Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Unity, Genre, and Subverting the Absolute Past:

The Case of Malory's "Tournament at Surluse"

Sandra M. Hordis

Since W. F. Oakeshott's discovery of the Winchester Manuscript in the Fellows' Library of Winchester College in 1934 and Eugene Vinaver's subsequent three-volume edition published in 1947, the disparate tones and modes contained in Malory's Morte Darthur have troubled scholars, leading them into great debates about the unity of the work. Over the past fifty years, critics have classified the Morte Darthur as a unified tragedy, a series of single romances, and even as a prose romance cycle; however, with each argument in defense of one category, arguments in favor of the others convincingly refute the first. But what has arisen from the years of scholarly debate reaches far beyond the narratological relationship of section to section. Arguments of unity reveal the connection of questions of form and genre to questions of the site of meaning in the Morte, and therefore reveal our own relationshp to both the text and the scholarly questions themselves.

The critical awareness of the interdependence of tragedy and unity in the Morte came to fruition in the decades following Vinaver's work. Critics supporting a tragic reading of Malory's work have perceived the meaning of the text in the development and culminating catastrophe. As Aristotle argues in The Poetics, tragedy is a story (prose, poetic, or dramatic) in which the main characters move "from good fortune to bad, in a sequence of events which follow one another inevitably and according to probability" (33). James D. Pickering reflects the character of this development through his synopsis of the Morte:

Beginning with the birth of Arthur, moving through the establishment of the realm of England both at home and among neighboring realms, the action of Le Morte Darthur rises through the formation and flourishing of the Fellowship of the Round Table to turn upon the coming of the Grail and the disintegrating emphasis on individual achievement which the quest demands. From this crux, the action falls with increasing rapidity through the dissolution of the Fellowship to the grim climax at Barham Down. (309)

Despite Pickering's apprehensions about involving himself in the debate over unity, his brief summary displays the relationship of unity to tragedy. For Pickering and others, the tragic fall from prosperity in the Morte is prepared for throughout the text so that the juxtaposition of the early glory of Camelot and the final bitter fragmentation of the Fellowship is dramatically and poignantly portrayed.

Such a tragic fall from prosperity requires, as Aristotle suggests, a display of prosperity, a troubling action, and a display of despair. None of Malory's eight "books," however, presents a distinctive fall from prosperity in itself; indeed, the closest Malory comes to such a movement is in the "Tale of the Sankgreal," but even the joy at the beginning of the book is tainted with Guinevere's despair over Lancelot's neglect and Arthur's premonitions of the dissolution of the Fellowship. In the same way, "The Death of King Arthur," Vinaver's Book 8, is not a tragedy because it opens with the treachery of Aggravain and Mordred. Only when Malory's text is regarded as a seamless whole might the term "tragedy" be more accurately applied. As Pickering notes, the action of the Morte displays the workings of comradery and good fortune in tales such as "The Book of Lancelot" and "The Book of Gareth," then moves to develop troubling action in "The Quest for the Sankgreal" and "The Book of Lancelot and Guinevere," and ends with "The Death of King Arthur" and the loss of what is primary to the prosperity of Camelot–the Fellowship of the knights and the loyalty of the brotherhood. None of the books contains the prosperous beginning, troubled middle, and catastrophic end which Aristotle requires.

But this flourishing and death of the ideals of prosperity speaks to our own desire to see the Morte as a tragedy unified by the rise and fall of fortune. As Malory's readers, we are witness to the catastrophes and sorrow which follow upon the heels of prosperity. As Aristotle suggests of the genre, Camelot and its inhabitants receive our pity for the loss of their idealistic goals, and the fear which we experience is not only for the knights of the Round Table. It is also for ourselves and our own sense of the chivalric brotherhood. Charles Moorman gives voice to the readerly anxieties created by Malory's work in the conclusion of The Unity of Malory's Morte Darthur:

For all through the great triumphs that follow, the three dark lines run unalterably toward their end, an end that we, unlike the merry knights and ladies, already perceive. The dramatic irony works here . . . to sharpen our awareness of our human plight, to arouse in us, as Aristotle said, pity and fear–pity that such splendid creatures as these should weave their shrouds and fear lest we share their blindness. (67)

Moorman argues that we are affected by the unified tale because otherwise, as readers, we are unable to perceive the splendor and wasted potential of the chivalric order. Such an utter collapse of this ideal throws into relief our desire to seek it out, our dreams of its possibilities, and our projections of its benefits. A tale of tragedy, like the unified Morte, illustrates to its readers that despite being motivated by good intentions, even Camelot is at the mercy of universal truths which signal the fall from fortune: sin ruins lives, fighting between brothers causes destruction, and striving for an ideal risks failure.

Standing in the way of such tragic unity, however, are the discrepancies in the text itself: characters reappear after having been killed, chronologies become muddled, and knights seem to live well beyond a normal life span. Critics such as R. M. Lumiansky defend Malory's integrity cavalierly, arguing that these discrepancies "show a need for minor revision, a benefit which was not accorded the book" (7). But these critics fail to acknowledge that because the Morte contains such a mix of contradiction and cohesion, it would be just as logical to say that Malory was intending to revise the text into eight romances. The vehemence of these critics demonstrates their dedication to their argument; they are willing to relegate Malory's work to the status of a rough draft for the sake of proving the intended unity of the Morte, thereby rescuing Malory's fragmented text from critical denigration and securing Malory's place in the canon of British literature.

In light of the enthusiasm of the unity critics, it is not surprising that Vinaver's disagreement with the traditional perceptions of the unity of the Morte met with such resistance. Vinaver claimed, and did so in varying degrees throughout his career, that Malory's work is a collection of eight single romances separated by explicits, a view that discards the unity which had been applied to the Morte for so long. This unity was fragmented into "books" which display, as Vinaver claimed, a type of singleness, or structural disunity from each other (I:xliii). Vinaver’s proposition loosened the connections of the text, thus effacing the developmental process of a unified tragedy and focusing on the single action of each section within its own context.

With no "birth-life-death" of Camelot serving as the central unifying focus of the tales, meaning is taken out of its universally comprehensible tragic context and given a smaller and more character-driven focus. Where once the development of tales pointed to tragic failures and excesses of a society based on unreachable ideals, the eight books show how the individual knights handle traitors, quests, and unruly damsels not for the sake of Camelot's development as an institution, but for their own individual roles as exemplars of chivalric virtue and vice. Discovering meaning becomes more individual, as when Gareth quests for and marries Lyoness in Book 4. In viewing the text as a unified tragedy, "The Book of Gareth" has been called Camelot at its peak, the purpose of which is to define virtuous love to stand in opposition to the destructive adultery developing between Lancelot and Guinevere (Guerin 99); however, if taken as an individual romance, Gareth's origins and prowess become as important to critics as his love for Lyoness. Such individual focus coincides with the critical, albeit tentative, conception of romance, where the individual knight is central and where we may clearly perceive the distinctiveness of the hero against a backdrop of chivalric characters and settings. Thus, when Vinaver proposed the separation of Malory's text into eight books, something was being denied to the unified tragedy critics. Not only was the Morte being classified as a genre that for years had attracted condescending criticism from scholars of English literature, but meaning in the text was being denied its universal truth by investing it in the individual achievements of several heroes.

The aims of such critical vehemence on both sides of the debate, however, become clearer as we consider the critical state of the Morte after Vinaver made his arguments. To the unified-tragedy critics, Vinaver not only destroyed the Morte 's universal meaning by segmenting the text, he also effaced the literariness of Malory's work. Vinaver writes of the new critical stance of the time:

When modern literary scholarship seeks to rehabilitate a literary masterpiece it invariably resorts to its favourite classical criterion of perfection which is, of course, "unity." . . . To show that Le Morte Darthur was "one book" and not several was therefore not simply to add to its value; it was to establish its existence as a work of art. (I:xliv)

Proving the text's unity despite Vinaver's paleographic attempts to fragment it would prove Malory's intentions to create an artistic masterpiece with all its resulting appeal and message, thus justifying not only the Morte 's status as critically worthy literature, but also vindicating twenty generations of critical interest.

Likewise, Vinaver's intentions become quite clear when we consider his classification of Malory's work as a collection of romances along with ideas of literary-historical continuity expressed in his address to the Modern Humanities Research Association:

The remedy [to the debate over the definition of literary artistry] as I see it lies not in the search for other, more valid, general principles, but in the realization that all such principles . . . have a history–a long, varied, and eventful history. (5)

Medieval romance, Vinaver claims, is critically impossible to define because modern scholars cannot perceive the organic nature of the genre. By claiming that Malory's works are individual romances, Vinaver highlights their participation in the history of their Arthurian literary sources, and with such a classification, they become more thoroughly genealogically connected to their French romance sources, and as a result, stand as both a complement to and development from them. In the view of Malory's text as a unified tale, the Morte is alienated from its sources not only by language, but also by the reduction of its varied French sources into one book, a process which frames the story of Camelot as an entirely different genre. Thus, in Vinaver's argument in favor of the separate romance, and the continuing development of generic history, we discover a key motivation in the critics' intent: to call Malory's work separate romances is to justify not only its literary value as a finished work, but also to place that value in relief against the value of Malory's french romance sources.

The Arthurian Absolute Past

The motivations for the critical positions in the unity debate disclose our own limitations as scholars. In the case of Malory, our need to categorize the text into archaic and prefabricated conceptions of genre and unity curtails our serious consideration of those elements that defy generic classifications. As a result, the desire for a singular classification of Malory's work has denied the Morte its varied and kaleidoscopic character, compelling critics to praise or condemn it on the basis of plot and thematic consistency instead of accounting for those disparate elements which seem to confound critical categories.

Comedy in the Morte is one element that has remained conspicuously absent from the debates over genre and unity. The comic moments of Malory's Morte Darthur trouble traditional classifications of the work by defying categorization in fixed and streamlined genres, offering moments of laughter within the apparently staid and serious context of Camelot, fragmenting cohesive plots. Despite critical attempts to indicate completeness of plot and theme, whether of one work or of eight separate romances, comedy continually acts as a disruptive centrifugal force, calling attention to moments, characters, and dilemmas which pull the idyllic past of "Arthurian literature" into the comic present in defiance of the critical desire for generic stability.

Malory's striking moments of comedy have not been addressed in these debates because Arthurian tragedy and romance share reliance on what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as an "absolute past" for their literary foundations. Developing ideas presented by Goethe and Schiller (149), Bakhtin characterizes the absolute past as a purely literary perspective, one which is essentially epic in nature, which contains and valorizes "the ground or field through which it represents the world" (Morson and Emerson 420). Arthurian literatures, from Chrétien de Troyes to Boorman's Excalibur, have participated in the perception of the exemplary community of Camelot by relying on the idealized temporal category of "King Arthur's Day" for their foundations.

In writing of the Arthurian matter, authors thoroughly invested their texts with the myth of the epic tale in order to accord with both the Arthurian tradition of writing and the historical and literary expectations of the audiences of the texts. Such a literary foundation serves, to different extents in each text, as a stable and unchanging backdrop on which authors may either reinforce the idealism and perfection of Camelot or offer a contemporary critique of the morality and practices of the Round Table. In this sense, Malory aligns his text with his sources by using the absolute past as a literary base. Whereas other Arthurian authors question the tenets of the tales through contradiction or narratorial manipulation, Malory attempts to use disjunctive comedy to critically reexamine and reevaluate Camelot.

Primary to a consideration of Bakhtin's definition of the absolute past is the emphasis on the temporal distance created by the authorial position in the text; the author sits in a contemporary evaluative plane, articulating the tale from the "reverent point of view of a descendant" and creating an idealistic past according to nationalistic beginnings and peak times (13-15). The characters are contemporaries of neither the author nor the audience, and the events take place far beyond the reaches of living memory. It is a time in which the author removes the audience from the familiar zone of the present, which is local, immediate, and personal.

Much of this deliberate removal of contemporary time in Arthurian texts is created through formulaic structures, most of which serve as openings and endings of the works. Authors initially orient the audience at a temporal distance in texts such as the stanzaic Le Morte Darthur:

Lordingis that ar leff and dere,
Lystenyth, and I shall you tell
By olde dayes what aunturis were
Amonge oure eldris that byfelle. (ll.1-4)

Lords that are loved and dear, listen, and I shall tell you of the old days and what adventures happened among our elders.

The narrator here not only constructs the time frame as the "olde dayes," but also joins himself to the present temporal category of his audience by identifying the characters of the tale as "oure eldris." By crafting the opening of the text in this way, the first and most influential authorially constructed perspective displays the distance between the temporal plane of the tale, and the contemporary plane which the audience occupies.

The final paragraphs of "The Book of Lancelot and Guinevere" in Malory's Morte contain one of the clearest and most complex distancings of events. At the end of "The Healing of Sir Urry," Malory shifts from first person to third:

And so I leve here of this tale, and overlepe grete bookis of sir Launcelot, and grete adventures he ded whan he was called "le Shyvalere de Charyot." For as the Freynshe booke sayth, because of dispyte that knyghtes and ladyes called hym "the Knyght that rode in the Charyot," lyke as he were juged to the jybett, therefore, in the despite of all them that named hym so, he was caryed in a charyotte a twelvemonethe; for but lytill aftir that he had slayne sir Mellyagaunte in the quenys quarell, he never of a twelve-moneth com on horsebak. And, as the Freynshe booke sayth, he ded that twelve-moneth more than forty batayles.

And bycause I have loste the very mater of Shevalere de Charyot I departe from the tale of sir Launcelot. (669)

Malory infers a number of distances in this passage which create the temporal span of the absolute past. In his shift from third to first person, Malory acknowledges his role as the contemporary creative force of the tale, displaying his control over which events appear in the text, which are summarized, and which are discarded. In this sense, Malory removes the text further from the event by situating himself not only as a recorder of the events of "King Arthur's Day," but also by voicing his own perspective as the observer of both his literary sources and his own text. The Morte, in the end, is temporally and spatially removed from its action by the previous generations of French tales, and this distance is made more distinct by Malory‘s awareness that he is departing from the authority of his sources.

Such authorially crafted dislocations between the literary event and the author's textual experience also point to the consequence of such a dislocation; the tale essentially becomes complete within itself:

[The absolute past] is as closed as a circle; inside it everything is finished, already over. . . . There are no loopholes in it through which we glimpse the future; it suffices unto itself, neither supposing any continuation nor requiring it. (Bakhtin 16)

The text does not need to connect to any type of process of history because the reverence of the author's perspective and the pastness of the events fuse into a condition of authenticity, sacrificing the "rights and potential of real continuation" (Bakhtin 16). Ultimately, the absolute past produces a type of history, but not one which seamlessly develops into a present. Predictions and prophecies are made concerning the future, such as Merlin's prophecies, but they mostly resolve in a number of pages. There are, however, prophecies which project a greater distance–for example, the Rex quoniam Rexque futurus of the Morte points to Arthur's return–but the text is not concerned with the resolutions of those prophecies. In such an example as the inscription on Arthur's tomb, the focus is not on the future as such, but on the potential of the future. We do not glimpse how Arthur's reign will effect the world in future generations, despite the many attempts to use the inscription as a tool of English sovereign legitimacy throughout the Middle Ages. Instead, Malory's now famous inscription provides a potential for the hope of Camelot's return but shows no fulfillment, casting a prophetic illusion of future events but requiring none to complete the tale.

In the absolute past of Arthurian tragedy and romance, there is no stable historical connection to the process of time, such as the events leading to Uther Pendragon’s rise to power and the tales about how the few surviving knights lived out the rest of their days after the fall of Camelot. Indeed, a number of Arthurian texts end with surprisingly strong language for their conclusions. As an example, we may turn to Marie de France’s Lanval: "Personne n’en a plus entendu parler et moi je ne puis rien dire de plus à son sujet" ("No one has spoken more about him and I can say no more about the subject"; 77). Another example are the final words of La Mort du Roi Artu, in which Walter Map claims that his work encompasses the definitive beginning and ending of "King Arthur’s day":

Maître Gautier Map ne dit désormais plus rien de l’Histoire de Lancelot, l’ayant menée à bonne fin selon la vérité des événements. Il achève son livre si définitivement qu’après cela personne n’y pourrait ajouter autre chose qui ne fût pur mensonge. (309)

Master Walter Map will henceforth say no more of the "Tale of Lancelot"; he brought everything to a good conclusion according to the truth of the events. He finishes his book so completely that afterwards no one may add another that is not untruth.

Both of these examples close the doors on the tale with resounding emphasis. In the example from Lanval, the narrator cannot continue the tale because the authorial sensibility of the temporal category blocks her from doing so. Map’s comments, however, approach the conclusion of Arthurian absolute past differently; despite the medieval belief in the historicity of the events, Map declares the literary boundaries of "King Arthur’s day," thus establishing the truth of the limits of the absolute past in tandem with the truth of his telling of the events. To continue these tales would be to extend the absolute past beyond its conceptual limits; indeed, tragedies and romances belonging to "Arthurian literature" are called so primarily because they take place within the literarily specified temporal category of King Arthur’s life and rule.

Examples such as the closing lines of Lanval and La Mort du Roi Artu underscore a number of the narratological limitations of the absolute past. Bakhtin argues that a primary result of the closedness and distance of the absolute past is stasis:

[The absolute past] is impossible to change, to re-think, to re-evaluate anything in it. It is completed, conclusive and immutable, as a fact, an idea and a value. (17)

Bakhtin’s strong supposition is echoed in the examples above in their negation of additions to the tales. While Marie de France claims that she is following the limitations set by previous writers, Map dismisses any change or continuation to his tale by calling the truth of the changes into question, thereby relegating any new tales to the realm of fiction. Both authors, in their negations, deny the possibility of change in the structure of the absolute past by closing their tales with a resonance that denies the potential of further inquiry and exploration of "King Arthur’s day."

Parallel to the stasis and completion of the tale itself, Bakhtin also sees these qualities occurring in the characters who populate the tales of the absolute past, such as Odysseus, Achilles, Charlemagne, and Roland. The heroes of their respective absolute pasts, he claims, are utterly straightforward, directly coinciding with what others say about them and, like the absolute pasts which they populate, and are fully realized and static within the confines of their temporal category. Bakhtin explains:

He is all there, from beginning to end he coincides with himself . . . all his potential, all his possibilities are utterly realized in his external social position, in the whole of his fate and even in his external appearance; outside of his predetermined fate and predetermined position there is nothing. (34)

The heroes of the absolute pasts of literature are, in effect, constructed as ideals of the world view created by their authors; the hero fully participates in and upholds the valorized past put forth in the text, existing as not only a part of it, but also becoming the ideological representative of the absolute past in which they exist.

Examples of the heroic constructs of the absolute past crowd the pages of Arthurian literature to a point where one might argue that nearly all of the members of the Round Table fall into Bakhtin’s concept of hero. King Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Tristram, Percival and scores of other knights represent themselves as clearly heroic, and they discover and realize their potential in tandem with the realization of the potential of Camelot. But the most contained and clear example of the realization of characterological completion is Sir Galahad. Nearly all the accounts of the quest for the Holy Grail construct Galahad as a character whose role does not extend beyond the Quest; he is born to fulfill a prophecy, sits in the Siege Perilous as proof of his identity and destiny, and dies after achieving the Grail. Indeed, in texts such as the Morte’s "The Tale of the Sankgreal," acclamations of the "best knight" construct Galahad when he first arrives: the Siege Perilous declares his place among the noble knights of Camelot, and yet another sword in the stone appears, proclaiming its rightful place at the side of the "beste knyght of the worlde" (517). When Galahad arrives to fulfill these prophecies, some of the first words spoken to him by Arthur reflect his contained existence as a knight with only one potential course:

"Sir, ye be ryght wellcom, for ye shall meve many good knyghtes to the quest of the Sankgreall, and ye shall enchyve that many other knyghtes myght never brynge to an ende." (519)

As destined, Galahad achieves the Grail and dies soon after, having completed what the absolute past constructed him to accomplish. He cannot exist outside of this destiny; he is, in effect, fully realized through his quest for the Holy Grail.

The combination of the hero’s contained and realized identity, the completeness of the segment of time, and the static pastness created in the authorial perspective combine to create what Bakhtin calls "the zone of the absolute distanced image," or the "absolute past" (17), the primary result of which is, as his words suggest, the distance between the audience’s experience and the experiences of the characters of the tales. The actions and motivations of the knights of Camelot, for example, might inspire and teach us valuable lessons concerning idealism and chivalry, tragedy and individual glory, but we may never truly recreate "Camelot" because it is a part of the valorized and static past that can never connect with the shifting and changing present. We may only imitate it, all the while knowing that we are performing a present-time version Arthurian chivalry. This division of the audience from the conceptual basis of the text, however, is not destructive of the relationship between Camelot and its readers. On the contrary, the distance of the absolute Arthurian past is necessary to maintain what some might call the idealism and others might call the magic of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.

This valorized distance created by the absolute past helps us to identify many of the more significant works of Arthurian literature as high literature. Bakhtin argues that such distance is a basic quality of high literature because if the subject matter and authorial perspective are within the reach of memory and familiar to the audience, the valorizations and the antiquity contained in high literature collapse:

All high genres of the classical era, that is, its entire high literature, are structured in the zone of the distanced image, a zone outside any possible contact with the present in all its openendedness. (19)

In sum, high literature encompasses the absolute past in its denial of the unresolved development and shifting of the present. The present, Bakhtin consequently argues, is the realm of folk literatures; in these texts, the valorized, distanced image is replaced by a common zone of familiar contact in which the audience may examine and evaluate the characters, events, and ideals of the narrative. Such assessments are impossible in the high genres because the contextual distance created by the absolute past does not allow the author or audience to come close enough to the subject matter to perceive its nuances fully.

And the tool most frequently used for examination and questioning in the folk genres is comedy, and the jokes and quips to express such pleasure. Because of its ability to demolish fear and reverence of a distanced subject, comedy is able to "[make] of it an object of familiar contact . . . thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it" (Bakhtin 23). Comedy pulls its object closer, away from distant valorizations and into a zone of maximal proximity, by allowing the author and audience to break free from the idealistic and static point of view created by the absolute past. Once released from the reverent perspective evidenced by the absolute past, author and audience are able to develop new perspectives that were unavailable before. The key in Bakhtin’s concept is that only when the author and audience abandon the absolute past, no matter how briefly or how often, whether through comedy, contemporizing, or dialogism, evaluation and judgment may take place.

Comedy at once pulls a subject close in order to examine it and evaluates it in the moment. The distanced image cannot be comical because the reverence contained in that image obscures such evaluation. Once the distance is negated and we are able to examine the subject on a common plane, however, we may discover the contradictions and inconsistencies contained within that literary subject. These discoveries, moreover, startle the audience by illustrating the imperfections that the distance of the absolute past hides, surprising us by defying our expectations. Indeed, Sigmund Freud argues in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that comedy exists in the strategies to circumvent rational consciousness, the consciousness concerned with sequence, order, and logic (155). Applying Freud’s theories to literature, critics such as Scott Cutler Shershow and R. D. V. Glasgow suggest that the humor of the comic mode rests on surprise, deviance from expectation, and the discarding of roles traditionally found in ideal categories. The moment of surprise and laughter becomes suddenly absorbing, eclipsing the stateliness of the absolute past, pulling the audience’s attention away from a distant focal point and compactly focusing it into the immediate and present comic moment.

The comic moments in Malory’s Morte Darthur serve the purpose that Bakhtin observes in comedy; however, this observation leads to difficulty with Bakhtin’s view of the absolute past, and consequently, the determination of genre for Malory's text. In "Epic and the Novel," Bakhtin posits the absolute past of the epic mode against the changing presentness of time in the novel, claiming that the novelization of a story occurs when the static absolute past is discarded in favor of proximity and openendedness. For Bakhtin, the two genres cannot exist harmoniously with each other within the same text; shifts between distant and close temporality and perspective point to the text’s changeability, and therefore to its classification outside of the absolute past and within the novelistic mode. It must be made clear that Bakhtin’s intention in his essay is to distinguish and legitimize the novel as a distinctive "genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development" (11) an intent which ultimately precludes the discovery of commonalities and convergences between the epic and novelistic modes.

The Comedy of Surluse

The Morte Darthur represents a field on which Bakhtin’s juxtapositions of epic and novel are realized and negotiated within one volume. Much of Malory’s text upholds and mirrors the absolute past contained in its sources, but Malory also highlights moments of comedy which pull the text’s perspective close to the audience, negating the reverence and distance of the tragic and romance sources. Scenes such as Alexander’s buffetting by the damsel Alys in Chapter 8 of Book 5, Lancelot and Belleus’s homoerotic kiss in Book 3, and Sir Dynadan’s continuous skepticism of knighthood subvert the tone of the absolute past, discarding the gravity and veneration which otherwise sustains the text in favor of laughter and proximity. The comic moments of the Morte, however, do not completely undercut the structures and reverence which the absolute past generates. They are virtually detached from the distance, gravity, and expectations of the tales, becoming moments of disjointure without destroying their underlying perception. In the comic moment, the distance of the absolute past is negated by comedy’s immediacy, but it is quickly reclaimed after the laughter concludes.

To observe such workings between the distance of the high "absolute" mode and the immediacy of the comic mode in the Morte, we turn to the scene of the "Tournament at Surluse" in the "Book of Tristram." By the time that the tournament at Surluse is declared by Galahalte the Haute Prynce, most of the major plot developments of the Tristram story have occurred. Tristram, the nephew of King Mark, has established himself as an excellent knight, being continually upheld as equal to none but Lancelot. Tristram and La Beale Isode have fallen in love, despite her marriage to Mark and Palomides’ admiration of her. Tristram has subsequently married Isode le Blaunche Maynes, and has experienced madness when he believes that Isode the Fair has been unfaithful to him. He has been a prisoner of Morgan le Fay, who presented him with a shield depicting Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot at the tournament at the Castle of Maidens, and has been made a knight of the Round Table. Mark, disguised as a knight errant, has tried to kill Tristram and has assigned him to a suicidal mission against the Saxons. At this point in the tale, Galahalte proclaims a tournament in his kingdom of Surluse for no other reason, it seems, than for the sake of jousting.

The absolute past prevails in the tale of the tournament. Malory refers to the "Frenssh booke" numerous times, creating both geographic and temporal distance between audience and characters, while he also interpolates chapter-long biographies of such characters as La Cote Maile Taile and Alexander the Orphan, both of whom realize their potential within the episode. One of the most distinct features of the absolute past in Malory, however, is the way he unweaves the tapestry of his French source to create a contained unit; "The Book of Tristram" begins with the meeting and marriage of Tristram’s parents and ends with the resolution of the hero’s long-standing conflict with the Saracen Palomides:

Than the suffrygan let fylle a grete vessell wyth watyr, and whan he had halowed hy the than conffessed clene sir Palomydes. And sir Trystram and sir Galleron were hys two godfadyrs. (510)

All the difficulties which arise in the tale of Tristram and Isode are resolved: Tristram and Isode are safe from Mark at Joyous Garde, and Palomides abandons his love for Isode and hatred for Tristram. Granted, Lancelot is seduced by Elaine and the prediction of Galahad’s extraordinary abilities are included in Malory’s "Book of Tristram," but its main characters and topical plots are seen to their conclusion, thereby encapsulating a complete and static pocket of the absolute past.

When we arrive at the Tournament at Surluse, however, the environment becomes thoroughly disjointed from the tale of Tristram, Mark, and Isode. Indeed, the text itself acknowledges the departure from and return to the Cornish tensions involving Tristram and Mark in its chapter rubrics and explicits; the previous chapter of "Alexander the Orphan" ends with "So latte we hym [Alexander] passe and turne we to another tale" (398) while the chapter on Surluse concludes with the recognition of the tangential quality of the section:

Now turne we from this mater and speke of Sir Trystram, of whom this booke is pryncipall off. And leve we the kynge and the quene, and Sir Launcelot, and Sir Lamerok. (411)

The chapter-long interpolation set off by such directive language detaches us from the tale of Tristram, Isode, and Mark, while the absence from Surluse of the three principal characters of the "Book of Tristram" serves to dislocate the audience from Mark’s revenge and the love of Tristram and Isode. Galahalte the Haute Prynce, Guinevere, and Lancelot are the main players here, and their comic banter, practical jokes, and triumphant laughter supersede the tensions of Cornwall, if only during this chapter.

And not only are the Cornish tensions of Tristram, Mark, and Isode dismissed from the story for the tournament week, but the political distrust and intrigue of Camelot are discouraged as well. For example, when Sir Lamorak, the son of Pellinore (who, in a former section, has been slain by Gawain and Gaheris), arrives at the tournament on the third day, he is greeted by Lancelot, for Lancelot "loved hym beste excepte sir Trystram" (404). All those attending the tournament make much of him, except Gawain and his brothers, whose ongoing spiral of vengeance and hatred for Lamorak over the death of their father King Lot embitter them toward the knight. Guinevere attempts to head off the factional politics that will eventually contribute to the downfall of the Round Table in the final sections of the Morte; she asks Lancelot to curb his devotion to Lamorak and not to contribute to the hatred between his friend and the sons of Lot:

"Sir, I requyre you that and ye juste ony more, that ye juste wyth none of the blood of my lorde kynge Arthur." (404)

By asking Lancelot not to fight with Gawain and his brothers, she removes Lamorak’s most adept ally, not to place him at a disadvantage but to remove the Lot and Pellinore feud from the tournament environment.

The consequence of such a politically diffused and textually disjointed environment is that the audience is removed from the development of both the Tristram story and the tale of the Round Table. The detachment from both narratives results in a detachment from the distance of the absolute past. The continuous narrative development which the absolute past generates in both its reverence for the story and its conclusiveness halts, distracting the audience from the major plot into following a digression containing no crucial textual developments. This digression creates an environment in which the further disruption of the absolute past through the comic mode may occur without appearing impertinent or disrespectful. The use of comedy may be perplexing and distressing, for instance, in the middle of the gravity of the Cornish tensions, but if the audience is already diverted from the main plot by a digression, the narrative environment is primed for the further dislocation created by the comic mode.

In the last three days of the "Tournament at Surluse," we encounter the riotous laughter of Guinevere and the court three times: after Lancelot defeats Dynadan at the Galahalte’s request, following an exchange of punning wit between Lancelot and Dynadan, and finally when Lancelot presents Dynadan to Guinevere dressed in a maiden’s clothing on the final day of the event. These moments of comedy during the story of Surluse further defy the seriousness of the events occurring in connection with the absolute past not only by ignoring the desperate plight of Tristram and Isode, but also by displacing the grave emotions generated by the tale in favor of the gleeful and triumphant emotions of the characters when they successfully mock Dynadan, the legendary mocker of the "Book of Tristram." Joy results, for example, from Lancelot’s insulting pun after he defeats Dynadan on the field:

"I ensure the, sir Dynadan . . . I shall no more mete with the, nother with thy grete speare, for I may nat sytte in my sadyll whan thy speare hittyth me. . . . God forbode that ever we mete but hit be at a dysshe of mete!" (409)

What occurs in response to Lancelot’s pun mirrors the reactions following Lancelot’s defeat of Dynadan on the field and the response to Lancelot’s cross-dressing practical joke on Dynadan the following day:

Than lowghe the quene and the Haute Prynce, that they myght nat sytte at their table, and thus they made grete joy tyll on the morne. (409)

All three comic scenes stand juxtaposed to the seriousness of the events surrounding Surluse, countering the treachery of King Mark with Lancelot’s mocking of Dynadan, and the trials of Tristram and Isode with boisterous laughter.

But the comedy at Surluse and at other times in the Morte does not make light of the events contained in the absolute Arthurian past because it does not have a significant impact on them. In the comic moment we become disengaged from the distance that defines the absolute past and focus on the immediacy of the event. As Bakhtin observes:

Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides. (23)

The "zone of crude contact" is created, for instance, when on the seventh day of Surluse, Lancelot strips Dynadan and dresses him in a maiden’s clothing. Dynadan is tricked into taking on conflicting gender markers and refashioned into a man-dressed-as-woman, making him into a touchstone for the ever-changing carnivalesque "world upside-down," a world that must exist in the present because of its continuous shifting, as opposed to the static and distant structures of the absolute past. The laughter which results from characters and audience alike is generated by the recognition of the deviance from expectation, in this case a Cornish knight dressed as a woman, and indicates a sharing of perspective between the laughing knights and the laughing audience, a "field that in the [absolute past] has been absolutely inaccessible and closed" (Bakhtin 27).

Comedy and its resulting laughter also defy the distance and valorizations of the absolute Arthurian past in episodes such as Surluse by being a product of pleasurable surprise, a feature unknown to the distanced literary past. When we come upon the hero-knights of the Round Table in the tales of the absolute past, they are representative of the valorized perspective presented in the text; none of the characters of the Arthurian tales would deny, for example, that Lancelot, as the king’s champion, is the chivalric standard in the tales in which he appears, a standard for which all knights strive, or that Galahad is the embodiment of spiritual knighthood. The audience, influenced by such evaluations through generations of Arthurian texts, begins to believe the same. Lancelot, as the hero of the Arthurian past, is complete in his representation when the expectations of his role and his actions converge, when he personifies the idealism of the code of the Round Table and implements it, despite the resulting conflict.

But Lancelot’s behavior at the Tournament at Surluse disregards these expectations. We are caught off guard when Lancelot dresses as a maiden to trick Dynadan in order to "put uppon hym a womans garmente" (410) and display him before the court; there had been no previous indication anywhere in the text that Lancelot had such a sense of the comic or could so earnestly participate in Dynadan’s brand of mockery. Indeed, Malory’s hand in developing Lancelot’s comic potential manifests itself more emphatically when we consider that in the French Prose Tristan, the source for the episode, it is Galehaute who plays the joke in response to Dynadan’s mockery of him on the previous day. Galehaute has played a part in Dynadan’s comedy before, but it was as the recurring victim of Dynadan’s teasing. In the Prose Tristan, Lancelot is in no way implicated in the prank and remains appreciative of, but apart from, the comedy; Galehaute is the organizer, perpetrator, and ultimately the virtuoso of the joke, concluding the scene with rich rewards for his victim Dynadan (397 b-c). By making Galehaute’s prank into Lancelot’s, Malory forces us to reconsider Lancelot. Beneath the laughter generated by the surprise of Lancelot’s practical joke, we discover an unsettling quality as to what we expect to be Lancelot’s character. His gruff sense of humor emerges, a quality which we did not know was there and that has no rationale in the stoic idealism he has come to represent in the French prose and English sources.

In this moment of surprised laughter when Lancelot steps away from his expected role as the King’s champion with all of its seriousness and reverence, we must examine and reevaluate him in a way that troubles our conception of Lancelot as a hero of the absolute past. Laughter has shown the audience that Lancelot is, in these moments of comedy, much like us: his motives and decisions are not driven solely by fate, and he does not exist exclusively within his own potential (as Galahad does). Lancelot, it appears, possesses a comic sensibility that distracts our distant reverence for him. In effect, the comedy lays him bare for our examination which, because of the proximity necessary for such an evaluation, pulls Lancelot into a common and familiar plane with the audience, destroying the pious distance of the absolute past.

Comedy works much the same way elsewhere in the Morte, exposing an openness of character and destabilizing the conception of the "hero" of traditional Arthurian literature. Moreover, comedy similarly disrupts the containment of the narrative itself by not only pulling its characters into a common plane with the audience, but also by creating an open-ended perspective in the comic moment. We most forcefully encounter such comic fluidity of perspective when in the action or performance of the comic moment, the text changes its point of view from narrator to comic victim or audience to onlookers. In order to generate laughter in scenes like Lancelot’s practical joke on Dynadan, Malory manipulates the perspective of the audience into shifting several times. We begin the seventh day of Surluse in tandem with the narrator, observing Dynadan’s bold challenge to Lancelot and Galahalte: "I woll," seyde sir Dynadan, "ryde into the fylde, but than one of you twayne woll mete with me" (410).

But after Dynadan goes to the tournament, we leave the field and become witness to Lancelot’s secret machinations. We know Lancelot dresses himself as a maid "freysshely attyred" (410), and we also know that his purpose is directed at Dynadan, for although "all men had wondir" at the strange damsel, Lancelot ignores them until he sees Dynadan and charges at him. Perspective then shifts to Dynadan’s reaction to the maiden: "But whan sir Dynadan saw a maner of a damesell, he dradde perellys lest hit sholde be sir Launcelot disgysed" (410). Thus the point of view is moved from a generalized view of the chivalric banter of the knights to Lancelot’s "secret," and then moves to Dynadan’s unspoken reaction to the unfolding of Lancelot’s plan. But the audience’s perspective encounters one final shift before the scene ends: when Dynadan is brought before the court, we share in the triumphant laughter of Guinevere and the observers, taking on their point of view of the spectacle of Dynadan in a dress and laughing at its humor.

In the literature of the absolute past, the shifts of perspective in the comic moments of Surluse cannot occur because both the author and the audience occupy a different and distant plane from the valorized images of the text. All those encountering the text, in effect, are only admirers of the great and glorious events of "King Arthur’s day"; we are allowed only one perspective and it is that of a reverent descendant. In the comic moment, however, we are forced to occupy several perspectives: that of the perpetrator, that of the victim, and that of those who laugh. For the duration of the comic moment, we have an immediate and shifting, and indeterminate, relationship with the characters. We perceive the world of Surluse through their eyes and their sensibilities and leave behind, if only for a limited moment, the reverence and piety of the perspective of the absolute past.


The ability of comedy to draw its audience into close proximity with its subject in order to allow for examination and evaluation leads to a number of important implications for the structures and categories contained in and designated by the text of the Morte Darthur. The comic moments of the Morte trouble not only the valorized and idealistic roles of the characters and events, but by questioning the chivalric elements of the text, the paradigmatic structures of chivalry prevalent in the literature of the absolute Arthurian past are themselves disrupted.

In the example of the "Tournament at Surluse," it becomes clear that the comic moments played out at the tournament surprise us for their portrayal of Lancelot as a mocking prankster who seems to victimize Dynadan for no other reason than to outdo his reputation as the great scoffer and jokester. But if Lancelot is a type of personification of Arthurian chivalry, might we not, therefore, come to the conclusion that a sense of humor, practical jokes, and mockeries are also a part of "superior knighthood"? And if they are not, in the comic moments at Surluse, do we not encounter a "private" Lancelot when he mocks Dynadan, as opposed to his "public" role as the King’s serious and somber champion?

For centuries, audiences have approached the tales of Arthur and the Round Table from a common critical perspective, that of pious and awe-inspired descendants far removed from the time in which the events took place. To all audiences, Lancelot and Arthur have come to represent what was attractive about Camelot: its chivalry, its loyalty, and its beauty. But in Malory’s addition and manipulation of the comic moments in the Morte, he invites the audience to observe the fragmentation of the traditionally ideal characters of the Round Table, and as a consequence, to reexamine the ideals they represent.

Malory’s perspective, a mix of the comic present and the absolute past, ultimately causes trouble for twentieth-century critical classifications. Returning to the original examination of the difficulties in the "unified-tragedy" and "separate- romance" debate, we discover that nearly everything that characterizes comedy–its presentness, its familiarity, its inquiry–causes difficulty for the simplified categories that the genres and unity of the absolute past compel. If the Morte was intended to be a tragedy, then the moments of comedy trouble the tragic perspective of the absolute past; most notably, if the genre of tragedy is supposed to inspire pity and piety, the moments of comedy which appear in the text negate these grave and distanced reactions when the audience or characters laugh, because laughter, as we have seen, is a product of familiarization. The heroes involved in the comic moment give up their prescribed role as "better men than ourselves" and become contemporaneous with the audience, familiar and dimensional because they occupy a similar plane of perception. In tragedy, the hero must fall into misfortune and be "consistent," or else the didactic effect of tragedy is lost, but in the comic moment we are free to question its participants and examine the apparent plasticity of their roles. Thus in the comedy, we are exposed to elements of the characters and events of Camelot which do not serve to arouse the pity or fear of tragedy, and which release the characters from their prescribed roles in their progression to the final catastrophe of the Round Table.

Such troubling of the category of "tragic unity" in the Morte, however, does not imply that arguments for romance separateness is at all strengthened by the presence of comedy. Indeed, although the genre of romance is difficult to define, critics agree that it is based on "ideal forms of behavior, ideal secular values, to which a man must aspire and through which his existence is validated" (Pearsall 167). Comedy, as we have observed, denies such idealism by highlighting the surprising actions of otherwise ideal characters, circumventing our expectations. As a result, we are left with a character who usually represents all that the absolute past has upheld as good and admirable, but whose comic actions do not coincide with that representation. In effect, because the genre of romance focuses on the individual and the ideal chivalry of the knight-hero in the Morte, the comic moments within the tales work against the romance hero’s representation as an exemplar of the Arthurian chivalric code, thus countering the intent of romance to feature the hero in his ideal form of behavior.

After examining the troubling effect comedy has on the absolute past and the debates over tragic unity and romance separateness, it would appear that we are not left with any critical cohesiveness in the Morte, and that the categories we have used to argue the text’s genre and unity crumble, indeed, must crumble, in the presence of the comic moment, making scholarly assessment difficult. Such a conclusion, I believe, would do as little justice to Malory’s work as the denial of the text’s fragmented nature. Despite the role of the various comic moments in the Morte Darthur in troubling rigid categories of genre and unity, we cannot call Malory’s work a comedy, or even by extension, a Bakhtinian novel, where dialogic tensions such as these exist. What we may discover in exploring the role of comedy in Malory’s text, however, is that scholars will be constantly troubled by the presence of comedy if they insist on classifying the text into one rigid generic definition. The sporadic presence of comedy is a constant and surprising reminder that categories such as tragedy and romance, unity and separateness, and even "the best earthly knight" and "Arthurian chivalry" are nothing more than critical structures that can be subverted by the presence of laughter.


Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1927.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: UP of Texas, 1981.

Le Tristan en Prose. Ed. Emmanuèle Baumgartner. Geneva: Droz, 1975.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey. NY: Norton, 1960.

Glasgow, R. D. V. Madness, Masks and Laughter: An Essay on Comedy. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1995.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and Friedrich Schiller. "Uber epische und dramatische Dichtung." Vol. 36 Berlin: Jubilaums-Ausgabe, 1907: 149-52.

Guerin, Wilfred L. "‘The Tale of Gareth’: The Chivalric Flowering." Malory’s Originality, Ed. R. M. Lumiansky. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1964: 99-117.

Le Morte Arthur. Ed. P. F. Hissiger. Paris: Mouton, 1975.

Lumiansky, R. M. Malory’s Originality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1964.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Malory: Works. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. 3 vols. Cambridge: Oxford UP, 1947.

Map, Walter. La Mort du Roi Arthur. Trans. Marie-Louise Ollier. Paris: U. G. E., 1992.

Marie de France. Les Lais de Marie de France. Trans. Pierre Jonin. Paris: Librairie Honore Champion, 1982.

Moorman, Charles. The Book of King Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s Morte Darthur. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1965.

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985.

Pickering, James D. "Malory’s Morte Darthur: The Shape of Tragedy." Fifteenth Century Studies 7 (1983): 307-28.

Shershow, Scott Cutler. Laughing Matters: The Paradox of Comedy. Amherst: UP of Massachusetts, 1986.

Vinaver, Eugene. Form and Meaning in Medieval Romance. Modern Humanities Research Association Presidential Address, 1966.