Malory’s Arthur and the Politics of Chivalry
By Lisa Robeson
Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest, Vol. 17 (2010)
Introduction: The jury is back and the verdict is in. In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, a major reason the Round Table falls is that its political apparatus and the chivalric ethos in which that apparatus is grounded are inadequate for maintaining a stable kingdom. Many scholars have noted that competing priorities in chivalric culture cause the political collapse of Arthur’s kingdom at the end of the Morte. Formulations of this position range from competing loyalties in the chivalric code posited by Vida Scudder and Eugène Vinaver around the turn of the last century to analyses of competing conceptions of knighthood offered by Beverly Kennedy in the 1980s and, more recently, competing ideologies of chivalry identified in a valuable book by Hodges. The later work of Charles Moorman suggests that the Morte Darthur illustrates the failure of a chivalric system as a model of governance, and Elizabeth Pochoda goes so far as to argue that Malory deliberately designed the Morte to expose the faults of a chivalric system of governance. Hyonjim Kim, in The Knight Without the Sword, shows how Malory’s Morte Darthur reflects the realities of the bastard feudalism of the fifteenth century, in which local affinities looked for their identities to great lords rather than to the crown and nation. Kim demonstrates the paths of loyalties that lead in Malory’s narrative (as they did in fifteenth-century England) to internecine strife and civil war. In Malory, government whose political system arises from chivalric ideology is doomed to failure.
The purpose of this essay is to add two further propositions to this conclusion. I would argue that that Arthur’s government falls not just because the political system is flawed, but because the king’s constituents no longer see king and court as embodying cultural ideals of kingship or chivalry. The governors, in other words, no longer exemplify the ideals of the governed. Second, I would argue that Arthur, like historical fifteenth-century English kings, needed political advisors skilled at developing a public royal image that emphasized the close relationship between the ideal and the actual king; when his advisors are removed, he can no longer function effectively as king.
To illustrate these arguments, I would like to contrast two parallel episodes in the Morte Darthur. In both episodes, attacks come at the weakest point of Arthur’s reputation and honor: the adultery between Arthur’s queen, Guenevere, and his most famous knight, Lancelot. One challenge occurs in Vinaver’s Tale V, “The Tale of Sir Tristram,” when King Mark writes a letter to Arthur a recommending that the king should control his wife and his knights and a second letter to Guenevere that speaks “shame” of her and Lancelot (617.6-9; 24). This challenge is successfully deflected and no political destabilization occurs.
In the last tale, “The Tale of the Death of Arthur,” however, the king’s nephews Mordred and Aggravayne also attempt to weaken Arthur’s kingship by exposing the adultery. This challenge is not turned aside; the open charge of adultery leads to a failed attempt to capture Lancelot in the Queen’s chambers, Guenevere’s condemnation without trial, Lancelot’s rescue of her, and an ensuing civil war. While many factors may create the difference in outcomes, I would argue that between each challenge, Arthur and his court have suffered a loss of prestige in that they no longer embody a perceived cultural ideal of chivalry; and the blackening of the king’s and court’s reputation arises in part because certain knights who were highly effective at managing public perceptions are no longer able to help their King.