Tag Archives: Malory

In which Lancelot is boring but Galahad is worse

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By this point it should be clear that there is little love lost between Lancelot and Yours Truly. And I am sorry, I really am! I tried to like the guy or at least view him with some sort of academic objectivity, but I can’t. Him and Guinevere, they’re supposed to be this power couple and yet Lancelot seems to have as many ladies fawning over him (with various degrees of reluctance on his part) as Gawain. And Gawain is known as the Ladies’ Knight! Give me a break. Anyway…What was I saying? Oh, yes! For the longest time I thought Lancelot would hold the “least favourite knight” title for me. Then I came across this young lad named Galahad….

 

Galahad’s character suffers from what I like to call the Superman Syndrome (and if that is a real thing I apologise to whoever coined the term). His singular function in the Arthurian tales is to be flawless. He’s the best knight; he’s the other person to pull the sword from the stone (thank you Malory…); he’s the one to find the Grail; yada, yada, yada. And you know what? I could –somewhat begrudgingly- deal with all that if he got some character development on the way. But nooooooo… I’m not kidding! In Malory’s version (which I’m going with since I don’t have access to the other versions of the story right now) he finds the Grail, rules as king on a city nearby (or was it the city he found the Grail in? I always get confused at this point.) and then dies. I think the way it is explained is that he was too pure for this imperfect world. Or it could just be that Sir Bores-a-lot Jr. had no other reason for existence. I’m not exaggerating. From the moment Elaine (not Elaine of Astolat, another Elaine) hears Lancelot is visiting her father and starts plotting to sleep with him, it is with the understanding that the result of the union will be the Chosen One. And we all know how that works out….

 

 

There are versions of the legend were Percival or even Gawain (-sigh- When am I gonna get a movie about him?) find the Grail. Heck! I’m pretty sure Lancelot finds it in one. Do I have a problem with that too? Well, I have problems with the Grail subplot in general, but that is the subject for another post (or more likely a dissertation). But no, I do not mind any of these three gentlemen finding the Grail. Why? Because that is not their only characteristic. They are not carbon cut-outs or lists of tropes on legs. They are three-dimensional characters with all the imperfections and struggles that come with that. And for that reason I can sympathise with them. Because I can see there was a process and a struggle to better themselves in order to be considered “worthy”, whatever that means….In Galahad’s case, not so much.

 

Now, someone might point out the fondness that medieval authors had for allegorical storytelling and archetypical characters. I understand and respect that. Sometimes variations on an already familiar theme are more imaginative than a completely new melody. However, even archetypes develop over time and I’m sorry but I just don’t see that in Galahad’s case.

In which the apple never falls far from the tree

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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.”[1] 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”[2] 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[3].

 

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[4], 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.”[5] 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[6]. 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”[7]. 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.”[8] 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”[9] 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”[10]. The hero’s choice is “always irrevocable”[11], 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”[12]. 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”[13] a motif that is often found in accounts of important battles. Arthur’s “ded full nobely”[14] are mirrored by Mordred’s “ded hys devoure…and put hymeslffe in grete perell.”[15] 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”[16] 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”[17]. 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.”

 

[1] Malory, 711.

[2] Guerin, 9.

[3] Malory, 712.

[4] Ibid, 725.

[5] Kennedy, 152-153.

[6] Echard, http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/fortune.htm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hoeltgen, 122.

[9] Malory, 712.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lattimore, 41.

[12] Malory, 713.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] 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&gt;.

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.

In which I share some of my favourite arthurian-themed songs

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Let it be known that my music knowledge extends to the refined level of “this sounds nice” vs. “this sucks”. As such, when I talk songs, I usually mean the lyrics as they are what I focus on. What does this mean for my poor tormented readers? Another list of course! I swear, I’m not making this up as I go. I actually listened to these songs parallel to my studies for the past few years and I think that they affected, to an extent at least, my understanding of some characters. (It’s what I call the Mr Darcy rule: the first one you come across will ALWAYS be your golden standard.) As such, here are my ten favourite Arthurian-themed songs:

 

The Lady of Shallot

Sung by Loreena McKennitt, it was the first song of this genre that I heard (movie songs do NOT count, coughSwordinStonecough). Other than the lady’s admittedly gorgeous voice, I was most struck by the lyrics. The song is actually a condensed version of Tennyson’s poem concerning the cursed maid of Astolat, Elaine, and her love for Lancelot. However, instead of focusing on the court and Lancelot (who, for being called loyal to a fault, had way too many sweethearts connected to him), the lyrics draw attention to Elaine and her Rapunzel-esque isolation to a tower. Initially I just liked “The Lady of Shallot” because, well, it sounded pretty (sue me, I was sixteen!). Now, having the story as delivered by Malory, and generally having read a lot more on the subject of Arthurian romance I’m more struck by smaller details, like the pathetic fallacy that permeates the poem, the sense of isolation that the Lady maintains even after her story is made known to Arthur’s court and the unresolved mysteries of the story. Why was Elaine cursed? By whom? Why did she have to weave? Who put her in the tower? Would she have still died if she had just “looked down to Camelot” instead of her gaze being amorous and mostly directed to Lancelot?

 

Lilly Maid

While we’re on the subject of Elaine of Astolat, this song, by Heather Dale, is also about her. This time however, instead of the song just focusing on the Lady, it is Elaine’s words that are heard. Drawing from Malory’s version of the story, here Elaine makes one last address to Lancelot, recounting their relationship before she goes to the lake to die. What has always struck me about this version is that, despite the soft words and sounds employed; there is an undercurrent of resentment that doesn’t exist in Tennyson’s poem. Here Elaine blames Lancelot for her death and with lines like “With trembling hands I held your life inside you/ But still failed to earn your favour for my own” it’s not exactly a mystery why (for further information read the “Fair Maid of Astolat” episode in Malory’s book. And be prepared to dislike Lancelot more and more with each line.)

 

The Captive

This was one of those songs I found after one too many clicks on YouTube. It is sung by Heather Alexander and, although not explicitly Arthurian in nature, would fit right in with the family…The titular captive is a lady forcibly married to a lord, whose main character trait is that he is an abusive jackass. One day, a magician visits the court and, after bedazzling them, manages to free the lady and run away with her. There’s a bit more on the story, but these are the bare bones of it. I loved how each character had a distinctive voice, figuratively and literally. The lack of a chorus also helped promote the sense that this is a short narrative instead of a song. Why do I call it Arthurian? I imagine this would be the sort of thing Merlin would get tangled in when he was young and before he started babysitting the Pendragon royal line…

 

Hawthorn Tree

Speaking of Merlin, here is another song about him, this one by Heather Dale. The focus here is Merlin’s relationship with his apprentice Viviane (who later became the Lady of the Lake. Or earlier was? Timelines are tricky like that….) I’ve always found it interesting that Merlin is aware of his fate, yet still agrees to teach her all he knows, heralding in a sense the beginning of the end for Arthur’s court. In this song, both the nature of their relationship (“love or enchantment”) and Viviane’s reasons for imprisoning Merlin are left to the audience’s imagination. Even Arthur remains in ignorance, being only able to speculate on the former and being informed about the later by an unnamed woodsman. I could go on and on about the symbolism on the song but that would be akin to spoilers so I’ll refrain.

 

The Trial of Lancelot

Again a song by Heather Dale and it’s about Lancelot. Shocker, I know. This one however is a guilty pleasure of mine since, a. it’s the trial that never happened in the Arthurian cycle (you know, when Lancelot actually has to answer for his actions instead of leaving Guinevere to deal with the fallout) and b. it’s one of the only two versions of him that I can actually stomach (the other being the BBC Merlin one). Ironically, this was also the song that began my dislike of Galahad, who up to this point I only had passing knowledge of. My running theory about the guy is that because his shtick is to live like a monk, he has to ruin life for everyone around him (but more on that on a later post).  I also like this song because it sheds light on the friendships between the knights, instead of just grouping them together and assuming that names are enough information.

 

For Guinevere

Like “The Captive” this is a song I surprised myself by adding to the list. Sung by Heather Dale, it is about Lancelot and Guinevere near the end of the Arthurian cycle, when they have fewer and fewer reasons to hide (aka, more and more people die…). Personally, I think their love story is overrated in a Romeo & Juliet kind of way. –shudder- That was one messed-up story… The lyrics are beautiful however, and so is the music and since I first heard it when I started watching Merlin –and was shipping Merlin/Morgana something fierce- I choose to imagine the song is for them. There are no names mentioned anyway, so it could also work for any other forbidden couple you ship. Personally,  I thought it was about Tristan and Isolt before I saw the title.

 

The Prydwen Sails Again

This is a pretty obscure one (by Heather Dale), referring to an early Welsh tale where Arthur and co. invade Ireland in search of a magical cauldron that brings the dead back to life (early version of the Grail story perhaps?). The song is sung by a lady bidding farewell to her knight as he joins Arthur’s band. What has always confused me about it though is that the way the lyrics are phrased it is implied that either this is Arthur’s second attempt or that the lady in question knows in advance what will happen. Seeing that this is the story of a group of semi-mythical knights invading one of the Celtic Underworlds (or Otherworlds, depending how you see it) in order to bring back a zombie-making magical cauldron, I’m more inclined to go with option b. By the way, if there is not a movie with the aforementioned plotline, somebody needs to make one! I would pay good money to see it!

 

Kingsword

While staying on the subject of mystical items, “Kingsword” by Heather Dale is –surprise, surprise”- about Excalibur, its story and the prophesies surrounding it. I actually really like this one, because the language is so full of symbolism and allusions that it could easily fit in nearly all versions of the tale, including the more modern ones. And…that’s all I can really say about it. You have to listen to it to get it.

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The original poem is one of my favourites in Middle English tradition. The song by Heather Dale is based on the poem but has different take on things, being more of an Oak King and Holly King type of struggle instead of the ambiguous quest the anonymous poet sends Gawain on, resulting to an even more open-ended conclusion. You can see why I like this one… The song also has a really joyful tune, making it sound like a carol (fitting for a story where the main action takes place during New Year’s Day…).

 

Mordred’s Lullaby

This was the first song by Heather Dale I ever heard (I think…it was part of a YouTube binge…). As it is painfully obvious by the title, the song is sung to an infant Mordred by his mother (Morgana or Morgause depending on the tradition), foretelling his fate and pretty much teaching him to hate his father and all he stands for. And before any of you start wondering what sort of messed up thing you stumbled on, I’d like to point out that this song provides something that most of the older versions of the story tend to leave out: a freaking reason for Mordred to basically cause the end of the (Arthurian) world. I also like the fact that, despite the almost single-minded focus of the lyrics, certain phrases betray uncertainty on his mother’s part as well. On the one hand she wants revenge, on the other she is reluctant to sacrifice her child for that cause.

 

Wow! This post ended up longer than I thought. And if anyone thinks there’s too much Heather Dale and not enough variety, a. I’m writing this with no internet access and can therefore only rely on my memory, b. She’s done a lot of AWESOME Arthurian songs and more people should hear them! (-fangirl moment over-)

In which you learn to ALWAYS question the source

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Ah…I remember the first time I read a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of king Arthur. Being a newbie on the whole Arthurian literature thing, I was star-struck by the pseudo-historic way in which he presented the events. True, I understood that he was probably making stuff up at least partly as he went on, but damn he did it in a cool way. And then I came across his claims over his reputed main source, that Holy Grail of lost manuscripts that he supposedly based his work. Yeah, as far as I can tell the manuscript Geoffrey describes did not exist. Most of the texts I have found on the subject argue that he probably based his account in part on pre-existing manuscripts (but a multitude of them, not one) and in part in oral tradition.

 

This got me thinking though. Sure, not even all of his contemporaries believed his account to be genuine, but the Historia became the basis, in some capacity or other, of most future versions of the Arthurian Cycle. Why was that? I’m not dissing Geoffrey; his account is very interesting, even if it is just read as a reflection of his time. However, Arthurian texts retained their quasi-historical claims for a while. Why base your text in a debatable source? Where they consciously undermining the historicity of their accounts? I remember being told that the greatest compliment an author could make in the middle ages would be to present another’s account as the ‘true facts’ he –ahem- borrowed from.

 

Maybe then the point wasn’t the accuracy. Maybe the point was to show appreciation for a predecessor’s work. In a time when the written word was not exactly openly available this might have been one of the few ways to actually preserve an older account and at the same time make it contemporary. The extensive bibliographies that are now readily available at the end of most books would be simply unimaginable in the early 1000s.

 

And maybe it was in that spirit that BBC’s Merlin (the mash-up adaptation that I respect most after Malory’s account) actually included a character named Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Galahad

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Galahad, Galahad,

Doubly his father’s son,

Mounted his steed

And off he was

To seek the Sangreal.

 

Galahad, Galahad,

Haute Prince he’s called,

He’s traded his sun-red armour

For Virginal white

And a bloody shield he bears.

 

Galahad, Galahad,

Begotten of magic,

Arthur’s shade

And younger half,

A perfect knight is called.

 

Galahad, Galahad,

He’s rescinded his mother’s,

His nursemaid’s charms,

And for a Wasted King

The Wastelands he charts.

 

Galahad, Galahad,

Lightbringer of Camelot,

Why do you hurry?

Why find the Grail?

Fulfil the Quest?

 

Galahad, Galahad,

Your name is a beginning,

A beginning of an end.

What makes you so worthy,

You, who are but a means to an end?