Pete Craft
12 April 2001

 

Malory's Conflicting Conceptions of Knighthood

There has been a lively debate over the question of unity in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Early historians like George Saintsbury viewed it as the first English novel (Goodman 51). Later scholars range from calling it a prose epic to a vernacular history of Arthur to a connected prose romance to a series of self-contained stories (Goodman 51). Of these perspectives, Eugene Vinaver's theory that it is a series of self-contained stories is the most convincing because the task of creating a seamless organic unit out of antithetically disparate traditions is impossible if one stays at all faithful to the originals. In fact, Malory actually heightens the disunity of his stories by increasing the role that Launcelot plays and mixing contemporary anecdotes with his archaic sources; while many scholars explore chivalry's role in Le Morte, I hope to, like Beverly Kennedy, use a specific three-fold model of knighthood–Christian, courtier, and warrior–to address the question of unity in Malory's work; unlike Kennedy, however, I will use the model to show the intrinsic contradictions that these facets entail.

Although little is known about Sir Thomas Malory the man, the few facts scholars ascertain help to shed considerable light on the alterations he makes to his sources. In the text of Le Morte itself, Malory provides some of this autobiographical information when he says, "pray for me while I am alive, that God send me good deliverance, and when I am dead, I pray you all pray for my soul. For this book was ended the ninth year of the reign of King Edward the Fourth, by Sir Thomas Malory, knight" (II. 531). From the reference to "the ninth year of the reign of King Edward the Fourth," historians believe Malory finished composing his work in 1469. Moreover, Malory tells the reader that he is a "knight" in need of "deliverance." Some attribute this statement to Malory's desire to escape from prison. In fact, G. L. Kitteridge found a historical knight named Sir Thomas Malory who closely matches each of these traits. This candidate was born in Newbold Revel around 1394 and descended from an old Warwickshire family (Hicks 13). Around 1433, Thomas succeeded to the ancestral estate; eighteen years later, he became involved in a quarrel with the priory of the Monks Kirby. As a result of this dispute, Malory was arrested and imprisoned (Loomis 166). He supposedly broke out and committed several crimes including rape, theft, and extortion (Baugh 3). While some of these details may have been fabricated by his political enemies, it seems clear that he was indeed a knight, lived during the reign of Edward IV, and spent a considerable time in prison (Matthews 44-46). These factors all coincide precisely with the autobiographical information that the author of Le Morte provides in the text itself.

In addition to the author's direct statements about himself, scholars believe certain deviations from his sources further reinforce the fact that the historical Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel was in fact the man who composed Le Morte D'Arthur. One such change he makes to his source involves the name of the Queen of Lyonesse. Originally, she was called Isabel; in Le Morte D'Arthur, however, she is known as Elizabeth, which just happens to be the name of Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel's wife (Ellis 3). Another, more convincing, indirect parallel between Le Morte and this candidate involves the striking similarity between the tale of Beaumains (Book VII) and the feats of prowess associated with Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, the man who lead Malory's military campaign at Calais. Of all the sections in Le Morte, the story of Gareth of Orkney may be one of the most revealing about Malory the man because a significant amount of its material cannot be traced to his sources. Eugene Vinaver advocates this view by saying:

This story has no close parallel in the extant medieval romances. . . .In all probability, Malory used a French non-cyclic prose romance on some similar theme and introduced a few episodes of his own. It is likely that the name Beaumains was added by Malory as a tribute to Richard Beauchamp. The fights with the Black, Green, and Red Knights may have been suggested by the famous adventure of Richard Beauchamp at Calais . . . and W. H. Schofield contends that the Duke de la Rowse who plays a prominent part in the book was introduced by Malory as a tribute to John Rous, author of Life of Richard Earl of Warwick, who must have been closely associated with Warwick and, presumably, with Malory. (138)

All this strongly suggests that the author of Le Morte was indeed Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel.

Although most scholars accept this theory, there are a few dissenters. Because he was born within a decade of the original publication of Le Morte D'Arthur, some people believe bishop John Bale's assertion that Malory was a Welshman has merit (Matthews 5). This claim, however, relies almost exclusively on the possibility that Bale had access to information that is now lost. Moreover, no evidence suggests that he was a historian and his discussion of Malory is limited to his birthplace (Ellis 1). The other major theory about the historical Malory was first proposed by A. T. Martin in 1897. He combed the census records for every Thomas Malory that lived during the 15th-century and found one who lived between 1425 and 1469. Martin believed that this was the real Malory based on his hurriedly-prepared will, a phenomenon that could be due to spending the last years of his life in prison (Ellis 1). Although that possibility exists, it is unconvincing considering the many other reasons, such as a lingering illness, that might occasion such a practice (Matthews 5-7, 36-38). Of these three candidates, the Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel is clearly the most convincing.

This Malory was a member of the lower nobility, a fact that should influence the way a reader interprets his work. After all, certain changes in the feudal society that spawned knighthood provided some legitimate causes for concern among members of the aristocracy. As England's economy began to place monetary worth above land ownership, some aristocrats felt threatened by the rising middle class and, through literature, attempted to set themselves apart from the "unprincipled" bourgeoisie (Strayer 303). As a knight who owned property, Malory fits into this category. Eugene Vinaver emphasizes these aristocratic sympathies when he says:

Malory's favourite motive is that of a kitchen knave or cowherd's son who proves his noble descent by feats of prowess. . . . If he succeeds in his knightly adventures, it is not because he is individually brave and strong, but because he is in reality a noble. It is not he, but his lineage, which carries away the victory. (Vinaver 1-2)

Indeed, several parts of Le Morte D'Arthur reinforce this view: Launcelot will not knight Gareth until he learns that he is "of great blood" (I.238); Lynet repeatedly doubts Gareth's prowess because she thinks he is "a kitchen knave" (I.238-247); and Dame Lyonesse will not marry him until she finds out "what is his right name, and of what kindred he is come" (I.267). Vinaver's conception of Malory's reverence for lineage is therefore correct.

However, unlike his source for the Roman campaign, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Malory does not believe higher rank within the narrow aristocratic circle itself equals greater prowess. In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, the best warriors–Arthur and Gawain–are in the very highest echelon of the nobility. However, Malory gives Launcelot (King Ban of Benwick's son) an equal, if not more prestigious, role in the fighting. In terms of lineage, Gawain technically ranks higher in the British court since he is directly related to the king. This example, then, shows that Malory admits the possibility that a lower ranking person within the aristocracy might possess greater merit than their social "superiors." The frequent use of incognito knights that occurs in Le Morte reinforces this idea. For instance, Launcelot rides into a tournament "disguised, and that was the cause that few folk knew him" (II.80). Although "disguised" warriors are still knights (i.e., members of the nobility), their decision to hide the arms that reveal their lineage takes the emphasis off of rank within the aristocracy itself. Thus Malory, as a member of the lower nobility, naturally favors a system in which a person of his own rank might possess greater war-like prowess than someone of the very highest station.

It is not only important to understand the author's background and possible motives for altering his sources, but it also becomes necessary to comprehend the elusive nature of the term chivalry that Malory inherited. Originally, the notion came from the Latin word miles, meaning a professional soldier. In the 11th-century, however, the term took on a narrower definition: mounted warrior. Moreover, the word began to assume specific class connotations: milites became distinct from the clergy and the commoners (Keen 27). Concurrently, the expression started to merge with French courtliness, whose origins date back to the courtier bishops of 10th-century Germany (Jaegar 4). In fact, it is from the French tradition that chivalry, the often-used synonym for knighthood, first appeared. The term derives from the word chevalier, a heavily armed horseman. This brief linguistic evolution of chivalry gives a sample of the different ways people understood the concept.

Like the difficulty of defining the word chivalry, many individuals had a hard time agreeing on a time period that best embodied its virtues; when Malory wrote Le Morte D'Arthur in the latter half of the 15th-century, several people felt that the idea of knighthood was in its death throes and in desperate need of revitalization. In fact, as early as the 1100s, Chretien de Troyes mourned the loss of chivalric virtue in the preface to The Knight with the Lion: "those who loved in bygone days were known to be courtly and valiant and generous and honorable. Now love is reduced to empty pleasantries" (295). Over three centuries later, William Caxton took up a similar dirge by longing for the chivalrous reign of Henry V (Benson 147). These nostalgic yearnings toward a prior knightly golden age were largely propagated by the exaggerated deeds recounted in chivalric romances. Moreover, the deliberate distortion of reality practiced by medieval "historians" like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius made the few written records available to wealthy aristocrats fairly unreliable sources of factual events; consequently, people in the Middle Ages were relatively free to project their unfounded visions of lost utopias onto unsuspecting time periods of the past without fear of hard evidence to the contrary. Thus people not only had a hard time defining the term chivalry, but they also could not agree on an age that best exemplified its ideals.

In fact, Malory's 15th-century conception of the term differs in some significant ways from his sources' ideas about the same word. For instance, the Grail Quest in Le Morte D'Arthur relies chiefly upon the Cistercian-influenced morality that later found its way into the French Vulgate Cycle. This set of values sprang primarily from St. Bernard of Clairvaux's tract on chivalry called In Praise of the New Knighthood. Written between 1128 and 1136, this treatise recorded the ethical code of the Knights Templar and served as propaganda for the Second Crusade (Smalley 2). According to Bernard, spiritual knights should conscientiously differ from worldly knights (Bernard 4). A few ways they achieved this effect was by not taking wives or having children, not owning personal property, and striving to look the same as their fellow Templars (Smalley 2). In other words, Bernard viewed the new knighthood as an essentially ascetic monastic order whose martial battles glorified God. These principles appear quite influential during the Crusades, a time when the Church exhorted thousands of men to battle. Bernard, as the leading proponent of crusading, was immensely successful in promoting his values while alive but not after his death. By the 15th-century, the crusading fervor and its associated ideology were a thing of the past, though there were attempts to revive it. In Malory's time, then, chivalry had shifted toward worldliness in a way that would earn Bernard's disapproval; consequently, Malory's inclusion of contemporary secular chivalric deeds like the tale of Beaumains with his spiritual sources creates a tension that cannot be easily resolved.

Malory's use of knightly episodes from his own time period not only conflicts with his Cistercian sources, but it also differs markedly from the chivalry in his other principal source: The Alliterative Morte Arthure. In this 14th-century work, which roughly corresponds to Malory's Roman expedition (Book V), the value system harkens back to epics like Beowulf and The Iliad. Like its epic ancestors, The Alliterative Morte Arthure contains large-scale battles in which heroes slaughter one another with reckless abandon. For instance, in one of the many skirmishes between the Romans and the Britons, the narrator says:

Be than the Romaynez ware rebuykyde a lytill,
Withdrawes theym drerely and dreches no lengare; 
Oure prynce with his powere persewes theyme aftyre,
. . . . Bot Sir Kayous že kene castis in fewtyre, 
Chasez one a coursere and to a kyng rydys;
With a launce of Lettowe he thirllez his sydez. (2153-2155, 2165-2167)

As this passage shows, mercy does not rank highly on the list of epic virtues. Moreover, the relish with which the author recounts the character's wound glorifies the actual killing itself. Of course, ladies do not witness these battles and, unlike Malory's romantic sources, they do not even play a significant role in the story. Thus the emphasis in The Alliterative Morte Arthure, like its epic predecessors, is almost exclusively on martial prowess.

By Malory's time, however, the courtly virtues that tournaments promoted became equally, if not more, important than the actual fighting itself. Maurice Keen discusses their crucial link to chivalry by saying:

Because tournaments were public tests of individual prowess in which prizes and renown could be won, they helped to gain currency and respect for the role of the knight errant, the wanderer urged forward by love, enterprise and inherent virtue to seek the opportunity to win honour. Because they brought together, besides knights and ladies, a host of other people, in particular the heralds, minstrels and jongleurs whose business it was to record and judge the proceedings and who were versed in the lore and history of chivalry, they provided a crucial link between the literary expression of chivalrous values and the real world. (100)

In other words, knights now began to fight in front of an audience in an artificial, courtly environment and, as a result, they could not just kill each other quickly and ruthlessly. Furthermore, the glamour and decorations of the combatants became increasingly important as knights sought to impress the ladies in the audience. Keen correctly assesses this form of chivalry by saying that "its gold spurs, its gaily painted shields and extravagant attire [are] better calculated to dazzle the eyes of women than to strike fear into the heart of a foe" (Keen 233). According to this passage, tournaments shifted the emphasis away from pragmatic slaughter and placed it instead on gallantry. This type of knighthood ultimately springs from the adulterous notion of courtly love that sprang up in the French courts of Marie de Champagne. The courtly lover performs martial deeds to win the affection of his lady, whom he regards with an almost religious devotion; for instance, the narrator describes Lancelot's discovery of Guinevere's comb by saying, "he removed the hair, being careful not to break a single strand. Never will the eye of man see anything receive such reverence, for he began to adore the hair, touching it a hundred thousand times to his eye, his mouth, his forehead and his cheeks" (225). As this passage shows, Lancelot treats his lady's strand of hair almost as though it were a religious relic. Courtly love, then, in some ways represents a sanitization of the gory epic tradition to a form that ladies would find appealing.

In fact, a whole series of courtly rules began to govern the way knights conducted themselves in tournaments and, theoretically at least, in battle itself. Late medieval readers obtained axioms about proper chivalrous behavior both directly, through treatises on chivalry, and indirectly, through fiction. Typical maxims set forth in treatises included "the prohibition against a healthy and armed knight attacking another who is unarmed, injured, or afoot" and the necessity of according "rest or respite to one who requested it" (Lacy 87). Although these formal rules of knightly behavior were not exactly stimulating reading material, the paradigmatic characters of stories like Le Morte D' Arthur added a human dimension to these abstract principles and, in doing so, vastly expanded their appeal to audiences. One example of these war-related principles of etiquette in action occurs when the noble Sir Marhaus tells Sir Gawain that it "is not for one knight to be on foot, and the other on horseback" (I.146). Another platitude straight from chivalrous treatises comes from Sir Gareth's fight with the Knight of the Red Launds: the combatants "granted either other to rest; and so they set them down upon two mole-hills there besides the fighting place, and either of them unlaced his helm" (I.262-263). By infusing real-life knights with chivalric ideals, medieval authors not only helped shape the cultural beliefs of their day, but they also received a rich amount of source material from the adventures of actual knights; thus fiction influenced fact and vice versa.

As mentioned previously, the existence of a chivalric golden age is in some sense an unrealistic abstraction; however, the invention of the printing press in 1450 enabled publishers like William Caxton, whose version of Le Morte D'Arthur was one of the first English works printed, to vastly increase the availability of chivalrous texts; as a result, more people sought to emulate the feats of the heroes in their favorite books. Inspired by knightly virtues gleaned from romantic tales about larger-than-life figures like King Arthur, who, according to Malory, "had slain twenty knights" in one battle, the Scottish monarch James IV led a charge against the strongest part of the English army (Malory 35). He died promptly while the less idealistic English leaders stayed behind the lines and, not surprisingly, lived (Benson 192). As this example illustrates, strict adherence to knightly ideals in actual warfare often left the would-be hero at a severe disadvantage. Courtly rules of battle were therefore as out of place in actual warfare as they would be in the fictional Alliterative Morte Arthure. When Malory includes these two divergent value systems in the same book, he inherently undermines any potential for unity that Le Morte D'Arthur might possess.

Like the overly idealistic martial aspect of chivalry, Malory's courtly advice leaves would-be adherents defenseless. Toward the beginning of Le Morte D'Arthur, we learn that a good knight should live "to be with all ladies, and to fight for their quarrels; and that ever he should be courteous" (I.104). This platitude is perfectly fine if one ignores the blatant treachery of Malory's Arthurian women. What do Morgan le Fay, Ettard, Guenever, Nimue, and about every woman Launcelot meets have in common? They all betray men. One example of the inadvisability of blind obedience to women occurs in Sir Gareth's encounter with The Knight of the Red Launds. As Gareth rides toward his opponent, he notices forty knights hung from trees by the neck, a death that Lynet calls shameful and "without mercy and pity" (I.259). The Knight of the Red Launds later "justifies" these atrocities by saying that his inspiration came from a lady; he says that she "prayed me as that I loved her heartily, that I would make her a promise by the faith of my knighthood, for to labour daily in arms. . . . and this is the cause that I have put all these knights to death" (I.264). Thus Malory shows, albeit unintentionally, that courtliness without wisdom leaves knights extremely vulnerable to physical danger and poor moral decisions.

In addition to the disunity that Malory creates by altering Launcelot's role and mixing contemporary and archaic sources, he is unable to reconcile the conflicting values that emerge within the concept of chivalry itself. According to Beverly Kennedy, who has to date offered the most comprehensive study of chivalry in the Morte, Malory's triple quests juxtapose emblematic characters who, through positive or negative example, reveal the intricate relationship between the three components of the chivalric typological model (6). Kennedy believes that the three basic types of knights are "the Heroic knight who is limited to the feudal virtues; the Worshipful knight, who adds to these the courtly virtues; and the True knight, who adds the religious virtues to both feudal and courtly virtues" (6). In other words, Kennedy asserts that these chivalric aspects form an essentially compatible hierarchical model in which each tier possesses not only its own set of virtues, but also the values of the levels that lie below it. She ranks these facets of chivalry from top to bottom in the following order: True, Worshipful, feudal. Kennedy then cites one knight from each of these categories who best exemplifies the characteristics that it contains.

While this model partially encapsulates "heroic" knights like Sir Gawain and Sir Kay, who fare well in battle but lack the courtesy and religious devotion of their betters, it fails to take into account the mutually exclusive nature of Malory's views toward courtly love and Christianity, the most noticeable exemplar being Launcelot, whose adulterous affair with Guenever alienates him from the Christian element of chivalry. The most religious figures in the story, in contrast to Lancelot, have no romantic love interests at all. In fact, Kennedy herself uses the model only as a starting point to exploring Malory's typology. However, I feel that the more fluid and basic distinction between the martial, courtly, and Christian components of chivalry not only avoids the error of forcing antithetical elements together, but also traces the hybridization of these characteristics with greater accuracy.

Because Launcelot is the central figure in Le Morte D'Arthur, an understanding of his character is crucial to comprehending the lack of unity in Malory's work. Of all the knights in the book, he comes closest to balancing the three aspects of chivalry simultaneously; however, his failure to harmonize the facets of knighthood is less the result of personal weakness than it is the impossibility of the task that he tries to achieve. For example, his adulterous relationship with Guenever directly conflicts with the the Christian element of chivalry. The holy damsel who appears at Galahad's sword-pulling spectacle bluntly tells Launcelot that he was "the best knight of the world. But who should say so now, he should be a liar" (II.245). Launcelot's post-adulterous exclusion from Christianity becomes painfully clear as he rides into the woods and discovers an "old chapel . . . but he could find no place where he might enter" (II.268). This passage represents Launcelot's metaphorical position in relation to the deeper mysteries of Christianity: an outsider looking in. In response to this situation, Launcelot himself realizes just how incompatible Christianity is with courtly love (i.e., adultery); he says, "now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me and shameth me" (II.270). Moreover, sin, by its very nature, leads to more sin. Not only does Launcelot commit fornication and adultery, but he must also essentially lie to prevent these sins from reaching the ears of the King. By leaning too heavily toward one aspect of chivalry (courtly love), Launcelot feels the weight of Christianity, one of the neglected chivalric elements, crash into his concept of self. Prior to Launcelot's affair with Guenever he embodied the chivalric ideal, yet after his fall from grace he must view perfection like an alcoholic outside a bar on Election Day.

In fact, the Christian and courtly love facets of chivalry are not only antithetical, but the former is the antidote to the latter. This notion manifests itself during Launcelot's period of insanity; Guenever finds Launcelot in Elaine's bed and tells him that she never wants to see him again; consequently, he "leapt out at a bay window into a garden, and there with thorns he was all to-cratched in his visage and his body; and so he ran forth he wist not wither, and was wild wood as ever was man; and so he ran two year, and never man might have grace to know him" (203). Launcelot's devotion to Guenever in this passage proves so intense that one might accuse him of idolatry in addition to adultery. Yet Christianity serves as the balm to soothe the inflamed desire that drives Launcelot mad. After years of wandering through the woods, Launcelot stumbles onto the castle that houses the Grail and, in doing so, finds the cure to his mental illness; the narrator says, "And so when this was done, these four men and these ladies laid hand on Sir Launcelot, and so they bare him into a tower, and so into a chamber where was the holy vessel of the Sangrail . . . and so by miracle and by virtue of that holy vessel Sir Launcelot was healed and recovered" (221). In this passage, a Christian emblem cures a madness caused by courtly love.

In addition to the conflicting roles of the courtly lover and the Christian, the general concept of courtliness as devotion to ladies also jars with a knight's duties as a warrior. As a subcomponent of courtliness, courtly love implies adultery; the more generic term of courtier, however, can coexist simultaneously with marriage. As C. Stephen Jaegar points out, the term can apply to the "civilized knight and lover" one finds in most of Chretien's romances; of course, these heroes eventually marry their lovers as a reward for their prowess (Jaegar 102). In Le Morte D'Arthur, Launcelot explains the link between these two elements of chivalry by saying, "Fair damosel . . . I may not warn people to speak of me what it pleaseth them; but for to be a wedded man, I think it not; for then I must couch with her, and leave arms and tournaments, battles, and adventures" (212). His argument contains practical sense because, after all, knights must always go on prolonged quests to prove their martial valor; consequently, they have little time for women. In this example, the courtly and Christian elements appear at odds with one another; however, other parts of the book portray them compatibly. For instance, Launcelot learns of a villain that distresses all ladies and says:

"What . . . is he a thief and a knight and a ravisher of women? He doth shame unto the order of knighthood, and contrary unto his oath; it is pity that he liveth. But, fair damosel, ye shall ride on afore, yourself, and I will keep myself in covert, and if that he troubles you or distress you I shall be your rescue and learn him to be ruled as a knight" (I.210-211).

This passage shows how the martial aspect can actually help the courtly aspect. Moreover, the courtly facet of chivalry influences the martial element by providing the quarrels between knights that eventually lead to bloodshed. After all, the desire to win the love of women can spur knights on to greater deeds of prowess. Thus the knight's roles as lovers and fighters are conducive to one another in some ways and antithetical in others.

These conflicting aspects of chivalry produce a chain reaction in which courtly love causes Divine disapproval, which in turn engenders martial deterioration. Launcelot shows the connection between these three aspects of chivalry when he says:

and as for to say for to take my pleasance with paramours, that will I refuse in principle for dread of God; for knight that be adventurous or lecherous shall not be happy ne fortunate unto the wars, for either they shall be overcome with a simpler knight than they be themself, other else they shall by unhap and their cursedness slay better men than they be themself. (I.212)

While Derek Brewer rightly shows Launcelot's possibly dubious motives for uttering this speech (evading uncomfortable questions about his relationship with Guenever), it nonetheless asserts the fact that a knight's skills as a warrior can be adversely affected by "lecherous" behavior due to the ensuing "cursedness" that God will place on them (Brewer 18). Of course, this set of values only applies in the Cistercian-influenced Grail section where the old chivalric ideals must be re-examined in light of the spiritual quest.

Yet Malory does not simply pay lip service to this concept; before his fall, Launcelot was apparently invincible in battle–much like Galahad later; after the fall, however, Malory shows, through direct and indirect methods, that Launcelot's role as a courtly lover negatively influences his physical prowess. The most obvious example of this phenomenon occurs when he fails to defeat Galahad in the waste forest; Launcelot "dressed his spear and brake it upon Sir Galahad, and Galahad smote him so again that he smote down horse and man" (II.267). What exactly is it about Launcelot's sin that causes him to lose this battle? The answer, I think, is divine favor (or the lack thereof). This favor manifests itself primarily through selective distribution of sacred weapons that make their wielders invincible. When divine approval is absent, these weapons often backfire on those who attempt to use them (as Bagdemus, Nacien, and The Maimed King unpleasantly learn). In the hands of a morally acceptable candidate, however, the weapons are lethal. For instance, Galahad finds David's sword (with alterations by Solomon and co.) rather handy as he fights 60 knights in defense of Percival's sister; Galahad "with the strange girdles, drew his sword. . . . and slew what that ever abode him, and did such marvels that there was none that saw him they weened he had been none earthly man, but a monster" (II.348). One can therefore see that Christianity, or more specifically God's favor, directly influences a knight's ability to perform martial deeds. Launcelot's courtly love angers God who, in turn, punishes him by withholding the holy weaponry that is crucial to martial invincibility. Launcelot therefore receives another visible reminder of his failure to live up to the knightly ideal that he once embodied.

However, Malory distinguishes between two types of fighting: spiritual and worldly. In other words, the motives behind a knight's use of violence partially determine the compatibility with Christianity. Most of Launcelot's fights occur through attempts to gain worldly fame, as he himself admits by saying:

And all my great deeds of arms that I have done, I did for the most part for the queen's sake, and for her sake would I do battle were it right or wrong; and never did I battle only for God's sake, but for to win worship and to cause me to be the better beloved, and little or nought I thanked God of it. (272)

Launcelot again shows his dubious motives when he encounters a band of black and white knights and joins the losing side. A hermit symbolically interprets Launcelot's defeat in this battle by equating the white knights with chastity and the black knights with sin; he says, "Then thou beheld the sinners and the good men, and when thou sawest the sinners overcome, thou inclinest to that party for bobaunce and pride of the world, and all that must be left in that quest, for in this quest thou shalt have many fellows and thy betters" (299). Thus, in the polemical Grail section, war for prideful reasons proves mutually exclusive to Christianity.

Paradoxically, however, Launcelot's diminished martial prowess may actually prove more of a boon than a curse. Although Divine favor occasionally enhances and condones the skills of a warrior, other instances of violence in Le Morte D'Arthur reflect a distinctly Christian disapproval of fighting in general. For example, Launcelot cannot enter fully armed into the chapel; it is only when the symbols of his martial prowess (i.e., his horse and armor) get stolen that he confesses his sin and gains the spiritual insight he craves (II.270-274). This principle occurs more directly later in the quest when Launcelot attempts to enter the Grail castle by slaying the guardian. In response to this action, Launcelot hears a voice say, "O man of evil faith and poor belief, wherefore trowest thou more on thy harness than in thy Maker, for He might more avail thee than thine armour, in whose service that thou art set" (354). Once Launcelot sheaths his sword, he passes unscathed into the castle. These passages illustrate the occasional incompatibility of the martial and Christian aspects of chivalry; when Launcelot trusts his weapons in a spiritual quest, he fails.

Malory not only distinguishes between Godly and unholy war, but he also shows the contrast between fighting and actual killing. A hermit makes this distinction by chastising Gawain; he says:

For ye be an untrue knight, and a great murderer, and to good men signifieth other things than murder. For I dare say as sinful as Sir Launcelot hath been, sith that he went into the quest of the Sangrail he slew never man, nor nought shall, till that he come unto Camelot again, for he hath taken upon him to forsake sin" (II.308).

According to this passage, Launcelot does not actually slay knights on his Grail quest (although he does fight some). The reader therefore vaguely sees the "thou shalt not kill" commandment from Christianity finding its way into the rules of warfare.

Yet this frowning upon slaughter only occurs in the romance-oriented fights in which knights engage in duels or small-scale melees. During the large-scale battles, no hermits chastise the knights for killing. In fact, Gawain looks rather heroic as he fights in Arthur's Roman campaign; the narrator says, "Then Sir Feldenak thought to revenge the death of Gainus upon Sir Gawain, but Sir Gawain was ware thereof, and smote him on the head, which stroke stinted not till it came to his breast" (I.178). These divergent attitudes toward taking life are largely due to Malory's sources. After all, the body count is much higher in The Alliterative Morte Arthure's epic wars than in the Lancelot-Grail's lone journeys. Moreover, the large-scale battles tend to pit good and evil knights against one another. For example, Sir Galahad slays dozens of knights and at first regrets his actions by saying, "I repent me much, inasmuch as they were christened" (II.344). A priest then comes out and assuages Galahad's conscience by saying, "Nay, repent you not . . . for they were not christened" (II.344). This distinction between the forces of good and evil may partially explain the lack of Divine concern over Gawain's earlier battles. After all, he does fight on the right side. The fact that Gawain cannot distinguish between the different contexts of killing therefore heightens the reader's appreciation of Launcelot's perceptiveness by contrast; he does not kill when he should not but fails rather in the more difficult spiritual task of trusting God rather than his weapons in perilous situations.

In fact, Gawain's role throughout most of the book is that of an antithesis to Launcelot; he shows what not to do by seriously violating the courtly and Christian aspects of chivalry. For instance, one of Gawain's first deeds in Le Morte D'Arthur involves the decapitation of a maiden; the narrator says, "Sir Gawain would no mercy have but unlaced his helm to have stricken off his head. Right so came his lady out of a chamber and fell over him, and so he smote off her head by misadventure" (I.102). Although he kills a lady unintentionally, it never would have happened in the first place if he had granted the knight mercy. He therefore violates the courtly ideal by killing a woman and the Christian ideal by refusing to forgive his fallen opponent. To make matters worse, Gawain refuses to make amends for his transgressions. After a hermit warns him to atone for his sins, Gawain says, "Nay . . . I may do no penance; for we knights adventurous oft sufferen great woe and pain" (II.266). This passage marks a crucial difference between Gawain and Launcelot's devotion to the knightly ideals. Although both of the knights sin, Launcelot at least makes an effort to change his evil ways; a hermit says, "I require you take this hair that was this holy man's and put it next to thy skin, and it shall prevail thee greatly. . . . Also I charge you that ye eat no flesh as long as ye be in the quest of the Sangrail, nor ye shall drink no wine, and that ye hear mass daily and ye may do it" (II.293). Launcelot replies to this request by saying, "Sir, and I will do it" (II.293). By denying himself food and drink, Launcelot accepts the Cistercian asceticism that underlies the Grail Quest. Gawain, by contrast, refuses to adhere to these monastic principles; Sir Ector says, "meseemeth your quest is done" (II.330); Gawain replies by saying, "And yours is not done . . . but mine is done, I shall seek no further" (II.330). Although Launcelot repeatedly fails to live up to the standards of the Grail quest, he never actually gives up. Gawain therefore sheds light on Malory's conception of the chivalric ideals by acting as a negative to Launcelot's positive.

Yet Launcelot's adherence to the chivalric ideals generally wavers depending on which characters he interacts with. When he spends time with Guenever, he moves away from the Christian ideal and toward the courtly aspect. Similarly, his time with religious figures (Galahad, holy hermits etc.) causes him to lean back the other way. An example of this behavior occurs during the chapel scene when the holy hermit chides Launcelot for his sin with Guenever; the hermit says, "He found in thee no fruit, nor good thought nor good will, and defouled with lechery" (II.273). In response to this reprimand, Launcelot says, "Certes . . . all that you have said is true, and from henceforward I cast me, by the grace of God, never to be so wicked as I have been" (II.273). Of course, at this point in the story Guenever is back at Camelot and therefore unable to tempt Lancelot. Once Launcelot returns to her presence, however, his holy vows begin to weaken; the narrator says, "Then, as the book saith, Sir Launcelot began to resort unto Queen Guenever again, and forgat the promise and the perfection that he made in the quest" (373). By letting his environment control his beliefs, Launcelot initially fails to display the constant devotion to Christianity that proves crucial to the attainment of the Grail quest.

In fact, Launcelot's oscillation between the Christian and courtly aspects of chivalry lasts up until the very end of the book. Ultimately, however, his final decision to eschew the courtly and martial facets of chivalry in favor of the Christian element happens by default. According to David V. Harrington, Gawain becomes an embodiment of the old vengeance-oriented feudal code after Launcelot slays his brother (Harrington 69); Gawain displays this role when he says:

My king, my lord, and mine uncle . . . wit you well now I shall make you a promise that I shall hold by my knighthood, that from this day I shall never fail Sir Launcelot until the one of us have slain the other. And therefore I require you, my lord and king, dress you to the war, for wit you well I will be revenged upon Sir Launcelot. (II.475)

This passage is one of many instances in which Gawain insists that Arthur continue to war with Launcelot; consequently, he resembles the old epic heroes who avenge the deaths of their kinsmen. As Gawain lies dying, he write a letter to Launcelot that urges him to fight by saying, "for all the love that ever was betwixt us, make no tarrying, but come over the sea in all haste, that thou mayest rescue that noble king that made thee knight" (II.509). In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Gawain's exhortation to battle would be laudable. The Grail Quest, however, focuses on spirituality. For instance, when Launcelot arrives in England ready to do battle, he finds that there is no one left to kill. The martial aspect of chivalry therefore falls behind the Christian facet and literally ceases to be a factor. While the pugnacious element of chivalry looms temptingly over him, Launcelot cannot resist; it is only when the war is over that he can devote himself to God. As Larry Benson points out, Malory does not show chivalry proper in decline at the end of the book (Benson 163). More precisely, his inclusion of the Grail Quest in Le Morte D'Arthur causes the reader to re-evaluate the priority of the three facets within the chivalric model itself.

Similarly, Launcelot's abandonment of Guenever and the courtly love that she personifies occurs only after she refuses to see him and, in doing so, removes the temptation that prevents him from achieving the all-consuming Christian fervor that the Grail Quest advocates. When Launcelot arrives at Guenever's cloister, she says, "I command thee, on God's behalf, that thou forsake my company" (II.523). As a result of this speech, Launcelot can no longer be the queen's courtly lover. He admits that he would have resumed their relationship when he says, "if I had founden you now so disposed, I had cast me to have had you into mine own realm. . . . But sithen I find you thus disposed, I ensure you faithfully, I will ever take me to penance" (II.524). Of course, the reader already knows that Launcelot can easily avoid the advances of any other woman (Lumiansky 89). Guenever's refusal to continue their affair therefore makes Launcelot's decision to become a monk inevitable; his wars are over and his lover will not see him. Consequently, the Christian facet of chivalry wins out over the other two as Launcelot attains the spiritual magnitude of his son Galahad. In fact, the description of their death scenes is almost identical; angels carry both of them to heaven. It is important to note here that Launcelot achieves the Christian ideal that the Grail Quest advocates at the direct expense of the other two and only upon death. Although Launcelot embodies each of the three facets of chivalry at different points in his lifetime, he cannot exemplify them simultaneously; consequently, his attempt to reconcile these elements of knighthood reveals the inherent conflicts that Malory creates by joining the epic warrior values of The Alliterative Morte Arthure with the ascetic Cistercian morality in The Lancelot-Grail.

Thus Malory exacerbates the conflicts that result from the merger of antithetical conceptions of chivalry by increasing Launcelot's role and freely blending 15th-century tales of knightly deeds with stories that are centuries old. At different stages in history and in divergent traditions, chivalry leaned more toward particular facets, which explains why Launcelot is an epic hero in the Alliterative Morte Arthure and a courtly lover or a monk-like figure depending on which section of the Lancelot-Graal Malory used at any particular time. By mixing these sources together, Malory creates a fundamentally discordant work.

 

 

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