The Politics of Misadventure at Camelot: The Fall of Arthur’s Kingdom in La mort le roi Artu
By Stephen D. White
Collegium Medievale, Vol. 32:1 (2019)
Introduction: A third of the way through La mort le roi Artu (c.1230), an early thirteenth-century Old French prose romance that concludes the Lancelot Grail Cycle, ‘the greatest misadventure in the world’ takes place at Camelot, the court of King Arthur of Logres. Although the poisoning episode, as I refer to it here, is extraordinarily complex and difficult to interpret, the following summary will suffice for the moment.
While Queen Guinevere is eating in her chamber with Arthur’s nephew Gawain and many other knights of the Round Table, a knight called Avarlan is plotting in another room to poison Gawain, whom he hates for reasons that are never explained. Dispatching a servant to give a poisoned fruit to the queen, Avarlan expects her to pass it to Gawain, a particular favorite of hers, who will eat it and die. But Guinevere – who is not watching out for ‘treason’ – gives the fruit to a knight called Gaheris the White, brother of Mador de la Porte, who accepts it out of love for her. Taking a bite, he immediately drops dead. Astonished by this ‘marvel’, the queen and the other knights all jump up from the table. Seeing the dead knight, the queen is grief-stricken about this ‘misadventure’ (62.37) and does not know what to do, ‘because it was seen by so many worthy men that she could not deny it’ (62.38–40).
One of the knights hurries off to tell Arthur about the ‘marvel’ (62.42) that has just taken place: the queen has killed a knight of the Round Table through ‘the greatest misadventure in the world’ (62.44–45). Coming to the queen’s chamber and seeing Gaheris’s body, the king says that Gaheris has suffered a very great ‘mischance’ (62.53), adding that the queen has done great ‘villainy’ if she has acted ‘willingly’ (62.53–54). ‘Surely’, according to an anonymous speaker, ‘she deserves death for this deed, if she truly knew that the fruit that killed the knight was poisoned’ (62.54–57).
Top Image: Guinevere, defended by two hundred knights, is beseiged in the Tower of London by Mordred. British Library MS Add. 10294, f.81v