Malory: First Segment (Arthur’s enfance and early kingship): Vinaver pp. 3-110

        I’ve been re-reading Malory for about twenty years, and I have the feeling at times that I’ve burned out on him, that he has nothing left to show me. However, each time I pick him up he reveals a new angle on his enterprise. I don't claim to have a totalizing "Grand Scheme" interpretive view of Malory (yet?), but I have been living with Tom for a long time now.   Here are the things that seemed most important to me at the start of this century (in 2000).  That was before I had discovered the prophecies of Arthur's return in active circulation among Malory's readers, and several other completely surprising new developments:

Arthur’s Birth, Discovery, and Early Kingship (3-37)—

        Though these episodes are derived from the 13th-century Suite du Merlin, which centers upon telling the story of the magician who engineers Arthur's conception and kingship, Malory has stripped away most of Merlin's importance, like his own birth as the child of a demon whose mother saves him by confessing her sin, and his defeat of Arthur's enemies with magical weapons.  Instead, this narrative has been pared down until it resembles, in spirit, the ancient battle-epics upon which the Arthurian tales were first founded before the inward-looking psychological narratives of the twelfth-century "renaissance" came to pass (cf. Marie’s lais). Everything seems simultaneously unambiguously bright and confident while also containing strange, impenetrable mysteries. Where did the "sword in the stone" come from and what does it mean for Arthur’s character—is he divinely inspired or just one of God’s mysterious forces like the "Questing Beast." (See below for QB lore.) Why does Arthur sleep with and impregnate Margawse, the wife of his worst enemy, King Lott, and why does that act bring Mordred, his nemesis, into the world? For that matter, why would she seek Arthur out instead of fleeing her husband’s enemy (vs. his father’s magical pursuit of Igrayne, the duchess of Cornwall)? Most perverse of all, why does Merlin, who appears to know the future, not act to prevent such a catastrophe even as he has intervened to help make Arthur king?

        This is the ethos of the Celtic hero tales, each major character acting out some dimly understood but powerful destiny which each can see happening but cannot prevent. They lament their misfortunes and praise their victories, but the next day may bring either in equal violence and they have no way to control it. Are they more or less like ourselves in this?  The style may have been suggested to Malory by his earlier translation of the "Roman War" narrative from the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, which begins with Arthur's conquest of the Roman Empire while at the height of his powers, and ends with his destruction in combat with his treasonous nephew/son, Mordred, who usurps the throne while Arthur is at Rome.  Malory changed very little of this narrative, but deleted its ending after Arthur's conquest of Rome, and he positioned it in the manuscript after the Suite du Merlin's story of Arthur's birth and just before narratives centered on Launcelot and Gareth. 

Balyn and Balan, or The Knight with Two Swords (37-59)—

        This is the shortest and most enigmatic of Malory’s borrowings from the 13th-century Suite du Merlin. Balyn has noticeable psychological motivation and we get glimpses of what drives him through his short, disastrous career. However, Malory has made changes in the French text which make his world far more unfair to him and which make his fate to strike the Dolorous Stroke nearly inexplicable. In the French source, he lived up to his cognomen, "le Saveage," by striking out impulsively at every opportunity. He was an extreme example of the energy and daring the French source called "proues," root of our Mod.E. "prowess" but specifically linked to the fierce decisiveness and skill which makes a professional athlete so formidable.

        Unfortunately, Balyn’s living a doomed existence which will harm all those around him until he destroys an entire kingdom, himself and his brother. In the French text, he is warned many times that his actions or his general demeanor will cause great harm, but he will not take heed. Malory has removed the warnings and intensified the provocations which lead him to violence. Malory also gives him more opportunity to defend his actions in words, but the defense cannot halt the disasters in which he finds himself enmeshed. Balyn is a sort of "bridge" figure between the earliest segment’s mythic actions and the increasingly introspective psychological narrative of the later tales. He also prefigures the glories and failures of the larger Arthurian universe. His job is to do justice with a sword, but some kinds of evils cannot be ended with a steel blade and others arise from over-reliance upon it.

Torre and Pellinor (59-76):

        This is one of Vinaver’s more egregiously misleading titles for the "tale-ettes" he imagines Malory is writing since it clearly is a "triple quest" precisely like "Gawain, Ywain and Marhalt, which ends this narrative segment (93-110). The whole purpose of the tale is to force our parallel comparison of the three knights’ behavior. In both instances, Gawayne shows himself to be impulsive (like Balyn), a bad judge of his own actions (like Balyn), and repentant when it’s too late (like Balyn). The mistaken killing of the first quest leaves him abashed, but the rank betrayal of his oath to Pelleas in the second brings him a shameful penance. The "younger" and "elder" knights (Torre/Ywain, Pellinor/Marhalt) have mixed success after a struggle with confusing choices, but in Pellinor’s case the results eerily resemble Balyn’s struggle with a doomed adventure in that his pursuit of the quest prevents him from saving his own daughter. Merlin seizes on this moment to predict terrible doom for Pellinor (75), and Malory invents a wonderful addition to the French source’s knight’s response: "Me forthynkith hit . . . that thus shall me betyde, but God may well fordo desteny." This suggests that for Malory, some knights are not doomed to share the ancient Celtic warriors’ descent into tragic deaths, but it is expressed so conditionally that it is but a glimmer of hope.

The War of the Five Kings (76-81):

        The war is not the point here, as anyone can tell, so once again Vinaver’s section titles are a distracting annoyance. This is about the wizard, Merlin, besotted with the young Nyneve, a damsel who accompanies the Lady of the Lake. His demonic ancestry (cf. "Sir Gowther") here finally emerges past Malory’s earlier excision of his birth and youth to make Arthur’s story stand clear. His end is so perplexing because it is so unexpected, at least if we were to believe his reputation for wisdom. Later writers (Alfred Lord Tennyson, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt) have spent considerable time exploring the ironies of an elderly, supposedly wise man trapped by an unseemly passion for a younger woman. Malory appears to seize the opportunity to get Merlin under that rock and out of the way. Other writers have remarked that Malory purges the text of miracles and the supernatural whenever he thinks he can get away with it, but perhaps he also wants the magician’s foretold dooms to rest for a while until they can ripen in the Morte’s closing pages.

Arthur and Accolon: (81-93):

        Morgan le Fey’s hostility toward her half-brother, Arthur, seems completely unmotivated unless we see her in the emerging context of her brothers’ emerging violent lawlessness (Gawayne, Gaherys, Agravayne, and Mordred, that is, but not Gareth, perhaps Malory’s invention as "the good son"). Morgan is a "Fey" or faerie/witch in the Celtic tradition, and such creatures have good reasons for hating mortals who offend them. Malory makes her a headstrong daughter of a dead king, trained by monks in magic, and overcome with hatred for her half-brother. Does she hope to destroy Arthur and rule in his stead? We get no such explanation, though other authors (and movie producers) have suggested it. This narrative’s crucial event is so simple and obvious most readers might not notice—the scabbard of the sword, Excalibur, is (as Merlin warns) more valuable than the sword in that it protects its wearer from injury. Had Arthur been wearing it in the final battle on Salisbury Plain, events would have gone differently. The scabbard’s plunge into the deep waters also prefigures the sword’s fate.

Gawayne, Ywain, and Marhalt (93-110):

        Here, at least, Vinaver’s subtitle is arguably accurate, but the female characters here are vivid and crucial to the outcomes. Ettarde’s cruel beauty makes more repulsive Gawayne’s sordid betrayal of his oath. The Lady of the Lake’s intervention in Pelleas’ suicidal grief suggests a way out of the romances’ obsession with doom that seems similar to a Breton lai like "Sir Launfal." Throughout the last seventy pages, since Balyn’s encounter with the first Lady of the Lake and the quest maiden, the significance of women has increased and the plot seems more and more to turn upon these ancient "action heroes" learning to interact with them successfully, often exclusively on terms dictated by the women. Given Malory’s "rap sheet," could this reflect the consequences of his own career?