23 December 2012

“Alas, who may truste thys world?”: Malory’s Conception of Earthly Knighthood and Christian Living

Author's note: my ideas about Malory’s work have shifted quite a bit since I wrote this essay, and a good deal of evidence from Le Morte Darthur suggests exactly the opposite of what I assert in this piece: though Le Morte Darthur is explicitly religious, almost exclusively promulgating the ideals of Christian living, a strong, fundamental undercurrent throughout the work suggests that it is the earthly life of the knights and, by extension, earthly life in general that matters most to Malory; the continual focus on Lancelot, Galahad’s relative inactivity in the narrative, and the consistent reduction of didactic proselytizing from his source material suggests that Malory’s main priority in the Morte is not to disseminate any kind of overtly religious message. Furthermore, the genre within which Malory is working, primarily that of romance, glorifies adventure, heroism, magic, and amorous relationships, ideas that frequently run contrary to Christian idealism.
            While Sir Thomas Malory does not explicitly declare his overarching purpose for writing Le Morte Darthur anywhere within his text, his narrative about Arthur and the knights of the Round Table follows a clear trajectory showing the decline of earthly knighthood and the ascendency of Christian living. The drastic nature of this progression is seen through the circumstances in the first and last few pages of Le Morte Darthur: the book begins by describing a king besieging the castle of a rival warlord while also seeking the aid of a magician in order to ravish the warlord’s attractive wife, and the book ends with the remnant of Round Table knights discarding their arms and devoting the remainder of their life to the church. Between these two drastically opposed circumstances is a gradual progression from secular to Christian that involves all the characters in Malory’s work and culminates in a peaceful restoration of order brought about by the Round Table knights’ unequivocal devotion to heavenly, Christian living.
            While the primacy of Christian living is clear when evaluating the beginning and end of Le Morte Darthur, the rest of Malory’s work, particularly The Noble Tale of the Sankgreal, introduces many ways in which these two systems are fundamentally incompatible with each other. A great deal of scholarship discusses the ways in which Malory mixes these two codes of living and says nothing definitive about either. Many critics highlight how Lancelot “dramatizes the difficulty of enacting one’s convictions as a Christian while beset by the temptations of the world and of his own nature” or how Lancelot “lived as nobly as can a man who frankly accepts and does not renounce his disposition to sin” (Hynes-Berry 245, Davies 358). Other scholars emphasize how the Sankgreal section introduces new values that require Arthur and his knights to “mingle the terrestrial and celestial” or how “Malory’s work presents us with an intriguing blend of Christian and chivalric values” (Falcetta 25, Grimm 16). Rather than showing how the tragedy of Arthur’s death is brought about by the failure to reconcile the earthly and Christian paradigms, Malory actually shows that these two systems are mutually exclusive and that adhering to Christian living is the only way to achieve peace in an unstable world.
            Naturally, Malory must first establish that a problem exists; he does this structurally by beginning his narrative with circumstances of dubious Christian morality. The very first episode in Le Morte Darthur is the scene wherein Uther enlists the help of Merlin to sleep with Igrayne, another duke’s wife, which leads to Arthur’s birth. What is more intriguing is that Arthur’s early reign is not much different. He relies heavily on Merlin’s advice, he has a child, Borre, out of wedlock with a woman named Lyonors, he has another child, Mordred, out of wedlock with his step-sister Morgawse, and he orders all the children born on May Day be massacred by sending them out to sea.  Even after all of the earthly conquests leading up to Arthur’s solidified kingship, the oath he requires the knights of the Round Table to take is devoid of explicit references to Christianity. Malory describes the oath at the end of the Weddyng of Kyng Arthur section:
The Kynge… charged them never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of forfiture of their worship and lordship… and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour], strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell, for no love ne for no worldis goodis. (77)
 While many of these tenets fall under the purview of traditional Christian principles, in this context their enforcement is not under the authority of religion. Instead, the knights are expected to follow these tenets upon pain of forfeiting their reputation, “worship,” their lands, “lordship,” or their life, “payne of dethe,” which are all things under the authority of worldly powers, specifically the new king, Arthur.
One important part of this oath is the last section about not taking up wrongful quarrels for love. For most readers and scholars, a violation of this particular tenet is the basis for the tragic ending of Malory’s work because Lancelot is presumed to violate this part of the oath by defending and rescuing Guinevere multiple times, which in turn causes all the chaos and tragedy of the final book and for which he does penance during the remaining years of his life after Arthur’s death.
This subtle foreshadowing of the cause for some of the final tragic elements in one of the earliest sections of Le Morte Darthur seems to contradict the notions of scholars such as Eugene Vinaver who say that Malory’s work is just a conglomeration of thematically disparate volumes consisting “not of a single work with internal subdivisions into books and chapters… but of eight separate works” (Cooper 111). Mary Hynes-Berry even goes so far as to postulate that “we should not conclude that Malory deliberately set out to evolve a new kind of structure or a new story. That postulates a literary self-consciousness familiar enough today, but quite foreign to the fifteenth century” (257). In his article “Malory’s Launcelot and the Noble Way of the World,” R.T. Davies shares Hynes-Berry’s suspicion of Malory’s ability to construct a “systematic philosophy” in Le Morte Darthur because it “would require an analytic mind, and… a power of sustained and shaping imagination, which Malory does not elsewhere give more than a hint of” (364). The structural trajectory of Malory’s narrative from secular to religious, however, seems to contradict these assumptions about the dis-unity of Malory’s work.
In fact, the irony of Malory scholarship positing that Le Morte Darthur is a ramshackle compilation of translations or that Lancelot and Guinevere’s adulterous love is the cause for the tragedy of the final moments in the narrative is that Malory does not anywhere explicitly indict Lancelot and Guinevere; in fact, he praises their love, and the developing relationship between the two characters spans most of Malory’s so-called “separate works.”
More than anything else, Malory’s praises for Lancelot and Guinevere’s love indicate that something outside the superficial details of characters’ relationships lies at the heart of the Round Table’s disintegration at the end of the work. Malory discusses love in his own time toward the end of the Sir Launcelot and Quene Gwenyvere section: “lyke as wynter rasure dothe allway arace and deface grene summer, so faryth hit by unstable love in man and woman: for in many persones there ys no stabylite… hit ys fyeblenes of nature and grete disworshyp” (624). He then explains that “the olde love was nat so; for men and women coude love togydirs seven yerys, and no lycoures lustis was betwyxte them” and that “Quene Gwenyver… was a trew lover, and therefor she had a good ende” (625). Again at the moment in The Deth of Arthur when Lancelot is found to be in the queen’s chamber, Malory says “whether they were abed other at other maner of disportis, me lyste nat thereof make no mencion, for love that tyme was nat as love ys nowadayes” (649). This refusal to unequivocally censure Lancelot and Guinevere as well as Malory’s repeated insistence that their love was “olde love” where “no lycoures lustis was betwyxte them” suggests that their behavior was, at the very least, above the judgment of Mordred and Aggravain, the primary instigators in the final section of the book. Furthermore, the fact that both passages dealing with their love are intrusions by the narrator, an extremely rare occurrence in Malory’s work, might further suggest that their behavior is above the judgment of the reader simply because “love that tyme was nat as love ys nowadayes.” A reader unfamiliar with “olde love” would not be able to comprehend, let alone judge, the depth of the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere.
Given that Malory does not place the blame of Le Morte Darthur’s tragic ending on Lancelot and Guinevere, an alternative cause for the tragic end of the work needs to be discovered. Rather than taking a superficial approach to understanding Malory’s work that rests on the simplistic interactions between characters, a fundamental thematic approach better unifies and explains the overarching structure of Le Morte Darthur. One, perhaps even the only, primary thematic principle of Malory’s work is the conflict between earthly knighthood and Christian living, which ultimately becomes paramount to a comprehensive understanding of the events in the final section of Malory’s narrative.
In his discussion of love, the use of the terms “stabylite” and “disworshyp” provide critical insight into the incompatibility of earthly and Christian ideologies in Le Morte Darthur. While Lancelot is praised by Malory for the presumed “stabylite” in his relationship with Guinevere, Lancelot is repeatedly chastised for his “unstableness” when it comes to the issue of devotion to God (543). On the quest for the Grail, Galahad’s final warning to Lancelot, and his final statement before he ascends to heaven, is to “remembir of this worlde unstable” (586). Charles Moorman explains that “Malory settles on instability as the chief sin of Launcelot,” but this instability is only evidenced in relation to Christian living and not directly addressed in regard to any other element of his lifestyle (“Treatment” 501).
Even Lancelot admits to one of the hermits he meets on the Grail quest that “never dud I batayle all only for Goddis sake, but for to wynne worship and to cause me the bettir to be beloved—and litill or nought I thanked never God of hit” (519, italics added). What is interesting is that the hermit also discusses how Lancelot, if he can focus on having his “harte and mowth accorde,” can “have the more worship than ever ye had” (520). Throughout Malory, worship is equated with winning battles both in tournaments at court and in the outside world. By emphasizing the “harte” and “mowth,” the hermit is not talking about worldly worship in this case. He is talking about gaining worship in the eyes of God.
The hermit’s statement here is reminiscent of the way that Christ speaks in parables, and this type of parallelism is at work throughout Malory’s narrative. At the well with the Samaritan woman, Christ explains that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst,” which is directly contrasted with the water from the well: “everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again” (John 6.13-14). This dichotomy between an earthly and heavenly version of something is also addressed in other parables that Jesus teaches; for example, he tells his followers not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6.19-24). Christ’s explanations about how the concepts of earthly and heavenly “treasures” are both dissimilar and incompatible, like the concomitant concepts of earthly and heavenly “stabylite” or “worship” in Le Morte Darthur, provides a foundation for Malory’s thematic conceptualization of how the value systems of earthly knighthood and Christian living can be inadvertently conflated but never actually reconciled.
This dichotomy between two types of worship calls to mind the original oath that the knights take to become fellows of the Round table, and that oath’s constituent parts (defending ladies, not taking up wrongful quarrels, abstaining from murder, showing mercy, etc.) form the thematic basis for many of the adventures in which the knights partake during the Grail quest, Lancelot’s interactions with the hermit regarding the concept of worship being only one example.1 Furthermore, the episodes in the Grail quest provide the clearest examples of conflict between the codes of earthly knighthood and Christian living.
Before the knights’ individual exploits in the Grail quest even begin, however, “was all the courte trowbled for the love of the departynge” knights (504). Malory explains that “many of tho ladyes that loved knyghtes wolde have gone with hir lovis—and so they had done, had nat an olde knyght com amonge them in relygious clothynge” and given them a message from “Nacien the eremyte,” who sends orders that “none in thys Queste lede lady nother jantillwoman with hym, for hit ys nat to do in so hyghe a servyse as they laboure in” (504).
            Here at the very outset of the Grail quest, then, several important details materialize highlighting the incompatibility of earthly knighthood and Christian living. First, Malory chooses to use the phrase “for the love of” to describe how the individuals at Arthur’s court were troubled for the sake of the knights leaving on the quest, which is one of the two suspected motivations for entering in to wrongful quarrels in the Round Table oath, i.e., this subtle parallelism to the oath may indicate questionable motives of some departing knights.
Secondly, leaving the women behind is a direct violation of their original commitment to Arthur and the code of knighthood. While leaving the women behind may be a way of eliminating complications or conflicts of interest during the quest, it is clear that even attempting the quest, not to mention achieving it, requires that the knights’ paramours, and the knights’ oath to protect them, be abandoned.
Finally, the incompatibility of the Christian and earthly is evidenced in this episode by Nacien the eremyte’s conspicuous absence from the proceedings. The knights are all at court with their ladies getting ready to depart, and Nacien, a religious figure, does not enter that worldly space and does not directly speak to them. Instead, he sends an intercessory “olde knyght” in “relygious clothynge” to convey his directive. Significantly, this intercessory figure is an exact image of what the remaining Round Table knights become by the end of Le Morte Darthur.
In the last sections of Malory’s narrative, many knights have led a full life of service to Arthur and, like Arthur, they are no longer the youthful adventurers they once were. After the Grail quest, the number of Round Table knights is severely depleted and younger men are initiated into the fellowship. This repopulated Round Table does not last long, however, and after the final martial conflict between Arthur and Mordred’s forces, Sir Bedivere, one of the first, original Round Table knights, is the only combatant left standing on the battlefield. When he comes to a chapel and discovers that King Arthur is indeed dead, he “prayde the ermyte that he myght abyde with hym stylle, there to lyve with fastynge and prayers… and there Sir Bedwere put uppon hym poure clothys, and served the ermyte full lowly in fastyng and in prayers” (688). Later, Lancelot comes across the same chapel and discovers that Arthur is dead. Malory explains that his “hert almost braste for sorowe, and Sir Launcelot threwe hys armes abrode, and sayd, ‘Alas, who may truste thys world?’ And than he knelyd doun on his knee and… besought the Bysshop that he myght be hys brother. Than the Bysshop sayd, ‘I wyll gladly,’ and there he put an habyte upon Syr Launcelot. And there he servyd God day and nyght with prayers and fastynges” (693).
            From these brief episodes, one of the most important aspects of the knights’ conversion seems to be the abandonment of the outward signs of earthly knighthood. Bedivere takes on “poure clothys,” Lancelot wears “an habyte,” Sir Bors arrives at the chapel and “prayed the Bysshop that he myght be in the same sewte,” and all the other knights that join “had no lust to departe, but toke such an habyte as he had” (693). This emphasis on clothing is an echo of an earlier episode in Malory’s Sankgreal section. After Galahad is assumed into heaven and his body is buried, “Sir Percivale yelded hym to an ermytayge oute of the cite, and toke religious clothyng. And Sir Bors was allwey with hym, but he chonged never hys seculer clothyng, for that he purposed hym to go agayne into the realme of Logrus” (587). This very brief moment at the end of the Sankgreal section serves to illustrate the fundamental thematic issue at hand in both the narrative as a whole and the ending of Le Morte Darthur: Christian living and earthly knighthood cannot be reconciled; the clothing that Percival and Bors wear is an outward manifestation of this principle, and a concurrent manifestation is effected by the remaining Round Table knights at the end of Malory’s story as they find each other and devote themselves to monastic life.
In addition to the significance of their clothing, Malory may be placing emphasis on the fact that their martial arms are discarded. Malory writes that Lancelot “threwe hys armes abrode,” which could be interpreted as a simple gesture of grief, but, in light of the fact that Arthur discards his sword Excalibur, a powerful symbol of his earthly kingship and martial prowess, as one of his final living acts and that one of Lancelot’s primary stumbling blocks in the Grail quest was his dependence on his arms and armor,2 Lancelot throwing his sword away from him at this point seems more significant and perhaps even more likely. Further evidence for this abjuration of arms comes from the fact that even the knights’ horses, one of the paramount symbols of earthly knighthood,3 “wente where they wolde, for they toke no regarde of no worldly rychesses” (694).
This discarding of the outward signs of earthly knighthood is accompanied by a corresponding change in the knights’ primary loyalty. Where they once served their king with their arms, armor, and steeds, they now “servyd God day and nyght with prayers and fastynges.” Even when peace is restored to England and “Syr Constantyn that was Syr Cadores sone of Cornwayl was chosen Kyng of Englond; and he was a ful noble knyght, and worshypfully he rulyd this royame,” the knights reject the new king’s offer to serve under him: “al these knyghtes drewe them to theyr contreyes—howbeit Kyng Constantyn wold have had them wyth hym, but they wold not abyde in this royame—and there they al lyved in their cuntreyes as holy men” (697). These conceptual movements serve to highlight both the changing devotion of the former Round Table knights and to reassert the incompatibility of the earthly and Christian; where they initially came together and took a binding oath to serve their worldly king, Arthur, they now disperse after taking an oath to their heavenly king and abandon their nation’s worldly king altogether.
Even further contrast between earthly knighthood and Christian living is provided by using the terms “worshypfully” and “holy” to describe Constantine and the former Round Table knights, respectively. As mentioned earlier, the term “worship,” while possibly having strong religious connotations to modern readers, was applied to the knights’ worldly renown and reputation in their oath to Arthur, and at this point in the narrative, the word is applied to Constantine’s earthly rulership in England. In contrast to “worshipfully,” the former knights are described as “holy,” an obvious religious adjective. Moreover, Constantine is called a “noble knight” where the former Round Table knights are simply referred to as “holy men.” In fact, the very structure of the sentence describing their departure reflects the transition from earthly to Christian in its monikers for Arthur’s former knights. Syntactically, each of the knights in England is named and then Malory describes the group as “al these knyghtes.” They then “drew them to theyr contreyes,” leave England, and “in their cuntreyes” they “al lyved… as holy men.” At this moment in the narrative, then, the former knights do not simply reject worldly authority in favor of heavenly authority, they actually abandon the physical space of their former worldly associations and live as “holy men” in other lands. Malory further emphasizes this spatial relationship when he says that Sir Bors, Ector, Blamour, and Bleoberis “went into the Holy Lande, there as Jesu Cryst was quycke and deed” (697).
            This final departure of these Round Table knights serves to represent the complete and final departure from earthly knighthood to Christian living prefigured in the knights’ initial departure for the Grail quest as well as other leave-takings to seek adventures. This motif of departing from the court to go on adventures recurs throughout Malory’s work, and the gradual, changing contexts for departure of the knights from the beginning of Le Morte Darthur to the end reflects the trajectory from earthly to Christian paradigms evidenced in other elements of Malory’s narrative such as the knights’ clothing, discarded arms, shifting loyalty, alternate descriptors, and locations. In her article “Deep and Wide: Malory’s Marvelous Forest,” Sally Firmin discusses these departures, particularly in regards to the forest space, in Le Morte Darthur: knights “leave behind the court world of Arthurian society, a world governed by the chivalric code, to enter the forest world… a domain ruled by adventure, fortune, and chance… [where] the focus is on the individual knight—on his courage in the face of danger, on his skill in overcoming the enemy, on his adherence to the knightly code, and on his demonstration of ‘worship’” (26). Helen Cooper addresses this same idea in the context of the romance genre: “the mysterious knight on his charger… who emerges from the non-location of the forest to take on chivalric or amatory adventure, is one of the most compelling images of romance” (104).
Firmin attempts to set up a dichotomy between secular and Christian by citing the differences in the physical space of the forest in the beginning of Malory’s work and the forest in the Sankgreal section, but rather than a physical change of space, it seems as if Malory’s knights primarily struggle with a change in the rules that govern their conduct in the two different forest spaces, and this speaks to the importance of understanding the fundamental thematic trajectory that Malory creates in Le Morte Darthur.
Lancelot, for example, comes across two groups of knights fighting while he is searching for the Grail and “than thought Sir Launcelot for to helpe there the wayker party, in incresyng of hys shevalry,” but his party eventually loses and he “made grete sorowe—‘for never or now was I never at turnemente nor at justes but I had the beste; and now I am shamed’” (536). A recluse then explains “‘as longe as ye were knyght of erthly knyghthode ye were the moste mervayloust man of the worlde, and most adventurest. Now’ seyde the lady, ‘sitthen ye be sett amonge the knyghtis of hevynly adventures… have ye no mervayle’” (537). This critical moment in the Grail quest shows that it is not the forest itself that has changed and become “an environment far more harsh, hostile, and intrusive than any they have known before” (Firmin 34); Instead, it is the rules that govern the expected behavior of the knights on the quest that have changed. Where before, as a “knyght of erthly knyghthode,” Lancelot often joined the weaker party in tournaments and gained more worship by helping them win, on the holy quest for the Grail that same action engenders a completely opposite response: “God was wrothe with you [Lancelot], for in thys Queste God lovith no such dedis… thou were of evyll faythe and of poore bylyeve, the which woll make the to falle into the depe pitte of helle” (537).
Using the term “depe” here is an interesting choice on Malory’s part because he often uses the same adjective to describe the forest setting in his earlier sections of Le Morte Darthur, yet another reason to suspect that it is an ideological rather than physical change that occurs on the Grail quest. One particularly poignant example of using “depe” to describe the forest comes just after the tournaments celebrating Arthur’s victory over Emperor Lucius in the Sir Launcelot Du Lake section: “Lancelot “thought hymself to preve in straunge adventures, and bade his nevew, Sir Lyonell, for to make hym redy—‘for we muste go seke adventures.’ So they mounted on their horses, armed at all ryghtes, and rode into a depe foreste” (152). Here, in one of the early sections of Le Morte Darthur, readers are given the perfect example of an earthly knight armed, horsed, and delving into the open forest to find adventure. The “holy men” in the final pages are the exact antithesis of this image: unarmed, unarmored, unhorsed, and living a monastic lifestyle in an enclosed chapel. In the Grail quest, the “depe foreste” and “depe pitte of hell” are subtly associated with each other, and only a complete abandonment of earthly knighthood can allow the former Round Table knights to succeed in their new, “hevynly adventures.”
Learning the new rules of conduct through their experiences during the Grail quest, the knights eventually abandon the earthly paradigm altogether and depart from court on one last adventure, living as holy men in other lands. This important sequence of events is also prefigured in the Sankgreal section through the character of Galahad. In the quest for the Grail, only Sir Galahad completely abandons the earthly paradigm and, as a result, departs the world entirely, much as the surviving Round Table knights depart England at the end of Malory’s narrative as holy men. Highlighting the similarity of achieved heavenly perfection in each case, the ascension of Galahad upon the completion of the Grail quest is described in a remarkably similar way to the ascension of Lancelot at the end of The Deth of Arthur section. After Galahad asks to be taken up to heaven, “suddeynly departed hys soule to Jesu Cryste, and a grete multitude of angels bare hit up to hevyn evyn in the syght of hys two felowis,” Sir Bors and Sir Percival (586). In the final pages of Le Morte Darthur, the Bishop of Canterbury explains that “here was Syr Launcelot with me, with mo angellis than ever I sawe men in one day. And I sawe the angellys heve up Syr Launcelot unto heven” (696). What is even more interesting is that immediately after the Bishop describes his vision of Lancelot, Sir Bors, who was also present at Galahad’s ascension, says ‘I doubte not Syr Launcelot ayleth nothynge but good”; however, when he goes to check on Lancelot with “his felowes,” the same word used to describe those with Galahad,4 he finds Lancelot dead (696).
The numerous similarities between these two events, the father-son relationship between the two central characters, and the fact that Lancelot knighted Galahad at the beginning of the Grail quest all aggregate to suggest that Lancelot’s ascension is a result of the same perfection achieved by Galahad in the quest for the Grail. By abandoning his arms and devoting his life to the heavenly, Christian paradigm, Lancelot’s ascension evidences his complete transformation from the earthly knight armed, horsed, and delving into the forest to find adventure to the holy man unarmed, unhorsed, and living a life of prayer and fasting devoted to God.
            In this way, over seven years after the final battle between Arthur and Mordred’s armies, Lancelot, the knight most consistently associated with perfection in earthly knighthood throughout Le Morte Darthur, is taken from the world as a result of living “in grete penaunce” with his fellows (693). Here at the end of Malory’s narrative, Lancelot has completely abandoned the symbols and way of life of earthly knighthood, the same things that originally prevented him from achieving the Grail quest, to perfect the art of Christian living, just like his son Galahad. Additionally, the Bishop of Canterbury is “restored unto hys bysshopryche” after leaving his post because of Mordred’s evil intentions, and the remaining knights of the Round Table reject an offer to serve under the new king and leave England to live as “holy men” (697). All of these actions are spiritual in nature, and they are fundamentally contrary to the original oath the knights took to become fellows of the Round Table and the earthly lifestyle they led while bound to that chivalric code. Ultimately, the knights did not reconcile or negotiate the paradigms of earthly knighthood and Christian living, they completely abandoned one for the other.
            Taking this incompatibility of the earthly and Christian systems as a fundamental motif of Malory’s work, the tragedy of Arthur’s death at the end of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, like the devastation of the Round Table as a result of the Grail quest, can be seen as a consequence of failing to completely abandon the system of earthly knighthood for Christian living rather than as a failure to negotiate “the irreconcilable demands of the fellowship of the queen and the fellowship of Arthur's Round Table” or evidence of Malory’s attempt to show “how this tragic confusion of earlier times [as it pertains to adulterous courtly love] contributes to the destruction of the Round Table civilization” (Archibald 323, Moorman “Love” 165).
The source of Le Morte Darthur’s tragedy, instead, has its origins in a brief episode before the major battles that cause the massacre of nearly all the Round Table knights when Lancelot and Gawain show completely opposite reactions to the deaths of Gareth and Gaheris. After Lancelot rescues Guinevere from being burned to death for treason and Arthur goes to war with him on Gawain’s account, the “Pope gaff hym bulles undir leade, and sente hem unto the Kynge, chargyng hym uppon payne of entirdytynge of all Inglonde that he take hys quene agayne and accorde with Sir Launcelot” (664). At this reconciliation, Lancelot offers to “make hit good uppon hys body that she ys a trew lady,” a fundamental concept associated with the paradigm of earthly knighthood, but he also offers to go on a pilgrimage for the sake of Gawain’s accidentally slain brothers: “I shall firste begyn at Sandwyche, and there I shall go in my shearte, barefoote, and ate every ten myles ende I shall founde and gar make an house of religious… thys were fayrar and more holyar and more perfyte to their soulis than… to warre uppon me, for thereby shall ye gete none avayle” (666, 668).
            This incident has elements reminiscent of the departure on the Grail quest; for example, the Pope, like Nacien, sends his “bulles undir leade” instead of actually coming to England himself, and there is a great deal of turmoil as the knights are about to leave to go to war upon each other. These similarities invite a comparison of the consequent decision-making in these events, and rather than relying on the tenets of earthly knighthood, as he repeatedly does in the Sankgreal section, Lancelot offers a solution to the problem that is predicated on an abandonment of the codes of earthly knighthood including a significant change of appearance, discarding of arms, and the distinct lack of a horse: “I shall go in my shearte, barefoote.” Rejecting Lancelot’s offer, Gawain’s continual insistence on a worldly solution to the problem, “I shulde do batayle with the myne owne hondis, body for body… whan thou arte departed fro hense, wheresomever that I fynde the,” ultimately brings about all the tragedy in the final section of Le Morte Darthur (669).
            While there is certainly a compromise between the Christian and earthly in this section, Gawain does restrain himself “for the Popis commaundement,” a compromise between the two sets of values is not enough to usher in the peace that comes by the end of the book (669). Instead, a complete abandonment of the system of earthly knighthood needs to be effected in order to fully restore peace to the land.
This restoration is partially signified by the Bishop of Canterbury’s return to his station5 under the new king, Constantine, but it is primarily signified by the actions of the former knights of the Round Table. They take on new clothes, discard their arms to take up praying and fasting, let their horses wander off, become completely devoted to God, and live out the rest of their lives as “holy men.” The ultimate signifier of this peaceful restoration is Lancelot’s ascension to heaven. This “beste knyght of the worlde” abandons his earthly identity, spends over seven years devoted to the church, and is taken up to heaven by a multitude of angels. These final moments of Le Morte Darthur establish the primacy of Christian living over earthly knighthood, and by the end of the book, the incompatibility of these two ethos is cemented, and Malory has provided readers not only with a way of living but an alternative to the warring and tragedy that was so prevalent in both the fictional story of Arthur and in the turbulent reality of Malory’s own time.
Works Cited

Archibald, Elizabeth. “Malory’s Ideal of Fellowship.” The Review of English Studies 43.171 (1992): 311-328. Print.
Cooper, Helen. “Malory and the Early Prose Romances.” A Companion to Romance from Classical to Contemporary. Corinne Saunders ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 104-120. Print.
Davies, R.T. “Malory’s Launcelot and the Noble Way of the World.” The Review of English Studies New Series 6.24 (1955): 356-364. Print.
Falcetta, Jennie-Rebecca. “The Enduring Sacred Strain: The Place of The Tale of  the Sankgreal within Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur.”  Christianity and Literature 47.1 (1997): 21-34. Print.
Firmin, Sally. “Deep and Wide: Malory’s Marvelous Forest.” Thomas Malory: Views and Re-views. D. Thomas Hanks, Jr., ed. New York: AMS Press (1992). 26-42. Print.
Grimm, Kevin T. “Sir Thomas Malory’s Narrative of Faith.” Arthuriana 16.2 (2006): 16-20. Print.
Hynes-Berry, Mary. “Malory’s Translation of Meaning: ‘The Tale of the Sankgreal.’” Studies in Philology 74.3 (1977): 243-257. Print.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur, or, The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.
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Works Consulted

Archibald, Elizabeth and Ad Putter eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Archibald, Elizabeth and A.S.G. Edwards eds. A Companion to Malory. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2000. Print.
Adams, Robert P. “Bold Bawdry and Open Manslaughter: The English New Humanist Attack on Medieval Romance.” Huntington Library Quarterly 23.1 (1959): 33-48. Print.
Atkinson, Stephen C. B. “Malory’s ‘Healing of Sir Urry’: Lancelot, the Earthly Fellowship, and the World of the Grail.” Studies in Philology 78.4 (1981): 341-352. Print.
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1. 1. Stephen H. A. Shepherd explains in his notes on the text that “the oath does not have a match in the known sources” (77). The fact that the oath is likely Malory’s own creation lends even further credence to the notion that he incorporated these ideas to establish and foreshadow thematic elements that recur later in Le Morte Darthur, particularly in the Grail quest and final sections. [Back to text]
2. During the quest for the Grail, a voice tells Lancelot to enter a castle where he will “see a agrete parte of thy desyre,” the Grail (575). Immediately after he is told this, he “ran to hys armys and so armed hym… Thenne sette he hand to his suerd and drew hit” (575). He is then abruptly reprimanded by a disembodied voice that says “O, man of evylle feyth and poure byleve, wherefore trustist thou more on thy harneyse than in thy Maker? For He myght more avayle the than thyne armour in what servyse thou arte sette in” (576). Remarkably, he does not leave his arms behind after this, but instead “toke he hys swerde agayne and put hit up in hys sheethe” (576, italics added). The resemblance of the voice reprimanding him “O… wherefore trustist thou more on thy harneyse than in thy Maker” and Lancelot’s lament before he joins the fellowship of holy knights “Alas, who may truste thys world” is also a significant manifestation of the abandonment of earthly knighthood and adherence to Christian living in the character of Lancelot. [Back to text]
3. The importance of horses in Malory’s narrative is evidenced most clearly in the battles between Arthur’s army and Lancelot’s in The Deth of Arthur. Bors bests Arthur in a martial contest and offers to slay him, but Lancelot responds, “‘touch hym no more! For I woll never se that moste noble kynge that made me knyght nother slayne nor shamed.’ And therewithall Sir Launcelot alyght of hys horse and toke up the Kynge and horsed hym agayne” (663). Knights are unhorsed and horsed continually throughout Le Morte Darthur, and it is almost always a reflection of losing or gaining worship. [Back to text]
4. For a more in-depth discussion of the term “fellowship” and its significance in Malory’s narrative see Elizabeth Arcibald’s “Malory’s Ideal of Fellowship.” The Review of English Studies 43, no. 171 (Aug., 1992): 311-328. [Back to text]
5. For more information about the significance of the bishop’s exile and reinstatement see Robert Kelly’s “Penitence as a Remedy for War in Malory’s ‘Tale of the Death of Arthur.” Studies in Philology  91, no. 2 (Spring, 1994): 111-135. [Back to text]

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