Le Morte Darthur

Malory’s world in Le Morte Darthur is one where “Right lends Might”, where “God will have a stroke in every battle”. Sir Lancelot is the hero of Malory’s book, a super-knight whose prowess at combat means he can never be defeated, whatever the odds:

“With that came in Sir Lancelot, and he thrust in with his spear in the thickest of the press; and there he smote down with one spear five knights, and of four of them he broke their backs. And in that throng he smote down the King of Northgales, and broke his thigh in that fall.”

So great is Malory’s love of Lancelot, he paints himself into a corner, as in each new combat Lancelot must top his previous performance, fighting that many more knights in one go, or, if really forced to fight only the one (such as the wicked Sir Meliagaunt) offering to do so partly armoured and with one hand tied behind his back:

“‘Well, I shall proffer you a large proffer,’ said Sir Lancelot, ‘that is for to say I shall unarm my head and my left quarter of my body, all that may be unarmed as for that quarter, and I will let bind my left hand behind me where it shall not help me, and right so I shall do battle with you.'”

But with the final battle, Le Morte Darthur suffers a change of style that, while it ought never to work after such near-ridiculous heroic heights, is profoundly moving. The fatal wounding of Arthur forces a shift from superhero romp to tragic, gritty realism, and suddenly it’s as if all the nobility and chivalry have gone out of the world, leaving a grim place of grievous, messy injuries and (far worse, to Malory) death by ignoble hands:

“So Sir Lucan departed, for he was grievously wounded in many places. And so as he rode, he saw and hearkened by the moonlight how that pillagers and robbers were come into the field to pillage and to rob many a full noble knight of brooches and bees [arm or neck rings], and of many a good ring and many a rich jewel. And who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches.”

and:

“Then Sir Lucan took up the King in one part, and Sir Bedivere the other part, and in the lifting up the King swooned; and in the lifting Sir Lucan fell in a swoon, that part of his guts fell out of his body, and therewith the noble knight’s heart brast [burst]. And when the King awoke, he beheld Sir Lucan how he lay foaming at the mouth, and part of his guts lay at his feet.”

It’s the mythic picture of a dilemma that’s still with us. Ideals are illusions, but they’re all the magic we’ve got in this world. Messy realities, though they’re the sort of truth you can verify, can’t be all we live by. Human beings are half animal and half imagination, and the tussle between the two creates a similar tussle between fantasy and realism in great works of art. And Le Morte Darthur is certainly one of them.

(Quotes from Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, Oxford World’s Classics, ed. Helen Cooper.)

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