The French La Mort le Roi Artu and the Alliterative Morte Darthur contain two subtly different versions of how Arthur's queen came to be accused of murder and adultery, and how Arthur's "best knight" came to be accused of adultery and treacherous killing in her defense. Neither of these versions of the end of Arthur's kingdom agrees with that in the "Roman War" segment, where Mordred's treachery occurs while Arthur is off conquering most of Europe. Here, Arthur's nephew takes advantage of his uncle's support of Gawayne's vendetta against Launcelot. Until Malory took up the problem, the competing narratives of the fall of Arthur's kingdom existed indepedently, but after Malory, only the "adultery-betrayal" narrative survives. That is one of the surest signs of his authority as an independent "poet," but oddly, it appears to be exactly the narrative he sought to subvert. Before Malory can bring himself to write this concluding part of the Arthurian story, he draws episodes from the French Prose Launcelot and a shorter, earlier version by Chretien de Troyes, that usually are known as "The Knight of the Cart," for Launcelot's adoption of that unlikely mode of transportation when rescuing Gwenyvere. In that French text, he confronts the most direct possible description of L and G having sex in her bed, and he awkwardly denies that such a thing happened. He also borrows from the Launcelot the "Fair Maid of Astolot" (Tennyson's "Lady of Shallott"), in which he does not censor the passage in which Lancelot has sexual relations with the "Fair Maid" (twice), and he adds two episodes apparently of his own composition, a great tournament before the "Knight of the Cart" and the "Healing of Sir Urry," just before the destruction of the court. Malory's adaptation of his sources is very free, picking and choosing scenes and dialogue, inventing new dialogue and scenes, and juxtaposing it all between the "Grail" and the "Morte" narratives in a way it had never occurred before.
The resumption of Lancelot’s affair with Gwenyvere, which he acknowledged and renounced in the Grail Quest, is a gravely difficult point for Malory to handle. This occurs at the “suture” between two of his sources, one concentrating on the Grail’s universe and satisfied when the Grail had been borne into heaven (the Queste), and the other centered on the sad end of Arthur’s universe (the Mort Artu). The former abandoned the used up husk of Lancelot when it had extracted a satisfactory humiliation and repentance from him, but the latter saw Lancelot’s dalliance with the queen as the counterpart of Gawain’s murderous vengeance to make an end of Arthur’s tenuous alliance of non-kin-related knights.
Never forget what a strange thing the Round Table was in a world in which nations did not yet exist: no abstract relationships bound one’s behavior beyond the immediate promises one made to individual lords and vassals. Abstract loyalty to an idea of the state (or some proto-state like the Round Table) was nearly unimaginable. Only the Grail and the Kingdom of Heaven had previously commanded that sort of loyalty to a disembodied thing.
With that in mind, how do you interpret Malory’s explanation (apparently original with TM) of Lancelot’s forgetfulness of his oath to God, and his resumption of his loyalty to a love of Gwenyvere (611:10-19). Notice especially the emphasis on inner and outer states of being. Then, to what does Malory assign blame for the notoriety of the courtly couple’s affair? How would you interpret the adjective “open-mowthed” (611: 19)?
The Poisoned Apple:
How does Malory explain the motivation for the poisoning which causes Gwenyvere to be suspected? See 613: 35-8. Note that this is not a “mystery” in the modern sense—we know “who done it.” What is the point of this episode’s initial motivation? Compare this with the outcome (620: 43-45 and 621: 1-23). Malory’s complex motives should be somewhat clearer from this point on.
Arthur disengages himself from defense of the queen on the grounds that he must be an impartial judge in the matter. Compare this with Lanval’s or Launfal’s trial for a sense of how nearly the French and English lais match Malory’s sense of correct legal process. Does this provide justice, or merely the appearance of justice, according to Modern (or Postmodern!) standards? Especially consider the exchange between Arthur and Gwenyvere about who shall defend her and about Arthur’s praise of Lancelot’s prowess (615: 32-40). What do you infer about Arthur’s state of mind at this time, and why is it important? (For a similar concern about the champion’s legal status and the queen’s, see the Erl of Tolous.)
When Bors resigns the battle to the strange knight (i.e., Lancelot, in disguise), how do you read the wound Mador de la Porte deals the queen’s champion (619: 38-40) and how do you read the knight’s response? Compare these with the great “thigh wound” trope you’ve seen in other medieval texts.
Maid of Astolot:
This episode is given concise and somewhat different treatment in Tennyson’s “Fair Maid of Shallott.” When the maiden has fallen in love with Lancelot (623), she asks him to wear a token at the tournament (a sleeve, decorative, which could be unpinned and worn as a flag-like ornament). Why does Lancelot consent to wear it? When she realizes he will not return her love, she prepares to die (in good courtly love fashion) but is upbraided by a priest because suicide would offend God’s law (639). How do you interpret her reply (639: 31-44 and 640:1-2)? It is utterly unique in medieval literature—is it “modern” or is it very ancient? It may be our most direct view into Malory’s understanding of women’s and men’s emotions, and their relation to the religious and societal restrictions under which they labored in his day. The counterpart of this expression is Lancelot’s reply to the queen’s charge that he might have been more “jantyll” to Eleyne while she was alive, and thus might have saved her life—he says he gave her alternatives, and announces a theory of love you should find familiar, and which Chaucer refers to in Franklin’s Tale, Prologue (Malory, 641:29-38). How might these two passages give you a way of understanding Malory’s treatment of the affair between Lancelot and Gwenyvere, and perhaps Gwenyvere’s responses to Lancelot’s behavior?
Tournaments in Malory are so frequent that it seems strange to give this one such careful narrative attention. Malory adds unusual emphasis to it by calling back a catalogue of nearly all the characters who have appeared in the previous narrative, including a few characters who were killed (!). The tournament concludes with Gareth's act of restraint, in which he refuses Arthur's command to join the combat against Launcelot. Rather than condemning this defiant act, Arthur praises it, and Malory takes up this praise in his own narrator's voice. All of this appears to be his own invention. Moreover, the Winchester manuscript offers no support at all for Vinaver's decision to separate the narrator's praise at the end of this section from the first "Month of May" passage that begins the next, drawn from "The Knight of the Cart." What happens when you run them together? The mood usually is called "elegiac," for the mixture of fondness and sadness the narrator expresses for his subject. What values does it promote?
Knight of the Cart:
The most extraordinary piece of Malory’s emerging tretise on love and stability is the opening of this section, the so-called “moneth of May” passage (648: 36-41 and 649: 1-35). What does he praise and what does he lament? How does the keyword “stabilite” arise again here, and what does he seem to mean when using it? How does he contrast the lovers of the Arthurian time-space which he chronicles with the lovers of “nowadayes”? Finally, what do you make of his “lytyll mencion” of Gwenyvere (649: 33-5)? What kind of tone is he setting up in these closing sequences of the great story?
Mellyagaunte, the villain of this tale, is one of the truly nasty characters of the Arthurian space Malory inherited: ambitious, lustful, untrue of his word, scheming and spiteful, and cowardly (have I left anything out?). When he finally has been beaten in a judicial duel to save Gwenyvere from the fire (for a second time, including the poisoned apple prosecution), he begs mercy in a formal and powerful way and Gwenyvere lets Lancelot know that she does not wish it. What does the cad call upon to command Lancelot’s cooperation in the middle of bloody battle, and what does Lancelot do when he realizes that his lady requires him to kill Mellyagaunte in spite of that plea (662:16-42). What is Malory trying to show here?
Healing of Sir Urry:
This tiny narrative segment is (like the Gareth narrative) apparently original with Malory. It recounts the story of a maimed knight who may be healed of his “seven grete woundis” only when “the beste knjyght of the worlde had serched his woundis” (663: 29, 34-5). Lancelot, after all the court has attempted the deed, is the last one to try and the only one to succeed. His response to his success is to thank God and “ever sir Launcelote wepte as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn” (668: 35-6). Why?