Peril, Piety, and Perdition
By Gabriel Blanchard
No one codified the legend of King Arthur and its meaning for English culture as powerfully as Thomas Malory.
The historical basis for Arthur, if there is any, lies in the mocking tatters of history left to us from fifth- and sixth-century Britain, after the departure of the Romans in 410 but before the evangelistic mission of St. Austin* in 597. Much was lost to the Viking raids of the eighth to tenth centuries; more still, if the twelfth-century priest Gerald of Wales is to be trusted, to the malice of the books’ own authors: he reports that St. Gildas, a sixth-century historian, had written in praise of Arthur, but threw his work into a river on hearing that Arthur had killed his brother in battle. Today, the most we can say is that there may have been a historical war-hero in sub-Roman Britain, bearing the name Artorius or something like it. “The once and future king” of legend is not what he was; at least, almost certainly not …
Yet something in the heart seems unwilling to surrender the legend. It lingers irresistibly in the mind, like a faint smell of frankincense caught in wool, at once homely and majestic. We have many authors to thank for this, and many of them remain anonymous; the authors of key Arthurian documents like the Mabinogion, the Vulgate Cycle, or The High History of the Holy Graal are as unknown to us as the road to Avalon. But the man who penned the ultimately “canonical” version of King Arthur in English literature was a fifteenth-century knight named Thomas Malory. He wrote one of the first books to be printed in England (which took place in 1485 via William Caxton): Le Morte d’Arthur, or The Death of Arthur.
We know surprisingly little about Malory for certain, mostly because scholars do not agree on who, exactly, he was. His name is clear enough, and occurs in several notes at the end of tales (mainly requesting prayers, as the “Thomas Malleorre” who composed the Morte did so in prison), but there were a few Thomases Malory hanging about in Renaissance England. The most probable candidate would seem to be Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel; he is confirmed both to have been a knight and to have spent a considerable portion of his life as a criminal, for which he was imprisoned multiple times. If he was the author, however, he would have had to compose the work in his late seventies or early eighties, which according to some scholars would be an implausible strain on such an elderly prisoner—to say nothing of the fact that records do not show him as being in prison at the time. Moreover, the high standard of chivalry presented in the work seems to clash with the colorful record of Newbold Revel’s Malory. In support of Sir Probability Mallory, we can point out at least that people have done stranger and less plausible things than write books while stuck in a room, and that one need hardly practice chivalric virtue to understand its literary appeal.
As for the Morte itself, it is a sprawling work, collecting a large proportion of the pre-existing matter of the Arthurian cycle. It fills eight books in Malory’s own arrangement, and in the printed edition of William Caxton, twenty-one! It traces the whole life of Arthur and many tales of his knights errant† besides. Let us begin at the beginning.
Arthur’s father Uther was surnamed Pendragon, which means “dragon’s head” (i.e. generalissimo) in the Brythonic language,‡ and from which the Welsh dragon derives. After Uther’s untimely death, Arthur is concealed in the countryside by the wizard Merlin. Kingless, Britain falls into strife, and the heathen Saxons advance; when Arthur comes of age, Merlin tells him his identity, and proves it to the gentry of Britain with the aid of the famous sword in the stone (a sword which in this version, as in many others, is not the same as its later replacement Excalibur, given to him by the Lady of the Lake). One Bedivere is made the first, and proves the most faithful, of all his knights. About this time Arthur also begets a son with Queen Morgause of Orkney, whom he does not know is his half-sister; the boy—whom Arthur is led to believe is dead—is named Mordred, and raised by his mother with his half-brothers, of whom Gawain is the most famous.
King Arthur Pendragon proceeds to not only defeat a mutinous group of nobles in battle, but win them over, just in time to marshal them against the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon. He then marries Guinevere, the beautiful daughter of King Leodegrance of Cameliard, and imposes the Pentecostal Oath upon the warrior-class of his own kingdom of Logres.§ It binds them thus:
never to commit outrage or murder, always to flee treason, and to give mercy to those who asked for mercy, upon pain of the forfeiture of their honor … always to help ladies, damsels, gentlewomen, and widows, and never to commit rape … [and] that no man should take up a battle in a wrongful quarrel … So all the knights of the Round Table … swore to uphold this oath, and every year at the high feast of Pentecost they renewed their oath.
There follows a war with the (fictitious) Roman emperor Lucius, during which Sir Launcelot, the king’s firmest friend, is introduced; Malory circles back to relate Launcelot’s history shortly thereafter, devoting Book III to him and his ennobling love for Queen Guinevere—which is at first not adulterous, but more like the love of Dante for Beatrice: a love whose fullest expression is service and adoration, rather than amorous possession. The next two books focus of the adventures of other illustrious knights of the Round Table. They conclude with Launcelot fathering a child on a woman he believed to be Guinevere while he was under a spell; Lancelot is driven mad for some years by this unfaithfulness to Guinevere, and the child, named Galahad, is raised in a convent and sworn to virginity. Once of age, he comes to the court at Camelot, accompanied by miraculous signs, including a vision of the highest of all the relics of Christendom: the Holy Graal, the vessel which first held the Blood of Christ.
Yet a prophecy warns that “when this rich Thing goeth about, the Round Table shall be broken.” Launcelot’s failure foreshadowed the deeper failure of Logres. Many knights undertake the quest of the Graal, but do so in arrogance, unworthily. Arthur’s nephew Gawain will do no penance, and therefore never sees the Graal. Launcelot, whose love for Guinevere is slowly deteriorating into possessiveness, will not give up that love and is rejected in turn. Only three knights achieve the Graal: Sir Bors, the only one to return to his previous life; Sir Percival, who returns to Logres but gives up his knighthood to spend the rest of his days as a hermit; and Sir Galahad, who remains behind in Sarras, “the land of the Trinity.”
This brush with holiness seems to have wrought the worst in Launcelot, who pursues his love into adultery with the queen. The betrayal is exposed by Sir Mordred (who now knows Arthur is his father); King Arthur condemns Queen Guinevere to death, but Launcelot rescues her from the stake; his castle is briefly besieged by Arthur, until word arrives that Mordred has usurped the throne in the king’s absence. He returns to Logres and leads a force of loyalists against his son at the Battle of Camlann, killing him. Yet he himself receives a terrible wound, and all his knights but Sir Bedivere are slain. Arthur orders Bedivere to return Excalibur to the Lake, and the king is taken to the hidden isle of Avalon, where he is laid to rest; the remorseful Guinevere becomes a nun, and Launcelot commits himself likewise to a monastic life in penance.
The legacy of Arthuriana today comes to us mainly through the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets, who flourished in the early and middle nineteenth century. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is both one of the last literary revisions of the story, and one of the latest great allegories properly so-called.|| The Inklings, particularly Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, also dipped into the Arthurian cycle for some of their work. Even today, while their quality may be disputed, there is at any rate no shortage of adaptations of Arthur and his court to the silver screen. The work of Malory is not forgotten; ever the king returns, and recedes, and returns again; and at its best, the story still carries the scent of Sarras.
*Also known as St. Augustine of Canterbury. The present writer prefers “St. Austin,” as making him easier to distinguish from the Bishop of Hippo.
†The word errant is now of course obsolete, surviving only in the fossilized phrase “knights errant”; but in Middle English (roughly from 1150-1500), it meant “wandering, straying,” with a connotation of misbehavior. It ultimately comes from the Latin errare, as does the word “error.”
‡Brythonic (also spelled Brittonic) was a Celtic language spoken in ancient Britain; when some of the Celts fled across the English Channel to escape the Saxons, the language was carried to the peninsula of Brittany. It is the ancestor of Breton and Welsh.
§Logres is the most common name for Arthur’s realm, taken from the Medieval Welsh name Lloegyr.
||Allegory, in the strict sense, means a work in which all or nearly all the characters in a story are personified abstractions; one of the most familiar examples is The Pilgrim’s Progress. Works are also often called allegory that are more properly examples of roman à clef, or works in which real people and events have been disguised with fictitious names and details, an essentially different device.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor errant. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
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Published on 7th August, 2023. Page image of The Damsel of the Sanct Grael by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874).