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What I've Been Reading, Arthurian edition: Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
Wizard
apep727

So we’re coming to the end of Arthur month. I’ve had some schedule slips, but still managed to keep up with semi-regular posting, so that’s good. I began May with a review of White’s The Sword in the Stone, one of the defining versions of the King Arthur story, and now I’m going to discuss the defining work of Arthurian fiction.

That’s right – Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

I’m going to begin with a bit of background about the work itself before discussing how I feel about it.

Le Morte d’Arthur is the first work to collect all the Arthurian stories into a single publication. Until it’s publication in the late 15th century, the various stories of King Arthur and his knights existed as several separate works. Malory (whomever he may be, as there is some debate as to his identity) collected many of these and combined them into a single narrative. The three main sources used were the French Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle, the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthur, and the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur, with the French sources being the main ones.

Unlike Malory’s sources though, Morte d’Arthur is a work of prose, rather than poetry. This has to do with English literary tradition – poetry is for comedic works (i.e. those with happy endings), while prose is for tragedies (i.e. works with sad endings).

Malory’s work is also divided into eight parts, each part focusing on a single set of related stories in a particular period of Arthur’s reign.

But enough about the book, let’s get down to my opinion of it.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. It started out promisingly enough, covering the end of Uther’s reign and the conception of Arthur, and then moving on to cover Arthur’s early campaigns against other British kings, as well as the King of France and the Roman Emperor. Then, the focus shifted to Arthur’s knights and their various adventures, which was good, because it gave each of them a time to shine.

And then Lancelot showed up. Oh, how I came to hate Lancelot. Throughout the book, Malory constantly praises Lancelot, talking about how great and noble he was, and how much better he was than all the other knights.

It got worse when Tristram showed up. Tristram is, to put it simply, Lancelot-light. His story, from his prowess as a knight to his relationship with his queen, is basically a practice run for Lancelot’s later tale. Only here, rather than there being some potential for conflict over Tristram running off with the wife of his lord, said lord (King Mark of Cornwall) is presented as being evil because he wants revenge on those who betrayed him. It’s really hard for me to be angry at a guy who wants to get back at his wife and right-hand man when they’ve been having an affair and run off with each other. No, I don’t care that “they’re in love”, they should at least feel conflicted about it, and Mark’s men should be on his side. That’s right – Mark finds Tristram and Isode after they’ve run off, and plans on attacking them, when one of his knights tells him that Mark is the one in the wrong.

On top of that, there are at least two characters I liked way more in Tristram’s story – Sir Dinadan and Sir Palamedes. Dinadan I liked because he seems to be the only one with any amount of common sense, understanding that ‘courtly love’ is probably a bad idea, because it tends to lead to more bad than good. In his own words:

“God defend me… for the joy of love is too short, and the sorrow thereof is duras [affliction] over long” (book X, ch. 56).

On top of that, Dinadan is the apparently the only knight who can identify his fellow knights by their faces, rather than needing to see their sigils.

Palamedes, on the other hand, I like because he’s actually a sympathetic character. Palamedes, much like Tristram, is in love with Isode, and, in the tradition of courtly love, dedicates just about everything he does to her. But Iseult only has eyes for Tristram, and won’t give Palamedes the time of day. He sums up his experience in a wonderful bit when he’s confronted by Tristram, acting like the stereotypic jock who finds out some skinny nerd’s been looking at his girlfriend:

“Sir, I have done you no treason,” said Sir Palamedes, “for love is free for all men, and though I have loved your lady, she is my lady as well as yours. Howbeit that I have wrong if any wrong be, for ye rejoice [enjoy] her and have your desire of her; and so had I never, nor never am like to have, and yet shall I love her to the uttermost days of my life as well as ye.” (book X, ch. 86)

That single passage is far more moving than anything Lancelot or Tristram says in defense of their own intercessions. Palamedes is the guy who, despite doing everything he can, never gets the girl. As tragic as that is, it’s far more interesting than Tristram, because there’s absolutely no conflict in his and Isode’s relationship once Mark is out of the way.

I’d hoped my enjoyment of the story would pick up once I’d finished with Tristram, as the next part was the episodic quest for the Holy Grail. But I was wrong, because this is where the third and final character I despised was introduced: Galahad. My hatred for him began almost immediately, as all he did was pull a sword from a stone and sit in a chair to get proclaimed “greatest knight ever” (again, I don’t care that the stone had an inscription saying that only “the best knight of the world” could pull it – that’s something that has to be earned). And then, throughout the quest for the Grail, Galahad is constantly praised, in detriment to the other knights. Yes, he defeated several evil knights without killing them, but that doesn’t make him better, especially when no other knight has been criticized for killing his enemies.

But it’s what happens when the Grail is actually found that pisses me off the most. Galahad, Percival, and Bors all get to the castle where the Grail is kept, and Galahad literally ascends into Heaven afterwards.

Of the three of them, Percival is the one who most needed to find the Grail, because he’s the one who came closest to getting it before, only to fail at a critical moment. After that, finding the Grail again becomes a quest for redemption on Percival’s part, not just a hunt for treasure.

The remainder of the text focuses almost exclusively on the activities of Lancelot, much to my dismay. We have the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere moving from “almost affair” to “full-blown adultery”, and yet again I’m supposed to side with Lancelot because the relationship is secret and therefore doesn’t bring shame on Arthur. The affair is eventually exposed though, and there’s a whole series of events that eventually lead to Arthur going to war with Lancelot. And during this time, pretty much everyone (including Arthur’s knights and the Pope) want Arthur and Lancelot to make up. The only one opposed to this is Gawain, mostly because Lancelot killed three of his brothers, two of which weren’t even armed at the time. And even Gawain eventually comes around, for seemingly no reason.

There’s a minor divergence from Lancelot, as the plot focuses on the conflict between Mordred and Arthur, ending in their deaths. A little bit of time is spent covering the activities of some characters in the aftermath, namely Guinevere and Bedivere, and then the focus moves back to Lancelot. Hooray.

He spends the rest of his life living as a monk, dragging his friends along because apparently anything Lancelot does is automatically cool, and when he dies, it’s implied that he’s become a saint. That’s right – the man most responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of a lot of people and the downfall of King Arthur and Camelot, who had a known adulterer, becomes a saint.

So, what are my final thoughts?

Screw this book.

It took be over a year to finish this thing, for reasons that should by now be obvious – I kept getting angry at the narrative and had to put the book down. I’m not bothered by the constant explaining, because, again, the book was written in the 15th century. Still, I wish the inherit ambiguity wasn’t shoved out of the way in favor of presenting more flawless protagonists – Tristram and Isode, Lancelot and Guinevere, both pairs are in relationships that are morally questionable at best, but we can’t allow that to muddy the waters because they’re the protagonists, even though there’s an early story about a morally grey knight – Sir Balin, who kills the Lady of the Lake, makes the Dolorous Stroke, and kills his own brother.

If you really feel like reading Le Morte d’Arthur, I’d suggest reading everything up to Lancelot’s appearance, skipping to the tale of Sir Gareth, a few bits of the Grail Quest, and perhaps the final book, the Death of Arthur. You might miss out on a few bits, but you’ll be less infuriated by the blatant favoritism towards certain characters.


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Yeah, word on the annoying Mary Sue-ness of the various characters. That's why I like The Once and Future King better. It put a lot more into making the characters flawed, Galahad is hardly in it and most of the characters seem aware and unnerved by his unnatural perfection, more focus is put on several good knights and a good lady vanishing from the world rather than an ascent to Heaven, and Lancelot wasn't anywhere near perfect.

I'd be more willing to forgive the Sue-ness if it weren't so blatant.

I didn't mention it, but Guinevere went all "pissy mean girl" when she found out Lancelot was in another woman's room when he was supposed to visit her's. I got the impression I was supposed to view this as Guinevere being unreasonable (which she was), but I was also mad at Lancelot, because he was going to visit Guinevere, aka the king's wife.

Personally, I blame the French. They're the ones who introduced Lancelot in the first place.

Also, I really need to finish reading Once and Future King. I know it gets better after Sword in the Stone, but I need to make a dent in my to-read pile first.

Edited at 2012-05-29 01:30 pm (UTC)

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