Saturday, January 28, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Miscellanea


As a book, the Morte is worth reading. Like other historical literature, to read it is to immerse oneself in another time. It was written near the height of English literature, back in the days when, if you cut a malapert knave or a scurvy villain, he would bleed distinguished, graceful prose. Malory's is as graceful and distinguished as the next man's. As I read it, I kept pausing to enjoy the fact that he has a special word for shards of armour carved off during a fight (“cantels”), that every damosel or gentlewoman or anyone is “fair” (and there's a sixty-year-old damosel), Joshua of the Old Testament has become “the good knight Duke Joshua,” and Sir Meliot addresses himself to the “Fair Lord of Heaven.”
There are lovely little turns of phrase everywhere. One forest is called “the Forest of Adventure.” Another is described as “a little leaved wood.” And when the Grail appears, “there was such a savour as all the spicery in the world has been there.” There's also the moment—but I'll let CS Lewis explain it:
...the exquisite episode of Sir Urry, where Launcelot at the very summit of earthly (and hardly earthly) glory 'wepte as he had bene a chylde that had bene betyn.' Why, unless he remembered a higher glory and 'pined his loss'?
Speaking of CS Lewis, many notes and moments in Malory were familiar—I had come across them before, in the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis's aim in the Narnia books was to evoke the flavour of medievalism, and reading Malory this time around I was able to locate some of his sources.
In Book IV chapter 6 King Arthur goes hunting with King Uriens and Sir Accolon, and follows a hart so closely that they leave all their attendants behind and kill their horses—an echo of which comes at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the White Stag leads the four Kings and Queens of Narnia a great chase “till the horses of all the courtiers were tired out and these four were still following.” For both parties, a strange adventure results. In chapter 14 of Book IV, Morgan le Fay turns herself and her people into stones to evade capture, as the White Witch does in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In Book V, chapter 8 Arthur kills a giant by cutting his feet from under him, then cutting off his head, the same way Peter kills Sopespian in Prince Caspian. In The Horse and His Boy King Edmund, considering what to do with Rabadash, suggests that “any of us could swap off his head” in battle, an expression I have only come across there and in Book VI, chapter 17 of the Morte. Finally and most obviously, the knights of the Morte repeatedly state their intention to “take the adventure that God will send me,” as in Book XVIII chapter 9, an expression that crops up in The Silver Chair: “And then, let us descend into the city and take the adventure that is sent us.” If these echoes of Malory were unintentional, they were certainly the product of a mind really steeped in the atmosphere of medievalism.
I could go on much longer about the Morte and what I found there. I shan't, but I shall mention just one more thing. During the Quest of the Grail, the knights on the quest continually run into little adventures, or see visions, which the next passing holy man will interpret. For example, at one point Sir Bors lodges with a lady who asks him to fight her rival's champion for the land which is rightfully hers. Sir Bors defeats the champion and returns the lady's land to her. The next man of God interprets it as follows:
“And that ye fought with the champion for the lady, this it betokeneth: for when ye took the battle for the lady, by her shall ye understand the new law of Jesu Christ and Holy Church; and by the other lady ye shall understand the old law and the fiend, which all day warreth against Holy Church, therefore ye did your battle with right. For ye be Jesu Christ's knights, therefore ye ought to be defenders of Holy Church.”
Note the very interesting link the holy man draws between the old covenant and the devil. Food for thought, there—is Malory identifying the Jews with the devil? On the other hand, there's also the interesting way “the old law and the fiend” is constantly represented by a woman, sometimes in scarlet, sometimes seated on a beast. Evidence for medievals identifying Jerusalem with the scarlet woman of Revelation? But that is a whole new conversation, and I'm getting off track.
What I love about this arrangement—adventure-allegory followed by interpretation—is the fact that the knights are given interpretations of the the events in their own lives. In most allegories, the characters themselves never have the allegory explained to them, although Bunyan does something similar to this in the Interpreter's House. Again, here in Malory we have something like what I enjoyed in Charles Williams and Elizabeth Goudge—a sense of the eternal ramifications of temporal actions. In Ascent to Love, Peter Leithart tells how the medievals interpreted the Scriptures according to four modes of meaning: first, the literal, second, the allegorical, third, the anagogical, and third, the tropological. You will pardon me if I don't explain these further here; I don't feel I have a good enough grip on how this worked to explain it. However, Leithart shows how the medievals wrote their own stories to be interpreted through this grid and Le Morte D'Arthur raises the curtain, so to speak, on this process: the literal, historical adventures of the knights also have allegorical meanings, and probably anagogical and tropological meaning as well. This produces quite an interesting effect: it is suggested to the reader that his own life and experience also contains deeper, allegorical meanings beyond the bare surface of literal fact.

6 comments:

Radagast said...

I've enjoyed this well-written and informative series of posts.

Suzannah said...

You're welcome! I really enjoyed getting my teeth into Malory.

Tim Nelson said...

Your reference to Leithart numbers the 4 points "1, 2, 3, 3". :).

Tim Nelson said...

Also, here's my summary of Wikipedia's interpretation of the fourfold meaning of a text:
- Literal: We know what this is

- Allegorical = Typological (eg. how does the text point us to the Christian big story of the world, that is, Christ and His work)

- Tropological = Moral (today we call this the "application" of a text)

- Anagogical = Eschatological (prophetic meaning; how does it point to the future, that is, the Christian eschatological future)

Apparently some authors (Dante included) wrote with the specific intention that all of these meanings would be gotten from their text. HTH,

Anonymous said...

'ye shall understand the old law and the fiend'. Food for thought indeed! Was the fellow who wrote Le Morte a Christian? Is the author portraying the middle age Christian distrust of the Jews? Or is this passage an example of the traditional Church repulsion of anything that faintly smacks of Judaism. Good old Constantine!

Suzannah said...

Tim--Oops! I'll have to fix that. Thanks for the Wikipedia summary on the fourfold meaning. I know Edmund Spenser also intended that this could be seen in THE FAERIE QUEENE as well.

Anonymous--it's been a while since I read the MORTE now, so I can't say for certain, but I don't think Malory ever equated "the old law" with the Jews specifically. More likely he was drawing on the same tradition of theology that ended up being twisted into medieval anti-Semitism. I say twisted because medieval theology actually grew out of a tradition that held an enormous amount of respect for the OT Jewish law--eg, their tithe system, their serf system, their dietary preferences (it was not until eg Constantine began to favour Christianity that roadkill went off the menu)and even their early law codes (as for example Alfred the Great's) show a firm reliance on the OT. The leading early medieval jurist, John of Salisbury, was even very firmly insistent that no self-respecting ruler should neglect the study of OT law.

*waves hands* It's complex. But I would respectfully put in a good word for Constantine. As a theologian once remarked, the atheists have never been able to forgive him for ending the persecution of Christians. He's fine by me.

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