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The Naked Truth, or Why in Le Morte Darthur La Beale Isode May Be Naked but Queen Gwenyvere May Not

The Naked Truth, or Why in Le Morte Darthur La Beale Isode May Be Naked but Queen Gwenyvere May Not

By Anat Koplowitz-Breier

Mirator (May 2005)

Tristan and Isolde - by Herbert James Draper

Abstract:In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’arthur, two love triangles dominate the plot: the love triangle between King Arthur–Queen Gwenyvere–Lancelot, and the one between King Mark–La Beale Isode–Trystram. These triangles share many common points. In fact, throughout Le Morte Darthur we have the impression that those triangles are meant to reflect one another in order to emphasize the differences between them. The article shows that the main difference between the lovers’ relationships in the love triangles of Le Morte Darthur is in Malory’s attitude towards the question of their sexual behavior. Malory is usually circumspect about Gwenyvere and Lancelot, trying to convince us that nothing sexual happened between them, yet in the case of Trystram and Isode, he is quite frank about their relationship being sexual. In this article the author tries to give an explanation to this different approach. By focusing on the departure scene of Isode and Trystram the author proves that it contains mutual oaths and an exchange of rings, which makes it some sort of marriage ceremony – a fact that may explain Malory’s tolerance toward Isode and Trystram’s sexuality.

Introduction: The fifteenth-century Le Morte Darthur composed by Sir Thomas Malory, is perhaps the most influential Arthurian text written in English. Malory wrote his romance in prose at the end of the fifteenth-century (c. 1470) basing it on several works in English and French. Since the only facts we know about Malory is his name, his being a knight and his being in prison, at least part of the time while writing the Morte, we can only assume what sources he used. His work includes the story of King Arthur and the Round table from the birth of Arthur until his death and the collapse of the Round Table. It brings in, for the first time in English, the love story of Lancelot and Gwenyvere and combines within the work the Story of Trystram and La Beale Isode.

The two love triangles dominate the plot: the first is the love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Gwenyvere, and Lancelot; the second is the one between King Mark, La Beale Isode, and Trystram. The two triangles share many common points: in both cases the wife’s lover is also the husband’s knight and vassal, and both relationships entail not only adultery but also treason. Throughout the Morte we have the impression that the two triangles are intended to reflect one another in order to emphasize the differences between them. Many of Malory’s critics who analyzed the love triangles focused on the characters of Lancelot and Trystram. Others focused on Lancelot and Gwenyvere’s love, treating the love story of Trystram and Isode as an example of adultery included in the text for purposes of comparison. The present paper emphasizes a different angle of these two love triangles: Malory’s attitude towards it, or more precisely, his attitude towards the presence or absence of physical contact between the lovers in these triangles. The questions concern Malory’s moral attitude as part of fifteenth-century morality.

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