Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Sir Thomas Malory

Malory’s 1471 version of the story of King Arthur, said to be the first great prose epic to be written in English (I guess Beowulf doesn’t count), is probably the most enduring version of Arthurian legend.

His story follows that of Geoffrey’s but incorporated many motifs of the French Lays. How much is Malory’s own invention, as with Geoffrey’s version, is still under speculation as we don’t know what was still circulating in the oral tradition. 

Said to be written while Malory, a roughish knight and politician of Warwickshire, while he was imprisoned for many civil crimes during the reign of Edward IV, the tale ends with a plea for the prayer of his soul, so, once again, who was his audience? 

Let us look at the motifs: like Geoffrey’s story, this tale focuses on the conception, birth, life, love and death of King Arthur and his knights. A tale of, and for the nobility with adventure, honor, courtly etiquette, chivalry and jousting central to the story—which gives some clue to 14th c. mores and preoccupations. 

Sir Lancelot, a Cú Chulainn figure, is Arthur’s foremost champion. But because of his enduring love for Gwynevere, is impure, he cannot seek the Grail (the Celtic cauldron)—said to be a holy relic brought by Jesus’ father!—only a pure and virtuous knight. 

The only three (pure) white bulls of the Round Table: Sir Gareth, Sir Galahad and the third bull with the black spot (= one sexual adventure) King Pelles. The rest are with blemish. So they find the Grail in the Waste Lands, but since the clergy knew where it was all along, why couldn’t they either help/or get it themselves? 

Does the Grail shrive the knights from their sins or save anybody? Not really. Lancelot repents for his behavior in the end, but it seems to have little to do with the Grail itself. 

Gawain’s revenge (avenging murdered kin is a central motif) upon Lancelot hastens the destruction of King Arthur’s court—with a little help from Sir Mordred, Arthur’s incestuous stepson, who seizes the throne and Gwynevere while Arthur is fighting Lancelot in Brittany. In this blood feud we have the House of Arthur versus the House of Lancelot, in short, we have the War of the Roses in allegorical format with Marcher Lords and the fickle populace switching sides at will.

The role of the ultimate victory and power of the church is a strong story element, much stronger than in Geoffrey’s story, and he, a bishop! The stories of Tristram and the Holy Grail are so allegorical, they seem to be written (or edited) by someone other than Malory—perhaps he was appealing to the clergy? 

Saving souls and repentance play strong roles. The might of the church aside, many of the age-old Celtic motifs are present throughout: the three “F”s (feasting, fighting, and, er, swivving.) 

We have godlike heroes fighting the enemy and in times of peace, each other. We have betrayals, brother killing brother, false identities, incest, magic swords stuck in rocks, feasts, funeral barges, numerology (three days and nights, 15 days, a year and a day, seven years); apple trees, visions, miracles and allegory (seven knights/hermits = the seven deadly sins), 

We have questing beasts, monsters magic wells and rivers where noblewomen ride by on white palfreys, where heroes enter into the otherworld, where battles are fought, where all women are beautiful and are either sorceresses or virtuous. A preoccupation with noble blood, virginity and sex. 

Few commoners mentioned; oblique references to the common soldier, a woodsman, some foresters and hermits but most of these characters seem to have magical powers. As with Geoffrey’s story, Merlin doesn’t play a big role in the story. So many characters are imbued with druidic powers, it’s hard to categorize them. 

Only the clergy can correctly interpret dreams (how did they get this powerful?) Blood magic is a strong element throughout. Naming (or withholding of a name—sometimes with dire consequences—as with Cú Chulainn and Connla ) also prevalent. A virtual crescendo of miracles occur as the clergy take a stronger role toward the heavily moralized end of the story where Lancelot and Gwynevere repent and join monasteries. So many masses are said, I lost count! But God wins in the end.

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