Le Morte D*Arthur by Thomas Malory

Report
Le Morte D’Arthur
by Thomas Malory
Redacted by William Caxton
Background
• History of the period
– Henry V
– Henry VI
– Edward IV
• Malory’s LIfe
• Text Overview
What Structures the Work?
• Arthur’s Cycle as frame story
• Equivalence
• Parallelism
What Structures the Work?
Temporal/Causal Relationships
Chronology
Arthur's life history functions as a framing device, providing the whole work with a beginning and a denouement.
The story starts with the details of his conception, describes his accession to the throne, and ends close to the
time of his death.
Cause/Effect pairs connect events time-wise
The love affair between Launcelot and Guenever and the death of Arthur with the ensuing collapse of the Round
Table knighthood are obviously connected by a cause-and-effect motivation.
Arthur’s incest with Morgawse, leading to the conception of Mordred, causes the death of Arthur as prophesied by
Merlin.
Other Examples?
What Structures the Work?
• Equivalence
– The pattern starts with a preliminary adventure that
demonstrates the knight's worthiness to undertake major
adventures. Next comes the tournament, in which the
questing knight excels. Then he overcomes a dangerous
enemy and in consequence eradicates an evil deed. Finally,
having displayed his prowess against the enemies of the
Round table, he outjousts his fellow knights (Benson 7071, 82). This pattern is fully developed in Launcelot's quest
for knighthood (MA 1: 194-220). How so?
– Where is it evident with other knights?
What Structures the Work?
• Equivalence
– Contrast between Galahad and Gareth as perfect knights
vs. Lancelot as flawed
– The contrast of Lancelot with Galahad is explicit
– The contrast of Lancelot with Gareth is more subtle
• Both Gareth and Launcelot, to prove their
merits as lovers, render their ladies services
and resist the temptations offered by other
ladies as conventions of courtly love require.
But Gareth wins his lady while Launcelot does
not. Furthermore, Gareth's love story is one of
the few that does not involve a triangle.[ 6]
What Structures the Work?
Parallelism
The codex of knighthood--spelled out in the text of MA
(1: 115-16)--is supraindividual: it is imposed by the
social milieu. Every knight acknowledges it; tries to
practice it, to make value judgments according to it;
and, most of all, honors it. The victor will not replace
his rival, and the loser will not be deprived of his
status as knight. What the questers are competing for
is the honor of high knighthood. This codexal value is
shared by victors and losers alike, and both sides
behave according to the chivalric ideal.
What Structures the Work?
• The quest for love in MA is formed by a different kind of axiological
modality, relativized with respect to the various narrative agents.
Relativized modalities are contrary: the original value holder aims at
preserving the state of possession while the quester or questers are
determined to change that original state. Modal discord entails
antagonism between the quester and the original value holder
and/or between the questers themselves (Dolezel, "Narrative
Semantics" 149; "Narrative Worlds" 545). The main manifestation
of modal conflict in MA is the triangles of Arthur-LauncelotGuenever and of Tristram-King Mark-Isoud la Blanche Mains. A
striking feature of this quest story is that competition for erotic love
often leads to the destruction of the knights involved or to the
collapse of the state of collective knighthood.[ 5]
What is the Structure of the work?
Repetition
One narrative agent makes a request, and another
responds to the petition, promising to carry out the
requested task. If the contract is fulfilled, the party
who has accomplished the task is rewarded. Thus a
gentlewoman would come to Arthur's court asking the
Round Table knights to render her a service. One of the
knights, usually young and obscure, would volunteer to
go with the damsel. If he successfully accomplished the
task, he would either return a famous knight or be
rewarded with the lady's love.
Malory’s Motivation(s)
• Nationalistic
• Resistance to Change yet Condemnation of
the Old Order
• The Nature of Kingship
Malory’s Motivations
Nationalistic
• [Malory’s] choice of the English prose tradition is an assertion
of Englishness which should be recognized as something
positive rather than as an absence of conscious decision.14
• Moreover, Malory’s choice of Arthur as his subject had
nationalistic implications
• In an England that had lost its territories in France, a powerful
political nostalgia would have been at work. This nostalgia
might have inspired Malory, equally, to want to lay claim to
French Arthurian narratives through rewriting them in such a
way that his English narrative asserted its authority over the
French source materials, and, simultaneously, to restore the
link between the English and French traditions, now
separated by national identity as well as language and
geography.
Malory’s Motivations
• Resistance to Change
– Malory was no sort of contemporary historian, "since in his
book his attention was so firmly on King Arthur and Sir
Launcelot, rather than on King Henry or King Edward or Sir
Thomas Malory, that is very likely what he wanted."3
Nonetheless, Malory does seem to have had in mind King
Henry V, as numerous commentators have pointed out, for,
in recounting the history of King Arthur, Malory has him
unprecedentedly conquering Rome in a manner
reminiscent of Henry V's conquest of France and
occupation of Paris.
Malory’s Motivations
• Resistance to Change
– Malory not only looked over his shoulder and saw
Henry V, he also had in sight what the Wars of the
Roses had done to England.11 Peter Field has
shown us where Malory's own experience in the
wars is to be discerned in the Morte, while
Malory's occasional outbursts at the decline of
courtesy, fraternity, and morality in his lifetime are
often cited.
Malory’s Motivations
• Resistance to Change
– His sensitivity about sex is especially commented
upon. Malory is by no means prudish, but sex does
touch an uncertain nerve.
– Did Malory notice a change in the sexual habits of the
nobility of his time, a change typified by Edward IV's
promiscuity (as against Henry VI's chastity)? For
Malory's Launcelot du Lake, mistresses destroyed a
man's moral fiber; bereft of confidence, men would
be defeated by less able opponents or "sle by
unhappe and hir cursednesse bettir men than be
hemself."
Malory’s Motivations
• Resistance to Change
– His sensitivity about sex is especially commented
upon. Malory is by no means prudish, but sex does
touch an uncertain nerve.
– Did Malory notice a change in the sexual habits of the
nobility of his time, a change typified by Edward IV's
promiscuity (as against Henry VI's chastity)? For
Malory's Launcelot du Lake, mistresses destroyed a
man's moral fiber; bereft of confidence, men would
be defeated by less able opponents or "sle by
unhappe and hir cursednesse bettir men than be
hemself."
Malory’s Motivations
• Resistance to Change
– As for honor, loyalty, and lineage, they were not as they had
been in days gone by. If Lancelot, a descendant of Jesus Christ,
had been unable to avoid the sins of pride and vainglorious
ambition, there was little chance that the nobility of Malory's
day would do so. English politics was not conducive either to a
quiet life or to a life of unswerving duty—and upholding one's
honor was a Herculean task when a war was being lost, Henry
V's hard-won conquests were being frittered away in the
impossible pursuit of peace, and the country was in crisis. After
1447, if not before, English politics had been enmeshed in the
dilemma of what to do about Henry VI. He was the son of
England's greatest king and hero, but he was hopeless as a ruler
(if indeed he ruled at all). To whom did Malory look for stability
in a world in which, as he famously wrote, "there ys no
stabylité"? Was it to the Kingmaker, rather than to the king?
Malory’s Motivations
• The Nature of Kingship
– The Morte mounts a tacit but persistent critique of Arthurian
kingship.
– In Malory’s account, Arthur swears “unto his lordes and comyns
for to be a true kyng, to stand with true justyce . . .” (16.21–23;
I.7). “Comyns,” “justyce,” and “true kyng” are key terms which
recur across a variety of contemporary texts, implying a
commonly held “mix of ideas, ideals, prejudices, and
assumptions” that were constantly tested as contemporaries
attempted to comprehend the upheavals that formed their
political lives.
– Despite being the rightful claimant and having the reputation of
an ideal king in the source material, in Malory’s version, Arthur
looks like a usurper and proves to be a tyrant.
Malory’s Motivations
• The Nature of Kingship
– Relationship to the “comyns.”
• One of the problems with the invocation of the “comyns” and related terms
such as “comynealte” or communaute was that it signaled an unreliable and
hazy form of political legitimization.30 By placing Arthur’s accession in the
hands of the “comyns,” Malory raises serious questions about his legitimacy
and his capabilities.
• The acclamation [by the people] was placed after the king had taken his oath
in Edward III and Richard II’s coronations (1327 and 1377), implying that the
people must consent to an already elected king.27
• The upheavals of late fifteenth-century England saw the direct involvement of
groups which could be called “commons” in the accession of kings, in some
ways combining the official and nonofficial roles discussed above. The Yorkist
monarchs Edward IV and Richard III both succeeded to the throne in troubled
circumstances, and both made the acclamation of the commons outside the
coronation ceremony a component of their accession. These attempts to fall
back on vox populi alone, rather than allowing hereditary succession to act as
the sign of God’s will, were a mark of the fact that both kings usurped rather
than succeeded to the throne.
Malory’s Motivations
• The Nature of Kingship
– Relationship to Justice
• Malory’s version of Arthur’s coronation oath reveals a similar
dismantling of the conventions of kingship. Arthur swears
“unto his lordes and the comyns for to be a true kyng, to
stand with true justyce fro thens forth the dayes of this lyf . .
.” (16.21–23; I.7). Arthur’s oath in the French version broadly
maintains the main points of the coronation oath used in
medieval England,44 including that of Edward IV.
• Malory drastically truncates Arthur’s oath so that he omits
to swear to defend the church, sustain law, or keep the
peace. Reframing Arthur’s oath in the context of
contemporary English texts on kingship suggests that he is
ill-equipped to govern in an ideal fashion.
Malory’s Motivations
• The Nature of Kingship
– Relationship to Governance
• Late medieval advice writers were all too aware of the potential
that the king’s exceeding will had to turn to tyranny and tried to
guard against it by urging the king toward personal virtue,
specifically, the cardinal virtues: justice, fortitude, prudence, and
temperance.64 Justice therefore had two connected roles in
kingship: the public expectation that the king would guarantee the
rule of law, and the private virtue that was encouraged in the king
as part of the effort to guide his will.
• I suggest that the brand of stern, self-protective justice implied by
Arthur’s coronation oath here has an impact on his conduct of war.
Rather than acting as a sign that Arthur is imposing just rule over a
rebellious country,66 the brutality effectively negotiates resistance
and eventually becomes caught up in vengeance, the antithesis of
genuine public justice.
Malory’s Motivations
• The Nature of Kingship
– Relationship to Governance
• In the Morte, a round of liberality follows the coronation.
[But] His gift giving is upset by resistance from a group of
kings, among them Lot of Orkney and Uryens of Gore: [T]he
kynges wold none receive but . . . said they had no joye to
receyve no yeftes of a berdles boye that was come of lowe
blood, and sente hym word they wold none of his yeftes,…
• The kings’ antagonistic response to Arthur’s largesse is based
on their questions over the legitimacy of “a berdles boye
that was come of lowe blood.”
• Arthur’s hereditary claim is suppressed, and once crowned
he appears as a usurper.

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