A bit of a confession as a prelude here: This post is actually an extract from an essay I wrote for my Medieval Arthurian Traditions module last semester at uni. I was talking about Malory’s characterisation of Arthur and whether or not he is a tragic character, and while I was tip-toeing the line between philosophy and literary criticism I came up with this rather convoluted theory about the relationship of the characters of Uther, Arthur and Mordred. Since I stood on my metaphorical soapbox last week about Mordred (and since next week I will also be talking about a father-son pair), I figured I’d include this as well.
“Malory provides an overview of [Arthur’s tragic] progression through his condensed version of [his] vision of the Wheel of Fortune. Here is however where authorial intent and model deviate from one another. Arthur’s vision ends as “he felle amonge the seepentes, and every beste toke hym by a lymme.” Although the passage functions perfectly as foreshadowing for the subsequent battle at Salisbury, it ignores the final stage of the Wheel structure, that of Regnabo. Arguably, the stage of the rising king could very well be considered the first rather than last, but Arthur’s vision commences with him already in the Regno stage; that of the reigning king. Much like Arthur does not appear to achieve personal catharsis in the Aristotelian sense, his vision does not provide hope for his return.
Victoria Guerin points to the existence of “a recurrent pattern in which failure to respect blood and marital relationships is followed by divine retribution against the ruling house and people of Britain” in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia. Although the French tradition was a greater influence to Malory’s writing than Geoffrey the statement holds true for both accounts of the events. Arthur’s demise is the culmination of a complete breakdown of all blood and marital bonds. Guinevere’s infidelity might be the one to deprive him of his two greatest knights (Gawain and Lancelot) however; it is his own disregard for these bonds that results in the conception of Mordred in a sequence of events that parallels that of his own conception. Perhaps the way to account for the missing Regnabo stage in both Arthur’s vision and life is to also examine Uther’s reign and mistakes. Both Arthur and Mordred are begat in unions that violate the marital bond (and in Mordred’s case the familial bond as well) to women of the same family line. Both ascend to the throne during periods of political instability, while the previous regime seems to be crumbling, and both marry (or attempt to marry) the same queen. Perhaps the most important difference between Arthur’s and Mordred’s ascent to the throne is that, while Uther dies before he can recognise his son as his own, leaving the revelation of Arthur’s parentage to Merlin, Mordred vocally acknowledges Arthur as his father during the “Day of Destiny” episode.
I believe that this repetition of events is not accidental. Malory’s account, although ostensibly concerned with the life of Arthur, extends to include his entire court. It would be then more accurate to consider Britain the one whose tragedy is being written, with the Pendragon line of kings serving as its personification. Due then to the circular nature of action, Uther’s Regnabo in Malory’s account is fulfilled by Arthur’s ascent and similarly Arthur’s Regnabo is appropriated by Mordred. The fourth stage of Mordred’s own movement through the Wheel of Fortune is less straightforward. Malory’s account after the battle of Salisbury, unlike Geoffrey’s, focuses on Lancelot, Guinevere and the remaining few knights of the Round Table and there is only a passing mention of the next king, one that is not connected to the Pendragon line.
For Britain the next Regnabo would be Constantine, son of Carados, whose disassociation with Arthur’s line breaks the cycle, even as it perpetuates it. Considering Malory’s characterisation of his heroes, that might be the only way to achieve catharsis. The Regnabo, by virtue of being both an ending and beginning stage, offers each king the chance to achieve the catharsis that his predecessor, through his fall from grace, is prevented from. However, Arthur repeats the mistakes that bring about his father’s downfall and in turn Mordred acts similarly. The circular nature of each character’s development simultaneously places them in comparison to their predecessors and ensures that they repeat their mistakes. The clean brake achieved through the mutual murder of Arthur and Mordred and the passing of the title to a different line would realistically be the only way to achieve catharsis for the land without completely deconstructing the tragedy of Fortune model.
Can Arthur therefore be considered a tragic character in the medieval sense? Edward Kennedy argues that, for all his weaknesses, Arthur is a good king by medieval standards, one who is motivated by “a desire to do what honour commands and to avoid its opposite, shame.” Honour however does not necessarily translate to morality, and Arthur is repeatedly shown to prefer the public station of an honourable king over the more private state of a moral individual. It must also be noted that pride is also an opposite of shame, in Arthur’s case pride for his state as king. It could be therefore argued that Arthur’s fall is divine punishment for his pride. In Malory’s text, the pride and fall motif is only implied through the Wheel of Fortune vision. However, Malory based his account of the vision at least in part to the pre-existing Stanzaic Morte Arthure, which in turn was adapted from the 13th-century La Mort le Roi Artu. It appears that the earlier the text, the more direct is the interaction between Lady Fortune and Arthur. In fact, in the French version Lady Fortune explicitly states that “such is earthly pride that no one is seated so high that he can avoid having to fall from power in the world”. In all three versions of the vision referenced here Arthur is either placed at the highest point of the Wheel by Fortune herself or, in Malory’s case, finds himself there with no explanation. In any case, the lack of action on a human level leaves him a little more than a marionette for a higher power such as Fortune to play with, a concept central in this particular strand of tragedy.
Malory’s Arthur is therefore a tragic character whether the classic or the medieval model is used. Unfortunately both definitions have proved themselves incomplete in one way or another. A reading of the text as a de casibus tragedy, combining the personal responsibility that is central to the Aristotelian model with the function of Fortune can account for these discrepancies. Malory would not be the first to negotiate the two seemingly contradictory concepts. Boethius also managed it by maintaining that “people can choose whether to trust the wheel or stay away from it.” In Malory’s text human agency is further reinforced by the gradual disappearance of the supernatural from the narrative. In the final confrontation between Mordred and Arthur, as well as the latter’s dying moments there is only space for one last miracle when Bedyvere returns Excalibur to the lake.
One might argue that it is Fortune’s influence that causes the adder to appear right after the agreement between the two factions is reached. On the other hand, it is the actions of the characters, especially Arthur and his foil, Mordred that caused the confrontation to happen. Arthur’s warning to his men, “they se ony swerde drawyn, ‘loke ye com on fyersely and sle the traytoure, sir Mordred, for [I] in no wyse truste hym” is mirrored in his son’s almost identical order, “ye se ony maner of swerde drawyn, loke that ye com on fyersely and so sle all that ever before you stondyth, for in no wyse I woll nat truste for thys tretyse”. The hero’s choice is “always irrevocable”, and so the final climax of the action is achieved when a choice is made that effectively bars any other outcome than the battle. In this case that is the choice of mutual distrust between father and son.
Malory takes special care to highlight the battle at Salisbury as the greatest and most terrible in Arthur’s career, declaring that “never syns was there seyne a more dolefuller batayle in no Chrysten londe”. The description is not a lengthy one, with an equal amount of lines being devoted to the battle proper and sir Lucan’s attempt to stop Arthur from killing Mordred. It is stated explicitly that the battle lasts all day, until “nere [ny]ght” a motif that is often found in accounts of important battles. Arthur’s “ded full nobely” are mirrored by Mordred’s “ded hys devoure…and put hymeslffe in grete perell.” The “Day of Destiny” serves as the climax to Arthur’s tragedy and as such it is at this point that his character is shown at its most clear. At the end of the battle Malory seemingly offers an alternative option to his character. He can retreat, following the advice of his visions and thus survive the day. Yet, Arthur is “wroth oute of mesure” which, although understandable to the empathising reader, leads to his final act of hybris; filicide. With Mordred’s equally deadly retaliation, Arthur truly passes to the Sum Sine Regno, both literally, as the place under the Wheel can also be identified as death’s domain, but also figuratively as the character’s lowest point. Equally symbolic is the death wound he receives by his son. Considering how their actions have so far mirrored each other’s one might expect for them to have similar death wounds. However, Mordred strikes his father at the head, physically reinforcing the action that he symbolically took when he usurped the throne.
Malory’s characterisation of Arthur is that of a tragic hero. Whether due to Lady Fortune’s capriciousness or his own character’s flaws, his is a story that “at the beginning is admirable and placid, but at the end or issue is foul and horrible”. Whether the reader chooses to read the possibility of catharsis for the character or not, there is no denying that Malory managed to create an episodic account that perfectly captures an individual’s rise and fall and leave his audience in fear and pity for the main character and themselves.”
 Malory, 711.
 Guerin, 9.
 Malory, 712.
 Ibid, 725.
 Kennedy, 152-153.
 Hoeltgen, 122.
 Malory, 712.
 Lattimore, 41.
 Malory, 713.
 Hoeltgen, 123.
(Why, yes I actually compiled a) Bibliography:
Echard, Siân. “King Arthur and Fortune.” King Arthur and Fortune. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/fortune.htm>.
Guerin, M. Victoria. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Fall of Kings and Princes: Structure and Destruction in Arthurian Tragedy. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995. 1-17. Print.
Hoeltgen, Karl Josef. “King Arthur and Fortuna.” King Arthur: A Casebook. Ed. Edward Donald. Kennedy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 121-37. Print.
Kennedy, Edward Donald. “Malory’s King Mark and King Arthur.” King Arthur: A Casebook. Ed. Edward Donald. Kennedy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 139-71. Print.
Lattimore, Richmond. “Chapter III: Patterns of Choice, Revenge and Discovery.” Story Patterns in Greek Tragedy. N.p.: U of Michigan, 1969. 36-55. Print. Ann Arbor Paperback.
Malory, Thomas. Malory Complete Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.