By Amy Hurnell
Innervate: Online Essay Journal (2009/10)
Introduction: The many narratives that span the Arthurian tradition contain an overwhelming variety of messages on how the human moral code should be determined. As the tradition developed from early quasi-historical roots into the later French romance tradition, the focus of the stories changed and the values contained within them changed accordingly. The narratives became less dominated by simple rivalries, bloodshed and warfare; characters and motivations became more developed and relationships and personal loyalties came under closer scrutiny. The variance within the tradition is so great that George Kane asserts: ‘the many contradictions inherent in the accumulated material of the Arthur legend confuse issues so completely that no moral point of view could be consistently maintained with regard to it.’ Consequently this essay will focus primarily on two texts from the Arthurian romance tradition. It will consider the late 12th century French writings of Chretien de Troyes, in particular the tales of The Knight of the Cart and Erec and Enide, and the 14th century English composition the stanzaic Morte Arthur. Based on the concerns of these texts, the role of morality in relation to dictating human action will be examined, with a particular focus on how it figures in certain aspects of life – love, justice, and political governance. Essentially this essay will argue that rather than adhering to the tenets of one moral code, the morality of this tradition is characterised by testing, competition and conflict between different systems of moral value.
Romantic love is a primary concern in both texts, and in both we can see a clear connection between love and other value systems. The knightly code of conduct prizes public virtue enters into direct competition with the laws of love, and characters are forced to choose between doing what is right in terms of the chivalric code, and what is right according to the rules of courtly love. Romantic love appears as an overrriding and all-consuming passion, within which the typical norms of moral behaviour must be subordinated to the whims of the beloved.