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King Arthur: Two Stories About One Tragedy

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As one of the most important figures of bravery, goodness and heroism in British legend, the idea that, as a tragic hero, Arthur Pendragon might have deserved his fate, is an uncomfortable one. However according to Aristotle’s Poetics, there can be no escaping the fact that the protagonist’s tragic flaw is the sole cause for their downfall. While the Alliterative Morte Arthure’s Arthur is certainly a flawed man, and elements of the reversal and recognition we might expect are present, the poet’s introduction of the wheel of fortune suggests that there are more factors at work. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, whilst certainly tragic in tone, similarly subverts the readers’ expectations of the genre, creating less of a personal tragedy than a tragedy of the whole realm, using this to comment on the failures of chivalry.

In the Alliterative Morte Arthure it is not difficult to determine a tragic flaw in Arthur, as his pride almost overwhelms the reader at times. Although his campaign against Lucius is initially just in nature, his military success soon causes him to become arrogant and corrupt, fighting instead ‘for raunson of red gold’.[1] This is perhaps best demonstrated through the parallels between Arthur and the giant of St. Michael. The giant’s demands for ‘the berdes of burlich kinges’[2] initially seems outrageously arrogant to the reader, however before long Arthur similarly attempts to humiliate the defeated Roman Senators, as we are told that ‘They shoven these shalkes shapely thereafter/To reckon these Romanes recreant and yelden’.[3] Most telling, however, is that both Arthur and the giant are said to rule ‘as lord in his owen’.[4] These similarities reveal that Arthur’s pride has changed him from the heroic figure we see towards the beginning of the text into a greedy tyrant, exactly the same as the monsters he set out to defeat.

Indeed, even the narrator seems to judge Arthur’s actions, asking in the opening lines for God to shield him and the reader from ‘shamesdeede and sinful workes’ such as will be found in the text.[5] This gradual diminution in legitimacy is thrown into sharp focus when a cardinal ‘kneeles to the conquerour’[6] and begs Arthur ‘to have pitee of the Pope, that put was at-under’ by his forces.[7] No longer waging a just crusade against Saracens, Arthur has begun to wage war on the Pope and even the Church itself, something which Matthews notes is ‘in defiance of medieval doctrine’.[8] Combined with Arthur’s borderline blasphemous statement at the siege of Metz that as a ‘crownd king’ he cannot be harmed, it quickly becomes clear that his hubris has reached an almost frenzied level.[9] Towards the end of his campaign, Arthur’s pride becomes so great that he seems determined to conquer all within his sight. As this desire increases, the reader cannot help but be reminded of Alexander the Great, also a conqueror of the known world from, at that time, a small and insignificant country.

The poet makes effective use of this by reminding the reader through Arthur’s dreams that he too was brought low by his hubris. Like Arthur, Alexander is said to have ‘rought I nought elles/But rivaye and revel and raunson the pople’,[10] and we are clearly shown that Arthur’s reward for this behaviour is to be ‘damned forever!’.[11] Karl Heinz Goller suggests that Arthur’s bloodthirsty nature and warmongering in this text may be ‘a pacifist indictment of warfare itself’, and this comparison with and judgement of Alexander would certainly support his theory.[12] Like Arthur and Alexander, Edward III, the most likely monarch at the time of writing, waged endless military campaigns that became disastrous later in his reign. Similarly, these campaigns were largely based upon a proud, greedy desire for a crown that he arguably had no right to. By creating a link between Arthur and Alexander, the poet may have been subtly suggesting the illegitimacy of his own king’s actions through their tragic falls from glory.

Arthur’s reversal comes swiftly on the heels of his greatest triumph, not even having time to be crowned before receiving the news of Mordred’s betrayal. His eventual anagnorisis is amongst the most moving scenes in Arthurian literature, Arthur is describing himself as being ‘utterly undone’[13] as he cradles Gawain’s lifeless body, lamenting the fact that ‘he is sakless surprised for sin of mine one!’.[14] However there does not appear to be any recognizable sense of catharsis for Arthur’s knights or for the realm as a whole. While this prevents the Alliterative Morte Arthure from being considered an Aristotelian tragedy, catharsis is not an essential part of a medieval variation on this: the tragedy of fortune. Matthews states that, much like an Aristotelian tragedy, ‘the medieval tragedy of fortune normally describes the fall of some ruler or other noble person from success or happiness into ruin or misery’.[15] The hero is often still brought low by some sinful quality rather than fate, however the theme of the fickleness of fortune is introduced as a way to comment upon the inevitability of the hero’s downfall.

In the Alliterative Morte Arthure this theme is explored through Arthur’s dream of the Duchess of Fortune and her wheel, who initially will ‘lift [him] up lightly with lene handes’,[16] yet soon shows her fickle nature ‘and whirles [him] under,/Til all [his] quarters that while were quasht all to peces’.[17] It is worth noting that the six fallen kings do not blame the wheel of fortune for their fall, but rather their own hubris. This further emphasizes that, although the fickleness of fortune is a factor in Arthur’s tragedy, he is still ultimately responsible for his own undoing. The Duchess’ exclamation, ‘Crist that me made!’ suggests that she is actually meting out God’s justice through her punishments, rather than simply causing strife for the sake of it.[18] The Alliterative Morte Arthure certainly demonstrates the balanced structure characteristic of this form of tragedy, with Arthur’s victorious conquest taking up roughly the same proportion of the text as his downfall.

This sense of balance is only heightened by the parallels between Arthur and his former enemies, as previously discussed. Where Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is concerned, the difficulty is not whether or not the protagonist can be considered a tragic hero, but rather finding a character that could not be considered so. Indeed, Malory depicts the dissolution of the Round Table as a universal tragedy affecting all involved. However this is not simply a melancholy parade of dark fates intended to evoke pathos, as nearly every character suffers from the same tragic flaw: devotion to a limited and unpractical chivalric code, upon which the Round Table is built. The inadequacy of this code is primarily demonstrated through the downfall of Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain, each of whom demonstrate a distinctly dangerous aspect of chivalry. From the very beginning of Arthur’s rule, the contrast between his style of ruling and his father’s is stark. Uther demands unquestioning obedience from his subjects, going so far as to make war on the Duke of Tingatel simply for ‘departyng [court] soo sodenly’.[19] In contrast, Arthur’s very installation of a round table reveals that he has attempted to create a relationship that is more fraternal than patriarchal. While this relationship with his lords creates deeper bonds of affection between them and creates the ‘fayryst felyshyp of noble knyghtes that ever hylde Crystyn kynge togydirs’,[20] it also weakens his power over them. By founding the Round Table and lowering his own status to first among equals, Arthur has moved from the absolute monarchy of his father into a more unstable feudal monarchy. As a result he is entirely dependent on the good will of his lords and his ability to ‘holde hem togydirs with [his] worshyp’ to keep control of the realm.[21]

Perhaps the best example of this is Arthur’s response to Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. Agravain expresses his disgust that the Knights of the Round Table ‘be nat ashamed bothe to se and to know how Sir Launcelot lyeth dayly and nyghtly by the Quene – and all we know well that hit ys so’.[22] This statement suggests that the lovers are so openly involved that Arthur himself may know of their affair. Indeed, we are told that he has a ‘demyng of hit’, yet initially chooses to ignore Guinevere’s betrayal rather than risk destabilizing the kingdom by confronting Lancelot and admitting one of his own knights has cuckolded him.[23] So long as it is not acknowledged, Arthur is able to maintain the illusion of control, as emphasized through Gawain’s plea that Agravain forget the matter, lest ‘thys realm [is] holy destroyed and myscheved, and the noble felyshyp of the Rounde Table shall be disparbeled’.[24] Yet once Agravain insists on making it a public matter, Arthur is forced to publicly respond to save face. However the damage has already been done, as demonstrated by Sir Madore’s refusal to accept Arthur’s word of Guinevere’s innocence and insistence that she be tried, as despite his kingship, Arthur’s lords have realized that he is ‘but a knight as [they] ar, and [he is] sworne unto knyghthode als welle as [they] be’, and is therefore vulnerable.[25] The chivalric code of the Round Table, based on personal relationships rather than unquestioning loyalty to the king, forces Arthur to act according to Gawain’s wishes in attacking Lancelot to retain his support rather than reconciling the two parties for the good of the realm.

Lancelot’s own strict adherence to the Round Table’s chivalric code establishes him as, in Moorman’s words, ‘the perfect earthly knight’, yet this is precisely the problem, as Malory demonstrates that the ‘earthly’, secular focus of the code conflicts with the religious code that Lancelot should instead aspire to.[26] This incompatibility is initially revealed through his failure to attain the grail. As the most audacious quest set before the Round Table, it would seem natural to the reader that the grail should be won by its greatest knight, yet Lancelot is deemed to be unworthy by the hermit due to him being ‘lyckly to turne agayne’ to Guinevere.[27] Whilst chivalry encourages this behavior as courtly love, Christianity condemns his lechery, therefore he cannot attain the grail and remain true to himself as the ‘the best exemplar of Round Table civilization’.[28] Indeed Gawain remarks that in rescuing Guinevere from Arthur’s punishment ‘he hath done but knyghtly’, despite the fact that being knightly in this context has meant going against the justice of an anointed king.[29] As Lumianski states, according to the code of chivalry ‘all challenges must be met and all fellows must be revenged’,[30] regardless of how just one’s cause is or the effect on the realm, making it almost impossible to ‘take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell’.[31]

This is demonstrated particularly poignantly through Gawain’s insistence on avenging the death of Gareth despite the knowledge such an action would not only destroy the Round Table, but also force him to kill his brother in arms. By forcing Gawain to choose between his loyalty to Lancelot and the chivalric need to preserve the honor of his family at any expense, Malory reveals that the code of the Round Table is so focused on maintaining appearances that it does not allow its followers to compromise for the greater good. The tragic irony of Gawain’s adherence to the code is that, in waging a pointless war against Lancelot on the grounds that he has been ‘false unto [his] uncle Kynge Arthur’, he actually facilitates Mordred’s genuine treachery.[32] Gawain’s recognition on his deathbed is perhaps the most tragic of all, as he not only realizes that ‘thorow [his] wylfulnesse [he] was causer of [his] own dethe’ P681, he sees the greater implications of his dedication to chivalry on the realm, as he states that his refusal to ‘accord with [Lancelot]’ P681 has cause ‘all thys shame and disease’ throughout the land.[33] The chivalry of medieval romance is, at its core, too idealistic to be of any practical use in a less than ideal world. In a medieval society largely founded on the concept of original sin, any attempt to create a perfect kingdom with imperfect man alone is doomed to fail before it begins.

Vinaver states that Malory was unconcerned with the ‘internal and spiritual problems that confront a political body’, yet just the opposite is true.[34] It is Arthur who does not give enough attention to spirituality in the creation of the Round Table, and Malory clearly reveals how catastrophic such an oversight can be. The code of the Round Table is repeatedly shown to be uncompromising and too secular because it assumes the best in men, that they have already reached individual spiritual stability, and leaves no room for the inevitability of human nature. England in Malory’s own time was just as tumultuous as in his work, as the War of the Roses was well under way. Vinaver notes that ‘as a Warwickshire man, Malory must have followed the shifting policies of Warwick’.[35] In and out of jail but never formally tried or convicted, it is reasonable to assume that Malory’s imprisonment was politically motivated due to this.

Whilst the tragedy of Arthur’s downfall in the Alliterative Morte Arthure is a personal tragedy commenting on the sins of one man, Malory’s tragedy affects the whole realm, as the elite’s disagreements plunge the kingdom into civil war. Much like the Houses of Lancaster and Tudor, Malory reveals that personal feuds in the highest ranks of the country has a serious effect on all, not just the king. The Alliterative Arthur’s fall is arguably a blessing for the world he intends to conquer, however in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur the fall of the Round Table has terrible implications for Britain. By exposing the flaws in chivalry in this manner, Malory has not only shown the reader the collapse of a perfect society; he has also revealed that such a society is unsustainable in our imperfect world, that the romantic dream of chivalry is a lie and that in a real world our unreal heroes would fail.

In conclusion, both the Alliterative Morte Arthure Arthur and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur can be considered tragedies; however the Alliterative Arthur’s fall is a more traditional tragedy of fortune, focusing on the downfall of one man due to pride, whilst Malory’s text has several characters who could be seen as tragic heroes. This being the case, the Alliterative poet has created a far more personal tale, which does not consider the effects on his downfall on the realm beyond catharsis. In contrast Malory, by exploring the breakdown of personal relationships and personal conflict, has explored the wider effect on society and civil war. By revealing the inadequacy of chivalry and the code of the Round Table, Malory has instead essentially created a tragedy of idealism. It is this that ultimately makes Malory’s Le Morte Darthur the more poignantly tragic retelling of the legend, as the Alliterative Arthur has brought about his own downfall through pride and greed, whereas Malory’s Knights of the Round Table, despite their flaws and inability to choose between morality and chivalry, consistently have the best of intentions at heart.

Bibilography

Alliterative Morte Arthure’, in King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. by Benson, Larry D. (Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994), <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/benson-and-foster-king-arthurs-death> [accessed 3 January 2016]

Bennett, J. A. W, Essays On Malory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963)

Goller, Karl Heinz, The Alliterative Morte Arthure (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1981) Keiser, George R., “Edward III And The Alliterative Morte Arthure”, Speculum, 48 (1973), 37 <http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2856268>

Kennedy, Beverly, Knighthood In The Morte D’arthur (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1985)

Krishna, Valerie, The Alliterative Morte Arthure (New York: B. Franklin, 1976)

Loomis, Roger Sherman, Arthurian Literature In The Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959)

Lumiansky, R. M, Malory’s Originality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964)

Lynch, Andrew, Malory’s Book Of Arms (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1997)

Malory, Thomas, and Stephen H. A Shepherd, Le Morte Darthur, Or, The Hoole Book Of Kyng Arthur And Of His Noble Knyghtes Of The Rounde Table (New York: Norton, 2004)

Matthews, William, The Tragedy Of Arthur: A Study Of The Alliterative “Morte Arthure” (University of California Press, 1960), p. 134 McCarthy, Terence, Reading The Morte Darthur (Cambridge: Brewer, 1988)

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Francis Golffing, The Birth Of Tragedy And The Genealogy Of Morals (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956)

Pochoda, Elizabeth T, Arthurian Propaganda (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971) [1]

‘Alliterative Morte Arthure’, in King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994), <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/benson-and-foster-king-arthurs-death> [accessed 3 January 2016] l. 1528 [2] Ibid. l.1002 [3] Ibid. l.2234-5 [4] Ibid. l.997, 3092 [5] Ibid. l.3 [6] Ibid. l.3178 [7] Ibid. l.3180 [8]

William Matthews, The Tragedy Of Arthur: A Study Of The Alliterative “Morte Arthure” (University of California Press, 1960), p. 134. [9]

‘Alliterative Morte Arthure’, l.2447 [10] Ibid. l.3274-5 [11] Ibid. l.3277 [12] Karl Heinz Goller, The Alliterative Morte Arthure (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1981), p. 446 [13] Ibid. l.3966 [14] Ibid. l.3986 [15]

Matthews, The Tragedy of Arthur, p. 105 [16] Ibid. l.3349 [17] Ibid. l.3388-9 [18] Ibid. l.3385 [19]

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. by Stephen H. A. Shepherd (London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004) p. 3 [20] Ibid. p. 657 [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid. p. 646 [23] Ibid. p. 647 [24] Ibid. [25] Ibid. p.591 [26]

Charles Moorman, “The Tale of the Sankgreall” in Malory’s Originality, ed. by R. M Lumiansky, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964) p. 191 [27]

Malory, Le Morte Darthur, p. 948 [28] Moorman, “The Tale of the Sankgreall”, p. 191 [29] Malory, Le Morte Darthur, p. 658 [30]

R. M Lumianski, “The Tale of Lancelot” in Malory’s Originality, ed. by R. M Lumiansky, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964) pp.133-4 [31] Malory, Le Morte Darthur, p. 77 [32] Ibid. p. 669 [33] Ibid. p. 681 [34]

Lumianski, “The Tale of Lancelot”, p. 109 [35] Euguene Vinaver, “Sir Thomas Malory” in Arthurian Literature In The Middle Ages, ed. by Roger Sherman Loomis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959) p. 542

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