Kingship in Malory’s Morte Darthur
and the Scots Lancelot of the Laik
When exploring the central theme of kingship in Malory’s Morte Darthur (c.1470) and the Scots Lancelot of the Laik (c.1460-80), it becomes apparent that Arthur’s portrayal is somewhat problematic. Rather surprisingly, of these two texts, the English response to Arthurian legend disputes him more emphatically than does the Scots. Each text expresses through the medium of Arthur’s kingship the late fifteenth-century political mood of the nation to which it belongs; the concept of rightful kingship south of the border became complicated throughout the mid and late fifteenth century by rival Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne which resulted in the Wars of the Roses, deemed “the worst possible civil strife and discord that has ever occurred in England” (Pollard 1). Conversely, Scottish kingship during this period was a much more stable institution than its English counterpart. There was “no sustained resistance to the Stewart dynasty,” largely due to there being no alternative to that ruling dynasty either (Mason 9). Scottish kingship was abiding kingship, reflected by the optimistic nature of the kingdom’s advisory literature which acknowledges the monarch’s fallibility yet simultaneous capacity for improvement.
Debates about kingship in the fifteenth century meant that advisory and speculum principis literature flourished north and south of the border. Detailing the tenets of kingly conduct, these texts were especially concerned with the king’s use of counsel, advocating advice as integral to effective rule, and with his administration of justice by fulfilling his duties to the realm. The pseudo-Aristotelian Secreta Secretorum, “one of the principal sources of the whole speculum principis tradition” still circulated widely in the fifteenth century (Lyall 17), as attested by the fact that copies were possessed by six of the seven English monarchs who reigned from 1400 to1509 (Sutton and Visser-Fuchs 112). The Secreta’s influence is also apparent in other seemingly non-advisory genres of the period, including romance. Advisory material was a distinctly possible source for Malory’s work, although the Morte is not explicitly didactic in the way that the Scots Lancelot of the Laik is. I propose, therefore, to examine the somewhat divergent treatment of kingship in Malory’s Morte Darthur and Lancelot of the Laik, given the advisory influences upon these texts. I shall initially identify the paradigms they establish of Arthur’s rule, and then explore the treatment of advice in both texts, through comparison with the Secreta’s discussion of this issue. Next, I shall consider Arthur’s execution of justice, and how actively he strives to fulfill his kingly duties, again, with reference to the Secreta and finally, I will explore the possibility of a different inflection of the speculum trope by questioning how kingship is mirrored in other characters.
Malory presents Arthur’s kingship ambiguously ab initio. Arthur’s kingly potential and status are auspiciously symbolised by his pulling the sword from the stone, a feat nobody else can manage (I.6.8-11, 9).1 His success is soon undermined. We are alerted to Arthur’s fallibility when Balyn, an outsider, pulls the second sword from a stone, because the Lady of the Lake explains that only the most virtuous knight can do so (II.1.40-1, 40). Arthur’s limitation is further manifested by incomplete support of his kingship. The faction of six kings besieging him at Caerleon leads Arthur to comment on the strife which has plagued his rule from the beginning: “Yet had I never reste one monethe syne I was Kyng crowned of this londe” (IV.2.27-8, 79).
Arthur’s conduct in battle during this first book adds foreboding, although Archibald says Arthur “subdues all opposition” (Archibald, Beginnings 134). Admittedly, his first battle is largely successful: he overcomes the majority of his enemies. But in subsequent battles Arthur is increasingly troubled by not being able to completely suppress his opponents. Eventually Merlin must intervene and distract King Lot in order to sustain Arthur’s advantage. Arthur as a young king may be consolidating valuable experience and prowess, but the implication is also that without Merlin’s assistance, he could face defeat.
However, the Lucius book presents Arthur’s rule as ideal. His success is indubitable, and there is complete assent with “alyes of kynges, princes and noble knyghtes” (V.1.8, 113) who surround him. This book’s affirmative opening foreshadows later jubilation when Arthur overcomes the Emperor Lucius. Malory’s repositioning of Arthur’s victory is radical. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure (c.1400), Malory’s source for this part of the narrative, Lucius’ defeat comprises the work’s structural centre, marking the zenith of Arthur’s reign. Depicting Arthur’s installation as Emperor is almost unique: Hardyng’s Chronicle (c. 1465) also portrays it, but in the final stages of Arthur’s rule. Usually, as in the Alliterative Morte, Arthur cannot be installed because he must suppress Mordred’s revolt. This calamitous act is conspicuously absent during the early part of Malory’s narrative. Mordred only causes trouble in Malory’s final book. Instead, Arthur’s return home is after his coronation, in peaceful, prosperous circumstances. The Alliterative Morte’s Arthur “tourmentes the pople” (204/3153) of foreign lands after defeating Lucius.2 By contrast, Malory’s Arthur remains a truly exemplary figure, illustrated by his response to his knights’ suggestion of departing for Camelot: “Ye say well,” seyde the kynge, “for inowghe is as good as a feste—for to attemte God overmuche, I holde hit not wysedom” (V.12.3-4, 151).
Malory’s structural innovation aligns with his thematic intention. By presenting the culmination of Arthur’s accomplishments and reign so early, his triumph can only diminish. Arthur can attempt to maintain his newly found status and the unity of his fellowship, but he cannot surpass it. Malory evinces the Galfredian notion of England as the new Rome, embodying that Empire’s “immortal justice” (Pochoda 53). However, even this seemingly nationalist analogy reveals precisely the kind of “apocalypse” which suffuses the Morte, since Rome ultimately lost its power, as Arthur will. We should not, then, be deceived by Arthur’s flawlessness in the Lucius book. His idealistic presentation remains qualified by his unsettled characterisation in the first book. The paradigmatic implication is that Arthur’s renown is temporal, and the absence of pessimism in this book only serves to intensify its return later in the Morte.
Lancelot of the Laik’s first book also presents Arthur’s kingship ambivalently. Although the first epithet ascribed to Arthur, “worthi conqueroure” (I.343), is favourable, he dreams ominously that his hair falls out (I.365-6), then that his innards lie beside him on the ground (I.374-7).3 The dream directly criticises Arthur’s kingship, since the fifteenth-century notion of the king “as no separate entity, but a limb of the body politic” relates the physical body to the metaphor of the political one (Watts, 30). The Lancelot poet demonstrates awareness of this concept, departing provocatively from his French prose source, the thirteenth-century Lancelot do Lac. He streamlines three less shocking dreams where Arthur loses his hair, fingers and toes to magnify their disturbing quality (Martin 145). Nonetheless, Arthur shows initiative in trying to decipher the dream. Despite Guinevere and the first Clerk’s comments on his dream’s content, he determines, “I sal nocht leif it so” (I.395). His persistence in attempting to discover the true meaning of his dream emphasises not the lack of understanding and thought which have been suggested (Martin 145).The wide circulation of dream manuals and indexes in the Middle Ages attests the popular belief that the significance of dreams could not easily be ascertained (cf. Kruger, passim). Instead, Arthur appears a concerned ruler, attentive to inauspicious portents, though he is, of course, simultaneously responsible for faults in the realm, as Amytans later explains. Although Arthur’s anger with the clerics who refuse to interpret his dream is justified, his threats of burning them are not, even if the poet reveals his leniency (I.477-8). Arthur’s apparent malevolence only reinforces their justification in fearing him in the first place. Yet when he finally discovers that his dream adumbrates his own downfall, Arthur’s response is constructive, since he asks “Of possibilitee for to reforme / His desteny” (I.504-5). Both Malory and the Lancelot poet present a paradigm of Arthur as a positive figure with qualification. Malory inflects this ambiguity towards pessimism, drawing on the de casibus tradition to show Arthur’s decline. However, the Lancelot poet inverts this Malorian emphasis. We are encouraged to perceive as short-lived not Arthur’s success, but his failings, since he is eager to change, and a corrective will be provided later.
The disparity between both texts’ attitudes towards Arthur’s kingship is further compounded by their treatment of Arthur’s legitimacy. Heredity became fiercely controversial during the Wars of the Roses and was deployed in propaganda as part of the ‘three fold right’ to rule ideology. Generated initially after Henry Bolingbroke’s accession in 1399, it bolstered Lancastrian claims to the throne later in the fifteenth century (Strohm 75-95). Conversely, inferior descent could contest a king’s integrity, as it does in the Morte. Malory declares Arthur’s conception came “more than thre houres after” Tyntagill’s death (I.2.21, 5), making his birth technically legitimate. However, Malory allows characters to question it: as soon as Arthur assumes kingship, King Lot spearheads the campaign against him on account of his “lowe blood” (I.8.16, 12), thus instigating Arthur’s early battles. Malory’s exposition of Arthur’s questionable descent coincides with his tragic agenda: whether or not Arthur is legitimate, there is little he can do about it, making the conflict surrounding this issue irresolvable.
Arthur’s illegitimacy is stated as fact, not criticism in Lancelot, which omits the acerbic French remark: “…mes en si granz pechiez com est avotire” (“…but you were conceived in great sin”; 283/20-21)4 In the Scots, Amytans urges Arthur to view his kingship as a “privilege granted by God” (Scheps 172):
It cummyth al bot only of his might,
And not of the, nor of thi elderis Richt
To the discending, as in heritage,
For yow was not byget in spousage.
This response deviates strikingly from the Scottish chronicle tradition, which viewed Arthur’s lineage as detrimental to his kingship (Alexander 17-34). The nationalist Cronycle of Scotland in a Part (c. 1460s) deems Arthur, as a non-Scot, “spurius” through his illegitimacy, claiming that he “tuke the realme of Britane fra the rhychtwaise airis” (38) Others, including Fordun (1380s) and Bower (1440s), subscribe to the more positive Galfredian belief that Arthur was most apt to rule. Yet both consider his illegitimacy a flaw and deploy the same qualifying statement: “quod tamen illi debitum de jure non fuerat” (“But, however, the right to rule had not been his.”)5 What Lancelot tenders, by contrast, is an innovative and active attempt to translate what traditionally slighted Arthur into a catalyst, inspiring his improved kingship.
Good kingship was, according to medieval political theorists, dependent on advice and counsel. The ubiquitous metaphor of the body politic, deployed for example by Fortescue, reflected the king’s inseparability from both subjects and advisors (Pochoda 36-38, 48-52). The Secreta emphasises the importance of advice by detailing fifteen essential attributes for any advisor, and comments that a king “may conquere many thinges by queyntyse and conseill, that he sholde noght haue by might of bataill” (101/14-16).6 In order to rule well, kings needed not only wise advisors, but also to make effective use of instruction, and identify inappropriate or dishonest counsellors. During Malory’s lifetime, criticism was directed towards Henry VI and Edward IV’s advisors (Radulescu 71-83), a common “focus of conflict and controversy,” as Ferster observes (2). Malory seems familiar with the notion of advice as a medium through which commentary on kingship can be made, and certainly acknowledges the power of counsel to both make and later break Arthur’s kingship, as we shall see.
Malory’s Morte is informed broadly rather than specifically by the framework of advice offered in the Secreta and speculum principis tradition. Arthur’s most effective use of advice coincides with his flourishing kingship in the idealistic Lucius book. When threatened with invasion, Arthur applies rational judgement, refusing to be rushed into a decision by Lucius’ messengers. He ensures the full accord of his Round Table, actively seeking his knights’ advice: “Therefore counceyle me, my knyghtes, for Crystes love of hevyn” (V.1.16-17, 115).
Each knight advises Arthur to retaliate against Lucius, thus affirming Arthur’s decision. Arthur similarly consults his fellowship to appoint Cador and Baudwen as deputies during the Roman campaign (V.3.18, 119). Constructive advice may elevate Arthur’s status, but detrimental guidance and Arthur’s misappropriation of counsel contribute extensively to his downfall. He shuns advice precisely when he needs to be most receptive to it. When presented with irrefutable evidence of Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery, Arthur responds with impulse, not judgement. In a passage original to Malory, Gawain sensibly tells Arthur “I wolde counceyle you nat to be over hasty” (XX.7.9-10, 655). He advocates Lancelot’s innocence. Yet Arthur resolutely rejects Gawain’s reasonable counsel: “ I woll nat that way worke with Sir Launcelot” (XX.7.29-30, 655).
Arthur’s subsequent compliance with Gawain’s instruction augments the Morte’s tragic momentum. For Gawain’s peculiarly Scottish fixation with vengeance after Lancelot accidentally kills his brother Gareth renders him a hindrance instead of a help to the realm: “I shall never fayle Sir Launcelot untyll that one of us have slayne that othir” (XX.10.16-17, 659). Gawain is now as irrational as Arthur was earlier, making his counsel unsound. Arthur would, Malory states, have reconciled with Lancelot, “but Sir Gawayne wolde nat suffir him by no maner of meane” (XX.12.12, 662). Gawain’s loyalty to vengeance instead of Arthur results in division and civil war. Had Arthur accepted Gawain’s earlier advice, Lancelot would not have been embroiled in rescuing Guinevere or have mistakenly killed Gareth, and such a cataclysmic predicament could have been averted.
In a further tragic inflection, Gawain offers valid advice post mortem, when encouraging Arthur, in a dream, to delay battle with Mordred because Lancelot will return to England and they can both defeat him together: if Arthur enters combat with Mordred the following day, both shall die. In the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a key source for the final book, Arthur heeds Gawain’s advice. He attempts unsuccessfully to postpone conflict with Mordred, “a monthe-day to stint this stour” (94/3246).7
Malory transforms this episode into the culmination of Arthur’s tragic predicament, presenting a less critical view of his kingship. Malory’s Arthur opposes advice here, and in doing so exhibits commendable strength. He sacrifices himself to eliminate Mordred’s tyranny from his realm. For Arthur knows he will die in attacking Mordred, yet states “at a bettir avayle shall I never have hym” (XXI.4.42-43, 685). His most kingly action in this latter part of the Morte, paradoxically, is what ensures the destruction of his kingship. Malory thus distorts the standard advice model of the Secreta by presenting a king who inappropriately rejects counsel, and accepts advice that is detrimental, but who ultimately is admirable.
Lancelot is informed more explicitly by advisory material. We can posit as a source Gilbert Hay’s Scottish recension of the Secreta, The Buke of the Governaunce of Princis, composed in 1456 for William Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Chancellor of Scotland. Lancelot draws extensively on its French romance source, Lancelot do Lac, but several close correspondences between Lancelot and Hay’s text also exist. Their mutual discourses about largess broadly concur when Hay says it “is gude tobe haldyn” (61/30),8 and Amytans terms it “tresour of o king” (II.1766). Both texts align more closely when discussing deserving subjects. Hay’s Aristotle says “Honour and rewarde sulde be gevin to worthy personis” (64/57-58), while Amytans declares “No vertew suld unrewarded bee” (II.1968). Full insight cannot be gained into the circulation of Hay’s manuscript, but such correlations suggest that the Lancelot poet emulates speculum principis literature, including Hay’s Buke, in this part of his work. Furthermore, Archibald’s assertion that Amytans’ counsel is so political that it “turns the poem from a love story into . . . a tract on good kingship” was seemingly shared by Lancelot’s early readers (Archibald, Reception 77). Other advisory material accompanies Lancelot in Cambridge University Library MS. Kk.I.5, including the unique manuscript copy of Christine de Pisan’s Livre du Corps de Policie, and The Wise Man’s Advice to his Son, suggesting the manuscript’s compiler considered Lancelot an instructive rather than an amatory work (Mapstone, Advice to Princes 149-54).
Arthur’s respectful address to Amytans as “Maister” (II.1311, 1389, 1999) evokes the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander in the Secreta and Buke. Arthur is clearly not averse to receiving advice in the Scottish text; in contrast to the French, Arthur recognises his counsellor and knows his name. However, Amytans’ extensive list of Arthur’s faults insinuates that Arthur has ignored previous counsel. Amytans initially seems pessimistic, alerting Arthur to the gloomy consequences of his flawed rule, which include God’s wrath (II.1325-6), loss of subjects’ loyalty (II.1497-8), and the threat of invasion by other kings (II.1535-9). Instead of contributing to downfall and tragedy, as in Malory’s Morte, advice in Lancelot initiates regeneration. Amytans’ integrity as “contemplatif and chast in governance” (II.1303) means the issue of unreliable advice is absent from this work. Arthur accepts Amytans’ criticism unequivocally, asking “how [he] sal mend, and ek her eftir leif” (II.1391). Amytans’ lecture reflects a concern with identifying and correcting Arthur’s flaws, as is characteristic of the speculum principis genre. He suggests, for example, that God’s wrath has been invoked by Arthur:
…Yow art so far myswent
Of wykitness upone the urechit dans
That yow art falling in the storng vengans
Of Goddis wreth that shal the son devour.
He next proposes that Arthur appease God’s anger through confession. Arthur is “richt obedient and mek” (II.1429), instantly heeding the exhortation. The Scottish poet alters Lancelot do Lac’s confession scene. First he omits the French text’s accusation of complete moral corruption:
Vos iestes li plus vis pechierres de toz les autre pecheors (283/12).
You are the worst sinner of all sinners.
He introduces Galiot’s messengers after Arthur confesses, instead of before, and their offer of a truce validates and verifies Amytans’ advice, marking a volte face in the narrative: “How lykith god dispone! / Now may yhow se and suth is my recorde” (II. 1590-91). There is now an onward focus in tone from accusatory to consolatory and optimistic, making Lancelot a classic statement of the Scottish advisory genre. Amytans’ later interpretation of Arthur’s earlier dream also underlines recuperability. What had made Arthur so “distrublit in his hart” (II.1292) subsequently becomes benign and manageable (II.2115-56). This transition from destruction to construction adumbrates Arthur’s improved relations with his realm, all brought about by adhering to wise counsel: “So discretly his puple he haith cherit / That he thar hartis holy haith conquerit” (II.2157-58). There is a clear sense here in which Arthur echoes Hay’s Alexander whose good rule means that his subjects “lufit him better, and was mare obeysand till him” (58/81-82).
Arthur’s restored favour is made possible only by subjecting himself to Amytans’ advice, a paradox which Ferster also identifies in the Secreta, where “Alexander conquered the world because he was conquered by Aristotle” (45). Yet the pivotal intention of counsel was to make a king active and assertive, particularly in enforcing justice, which the Secreta itself reflects when describing the king as he “whom the nedes and gouernance vpon subgits fallys to” (92/27), and his foremost duty as “amendyng of wronge” (93/35-36).
Malory presents Arthur’s conformity to this ideal as transient. On acquiring kingship, Arthur swears to “stand with true justice fro thensforth the dayes of this lyf” (I.7.21-22, 11). Yet during his early kingship Arthur attempts to dispose of all babies of Mordred’s age, after Merlin alerts him to the threat Mordred poses. Malevolence towards defenceless children contravenes the Secreta’s instruction that a king should attend to “the pouere and feble, and helpe hem . . . of thy pitee” (60/32-33). This discrepancy accentuates Malory’s paradigm of equivocal kingship, as Arthur’s conduct in the utopian Lucius book inverts this earlier tyrannous gesture. Here, Arthur overcomes the giant of Mont St Michel, who has claimed several innocent victims. Arthur’s modesty makes him an admirable victor, since he ascribes his triumph to divine intervention: “All thanke ye God,” seyde Arthur, “and no man ellys” (V.5.19, 125). The Alliterative Morte Arthure’s narrator—and not Arthur—apportions the victory to God’s intervention, telling us “through the craft of Crist yet the carl failed” (148/1107). Malory’s departure from his source highlights Arthur’s moral and martial prowess in executing justice.
As the narrative progresses, however, Arthur becomes increasingly passive. The Tristram book, at the Morte’s structural centre, opens by reiterating Arthur’s authority as “hole Kynge of Ingelonde, Walys, Scotlande” (VIII.1.10, 228). However, Malory begins exposing Arthur’s unsuccessful administration of the realm. His conduct opposes the Secreta’s recommendation that kings must “ponysse mysdoers and trespasours, that the way of wrong be put away from rightwyse lyuyeres, and brekers of the lawes be chastysed” (57/8-10). He addresses King Mark’s malevolence towards Tristram by asking, instead of telling him, to behave differently: “Sir, I pray you, gyff me a gyffte that I shall aske you” (X.22.19, 366).
Arthur’s submissive language denotes powerlessness, leading us to question who the real king is here. Malory reiterates Arthur’s inability to enforce justice since “for all this, Kynge Marke thought falsely” (X.22.35, 366), intensifying the “thematically disturbing” quality observed by Batt (104). The decline of Arthur’s kingship is compounded by his failure to prevent Lamerok’s murder at the hands of the Orkney knights, despite his heartfelt promise: “Be my crowne, I shall never fayle the” (X.46.35-36, 395). Arthur’s failures give rise to precisely the disloyalty and factionalism that later dissolve the Round Table, and historically, the English realm, as Cooper implies in her assessment of this book as “one of the closest analogies to the fifteenth century” (183). Indeed, the emphasis on factionalism’s contribution to the fragmentation of Arthur’s kingship and realm may have been informed by Malory’s own experiences of fierce partisanship, having supported—and been imprisoned by—both Lancastrian and Yorkist causes himself (Field 105-32).
Arthur responds inertly to Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery, denying his instincts in the Tristram book (X.27.11, 372), and the book of Lancelot and Guinevere, where he suppresses his “demyng of hit” (XX.2.43, 647). Once Aggravayne offers irrefutable evidence, Arthur’s passivity is untenable: he is bound by duty to arbitrate justice. The consequences are disastrous. Invoking treason laws and sentencing Guinevere to death leads to open defiance from Gawain, his own nephew and most loyal advisor (XX.8.11, 656). And Arthur’s casting aside of passivity in an attempt to rid the realm, once and for all, of the threat posed by Mordred results in both their deaths. It is, as Mapstone states, “a moment of intense irony that a reassertion of his old aggressive forcefulness . . . leads to his death” (Arthurian Episode 133). And that death can be partly attributed to rejected advice, as already remarked upon; but it is indubitably linked to Arthur’s defective arbitration of justice. For had he taken the initiative and dealt appropriately with wrongdoings when they occurred, his kingship and fellowship would have been preserved. Arthur’s paradox as “both great king and at times pathetically helpless figure” is inherent in the French Arthurian tradition, which influenced Malory (Elspeth Kennedy, Prose Lancelot 186-95) Yet he inflects for tragic ends the inextricable link between counsel and the administration of justice that is so recurrent in advisory literature, and which is peculiarly pertinent to political events when he wrote. He makes inappropriate responses to both these tenets of kingship the root causes of Arthur’s downfall.
Lyall identifies the same preoccupations in Scottish advisory material of this period: “Good counsel and justice: these are the ideas which recur, and which derive, in part at least, from the Secreta” (18). Hay’s Aristotle certainly advocates the universal importance of justice: “For all the gouernaunce and ordinaunce of the warld—is gouernyt manetenyt & uphaldin be justice jn perfyt ordre of equitee, lufe and charitee” (111/16-19).
Amytans considers just and active administration of the realm the linchpin of good kingship, and accordingly attributes the source of Arthur’s diminished kingly identity to the “defalt of law and justice” (II.1351).9 Lancelot’s first book, like Malory’s later ones, expresses anxiety about Arthur’s active fulfilment of his duties. Before Amytans’ advisory speech, Arthur oscillates between neglect of his responsibilities and patent over-exuberance. When threatened with Galiot’s invasion, he distracts himself by hunting, and such otiose conduct suggests that Arthur trivialises or denies the threat posed by Galiot. As in Malory’s narrative, when Arthur does later take the initiative, his knights disagree with him. For when he impulsively decides to engage in battle, they unanimously tell him his troops are inadequate, and their advice subtly implies a collective doubt about Arthur’s kingly identity:
Tharfor abid and for your folk ye send,
That lyk a king and lyk a weriour
Ye may susten in armys you honoure
(I.664; my emphasis).
Amytans makes clear that justice is the principle on which rests Arthur’s restoration of kingly identity and amelioration of the realm’s decay (II.1603-04). The poet expands considerably upon his source here, since Amytans provides additional details about just administration of the realm, for example, in telling Arthur that he must select his judges wisely (II.1611-12). The intersection of justice and active engagement with subjects can be clearly viewed in Amytans’ exhortations that Arthur travel the land, engage with all subjects, and ensure fair hearings so that ‘justice be elyk / Without divisione baith to pure and ryk’ (II.1647-48). The tour of justice here derives ultimately from the French, where Arthur is told: “Tu t’an ira an ton païs” (“You must go into your own country”; 286/32)
Yet it applies to fifteenth-century Scotland, since James III was advised by parliament in 1473 to ‘travel throw his Realme’ attending justice ayres (Macdougall 95). James II and James IV were advised to do the same (Mapstone, Advice to Princes 180-81). Hay’s Buke echoes the sentiment, recommending that the king’s ‘court of justice be ay opyn till all men’ (125/221). Through applying justice to the realm in exactly the manner which Amytans prescribes, Arthur subsequently regains the faith and loyalty of his people. He ‘kepit the lore of Maister Amytans’ (II.2446), and in contrast to his former neglect of the realm is ‘bissy and deligent’ (II.2449).
Arthur has clearly begun to improve, but he by no means completes the transition from flawed to perfect monarch. Even after the Amytans episode, he can respond inappropriately. In striking opposition to his vengeance-driven Malorian counterpart, Gawain remains a chivalric epitome in this work, and prudently wants to find the Red Knight to fight for Arthur again, out of loyalty to the king. Yet Arthur openly undermines him in front of the fellowship:
“Nece, yow haith al foly uroght
And wilfulness that haith nocht in thi thought
The day of batell of Galiot and me.”
Quod Gawan, “Now non other ways ma be.”
Arthur becomes increasingly peripheral after the poem’s advisory section, although this does not spark tragic events as in Malory’s narrative. The actions of Lancelot’s eponymous hero become a key focus, although the centrality of Arthur’s kingship, which to a great extent occupies the conceptual heart of the romance, is undeniable.
Kingship constitutes the prime concern in Malory’s Morte as much as in Lancelot, and both works seem to posit a broader critique of governance and rule by presenting numerous monarchs other than Arthur. The speculum or mirror analogy in advisory literature invited readers to emulate what they read, to mirror the text’s exempla in their own conduct. Indeed, Hay’s Aristotle epitomises the sentiment, telling Alexander the best way to use his advice is to ‘make the a myrour of it’ (60/155). However, Malory and the Lancelot poet subvert the convention of the specular ideal and refract the single mirror into multiple mirroring figures.
Malory views all kingship, not just Arthur’s, in melancholy terms. Malory’s exempla often prove what a king should not be, rather than what he should. The Morte opens with the notoriously corrupt Uther, and the structurally central Tristram book foreshadows Arthur’s tragedy through the choric Hermaunce, whose haunting letter laments his betrayal by those closest to him, and implicitly warns Arthur against failing to assert himself (X.61.41-3, 421). The three-way relationship between Mark, Isolde and Tristram in this book invites comparison with Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Mark and Arthur’s responses as cuckolded husbands highlight their dichotomous execution of kingship. Arthur’s passivity foils Mark’s all-consuming aggression and ‘entente to sle Sir Tristramys’ (VIII.19.34, 250). Malory vilifies Mark by reworking the French prose Tristan, in which Mark only wants Tristram exiled, not murdered (Edward Kennedy, King Arthur and King Mark 142). Mark’s one seemingly redemptive quality is his respect for advice from his counsellors, which opposes Arthur’s increasing disregard for instruction. His counsellors initially prevent Mark from harming Tristram by suggesting Mark exile him instead (IX.22.41, 305). Effectively, Mark does the right thing, but for the wrong reason. His excessive recourse to taking counsel throughout the Tristram book subtly suggests a lack of judgement and independent thought, which the Secreta warns against: “Bowe fro thaire conseill in that, that they be contrarye to thy wyl” (99/3-4).
Antithetically, Arthur responds to his cuckolding by doing the wrong thing for more admirable reasons. Although he resembles Hermaunce in failing to address wrongs committed by a close ally, it is due to loyalty, “for Sir Launcelot had done so much for hym . . . that . . . the Kynge loved hym passyngly well” (XX.2.43-5, 647). Both Mark and Arthur seem then to represent polarities of destructive kingship, and lack the moderation and balance essential for good rule.
Galahad’s kingship is poised midway between such extremes, embodying the rational conduct wanting in the rulers Malory has presented thus far. Crowned upon his completion of the Grail Quest, he is the closest Malory comes to depicting an ideal and morally perfect king. Yet, significantly, he is crowned away from Arthur and Camelot, implying that he transcends their defects. His death just one year later denotes spiritual fulfilment and completion (XVII.22.19-21, 586), but simultaneously the unsustainability of ideal kingship in the mortal world. Though conceived through deception, Galahad remains morally unblemished and “much bettir than ever was Sir Launcelot, that ys hys owne fadir” (XI.4.30-1, 467). Mordred, also conceived through deception, represents the binary opposite of Galahad, epitomising malevolence and tyranny. The implication is that Galahad and Mordred must reflect their paternity rather than their troubled conceptions, and that Lancelot’s worth matches or potentially overshadows Arthur’s, for in a Lacanian sense, when a child looks into a mirror, what it sees is not its own reflection, but the authority of the father (Barr 30).
Lancelot is Arthur’s most credible rival, and Malory invites us to compare their kingly conduct as the narrative progresses. Lancelot, as Ban’s son, is a French king in his own right. While Lancelot’s status as protagonist is somewhat compromised by Arthur in the Scottish poem, Malory’s Morte marginalises Arthur’s role by concentrating increasingly on Lancelot. Lancelot’s performance in the Lucius book distinguishes him as a resourceful leader of men, and his martial prowess and charisma are apparent especially in his eponymous book, where he had the "grettyste name of ony knight of the worlde" (VI.18.46, 177). Yet success of this sort does not guarantee moral perfection, as signified by his limitation in the Grail Quest, where Lancelot recognises his flawed state: “For never or now was I never at turnemente nor at justes but I had the beste; and now I am shamed, and am sure that I am more synfuller than I was” (XV.5.29-30, 536).
It is after the Grail Quest, however, that Lancelot’s kingly potential is again cast forth. As Brewer observes, “Lancelot’s supremacy among earthly sinful men is insisted upon as much as his sinfulness” (48). Original to Malory, the incident involving Sir Urry’s wounds allows Lancelot to eclipse Arthur. Lancelot alone heals the knight, affirming his worth as a king, for he possesses the miraculous healing touch associated with monarchs throughout the Middle Ages. Although there was “no real expectation that the sores would suddenly dry up” (Bloch 240), this is precisely what Lancelot’s touch effects. The wounds seem “as they had bene hole a seven yere” (XIX.12.4, 644), whereas Arthur only made them bleed more.
Lancelot seems increasingly to possess what Arthur lacks elsewhere. As early as the Lancelot book, Malory emphasises Lancelot’s unified support: “they all honoured Sir Launcelot” (VI.18.17, 176; my emphasis). By the final book, accord remains firm, as Bors tells Lancelot: “We woll do as ye woll do” (XX.6.25, 653). Such unity clearly evokes the younger, successful Arthur of the Lucius book. Malory promotes Lancelot’s kingship most when Arthur’s is in sharpest decline. On returning to his native France after the fragmentation of the Round Table, Lancelot convenes counsel and crowns other kings in the way that Arthur did at his reign’s peak. Malory appears to present his readers with what the political events of late fifteenth-century England also offered them: a double act in the form of two potential kings. In the Morte, as in England, “at the highest level, unity was replaced by diversity” (Watts 50). Malory does not posit correspondences between individual characters and contemporary political figures, but suggests something of the predicament which caused such strife and bloodshed in his lifetime. Withdrawal of the king’s uniqueness was, as Watts notes, “bound to produce strange developments in political practice” (50). Indeed, Malory renders it catastrophic, because in the Morte, as in England, neither monarch embodies perfect kingship. Arthur’s weakness and detachment may contribute to his and the realm’s destruction, but Lancelot’s amorous conduct is arguably the root of the discord which negates Arthur’s kingship. The amatory sphere also has an adverse effect on Lancelot’s own kingly qualities: dismissing Bors’ valid warning against going to see Guinevere, Lancelot hubristically replies, “Have ye no drede” (XX.2.34, 648). Had he accepted Bors’ advice, Aggravayne could not have lighted the spark to the fuse that resulted in such tragic events.
The Lancelot poet similarly invites us to compare Arthur with other monarchs, but on a vastly reduced scale. Lancelot rivals Arthur in this text too: he is indispensable, constituting the king’s “hol defens” (I.304) and leads the battles that Arthur absents himself from. He also inspires absolute agreement in the troops in a way that Arthur never does (III.3471). But Lancelot in this text is equally flawed by distraction of a romantic nature: his recurrent love-sick trances render him oblivious to his surroundings, and although more temporal than his two-year madness and absence in the Morte, they still make him a potential victim of opponent forces, rather than a threat to them. This text, like the Morte, illustrates Lancelot’s moral imperfections. He is detained by Lady Melyhaut for the murder of her husband:
It is no ransone wich that causith me
To holden yow or don yow sich offens.
It is your gilt, it is your violens.
Lancelot’s loyalty to the Lady in promising “to be hir awn trew and stedfast knycht” (III.2792) initiates his atonement, as does his prowess in defending both her interests and Arthur’s in tandem. The poem concentrates on Lancelot’s amelioration of prior wrongs, as well as Arthur’s. Yet impressive as Lancelot may seem, his inherent flaw is his allegiance to Guinevere, not Arthur (Mapstone, Arthurian Episode 143).
Lancelot offers a glimpse of kingly ideals in Galiot, Arthur’s opponent. He has larger troops, which, as Amytans explains, reflects his subjects’ devotion to him and his greater kingship. His active participation in battle identifies him as an example of what Arthur ought to be: “til manhede able” (II.1710). Offering a truce marks his rationalism and adherence to the Buke’s suggestion that “grete princes and kingis . . . suld be of grete drede to scayle and sched mannis blude / our reklesly” (77/4-5). This is especially pertinent, given Galiot’s superior troops: he could easily conquer Arthur. Thus, the issue surrounding Galiot’s ‘defeat’ is a complex one, not least because the romance survives incomplete and we can only speculate on the nature of the plot by examining the French source. It would appear that Galiot and Arthur may later engage in battle, beyond the end of the surviving fragment, with Lancelot facilitating reconciliation between them (Mapstone, Advice to Princes 165). Galiot withdraws from battle towards the end of Lancelot not through defeat by Arthur but awe of Lancelot’s prowess, and expresses allegiance to him: “I sal myself with al with al my holl mycht / Be yhour defens and uarand fra al harmys” (III.3410-11).
Galiot has not technically been defeated, but nor is Arthur a conqueror. Galiot is not the ultimate victor, even if he is the ultimate king. Instead he submits to a knight and king associated with Arthur, although, significantly not to Arthur himself. The boundaries between victorious and vanquished kings are blurred in Lancelot; this text, like Malory’s Morte does not present a perfect king whose rule can last. However, we see yet again that Lancelot inflects this towards positive ends. By denying Galiot absolute success, Arthur’s kingship is further validated as abiding, despite its flaws.
In conclusion therefore, we can see that what frequently constitutes tragedy in Malory’s Morte is rendered optimistic in Lancelot. Malory’s broader focus on Arthur’s whole life contrasts with Lancelot’s specific focus on Arthur’s mature rule, but the older Arthur is precisely what Malory is most pessimistic about. Malory and the Lancelot poet’s portrayals of kingship do not illuminate systematic correspondences with specific events to the extent, for example, that Ashby’s contemporaneous “Active Policy of a Prince” does. But they do facilitate a broad and general reflection of contemporary political concerns. Lancelot’s original reference to “kingis when thei ben of tender ag” (II.1658) being reprehensible as adults distinctly Scotticises the poem since late medieval Scotland saw repeated minority Stewart kingships. Moreover, the comment epitomises the Scottish perception that kings were not perfect, but feasible. Malory must have felt there was no suitable claimant in England and that positive kingship was now lost, as his interjection on political “myschyff” demonstrates, “for there may no thynge us please no term” (XXI.1.32, 680). Kings in both texts shatter the ideal of the speculum principis. In the Morte, this constitutes part of the broad canvas on which Malory can vividly illustrate the decline of Arthur and his Round Table, whereas in Lancelot it aligns with the fundamental optimism of Scottish kingship literature, validating Arthur’s status as an apt and redeemable ruler.
1Quotation from Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2004). References cite book, chapter, line and page number according to this edition. Return
2Alliterative Morte Arthur quotation cites line and page number from King Arthur’s Death, ed. Larry Benson (Exeter: Exeter UP, 1986). Return
3Quotation from Lancelot of the Laik and Sir Tristram, ed. S. Lupack (Kalamazoo: TEAMS, 1994). References cite book and line number. Return
4Quotation from Lancelot do Lac, The Non-Cyclic Old French Prose Romance, ed. Elspeth Kennedy. 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980). Page and line number provided. Return
5Johannis de Fordun Chronica Gentis Scotorum, ed. W. Skene, Historians of Scotland Series, Vol. I. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1871) p. 109; Scotichronicon, ed. J. MacQueen, and W. MacQueen. Vol. II. (Edinburgh and Aberdeen: Mercat and Aberdeen UP, 1987-98) p. 64, ll.13-14. Return
6Quotation is from the fifteenth-century “Governance of Lordschipes” (MS Lambeth 501), Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum, ed. R. Steele (London: EETS ES 74, 1898). Page and line number cited. Return
7Stanzaic Morte Arthur quotation is from Benson’s edition in King Arthur’s Death and cites page and line number (Exeter: Exeter UP, 1986) Return
8Quotation from “Buke of the Governaunce of Princis,” The Prose Works of Sir Gilbert Hay, ed. J. Glenn. Vol III. STS, 4th ser. 21 (Aberdeen, 1993). I have not reproduced all punctuation or abbreviation marks of this diplomatic edition, but have inserted modern punctuation to add clarity. Quotations cite page and line number. Return
9 “Defalt” defined as “lack of” by Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue Return.
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