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The Arthurian Way of Death

The Arthurian Way of Death: The English Tradition

Karen Cherewatuk
K. S. Whetter
Volume: 74
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 278
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  • Book Info
    The Arthurian Way of Death
    Book Description:

    It is arguably the tragic end to Arthur's kingdom which gives the myth its exceptional resonance and power. The essays in this volume explore the presentation of death and dying in Arthurian literature and film produced in England and America from the middle ages to the modern day. Authors, texts and topics covered include Geoffrey of Monmouth, the chronicle tradition, and the alliterative ‘Morte Arthure’; ‘Gawain and the Green Knight, Ywain and Gawain’, the stanzaic ‘Morte Arthur’, and Malory's ‘Morte Darthur’; Tennyson's ‘Idylls’, Pyle's retelling of the myth for American children, David Jones, T.H. White, Donald Barthelme, Rosalind Miles and Parke Godwin. Featured films include Knight Rider, Excalibur, First Knight, and King Arthur. CONTRIBUTORS: Sian Echard, Edward Donald Kennedy, Karen Cherewatuk, Michael W. Twomey, K. S. Whetter, Thomas Crofts, Michael Wenthe, Lisa Robeson, Cory James Rushton, Janina P. Traxler, James Noble, Julie Nelson Couch, Samantha Rayner, Kevin J. Harty.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-692-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Contributors
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)
    K. S. Whetter and Karen Cherewatuk

    Thus Sir Thomas Malory prefaces his version of the final battle between King Arthur and Mordred at the climax of his late fifteenth-century Le Morte Darthur.¹ Arthur’s words, actions, and attitude, especially his privileging of right and revenge over personal safety, indicate the force of heroic motivation and its costs in Malory’s Arthuriad.² This combination of heroism and its fatal consequences makes Malory’s Arthuriad more poignant than many of his sources. Malory’s version of the final battle also displays Malory’s own artistry and the nature of medieval storytelling and originality, for Malory inherited the outline of the narrative from his...

  6. Part I: The Early Tradition in England

    • 1 ‘But here Geoffrey falls silent’: Death, Arthur, and the Historia regum Britannie
      (pp. 17-32)

      After pages of what most commentators today regard as sheer invention, Geoffrey of Monmouth suddenly pauses his account of King Arthur to refer his audience to the ancient British book that he says is the source of his Historia regum Britannie:

      Ne hoc quidem, consul auguste, Galfridus Monemutensis tacebit sed, ut in prefato Britannico sermone inuenit et a Gwaltero Oxenefordensi in multis historiis peritissimo uiro audiuit, uili licet stilo breuiter propalabit que prelia inclitus ille rex post uictoriam istam in Britanniam reuersus cum nepote suo commiserit.¹

      (Nor will Geoffrey of Monmouth, most noble consul, be silent about this. Instead he...

    • 2 Mordred’s Sons
      (pp. 33-49)

      With this story Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing about thirty-five years before the murder of Thomas Becket, created his own version of Murder in the Cathedral, and in doing so introduced into the Arthurian legend two minor characters who continued to appear in Arthurian literature until close to the end of the sixteenth century. Geoffrey apparently added this story to help advance the political agenda he had in mind for his Historia regum Britanniae. This chapter will consider that agenda and then consider how later writers reacted to it and used the story of Mordred’s sons at times for purposes different...

    • 3 Dying in Uncle Arthur’s Arms and at His Hands
      (pp. 50-70)

      The alliterative Morte Arthure presents one of the most striking displays of death in the entire Arthurian corpus. There the king walks across the strand, turning over the bodies of his men who had fallen in the first battle against Mordred:

      The riche kynge ransakes with rewthe at his herte

      And vp rypes the renkes of all þe Rownde Tabyll:

      Ses them all in a soppe in sowte by them one,

      With þe Sarazenes vnsownde enserclede abowte;

      And sir Gawayne the gude in his gaye armes

      Vmbegrippede the girse, and one grouffe fallen –

      His baners brayden down, betyn of gowlles,...

  7. Part II: Middle English Romance and Malory

    • 4 ‘Hadet with an aluisch mon’ and ‘britned to noȝt’: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Death, and the Devil
      (pp. 73-93)

      Until recently, readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (henceforth SGGK) judged Gawain to be a devout Christian whose religion informed the poem’s representation of chivalry in definitively medieval ways. Even those who considered Gawain sinful for accepting and then concealing the green girdle regarded Gawain as a good Christian knight.¹ Not surprisingly, this view held sway when the influence of D. W. Robertson and R. E. Kaske was at its height from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it was not at all unique to the so-called ‘exegetical school’ of criticism.² J. A. W. Bennett’s treatment of SGGK...

    • 5 Love and Death in Arthurian Romance
      (pp. 94-114)
      K. S. WHETTER

      As Dante and Virgil traverse the Second circle of Hell, that devoted to the punishment of lust, Dante is shown the many souls ‘ch’ Amor di nostra vita dipartille’ (‘whom Love parted from our life’); overcome by pity, Dante asks to speak to two of the lovers, and the woman relates how:

      Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,

      prese costui de la bella persona

      che mi fu tolta, e ‘l modo ancor m’offende.

      Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,

      mi prese del costui piacer sì forte

      che, come vedi, ancor non m’addandona.

      Amor, condusse noi ad una morte.

      Love, which...

    • 6 Death in the Margins: Dying and Scribal Performance in the Winchester Manuscript
      (pp. 115-123)

      Previous contributors to this collection have explored the death and dying themes in a variety of ways: death as wielded by kings and as recorded in the lexical text of Historia regum Britannie, death as a thematic concern of characters, authors or audiences, and the death and dying of sundry Arthurian characters. Often, of course, these approaches and topics overlap. I wish to continue this interconnection and variety of death by combining these approaches with two new subjects: the problem of knights who die but do not stay dead in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur; and the manner in...

    • 7 The Legible Corpses of Le Morte Darthur
      (pp. 124-135)

      In Malory’s ‘Tale of Sir Gareth’, the eponymous hero confronts a grisly sight during his first quest. As Gareth draws nearer to the enemy who is the object of his mission, the Red Knight of the Red Lands, he comes upon a plain where he sees the bodies of forty knights hanging from trees: ‘there hynge full goodly armed knyghtes by the necke, and their shyldis aboute their neckys with their swerdis and gylte sporys uppon their helys’. Sir Gareth lowers his face at the sight and asks: ‘What menyth this?’¹ Though still a young knight newly dubbed by Sir...

    • 8 Malory and the Death of Kings: The Politics of Regicide at Salisbury Plain
      (pp. 136-150)

      A commonplace in late Victorian Malory criticism held that the final confrontation between Arthur and Mordred on Salisbury Plain represented an example of sin coming home to roost. The House of Atreus was invoked by critics well into the second half of the twentieth century to illustrate the way in which the results of Arthur’s incestuous affair with his sister produce the instrument of his own downfall, his son and nephew Mordred.¹ Although the view that Arthur’s kingdom is destroyed by sin is still current, twentieth-century Malory criticism also emphasizes the public results of Arthur’s private tragedy: Arthur’s and Guenevere’s...

    • 9 ‘Layde to the Colde Erthe’: Death, Arthur’s Knights, and Narrative Closure
      (pp. 151-166)

      The classic Arthurian narrative ends in a moment of ambiguity: Arthur may or may not die. His fate remains a subject for speculation, which allows for the possibility of narrative continuance: Arthur is the once and future king who may return to his people and his throne. However, medieval historical narrative requires finality, at least in the physical world: heroes ultimately must fail and die, partially to emphasize the superiority of the spiritual world over the material world. Arthur’s uncertain fate thus requires a corresponding certainty about other key figures in the legend: Gawain, Guinevere, Lancelot. Their fates are varied...

  8. Part III: Medieval Influence and Modern Arthuriana

    • 10 Arthurian Exits: Alone, Together, or None of the Above
      (pp. 169-192)

      A good death scene certainly makes the story live on, and Western culture’s tencentury love affair with the Arthurian legend stems in part from fascination with how certain characters die. Or not. Arthurian literature boasts several unforgettable demises, with Arthur himself and the two pairs of adulterous lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolda, figuring among the most perennially fascinating. Starting with the birth of romance in the twelfth century, the story of Arthur’s kingdom almost presumes the complications posed by the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, and that affair often co-exists with the one between Tristan and Isolda....

    • 11 Woman as Agent of Death in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
      (pp. 193-205)

      As circumlocutory as he can be, Tennyson wastes no time in alerting his readers to the role women are expected to play in his Arthuriad. Within the first hundred lines of the opening idyll, Arthur expresses his desire to marry Guinevere in terms that speak to his political ambitions and to Guinevere’s role in seeing those ambitions realized:

      for saving I be joined

      To her that is the fairest under heaven,

      I seem as nothing in the mighty world,

      And cannot will my will, nor work my work

      Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm

      Victor and lord. But...

    • 12 Death as ‘Neglect of Duty’ in Howard Pyle’s The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur
      (pp. 206-225)

      No one really cares for death, but in medieval literature death is tenaciously reconfigured as an entrance into eternal life rather than an exit from this life. In Howard Pyle’s early twentieth-century American version of the rise and fall of the Round Table, based chiefly on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, death is not easily sublimated. The ascetic, and arguably peaceful deaths of Lancelot and Guinevere narrated in the Morte do not mesh smoothly with the masculine tale of duty Pyle has fashioned out of the Arthurian tradition for an American middle-class boy reader.

      Writing Arthurian literature was as popular...

    • 13 Death and the ‘grimly voice’ in David Jones’s In Parenthesis
      (pp. 226-240)

      The Great War of 1914–18 wiped out eight million lives; eight million lives lost in a war that marked the end of a perception of history as ‘involving a coherent stream of time running through past through present to future’.¹ Paul Fussell’s landmark study of the period evokes this shift by illustrating how idyllic the summer was in 1914 before hostilities commenced. The picture he paints is an English pastoral romance: tea in the garden, walks and picnics in the countryside, sunny, balmy days when Siegfried Sassoon was playing cricket and Robert Graves was climbing in the Welsh mountains....

    • 14 Roll the Final Credits: Some Notes on Cinematic Depictions of the Death of Arthur
      (pp. 241-248)

      Sir Thomas Malory’s account of the life and death of Arthur stands as the pivotal text between the medieval and the post-medieval receptions of the Arthuriad. Malory himself synthesizes previous Celtic, English, and French traditions of the life and legend of the once and future king, and Malory is often named as putative source for modern and post-modern, especially cinematic, retellings of that life and legend.

      On the subject of Arthur’s death, Malory seems to want to have things both ways. His Arthur is dead, or maybe not.³ Missing from Malory is the simple finality of the unnamed author(s) of...

  9. Index
    (pp. 249-260)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-265)