unusual circumstances, was then raised by someone other than his father, and is the only soul who can achieve what others cannot. We know Malory had at least one son, but it is not possible to know if the father/son dynamic of Launcelot and Galahad is a result of Malory’s own desire for his son to have a better life than he or if Galahad is only symbolic of Christ as an example of what humanity should strive to be. In any event, it is easy to see Launcelot’s failings as greater than what they are because of the success of Galahad. However, the argument must be made that Launcelot is even more of a success as a knight because of Galahad’s achievements. The father wants more for the child, which is a statement that rings true throughout time no mater creed or color. In the closing pages of the story, Malory writes of Galahad’s success in the Grail quest and his rule over the land of Sarras. Galahad is approached by a descent of Joseph of Aramathy, who was trusted to protect the Grail, and takes the knight into Heaven. Before he goes, Galahad has a final word for his friends Percival and Bors:

And whan he had seyde thes wordis [Sir Galahad] went to Sir Percivale and kissed hym and commended hym to God; and so he wente to Sir Bors and kyssed hym and commended hym to God, and seyde, “My fayre lorde, salew me unto my lorde Sir Launcelot, my fadir, and so sone as ye se hym, bydde hym remembir of this worlde unstable.” (586)

In his final moments, his mission accomplished, he tells his friends to pass along a message to Launcelot, his father. The message is not one of love, necessarily, but one of encouragement. Remember the unstable world. Remember the perils of the world and the ease of sin. His message is one meant to give hope and encouragement to a father who is struggling to continue being a decent man in an indecent world. Along that line of thought, the message could be one of love although it is a didactic love. The roles of father and son are almost reversed in this instance which is the purpose of the Galahad character. The message is the same as that spoken by Christ. In this portrayal Galahad is speaking to Launcelot, Malory, and the reader.

Launcelot and his son are very different souls. The son is set apart from other men and we are only aware of his near perfect nature. But in his nature, he displays few human emotions. Malory seems to have intentionally written the character in a way that emphasizes the humanity of Launcelot. Doing so, tells the reader that we can all be Launcelot and that the only thing that keeps partial success from blooming to complete victory is ourselves. Berry writes: “The meaning and the effect of Launcelot’s partial success depend on our clear recognition of the fact that his achievement is limited. Galahad provides the counterpoint. He embodies the ideal” (253). So as Galahad succeeds and shows us all what can be achieved, Launcelot ends his journey. He promises to follow the advice of those he has encountered on the journey and reform his life of sin (the pride, adultery, and betrayal) and begin living in servitude to God. Launcelot remarks: “Now I thanke God for Hys grete mercy of that I hae sene, for hit suffisith me. For, as I suppose, no man in thys worlde have lyved bettir than I have done to enchyeve that I have done” (578). These lines illustrate Launcelot does have a new understanding of what he should do, the life he should lead, the sins he should never commit again. However, the hearts of men remain easily corrupted and Launcelot’s pride and vanity show through upon his return to Camelot and his reunion with Arthur and Guinevere. The scene at the castle is grim as Malory describes the Round Table he returns to as having more than half of its knights “slayne and destroyed.” Malory’s foreshadowing of the brief reunion with the king and his best knight establishes the final act and final downfall of the kingdom known as Camelot.

While Launcelot is Malory’s vessel for the story of redemption, it is not fair to pick exclusively on the knight. Moorman reminds that Launcelot’s failure lies in the inherit flaw of the entire system. Malory’s Camelot, and Galahad’s role in it, is representative of Jesus Christ (the overt Christianity and redemption angle are like sledgehammers) and his role for believers. Galahad is a stand-alone character, sent from Above to accomplish the single goal of the Grail quest. Arthur’s knights could not accomplish the goal. It took someone far more powerful just as according to Christian doctrine Jesus Christ died for the sins of all humanity. Sent from God, Galahad reveals the inadequacies of Arthur’s court and the mystical and secular world in which they live. In the modern vernacular, Galahad is the clarion call to “get right with God.” This leaves Launcelot in a tragic light as Moorman writes: “Malory would thus seem to use Launcelot as a tragic hero, as the man whose greatest strength, his devotion to the chivalric code, is at the same time his greatest weakness and downfall” (501). In other words, the system itself is flawed as it calls for a pledge to Arthur rather than God.

As has been established, Malory’s favorite knight is undoubtedly Launcelot. To that end, considering Malory’s predicament at the time of Launcelot’s writing it is arguable that Malory used the knight as a stand-in for himself. Malory’s plea to the reader in the closing lines of the Morte call for prayers for his soul, that he had found God, and was a warrior for Jesus in the day and night. It is only after Launcelot has lost everything, his king, his kin, his beloved, his kingdom that he finds ultimate redemption and forgoes worldly desires and knightly things. He takes up the role of a hermit, a man of God, and devotes himself to that service. In a final encounter with Guinevere, he laments his failure to live up to what he promised God upon awakening from his coma. He now begs the queen for a final kiss to which she refuses. Broken-hearted, surrounded by the irreparable pieces of his shattered life, Launcelot retires to a mass with the Bishop of Canterbury which afterwards he falls to his knees and asks the bishop to “shryve hym and assoyle” him. “Than the Bysshop sayd, ‘I wyll gladly,’ and there he put an haybte upon Syr Launcelot. And there he servyd God day and nyght with prayers and fastynges” (693).

The entire Morte, specifically the Grail section, indicates Malory had great desire to be absolved and serve God just as Launcelot did. Jailed, a life thrown away because of the sins of the flesh, Malory died in prison. Perhaps Sir Thomas Malory only desired one final chance. If granted, perhaps he would follow in the footsteps of Launcelot and serve only God. We will never know. All that any of us can say is that his greatest and favorite character did those things. The adage “write what you know” applies. And Malory knew Launcelot; he knew mistakes; and according to his finals words, he knew God. Perhaps he found peace in his final days. Perhaps the tale of Launcelot and his pursuit of the Grail, subsequent failing, and ultimate renewal allowed Malory peace and calm in a life that had, by all accounts, been a whirlwind of criminality, deception, violence, and master story-telling.

Works Cited

Batt, Catherine. “Malory And Rape.” Arthuriana 7.3 (1997): 78-99. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Clark, David Eugene. “Constructing Spiritual Hierarchy Through Mass Attendance In The Morte Darthur.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 128-153. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Henningfeld, D. A. “The Cambridge History Of Literary Criticism: V.2: The Middle Ages.” Choice: Current Reviews For Academic Libraries 43.6 (2006): 1010. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Hodges, Kenneth. “Haunting Pieties: Malory’s Use Of Chivalric Christian Exempla After The Grail.” Arthuriana 17.2 (2007): 28-48. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Hynes-Berry, Mary. “Malory’s Translation Of Meaning: ‘The Tale Of The Sankgreal’.” Studies In Philology 74.3 (1977): 243. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Kennedy, Beverly. Knighthood in the Morte D’Arthur. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1985. Print.

Malory, Thomas, and Stephen H. A. Shepherd. Le Morte Darthur, Or, The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2004. Print.

Malory, Thomas, Sir, and Eugène Vinaver. The Works Of Sir Thomas Malory. n.p.: London ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1959, 1954., 1947. Louisiana Tech University. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

McCarthy, Terence. An Introduction To Malory : Reading The Morte Darthur. n.p.: Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY, USA : D.S. Brewer, 1991., 1991. Louisiana Tech University. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

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Tanner, Norman P. The Ages of Faith: Popular Religion in Late Medieval England and Western Europe. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009. Print.

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Camelot: Then and Now

March 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

How has the timeless story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot changed over the years to reflect the time period(s) that they are recreated in? From the Medieval period to the 1960’s, the legend of Camelot has been repurposed to push agendas or teach morals that the populous of the world needs to hear. While the 1967 film, Camelot, is a retelling of one of history and literature’s most famous love triangles, it has to do with so much more than love. It also has to do with love and loyalty to country, what justice is, the roles of females in society, and so many other important questions that we still think about today. A lot of the Arthurian texts of the Medieval Ages also touch on these subjects. I chose to do the project on this film and musical because it is a great retelling of the Arthurian legend that keeps intact some of the most important points that the original Arthurian texts brought up.

The film was released in 1967 and starred Richard Harris as King Arthur, Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Guinevere, and Franco Nero as Sir Lancelot. It was received with mixed reviews around the world. A critic from Film Quarterly named William Johnson said “Camelot is Hollywood at its worst and best.” All of the actors in the film and the script were praised and celebrated for their performances, though the lavish costumes and settings discredited a lot of the work they did. The movie even got the nickname “costalot” for how much money was spent on silly things, like the dress Guinevere wore for the wedding scene costing $12,000.

The film focuses on the creation of the Round Table and the expansion of Camelot and its Golden Age. The main things the Round Table is created for is to promote justice and doing the right things. Arthur is trying to redefine chivalry and the code of chivalry. He wants to move away from the notion that the power should use their power to only benefit themselves. He believes that knights should use their power to help others and bring peace to all the land. He tells Guinevere that he wants “Might for right.” She tells him that it is a very original idea and supports his quest to create a brotherhood of knights who congregate to discuss the world’s problems. The movie’s other focus is on the love between King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. Arthur and Guinevere are married and when Lancelot comes to Camelot, Guinevere falls in love with him as well. There is also a very deep fraternal love between Arthur and Lancelot, with Lancelot being Arthur’s right hand man and best knight. This causes strain in all of their relationships with each other, as Arthur is aware of the affair, but does nothing about it.

When Arthur’s illegitimate son, Mordred, comes to Camelot he wants to see the downfall of Camelot. He catches Guinevere and Lancelot in an intimate moment and, while Lancelot escapes, Guinevere is captured and is put on trial for treason against the King. The whole time Arthur is aware of the affair, but he cannot stop the trial or the guilty verdict because he has spent so long building the justice system. Everyone’s only hope is for Lancelot to save Guinevere, which he does, but all of this leads to Camelot’s downfall and the end of the Knights of the Round Table. The movie ends with Arthur proclaiming to remember what they stood for mainly “Might for right. Right for right. Justice for all.” He realizes that though Camelot may fall, what they created and stood for will live on in history forever.

This film was based off of the stage musical with the same title. The plot and characters are basically the same with a few minor changes. The original broadway cast starred Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Queen Guinevere, and Robert Goulet as Sir Lancelot. One of the main differences from stage to screen is the character of Merlyn. In the film, while he is there, he doesn’t play a huge role and we aren’t sure what happened to him. In the stage musical he is lured into a Nimue’s cave for eternal sleep. There are a few songs that were cut from the film, but the plot is basically the same as the film.

The musical was inspired by T.H White’s novel The Once and Future King, which was inspired by Malory’s Morte DArthur. White’s novel is considered to be one of the most influential modern day pieces of Arthurian literature. Though heavily influenced by Malory, he takes a lot of new ideas and puts them in the four part novel. His novel, though mainly meant for young audiences, can also be read as a critique on the first half of the twentieth century in the Western world.

Through a lot of the Arthurian literature the themes of chivalry and justice. One of the best examples of this is in the story of Sir Launfal which is a retelling of the story of Lanval told by Marie de France. In this story, Launfal is accused of proposing an affair between Queen Guinevere and himself by Guinevere. This is a false accusation, but because she is the queen he has to be tried. Instead of Arthur just choosing his fate, essentially acting as the sole judge, he calls on all of his knights to decide Launfal’s fate, so they act as a rudimentary form of a jury. There is a search for and an attempt at justice.

One of Arthur’s biggest challenges in the film is creating a justice system because he is unhappy with the one, or lack of one, in place. One of the best scenes in the movie that supports this is when he is trying to explain how the system to work to King Pellinore and Pellinore just isn’t comprehending it. Pellinore represents the old ways and though he doesn’t really understand it, he trusts and supports Arthur. Of course because of the justice system, there is no way Arthur can save Guinevere when she is put on trial because he worked so hard to create it and he can’t go against what he believes is right. It’s interesting to see how something so morally right, can basically lead to the downfall of the whole kingdom.

The term Camelot has become synonymous with the Kennedy presidency in the United States. Peter L. Hays in his article The Classical and Current Tragedy of Camelot discusses how The Original Cast Recording of Camelot was one of JFK’s favorite things to listen to and how that was publicized after his death. He states that his favorite lines were these from the final number, “Don’t let it be forgot. That once there was a spot. For one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Hays states “It was obviously Kennedy’s wish that he could create a Camelot that would live on in history as a shining moment.” While the musical wasn’t made because of the Kennedy presidency, it reflects a lot of Western ideals during the time. It was written not long after World War Two and during the Vietnam War. Wanting a peaceful land that promotes justice and doing what is right was the goal of a lot of the world at the time.

When Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte DArthur, he was also writing in the context of history, like Lerner and Lowe. Malory probably wrote this as social commentary on The War of the Roses in England. It was the English Civil War that took place from 1455-1485 between the House of York and House of Lancaster. Malory’s Le Morte DArthur is probably the most famous and influential piece of Arthurian legend, and it was also the first comprehensive piece of Arthurian literature that was written in prose. It is the basis for almost all of the Arthurian literature and legend that is created today. It’s really interesting to think of the parallels that these pieces that were written almost 500 years apart from each other have in common. This proves that the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is one of the most important and relatable in history. In the depths of tragedy and war, it provides a beacon of hope that one day there will be another time of peace and prosperity.

One of the most prominent changes from the Medieval Ages to the 1960’s is women’s roles in society. This is seen obviously in the portrayal of Queen Guinevere. In Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s review of Ulrike Bethlehem’s Guinevere: A Medieval Puzzle: Images of Arthur’s Queen in the Medieval Literature of England and France she states “scholars who attempt to create a coherent picture of Guinevere cannot succeed.” She goes on to say that a lot of Arthurian literature contradicts what Guinevere was used for in terms of literary tools. A lot of scholars can’t pinpoint her purpose in literature. In some earlier Arthurian legend she is pretty horrible. She causes trouble for a lot of people, is dishonest and disloyal to Arthur, and is just a spoiled queen. In Camelot, though still entitled, is no longer the annoyance she is in the earlier writings. She has a pretty substantial character arch in the film that she doesn’t get in any other Arthurian literature. She starts off as a maiden who is being forced into an arranged with King Arthur, not knowing anything about him she laments in her song “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” that because she is getting married there is no longer going to be any excitement for her and men will not fight over her. When she meets Arthur everything changes. She becomes the Queen he needs. She supports him and his ideas, she puts the kingdom first, and loves Arthur and helps him think through all of his revolutionary ideas. She is loyal to him and loves him deeply. The only thing that ever comes between them is Lancelot, and even he doesn’t come between them in a way that makes them love each other less.

Malory’s Le Morte DArthur is the first to introduce Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair. In his version, though, Guinevere is still pretty terrible like the earlier writings of her, though she has a few redeeming qualities and moments. She is very tempermental in Malory’s version, she frequently throws Lancelot out when he does something that angers her. She is also very hostile up to the point when she needs him for something. Like the film, their relationship is the downfall of Camelot. In Le Morte Mordred and Agravaine (who was cut from the film) trap Lancelot and Guinevere in the same fashion that Mordred does in the film. Again, Lancelot escapes and has to save Guinevere. Unlike the film, many more characters are involved in the fight and many people end up dead, which is more of the reason the Round Table falls in the story. Many knights are killed in the rescuing of Guinevere. In both the film and book, Guinevere goes to live in a convent after being rescued by Arthur rather than living with Lancelot because she feels so guilty and sinful for her actions. This redeems her a lot, even though maybe she didn’t need to be as redeemed as people thought she needed to be during those times. The only time she was unloyal to Arthur was with Lancelot because she loved him. She is human, had it not been the King, she would have never caused this much turmoil. All told, the portrayal of her over the centuries has made her more of a dimensional character than in the past.

Sir Lancelot has also developed a lot from the beginning of Arthurian literature considering he really wasn’t a character at all until Malory. In most Arthurian literature before Malory, Sir Gawain was Arthur’s right hand man. Interestingly enough, Sir Gawain wasn’t included in the film, even though he was a character in both Malory and White’s story. Malory, though, makes Lancelot the most accomplished knight in Camelot and starts the affair between he and Guinevere. Lancelot is still a little bit clueless like he is for Malory. He is praised for how physically dominant he is, but not for his common sense. In the film he is introduced in the song “C’est Moi” where he is singing about how virtuous he is. Before she falls for him, Guinevere makes fun of him and how innocent he is. Asking him if anything has changed with chivalry while she was napping is a great example of this. Though, for all of his virtue, he still commits treason by having an affair with Guinevere. He seems to face the least amount of consequences at the end of the film, though. He is one of the reasons for the fall of the kingdom, but all that happens to him is that he gives up Guinevere and then goes home to France. Arthur dies and Guinevere goes into a convent as well as having to live with the guilt of bringing everything she loves down with her. Lancelot also has to live with the guilt, but nothing really happens to him. Irene Morra in her article Constructing Camelot: Britain and the New World Musical says about Lancelot “By the end, the musical has endorsed Lancelot’s self-valuation; he is a romantic hero whose overwhelming loyalty to the king is challenged by a tragic passion for the beautiful Guinevere.” In a lot of Arthurian literature after Malory, Lancelot is written as the best knight in Camelot and Arthur’s best friend. Malory’s interpretation of Lancelot’s armor is discussed in Disarming Lancelot by Elizabeth Scala. Scala’s article is about how arming scenes in literature symbolize a hero. Putting on armor is a sign that someone is going into battle to, presumably, fight the good fight. Malory puts a twist on this convention with Lancelot. “It is the way Lancelot is disarmed in the Morte DArthur, I will argue, that should be read for its “heroic” signification.” Making Lancelot a fearsome opponent, even without armor, is a very bold statement in a kingdom that is known for having such excellent knights. Through all of his adventures, in all of Arthurian lure, Lancelot never gets defeated. That is one thing that stays consistent over time.

One character who stays pretty consistent over the centuries is King Arthur. He is always noble, always a good king, always a great person. He wants what is best for Camelot and wants his people to be happy and safe and prosperous. Since he is the main character of all Arthurian literature, it is harder to change his character arch. Arthur is a very compelling leader. In the film, Richard Harris does a remarkable job at characterizing this. In a film critique by Roger Ebert from 1967 he says “ Harris is a convincing king. Better still, he’s a human king.” He isn’t good because he is brilliant, or strong, or powerful, but because he is a genuinely good human being. He wants to do the right thing for people and that is the best quality a leader can have. His one downfall is trusting people too much. He trusts Lancelot and Guinevere and that destroys his kingdom, and he trusts Mordred who wants to bring down the kingdom. It also adds a layer of tragedy to the downfall of Camelot because Arthur never did anything wrong. He just wanted to better the world around him and because of hate or love for and by other people, he loses that. That, to me, is the most tragic part of the whole story. King Arthur is the kind of leader that every leader should strive to be. To create ideals that outlast your life, to create a legacy that goes on to change the world is quite a feat. Arthur’s ideals and character are immortalized in the stories we tell of him from the past five hundred years to now.

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