Data Gathering of a Theme in Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (London: Caxton, 1485)


        Malory appears to have begun his writing career as a translator of French and earlier Middle English sources describing high points in the court of King Arthur, namely the Quest of the Holy Grail and the Roman War, which left Arthur an imperial ruler of England and Europe in this mythic history of the Britons.  Later, Malory began making stealthy changes in what he translated from his sources, deleting things he found objectionable (especially adulterous sex) and adding things he thought necessary (especially characters' clear statements of intention or responsibility).  Because he seems to have begun with no notion of what "fiction" was, and believed in the truthfulness of his French and Middle English sources, his changes must have seemed to him like forgery, an act which may have caused him considerable anxiety.  One thematic pattern which closely traces his anxieties as he approaches the forged portions of his narrative are the "Month of May" transitions.  In French and Middle English romance, the "re-greening" or "reverdie" transition typically is used to shift from one narrative thread to another, and sometimes (as in the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales) it serves a thematic purpose by invoking seasonal renewal or even salvation which will be echoed in the following narrative.  Many times, though, it is merely a rote borrowing of a transitional tag with no apparent thematic meaning, at all.  In Malory's case, it appears to be a structural flaw, or even an aesthetic strength because it allows us to witness the narrator's anguished struggle with his dangerous tale and his readers' expectations of truthful narration.  The graph above allows us to see the clustering of these unusual transitions, especially as Malory approaches the catastrophe which overtakes the court when a knight named Mellyagaunce captures the Queen and evidence emerges that Lancelot had been in the Queen's bed.  The list below provides the passages in context.

E.V. page "Month of May" Transition
169.00 Gawayne is led by Ettarde toward her bed: "So it was in the monthe of May that she and sir Gawayne wente oute of the castell and souped in a pavylyon and there was made a bedde and there sir Gawayne and Ettarde wente to bedde togedyrs" (65r/169).[1]


226.00 The Roman Emperor's ambassadors report the defeat of their army by Arthur's forces "For in the moneth of May this myscheff befelle" (88r/226).  This closely follows the Alliterative Morte Arthure (l. 2371, "In the kalendes of May   this case is befallen").
683.00 Trystram, riding armed to the hunt because he fears Mark's treachery: "So on a day a lytil afore the moneth o May sir Trystram chaced an harte passynge egirly . . ."  He encounters Paolmydes, who does not recognize him, and who declares "I love La Beall Isode peramoures" (281r/684-5).[2]


1119.02 Introduces Gwenyver's ride before her capture by Mellyagaunce and rescue by Launcelot: "And thus hit passed on frome Candylmas untyll [after] Ester that the moneth of May was com when every lusty harte burgenyth and florysshyth in May" (434v/1119).[3]


1119.07 "For hit gyvyth unto all lovers corrayge that lusty moneth of May in somthynge to constrayne hym to som maner of thynge more in that moneth than in other monethe for dyverce causys" (434v/435r/1119).[4]


1119.22 "Therefore lyke as May moneth flowyth and floryshyth in every mannes garyne so in lyke wyse lat every man of worshyp florysh hys herte in thys worlde" (435r/1119).[5]


1120.00 "So hit befelle in the moneth of May quene Gwenyver called unto her ten knyghtes of the Tabel Rounde and she gaff them warnynge that early uppon the morn she wolde ryde on maynge into woodis and fyldis besydes Westemynster" (435v/1120).
1120.33 "And so uppon the morne or hit were day in a May mornynge they toke their horsys wyth teh quene and rode on mayinge in wodis an dmedowis as hit pleased hem in grete joy and delytes for the quene had caste to have bene agayne wth kynge Arthur at the furthest by ten of the clok and so was that tyme her purpose" (435v/1120-21).
1161.00 "so thys season hit befelle in the moneth of May a grete angur and unhapp<e> that stynted nat tylle the floure of chyvalry of [alle] the worlde was destroyed and slayne" (449r/1161).[6]


Vinaver points out that the Prose Merlin contains nothing of the sort here.  Malory substitutes Gawayne's entrapment of the lady via an ambiguous oath for the French Arcade's seduction of Gavain by a similarly deceptive promise. The French knight also tells Arcade that in Arthur's court, few knights do not "ayment par amours," a statement Malory excises (1361).
The French text has no "May opening," and in it, Palamedes only praises Isode as "la rose et la biauté de tout le monde" 1510).
Vinaver notes that in no surviving MS does Guinvere's capture by Meleagant occur while the queen rides a-Maying, though the incident bears some similarity to events involving Bors in the Prose Lancelot (1606).
The source of the constraint, and of the "corrayge," are: "for than all erbys and treys renewyth a man and woman and in lyke wyse lovers callyth to their mynde olde jantylnes and olde servyse and many kynde dedes that was forgotyn by neclygence" (435r/1119).
"firste unto God and nexte unto the joy of them that he promysed hys feythe unto for there was never worshypfull man nor worshypfull woman but they loved one bettir than another and worshyp in armys may never be defoyled but firste reserve the honoure to God and scondely thy quarell muste com of thy lady and such love I calle vertuous love" (435r/1119).
"In May whan every harte floryshyth and burgenyth for as the season ys lusty to beholde and comfortable so man and woman rejoysyth and gladith of somer commynge with his freshe floures for wynter wyth hys rowghe wyndis and blastis causyth lusty men and women to cowre and to sit by fyres..."