Thursday, January 26, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Courtesy


The story of Sir Tristram and La Beale Isoud takes up a good third of the Morte. As I slogged through the endless tournaments, feuds, jealousies, and adventures of Tristram, Palomides, Lamorak, and the rest, I kept wondering why such a large part of the book was devoted to these ancillary characters. Sir Tristram has nothing to do with the foundation of Logres; he grows up in Cornwall and only comes to the Round Table later in life. He has nothing to do with the Grail Quest and by the time of the fall of Logres he is dead. So why spend a third of the book on him?
I may be over-analysing Malory here. The Morte is full of inconsistencies and editorial oversights. People and places are mentioned, never to be explained or heard from again; in two cases, knights who were main characters vanish from the plot and it is casually mentioned later that they were murdered. There is not a huge amount of literary cohesion here.
However, whether intentionally or not, the Tristram/Mark/Isoud story forms a fascinating contrast to the Launcelot/Arthur/Guenever story. In fact while the L/A/G triangle makes its appearance early on in the Morte, it sneaks up on the reader gradually and it's only during the T/M/I story that the reader realises its importance. It simmers gently in the background, while in the foreground Tristram and Isoud battle hopelessly for their impossible love, facing King Mark's wrath and treachery.
Sir Tristram and Sir Launcelot are the two greatest knights of the world. Both of them are nearly invincible in battle and both are paragons of courtesy. Sir Tristram, however, has faults that Sir Launcelot doesn't. For example, Sir Tristram, in what can only be called a fit of absent-mindedness, marries someone who is not La Beale Isoud, incurring the displeasure not only of Isoud but also of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever, who consider this an almost unforgiveable affront to love. Quelle scandale!
The most obvious difference between the Cornwall and the Camelot love triangles, however, is—surprisingly--the difference between King Mark and King Arthur. Mark is treacherous, villainous, believes the worst of the lovers (which is perfectly correct) and persecutes them. On the other hand, Arthur is noble, just, believes the best of the lovers, and remains a kind lord to them. Unlike Mark, Arthur insists on believing, for as long as possible, that Guenever is no more than an inspiration to Sir Launcelot. The husband's duty to believe his wife faithful to him (even when she flagrantly isn't) is seen as just as important as the lovers' duty to be faithful to each other.
This seems completely crazy to me, but in the context of medieval ideals, it begins to make sense. Because King Mark is constantly chasing his wife or Sir Tristram, he seems a ridiculous cuckold. But because King Arthur is too noble-minded to suspect such a thing of Launcelot and Guenever, he remains noble, elevated, and tragic rather than ridiculous. As long as he never suspects, he remains admirable.
The upshot? While King Mark's villainous behaviour almost excuses Tristram and Isoud, King Arthur's behaviour heaps coals of fire on the heads of Guenever and Launcelot. For the secular knight, courtesy is the highest attainable virtue. He may not be holy enough to achieve the Grail, but at least he is never-failingly polite, meek, and humble. In Malory, you need not be invincible or chaste to be a good knight; but you do need to be courteous. CS Lewis (in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature) sums it up like this:
It all depends on what is meant by nobility. The predominant ethical tone of Malory's work is certainly not the bourgeois, still less the proletarian, morality of our own day. And, on its own showing, it is not the Christian rule of life; all the chief characters end as penitents. It is aristocratic. It does not forbid homicide provided it is done in clean battle. It does not demand chastity, though it highly honours lifelong fidelity to the chosen mistress. Though it admires mercy it allows private war and the vendetta. And it has no respect at all for property or for laws as such. It is distinguished from heroic morality by its insistence on humility. It can be very accurately called nobility if the noble is defined as the opposite of the vulgar. It does not condemn all whom we would now call 'criminals'; its displeasure is primarily for the cad. It is magnificently summed up in Sir Ector's final lament, which, so far as we know, is Malory's own invention: 'Thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foe that ever put spere in the rest.' There is the real, and indispensable, contribution of chivalry to ethics.
By taking advantage of King Arthur's courtesy, Sir Launcelot commits one of his few blunders and contributes to the fall of Logres. Had Sir Launcelot remained pure and depended on the Queen for no more than inspiration, he would have been able to adhere to the strictest rules of courtesy and answer the call of the sacred world in the Grail Quest. But he failed.

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