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The Politics of Violence in Malory’s
Treatment of the Arthurian Legend
By focusing, ostensibly, on sex and violence, Malory’s rendering of the Arthurian legend becomes something quite distinct from the French originals. Roger Ascham’s complaint that only “bold baudrie and open manslaughter,” may be found in the Works, seems to be well grounded, but such a reading tends to neglect the author’s most essential themes. Why is violence such a fundamental aspect of these tales? Malory’s interest in the Arthurian legend is reflected in his dramatic and violent reworking of the original sources. What appears to be a prominent interest in sex and violence is hardly gratuitous. In fact, Malory infuses the legend with a sense of political reality. Arthur’s new order or system of government may represent a golden era, but it must function in a practical, pragmatic world, burgeoning with sin. How might an exalted political ideal survive a less than exalted world? Quite simply, it can not. Obviously concerned with worldly government and human behaviour, Malory unveils a complex cast of characters, from Arthur, who is both Christ-like and Herod-like by turns, to Lancelot who struggles in vain to renounce sin. Sex and violence, while certainly sensational, lends a poignant, yet gritty realism to the Arthurian legend. It is through this violent, jarring realism that Malory unveils a distinctly political and worldly agenda.
Malory focuses on Camelot as a worldly ideal. Arthur’s rise to rule is rife with Christ imagery, but it is also contradicted by markedly Herodic overtones. His reign is linked to the coming of the Christian church. Sanctioned by God, the sword test is the means by which Arthur is able to rise from obscurity and eventually rule England. Arthur, as the chosen one, is anticipated and proclaimed at the onset of the Works and a new form of political society may be expected. From its inception, however, his order is shown to be steeped in sin and violence. He is marred, personally, by the sins of lechery, incest and pride, while his political tactics invariably involve some form of terror. After committing state wide infanticide, Arthur escapes public derision because his subjects, “for drede and for love… helde their pece,” (Malory, 37). Fear is placed significantly before love, in this instance. When Mordred usurps the throne, Britons readily take up his cause because he promises peace. In Book XXI, we learn that “with kynge Arthur was never othir lyff but warre and stryff, and with sir Mordrede was grete joy and blysse,” (Malory, 708). Clearly, Arthur’s conception of order involves a strong and violent hand and Malory’s rendering of Arthur reveals a worldly sinner and political saviour.
Corruption, alongside purity, continues to complicate the Arthurian landscape. Early in the tales, Arthur’s court is shown to be a glorious, yet diseased place. Proud knights bicker incessantly over Arthur’s favour. Gawain reacts strongly to every perceived slight and Balyn is accused of witchcraft by some envious peers. Secret plots and intrigues are flourishing as early as the second tale, when two knights are found plotting to poison the King. The realm is constantly struggling to maintain a sense of order amidst the creeping contamination of the world.
To further complicate our understanding of good and evil, Mordred, the obvious villain, is briefly rendered in Christ-like terms. He is the only survivor of Arthur’s murderous sweep. He is, in one sense, a chosen one, but his destiny is one of destruction. The murder of the Lady of the Lake at Balyn’s hands is another interesting blend of purity with corruption. In the midst of Arthur’s court, the Lady, who has materially assisted Arthur, is abruptly decapitated. This is an obvious image of death, placed at the young king’s feet, yet the murderer has been prophecized to be of unsurpassed virtue. All of these elements contribute to a more complex and ambiguous reading of Arthur’s “New Kingdom”. Although we are never privy to the characters’ thoughts, their actions paint a picture of warring passions. Their complex, sometimes inconsistent behaviour marks them as men of the worldly stamp. What we gain from Malory’s manipulations, is a complex rendering of human nature. Arthur may be the “once and future king,” but he readily succumbs to imperfect passions, such as pride, revenge and lust.
Malory is a gritty storyteller. As a man who has been involved in a considerable amount politically motivated bloodshed, he brings his own unique perspective to the Arthurian legend. While bloody and violent, war proves instrumental in demonstrating the worldly code that Arthur heralds and Malory champions. The King’s early battles are based on the idea of courtesy. The opposing armies seem more determined to outvie each other in courtesy than in battle. Knights are unhorsed far more frequently than they are slain. The general tone of war, while tumultuous, is of propriety and mutual respect. Enemy armies do not fail to complement each other’s valour and prowess.
Malory’s detailed battles do not only convey a sense of military propriety, but they also reveal the importance of strong leadership. Arthur’s prominent presence in battle is necessary for victory, as Merlin points out in Book I, Arthur must fight alongside his forces. The king’s figure seems to have magical properties as it propels the army to victory. Strong, able government is manifested in young Arthur and his ability to unify various noble families should be noted. The families of Lot, Pellinor and Ban are traditional enemies, yet Arthur is able to bring them all together, however briefly, at the Round Table. Although this volatile collection of families appears to be unified at Arthur’s Court, sinister undertones ripple beneath the surface. The feud between Gawain and Pellinor is an early outbreak of this rancorous rash. Plots, intrigues and personal vendettas threaten to tear the Round Table apart. By the end of the Works, the realm has been so thoroughly disintegrated that strife between families is replaced by strife within families. Arthur’s final battle is against his own son, Mordred. Ties of kinship may have once offered Arthur an essential power base, but the rot of sin finally reaches the core. Mordred, a product of incestuous lechery, returns to his father, to share the final unity of mutual oblivion. No image could be as poignant as Mordred climbing the spear of his father to deliver a departing malice.
The fall of the realm is immediately noticeable. Malory describes a terrible scene, in which the fallen knights are ravaged by a horde of looting peasants. The dying are dispatched without mercy and stripped of all their finery. Malory’s aim is unmistakable. Without strong government, subjects will naturally fall into an animalistic state of chaos. In this case, the writer’s use of riveting, jarring imagery makes a powerful suggestion. Arthur’s regime, though one of terror and violence, is a political necessity.
Ultimately, Arthur’s power rests not so much in his personal virtue, but in his political guiles. The battle to maintain his power base is Arthur’s true challenge. For this end, Arthur would tolerate the abuses of Gawain and even the scandalous hints of Lancelot’s dalliance with the Queen. This is a king whose priorities are never in doubt. At the onset of the Grail quest, Arthur is made wretched by Gawain’s proposal to recover the Holy Grail. He accurately predicts that the Round Table will never again host such a noble collection of warriors. The Round Table empowers Arthur’s will. As such, holding it together is of fundamental importance.
What we find in Malory is an acute interest in politics and how kings maintain power. The text offers a detailed depiction of the rise and fall of a kingdom as well as that of the ideology that nurtured it. Arthur’s realm is backed by a new, Christian sense of morality. Notions of honour, courtesy and, most importantly, kinship hold the realm together, but standards of mercy, charity and piety arise to direct the Round Table’s strength. The failure of the political system is the failure to maintain this exalted ideal in a less than perfect world. It must, like all things transient, fade. Galahad is an excellent example of this. He appears suddenly, at the onset of the Sankgreal quest, as the embodiment of heavenly perfection. No knight rivals his purity. His presence, however, is very brief, as he departs this world by the quest’s conclusion. He bears a bright invitation for the Round Table to strive for perfection of character, but few are able to actualize this goal. Representing the incompatibility between the worldly and the heavenly sense of knighthood, Galahad strikes an otherworldly figure, untainted by secular corruption. Contrasted with his father, who is called the best “of ony synfull man of the world,” Galahad is without worldly blemish (Malory, 520). He is also without Malory’s and, consequently, our own, interest. Who can relate to Heaven’s avatar, when he stands sinless among sinners? Men like Lancelot, who grapple openly with sin, bring nobility to the earthly sphere. Malory’s sympathies remain with Lancelot despite his destructive sin of selfish love. As Edmund Reiss asserts, Lancelot’s struggle with sin demonstrates “the inconsistency of humanity,” (Reiss; Sir Thomas Malory, 179). Sex and violence are an essential aspect of Lancelot’s character and it is through him that Malory brings his ideals of worldly glory to light.
Galahad, the celestial knight, is slighted by Malory during the Sankgreal. While his presence is certainly integral, only his character, as a point of contrast, is truly necessary. In fact, Galahad functions more as a token piece, with little character, that serves to draw our attention to those knights that fall short of his stature. Lancelot and Gawain are two prominent knights who fail the quest because they are dogged by sin. Unlike Galahad, or even the hastily perfected Percival and Bors, these failures bear the obvious burden of sin. Rather than alienating them, however, Malory brings them closer to the reader. Gawain is extraordinarily human. He is capable of great and noble deeds, in addition to terrible acts of villainy. When confronted by a holy man, and urged to take penance, Gawain gives a practical reply. “I may do no penaunce, ” he says, “for we knyghtes adventures many tymes suffir grete woo and payne,” (Malory, 535). Solidly aligned with this world, Gawain identifies himself with his practical occupation – that of a warrior. Ultimately, he receives redemption and takes his place in Heaven. Lancelot possesses an even greater gift for human slaughter. His abilities are uncontested and he has yet to fail in battle. Unfortunately for him, the Sankgreal is not a test of arms, but a very different sort of trial, requiring not interaction with the world, but a firm renunciation of it. Perceval, a man most similar to Gawain in character, is victorious. His reward? A withered and obscure end in a distant monastery. Of the three victorious knights, only Bors returns to the Round Table, but whatever insights he may have gained in the Grail quest seem to have fallen quickly into neglect. His days are full of worldly pursuits, battling alongside his beloved uncle, Lancelot, against Arthur.
Lancelot remains Malory’s champion. As the best of sinners, Lancelot’s vain struggle to vanquish personal sin garners our own interest as sinners, despite his astonishing ability to deal death by the dozen. Caught unarmed in Guinevere’s bedroom, he handily dispatches thirteen fellow knights who had been under the King’s orders. The writer gives us considerably more detail here, than the French authors saw fit to give. Reiss points out that Malory’s account of the skirmish functions to emphasize the “seriousness of what has happened,” (Reiss; 177). Lancelot is publicly known to be bedding the queen and making a cuckold of his sovereign. Disunity appears in earnest and Lancelot’s slaughter of his Round Table brethren provides the reader with a jarring image of internal rot. The violence is directed inward. Again, we should not be terribly surprised. Malory’s seeming fascination with bloodshed has been carefully directing the reader to this moment. During Arthur’s wars of ascendancy, we see knights engaged in righteous battle. Even the young king’s enemies, such as Lot of Orkney, fight valiantly because they are driven with purpose. What motivates Arthur’s later military campaigns? He pursues a repentant Lancelot into France and wages a bloody struggle over a vendetta. Indeed, this vendetta is not even his own. Guinevere has been restored to him, but Gawain is still without his brother and blind to forgiveness.
Arthur’s French war is madness. As such, we are not treated to elaborate scenes of unhorsing and horsing. Lancelot may still demonstrate his singular sense of grace by horsing Arthur, but for the most part, the French battles are entirely void of honour. As Lancelot observes, Arthur will “gette here no worshyp,” (Malory, 691). It is a meaningless crusade propelled by Gawain’s desire for vengeance. Immediately after the ill-fated siege of Benwick, Arthur is told that he may survive Mordred’s insurrection only with the assistance of Lancelot. What then, was it all for? It is clear that battle is no longer ennobling, but quite shameful and self destructive. Knights like Balyn and Lamorak are no longer catching the King’s eye with incredible feats of slaughter. Endless tournaments have since replaced righteous wars and when the battles finally come, they rent the internal fabric of Camelot asunder. Tournaments, while providing knights with necessary outlets for aggression are essentially mock wars sans righteousness or belief. They reflect the hollowed and perilous state of the realm. A point is reached shortly after the Galahad’s departure, when there is nothing left to believe in. The sword is directed inward. Complete dissolution is violent and Malory would not spare us an inch of its ugliness. War’s changing aspect from glorious to shameful is an essential element in this presentation of Arthur’s rise and fall.
Lancelot, as the greatest of the worldly knights, appropriately, draws much of the author’s attention. Here is a knight of incredible physical prowess, who betrays his king and persistently denies the truth of his relationship with Guinevere. Strangely, Malory becomes Lancelot’s staunchest defender. Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere is most clearly of a sexual nature. Mellyagaunte’s charge that a knight had been bedding the queen is supported by overwhelming evidence. Malory admits that Lancelot “wente to bedde with the quene and … toke hys plesaunce and hys lykynge untyll hit was the dawnyng of the day,” (Malory, 657). To make matters worse, Lancelot firmly attests to Guinevere’s honour, defying any knight to claim otherwise. This is sheer physical intimidation and Lancelot employs it frequently. When, for instance, Guinevere is returned to Arthur, he turns to the onlooking knights and issues a deadly threat: ” Now let se whatsomever he be in thys place that dare sey the quene ys nat trew unto my lorde Arthur, lat se who woll speke and he dare speke,” (Malory, 698). Naturally, no one dares to raise a voice. Lancelot is the best of knights. He is the bloodiest of knights.
Malory refrains from casting judgement on Lancelot’s behaviour. Instead, he attempts to lighten our own censure, commenting that love in his own day is not like it was in the days of Arthur. What are we to conclude from this? Such comments only emphasize Malory’s wish to leave Lancelot relatively unscathed in the reader’s eye. Of course, Lancelot is not entirely pardoned. He is rightfully chastised for his inability to adhere to his Sankgreal’s motif of perfect love. Too often, he veers toward a lustful and selfish love – the garden variety, in Malory’s world. Despite introducing the destructive germ of selfish love into the heart of the Order, Lancelot is redeemed. He ultimately cuts himself off from Guinevere completely and ends his days as a priest. According to Whitehead, “the conduct of Lancelot is justified not only in his own eyes, but in those of the author,” (Whitehead, 105). The incident involving Sir Urry is intentionally placed immediately after Lancelot’s less than heroic business with Guinevere to further exonerate Lancelot. Sir Urry is miraculously healed. Despite his transgressions, Lancelot remains foremost among knights. Men, like Lancelot, fight for causes. Whether they are good or evil ends, a man has only to believe in them. Guinevere has always been that cause. Arthur, on the other hand, falls when there is no longer a cause. His final words to Bedivere are critical. He says, “in me ys no truste for to truste in,” (Malory, 716). Indeed, the once and future king ends a hollow, almost Lear-like man, fallen from the days of righteous ascendancy.
We must never lose sight of the fact that Malory is chronicling a glorious age. Knights, larger than life, are concerned with gaining renown through physical prowess. They are the keepers, not only of the Order of the Round Table, but of the social order. Like oversized policemen, these juggernauts roam about the countryside addressing wrongs in a peculiar, but appropriate fashion. Knights litigate through the simple process of bludgeoning and braining deviants. Arthur’s is a police state, but as Malory suggests, such a circumstance is a necessity of the times. The true tragedy lies in Arthur’s inability to police his own policemen. His weakness, as a king, becomes increasingly obvious from the moment that Balyn decapitates the Lady of the Lake at court. At the time, she stood not only under Arthur’s protection, but in his credit. Balyn seems to escape lightly with exile, but later his personal prowess returns him to the King’s favour. Arthur expresses an interest in keeping Balyn at court, despite the knight’s heinous transgression. Physical might is in great demand in troubled times. It is Arthur’s only surety of maintaining authority and it takes precedence over all other concerns. Even love must take a backseat to power as Arthur articulates in Book XX: “much more I am soryar for my good knyghtes losse than for the losse of my fayre quene; for quenys I myght have inow, but such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs in no company,” (Malory, 685).
Unfortunately, in order to rule, Arthur must reconcile himself to the unruly. Gawain provides our most obvious example. His underhanded, thuggish tactics in dealing with Pellinor’s family as well as his endorsement of his own mother’s murder are outrages to Arthur’s government. All too frequently, Arthur is portrayed as helpless in relation to his own knights, trying fruitlessly to hold onto what he calls, “the fayryst and the trewyst of knyghthode that ever was sene togydir in ony realme of the worlde,” (Malory, 522). The threat of losing a knight of Gawain’s caliber is a greater source of concern for Arthur than the inevitable inroads of evil.
While Arthur is portrayed as a political leader, the importance of good and evil is effectively pushed aside. These qualities may remain distinctive elements of the tales, but as we saw with Malory’s treatment of Lancelot, they seem to be glossed over. Malory never openly condemns the knight, but always mitigates his damaging deeds with adjectives like “worthy” and “noble”. Lancelot betrays his brother knights for the lust of a woman. He effectively degrades his Order because of his lack of sexual restraint. Arthur is very much aware of what is right but he is all too willing to condone the outrageous acts of his knights, in order to maintain power. Malory’s depiction of Camelot is no fairy tale, but a political reality. This accounts for the complexity of Arthur’s image. He must be both a messianic and a Machiavellian figure at once. Purveying order and ideals to a blighted political landscape may be Arthur’s function, but political survival is an ever present anxiety.
If Arthur’s concerns lie with the stability of his throne, then why does his rule fall into irrecoverable instability? This is where Malory, firmly fixated on the human element, reveals the limitations of the worldly condition. In a vein approaching cynical, the author reveals the world as governed by an inscrutable hand of Fate. What can Arthur do to avoid his destiny? He seems to be given ample opportunity to escape, yet he plummets with unerring accuracy into the lap of Fate. In a dream, Arthur learns that he may yet win over Mordred if only the decisive battle could be delayed until Lancelot’s arrival. Wisely heeding the warning, Arthur instructs his forces to effect a parlay. Who placed the serpent in the envoys’ midst? A devious Fate? Arthur’s garden has never been without snakes. Plots and intrigues had planted their poison long ago. In this imperfect world, we must expect the snakes and allow for capricious Fortune’s whims. Balyn’s experiences with an unpredictable Fate provide early testament to the seemingly random experience that is life. What is predictable, however, is the human response to Fortune. Lancelot considered the murder of Gareth an unhappy mischance or an act of Fortune, but Arthur predicts Gawain’s response with uncanny accuracy. He states, “I am sure that whan sir Gawayne knowyth hereoff that sir Gareth ys slayne, I shall never have reste of hym tyll I have destroyed sir Lancelottys kynne and hymselff bothe, othir ellis he to destroy me,” (Malory, 685). This is a crucial confession on Arthur’s part. Not only does it reflect the king’s own tenuous hold on power, but it reveals the predictability of human nature. Gawain does strong-arm Arthur into mobilizing an army to carry out a personal vendetta. He vehemently opposes Lancelot’s conciliatory overtures and thoroughly thwarts any chance for a peaceful end. In this manner, “unhappy mischances” are strewn along the Arthurian legend and humans react to them accordingly. A knight bitten by a snake will always draw his sword, just as a man who has been wronged will instinctively seek redress. While the designs of Fate remains unfathomable, human reaction to it is always predictable. Therefore, we should not wonder at Arthur’s final failure to heed Fortune. Mordred, the traitorous son, must invariably arouse a father’s rage. The passion and the impulse are always available. Such is the human response.
Ultimately, it is the human response, or as Tucker writes, “the glory of the action” that draws Malory’s interest (Tucker, 65). Knighthood, despite its moral murkiness, is something to be exalted. The author’s admiration of Lancelot, for instance, can barely be concealed. It transcends notions of good and evil and Lancelot echoes this with a promise to be Guinevere’s knight “in ryght othir in wronge,” (Malory, 620). Bravery, loyalty and prowess are the true trappings of knighthood. Malory embellishes numerous scenes of battle with meticulous attention to detail. Nobility and prowess are the hallmarks of knightly combat. Knights such as Aggravayne and even Gawain, are often censured for their conduct because it is unbecoming of a knight. Murdering or “enforcing” one’s strength upon women is a cause for rebuke and Gawain, for all his prowess, is frequently painted in the light of villainy.
Combat must be fair, direct and decisive. Several knights such as Mordred and Mellyagaunte are frequently chastised for breaking the rules of knightly engagement. A “traytour knyght” may expect no mercy in any of the tales. Even Guinevere is sensitive to the duties of knighthood. She is horrified by Mellyagaunte’s transgressions. When he launches overwhelming forces against a paltry number of unarmed knights, Guinevere cries foul. “Thou shamest all knyghthode,” she declares (Malory, 651). Mellyagaunte’s perfidy is sharply contrasted by Malory’s long account of the ensuing battle. The unarmed and outnumbered knights fight like lions, caring not for “lyff nor deth,” (Malory, 652). Their duty to the Queen is an all consuming priority. Again, bravery, loyalty and prowess distinguish the flowers of knighthood and Malory celebrates these qualities in the sweeping spectacle that is chivalry.
The world described by Malory is pervaded by violence. Knights litigate at the point of a lance, but can we truly call it meaningless brutality? Violence for the sake of violence is chaotic, self destructive and terrible. Is Malory’s conception of knighthood, with its governing principles not rabidly opposed to this breed of violence? In fact, Malory denies “bold baudrie and open manslaughter.” He champions, instead, the structured violence of knighthood, as advocated and directed, with difficulty, by King Arthur. Force is admirable when organized and terrifying when at large. As Arthur’s great enterprise spirals downward, we share Malory’s sense of horror. Friends become foes. Sons rise against fathers. All forms of social bonds unravel completely. Finally, the peasant horde arises, no longer restrained, acting out its animalistic passions in a frenzy of murder and greed.
Violence is the inevitable symptom of a fallen world, but the effort to direct and draw moral strength from it is a truly elevated principle. Arthur arrives, according to Heaven’s mandate, to herald a new kind of order, but this is not the seamless otherworld that Galahad hints at. It is a world inhabited by humans and governed by their imperfect nature as it responds to Fortune. However, it would be as inappropriate to label human nature a villain as it would be to blame Fortune or Fate. The world is naturally turbulent, and Malory’s interest lies in how order may be imposed upon such a place. His flair for violence and spectacle is instrumental in emphasizing the volatility of Arthur’s realm. The King’s efforts to keep everything together are nothing short of epic. Random violence may only be countered with organized violence. Malory’s world is a vibrant and dynamic one, inhabited by men of fierce passions and unimpeachable integrity. Even when Malory inserts the grisly detail of how Lucan lay “fomyng at the mowth and parte of his guttes lay at hys fyete,” we can not justly attribute it to the author’s taste for sensationalism (Malory, 716). Instead, we are struck with an image of loyalty that is magnificently memorable. This is not an ugly moment, but a sublime testament to a glorious king and the values that he heralded. Lucan, without regard for his own condition and literally falling apart at the seams, will serve Arthur until his very last breath. From his original sources, Malory does indeed wring a fresh aspect from an old fabric. In his view, violence works on every worldly level. From the struggle to govern oneself to the difficulty of governing a kingdom, setting one’s house in order is a violent business.
Malory, Sir Thomas Complete Works. 2nd ed. Eugene Vinaver, Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Reiss, Edmund Sir Thomas Malory. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.
Tucker, P.E. “Chivalry in the Morte.” Essays on Malory. J.A.W. Bennett, Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. 64-103.
Whitehead, F. “Lancelot’s Penance.” Essays on Malory. J.A.W. Bennett, Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. 104-113.
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