Violence in Malory

June 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

By focusing on sex and violence, Malory’s rendering of the Arthurian legend becomes something quite distinct from the French originals. Malory unveils a complex cast of characters including Arthur, who is both Christ-like and Herod-like by turns. Sex and violence, while certainly sensational, lends a poignant, yet gritty realism to the Arthurian legend. It is through this violent, and jarring realism that Malory unveils a distinctly political and worldly agenda. Malory focuses on Camelot as a worldly ideal. His reign is linked to the coming of the Christian church. Sanctioned by God, the sword test is the means by which Arthur is able to rise from obscurity and eventually rule England. Arthur, as the chosen one, is anticipated and proclaimed at the onset of the Works and a new form of political society may be expected. From its inception, however, his order is shown to be steeped in sin and violence. He is marred, personally, by the sins of lechery, incest and pride, while his political tactics invariably involve some form of terror. Arthur’s rise to rule is intertwined with Christ imagery, but it is also contradicted by markedly Herodic overtones.After committing state wide infanticide, Arthur escapes public derision because his subjects, “for drede and for love… helde their pece,” (Malory 37). Fear is placed significantly before love, in this instance. In Book XXI, we learn that “with kynge Arthur was never othir lyff but warre and stryff (Malory 708). Clearly, Arthur’s conception of order involves a strong and violent hand, and Malory’s rendering of Arthur reveals both a worldly sinner and a political saviour. This is a complex rendering of human nature. Arthur may be the “once and future king,” but he readily succumbs to imperfect passions, such as pride, revenge and lust.Malory is a gritty storyteller. As a man who has been involved in a considerable amount bloodshed, he brings his own unique perspective to the Arthurian legend. While bloody and violent, war proves instrumental in demonstrating the worldly code that Arthur heralds and Malory champions. The King’s early battles are based on the idea of courtesy (Moorman 62). The opposing armies seem more determined to out vie each other in courtesy than in battle. Knights are unhorsed far more frequently than they are slain. The general tone of war, while tumultuous, is of propriety and mutual respect. Enemy armies do not fail to complement each other’s valor and prowess. Malory’s detailed battles do not only convey a sense of military propriety, but they also reveal the importance of strong leadership. Arthur’s prominent presence in battle is necessary for victory, as Merlin points out in Book I, Arthur must fight alongside his forces. The king’s figure seems to have magical properties as it propels the army to victory.Strong, able government is manifested in young Arthur and his ability to unify various noble families should be noted. The families of Lot, Pellinor and Ban are traditional enemies, yet Arthur is able to bring them all together, however briefly, at the Round Table. Although this volatile collection of families appears to be unified at Arthur’s Court, sinister undertones ripple beneath the surface. The feud between Gawain and Pellinor is an early outbreak of this rancorous rash. Plots, intrigues and personal vendettas threaten to tear the Round Table apart. This downward movement of the Round Table begins in Book VI where, as the critic Terrence McCarthy points out, “The one quest that the whole of the round table undertakes, the one which therefore reflects their perfect unity, is the one whick will disunite them and prove their imperfection” (McCarthy 40). By the end of the Works, the realm has been so thoroughly disintegrated that strife between families is replaced by strife within families. Arthur’s final battle is against his own son, Mordred. Ties of kinship may have once offered Arthur an essential power base, but the rot of sin finally reaches the core. Mordred, a product of incest, returns to his father, to share the final unity of death. As the critic Beverly Kennedy observes, “This deadly embrace of father and son is a fitting emblem of the destructive power of vengeance (Kennedy 342). No image could be as poignant as Mordred climbing the spear of his father to deliver a shared death.The fall of the realm is immediately noticeable. Malory describes a terrible scene, in which the fallen knights are ravaged by a horde of looting peasants. The dying are dispatched without mercy and stripped of all their finery. Malory’s aim is unmistakable. Without strong government, subjects will naturally fall into an animalistic state of chaos. In this case, the writer’s use of riveting, jarring imagery makes a powerful suggestion. Arthur’s regime, though one of terror and violence, is a political necessity.Ultimately, Arthur’s power rests not so much in his personal virtue, but in his political guiles. The battle to maintain his power base is Arthur’s true challenge. For this end, Arthur would tolerate the abuses of Gawain and even the scandalous hints of Lancelot’s dalliance with the Queen. This is a king whose priorities are never in doubt. At the onset of the Grail quest, Arthur is made wretched by Gawain’s proposal to recover the Holy Grail. He accurately predicts that the Round Table will never again host such a noble collection of warriors. The Round Table empowers Arthur’s will. As such, holding it together is of fundamental importance. What we find in Malory is an acute interest in politics and how kings maintain power. The text offers a detailed depiction of the rise and fall of a kingdom as well as that of the ideology that nurtured it. Arthur’s realm is backed by a new, Christian sense of morality. Notions of honour, courtesy and, most importantly, kinship hold the realm together, but standards of mercy, charity and piety arise to direct the Round Table’s strength. The failure of the political system is the failure to maintain this exalted ideal in a less than perfect world. It must, like all things transient, fade. During Arthur’s wars of ascendancy, we see knights engaged in righteous battle. Even the young king’s enemies, such as Lot of Orkney, fight valiantly because they are driven with purpose. However, what motivates Arthur’s later military campaigns? He pursues a repentant Lancelot into France and wages a bloody struggle over a vendetta. Indeed, this vendetta is not even his own. Guinevere has been restored to him, but Gawain is still without his brother and blind to forgiveness.Arthur’s French war is madness, and for the most part, the French battles are entirely void of honor. As Lancelot observes, Arthur will “gette here no worshyp,” (Malory 691). It is a meaningless crusade propelled by Gawain’s desire for vengeance. Knights like Balyn and Lamorak are no longer catching the King’s eye with incredible feats of slaughter. War’s changing aspect from glorious to shameful is an essential element in this presentation of Arthur’s rise and fall. Arthur’s is a police state, but as Malory suggests, such a circumstance is a necessity of the times. The true tragedy lies in Arthur’s inability to police his own policemen. His weakness, as a king, becomes increasingly obvious from the moment that Balyn decapitates the Lady of the Lake at court. At the time, she stood under Arthur’s protection. Balyn seems to escape lightly with exile, but later his personal prowess returns him to the King’s favour. Arthur expresses an interest in keeping Balyn at court, despite the knight’s heinous transgression. Physical might is in great demand in troubled times. It is Arthur’s only surety of maintaining authority and it takes precedence over all other concerns. Even love must take a backseat to power as Arthur articulates in Book XX: “much more I am soryar for my good knyghtes losse than for the losse of my fayre quene; for quenys I myght have inow, but such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs in no company,” (Malory 685).Unfortunately, in order to rule, Arthur must reconcile himself to the unruly. Gawain provides our most obvious example. His underhanded, thuggish tactics in dealing with Pellinor’s family as well as his endorsement of his own mother’s murder are outrages to Arthur’s government. All too frequently, Arthur is portrayed as helpless in relation to his own knights, trying fruitlessly to hold onto what he calls, “the fayryst and the trewyst of knyghthode that ever was sene togydir in ony realme of the worlde,” (Malory 522). The threat of losing a knight of Gawain’s caliber is a greater source of concern for Arthur than the erosion of evil.Force is admirable when organized and terrifying when at large. As Arthur’s great enterprise spirals downward, friends become foes and sons rise against fathers. All forms of social bonds unravel completely. Violence is the inevitable symptom of a fallen world, but the effort to direct and draw moral strength from it is a truly elevated principle. Arthur arrives, according to Heaven’s mandate, to herald a new kind of order, but this is not the seamless otherworld that Galahad hints at. It is a world inhabited by humans and governed by their imperfect nature. The world is naturally turbulent, and Malory’s interest lies in how order may be imposed upon such a place (Benson 236). His flair for violence and spectacle is instrumental in emphasizing the volatility of Arthur’s realm. The King’s efforts to keep everything together are nothing short of epic. Random violence may only be countered with organized violence. Malory’s world is a vibrant and dynamic one, inhabited by men of fierce passions and faultless integrity. Even when Malory inserts the grisly detail of how Lucan lay “fomyng at the mowth and parte of his guttes lay at hys fyete,” we can not justly attribute it to the author’s taste for sensationalism (Malory 716). Instead, we are struck with an image of loyalty that is magnificently memorable. This is not an ugly moment, but a sublime testament to a glorious king and the values that he heralded. Lucan, without regard for his own condition and literally falling apart at the seams, will serve Arthur until his very last breath. After Arthur’s death, the great king and all of the admirable knights are gone forever. While another king may take the throne, a glory like that of Arthur’s Round Table is gone forever.Works CitedBenson, Larry D. Malory’s Morte Darthur. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976.Kennedy, Beverly. Knighthood in the Morte Darthur. Great Britain: St. Edmundsburg Press Ltd., 1992.Malory, Thomas. Malory: Works. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.McCarthy, Terence. Reading the Morte Darthur. Great Britain: St. Edmundsburg Press Ltd., 1988.Moorman, Charles. The Book of King Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s Morte Darthur. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

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