Monday, May 3, 2010

22. Le Morte DArthur by Sir Thomas Malory

I finished reading this some time ago, but I have been rather busy with travels and schoolwork. I'm a bit of a connoisseur of Arthurian legends, but until I read this, I had not made it to any of the older classics. I've read modern spins like Marion Keyes' The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King. I've also read T.h. White's The Once and Future King, which I can now tell is heavily based on Le Morte DArthur although obviously much more modern in language and organization.

Malory was writing in the fourteenth century, and his source material, among others, would have been Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote about the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century. Monmouth is generally recognized as being the first definite mention of Arthurian legend in writing. I found it interesting that Malory ends each of his "books" with a plea for the reader to pray for him, the author, since he wrote the book in prison.

There are a lot of Christian references so that Arthur was not remotely pagan at least in Malory's interpretation. However, the stories of the holy Grail etc. all point to a very Christian kingdom. there is little explicit mention of Camelot and the founding of Camelot, though there is the Round Table. The books center on one or another knight, starting with Arthur, but all of them skip back and forth between various knights. Also, often a knight's story would abruptly leave off, and whatever happened to him would be later obliquely referred to and eventually explained in the best tense. This especially annoyed me with the deaths of Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristram, each of which could have been a marvelous story on its own.

For the first time, I was able to read the full history of Sir Tristram and La Belle Isode, of which I knew only the bare bones. I also learned that Elaine, daughter of Sir Pellinore and Sir Galahad's mother, is a different person from the Maiden of Ascolat, also named Elaine. The latter, however, is the one who died and had herself placed in a barge to Camelot to announce that she had died for Sir Lancelot's love. The first Elaine also died, presumably for Lancelot's love, but the manner of her death is not explained. I also liked that there is a full book on Sir Gareth, who is my favorite knight of all, dating from TOFK. However, T.H. White messes a bit with how he dies. In his version, he dies in Sir Lancelot's defense, in Malory's, Lancelot accidentally kills him without knowing who he is.

That brings me to the extremely confusing code of honour and chivalry in the book. Modern versions are much more straightforward and whitewash a lot of the violence and sniping and cruelty between the knights. It seems that it gives honour to defeat knights whom you do not know, but it is not honourable to defeat or even to fight knights that you do know. However, the exception to this rule is if you do not tell your name, which Lancelot especially is famous for, but all of the knights do it. If an unnamed knight defeats his friends, he gains "much worship." Likewise, it is okay, though regrettable, to kill your friend if you did not know who he was. If you did know, you should be shamed. However, it is never okay to kill your brother, even if you didn't know it was him. there are various sets of brother knights throughout the books, some who kill each other accidentally, attempt to kill each other, or who must kill in order to avenge the other brother's death.

Another confusing thing is that Arthur, who actively supports the adultery of Sir Tristram and La Belle Isode , does not seem to know about Lancelot and Guenivere. To everyone else, it is no secret, but Arthur refuses to believe. In fact, the first time he even thinks about it is when he receives a vicious letter from King Mark (La Belle Isolde's husband) in this vein. It appears he goes to the grave believing in his queen's fidelity.

Adultery seems to be tacitly approved of, though from a Christian angle it is wrong. During the quest of the Holy Grail, Lancelot gives up this sin, but resumes it again later. Then, when Arthur dies, Guenivere becomes a nun and refuses to look on Lancelot ever again. I suppose that makes it okay because they atone for their sins. In Isolde's case, however, her husband is awful to her, but there seems to be love between Arthur and Guenivere so that, to me, makes adultery less justified. Another interesting gender observation, Sir Galahad and Sir Percy de Gales are referred to as "maidens." This shows that, at least in Arthurian legend, Christianity values male virginity as much as, or more than, female.

All in all, I'm glad I read it and I plan on reaching further into medieval Arthuriana, now that I'm feeling more confident with the language and structure.

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