arthurian literature

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur Book 13 – Grail 1

We had a busy start to the month here, and now it’s already half over. I haven’t had much time to write posts, so we are returning again to the Arthurian story, now entering its penultimate phase. I’m not super-fond of the Grail story as a story, but it does have a lot of interesting stuff, even if some of it plays oddly against all of the previous books.

We start with a throwback to the first part of the collection, the feast of Pentecost. All the knights have gathered per Arthur’s tradition, and a mysterious damsel arrives looking for Lancelot. He goes off with her to a nunnery, where a couple of his cousins are staying, and is introduced to Galahad, who is so beautiful that all of the nuns cry. Galahad gets knighted but doesn’t go back to Camelot with his relatives just yet; there’s some stage-setting to be done before he can make his entrance.

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arthurian literature

The Forgotten Round Table: Sir Borre

One of the things that fascinates me about the Arthurian canon is not just the weirdness of what’s in it, but the number of things that are left out of it. We can’t tell from this distance whether these holes in the narrative have always been there–it’s easy to imagine an oral tradition that was at one point common knowledge going out of fashion, or failing to be transmitted to a new population, so that what eventually got written down was missing things that at one point previous, everyone just knew.

Enter – and quickly exit – Sir Borre.

…There came a damosel that was an earl’s daughter: his name was Sanam, and her name was Lionors, a passing fair damosel; and so she came thither for to do homage, as other lords did after the great battle. And King Arthur set his love greatly upon her, and so did she upon him, and the king had ado with her, and gat on her a child: his name was Borre, that was after a good knight, and of the Table Round.

–Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur (p. 18). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

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The (Kinda) Forgotten Round Table: Sir Lancelot

I can already hear you thinking, He’s not a forgotten character. This is absolutely true, however there’s a lot of hilarious stuff that gets left out of modern adaptations, which tend to foreground the love triangle.

I’m going to stick with Malory for this post, because I’m still grinding my way through Chretien de Troyes. The stories are, of course, inconsistent. Malory tried, but continuity wasn’t actually a thing yet, so even within his one collection, there are points where the passage of time just doesn’t work, and the characterization is wobbly at best.

Which Bits?

If you’re skimming the 500-odd pages of Le Morte D’Arthur for Lancelot stuff to read, you can skip the first four books entirely, because his only appearances are in Merlin’s prophecies. Of the remainder:

  • Book V is the war with Rome, in which he barely appears.
  • Book VI is “his” book, and contains a bunch of short adventures all jammed together in what must have been one very exciting year. None of them are more than a few pages long, and there’s a lot of variety.
  • Book VII is Gareth’s, in which Lancelot has a minor supporting role. Gareth is a cupcake, so you should read this one anyway.
  • Books VIII, IX, and X are Tristram’s story, which will be addressed in a future post. This has some of the best Lancelot background bits; he spends a lot of time rescuing fellow knights, being gracious, and face-palming. Skim it, and don’t try to keep track of the main character.
  • Book XI starts off the nearly 100 pages of the Grail story. A lot of things happen to Lancelot in this. None of them are good. Also, 15 years pass between Galahad’s birth and the quest, during which no one else ages.
  • Book XVIII, XIX, and XX are largely concerned with Lancelot and Guinevir. Includes some funny adventures, some serious ones, more tournaments, and the romantic part of the tragic endgame.
  • Book XXI is the other tragic endgame with Mordred, which is almost an afterthought here, and then more romantic tragic endgame, because even with Arthur dead our lovers aren’t allowed to be happy. Read it if you like to be sad.

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Resources: The Camelot Project

This is going to be a short one, I’m afraid, but who says a blog entry has to be long to be useful? The Camelot Project is available thanks to the University of Rochester, and it is amazing. I first ran across it while I was writing The Prometheus Tapestry; I was looking for source material on Gawaine other than the Green Knight poem. The collection is not exhaustive, of course, but it has a lot of useful texts and artwork online (the reference sections are not thorough built out at this point).

The quality varies widely, but there’s plenty of good stuff, and a lot of writers who were unfamiliar to me. Other than the wealth of poetry and stories from centuries past (some of which are usefully footnoted), of particular delight is Raymond Thompson’s series of interviews with late-20th-century authors who have written in the Arthurian world. There sure are a lot of us. 🙂