Alas! who can trust this world? – Sir Launcelot du Lake
Malory recounts epic episodes of tournaments, aimless adventures, noble quests, conquests and civil war. Magical prophets and incestuous adulteries plague the royal court but let the world remember Arthur as the once and future king! Despite the sometimes ridiculous episodes of knight-errantry, I did learn to respect the chivalry and the knight’s code which governs the events and exposes admirable characteristics among soldiers and economic nobility. Though I can’t imagine myself gallivanting off with a pot-bellied Spanish servant seeking adventures in chivalry, I surely hope I can embody the integrity and courage of many of these knights.
I learned in this edition’s introduction that Malory employed himself as a knight, of sorts, in England during the War of the Roses – a time when men belittled codes of honor and glorified force and ambition above all else. Malory initially fought for the house of York, who later imprisoned him for shifting his allegiance to Lancaster and the lineage of Henrys. I often wondered if Malory had modeled his King Arthur after Henry VI, a pious man who allowed his counselors to guide his decisions in matters of law and state even when they countered his naturally loving heart. Of course, this real king may have served as a model but Arthur stands alone as a beacon of just and compassionate civilizations everywhere.
Malory seems to stylistically mimic the Bible’s Old Testament and his plots mirror those of The Thousand and One Nights. The book begins with Merlin and the birth of Arthur. Other than to insinuate that the Devil begot Merlin, Malory tells us little of his personal character. Instead, he uses Merlin as a prophet, a seer, who often appears disguised as a vagabond and conscientiously shapes Arthur’s destiny. Honestly, Malory disappointed me with Merlin’s sparse appearances and less than epically magical deeds. Then I thought of Merlin as a representation the world in which Arthur would build his idealistic civilization. After all, if Merlin can disguise himself as anyone, he can be anyone in the world. And as a symbol of the world, he must embody all the mysteries of time and science which Malory might represent as magic. And though Merlin serves as a seer, Malory does not imply that Merlin guides Arthur with any moral or immoral intentions. Of course, men consider morals while the world simply cycles over, even depends on what men might call “bad” in order for new life to spring up. Merlin only intends for Arthur to become King, neither for good reasons or bad reasons. Like the earth, Merlin simply lives and moves.
However, as the narrative plunges along, we witness the rise of the greatest and fairest civilization ever known and then its demise from deceit and ambition. Merlin might console Arthur by saying that all things must live and die and that one can only truly trust in this cycle. Even Rome fell (and by the hand of Arthur to hear Malory tell it). Yet from these characters’ choices during this cycle we see some truths of our condition, our desires and our values.
Arthur builds the envy of Christendom – a kingdom of fairness and prosperity. Law governs the land and even the king must abide by them along with the same code of chivalry in which his knights believe so faithfully. By raising these virtues above himself, by attributing the true power of the land to these virtues rather than to his own person, he creates a world which ultimately must take care of itself. He need not intercede on the behalf of those in his realm since his knights and all civilians can depend on justice and fairness ruling over them. They enjoy a time of peace when they can afford to go questing, fight amongst themselves and batter each other in tournaments.
But when the peace wains, and civil war breaks out over the love between Launcelot and Gwynevere, Arthur himself does very little. Of course, he and Sir Gawain lead their armies against Launcelot, but only because of Sir Gawain’s insistence and counseling since Launcelot mistakenly kills his two brothers. The code of revenge, something engrained deeply in the fabric of Arthur’s ideal civilization, trumps Arthur’s natural inclination to forgive and reconcile with those he loves most in the world, despite their trespasses. The code of the realm he built forces him to listen to Gawain and he can only weep for Launcelot and Gwynevere. Civil war rages.
Since Arthur has become legend, even myth, I will entertain some ideas forthwith which may seem far-fetched. But, if this story does not say anything about the world in a manner of absolute certainty, it undoubtedly says something about our condition within the world and how we cope with and wrestle with our place within it.
Arthur weeps and follows the advise of Sir Gawain, his nephew, in pursuing Launcelot. I asked myself, Why won’t Arthur just call this off? Why won’t he exercise his power, snap his fingers and tell everyone to sit down, shut up, and listen to how things will go? Why won’t he intercede? I noticed how closely these questions resemble expressions of people who wonder why God won’t intercede against all the evil on earth. With Malory’s heavy interweaving of Christianity into the legend, I began thinking of the story’s climax and conclusion in terms of the mythical archetype and how Arthur might represent God, only in so far as God ruling a realm. He loves Launcelot and Gwynevere, but must allow the rules of his creation to run their course, even if those rules break his heart. If Arthur can represent the mythical archetype of Father God, perhaps Gwynevere could represent Mother Earth and Launcelot, mankind – a people who fall in love with Earth which brings about the rift between themselves and Father God.
In any case, Malory drafts Launcelot as Arthur’s pride and the pinnacle of knighthood, then as the source of Arthur’s, and arguably Camelot’s, downfall. Of course, Launcelot does not bear an ounce of malice in his heart and loves Arthur with his entire being, but introducing deception into a mix of honor and chivalry sets in motion events which result in the utter collapse of a world. While Arthur devotes himself to raising the perfect civilization, Launcelot remains devoted to perfecting himself according to the faith he has in Arthur and his ideals. Their individual devotions to their boons match only their devotion to each other which makes the resulting catastrophe nearly unbearable to witness. But the world takes over and it seems Arthur would cease playing Creator and Launcelot, Protector, to become pawns in the world’s cyclical nature.
Whether this legend bears historical influences from Malory’s experiences or the timeless voices of universal mythical archetypes, the reader still finds the joys and suffering of humanity within this fantasy and dares to hope for a day when a mystical vagabond enters a white house, palace or court to begin anew.