Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Notes on Malory: the sword in the stone

So I just realised that I haven't actually read Malory for three years, and when last I did I didn't know any of the names beyond the obvious, so most of it's rather a blur of lots of knights being the best knight ever, sequentially.

Therefore, it is only logical to read it again, and take notes of anything interesting that happens along the way.

And something must be very broken in my head, because whenever I read "Uther Pendragon" I see Anthony Stewart Head, and whenever I see "Merlyn" I see Colin Morgan, and the image of Colin-Merlin actually telling Tony-Uther what to do is very, very wrong.

Besides, I think Bradley-Arthur would have a fit if he heard Merlin giving his dad masterful advice on his sex life.


1) So, the first time Sir Kay is introduced, his name is actually Kaynus:
... and with hym rode syr Kaynus, his sone, and yong Arthur that was hys nourisshed broder; and syr Kay was made knyght at Alhalowmas afore. So as they rode to the justes-ward sir Kay had lord his suerd... (8.15-17)
And thencefore he remains Kay. I don't remember him being Kaynus, or variants on it, in earlier versions: I wonder if Malory (or whoever he copied this bit from)[1] meant it as an echo of Cain? I know Kay's meant to be variously a bit annoying, a bit of comic relief or the epitome of bad manners, but surely Cain is going a bit far. Or maybe, somewhere along the way, the echo in the name became the reason.

And also, justes-ward? I wonder if the editor got that hyphen right. It could be just “as they rode towards the jousting”, but that makes the “to” slightly awkward: might it also be “as they rode to the joust-sward”, in the sense of grass, lawn, arena?

2) Arthur pulls that sword out of the stone six times. Firstly, all alone, to provide Kay with a sword (8.27-28), then in front of Kay and Ector (9.14), then in front of the assembled lords four times (9.40, 10.5-9, 10.19-20) before they believe it.

The first three seem to be a logical progression, the burden of proof of entitlement, and provide a logical dramatic structure as well: witnessed only by himself and God, innocent and not recognising the import; witnessed by his family and learning that he is something else, that they are not his blood family and is now destined to be king; witnessed by the barons, proving his identity to the whole country. Besides, everyone knows these things happen in threes.

But then the story is pulled out of shape: the barons don't believe him. I suppose there are at least two reasons for it, and one is the narrative necessity for resistence at this point if Arthur is to win his throne, because it's much more interesting if there is fighting and besides, what about all those juicy stories left over from warlord days where he has to carve out a kingdom by defeating people? Wouldn't do to leave them out, just for the sake of one neatly shaped myth. So you have at least two legends tacked onto each other - warlord and divine appointment.

But then, for the second reason, we must have several more versions rolled into one. The first two drawings-out take place on New Year's Day[2], the third twelve days afterwards. The next three are, variously, Candlemas, Easter and Pentecost. So unless there's some precedent about having to prove oneself at each of the major Catholic feast days throughout the year, I'd guess that Malory, or his source, had seen different version in which the final proof happened on different days, and incorporated them all - for added legitimacy!

And is Arthur still meant to be two years old at this point?

3) “And the thyrd syster, Morgan le Fey, was put to scole in a nonnery, and ther she lerned so moche that she was a grete clerke of nygromancye”. In a nunnery[3]? Honestly? I can buy that she got a much better and more literary education there than she might have elsewhere and therefore had the tools to learn “nygromancye”, theoretically, but - the nuns had those books in their library? I think, Malory, you may be protesting a tad too much with this whole 'impose Christianity on the pagan myths' business.

On the other hand... everyone knows Morgan le Fay, and knows what he means she learned there. So if he just means “And that is where she learned all her Stuff, because YOU KNOW WHAT goes on in THOSE places”... isn't that a fairly extreme example of male paranoia of all-female societies? Sure, they might have the father of the local chapter of monks being nominally in charge, but behind those walls... who knows what those strange, floaty women in weird clothes get up to.

4) On that note, Malory is very careful to preserve the shape of the original myths but keep them acceptable to Christian sensibilities. Such as his insistence that Arthur, though conceived through trickery and Uther taking on the shape of Igrayne's husband, is not illegitimate, through two carefully timed (and carefully insisted on) chances. Firstly, as Uther rides off in Gorlois' shape, Gorlois attacks Uther's former position and is killed, and therefore “after the deth of the duke kyng Uther lay with Igrayne, more than thre houres after his deth, and begat on her that night Arthur”. So it wasn't adultery, as we are told twice in a sentence, because that would presumably make him a bastard, as much as him being born out of wedlock. And, of course, Uther and his trusty Ulfius make sure to avoid the second as well.

Then we have the emphasis on Arthur's baptism (6.15-27). We have preserved Merlin's insistence that Arthur be delivered to him unchristened (and again I'm getting disturbing images of Colin Morgan holding a baby Bradley James, which is just wrong too), which might have been at one point a remnant of some tension between Merlin as Christian wise man and pre-Christian... something, rewriting magic as mysticism[4]. But here it just serves the secret-heritage plot, because no one but Merlin knows the name he bestowed on the royal child.

And again, all the events of the sword-from-the-stone legend are surrounded in Christian trappings. Uther, on his death bed, gives his unknown son “Gods blissyng and myne, and byd hym pray for my soule” (7.9-10); to call an assembly of the lords, Merlin goes and has a friendly chat to the Archbishop of Canterbury (and there's an image I have trouble fitting into my head, for reasons for once wholly unconnected with any BBC TV series), and they, when they come, “made hem clene of her lyf, that her prayer myghte be the more acceptable unto God” (7.25-26). And masses are said, and though it looks like Merlin orchestrated this whole event, mysterious stone included, it is emphasised repeatedly that “God wil make hym knowen”, he “that shall encheve the swerd” (8.1-2).

5) Speaking of Christianising - how about Anglicising? The stone containing the sword, and therefore presumably all the events centred on it, including Arthur's coronation, are “in the grettest chirch of London - whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon”. Well, that's definitely one way to reconcile the fact that you revere a Welsh king with the fact that you revile the Welsh. And all that pother about him being crowned in Caerleon (or Carlisle, or Cardiff, or Camelot, or one of those other somewhat interchangeable Welsh places starting with C)? Easily sorted.
[After the coronation at St Paul's (or not), and after] the kyng had stablisshed all the countryes aboute London... within fewe yeres after Arthur wan alle the North, Scotland, and alle that were under their obeissaunce, also Walys... Thenne the kyng remeved into Walys and lete crye a grete feste, that it shold be holdyn at Pentecost after the incoronacion of hym at the cyté of Carlyon. (10.38-44)
So, two coronations - one nice and Christian and English, as king, and one nice and mythic and Welsh, presumably as high king - or possibly just another ceremony to say “See me, I have totally done what Edward I will never manage: take that, Norman apocryphal-descendents!”

Wales has not succeeded in culturally invading England, oh no. England physically invaded Wales. Well, the Welsh are too backwards for it to have happened any other way, surely?

“A parte of it helde ayenst Arthur, but he overcam hem al, as he dyd the remenaunt, thurgh the noble prowesse of hymself and his knyghtes of the Round Table” (11.1-3). Which doesn't exist yet. Though, given I have distinct memories of entire knights coming back to life in later books of Malory without any mention of supernatural intervention, I suppose a slightly anachronistic piece of dining room furniture isn't too much to expect.

Also, I think he is still about five years old at this point.

All quotes from Malory, Thomas. Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[1] And please take that little hedging comment as read every time I say “Malory”.

[2] Or possibly Christmas. It's New Year's throughout page 8, not mentioned on page 9, then at 10.5-7 we have “And right as Arthur dyd at Cristmasse he dyd at Candelmasse, and pulled oute the swerde easely”.

[3] Didn't even prevent her from being a breeder of sinners, did it?

[4] And that is definitely a trick Colin-Merlin should try on Tony-Uther, if he ever looks like getting executed for sorcery.


Fretful Porpentine said...

I always assumed that we're supposed to take it as a given that ten or twelve years of civil war elapse between Uther Pendragon's death and the sword-in-the-stone episode, but come to think of it, this is indeed not very clear...

Ceirseach said...

Well, Malory says two years elapse between Arthur's birth and Uther's death, then, yes, there must be MEANT to be some more time lapse, but he talks about it all as if it followed on in the next few weeks or months, with Merlin setting the whole sword-in-stone thing in motion as a logical response to the death. And again between the coronation and all the wars that Arthur wins to be acknowledged as king - logically there's probably some time between him being a little confused boy and him swinging a sword about and looking absolutely magnificent on the battlefield, but you wouldn't know it from the narrative!

Lady D. said...

It's so good to see you posting again after all your dramas (sorry I missed those at the time or else I would have sent some moral support!)

I love these observations - they really made me smile. I have not read Malory myself - but I have seen the TV show, so yes, I had the same images as you lol!

Ceirseach said...

Thanks! They weren't really dramatic dramas, just, you know, the sort of thing that gets on top of you and makes you slink back into your shell and only do what you have to do with your day, rather than actually feeling inspired to, eg, write blog posts. But, all good now.

And, yes, you don't have to have read Malory to have read Malory. He plagiarised everyone before him was plagiarised by everyone after him, so you tend to sort of absorb him by cultural osmosis.

Lady D. said...

Ahhhh, I like a bit of osmosis lol!

highlyeccentric said...

Hmmm... Also, later on, Galahad pulls a sword out of a floating stone. Go figure.

As for Morgan's nunnery necromancy - a friend of mine did his Hons. thesis in French and Italian at USyd on 'the education of the witch': this nunnery necromancy business isn't just Malory. Unfortunately I can't remember who it WAS. I do think most of his sources were 14thc. or later - consider the trouble the church had / went to / gave itself in the 13th and 14th centuries with regards to controlling female religious and limiting their access / right to complex theology... you're probably right on the paranoia bit.

Also, gratuitous link: http://i291.photobucket.com/albums/ll299/nakedphilologist/Icons/colour-me-quick-merlin-childreninne.png

Ceirseach said...

Not to mention Theseus. Now I have strange images of Arthur, Theseus and Galahad meeting up over beers to discusss sword/stone sizes. "You only had to pull it out? Luxury, mate - I had to lift the whole stone!" "Yes, but what did you find under yours? Sandals!"

And, I did not know that about the nunnery/evilschemingsorceresswomen thing, but it definitely makes sense. Women + mysterious uncontainable power = evil, after all.

Also, yay, pudgees.