Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Monsieur Le Chevalier Malory Est Fini

OK, so I finished Malory.

Arthur died.

So did Lancelot. It seems he starved himself to death. Pined away. Died of a broken heart.

Sir Gawaine died.

Sir Tristram died. Murdered treacherously by King Mark. At least he saw the Holy Grail, even if only at a distance.

La Beale Isoude died. (It took a while to realize that this was the famous tale of Tristan & Isolde.)

Guenevere (speld Guenever by Malory...more about this in a minute) died.

Mordred died.

Galahad died. Because who can achieve the Grail without having it kill you?

Matter of fact, perty much everbody died. Or was killed. That's more accurate. Most of them were killed. They didn't just die.

It appears that this was something of a morality tale, but I'm not sure that's the way Malory intended it. I think he intended it to be a glorious but tragic tale of knightly chivalry.

But there are two main reasons why everybody dies: war and adultery and jealousy. OK, there are three main reasons...war and adultery and jealousy and sheer mule-headedness. OK, there are four main reasons...

Halfway through the Lancelot & Guenevere tale, I began to think of this movie from the sixties called Guide for the Married Man with Walter Matthau. One of the primary rules when committing infidelity was, if you got caught, Deny Deny Deny. Malory is not very forthcoming about what actually went on between Lancelot & the Queen. He says Love was different in those days. But the fact is, the final demise of the Knights of the Round Table, and of Arthur, and Guenevere, and Gawaine, and Lancelot...the war between Arthur and Lancelot, occurs because Lancelot gets caught red-arsed in Guenevere's chamber while Arthur is away. And what does Lancelot do? Deny Deny Deny...and then fight his way out of the castle, killing about twelve knights in the process.

The whole thing was a setup. Everyone in the court knew about Lancelot & Guenevere's prolonged indiscretions. Just as King Mark knew that Tristram was sniffing more than his wife's scented handkerchief. The only one who didn't know was Arthur. And he probably knew too, but found it much more convenient to ignore it. After all, he was king. The Round Table was the most powerful collection of wealth and military might in history. Why jeopardize that?

Until Sir Agravaine (driven by what sort of malice I can't make out) gets in Arthur's face about it so forcefully that Arthur's shamed into taking action. (Or boxed into it...the king's honour at stake...) So they set up a sting operation, not too far different from the modern idea of hiring a private eye to take pictures at the Notell Motel. Sir Agravaine then accuses Guenevere of treason (ie. infidelity, faithlessness) which, if unanswered, means she will be burned at the stake.

Guenevere must have been quite the hussy. Everybody had the hots for her. Sir Palomides...a classic unrequited lover and a Saracen to boot. Sir Lancelot. Even Mordred, Arthur's bastard son, begat upon Morgan Le Faye, his (Arthur's) sister. Or half-sister. Can't remember which. It's hard to keep track of these modern blended families. (And Morgan Le Faye also is quite a piece of work...a sorceress apparently full of malice for Arthur, yet at the end she is one of three queens who appears in a boat to take Arthur to Avalon in hopes of healing him.)

Arthur must have had his hands full with Guenevere. More than once he was on the point of sending her up in smoke, whether he will or nil, but always it was Sir Lancelot who pulled her fanny out of the fire.

This last time is the best, perhaps the only, example of true chivalry in the whole tale. Lancelot defies the claims of Agravaine (and Arthur), and is willing to actually go to war in order to protect Guenevere's reputation. Admirable. Still, it's hard to forget that his act of chivalry and bravado also served to cover up a rather sordid deception. But Arthur, ever the magnanimous cuckold (and more about this too, in a minute...) regrets with every ounce of his royalty the necessity of warring with Lancelot, whom he loves almost as much as he loves Guenevere. Hmm...

However. Or as Malory would say, Howbeit. In the course of his escape from the royal bedchamber, Lancelot kills Sir Agravaine. Sir Agravaine is Sir Gawaine's brother. A little while later, by misfortune and accident, he kills two more of Gawaine's brothers, Sir Gaheris (I think it was) and Sir Gareth, who he knighted himself somewhere around the middle of the book, and whom he loved more than any other knight (except maybe Tristram or his son Galahad), and who loved him beyond all measure.

Here comes the mulishness. Gawaine forgives Lancelot for killing Agravaine (and yet another brother) because, as he says, "I told them they were asking for trouble, setting up this trap for Lancelot and Guenever, but they went ahead and did it anyway. Serves 'em right!" On the other hand, he absolutely refuses to forgive Lancelot for the other killings, even knowing they were accidental, even knowing Lancelot was in complete anguish over it. Gawaine pushes Arthur to chase Lancelot all the way to France (I asssume), against Arthur's better judgment, to get his revenge.

That's when everything really starts to go to hell in a handbasket, cuz while Arthur's gone, he leaves Mordred in charge. What was he thinking? Mordred engineers a palace coup and even attempts to marry Guenevere! By spreading the lie that Arthur was killed on the continent. People believed him. No email in those days. No YouTube. No CNN. No Sirius satellite for God's sake! (How in heaven's name did they survive with only wandering minstrels and troubadours, court fools and midgets? They say that Tristram was pretty good with the of the things that attracted La Beale Isoude...)

So Arthur and Gawaine and whoever was left after the seige of Lancelot hurried back to Britain to fight off Mordred. And so Arthur is killed. And Mordred. And Gawaine dies too, ultimately, of wounds caused by Lancelot. (Gawaine in his mulishness insisted on coming back and back for more when Lancelot beat him, never giving himself time to heal properly.) At least Gawaine recovered from his insanity before he died and wrote Lancelot a nice letter.

But anyway, they pretty much all die with broken hearts.

You may think it's some grand love story. I can't get that romantic about it. It's a bloody Greek tragedy. I admit I've never experienced the kind of passion that seems to drive these people. Lust, sure. But not passion. Besides, at points it seems too much like the passion that convinces a man it's a good idea to go down to the mall and shoot his estranged wife in cold blood, then take a hostage and wait around for the ETF to blow his head off.

I can't seem to muster a lot of sympathy for these people. Only once did the sudden, unexpected death of a knight send a jolt of regret thru my insensitive breast. And at the moment I can't remember who that was. Maybe Galahad.

It is, however, once you get past the archaic language, the rrrrepetitions, the non-sequiturs, and the foolish customs (like riding around the forest wearing a helmet so no one recognizes holding tournaments where the most likely result is death or severe injury...) a cracking good yarn!

And that's without even going into the Holy Grail part of it.

So. That's my take on Le Morte d'Arthur. I've decided that Malory was actually a man after me own heart, in one way. He might have been a prime suspect for the Yoni School. His attention to the finer points of spelling was quite negligent. Three different spelings for the same word. Twenty different werds with the same spelling. Or perhaps it was the typesetter. In any case, the reader is left to decipher.

And one last thing: the reference to Arthur as a magnanimous cuckold. This comes to you via The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies. That book is centred around an opera about Arthur and Guenevere, the subtitle of which is The Magnanimous Cuckold. Actually, I think it was all the talk about them that convinced me to re-attempt Malory. That Robertson Davies was a really clever writer. Altho, like a certain blogist who shall remain unnamed but whose initials are Larry Keiler, maybe too clever by half sometimes.


Über-post. Please report to Edit Central.


Anonymous said...

Mmmm.... sounds like the tale is told from a male perspective. I read "Mists of Avalon" long long ago, and found it so intriguing at the time, since it told at least parts of the tale from a feminine, maybe feminist, perspective.

Morgana usually gets a bum rap - evil sorceress - if I remember right, this spins the tale differently. More the Celtic pre-Christian vision... until at least Christinity comes in, and usurps.

It was always the search or quest for the Holy Grail itself which I found so intriguing in my reading of King Arthur saga so long long ago, and which I find intriguing in a myth sense. From one perspective, it is saga of the human condition - it takes a long time to learn that sometimes you just have to let go, rather than continue to pursue. But on the other hand, the concept of quest... the search for the heart of things... there is something true and good and central there.

Anonymous said...

so lets get this straight eh. Everyone dies?

Larry Keiler said...

LOL! Yeah, everybody dies, but not in the way you mean...

Larry Keiler said...

X, most of the women get a bum rap in Malory. Except for maybe the Lady of the Lake, who always appears at an opportune moment to set everybody straight.

I remember, way back in the mists of childhood, reading a book about the Holy Grail and being absolutely enchanted. So enchanted, in fact, that afterwards (well, a lapse of many years) I could not remember the actual title of the book or its author. One of those old English guys, like maybe Walter Scott. The book was a little above my reading level at the time. Maybe I was ten and the book weighed a ton. A tome. I didn't understand some of it, but I was taken nevertheless.

In Malory, altho the Grail quest is a big part of the story, it seems almost anomalous. The tone of the story quite changes, as if it was inserted at a later point.

As I remember it, Malory doesn't fully explain what causes all these knights to go off on the quest. And the quest is actually the beginning of the dissolution of the Round Table. Never after is the fellowship whole. I think nearly half of them die. Some give up because they realize (or are told, by messengers of God perhaps) that they cannot succeed.

And the reason why they cannot succeed is also the reason for the altered tone. The story goes from one of earthly, knightly, chivalry and battle to the accomplishment of a spiritual goal. Only the purest may achieve the Grail. Galahad. But not Lancelot, because he is not wholly without sin. The clear implication here is that it is his involvement with Guenevere that bars him from touching the Grail. Lancelot recognizes this "failing" -- in effect accepting himself as he is -- and expressing gratitude for the blessing of seeing as much as he did of the Grail.

Three members of the Round Table succeed in finding the Grail. Think I can remember which three? Noooo...but only one actually touches the Grail -- Galahad -- and that marks the end of his earthly life. And only one of the three returns to Camelot.

Interesting, Malory explicitly refers to the Grail as the Blood, and describes it as a "vessel". I don't believe he ever says it is a chalice or cup. But a vessel...just as woman is a vessel.

Anonymous said...

grail, quest, destination etc...

If the destination becomes the whole purpose then we lose out on the journey.

also we make poor decisions about getting there..

my quest this morning was coffee..I have to admit that my whole purpose was coffee. I don't remember the Journey..

Anonymous said...

King Arthur didn't really die, you know. I forget in which tale I picked that up. But it tells that he is asleep in the West. Just like Jesus, he will return.

The Arthur myths represent the time of transition between Celtic thinking and Christianity. All characters in mythical tales kick the bucket, one way or other. Ever read Islandic myth? Also based on truths of the way of living of the times and geographical locations.

The heart of the stories is always the same. How they are told depends on who tells them, where, and when.

There is always an ideal. The ideal is always fucked up by stupidity, greed, jealousy...

Hey got to check that out. Maybe here the Seven Sins come in?

There is always a seed of truth in every tale told, even if they tell lies.

X, you tell it better than me. Good insights.

Larry, the way you retold Malory's visions, had me in stitches. There are still tears drying on my face.


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