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Arthur, Quests, Legends - Tehanu's Thirteenth Note

Arthur - Quests - Legends: Tehanu's Thirteenth Note


Tehanu - ONERING.NET


I should have realised this topic was too big when a handful of people in casual conversation could recollect about 12 versions of King Arthur’s story . They weren’t even regular fantasy readers. Now, months later, I have seen an awful lot of Arthurian literature and history. Such books are often illustrated with fourteenth-century manuscript pictures that show such a determined loathing of the human face and figure that King Arthur and his knights look squinty-eyed and even Guenevere looks laughably prune-faced. The illuminators seemed to take more trouble to get the folds of draped clothes right. It might be that somehow nobody in medieval Germany, France and Britain even accidentally discovered how to draw people well, but I see it as evidence that the monasteries where these tales were copied and illustrated had a strong, international grip on the way images were transmitted. And there is a good deal of mortification of the flesh and denial of earthly pleasures in that.

All the while, as manuscripts were copied in monasteries, the religious and mystical aspect of the tale grew. That interested the people who were largely in control of preserving and transmitting the stories; I see the uniformity of those squinting, pursy-mouthed medieval illustrations as a measure of how influential that control was.

One of the interesting things about the Arthurian myths is this antagonism between piety – as in the Grail stories – and the natural impulses of these brawling, jousting knights with hairtrigger tempers, decked out for war in all their finery.

This starts the tale of Arthur’s tales somewhat in the middle. From the (probable) 5th-century war leader of the Britons, seven centuries of bards and troubadours stitched a tale of enemies routed and monsters vanquished, pieced out of history and maybe pre-existing myths. When Arthur’s story came to be written down, the preoccupations of the writers came into play – Geoffrey of Monmouth seeking to establish a quasi-divine precedent for the rule of the Norman Conquerors, and the troubadours of the French courts softening the tales and adding the dimension of courtly love (their audiences being composed of more women, whiling the time until their lords should return from the Crusades.) Lancelot appeared then, and the tales of his love for Guenevere. The growing climate of religious fervour turned the focus from the mystery and magic of the old Celtic tales to the re-interpretation of Arthur as a near-Messiah for Britain.

Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I felt like I was reading some kind of Celtic wonder-tale, full of mystery and hidden meanings. Sir Gawaine, brave and impetuous and a little arrogant, goes on a quest which in the end humbles him and makes him wiser. The ending seems tacked on by medieval monks, making Gawaine’s wisdom no more than a realisation that all women are false since Eve. But at the same time, the Church’s influence bends the story in another direction, showing a dozen ways that a true knight wins honour through his gentleness, courtesy, honour, truth, defence of the weak, humility and self-control. At one point Gawain says to a lady who taunts him to use his strength to take what he wants:

"Bot threte is unthryvande in thede there I lende,

And uche gift that is geven not with goude wylle."

[But force is ignoble in (the) country where I live,

And (as is) each gift that is not given with good will."(freely)]

That’s a contrast to earlier tales like Beowulf, which seems to inhabit the kind of culture that would consider kicking sand in the faces of 98-pound weaklings an honourable pastime and fine sport for all. When the mead-casks are broached in Hrothgar’s hall, you’d want to be very very big, or stay very very quiet.

Later still, Malory combined earlier French and English traditions to make, in Le Mort d’Arthur, the ‘Standard’ version of Arthur, with its Camelot, Round Table, questing knights, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere.

Malory himself had a life of adventure. Not only did he fight in various battles, but he tried to murder the Duke of Buckingham in an ambush, and he broke into Coombe Abbey, where he robbed and insulted the abbot; he was at various times charged with forcing somebody’s wife, with highway robbery and cattle rustling. He was imprisoned eight times and escaped twice, once by swimming a moat, once by means of an armed breakout. During his final imprisonment he wrote Le Mort d’Arthur.

That certainly explains why much of the book is such a spun out, one-thing-after-another timekiller. Horrifyingly enough, it’s meant to be a considerably tighter read than its main sources, the Alliterative Morte Arthur and some Norman French romances. We have a lot to be thankful for in the many fine 20th-century retellings available now, which pick the eyes out of the tales but leave aside 80% of the jousting, hunting and warring, and the historically absurd bits like the war on Rome. The sheer squandering of horses, the pointless tournaments that bred feuds, the contempt for commoners, the meaningless quests for white hounds and magic harts boggle the attention somewhat. It goes on and on inconclusively, rather reading all the sports pages to last century’s newspapers.

Some bits of Malory are wonderful – the world he creates which is so full of chaos, surprise and magic; the tale of Arthur’s beginnings, and later on, the tale of the disintegration of the Round Table, with the betrayals and defeats of the main characters. There they come into focus as individuals, loving and suffering as people do.

During the course of Le Mort d’Arthur, Arthur himself becomes less of a leader and more of a pawn in the hands of the rival factions at court. By contrast, Malory follows Lancelot’s career with greater and greater interest, and our sympathies lie with him more and more. It seems that he never fails any test of chivalry by his own judgement, though he can be beguiled. Arthur adheres to rules that would see him burn his own wife; Lancelot trusts in the judgement of his heart, and somehow breaks those laws without compromising his honour and truth. By the end of the book, the story seems to me to be really about Lancelot and Guenevere. We’re given more of their speech and thought than we ever get of Arthur.


"Howard Pyle’s drawing of Lancelot championing Guenevere against Sir Madore de la Port’s accusation of treason."
(209 x 249 28k)

One of the great things about the Round Table is that it provided a wonderful format for reinventing old tales. One could simply invent another knight of the Round Table and polish up a favourite tale to add into the existing romances and quests. In this way the Arthurian legends reflected their time. It’s interesting that as time went on, the Grail quest assumed greater importance; the independent women such as Morgan le Fay, Guinevere, and Viviane, become more and more evil. Their scheming and betrayals are simply not there in the earliest versions. Even Malory, though he tacitly approves Lancelot and Guenevere’s love, paints her as capricious and even a little stupid.

Now, Malory couldn’t copyright his work, Tolkien could and did. If it were not for that, some of the thousands of works of fan-fiction set in Middle-earth would have burst into print, and within decades Tolkien’s creation would be as rich and multi-branched as Arthurian legend. There would be versions and inversions, inconsistent and competing stories, updates and extrapolations. Because fans have found in Middle-earth a playground for the imagination unmatched by anything since Camelot. It’s an incredible feat for one man to have created a parallel world so compelling as to have drawn the world’s imagination to it as strongly as it has; given half a chance, in a few decades fans would have done for Middle-earth what it’s taken centuries for Gramarye and Avalon to achieve. As it is, Tolkien altered our expectations of fantasy. Very few writers would dare to portray Elves, for instance, as wee little people that live under toadstools.

So what influence did the tales of the Round Table have on Tolkien? Surprisingly little, it seems. He seems to have known intuitively that his own imagination would grow best if he didn’t plant it in the shade of the vast ramified grove of Arthurian tradition. I think that says a lot about Tolkien. He could (and did) write ‘fan fiction’ of a sort – translating Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight, writing his own Anglo-saxon poem The Homecoming of Beorhnoth….. but in the end he must have wanted to have a totally free vision within a new world, a world so new that he’d have to construct about 11 languages to give his people an intellectual home.


Walter Crane’s "Lady of the Lake." Hmm, that swan boat looks familiar."
(340 x 490 109k)

There’s a few things Tolkien borrows, but in a shadowy and transformed way– the King who will return, the rightful King whose claim is recognised by the sword he bears (in the one case, reforged, in the other, drawn out of the anvil,) the Lady of the Lake who gives the magic scabbard (that’s Galadriel, whose kingdom, like the Ladies of the Lake, is reached by crossing water. That’s not in Malory, but it’s in the earlier Celtic tales. Notice Frodo’s sense that he has entered an enchantment as soon as he crosses the Silverlode; it lasts until he leaves by the Anduin) as well as the magic sword. Also the journey across water to the Avalon, or to the Undying Lands.

It’s fascinating. Tolkien had strong religious feelings, and his works illustrate the way he felt God moves in the world. Was there something about the Arthurian legends that repelled him, that made him uncomfortable in that world?

I can think of some possibilities. One is best described by a quote from T. H. White’s wonderful, quirky 20th-century revision of Malory’s Mort d’Arthur. Many people will have read the first book, with its bumbling Merlin, good-hearted boy Arthur, and strange scholarly jests and digs at British nobility. The later books become dark and cynical, matter-of-fact about the quests and wonders, deeply sad at human folly, terribly moving and beautiful. At the end Arthur muses,

‘Looking back at his life, it seemed that he had been struggling all the time to dam a flood, which whenever he had checked it, had broken through at a new place…It was the flood of Force Majeur. ..But he had crushed the feudal dream of war successfully. Then, with his Round Table, he had tried to harness Tyranny in lesser forms, so that its power might be used for useful ends. He had sent out the men of might to rescue the oppressed and to straighten evil….the ends had been achieved, but the force had remained in his hands unchastened. So he had sought for a new channel, and sent them out on God’s business, searching for the Holy Grail. That too had been a failure, because those who had achieved the Quest had become perfect and been lost to the world, while those who had failed in it had soon returned no better.’

Tolkien might have found that to be a futile conclusion. Perhaps he wanted to write about a Quest that did alter the world in its fulfilment.

I think Tolkien wanted to tell a story that left us with more hope and which is more universal. It’s prophesied that King Arthur will return if his Isle of Gramarye is invaded; that’s something of a sterile hope if you don’t live in Britain. It’s also a passive hope; it doesn’t leave much for the common folk to do. They’re barely mentioned in Arthurian legend. Tolkien wanted to put ordinary people (well hobbits) at the centre of the quest, so their striving is something that encourages us.

Perhaps Tolkien understood that perfection leaves us cold. Sir Galahad, the purest knight, can’t hold our sympathy as much as the more flawed characters. (Some of the best recent versions of Camelot, like Mary Stewart’s, avoid the perfect Galahads and take the stories back to their simpler, earthier roots in a Celto-Roman setting, stripping away a lot of the later accretions of chivalry and medieval religion.)

I don’t think we should confuse Tolkien’s history of Middle-earth with his storytelling gift. The first is The Silmarillion, with its declamatory epic style. It’s not meant to engage our emotions the same as when he ‘tells a story,’ as he does in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There the tone is completely different, and in those stories the point of view is wholly that of the ordinary characters, the yeomen. The hobbits are not lords and athelings, they are homely, comfort-loving characters. Civilized, moderate, and ordinary. There is nobody in the world of the Round Table like that, and it seems that where Tolkien cared the most, he wanted to write a point of view that never existed in the old romances and epics of chivalry.

Having overreached slightly with this topic, I’ll beat it to death further next time.

Still to come: Quests, yin and yang.

Bouquets and brickbats: Send to tehanu@theonering.net

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