I finally finished reading Malory’s Works, his version of the entire Arthurian cycle, from Arthur’s conception to his death, with lots of “traysing and traversing” and “good chere” in between.
I remember playing knights with one of my childhood friends; even running around with “lances,” although if we play-fought we probably used our sticks more like swords. Part of it was the typical girls’ love of anything to do with horses, and part of it was some sense of meaning, transcendence, majesty, and nobility.
I think my first exposure to the Arthurian story in literature was John Steinbeck’s version. I had to look it up to make sure that I remembered the author right, because it’s not at all like his other works. I don’t remember much about it, except I’m pretty sure that Lancelot and Guinevere did not act on their illicit love, but remained chaste.
According to what I found via Google, Steinbeck worked from Malory, aiming to modernize the language; he never finished and the book was published posthumously. I’d like to reread this version, especially now that I’ve read Malory again.
Somewhere along the line I saw the animated movie, The Sword in the Stone, which I remember liking. And I’m sure we read some Arthurian material in high school English, but I don’t remember anything in particular.
In college I took a course in Arthurian literature. It was very interesting. We started with the earliest possible vague references, just a line or two in snatches of early histories and narratives, and worked our way through the Welsh stories, Chretien de Troyes, Malory, the guy who wrote “Gawain and the Green Knight,” and on up to the modernizations.
We all picked different modern versions to read and write about; the professor recommended Charles Williams’ War in Heaven to me. It has Arthurian themes, but is quite far removed from the knight errantry of Malory. I’d like to reread this one someday, too, as well as other Williams books. If I remember right, he was a friend of Tolkien and Lewis.
So anyway, back in February I was looking for something to read and didn’t feel like driving to the library, and decided on a whim to work through Malory again.
The Middle English is not too hard; after a while one gets used to many of the unfamiliar spellings and phrases, and there are endnotes and a glossary to help with the rest.
I have to admit that it wasn’t really until Tristram, the Grail story, and the following tales of Lancelot and the Morte d’Arthur that I got particularly interested. Much of what comes before is endless jousting and unexplained adventures, with little exploration of character or relationship.
Jousting annoys me. Why do knights feel the need to fight one another whenever they happen across one another? They go at it enthusiastically, so that the blood flows, and then one of them is killed, or terribly wounded, or they become friends. Tournaments, too. I guess it’s training and keeping fit, but no one ever says that; they seem to be doing it all just for fun and to win honor. Real honorable, there, killing and wounding other knights in your own kingdom.
Tristram. I have to say how much I despise this idea of True Love: the idea that because Tristram and King Mark’s wife Isolde truly love one another, and likewise Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, their extramarital affairs are justified and even righteous. King Mark is especially written to be a fool and a jerk, who doesn’t deserve his wife or his best knight. Arthur is more tragic; he has an idea that something is going on, but he doesn’t want it brought out into the open because he loves Lancelot and doesn’t want to have controversy break up his Round Table and kingdom.
What especially annoys me is Lancelot; he declares that Guinevere is true to the king, knowing he’s lying, but also knowing that he’s a better knight than anyone else and so can “prove” his lie in a fight. In other passages in Malory, Lancelot is supposed to be aware of his sinfulness in loving Guinevere “out of mesure” and he’s even supposed to be humble, not daring to do anything that would suggest he thinks he’s the greatest knight.
And the principle of proving your rightness in any cause by fighting depends on a belief that God will give the victory to the knight who is right, so by boldly fighting in a wrong quarrel, Lancelot is trusting in his strength despite God, and inviting God’s wrath. And yet Malory presents him as a hero when he defends Guinevere in this way.
There’s a lot to be annoyed about in the Grail story, too. Why did people care so much about this or any other relic? Why is virginity and chastity exalted above any other virtue? What’s with this weird story about Joseph of Arimathea going to England? The whole thing is very mystical and Gnostic, with varying levels of revelation depending on the extent of any knight’s purity or sinfulness, and with strange tests of experience and strange miracles.
The quest itself is nebulous; it’s more of an adventure than a quest, because there’s no clear agenda or criteria. The questers all wander around randomly and have various experiences and then are told their quest is done. Oh, and pure Galahad is really loathsome; one of those good characters that makes you glad to be bad. The only thing that makes him interesting is that he’s Lancelot’s illegitimate son, and by some other woman, not even Guinevere.
Perhaps what interested me most, throughout Malory, was finding things that are in my favorite version of the Arthurian story, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Not only particular knights and incidents, but even the more modern character and relationship explorations. Malory himself was a modernizer, reworking material from various French sources, and it’s interesting to see how “modern” some of his modernizing was. It would be interesting to see to what extent some of these psychological elements are present in Malory’s sources. I generally think of psychological depth as a modern phenomenon in literature, but perhaps, as this reading of Malory suggests, it’s present in earlier literature as well, even if in a reduced form.
I should close by explaining that the reason the things that annoy me about the Arthur story annoy me is that they mar the things that I love about it. There is some sense of transcendence and nobility in the very phrase, “The Once and Future King,” like that glimpse of joy Lewis describes on reading another legend, particularly the phrase “Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead.” And adultery and lying and Gnostic mysticism detract from any sense of Godliness and real nobility the story otherwise expresses. One reason I like White’s version is that it seems to capture not only the ridiculousness and inevitable tragic failure of some aspects of knight errantry, but also its grandeur and noble possibilities.
I understand there are Christian modernizations of the story; considering the low quality of much current Christian fiction, I’m reluctant to even try to read any of these versions. But I’m open to suggestions of good Arthurian books, Christian or otherwise.