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‘Turn, traitor untrew’: Altering Arthur and Mordred in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

“Turn, traitor untrew”: Altering Arthur and Mordred in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

By William David Floyd

Medieval Forum, Vol. 5 (2006)

Le Morte d'Arthur -  Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898)

Abstract: The Alliterative Morte presents the reader with at least two questions in regard to characterization. One is the drastic change Arthur undergoes some halfway through, from prudent and virtuous king to cruel and reckless tyrant. The other involves the baffling change Mordred makes from humble and reluctant surrogate to murderous adulterer. Certain narrative gaps exist in the text wherein some explanation might otherwise justify these developments. However, we are offered some recourse to reconciling these factors. Because the poet saw it necessary to concentrate a good deal on the actions of these knights, it seems logical to consider their literary operation.

Introduction: The Alliterative Morte Arthure stands as a pivotal text in the range of Arthurian literature. The work provides a sort of stylistic segue from the kind of military models provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Layamon’s Brut, to the more romantic and chivalrous types suggested in Wace and developed to great success by Chrétien de Troyes and Malory. The work fulfills this role by performing two important technical functions that would later color most interpretations of Arthur’s legend. Firstly, it establishes a more human, imperfect, Arthur, whose flaws and weaknesses provide a new depth to the somewhat one-dimensional embodiment of medieval warfare previously offered. Secondly, it examines the peripheral endeavors of Arthur’s knights, not only lending to the concept of the court’s grandeur, but also bringing to the fore certain knights’ particular personalities and characteristics.

Due in part to this stylistic manner, the Alliterative Morte presents the reader with at least two questions in regard to characterization. One is the drastic change Arthur undergoes some halfway through, from prudent and virtuous king to cruel and reckless tyrant. The other involves the baffling change Mordred makes from humble and reluctant surrogate to murderous adulterer. Certain narrative gaps exist in the text wherein some explanation might otherwise justify these developments. However, we are offered some recourse to reconciling these factors. Because the poet saw it necessary to concentrate a good deal on the actions of these knights, it seems logical to consider their literary operation

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