Monday, January 23, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Characters and plot

Just in case your knowledge of Arthurian myth is sketchy or non-existent, this is of course the story of Arthur, the Once and Future King of Britain in a legendary and anachronistic version of the fifth century AD. Skip this if you know the legend well, or if you'd rather not be spoiled for the plot ending.
Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, begets him in secret and then dies, plunging Britain into civil war for fifteen years. Merlin the enchanter then produces a sword struck deep into a stone; it can only be retrieved by the true-born king of Britain. Arthur does this, but his claim as supreme king is challenged by many minor kings, and more civil war ensues until finally guided by the wisdom of Merlin he emerges as High King.
Arthur's early years are marked by sin and foolishness—the sin of begetting Mordred on his own sister Morgawse, followed by a foolish duel with King Pellinore in which he breaks the sword from the stone.
“But ye have done a thing late that God is displeased with you, for ye have lain by your sister, and on her ye have gotten a child that shall destroy you and all the knights of your realm.... Marvel not,” said Merlin, “for it is God's will your body to be punished for your foul deeds.”
Merlin then leads him to the Lady of the Lake, and Arthur takes the sword Excalibur, with its marvellous girdle, from a hand reaching out of the lake.
The story of Sir Balin follows, who struck the Dolorous Stroke, maiming King Pellam and laying waste a large area, before being killed in an accidental duel with his brother Sir Balan. Sir Balin's cursed sword is put by Merlin into another stone and set to float on the water, awaiting the hand of the Grail Knight who will heal the Dolorous Stroke and achieve the Quest of the Sangrail.
Next we hear how Arthur chooses to marry Guenever. Her father sends 150 knights to serve Arthur, and Merlin makes a great Round Table to seat them. Upon each of its seats, or sieges, there magically appears the name of the knight who shall sit there. One seat, the Siege Perilous, is empty. Merlin foretells that it is fated to remain empty until the coming of the Grail Knight.
Three knights of the new fellowship—Sir Gawain the nephew of Arthur, King Pellinore, and King Pellinore's son Sir Tor—undertake the first Quest of the Round Table. Along the way they meet the Damosel of the Lake, Nimue, for the first time—the successor to the Lady who gave the sword Excalibur, she will end up as Merlin's pupil and after imprisoning him within a hawthorn bush will partly take over his role as Arthur's magical protector and advisor.
Arthur has the knights of the Round Table take an oath:
...never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor, upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world's goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young.
The knights then spend a good deal of time having adventures. Morgan le Fay, another of Arthur's sisters, emerges as an enemy of his when she tries to steal Excalibur. In a hangover from Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudohistorical History of the Kings of Britain Malory takes some time from the main narrative to tell how King Arthur and his knights travel to Europe to fight the Emperor Lucius of Rome. Then it's back to Britain, and some adventures from Sir Launcelot's early years are related. Malory then gives an original story—he invents a new brother for Sir Gawain, Sir Gaheris, Sir Agravain, and Sir Mordred: Sir Gareth, who becomes a protege of Sir Launcelot.
Next comes a very long section of the Morte, comprising a good third of the book. The main characters are Sir Tristram, a knight of Cornwall, and La Beale Isoud, the princess of Ireland who marries King Mark of Cornwall despite the love between her and Sir Tristram. Sir Launcelot is also important here, as is Sir Palomides (who loves Isoud) and Sir Lamorak (who loves Arthur's sister and Gawain's mother Morgawse). Tristram, Mark, and Isoud comprise a love triangle keenly reminiscent of that between Launcelot, Arthur, and Guinevere, although the focus is on the former. This section is mainly composed of a series of tournaments and wanderings around Britain, as Sir Tristram tries to escape the vengeance of King Mark and accumulates a reputation as a courteous and strong knight as great as Sir Launcelot. The two of them eventually meet and form a friendship based on their similar illicit love for beautiful queens.
By now it has become obvious that Sir Launcelot loves Queen Guenever. While travelling about one day, he comes to the Castle of Carbonek and acquires the love of the king's daughter, Elaine. A few days and a shape-shifting spell later, Sir Launcelot is horrified to find that he has begotten the Grail Knight upon Elaine. When the Queen finds out, he goes mad for two years, then eventually manages to win back her favour.
At last, fifteen years later, Sir Galahad the Grail Knight, Sir Launcelot's son, comes to Camelot at the Feast of Pentecost, where a vision of the Holy Grail appears to the Round Table. The hundred and fifty knights, led by Sir Gawain, make an oath:
“Now,” said Sir Gawain, “we have been served this day of what meats and drinks we thought on; but one thing beguiled us, we might not see the Holy Grail, it was so preciously covered. Wherefore I will make here avow, that tomorn, without longer abiding, I shall labour in the quest of the Sangrail, that I shall hold me out a twelvemonth and a day, or more if need be, and never shall I return again unto the court till I have seen it more openly than it hath been seen here; and if I may not speed I shall return again as he that may not be against the will of Our Lord Jesu Christ.”
Everyone goes off looking for the Grail, but four knights especially do well. Sir Galahad, the Grail Knight, Sir Percival of Wales, and Sir Bors de Ganis, nephew of Sir Launcelot, are the only three knights of the Round Table found pure enough to achieve the Quest and find the Holy Grail. Sir Launcelot, the best of sinful men, after repenting of his love for Queen Guenever, is given one sight of it.
Sir Galahad and Sir Percival do not return from the Quest. When Sir Launcelot returns, he attempts to cut off his affair with the Queen, but she manages to keep her hold on him and soon the two of them are as thick as ever. A series of scares then results—twice the Queen is charged with treason, and each time Sir Launcelot fights the trial by combat to save her, but finally Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred conspire to catch Sir Launcelot in the Queen's chamber. The King is no longer able to turn a blind eye to the affair and the Queen is sentenced to death for treason. Sir Launcelot, who has escaped, rescues the Queen but kills Sir Gawain's beloved brothers Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris in the process. Although Sir Launcelot is able to convince King Arthur to receive the Queen back, forgive, and forget, Sir Gawain insists on getting revenge for the death of his brothers. In the resulting civil war, Sir Mordred takes advantage of King Arthur's absence to seize control of the kingdom. Arthur raises the siege on Sir Launcelot and rides to face Sir Mordred. Only King Arthur and Sir Bedevere, both seriously wounded, survive the battle and after Sir Bedevere returns Excalibur to the lake, King Arthur departs for the vale of Avilion in a barge tended by four queens. Guenever becomes a nun, Sir Launcelot becomes a monk, and both soon die, repenting the wilfulness that has ruined the most glorious king in the world.
Still awake? Well done.


Unknown said...

Yes I am still awake. I know most of the characters in this story, but I never knew how they all fit together. What a story line!

Radagast said...

Dante apparently felt that the story was an immoral one, in that it encouraged adultery:

"One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.

Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o'ercame us.

When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne'er from me shall be divided,

Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein
." -- Inferno, V

Do you think the ending adequately frames the events? Or is the storyline fine? Or is it OK in vintage literature, but dubious in a modern novel?

Suzannah said...

Great comment. Thanks for mentioning the Dante quote--I'd forgotten it, but it does put things in perspective. I think Malory, if not Galeotto, did either disapprove of the immorality of the story, or took care to appear to do so.

I think that the Morte does adequately frame the events in the ending of the story, partly for reasons I'll mention later on but also partly because the tragedy at the end is a huge deal and very memorable, while the account of Launcelot and Guenever's affair is actually quite arm's-length...I distrust books where repentance only follows after pages of searing passion but that's not Malory's style. I think it very much depends on the handling. A modern novel that could avoid taking the searing-passion approach--ie not making the sin glamorous--could be fine.

But as I've mentioned before, it's a fine line.


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