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

Vinaver's Paperback Edition vs. the Three-Volume Hardcover (on reserve):

        When Vinaver adapted his massive, three volume edition for paperback, he had to cut away much of his editorial apparatus.  You doubtless are grateful not to have to lug around the heavy hardcover edition, but when working closely with the text, you will benefit from consulting it on reserve at the library.  In the third volume, you will find an extensive introduction and detailed notes giving Vinaver's interpretation of how Malory changed his sources, when he did.  Don't treat all of Vinaver's judgments of Malory as gospel.  He loves the French sources and treats Malory as a sort of English vandal who has cut them to ribbons without truly appreciating them, but when he tells you what was in the source, he usually can be trusted.  The glossary is the same as your edition's, but the hardcover edition also contains a proper noun list of personal and place names, complete with a page index of every place in Vinaver's hardcover edition where the name appears.  This can be invaluable in determining things like where and when Launcelot and Gwenyvere are together, how long Gareth stays hidden in the Grail quest (see the third day's reading), and other mysteries which can shed light on how Malory built this narrative and what values he cares about.  Because Vinaver has given the text so many chapter and section titles, it's easy to find where in the paperback text a given set of references occur.

M’s Source—what he cut and what he kept:

        If you have read Vinaver’s notes to this section (729-30), you know that Malory used texts called the Prose Merlin and its sequel, the Suite du Merlin, as his sources to translate the story of Arthur’s early life. He might have used other sources for Arthur’s early life and rise to kingship. He used these other versions of Arthur’s birth for other parts of the work. These two presented him with a problem made obvious by their names—theyre mainly about Merlin’s birth, life, and death. Arthur’s court provides the backdrop to the half-demonic magician’s deeds, which are the Merlin narrative's narrative core. What has happened to the mage’s story? What takes its place?  Although Malory cut the Merlin "front end" off the version he translated, he left almost all the remaining incidents in the order in which he found them and made a few very subtle changes when translating.  Such changes express his evolving tastes as a "translator" and "compiler" who had begun, by stealthy alterations, to "forge" new matter according to his own values.

        For instance, when King Bagdemagus leaves court in response to being passed over for membership in the Round Table, Malory invents the prophecy his young squire discovers that predicts his eventual return, and he adds the narrator's comment that Bagdemagus finds a "braunche of the holy herbe that was the signe of the Sancgreall" (81).  Vinaver's hard-copy edition note explains this as a misreading of the French source, which says it will speak no further of this matter because it already is recorded in "une des brankes del Graal," or one of the branches or narrative digressions of the Grail story (III.1340-41).  However, Vinaver must postulate a translator who was "completely baffled" by the word "branke" as a term for a narrative unit and, in this state of utter confusion, turned it and widely separated words in following sentences into the praise of Bagdemagus' character.  Were we to inquire into the motives for such a "misreading," though, they are not hard to find.  Malory likes Bagdemagus, and will resurrect him even from the death he probably already had translated in the "Grail Quest" section (599 & 603).  Bagdemagus will stand with Launcelot's allies in the final war with Gawain and Arthur, and he will make the first speech urging L. to break the siege by directly challenging Arthur's allies in the field (700).  The man who, moments before, was translating history, usurps Merlin's powers to inscribe the landscape with prophecies which inevitably come true and Malory takes up Arthur's royal powers to reward characters for their virtues.   These are glimpses of the independent creative authority Malory more fully asserts when he changes and comments upon events at the end in the "Morte" proper, and perhaps when he freely combines episodes to create the "Lancelot" and "Gareth" narratives which follow the "Roman War" and precede the Grail Quest.

Prophecy and fulfillment:

        One thing Malory did not change was the Suite’s destiny-ridden narrative structure. As one might suppose, a tale about a magician who can foresee the future would mainly be designed to showcase the predictions he makes and the surprising ways in which they come true. Many of those predictions remain, but their fulfillment often has been deferred many hundreds of pages into the "future\" [i.e., tales Malory knows but has not yet translated, or tales he has translated but intends to transform.  How do those intervals of prognostication affect the reader’s sense of the early parts of the narrative, and how do you suppose the middle and end of the text will feel once the long-foretold events begin to manifest themselves?

Balyn’s "adventures":

        Of all the prophecies made in the Suite, those concerning Balyn, A.K.A., "The Knight with Two Swords," are maintained in roughly the same narrative sequence and fulfill themselves even more quickly than those in the French source because Malory compresses the intervening narrative to its core. Balyn has been called the archetypal Arthurian knight because his brief career captures so many of the major themes of the text, and because his doom is caught up in so many of the major narrative threads which must play themselves out before the end. A poor but noble character passes a test only the "best" knight at court can pass, but the outcome means that he must kill the man he most loves.  He tries to serve people he meets in his quest, but they are destroyed by a knight who fights unfairly, and when he takes vengeance on that knight, he strikes "the Dolerous Stroke" that magically lays waste to three kingdoms. 

        Take critics' claim that Balyn is an archetypal knight and compare it with your sense of what it is to be a Balyn. Except for some noteworthy outbursts and the famous explicits between narrative segments, Malory usually does not comment on the action in his own persona, and he often removes causal connections which might help us interpret the plot. The French "Suite" calls him a "second Eve" whose misfortunate impetuousness (his nickname is "le Saveage") brings about a second "Fall."  Malory omits this, a practice that has been called a "paratactic style," as opposed to "hypotaxis" or abundance of explanatory narration and subordinated causal evidence. What does that do to readers' experience of Balyn’s life and death?

        Due to Malory's changes throughout all the narrative segments, Balyn's story becomes involved with many episodes with which the French sources do not connect him.  Here are some events with which Malory associates Balyn, either directly or by subsequent consequences: the acquisition of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake; the pursuit of the Questing Beste by Pellinor; the incestuous relationship between Arthur and Lot’s wife, Margawse, leading to the birth of his nemesis, Mordred; the death of the Lady of the Lake; the Dolorous Stroke; Galahad’s birth, achievement of the Grail Quest, and healing of the maimed king; Lancelot’s mistaken combat with Tristan; Lancelot’s deposition as the "best knight of the world" by his son, Galahad; the "departyng" of Arthur’s Round Table knights in the Grail Quest and the rise of fratricidal disunity among them; Lancelot's killing of the man he most loves with Balyn's sword, and Arthur’s final battle with the treasonous Mordred on Salisbury Plain. What does Balyn do to become involved in all of these distant and terrible events? Does he seem to learn or to grow during this tale?  Is he a good character with some terrible flaws, or is he some kind of force of divine providence, sort of a hapless counterpart to Galahad, who is just as fortunate as Balyn is unfortunate, with about as much open justification? 

Gawain & the sons of Lott vs. Pellynore and his descendants:

        Gawain is the first of Lott’s sons to be knighted, and the first to swear vengeance on the man who killed their father. His involvement with Pellynore in the first major quest after the Round Table was established (via Arthur’s wedding with Gwenyvere) gives us ideal opportunity to compare these knights (and P’s son, Torre). What do we learn about them on the quest of the white hart, the brachet, and the lady? Which of the three behaves the best, both in combat and in crises of judgment? What kinds of errors do they make and how are we to judge those? How might you compare Gawain’s adventures with Balyn’s? What do the quests of Torre and Pellynore tell us when compared with that of Gawain? For instance, how does the whole sequence (starting with Torre’s arrival at court) raise issues of women’s position in the romance? (Compare this with "Wife of Bath’s Tale," written about a century earlier.) How do their behaviors affect your understanding of what Malory means by "destiny," especially Pellynore’s response to Merlin’s prophecy (71)? Malory here inserts into the "Suite" the Round Table oath which he borrowed from a chronicle by John Hardyng. Why is it placed here, precisely, given the oath’s content?  Think about government by royal authority and what happens when the government changes hands--the reignal year changes, the courts shut down awaiting the pleasure of the new king, and countless political alliances readjust themselves, including those involving the custody or "wardship" of heirs without parents, succession to titles, and distribution of new lands and titles.

The Five Kings:

        Here M follows Arthur’s response to the treasonous challenge to his kingship by the forces of the northern lords. In later tales, Arthur’s knights will lead the forces, but in this case, Arthur and Gwenyvere both are in jeopardy in the front lines. How does this affect our response to the king’s character? Kay’s prowess in these battles will specifically contrast with his behavior in the Lancelot and Gareth sections, coming soon after, and reflect an earlier, Celtic conception of his character before he had become a buffoon and foil to Gawain and Lancelot.

Arthur and Accolon:

        Malory has adjusted his source to increase the treasonous intent of Accolon and to make more tangible the violation of Outelake’s property rights by Damas. Morgan’s role as Arthur’s enemy probably is the most interesting for modern readers, however. Note that she had been sent to study (with nuns!) and became "a grete clerk of nygromancye" (5). See the Grail Quest for a similar view of the Bible and the Mass a instruments of "conjuring."  Morgan's hatred for Arthur never is clearly explained, but given she is a daughter of Lott and Morgawse (and sister to Gawain), could you hypothesize her motive? The plot incorporates some familiar elements of the lais' faerie lore, including that magic ship. How does the tale’s handling of them differ from the earlier versions? The scene in which Uwayne stops his mother from killing his father loosely parallels events we’ve seen in the lais, and clearly anticipates Gaheris’ killing of Morgawse in the Tristan narrative (377-8). How does M handle the family dynamics of "deviant" characters? How does he express the exact nature of the deviation, and what is the norm from which they depart?

Gawain, Ywain, and Marhalt:

        After Arthur’s surprising decision to banish Morgan’s son, Uwayne, the young knight is joined by Gawain in a quest. How does G. state the rule guiding his decision, and what theme does that help to establish? The quarrel between Marhalt and Gawain ends, surprisingly, in a kiss of peace and a sworn oath of brotherhood. What could explain this innovation? You might want to compare the battles between Balain and Balan, between Arthur and Accolon, and between Gawain and Marhalt for what might be Malory's emerging chivalric principle of action and restraint.  Note that you are learning to read a code of actions rather than words, so Structuralist interpretations may be useful to you.

        At the fountain, the three knights encounter three damsels—what is the allegory these female figures embody? What does "choosing" one of them entail for a knight? How do the outcomes of the quests set up a surprising (somewhat!) reversal of expectations regarding the choice? This notion of the morally or ethically deceptive choice is central to the Grail Quest’s major episodes.  This "choice-of-women" motif also is implicit in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's Fytt 3, when Gawain's attention (and ours?) is entirely on the Host's beautiful young wife and he ignores the old lady at the high seat in the hall.  The locus classicus is a late Greek narrative by Xenephon, usually known as "The Choice of Hercules," in which the protagonist meets two women at a crossroads, one beautiful and lasciviously dressed, and the other soberly dressed and veiled--his choice represents two ways of life  (i.e., Vice and Virtue).

        Gawain’s affair with Pelleas and Ettarde contains obvious similarities with Chaucer’s narrator’s position at the start of Boke of the Duchess, and with Garnysh of the Mownte, the knight Balain encounters (54). How does the outcome of this tale affect your reading of Gawain’s character? Pelleas’ reaction to discovering the lovers recalls a famous scene in Gottfried’s Tristan in which the lovers sleep separated by a naked sword which is the symbol of their chaste relationship. How does this tale turn the image? The Damsel of the Lake, Nynyve, makes yet another appearance in the nick of time and takes the tale in another direction. Had it gone as Pelleas intended, how might you have compared it with Marie de France's Laustic? Given the way it actually ends, might it now be more like Launfal’s fate?

        Marhalt’s adventures begin with a test of judgment rather like others we have seen, with an interesting link to Gawain. But the next part of his testing, the giant Taulurd, creates an interesting chronological problem for the "hoole book" argument. For the deeds referred to on 106, see pp. 304 and 307-8. How does the encounter with the giant affect Marhalt’s fortunes, and what does this do for your understanding of the functions of giants (vs. faeries, for instance)?  If they were knights, what would their bad behavior represent, and have you seen anything like it in other medieval literature ("Sir Gowther"?)?

        Uwayne’s quest, predictably, turns out to be the most disciplined and expressive of M’s major principals of chivalry. By what logic can Hew surrender to Uwayne after U has killed Hew’s brother? How does the reunion at court stand modified by the loyalties and prohibitions created by love and admiration?  In the Grail Quest, Gawayne will kill Uwayne (560-1), a shocking outcome of a fair fight, but one which results in Gawayne being ejected from the Grail Quest (562-3).  What does this do to your sense of the significance of the triple quests?  Can you see any signs that Malory knows this is coming because he already has translated the Grail Quest, especially given what the explicit suggests about his lack of source materials?

The Explicit:

        Perhaps one of the most famous parts of the manuscript which was left out by William Caxton in the printed first edition, this end-of-tale note from the author suggests circumstances in which it was written and requirements for the creation of more of this text. How does it set up M’s relationship to his material and his readers? See, but read critically, Vinaver’s note (739). It was an important reason for his editorial decision to treat the "tales" of the manuscript as eight separate romances rather than a single unified narrative.   In the Winchester Manuscript (leaf 70v.), this passage ends at the bottom of a verso leaf and, had the "Roman War" material not followed, it easily could have suggested Malory was done writing forever.  What else might it mean?

For my Spring 2000 notes on this segment, which are trying to track some of the larger patterns in Malory's evolving view of the Arthurian narrative, click here.