Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)
Poetic Justice: The Civilization of the Heart in Malory’s Morte Darthur
Caught up in the political turmoil of fifteenth-century England, Sir Thomas Malory found himself at one time or another on both sides of the War of the Roses, and finally in prison awaiting death. He was a purported bandit, rapist, vandal, and traitor. Weighted against all these accusations is his work, Le Morte Darthur, better known as the legends of King Arthur. One of the most recognizable characters in world literature, Arthur is not only the subject of academic study but a staple of popular culture. The frequently asked question is: How could so infamous a man write so convincingly about such chivalrous characters? The answer is that Malory and his stories have often been misrepresented. Like other authors in this book, he was not sent to prison for criminal behavior; political affiliations and dynastic intrigue got him there. His response to the prison experience was to re-create a lost world of heroes and noble causes.—J.W.R.
The Identity Crisis
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
—King Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day, Shakespeare
For hundreds of years, until the end of the twentieth century, the identity of the author of a book whose stories pervade the English imagination with a power comparable to that of Greek myth lay in doubt. William Caxton, its first publisher, called it “thys noble and Ioyous book,” and the Prologue to the 1485 edition stated that it was “written for our doctrine, and for to be aware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to exercise and follow virtue.” More recently, it has been celebrated as the “book that changed the language we speak” (Lustig 155), “our first great work of English prose” (Lustig 114) and “a sacred and central possession of all who speak the English tongue” (Lewis 104). History has borne out the truth of these judgments. Today, few English-speaking people are not aware of the adventures of chivalry, knighthood, and pageantry that fill its pages, even if these came by way of Disney when they were children. This book is The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table, otherwise known as Le Morte Darthur, an enormous compendium of Arthurian legends from both French and English sources, which Caxton edited and divided into 21 books comprising 507 chapters in all.
In 1934, a rival version came to light. Walter Oakeshott, a librarian at Winchester College, happened to come across an old, forgotten safe on its premises. Opening it, he found a stash of ancient documents and a “fat book,” the manuscript of the Morte—the only one in existence. He had made one of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of literature. In the opinion of its eventual editor, Eugene Vinaver, the Winchester manuscript—as it came to be called—was more “complete and authentic” than the Caxton version, a text that brought readers “nearer to what Malory wrote” (Lustig 60). In both the Caxton and Winchester texts, the author had identified himself as Sir Thomas Malory, “knight prisoner,” the “servant of Jesu both day and night.”
The name solved little. There were multiple Thomas Malorys—with bewildering variations on the spelling of the name—who populated fifteenth-century England. In 1894, however, G. L. Kittredge persuasively argued that the author of the Morte was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, a brigand and lawbreaker, who had spent close to a decade in English jails. This claim opened a moral gulf between the book and the man that would plague Malory studies for decades. As C. S. Lewis put it, “The work has long passed for a mirror of honour and virtue; the author appears to be little better than a criminal” (Lewis, “The English Prose Morte” 7). An unprecedented excavation of materials about Malory began. Hoping to find more suitable candidates, some scholars put forward other Thomas Malorys who could have written the Morte, none of them criminals. For Lewis and others, this was a “desperate expedient,” a misguided attempt to substitute a specious teller for the one who had actually told the tale. In fact, until P. J. C. Field’s masterful 1993 biography, the identity of the Morte’s author was still hotly contested. Field’s exhaustive search of all the pertinent fifteenth-century historical documents and court records left no doubt that the Malory of the Morte was, in fact, the Malory of Newbold Revel.
Ironically, the Morte’s early readers would have welcomed the idea that its author was a criminal. Roger Ascham, schoolmaster to Elizabeth I, pronounced that the “whole pleasure of [it] standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open mans slaughter, and bold bawdrye: In which booke those be counted the noblest Knightes, that do kill most men without any quarell, and commit fowlest adulteries by sutlest shiftes” (Shepherd xxviii–xxix). Nathaniel Baxter, tutor to Sir Philip Sydney, condemned the entire Arthurian cycle as a vile chronicle of “the horrible actes of those whoremasters, Launcelot du Lake, Tristram de Liones, Gareth of Orkney, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake … [and] King Peleus, etc.” (Shepherd, xxix). This early censure resurged at the start of the nineteenth century. Like Ascham and Sydney, some Victorian readers dismissed the Morte as a sordid saga of incest and adultery featuring barbaric episodes of slaughter and perfidy, including matricide, patricide, and mass infanticide. This view in itself was not objectionable, but its eventual effect on the book—the Morte’s “sterilization” as T.S. Eliot called it—was troublesome. Editors set out to sanitize the book for a wider public—especially as its stories continued to be a magnet for children—producing new, revisionist versions that glossed over the carnal nature of the love between Lancelot and Guenivere and suppressed all references to Mordred as the product of Arthur’s incestuous union with his sister, Morgause—the “foundation of … the whole book,” as T. S. Eliot declared (Lustig 132). C. S. Lewis emphatically rejected such revisionism, refusing to tar either the book or the man: “I at any rate will never blacken the book to make it match the man. But,” Lewis asked, “was the man so black” (Lewis, “The English Prose Morte” 9)?
The Heroics of Crime and the War of the Roses
Despite scant biographical data, Field proved to be an especially able and sympathetic architect of Malory’s life and times. “Writing the life of a medieval Englishman,” he noted, “is notoriously like making bricks without straw” (Field 1). To date, the year of Malory’s birth remains unknown, with scholars placing it somewhere between 1400 and 1418. The basic facts are these: that Malory wrote most or all of the Morte in prison, that it took him about two years to write, that he completed it sometime near March 1470—in the “ninth year of the reign of King Edward the Fourth”—and, that roughly a year later, on March 14, 1471, Malory died, probably still in prison. Records of births, marriages, and exchanges of property also show that Malory married Elizabeth Walsh in 1448, that they had at least one son, Robert—perhaps named after an esteemed uncle—and that both lived to see the birth of their grandson, Nicholas, near 1466.
There are clues to suggest that Malory’s uncle was the famous Robert Malory, a professional crusader and a “great magnate of the kingdom” who was the Prior of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England from 1432 to 1440, an office affording him enormous wealth, power, and access to the king (Field 68). When the Sultan of Egypt threatened Rhodes, the Prior promptly gathered a company of armed men and sailed to the Levant to defend the Holy Land. Malory’s proximity to his uncle may have led him to define the ideal of knighthood less in terms of the rarified spiritual perfection demanded by the Grail and more in terms of the pragmatic discipline of service that dominates the Morte to its very end, where, contrary to his French sources, Malory has Lancelot’s kinsmen go off on a crusade rather than retiring to a cloister after his death. Field speculates that Malory’s hopes for advancement were shattered when Prior Robert died in 1440, and that his consequent sense of dispossession—Malory’s income was only half the average for Warwickshire knights—may have prompted him to turn to a life of brigandry (Lustig 84). A revealing detail is that the sum of 40 pounds—the annual “income that for a century and a half had been associated with knighthood”—figures as a constant in his thefts (Lustig 89).
The extent to which Malory’s criminal record coincides with his actual offenses is uncertain, given that the solicitors of his enemies compiled it. At the very least, in documenting his transgressions, it reveals the general contours of lawlessness in Malory’s day. The first charges against Malory are entered on October 10, 1443; he is accused of injuring, insulting, and imprisoning Thomas Smythe of Spratton, while stealing property worth 40 pounds. Nothing comes of these accusations, but many more will accrue. Over the next eight years, Malory allegedly indulges in sporadic sprees of lawlessness, stealing livestock, raising mobs, and creating havoc in his native region, reaching a spectacular apex in his criminal activities on January 4, 1450, when he and twenty-six other armed men attempt to ambush the Duke of Buckingham in the woods of Warwickshire with the intention of taking his life. A hot-tempered and vengeful man, Buckingham would surprisingly take nearly a year and a half to bring formal charges against his ambushers.
In the interval, Malory’s lawlessness continued. On May 23, 1450, and again on August 6, he supposedly “rapes” Joan Smith, taking 40 pounds worth of her husband’s goods; on May 31, he extorts money from two monks at Monks Kirby and then returns to extract more from another monk on August 31. There is a brief hiatus until June 4, 1451, at which point Malory resurfaces, stealing 7 cows, 2 calves, 335 sheep, and an expensive cart from Cosford, Warwickshire. On July 20, he enters Buckingham’s deer park at Caludon and absconds with 6 does, managing to inflict 500 pounds’ worth of damage in the process. At this point, the Duke of Buckingham’s patience appears to have worn thin. An attempt on his life was one thing, but the theft of his does was another. On July 25, the Duke and his men corner Malory on his own estate and hand him over to the Sheriff of Coventry for safekeeping in his manor. The maneuver is to no avail. Within hours, under cover of night, Malory breaks out, swims the moat and, the next day, he ransacks Combe Abbey with a small party of accomplices. The haul is 46 pounds in cash and valuables worth 40. The following night he returns with a mob of a hundred or so men for more loot.
Local authorities are slow to press charges, and it is not until August 23, 1451, that Malory is formally indicted at Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in the presence of the Duke of Buckingham. “The court was presided over by four justices,” Fields notes, “among whom, undeterred by any scruples that the first and gravest charge was an attempt to murder himself, was the Duke of Buckingham” (Field 101). On January 27, 1452, Malory appears before the King’s Bench, pleads not guilty to all charges, is placed in the custody of the Sheriffs of London, and committed to Ludgate Prison. A strange odyssey now begins. Malory is ushered from prison to prison, from Ludgate to the Marshalsea to the Tower of London to Newgate and back again to Ludgate in a futile circle of writs, summons, and deferrals worthy of a Dickensian novel. For the next eight years or so, Malory awaits a jury that never appears and a trial that never materializes. Why?
Malory’s prison career, to a large extent, was entangled in the labyrinthine politics of the War of the Roses (1455–87), the dynastic struggle for the throne of England ignited by the rival Houses of York and Lancaster, whose emblems were respectively a white rose and a red one. A dispute over inheritance rather than ideology—neither side was contesting rule by monarchy—the ancestral feud cut its bloody swathe across an England rapidly descending into chaos. As the historian Riddy points out, Malory was born into the “worst political crisis England had known since the Norman Conquest” (Lustig 160). To make matters worse, French victories in the Hundred Years War—some under the banner of Joan of Arc—had forced the English to surrender all but one of the territories they once held, a humiliation that was felt to be part of the “larger failure of Englishness” (Lustig 160). When Lancelot is exiled from Arthur’s kingdom of Logres—the ancient name for England—and returns to his native France, he distributes some of these very territories among his knights (Riddy 888). The English revenged themselves on a girl; the Duke of Buckingham himself was rumored to have “threatened the chained Joan of Arc with his sword,” with the young Malory possibly looking on in the midst of the crowd (Lustig 98).
It is heady stuff to realize that Malory tread the same earth as Joan of Arc, and that he breathed and moved in the very world of the characters who stride deathlessly through the pages of Shakespeare’s “histories.” Humphrey Stafford (Duke of Buckingham), Richard Neville (Earl of Warwick), York, Lancaster, Clarence, and Somerset—these names cannot fall on deaf ears, and Malory lived in the blaze of their rivalries. In the course of his life, he was courted by two of the most powerful men in England—Buckingham, supporter of the Lancastrian Henry VI, and Warwick, supporter of Richard, Duke of York, and of his son, Edward IV. In 1445, Buckingham had used his influence to win Malory a seat in Parliament, but within five years Malory had rather dramatically severed their tie with an alleged attempt on his life (Field 96), earning him the vengeance of the Duke’s solicitors if not also his henchmen. In the political upheaval of Malory’s day, allegiances would dissolve just as swiftly as they formed. By 1450, for whatever reasons, personal or political, Malory had shifted his loyalty to the Yorkist Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker, Shakespeare’s infamous “setter up and plucker down of kings” (Shakespeare 3 Henry VI 2.3.37).
Not surprisingly, the very aptitude that landed Malory in jail was precisely that which each magnate valued: “his ability to cause trouble.” Although his role in the struggle between Warwick and Buckingham was “quite out of proportion to the social status suggested by the surviving evidence of his property, income, and family connections,” both magnates could not help but take notice of Malory’s talent for enlisting “scores of armed men, raised at very short notice” (Field 128). This marked interest in Malory the knight carried over to Malory the prisoner. As much care as his Lancastrian enemies had taken to bring Malory to prison, even more was taken to keep him there. A jury was never assembled, his pardon was “dismissed under suspicious circumstances, and his goalers were threatened with extraordinary fines should he escape,” fines that broke all records in medieval England (Field 128). Most tellingly, Malory was never afforded a trial. “Trials do not always bring the truth to light now,” Field observes, “and did not in the fifteenth century, but the absence of one makes it harder to estimate the truth of the charges against Malory. The number of people involved, the variety of the allegations, and … their timing suggests that they were not wholey [sic] invented; but their comprehensiveness makes it plain that someone looked for people with grievances against Malory and organised them into court” (Field 105). In sum, “the legal process against him [was] suspect from the beginning” (Field 106). This is not to say that Malory’s lawless behavior had been fabricated out of whole cloth but rather that it was of a piece with his times: raids, riots, and ambushes were common occurrences, and the destruction of property or breaking into deer-parks was “a recognized form of magnate-baiting” (Field 100). As a Yorkist knight—and perhaps even as Warwick’s agent—Malory may have been “expressing political dissent in a manner that was becoming all too common” (Field 96), treading the line between incitement to violence and civil disobedience.
There is still, however, Malory’s “rape” of Joan Smith. Notably, it was not Joan herself but her husband who brought this charge against him. This fact in itself cannot necessarily be used in Malory’s defense. At the time, no married woman could bring suit on her own behalf. English rape law in England had evolved “so as to serve less the needs of the woman concerned than a complex of other social interests” (Bate 801). The Statute of Rapes of 1382 “accords the husband, the father, or next of kin, the right to make the accusation even though the woman may have consented … and questions of material damage and compensation receive rather more attention than does the fact of sexual assault” (Bate 801). There is no evidence of any previous relationship between Malory and Joan Smith, but that means little and does not rule out the possibility of Malory loving her, as C. S. Lewis delicately put it, “par amours” (Lewis, “The English Prose Morte” 10). Whatever the circumstances, there are many “medieval cases in which rape (as abduction, forced coition, or both) features … as [an element] in accounts of crimes against property, and the charge against Malory could conceivably pertain more closely to the issue of property crime than to a felony against Joan as an individual” (Bate 802–03).
The “Knight Prisoner”: Ordeals, Plots and Defections
The Lancastrian years of Malory’s imprisonment were harsh and difficult. Life in fifteenth-century English prisons, foul and disease-ridden, could generally be made less horrific with amenities and privileges, including going about free during the day. Such comforts, however, had to be bought and were costly. Confronted by these expenses and by the irony that the flow of his income was impeded by the very circumstances that drained it, Malory soon found himself bankrupt and unable to alleviate his misery. Scenes in which knights suffer imprisonment recur almost obsessively in the Morte, but perhaps Malory’s anguish is most fully glimpsed when Sir Darras imprisons Tristram for killing three of his sons in a tournament:
So Sir Tristram endured there great pain, for sickness had undertaken him, and that is the greatest pain a prisoner may have: for all the while a prisoner may have his health of body he may endure under the mercy of God and in hope of good deliverance. But when sickness toucheth a prisoner’s body, then may a prisoner say all wealth is him bereft, and then hath he cause to wail and weep. Right so did Sir Tristram when sickness had undertaken him, for then he took such sorrow that he had almost slain himself [Malory 225].
Such passages suggest that Malory had at times felt himself close to death, if not through illness, then by his own hand or the executioner’s. “I pray you,” he beseeched his readers, “all gentlemen and gentle women that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending, pray for me while I am alive, that God send me good deliverance, and when I am dead, I pray you all pray for my soul” (Malory 527).
When Yorkist forces triumphantly entered London in July 1460 and besieged the Tower of London, Malory was at last freed from his Lancastrian imprisonment, and when the Duke of York ascended the throne as Edward IV, Malory was issued another general pardon that wiped his slate clean. One would think that at this point Malory’s prison career had drawn to its close, but events to come would prove otherwise. After his release, Malory took up his life as knight and retainer. In October 1462, he joined a military expedition led by Edward IV and Warwick against Lancastrian strongholds in Northumbria, and returning home in January 1463, he resumed his life as a husband and father, attending to family and property matters. And, then, there is a stunning development: On July 14, 1468, Malory’s name appears on a list of enemies to the Throne who have been denied pardon by King Edward, a list including King Henry VI himself and his most notorious supporters. Almost immediately, Malory is imprisoned again—this time in a scenario worthy of Kafka’s making—without any charges whatsoever entered against him. It is now, during this second period of imprisonment (1468–70), that he takes up the work of writing the Morte.
What behavior could possibly have landed Malory in prison again, this time during a Yorkist regime? The ever-twisting maze of the War of the Roses may again supply an answer. Near the time of Malory’s imprisonment, the Earl of Warwick seems to have had a political change of heart, abandoning the Yorkist cause. Hoping to forge a grand alliance between France and England, Warwick had long harbored ambitions of King Edward marrying a French princess. In the end, however, Edward chose for himself and married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight. Rebuffed by the King, Warwick rebelliously cast his lot with yet a third aspirant to the throne—Edward’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence. In the spring of 1470, Warwick and Clarence fled to France where, by July, they had formed a Lancastrian alliance with Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. Where, one might ask, has he been all this time—the king whose “bookish rule hath pull’d fair England down” (Shakespeare 2 Henry VI 1.1.260)?
Beginning in August 1453, the hapless Henry lapsed into a state of “vegetative insanity,” recovering only in December 1454. When his son, Edward, was born that month, Henry was baffled, “claiming he must have been conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Norton, xxi). Many believed this “spirit” to be Henry’s closest councilor, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Nevertheless, there was now an heir apparent to the crown, which caused considerable consternation within Yorkist ranks. On May 22, 1455, the first major battle of the War of the Roses, exploded onto the scene at St. Albans, and by December 1460, the Yorkists had stormed London and detained Henry. Although released a few months later, Henry was captured again in 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Here he remained for the next five years until he was executed on May 21, 1471, two months after Malory’s death.
It is jolting to remember that Malory was composing the Morte during the last two years of Henry’s life with both of them imprisoned in the same tower, and even more chilling to consider that little more than a decade later—as Shakespeare portrayed it—it would be where Gloucester imprisoned the young sons of King Edward, his brother, before having them savagely murdered. During the last years of his life, efforts to rescue Henry intensified and came to a head in the Cornelius Plot, a conspiracy to restore him to the throne orchestrated by his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, and her supporters. The plot was uncovered when “Edward’s agents in Kent had arrested a Lancastrian courier called John Cornelius with letters from the Lancastrian exiles to sympathizers in England” (Field 139). Cornelius was promptly tortured—the first time torture had been authorized in England before the reign of Henry VIII—and gave up the names of several men. Among them was Malory’s. Why had he defected?
Had Malory decided to remain loyal to Warwick, crossing over to the Lancastrian side with him? Did he have a crisis of conscience in which he had resolved to make reparation to Henry VI, the king who had knighted him? Did he see his defection from the Yorkist party as a return to the fold, as a reckoning with the Lancastrian sympathizers among his kinsmen? There is no documentation of any kind that can supply the answer. Instead, there is the Morte. This is not to say that the book can be read as a roman à clef with neat parallels lining up Arthur’s court with either Henry VI’s or Edward IV’s, but rather that Malory found the vast narrative cycles of Arthurian legend, of fellowship and betrayal, loyalty and treason, to be a perfect mirror of his troubled times.
The Book: The Motif of Wholeness in the Morte
How Malory gained access to his Arthurian material while in prison has long been in dispute. Composing the Morte was a monumental undertaking that required him to “extricate and clarify a coherent pattern from the cyclic tangle of his sources” (Tucker 62). The English texts, among them the stanzaic Morte Arthur and the Awntyrs off Arthure (Meale 873), would have been readily available to a person of his social rank, but access to his French sources, including the Tristan and the French “Vulgate” series—the romance cycle containing the Merlin, the Lancelot, the Queste del Saint Graal, and the Mort Artu—would have been out of his reach unless he had entry to the royal library or the collection of a noble (Meale 877). If so, this collection was most likely the one owned by King Edward’s brother-in-law, Anthony Wydeville, the Earl of Rivers, Caxton’s most influential patron. It is likely, then, that Malory spent most of his second imprisonment in privileged conditions; certainly, his burial in Greyfriars, which held the bodies of nobles, was a mark of great distinction. It was also a stroke of poetic justice for the man who had authored “the whole book of King Arthur, and of his noble knights of the Round Table, that when they were whole together there was ever a hundred and forty” (Malory 527).
The word “whole” resonates throughout the Morte from beginning to end. The freight of its meaning must have been immense for a “knight prisoner” laboring to forge an identity that could yoke together two seemingly irreconcilable roles, one as a noble member of the knighthood and the other as its disgraced outcast. In Summers’ study of prison literature, she points out that “Malory’s almost oxymoronic self-definition of prestige and abasement/humility … possibly should be read as a social and yet also spiritual exaltation—as a man of rank, and yet as one who humbly and nobly suffers misfortune” (Summers 184). As Michel Foucault reminds us, identity is necessarily predicated on subjection: a self or ‘subject’ comes into being and continues to exist only on condition that it is subjected to some form of power. Physical imprisonment all the more exposes and intensifies the inherent vulnerability of the subject. The doubly contingent nature of the prisoner—and the heightened tension between the exaltation and abasement of the self that it sets in play—is beautifully embodied in the figure of Lancelot, the consummate “prisoner” of love. In the Morte, he is Malory’s ideal subject.
The yearning for “wholeness” appears immediately in the opening of the Morte, defining the motive for the sexual union of Arthur’s parents, Uther Pendragon and Igraine, and Arthur’s conception. “I am sick for anger and for love of fair Igraine,” Uther tells Merlin, “that I may not be whole” (Malory 4). Uther is unhinged by his desire for Igraine, the wife of another man, and cannot be made “whole” either in body or mind until Merlin devises a ruse to get him into Igraine’s bed. Desire cannot be resisted in the Morte except on pain of illness, psychic disintegration, or death. We see this principle at work not only in Lancelot and Tristram, but even in Merlin, who, with all his foreknowledge and wizardry, cannot save himself from the ineluctable pull of desire when he meets Nenive, a damsel of the Lake: “he was besotted upon her, that he might not be from her.” Before Merlin suffers himself to be buried alive ‘under a great stone’ for love of her, he prepares Arthur for his disappearance:
“Ah,” said the King, “since ye know of your evil adventure, purvey for it, and put it away by your crafts, that misadventure.”
“Nay,” said Merlin, “it will not be” [Malory 58].
Merlin has overseen and directed the consolidation of Logres, and in his last act of unification, which will find its fulfillment in Lancelot, he links Arthur’s kingdom to that of Lancelot’s father, King Ban, while at the same time connecting the Round Table to the Holy Grail. Just before his living entombment, Merlin follows Nenive to the court of King Ban, where he meets Lancelot as a boy, revealing that Lancelot was first named Galahad by his parents and predicting that he will be “the most man of worship in the world” (Malory 59). Once Merlin is imprisoned in the earth, he can no longer serve as the unifying force within the kingdom, or the text. This role passes to Lancelot, who represents the advance from the practice of magic to the practice of chivalry as the force that will now hold Arthur’s kingdom—and the narrative of the Morte—together. As P. E. Tucker argues, “to understand Malory’s presentation of Lancelot is to grasp the unity of the book; its theme is loyalty” (Tucker 102), and loyalty is absolute in Lancelot. It is one of the great paradoxes of the Morte that Lancelot’s faithfulness to Arthur lies in his “traitorous” love for the queen and that this love, moreover, works to sustain rather than to disrupt the cohesiveness of the Round Table. In fact, the sundering of Lancelot and Guenivere spells the sundering of the fellowship, and eventually of the kingdom (Riddy 887). Malory makes it eminently clear—as does Arthur—that the blame for this disintegration lies not in the adultery of the lovers but in the villainy of Agravain, whose hatred and envy of Lancelot drive him to “bringeth up the noise” of their affair. As Malory summarily states at the end of Book XIX: “and here I go unto the morte Arthur, and that caused Sir Agravain” (emphasis mine; Malory 467).
Along with his brothers—Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth and Mordred—Agravain is a member of the treacherous Orkney clan. To avenge the slaying of their father, Lot, Gaheris beheads their mother when she is in the arms of her lover, Sir Lamorak, and later, together with Gawain, murders him as well. Except for Gareth, who is loyal to Lancelot, each brother successively threatens the unity of the Round Table. When Lancelot is discovered lying with the Queen in her chamber, Agravain strikes the first blow by publicly accusing Lancelot and Guenivere of treason. It is this “publicity,” this “noise”—not the adultery—that unnerves Arthur. As the doom gathers, Guenivere stands ready to be burned at the stake, and, in his frenzy to rescue her, Lancelot unwittingly kills Gareth and Gaheris, earning him Gawain’s remorseless hatred. Realizing that war with Lancelot and his kinsmen is now inevitable, Arthur is disconsolate:
And much more am I sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enough but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company…. And alas, that ever Sir Lancelot and I should be at debate! Ah, Agravain, Agravain … Jesu forgive it thy soul, for thy evil will that thou hadst, and Sir Mordred thy brother [Malory 482].
The “smiting and cleaving” will now start in earnest. “What the knights do individually to others is in the end done to them collectively: the split heads return in the form of a divided state” (Lustig 18). Without Lancelot the “center cannot hold,” and the way is opened for the forces of evil incarnate in the child Arthur sought to murder in a mass infanticide, his son, Mordred, who, in a horrific enactment of the death drive, will impale himself on his father’s sword while thrusting his own into his father.
A Binding Power: “Enfellowship” and Lancelot’s Saving Grace
“Even as a child,” T. J. Lustig writes, “the infliction of head wounds in King Arthur struck me as symptomatic” (Lustig 14). According to Lustig’s count, Lancelot holds the record for cleavings, proof of his superior prowess. What more importantly distinguishes Lancelot from his fellow knights, however, is that he repents of any cleavings he has inflicted for the purpose of winning “worship” or honor and that he willingly endures a grueling penance for this “sin.” In the last two books of the Morte, Lancelot undertakes a lacerating self-examination as he prepares to seek the Holy Grail. To his shame, he finds that he has been too eager to succeed in the eyes of the world, too caught up in its vainglory and “bobbaunce,” and ready to take up any contest—right or wrong—simply because he knows he will win it:
My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto great dishonour. For when I sought worldly adventures for worldly desires, I ever achieved them and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfited in no quarrel [Malory 331].
When he begs the holy hermit to “hear his life,” Lancelot adds another layer of significance to his sinfulness, confessing that he has loved Guenivere “unmeasurably and out of measure long”: “And all my great deeds of arms that I have done, for the most part was for the queen’s sake, and for her sake would I do battle were it right or wrong; and never did I battle all only for God’s sake, but for to win worship, and to cause me the better to be loved” (Malory 332). When Lancelot and Guenivere encounter each other for the last time, he tells her that but for her—“had not your love been”—he would have “forsaken the vanities of the world” to attain the Sangrail (Malory 520). If he had striven to succeed in the world’s eyes, it was solely because he had striven to succeed in hers, each being, for him, one and the same.
The moral point at issue is not so much that Lancelot loves Guenivere, but that he loves her “out of measure.” Judged by the spiritual perfection necessary to achieve the Sangrail, Lancelot’s capacity for such a love is a failing, but within the earthly realm of chivalry, it is a saving grace, for it extends itself not only to Guenivere but also to Arthur and to his knights. Even as the war with Arthur intensifies, Lancelot cannot bring himself to engage in it. He forgoes a display of the very prowess that is his raison d’être. To the objections of his men, Lancelot has only this answer: “I have no heart to fight my lord Arthur,” he insists, “for ever me seemeth I do not as I ought to do” (Malory 489). In a pivotal moment of the war, Arthur is thrown from his horse in the chaos of battle; undone by the sight, Lancelot dismounts, gathers Arthur up, and reseats him. Tears burst from Arthur’s eyes as he thinks on “the great courtesy that [is] in Sir Lancelot more than in any other man” (Malory 488). Later in the war, when Gawain insists on single combat with him, Lancelot balks, offering to abase himself in any number of ways to persuade Gawain to relent. When Gawain lies seriously wounded, Lancelot spares him and leaves the field at the expense of his own honor, moving Arthur to exclaim: “Now alas … that ever this unhappy war began! For ever Sir Lancelot forbeareth me in all places, and in like wise my kin; and that is seen well this day, what courtesy he showed my nephew Sir Gawain” (Malory 503). Lancelot’s unfailing nobility of spirit encapsulates “the civilization of the heart” that, despite all the Morte’s violence, infuses its narrative with “a fineness and sensitivity, a voluntary rejection of all the uglier and more vulgar impulses. We can describe it only in words derived from its own age, words which will now perhaps be mocked, such as courtesy, gentleness, chivalry” (Lewis, “The English Prose Morte” 9). When Lancelot lies dead at the end of the Morte, Malory’s grief at the passing of these qualities in his own day is reiterated in Hector’s lament over Lancelot’s body:
Ah Lancelot … thou were head of all Christian knights…. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bore shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse … and thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword … and the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest [Malory 526].
The Morte’s valorization of Lancelot culminates, however, in its penultimate chapter, which describes an episode not found in any of Malory’s sources and entirely of his own making: Lancelot’s healing of the Hungarian knight, Sir Urry. Severely injured in an encounter with Sir Alpheus, Urry has been carried on a litter for seven years throughout the lands of Christendom by his sister and mother in hopes of finding the knight who can restore him, until the group finally happens upon Arthur’s court. Sir Alpheus’s mother, a sorceress, has “wrought by her subtle crafts that Sir Urry should never be whole, but ever his [seven] wounds should one time fester and another time bleed, so that he should never be whole until the best knight of the world had searched his wounds” (emphasis mine; Malory 460). After trying to heal Urry himself, Arthur—in an astounding sequence—calls forth each and every one of his knights to do the same, summoning all one hundred and ten by name. When each in turn tries but fails to make Urry “whole,” Arthur commands Lancelot to try. Lancelot resists, saying he is in no wise better than any other knight: “My most renowned lord,” said Sir Lancelot, “I know well I dare not nor may not disobey you; but and I might or durst, wit you well I would not take upon me to touch the wounded knight in that intent that I should pass all other knights—Jesu defend me from that shame” (Malory 465). Only after Arthur persuades Lancelot that he would be making the attempt “for no presumption, but for to bear us fellowship” does Lancelot submit. Praying to the Holy Trinity of God, Lancelot kneels beside Urry, “searches” his wounds, “and forthwith the wounds fair healed, and seemed as they had been whole seven years…. And ever Sir Lancelot wept as he had been a child that had been beaten” (Malory 465–66).
The power Lancelot has exerted throughout the entire course of the Morte here, at last, becomes manifest—literally embodied—in Sir Urry. In the presence of all the Round Table, Lancelot’s imitatio Christi is a miracle that reveals his essential power to keep and make things “whole.” Lancelot weeps in abject gratitude, pierced by the realization that, despite his humiliating failure with the Grail, he has all the while been a good knight—in fact, the best knight—in the eyes of God. At the same time, the scene is a tragic one, for it underscores not only Arthur’s recognition of Lancelot’s power but also his failure to call upon it to forestall the “smiting and cleaving” that will leave his kingdom in ruins. Instead, at Gawain’s crazed insistence, Arthur banishes Lancelot from Logres.
At the end of the Morte, Arthur, caught in the masochistic grip of his guilt, cannot bring himself to “recall” Lancelot and ask for his assistance. Before his battle with Mordred, Arthur has a terrifying dream: He is sitting atop a great wheel and under him there is “a hideous deep black water, and therein was all manner of serpents and worms and wild beasts, foul and horrible. And suddenly the King thought that the wheel turned upside down, and he fell among the serpents, and every beast took him by a limb” (Malory 510). Its imagery is primeval, recalling the watery depths of Leviathan as well as the monsters of old that seethe in the currents of the unconscious. It is Gehenna, the dismemberment of the body politic, the dissolution of the self, the death wish.
The ending sentence of the Morte, circling back on itself, also serves as the beginning or title of the book, reiterating the cohesiveness of the Round Table and the combinatory power of Eros or—“enfellowship”—that binds its knights together and binds all the territories held by them into one “whole” kingdom. One could say that Malory enacts this same “enfellowship” in the making of the Morte, gathering up the scattered, episodic tales of Arthurian legend and literally binding them together into one “whole” book. In sum, the Morte can be read, on a metonymic level, as Malory’s repair of the kingdom through the composition of the book. It is, of course, the kingdom of England as well as that of Logres. Throughout the Morte, each serves as a surrogate for the other, except that the fate of the first still hung in the balance in Malory’s lifetime. As it moves inexorably toward “the day of destiny” on Salisbury Plain, the Morte unfolds as nothing less than the primal struggle between Eros and Thanatos, the life force and the death force, as they course through the rise and fall of civilizations. As such, it is not only a mirror of chivalry, but also a mirror of the dissolution that ensues in the wake of its failure, a mirror Malory held up to England, if not to the world.
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