I’m halfway through Thomas Malory’s Le morte D’Arthur.  Spoiler: Arthur dies.

My first reaction, over the first hundred pages or so, was culture shock.  This is a weird, violent book, obviously intended for a very different age.  It’s as gory as a video game, and it mostly consists of excuses to have burly metal-bedecked men kill each other, and it kills off an incredible number of ladies and horses as well.

Plus it seems almost artless.  Obstacles are introduced at a whim, removed in the next chapter.  Little attempt is made to motivate the battles and wars and feuds; great loves are professed one moment and betrayed the next; great heroes suddenly do vile deeds which may or may not strike others as such.

For no real reason, Arthur’s parentage is hidden by Merlin, so that he has to fight a war to be recognized as king.   Britain is littered with a dozen kings; and yet Arthur ventures forth not only to fight the Roman Empire, but he defeats it and becomes Emperor.  And the “Romans” are mixed up completely with the Saracens– seriously, the author knows perfectly well that Rome is the seat of the Pope, and yet the Emperor rules over Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Araby.  The Roland epics, by contrast, are fairly coherent– Charlemagne is represented as ruling over, more or less, the lands he actually ruled.

Second reaction: it sheds a new light on the last pages of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Not that Lewis was necessarily imitating Malory in particular, but the movement into old-timey language and knight-errantry definitely recalls Malory.

Third reaction: these are basically superhero stories, except that everyone has about the same superpowers.  It’s interesting that the ideal knight was, like a superhero, big.  You can look at a knight and size him up, and this explicitly comes down to size, strength, and good looks.  Lancelot is the top knight not so much because of his virtue as because he can physically knock down almost any other knight.  The duels are ritualistic: an inital joust with spears, followed almost always for two hours or more, raining blood on the field.  (From what I understand of swordfighting, this is purest fantasy: real swordfights were over in minutes.)

Often in old stories there’s a token female warrior, but I’ve seen none so far.  Strangely, women are often given power as sorcerors– even virtuous queens can whip up a love potion or something.

Another strange bit: all the dwarfs.  Sir Tristram has a dwarf squire, and other dwarfs appear as messengers or servants.  There are also a fair number of giants, though it’s clear that these are merely big evil men.  In the first bit of the story, the rise of Arthur, we see a fair bit of Merlin and his magic, but he’s then neatly disposed of and it’s all knight-errantry.

Malory wrote, of course, when chivalry was already a fantasy.   A generation earlier, in 1415, the best cavalry of France had been destroyed by English longbowmen.  Not much later, Constantinople fell thanks to Turkish cannon.  The same year as the Morte was printed, 1485, the Royal Guard was issued harquebuses.

Oh, one more oddity: Malory’s knights are terribly racist… about Cornishmen.  For the most part good knights are found all over, and there seem to be no differences between Irish, English, Welsh, Scottish, and French knights.  But there’s lots of comments about how there are no good Cornish knights, except for Sir Tristram.  There must be some story behind this…

Edit: part II of these ruminations here.

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