On a brighter note, I finished Le Morte D’Arthur. (Part I here.)
The ending chapters, on the rending of the Round Table and Arthur’s actual death, actually work. That is, there’s character and motivation, conflict that’s not just artifices to get worshipful knights into battle, and emotion. The story has the pathos of classic tragedy, as events are set in motion that pit friend against friend and lead to almost all the major characters ending up dead or in holy orders. Arthur is succeeded by a dude, Constantine, who I think barely appeared in the story before then.
The plot hinges on the enduringly strange nature of courtly love. C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent book on this, pointing out that a conflict between love and marriage is inevitable in a time where marriages were not only arranged but a major preoccupation of clan and royal politics. Even so it seems a bit odd that Arthur is depicted as completely unaware of his wife’s dalliance with Launcelot. Yet he resorts no less than three times to putting her on trial, a process which consisted of setting her out to be burned to death unless her knightly champion could defeat her accuser. Fortunately for her, her champion happens to be the best knight in Britain.
The story is foreshadowed in earlier chapters by the romance of Tristram and Isoud, who’s the wife of King Mark of Cornwall. But it’s OK because the king happens to be a major douche. There’s a chapter which is devoted to piling on the poor guy, showing that he’s a coward and ultimately a murderer.
Which raises a tricky question: isn’t the worshipful knight basically someone really good at killing people? Thus the knightly code, which sets out when you can and can’t kill the other dude. Mostly it makes sense– e.g. killing an unarmed knight is murder, and killing a dude on foot when you’re on horseback is bad form. Some of it seems like special pleading, though– e.g. Launcelot kills the unarmed Gareth and Gaheris, which understandably pisses off their brother Gawain, but it’s presented as an understandable accident.
Before these final chapters comes the story of the Sangrail, where we’re back in culture shock land. Here Malory shifts to a very different ethos: all of the knights who were praised for being tough, strong, and violent are now judged by their service to God– and by this new standard they’re murderous, lecherous thugs. Of the 150 knights of the Round Table, just three are deemed worthy to find the Grail; and even these are really subordinate spiritually to the various hermits and angels who guide them. And the chief of these, Galahad, is so darned holy that once he’s found the Grail there’s nothing left for him to do but shrivel up and die. Once the story is over, we go back to the knightly ethos with hardly a backward glance.
The story itself is baffling. Joseph of Arimathea, you see, brought the Grail to Britain. At a point God starts showing visions of it to everyone, and the whole Round Table goes off in search of it. There’s no real detective work involved, as finding the Grail isn’t a matter of doing quests but of moral worth; as mentioned, only three knights are judged worthy, and they’re led to the Grail by a magical boat. They then take it to a mythical city called Sarras and leave it there. For a modern reader it’s completely unexplained why any of this was necessary, or indeed what this has to do with spirituality. The Grail doesn’t actually do anyone any good, and it isn’t even treated as a relic, much less a trophy. Maybe you have to be Catholic, or a medieval Catholic, to be moved by all this.
Still, it’s a glimpse into the dual ethos of the Middle Ages. Normally power, splendor, and goodness are assumed to co-occur. The best knights are the most physically robust and powerful; royalty and noblehood is and ought to be rich and splendid; the common people and even urban life are almost completely ignored. At the same time there was great admiration for clerics living in solitude and poverty, and for virginity and self-mortification.
The Sangrail section is if anything harder on women than the rest of the book– not only are they barred from knighthood, but courtly love is temporarily seen as a terrible temptation away from godliness. However, there’s one holy maiden who takes part in the quest. She comes to a castle where a lady is sick and requires the blood of a maiden to heal her; the girl willingly submits to this, and gives so much blood she dies. This must have seemed to Malory’s readers as pious and pathetic both, rather than grotesque. (It’s not that the males do much better; as noted, Galahad and one of the other knights don’t survive the quest by long.)
More pedantically, I was surprised that Malory actually dates the Sangrail story, to 454 years after the Passion– thus, AD 487. I’m curious whether this date appears in his French sources, or if it’s his own guess.
I read the book in modernized spelling; it’s interesting that the 500-year-old text is quite easily readable in this format. You soon get used to the difference in syntax and the not terribly numerous obsolete words. (Some of these are French, so it doesn’t hurt to know that language.)
Kind of tempted to go back to an old project and write one of the Cuzeian epics…