arthurian literature, reading

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 1 – Arthur’s Origins

Along with drafting the new book, my spring writing to-do list includes setting the self-pub train in motion for the two existing Round Table books, and getting ready to write Book 3. Which means I get to re-read Malory again, to get myself back in the head-space (oh nooooo what a terrible fate). If I’m going to read it, I might as well post about it.

Book 1 has 27 short chapters, into which it crams a ton of events and a surprising amount of dialog. Its compressed style is wholly different from the discursive, repetitive later books of the collection. It introduces themes and elements that show up throughout, although not always consistently.

Honestly, I love how sketchy Arthur’s origin story is. It leaves so much room to make up an additional layer of things going on in the meantime. We start with Uther Pendragon, who is quarreling with one of his dukes, whose wife Uther covets. Uther’s situation is so dire that he first comes up with an excuse to go to war against the duke, which goes badly, and then he actually falls ill on account of frustrated lust. A helpful soldier goes in search of Merlin, who has the perfect solution: use magic to impersonate the lady’s husband! Oh, and when she gets pregnant, give the baby to Merlin. This is definitely a perfectly reasonable thing for all involved to do.

The duke is fortuitously killed in battle with Uther’s army while Uther himself is enjoying the lady in question, so — still not knowing exactly what happened that night — she marries the king, which puts an end to the fighting. Here Malory, who was kinda-sorta-inconsistently concerned with continuity, interpolates a bunch of other stuff that supposedly happened at the same time as the wedding, notably Lot and Morgause’s wedding, and Morgan le Fay’s induction into the nunnery where she learns necromancy. This is useful stuff when one is trying to come up with timelines and relative ages for the characters. Eventually the weird deception is revealed to the queen. The baby is born and handed over to be raised by Ector, and christened Arthur.

There is no effort made to provide a reason for any of this. Even if Merlin knew that Uther was going to die two years later, why not leave him with his mother? Did she have an opinion? Why the years of secrecy, during which we are told Uther’s kingdom descended into anarchic struggle for the throne? Why, in short, all of the theatrics? The story never tells us, so… I get to make things up.

Merlin is very busy in the early going, disguising kings, moving babies, bossing the Archbishop around, calling for meetings of the lords to finally decide who is going to be the king. For some reason everyone forgets this, but the sword wasn’t just in the stone — there was also a steel anvil a foot thick on top of the stone, with the sword embedded in both.

Apparently Arthur’s education with Ector did not include learning to read, nor has he paid any attention to the reason for the whole gathering he and his adoptive family are attending, since he pulls out the sword without having any idea what he’s just done–his brother needs a sword for the tournament, there’s this sword right there–and no one is around to watch the first time, so he’s just sort of… low-key accidentally revealed as the king? It’s so random that it almost comes off as realistic, if only because fiction usually tries harder to make sense.

Arthur is crowned, sorts out the snarled tangle of landownership issues that followed Uther’s death, and sets up his court.

There follows the first of the Pentecost celebrations that recur constantly through the stories. At least it was supposed to be a celebration, but all of the surrounding kings are peeved at the idea of this youth being their new high king, and so Arthur gets his first war pretty much instantly. The list of enemy kings is long — there are supposed to be 11 of them, although not all actually get names — and several of them are either members of the Round Table themselves later on, or their sons are.

That’s another corner of the story I like to dig into, because it highlights both the transient nature of the Arthurian endeavor, and the feud-driven basis of the whole society, which never quite goes away. Early on we have King Lot, who fights against Arthur’s claim to the throne and is defeated here by an army that includes Lancelot’s father and uncle. After Lot’s death, all of his sons (Gawaine etc.) end up Round Table knights despite the circumstances. They are also Mordred’s cousins (or brothers, see below), and one of them, by ratting out Lancelot and Gwen, could plausibly take some blame for starting the civil war at the end–in which they all get killed by Lancelot. How much time could there possibly have been between those endpoints? And it was really just a pause, a parenthesis.

(I have placed Ban and Bors’ homes in Brittany, for whatever it’s worth. The migration of Britons to the region would have been relatively recent at the time I’m placing my novels vis-a-vis real world history.)

There’s a long section in here about the battles and who distinguished himself and how many men they were leading and how many horses they went through. It is described with verve and attention to detail regarding people getting their brains dashed out by swords. I don’t know if it’s the source material or his own experience talking, but Malory is really into people lending each other horses so they can keep fighting. This goes on until Merlin comes by and tells Arthur that it’s time for a break for a few years.

There is a brief, inexplicable aside to mention Arthur’s affair with a girl named Lionor, who had a son who also joined the Round Table, and about whom nothing more is ever said in this collection. From there we go directly to the relief of Gwen’s besieged father (and yes, I’m avoiding the “how the hell do you spell her name” problem this way). the departure of Ban and Bors back to the Continent to deal with their local problems, and the first of our major continuity stumbles: Who is Mordred’s mother, and what did Arthur know and when did he know it?

In this chapter, it’s Morgause, wife of Lot, since apparently Malory forgot that he had already mentioned Morgan. Morgause has come with her children and retinue to Arthur’s court to spy for her husband and also to have sex with Arthur. He doesn’t know she’s his half-sister, even though Merlin told a bunch of the other lords about him being Uther’s son back when they did the coronation. Possibly Malory was aware of the contradiction, because the next chapter resolves it via another encounter with Merlin (after a weird aside for the Questing Beast). Now that the damage has been done, Merlin informs Arthur of his parentage, and also mentions that he has angered God and begotten his own doom, but he’s going to get a great death scene.

I have to assume that most of the Merlins in modern adaptations are based on some other version of the story. He really doesn’t come off well at all in this one.

Arthur sends for his mother, who brings Morgan (who exists again), and the whole story of how he came to be born is explained in public, and everyone can agree that while Merlin is definitely sus, Arthur is Uther’s legit heir. Finally.

A few random adventures later, we get to the next major development of Book 1: the sword. Not the sword in the stone, the other sword. Arthur doesn’t have one at the moment, having fought Sir Pellinor, who would have killed him if Merlin hadn’t been around to cast a sleeping spell. Pellinor will be important later. For the moment, however, Merlin and Arthur ride by a lake, where an arm is holding a sword and scabbard aloft. A damsel lives in the lakes, and she gives Arthur the sword in exchange for a gift to be named later. (Whose arm it is, we never learn.) Nifty as the sword is, it’s the scabbard that is magical, preserving whoever has it against wounds. This strikes me as a very practical bit of magic.

The final chapter has to do with Arthur’s attempt to avoid his doom by killing all of the children born either on May Day or in the month of May–the chapter heading says “on May Day”, but the text says that some of the children were four weeks old and some younger, which makes no sense if they were all born on the same day. The babies were put on a ship, and the ship sank in a storm, and they all died except for Mordred, because that’s how this kind of thing always goes. He was found and raised by a random person and later brought to court (all of which is forgotten by the narrative, which treats him as a part of the Lothian clan).

Explicit liber primus, indeed. That’s a hell of a lot to pack into fifty pages. The whole matter of how Arthur creates the circumstance of his own downfall is given a weirdly offhand treatment, and it’s kinda hard not to blame Merlin for the whole thing. He appears to have gone to a great deal of trouble to set it all up so it would work out this way–hiding Arthur’s past for no clear reason, not telling him about when it would have been expected that he do so, telling him the birth month of his nemesis but nothing else. There’s a lot of ground to cover before all of it comes to fruition.

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