The Presentation of Lancelot in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur
There are many problematic paradoxes at the heart of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and the most curious paradox of all is Lancelot and Malory’s presentation of him. His problematic presentation and the whole question of his adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere casts along shadow over the whole text and has obsessed readers and critics. Malory is keen to stress Lancelot’s attractiveness to the opposite sex: “And whan Sir Launcelot was so arrayed lyke a knight, he was the semelyste man in all the courte, amd none so well made.” (Malory 483). Scala (385) maintains that, “Throughout Malory’s Morte, Lancelot maintains a consistent position as the “best knyght of the worlde” and the “floure of knyghthode.” But his adultery contradicts this description. Indeed, Edwards (89) argues that Malory has a problem which he cannot solve:
There is substantial critical agreement that Malory is altering sources in this tale to evade or obfuscate the question of adultery, and that the adulterous relationship is so much part of the traditional material of the sources that such an evasion is not quite possible.
However, Lumiansky (86) does not see this as an evasion at all: “Four of the five references to the Lancelot-Guinevere relationship [before Book 18] are Malory’s original additions,” which hardly suggests an evasion on Malory’s part. In my essay I will argue that Lancelot’s popularity for being “the best knight of the worlde” when it concerns Queen Guinevere, he suddenly falls from his pedestal to become no more, no less – simply a human.
Before we come to Book 18 there are several references to the love that exists between Lancelot and Guinevere, but it is clearly not consummated. As Lumiansky writes:
Lancelot loves the queen and he orders the individuals he conquers to report to her in order to show that he performs such deeds for her sake; she, because of his knightly eminence, holds him in “grete favoure above all other knyghtes”, but she has as yet given him no indication that she will grant him her love; he therefore can maintain stoutly to the four queens that Guinevere is completely true to Arthur.
Indeed, very early in the text “Merlin warns Arthur that Lancelot and Guinevere will love each other, but Arthur disregards this warning and weds her.” (Lumiansky 90) In order for Malory to present Lancelot as “the best knyghte of the world” and to excuse his adultery, there are moments in the text when Lancelot is not himself, when he is enchanted or tricked into doing something which he later regrets. As Scala (384) puts it
For example, while Lancelot cannot, by definition as “best knight of the worlde,” be unarmed (i.e. defeated) by another knight, there are important moments in his narrative when he is disarmed, moments in which Lancelot wears no armour, carries no arms and is significantly overcome.
But if we put aside the whole question of Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere for a moment, it is clear that Malory’s presentation of him is ambivalent anyway. Because of his status and reputation, no-one wants to fight or joust with him, so he cannot be himself (and therefore maintain his status and reputation) without, throughout the text, pretending to be someone else. Therefore, there are innumerable times when Lancelot puts on a disguise in order to be able to fight and challenge other knights. This question of “disguise” raises doubts about his moral probity, but, as Scala (385) argues
Disguise, therefore, cannot simply be read as as a covering over who Lancelot “is” but an endeavour to establish, confirm and experience that identity. In other words, he can prove he is Lancelot only by temporarily denying that he is Lancelot in order to perform and therefore assume his identity as Lancelot.
This element of disguise is similar to the episodes when he is also not himself because he has been tricked or enchanted. The problematic nature of the text here surely is partly the nature of courtly love – which was intended to be chaste and remains so in Malory’s text until Book 18. The nature of war is also problematic. As Lynch (2000, 24) points out:
Military violence is obviously necessary to the establishment and maintenance of Arthur’s new world order, yet “myschevous warre” is also recognized as both cause and symptom of Camelot’s downfall.
So Lancelot’s problematic presentation is part of a questioning of courtly love and military prowess – both of which are essential parts of the chivalric world. Malory’s intention, rather than the “evasion” that Edwards claims it to be, is to show the humanity and vulnerability of Lancelot and to show that in the end his sin of adultery is part of the destruction of Camelot, but also part of its redemption.
The Castle of Case episode shows Lancelot at his worst, but also at his most human. He is informed that Queen Guinevere is nearby and he impulsively rushes to be with her only to fall into a trap.
Where is my lady- said Sir Launcelot. In the castle of Case, said the messenger, but five myle hens. Than thought Sir Lancelot to be there the same night. (Malory 465)
When he arrives he is taken into a bed chamber and gladly sleeps, so he believes, with Queen Guinevere: “Sir Launcelot was lad into hir chamber. And then dame Brusen brought Sir Launcelot a kuppe of wine; and anone as he had drunken that wyne, he was so asoted and madde that he might make no delay, but without ony lette he wente to bedde. And so he wente that mayden Elayne hed bene Quene Gwenyver – and qyte you well that Sir Lancelot” was glad – and so was that Lady Elayne, that she had gotyn Sir Launcelot in her armys. (Malory 465)
- Quote paper
- David Wheeler (Author), 2011, The Presentation of Lancelot in Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174933