Malory 2a: the Trystram, and the Grail

Malory’s Sources—what he kept and what he left out:

        Malory may have begun writing as a translator of the Queste del Saint Graal, which Malory calls the "Sankgreal," because his Middle English is a nearly sentence-for-sentence translation of the text found in most manuscripts of the Queste, though he cannot resist occasional interjections.  The Prose Tristan, modeled on the plot of the German Tristan and told in the interlaced episodic style of the French Prose Lancelot, derives from some unknown version of a vast number of variant manuscripts of this immensely popular adaptation of the doomed "love-potion" and "love-death" plot.  Malory radically reduces its length by transforming narrative to paraphrase or even rapid summary.  He also begins to remold some of the characters, enhancing the role of Gareth (which the Prose Tristan identifies with Gawain's brother, Gaheris) and continuing the Queste's process of morally degrading Gawain.  The Tristan is in love with tournaments more than open warfare, but often (as in real life?) tournaments were proxy events for wars that might actually break out, like street fights in hockey matches. Malory focuses Gawayne's career on one particular post-tournament event when G and his jealous brothers ambush and dishonorably kill Lamorak, a knight Malory has built up as nearly Gareth's and Lancelot's equal.  Because Malory repeats the tale of Lamorak's murder so often, it becomes inextricably part of Gawayne's bad character when he sets out on the Grail Quest, where even more murders occur.  Not what you were expecting from the Grail Quest?  Welcome to the truth, at least as Malory saw and was creating it.

     The episodes I selected, Malory-like, should also give you a picture of how Launcelot became Galahad's father in the Prose Tristan and how Galahad's career overshadows Launcelot's in the Quest del Saint Graal ("Quest of the Holy Grail").  The Quest was written about a hundred years before the Prose Tristan, which takes advantage of that opportunity to create the story of Lancelot's fathering Galahad, a character the Quest introduced as his son (chastely sinless though born of his father's sexual sin).  Conflicts between Malory's "Sankgreall" narrative's emphasis on chastity and the "Trystram"'s on chivalric prowess set up the narrative's deeply conflicted view of Launcelot's relationship with Guenivere.  Do they "love each other"?  Almost certainly.  Do they "make love" in the ModE sense?  The Tristan and the Queste make it inescapable.  Malory appears to go out of his way to make it un-provable.  Why?  Notice the increasing frequency of Malory's first-person intrusions into this narration to try to steer readers' interpretation of events, even naming himself in his praise of Tristan as inventor of the terms of the hunt.  He has graduated from mere translator and secret forger of Arthurian events, to becoming what we would recognize as an author--"Arthur's author," if you will--but the transformation makes him profoundly uneasy.

        Earlier, before the set of Launcelot narratives you read, Malory specifically has left out the conclusion of the Roman war narrative found in the Middle English Alliterative Morte Darthur.   In that version of Arthurian "history," while Arthur is conquering Rome, Mordred takes advantage of his uncle’s campaign in Italy to betray his trust, pursue Gwenyvere, and usurp the throne. Instead, Malory locates Arthur's death hundreds of pages away in the narrative "future," where he adheres to the version in the French "Morte" which includes Lancelot’s adulterous relations with Gwenyver and the quarrel and duel between Lancelot and Gawain. This means that Mordred’s treachery is not that of a felon steward who betrays the king's trust (cf. good and bad stewards in the Breton lais).  Rather Mordred betrays Lancelot and Guenivere, and after his raid on the queen's bedchamber results in many deaths, Arthur once more sentences Guenivere to death by fire and Launcelot must once more rescue her.  The betrayal appears erotic in this version, vs. the political betrayal in the "Roman War" version, but is that all that is going on when a queen calls a knight to her chambers?  After an accidental death (cf. Balyn/Balan) begins a mortal feud between Gawayne and Launcelot, Arthur tries to resolve the impossible division between his two greatest knights in perhaps the weakest stage of his kingship, not at the height of his imperial expansion of British power. How does this decision affect Malory’s construction of the Arthurian past?

Tristan Rules:

        Tristan and Yseult, in whose narrative Malory found the story of Galahad's birth to start the "Grail" story, are the models for love and for chivalric excellence in the Prose Tristan (no surprise!).  All characters within this source tend to be motivated by and evaluated by their commitment to erotic love outside marriage.  The "courtly love" doctrine that Andreas Capellanus (ironically?) describes in The Art of Courtly Love is here almost a readers' handbook.  Malory apparently is concerned by the narrative's persistent willingness to challenge the mores of married love, and to present as marvelous and attractive the "folie" or madness which overtakes Tristan when he thinks his love has been betrayed.  To someone interested in the Arthurian narratives as a source of practical, historical chivalric values, the notion of a madman armed with deadly force would seem a poor model.  Nevertheless, Malory transmits with relatively few changes many scenes which challenge the more sober view of knighthood found in his manuscript's final stages (the "Morte"), perhaps because this was a relatively early stage in his project of translation, compilation, and transformation.

Grail Rules:

        In the narrative prior to the Grail's arrival, with the exception of events involving Merlin and Balyn (both part of the Grail’s universe of motivation), the narrative handled events in a historico-realistic fashion (if I may beg a question or two). That is, knights encountered opponents who posed challenges of physical strength and ethical judgment, and unless lies were told or mistakes were made, the outcome was more or less a contest fairly fought and accepted with good will. These assumptions are fundamental to Malory’s notion of the "High Order of Knighthood." Certain extraordinary requirements arise because of the Round Table Oath (75-6) which requires Arthur’s knights to avoid murder and outrage, and to defend widows and orphans.

        In the Grail’s terrain, the chivalric order is beset by and defeated by another species of causation. Events which occurred centuries before led to prophecies which will determine the outcome of events in Arthurian space-time, outcomes which no ordinary knight’s judgment can predict. Actions which once would have been "worshipful" now are forbidden and lead to pain, punishment, and loss of worship. The Round Table fellowship’s ambiguous effect on kinship is made even more complicated by a pattern of fratricidal combat, sometimes combat by mistake (494-5--also see 560 and 573-4 if you want to follow this theme).

        How does this basic narrative material dramatize the crisis posed for medieval nobles by the Christian faith’s doctrines? What does the mystery of faith do to the oaths and responsibilities by which the ordinary medieval society identified right from wrong? How has Malory’s treatment of Lancelot’s failure in the quest made Lancelot someone different from the knight we knew in his early career as a careful but usually successful warrior? As the Grail quest winnows the surviving knights to the "final three" of Bors, Percyvale, and Galahad, they are told the ship of faith "ys so perfite he woll suffir no synner within hym" (580). This creates an unforgiving aristocracy of salvation in which perfection is an exclusive process, leaving behind more and more knights and ladies until only a few are left. How does this appeal to the medieval noble psychology, and how does it challenge it? (This problem also appears in Pearl.)

Lancelot and Eleyne—

        What religious narrative might be alluded to in Eleyne’s joyful acceptance of Lancelot in her bed? What would that make Galahad, and where does Lancelot fit in for all of this? See especially pages 479-81.

Madness, Thigh Wounds and Medieval Erotic Psychology—

        After the Queen surprises Lancelot in Eleyne’s chamber (485-8), Lancelot falls into a "folie" or loverís madness (compare Trystram's after a falling-out with Isode, 303-9). What are its symptoms, and why does the "love-maddened" knight spend his time in the forest?  Malory did not have to transmit this episode--what values does it seem to contain which led him to leave it in his narrative?

        The problem of values also arises when Lancelot is wounded in the thigh by a wild boar (498). What does that animal and that wound stand for? (We've met the symbolic boar in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and you’ll see it again in a symbolic dream and Diomedes' coat of arms in Chaucer’s Troilus.) How does the means of his cure decode the nature of the wound?

Damsels, Queens, and Loyalty in Love—

        In the French tradition, both Lancelot and Tristan, as well as other high-status knights, succumb to love-sickness or "folie" as a sign of their highly developed capacity for fine feeling colliding with their eruptive energia that makes them successful warriors.  After Lancelot rushes madly into the forest, Eleyne gives Gwenyvere a lecture about the queen’s responsibilities to her lover which might surprise the reader (488). How would you explain it, especially given Eleyne’s role in the events which have led to Lancelot’s "folie"? As if the poor queen hasn’t had enough grief, Bors also takes her to task (489). With what does he charge her and how do you think Malory intended his readers to interpret the queen’s behavior? Does it work for you? How might Marie or Andreas have responded?

The "Lancelot" problem—

        In what state do you next expect to see Lancelot—sinner, hero, lover, saint? Track what this sequence of narrative episodes has done to his character, originally a competent warrior and the "best knight" of Arthur’s Round Table, or even "in the world." One key interpretation of his changed nature comes from the damsel who tells him of his son’s arrival and his new status as "[the best] of ony synfull man of the worlde" (520). A priest who confesses Lancelot gets him to acknowledge his sin and raises the danger that his penance will be followed by a renewal of that sin (538). That judgment is expanded upon when a priest explains Gawain’s crimes and tells Gawain that Lancelot’s problem is "unstablenesse" (563). The code word is repeated by Galahad, but in that circumstance it describes "this worlde unstable" (607). Could you compare this with Chaucer’s "Lak of Steadfastnesse"? What kind of judgment is Malory making here? (You also might look ahead at Malory’s famous outburst to the people of England on p. 708.)


        After the text has elevated Gareth as an ideal member of Lott’s family, one who knew of and avoided Gawain’s murderous behavior, one might expect him to be a major element in this part of Malory’s text. However, apart from a brief appearance (534) he is completely absent from the Grail quest. He will be enormously important to Lancelot’s and Gawain’s relationship during the final days of Arthur’s court (see 684-90).  Why would Malory keep him out of sight?  The answer may lie in the order in which he produced these segments of narrative--what if, when he first produced the Grail narrative, he had not yet invented "Gareth"?  And if that is the case, how does Gareth come to appear, briefly, in the episode on 534?  How much authorial control does this suggest Malory has over the final state of his text?