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Sir Thomas Malory’s masterpiece version of the Arthurian tales captures the spirit of the classic tales and brings something new to the heart of the stories. An important element in the traditional Arthurian legends is the presence of magic and sorcery. Ideally, magic could coexist peacefully with the real world, used as a means of benevolent action. This ideal is crushed, however, when most of the magic used throughout Malory is wielded in sinister ways with limited purposes.
Sir Thomas Malory’s use of magic in his adaptation of the tales of Arthur is very different than any other version of the story. Although these powers exist in Malory’s retelling of the tales, magic is limited to pragmatic ends. While previous installments of the great Arthurian tales recognize magic as an otherworldly presence, magic in Malory is an accepted element in the Arthurian world, with no real sense of wonder. The character of Merlin is an example of how magic could realistically coexist with the Arthurian world. Merlin is wise and experienced from his years as a sorcerer, but he is far from perfect. Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. says of Merlin,
“Neither devil, nor man, nor god, Merlin wears the masks of all three. He is equally capable of the miraculous feats of heroes and gods, or the undignified failings of devils and men. Empowered with extraordinary perceptions, he is also enfeebled, as in his lust for Nynyve, with weaknesses common to men” (Fritscher 3).
Although Merlin is “popularly conceived as the epitome of the supernatural” (Fritscher 3), Merlin is also part human, which is where Malory ties a believable amount of reality into the story. Merlin’s supernatural nature does not equal a heavenly nature. Although we know him to be wise and cunning, he is as flawed as any fully human character in the stories. For example, he blindly teaches Nynyve all that he knows, and she traps him a cave sealed with a magic stone. Although Merlin knew that he would die by being buried alive, he is powerless to stop it, and his own magic is useless in attempting to free himself from his grave. Merlin’s story serves to show how magic, as an ideal element that may have done great good in the Arthurian world, has failed.
While Merlin is certainly the most popular magical character in the Arthurian tales, other characters in Le Morte D’Arthur also have mystic powers. Merlin, who was undeniably an ally of King Arthur, departs early in the story, leaving way for characters such as Morgan la Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Nynyve to be the main magical personalities. According to Jack Fritscher, Morgan la Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Nynyve are three highly supernatural characters. Each associate, for good or ill, with a particular character: Morgan with Arthur, the Lady with Lancelot, Nynyve with Merlin (Fritscher 3), who is the agent of Merlin’s demise. Myra Olstead of Folklore magazine says of these women:
“Arthurian enchantresses generally react only to specific insults, and are seldom jealous of a mortal maiden’s beauty unless she interferes with their own designs. Two enchantresses rarely, if ever, work a single enchantment because an enchantress is usually seeking a highly personal result: the love of a knight, or the death or discomfiture of some political figure in order to advance the status or fortunes of her own paramour” (Olstead 49).
Although the women of Le Morte D’Arthur are cunning and sinister in their use of magic, their use of magic is for personal purposes, and is not always successful. Nynyve and Morgan le Fay initially have their own agendas, but eventually reconcile to being allied to King Arthur. Morgan le Fay is generally motivated by her attempt to assist one of her lovers, as shown in the theft of Excalibur for her lover Accolon, yet she appears on the boat that bears Arthur to Avalon. Nynyve uses her magic to a fatal end for Merlin, yet she develops into a loyal ally and servant of the king later in the story despite her ruthless disposal of Merlin.
Ideals and reality tie into this aspect of the story in a very unique way. Jack Fritscher says that “Malory constantly opted for a realistic background instead of the fairytale settings of his sources” (3). Although the reason that Malory chose this kind of setting was never explicitly stated by Malory himself, one can conjecture that perhaps the reason Malory decided to portray a realistic background over the fairy world setting is that Malory wanted his readers, and perhaps himself, to believe that these events did occur in our world, just in a different era. Choosing to select a realistic background meant the inevitable reduction of the power and influence of magic, yet by limiting magic’s role in Arthur’s world, Malory essentially created a world where magic and common lives could coexist harmoniously, each with their own roles in the world, making the arrangement entirely realistic.
In Malory’s Arthurian world, magic is not particularly miraculous or wondrous to the characters. As previously stated, the magic is limited in uses and purposes, and usually employed in mischievous ways. Despite these facts, it would be inaccurate to assume that Malory’s ideal world is one completely devoid of magic. Yet we must acknowledge simultaneously that Malory makes a point of demonstrating the damage that is done by the use of magic – Uther’s seduction of Igraine, Nynyve’s termination of Merlin, etc. Regardless of the misuse of supernatural powers, Malory does not denounce them altogether.
The point that can be drawn from the study of magic in Le Morte D’Arthur is that magic, like any weapon, is not inherently evil or good, but depends on its user to determine the outcome. While Morgan has her mischief and Nynyve her moments of mercilessness, both women come to be respected and honored ladies. Malory’s ideal world is one in which magic coexists with all other elements in the world harmoniously, and is used to good and helpful purposes. For example, when Arthur departs to Avalon to await the day of his return, magic surrounds his leaving. Yet here, as King Arthur makes his final exit from the world and into legend, there is no hint of suspicion, no ominous air of impending danger, only a bittersweet end to the great king. This is the final glimpse of an ideal world. No sooner have we finally glimpsed the marriage of an ideal with reality that we see it disappear with Arthur, into the mists, out of our world, and into legend.
Holbrook, S. E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum
53.4 (1978): 761-777.
Fritscher Ph.D, Jack. When Malory met Arthur 1 Jan 1967. Loyola University Library, Chicago IL. 1-3. http://www.jackfritscher.com/NonFiction/Malory%20Met%20Arthur/MortDarthur.html
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