Wednesday, May 29, 2019

inner space

Online text (Caxton's edition)

While I was writing about experimental poetry, in my previous post, I kept thinking about Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, which I finished re-reading this morning (in the slightly abridged edition of the Winchester manuscript by Helen Cooper). For this writing too, like the samples I quoted then, creates a dream space and has a problematic relationship to significance in the world we inhabit.

Yet Le Morte Darthur is a thoroughly medieval construction. Caxton, anyway, had no anxiety about its significance. Quoting St Paul ("But all is written for our doctrine"), he pointed out its treasure trove of examples of noble and ignoble behaviour and urged his readers to emulate the former and to avoid the latter. In fact, to read it in the same way as a history book, though Caxton admitted that his readers might have their own views about how historical the Arthurian stories were. In the infancy of printing, he reasonably expected that his principal audience would themselves be nobles, like the jousting knights and their ladies, though he urged readers of all classes "that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same".

Nevertheless the resemblance to modern experimental writing isn't pure fancy. Medieval books weren't made in the same way as modernist poems but they are fully as composite: the result, in Le Morte Darthur, is an extremely dynamic inner space. Malory's work, written in 1469-70, is based mainly on French Vulgate Cycle from more than two centuries earlier: this cycle was already composite in nature, the work of many hands and deriving in turn from Chrétien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others. Malory also used English sources closer to him in date: the alliterative and stanzaic Morte Arthure poems from the end of the fourteenth century. Accordingly, the main sections of Malory's work have each of them a rather different character. But within the sections, too, there is a composite feeling: different sources, intrusions by Malory himself, a sudden switch to another source. The ground shifts beneath our feet. Time has a fitful and local presence (children emerge only as adults, and no-one grows old). The vocabulary changes from page to page; characters become inconsistent with their former appearances and events we think we know about are recounted differently. Contrary to what Caxton would lead you to expect, morality is also inconsistent. Malory repeatedly lands us in situations that are good in one moral code but bad in another. In his blanket use of terms such as "worshipful" to describe people whose adventures constantly land them in moral hot water, we see the distant ancestry of Clarendon's belief that the ruling class need not be bound by the rules of personal morality. (A belief that is sturdily reviving in our own times.)

In the opening pages, in Uther's reign, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury: in the final pages, after Arthur's death, we have a sometime Bishop of Canterbury living in a hermitage near Glastonbury. That typifies the slippage between concrete historical institutions and a sort of fairyland that occurs throughout the book.

In the "Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake" we unexpectedly find ourselves at Tintagel (Caxton VI.10-11), and become aware that up to that point we have had no idea where Launcelot's wandering adventures have been taking place, other than by such descriptions as a "fair highway" or a "deep forest". After this brief glimpse of a real place (complete with its real bridge and village), Launcelot dives back into the trackless forests again. At the end of this section "Sir Launcelot came home two days before the feast of Pentecost; and the King and all the court were passing fain" (Caxton, VI.18). Here too are the various folk he has rescued, helped, overcome or jovially tricked.

But where is this "home"? In Malory's book this is often elusive. Sometimes Arthur's court is not in a defined place. At other times it becomes more definitely "Camelot". Camelot, in earlier Arthurian romances -- Chrétien is the first to use the name --,  is potentially many places and yet none. On a few occasions Malory tells us that it is Winchester (but Caxton said it was in Wales). It's only towards the end of his epic that this location becomes more grounded. Finally the name "Camelot" is allowed to flutter away on the breeze; the scenes where the Lancelot and Gawain parties fall into fatal dissension around the hapless king are now merely Winchester, and later Carlisle.  And once Mordred usurps the kingdom, this kingdom is the bare unvarnished England of Winchester,  London, Dover, Salisbury Plain, Glastonbury, Amesbury... "Camelot" has gone the way of individual jousting and giants and forests and romance: it now belongs to an otherworld of the past.

Lancelot's own castle of Joyous Gard is apparently near to Camelot; at least it is in the Book of Tristram. But at the end, when all those mists of romance are clearing, we are told "Some men say it was Alnwick, and some men say it was Bamborough".

The coldly emerging England of "Lancelot and Guenivere" and "The Death of Arthur" is in especially marked contrast to the previous section, "The Tale of the Sangreal". Here the romance world of "Tristram" is transformed into an even more otherworldly landscape. As the knights depart on this glorious but disastrous quest, they enter a spiritual realm that resembles neither fabulous Camelot nor cold England, a landscape where nothing can be pinned down, though we are at one point in Scotland and, of course, finally in the Middle East. Magical boats allow a kind of warp drive, knights meet and re-meet but there's no geography to it.

But overall Malory's geography, in the late 15th century, is far less fanciful than in, say, Wolfram's Parzival, though it coexists inconsistently with the vaguer geographies of his predecessors; because the medieval book contains, and embraces, what it has outgrown.

"It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England..."  In Malory, the Arthurian legends, drawn from Celtic lands and becoming the delight of all Europe, have been refocussed on England.

With the emergence of England comes also nationalism. In the "Book of Tristram" we're surprised to hear, at one point, that Cornish knights had a reputation for cowardice; that kind of national stereotype seems to belong to a different age. But actually, the nationalist world picture is already in Malory, prefiguring the tropes of Shakespeare's history plays a century later. A foreign authority seeks tribute, the king defies him ("Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome" cf. King John). We wonder if the portrait of the unchristened knight Sir Palomides (basically good and noble, but also passionate and treacherous) contains seeds of later negative oriental stereotypes. In, for example, the portrayal of Gawain and his brothers, the sons of Lot of Orkney, we sense an emergent feeling about Scottishness that isn't purely neutral. And we're reminded quite insistently about the French origins of Lancelot and his relations. When things fall apart in "The Death of Arthur", one of the many transformations is learning that Lancelot is effectively "lord of all France". And there follows a national invasion by Arthur and Gawain with "three score thousand" men (cf. Henry V). The last, most extended, and most depressing of all Malory's hundreds of knightly jousts takes place in Benwick (which Malory says is Bayonne or Beaune) (Caxton XX.20-22). Over a period of weeks Lancelot and an implacable Gawain fight it out endlessly and to no result. Gawain will not yield; Lancelot could kill him but won't do so, out of respect for both Arthur and "my lord Gawain" (The respectful Lancelot seems to conceive Gawain as having some feudal rights over himself and the other knights of the Round Table). Meanwhile, behind Arthur's back, Mordred is usurping England.

Malory's book never mentions trade, commerce, merchants. Occasionally there is a ploughman, a doorkeeper or a cook but essentially he has stripped off all the lower orders. There's no agriculture. Seasons are of no significance except in connection with important feast days (especially Pentecost). Weather is mentioned very rarely indeed (once or twice there is a tempest: in the "Tale of the Sangreal" they are part of the spiritual landscape). As in other Arthurian literature there are no Jews, though there exists a remarkable 13th-century Hebrew manuscript containing judaized Arthurian episodes (Melech Artus).



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