Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: The Problem


Given this plot, what's the problem? The problem has to do with the underlying themes, assumptions, and morals of the story. Without a cohesive theme to hold the book together, it becomes a tedious shaggy dog story, a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The problem is that Malory seems to be morally schizophrenic. Is there a theme at all? Does any of this have any point?
In Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur, things are far more comprehensible. King Arthur and his knights are the good guys, who go around rescuing damsels. Sir Launcelot might be in love with the Queen, but it's not like they do anything about it. Evil Sir Mordred (he gets it from his mother Morgan le Fay) makes it look as though they are, and then it's death and destruction.
The problem with the sanitised version is that the tragedy at the end has little basis in the characters' previous actions—the retribution is disproportionate. In Malory's version, on the other hand, there would be a good explanation—Launcelot and Guenever are guilty as sin—if it wasn't that he seems to praise their love instead of condemning it.
This is what I objected to when I first read the book, and what I wrestled with this time: The Round Table is no noble company of good knights. Sir Launcelot really does look good by comparison to some of them. Sir Gawain—my favourite character from the Green version, which incorporated the heroic stories of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, and Parsifal—has in Malory become a treacherous, murderous villain (although toward the end of the book his character is somewhat rehabilitated). His brothers are little better, even Sir Gareth, the closest thing in the book to a Boy Scout. Meanwhile La Beale Isoud and Guenever become friends-- “It's so hard, cheating on your husband with his most trusted knight! Only you can understand my pain!”
So far, so revolting. Admittedly not so bad as the Orlando Furioso. But you see, the Furioso never pretended to high moral ground. But Malory does. After pages and pages of the Round Table being treacherous and lecherous, the Holy Grail intrudes on their lives and they all rush off to find it--but suddenly, they're not good enough; the Holy Grail can only be achieved by the truly pure. Sir Launcelot is even brought to see the error of his ways and repents in literal sackcloth. But it doesn't stick: even he slips back into evil after the Quest.
This, then, was the thing that repulsed me about Malory. First, he depicted a Round Table riddled with vice. Then, to add insult to injury, he can't seem to figure out whether this is really such a bad thing or not. Early in his career, Sir Launcelot seems shocked at the idea of taking a paramour:
“...and as for to say to take my pleasance with paramours, that will I refuse in principle for dread of God; for knights that be adventurous or lecherous shall not be happy ne fortunate unto the wars, for either they shall be overcome with a simpler knight than they be themselves, other else they shall be unhap and their cursedness slay better men than they be themselves. And so who that useth paramours shall be unhappy, and all thing is unhappy that is about them.”
The reader is not advised how or when Sir Launcelot changes his mind about this: it eventually becomes obvious that he and Guenever are more than platonic lovers. But he's still the best knight in the realm. Then the Grail Quest happens, and he repents. Then it ends, and he's caught in Guenever's room, and the following puzzling exchanges take place:
“Truly,” said the queen, “I would and it might please God that they would take me and slay me, and suffer you to escape.”
“That shall never be,” said Sir Launcelot. “God defend me from such a shame, but Jesu be thou my shield and mine armour!”
Nice prayer, for an adulterer. So just what exactly is going on in Malory? How can knights like this be described as “good”? Does anyone really know what's going on? Is there a transcendant standard at all? Is this what it feels like to be an agnostic?
As it turns out, there really is a standard and a system of morality in Malory, one that supports the book's theme. There are two reasons why it is hard to figure out. The first is that the morality of Malory is very much based on some medieval concepts that have become foreign to the twenty-first century. The second is an idiosyncrasy of Malory's style, where he very rarely comments on the characters' actions, to praise or condemn them. The only clues we have come either in the biased comments of other characters within the story itself—or in the actual plot: who is rewarded and who is punished for his actions. The best way to understand the book is to read it as a whole. You cannot dissect it: the plot must be considered as a whole and not until the last page is it possible to say with any certainty what the author meant.

3 comments:

The English Students said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzannah said...

That is a very fair point :). However, I sense that you didn't read any of my other posts on this book? This post is pretty much just about my difficulties with the book when I read it ten years ago as a teen. My reading of the book this year was in an attempt to struggle with and come to an understanding of the moral ideas presented in the book. Through the reading and thinking that led to this series of posts, I eventually arrived at the same conclusion you have: that the characters are called to purity and nobility, but fail.

I wonder if you would be kind enough to read at least the post entitled "The Peak That Failed to Reach Heaven" and rethink your criticism.

The English Students said...

You are right, I haven't read any of your other posts. I have deleted my comment until I get a chance to read some of your others :)

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