May. 7th, 2017

A few days ago, I finally finished reading Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and I have a few thoughts: Most of the book is just tale after tale of knights having adventures that typically involve doing battle with other knights, and sometimes getting damosels into bed with them; one can have a taste for adventure stories and still get tired of this, since one description of two knights each smiting the other over his horse's croup, and then avoiding their horses to fight with their swords on foot is much like the last one. Also, the knights tend to be thuggish, even when we are told that they are the good knights, as opposed to truly bad ones like Sir Turquin and Sir Breuse Sance Pitie. When two traveling knights meet, they don't need any cause for a quarrel to do battle with each other. A "good knight" seems typically to mean a strong knight skilled in battle, not a knight who is particularly ethical, even by Medieval standards.

And yet there are ideals and aspirations shining through; after hundreds of pages of ordinary adventure stories, Malory gives us the quest for the Sangreal. Even Sir Galahad is a fierce fighting man, but otherwise very pure and devout, and so he and Sir Percivale achieve the Holy Grail, and are taken up into Heaven.

And then we get some more earthly adventures. By the way, I find it hard to like Queen Guinever much, for she is not only unfaithful to her lawful wedded lord, but often unkind to Sir Launcelot, who is unfailingly loyal to her. An incident leads to a deadly division among the knights of the Round Table, who make war on each other, and things fall apart. In a sense, they have to: since the present isn't great and wonderful, but the last supposedly was under the reign of King Arthur, there needs to be some account of why the golden age didn't last. Finally, those knights (and the Queen) who didn't get killed in the civil wars get serious about religion, and take up great fasting and prayer; Sir Launcelot, for example, is ordained as a priest before his death.

The book ends with a plea to pray for Sir Thomas Malory, who seems to have been a violent and lawless knight. I wonder how many people over the centuries have done so, and whether it makes any difference. I wonder whether one should also pray for the anonymous peasants and the unliterary knights of fifteenth century England.



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