The legend of King Arthur and his court was gradually developed by many authors, eventually establishing itself in the tradition of courtly romance in the second half of the twelfth century10 and appearing in almost all European languages. His fame was sustained and nurtured by the medieval chroniclers and later on by writers of prose and poetry; therefore it is a collaborative work, a mass of stories created over centuries by many authors, drawing on various sources and constituting a world of its own. It is considered “the largest body of vernacular literature ever devoted to a single subject.”11
Sir Thomas Malory’s work is the one that provided probably the most unified collection of Arthurian legends in the English-speaking world and to whom this tradition owes its survival. He drew on multiple sources, he translated a major part of the book from French, and he added his own stories and remodelled some of the texts, and thus created a unique text that revived the interest in Arthurian legends in 15th century England. For today’s readership it is his name that is connected with the Arthurian legacy most often. Despite the fact that his book is scorned for many imperfections or even errors by some critics it is a remarkable achievement. Malory is “the prose-writer whose language has given new life to a dying tradition.”12
Chronicles in the Middle Ages were considered a serious matter and aimed to record historical facts, even though some of these have proved to be doubtful or entirely fictitious. The important part played by these chronicles was their respectability in the Middle Ages. Many medieval authors claimed to draw on previous works and originality was not of any great concern. More important was the authority found in the older texts and tradition which especially the British were keen on. W. Lewis Jones writes: “In the reign of Elizabeth herself, the heightened patriotic feeling of the day was a potent stimulus to all who sought to discover material for, and to reconstruct from it, the history of their country.”13 This illustrates the atmosphere in which the great king Arthur was exactly what was needed to support the patriotic pride.
The Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth or Layamon was Britain’s epic hero, fearless warrior and a king full of prowess. That was just the material that could be further exploited for the purposes of satisfying the changing character of the readership. As a consequence of the rise of the medieval romance genre, the traditional legends full of brute force, manly actions and battles became obsolete and did not satisfy the audience anymore. The change lay in demand for a wider variety of themes exploited in literature. People “wanted glamour, love, courtliness, magic.”14 And so the Arthur of popular tradition and chronicles became the “new” romantic hero. But because of this transformation, he also lost some of his exceptionality, as he was suddenly accompanied by other characters of equal prestige and virtue. The interest shifted from the heroic king toward courtly knights of great prowess and outstanding reputation. It is no longer only Sir Gawain and Sir Kay, but the reader meets Tristram, Perceval and Lancelot followed by many others whose stories compose the bulk of the new romances. The romantic authors were concerned with “knight-erranty and courtly love.”15 The concept of chivalry was prominent in the romantic ideals and thus represents the most important aspect of the stories. King Arthur became the icon arching over the whole scene. He conquered the lands, created an unprecedented kingdom and then let the other chivalric heroes roam it and seek adventures while he guarded Camelot and kept uniting the idea of the Round Table.
The landscape also changed. It was no longer geographically bound. The court of King Arthur welcomed every possible hero, legendary or new, and took its adventures into many real places as well as those that have never existed.
And most importantly the medieval romances from the 12th century on procured an eerie atmosphere of mystery, fantasy and magic. The supernatural quality of the events taking place in the stories became the spirit of romance. It was an imaginative device which offered the possibility of the impossible. It created a space where supernatural intervention opposed the reality with marvellous opportunities.
Romances exploited the theme of magic in many ways. The supernatural encounters often served as a form of test of the hero’s virtues and the adventures were usually of otherworldly origin or were driven by a subtle supernatural intervention. Romance also presents ambivalent images of the use of magic. “It probes too the boundaries between demonic, divine and otherworldly, and between providence, destiny and coincidence.”16 Hence there occur characters whose actions are judged by the reader based on the original intention and result of those actions rather than on the means of their conduct. It is also interesting to note that in medieval romance the images of humans conjuring dangerous demons are not present. The magic of romance rather tends to be focused on more practical and physical subject-matter. The material ends are sought when the characters of romance put magic into their service. The desired effects are usually connected with knowledge and divination, healing, protection, shape-shifting or control of human emotions (love-spells).
Due to his sources and contemporary literary practice, Malory follows the romantic course but he is proven to be sceptical in his view of the supernatural. He employs the language and style of chronicles while thematically following the romantic style. The comparison of his texts with the French source texts shows significant simplification of supernatural occurrences. He tends to eliminate the less significant demonstrations of the supernatural, for example by replacing an invisible bridge with an ordinary boat. Roger S. Loomis comments on this issue “ ... it has never been properly explained how it comes about that while in Malory there are fewer marvels and more realistic detail, the feeling of the marvellous is not lessened, but intensified.”17 Despite the more subtle presence of magic and supernatural instances in Malory’s books, the atmosphere remains intensely otherworldly; and the more the reader is left in doubts, the more opportunity for one’s own imagination is present. The words ‘marvel´ and ‘marvellous´ indicate the general spirit of the work. The marvel stretches from the impressive physical action of the heroes to supernatural objects and events. “Malory creates a legendary, half-familiar landscape where the marvellous is possible, where magic arts may be inherited or learned, and where the supernatural may intervene.”18
Despite the supposed scepticism towards magical concepts, the natural magic, enchantment and supernatural powers are treated with credibility and their function in the narrative of Le Morte d’Arthur is indispensable. Objects such as stones and plants are credited with occult powers. The ‘vertu´ of the stone in Dame Lyonesse’s ring gives Sir Gareth´s armour marvellous powers: “And thus at every course that he rode to and fro he changed his colour ... .”19 It is accepted within the stories that such powers can be invested in almost anything and that they might be bestowed upon humans as well. Such investment of powers and magical abilities might be of various origins. Sir Gawain receives “such a grace and gift that a holy man had given to him” and thus he possesses three times his strength at every noon and seems “a fiend and none earthly man.”20 Marvellous creatures also appear in the narrative. The Questing Beast21 that can never be caught symbolizes the endless nature of the quest. Especially frequent are giants and dwarfs.
Dream visions and prophecies are another major theme in this romance world. No matter if great prophecies of Merlin or more subtle, odd knowledge of other characters, the concept of divination is one of the most characteristic features of romance literature in general.
“While the possibility of magic remains a constant in the Morte, the
treatment of the supernatural shifts.”22 Malory’s books can be figuratively divided into several parts. In the first part the destiny manifests itself in Arthur’s prophetic dreams and the books are dominated by Merlin and his prophecies which heighten the sense of destiny hovering over the lives of the characters, once dark and menacing, once verging on divine providence. After Merlin’s disappearance from the scene the books become dominated by a collection of female enchantresses, among them Morgan le Fay or the Lady of the Lake, and various more or less supernatural adventures experienced by the knights. Then follows the story of The Holy Grail and the emphasis shifts toward explicitly Christian supernatural where the battle between good and evil intensifies. Towards the end there is again a shift toward the hovering sense of destiny and the supernatural forces intrigue the fall of king Arthur’s court.
Malory’s text tends to cut clear boundaries between individual sections. He does not strive to achieve any specific unity of the text or it is simply given by the character of the progress of his writing about which historians have but little information. This discontinuity of Malory’s text happens to be one of the sore spots for critics. But as John Lawlor stresses in his Introduction to the version of Le Morte d’Arthur edited by Janet Cowen: “We must, however, remind ourselves that there is no one version of Arthurian material toward which all others must aspire.”23 Therefore the fact that the Morte is a collection of loosely connected parts rather than a unified storyline should not be perceived as a flaw in comparison with other works concerning Arthurian legends. One part intertwines with others in limited manner, but this is not to say that individual books or parts of the work do not connect with each other. The character of King Arthur, as well as many references to previous or future events, give the text the correspondence essential for understanding of the work as a compound entity. The specific narrative pattern also contributes to the sense of unification despite the many smaller inconsistencies and imperfections.
His “abruptly divided clauses, some of them strikingly brief and compact, and all of them spoken rather than written”24 represent his peculiar style.
And Sir Launcelot awoke, and went and took his horse, and rode all that day and all night in a forest, weeping. And at the last he was ware of an hermitage and a chapel stood betwixt two cliffs; and then he heard a little bell ring to mass, and thither he rode and alighted, and tied his horse to the gate, and heard mass.25
Malory’s text might be less coherent in the structure than other Arthurian texts, but the important fact remains: it is the most compound version of the Arthurian legends, it is a place where all the great heroes meet and where all the individual storylines are found together.