Sat 25th Oct 2014 | Last updated: Fri 24th Oct 2014 at 18:39pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Malory’s book Morte d’Arthur should be required reading for all who care for souls

It is the nearest thing the English have to a mythology

By on Friday, 4 January 2013

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne-Jones. The painting took 17 years to complete

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne-Jones. The painting took 17 years to complete

I freely admit to being deeply interested, possibly even obsessed, by the story of King Arthur. One of the most rewarding books I studied at university was the Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, which I have recently reread, and found to have lost none of its charms.

The Morte is probably the nearest thing we have to an English mythology. The climactic scene, where Lancelot and Guinevere meet for the last time, is not the heart-rending romantic farewell that you would expect it to be. By this time Guinevere has taken refuge in a nunnery and taken vows, and she says to Lancelot, her former lover:

Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world; for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord [Arthur] slain. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, wit thou well I am set in such a plight to get my soul’s health; and yet I trust, through God’s grace, that after my death to have a sight of the blessed face of Christ, and at doomsday to sit on his right side, for as sinful as ever I was are saints in heaven. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, I require thee and beseech thee heartily, for all the love that ever was betwixt us, that thou never see me more in the visage; and I command thee on God’s behalf, that thou forsake my company, and to thy kingdom thou turn again and keep well thy realm from war and wrack. For as well as I have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee; for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed.

This is found in Book XXI, chapter 10, which can be found online here.

Malory ought to be required reading for all who have care of souls, and all who have to exercise rule in the world. What the story points to is that all matters of rule will in the end depend on self-rule, and that private passions will have public repercussions. It is a call to responsibility. And it is also a book about the various gradations of love, reminding us that the greatest love of all is not man for woman and vice versa, but the love of the soul for God. The key scene, apart from this parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, is of course, the virginal Sir Galahad’s ecstasy at the sight of the Holy Grail whereupon he is taken up to heaven at once.

This rather adult theme was absent from the recent BBC series Merlin, which ended this Christmas. I joined the series very late on, but what I saw, I loved (though perhaps not enough to buy all five previous series on DVD). The series was beautiful to look at, an intelligent updating of the myth, filmed in a gorgeous French chateau, Pierrefonds, associated with another hero of mine, the Emperor Napoleon III.

The ending of the series, which can so often disappoint, in fact took the whole thing to a new, even transcendental, level. King Arthur died, killed by Mordred, and was conveyed to Avalon, and there he rests still, as the final shot of the series told us. Until we need him again. Rex quondam, rex futurus.

  • JabbaPapa

    I do love this text, though I must confess to preferring La Mort Le Roi Artu in the French prose Lancelot cycle

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    “An intelligent updating of the myth”? More like a prettified dumbing-down into a fairly shallow fantasy with a repetitive plot, employing the same themes and devices week after week. Two accomplished young actors in the central parts, plus lush sets and superb special effects, swept along the early evening viewers, but to compare this series with Malory is surely excessive.  The extracts from Malory you quote exemplify the central importance of Christian culture and morality — ‘Merlin’ had all the Christianity airbrushed out (slightly absurd in a high medieval visual setting) and the faint suggestion that there was something in the ‘old religion’ i.e. druidism. The wording Arthur will ‘rise again’ is surely not accidental.

    As for consolation, the idea of Arthur returning some day is a very limp thing, a phrase devoid of genuine messianic or millenarian force. In this context death is death.  The ‘return’ flourish was just a verbal formula to be deployed by the TV script-writers to seal off a story which had fizzled out.

  • Ltarget

    It was an absurdly multicultural Arthur, and quite without the Christian themes.  A good effort, but one of writing Christ out of the Matter of Britain.

  • Guest

    Isn’t it “Rex quondam, rex futurusque”? I know I shouldn’t be trying to correct a priest, but it is a lovely line.

    Thank you, Father, for your endlessly enthusiastic essays. I wonder how you feel about T H White’s similarly fine account.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith.

    I think there is no -que because the full quote is meant to rhyme:
    Hic jacet Arturus,
    Rex quondam, rex futurus.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith.

    There was no explicit Christinaity, true; but there was talk of value. And in today’s UK value only means one thing, to me at least.

  • Gawaine

     Talking of value means Christian values?

  • Guest

    Interesting.

  • Deborahmiddleton

    Agreed. A good piece.

  • Parasum

    “The ending of the series, which can so often disappoint, in fact took the whole thing to a new, even transcendental, level. King Arthur died, killed by Mordred, and was conveyed to Avalon, and there he rests still, as the final shot of the series told us. Until we need him again.

    ## Died ? In Malory, this is left in doubt, as is to be expected. Heroes waiting to return to the world – Frederick I Barbarossa, Fionn MacCumhail, the Messiah in Rev. 12, Enoch, Elijah – don’t die: they are taken away from the world of mortal things, into the “beyond”, until they needed. When the motif is treated as history, they die – so Sceaf Scylding is laid in his funeral boat, to go where the seas take it. This is not what happens with the “Arthurian” Arthur: he  comes into the world mysteriously, and leaves it in the same way.
     
    Kings  (such as Arthur) are numinous beings – so it would be very strange if Arthur had done anything so predictable, or commonplace, as die of his wound. That would be a narrative blunder, and a major one. The Dolorous Stroke that lays waste seven lands does not kill the king who lies sick of it, waiting for a healer – so it would be doubly strange if the “once & future king” (very eschatological, that !) were to die. Royal heroes (& heroines, like Semiramis) seem not to die, unless the scene of their passing is being described as historical, as  with Osiris, Scyld and Beowulf. If their passing  is told as a transcendent event, the treatment of the event shows them wounded, but not dead. Death for Odysseus “come[s] from the sea”, once he has returned to the world of history from the world of faery inhabited by the monsters & enchantresses he encounters, not in the faery world.

    If people know their mythology, the “death” (as it is in the human world) of Arthur is not disappinting – he has to go, in order to return, very much as in John 14 Jesus has to. Jesus fairly drips with mythology & faery motifs – as has been pointed out, this is surely what one might expect. STM that the mythological vision of life buts back the wealth of colour that science, for all its value, tends to take from it.

    There is no substitute for the Arthurian legend as Malory gave it to the world in Caxton’s printing of it, in the English of Caxton. TV can no more do justice to it that it can do justice to the Iliad. Turning a text into a filmed drama does not allow the reader or hearer to imagine and see the story in his own mind – it forbids him to do that, by telling him what to see. But that is a usurpation of the reader’s duty & privilege of “sub-creating” for himself the story told by the author. TV imposes one vision of the story, that can change little after being filmed, on the those who should instead make the story-teller’s vision their own, for themselves – as though “one size fits all”. It doesn’t. Readers can go back to a story a thousand times, and draw forth some new vision each time. Film takes this away.

  • Parasum

    That’s odd, because the return-motif is a way of ending events in the human world without requiring the hero to die. Unless your comment is about the TV series, which I’ve not seen. 

  • Parasum

     Scansion would seem to require (something like):

    Hic jacet rex Arturus,
    Rex quondam, rex futurus

    - and even that still sounds a bit awkward. It would sound better if it were re-written.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m always flabbergasted when Moderns imagine that their Latin is “better” than that of its native authors…

    There are four stresses, in the Late/Mediaeval Latin lines, and the original text — your “correction” adds an ugly fifth stress in the first line.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

     Yes, this part of the discussion was about the TV series ‘Merlin’ which I was contrasting with the wonderful extracts from Malory,

  • Deodatus

    You bring a lovely eclectic perception in your articles!  So many treasures shine in this perception enlightened by the Christ light – an Epiphany thought:)!  Many thanks.

  • Parasum

     Malory is far more atmospheric :)

  • Parasum

    About gradations of love: Jacopone of Todi,  & Dante, make the same point, more clearly than the Arthurian legend does, in which so much else of a dubiously Christian nature is also going on. STM Dante’s great poem would be far better “reading for all who care for souls”. It is after all explicitly Christian, & very searching. Dante has no equal but Homer.

  • Parasum

     He is either a foreign body, or not necessary. The story would be wilder without the Christian atmosphere, but little changed overall

  • Angela

    I found Rosemary Sutcliffe’s King Arthur Trilogy very good, with religion playing a natural part in the lives of the characters. The BBC’s Merlin I found amusing in that they had their ‘old religion’ but didn’t appear to have a better one or even one at all, the invention of a sort of kingdom of medieval atheism wasn’t at all convincing