World Literature

Topic: ArtMusic
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Last updated: April 3, 2019

Many obvious connections exist between the objectification of women in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur and the deepening importance of Christian, as opposed to pagan, mythologies on the cultural and social mores of Europe in the Middle Ages.  Among these obvious connections is the equation of femininity and more specifically feminine sexuality with a corruptive sense of “worldliness,” which can be understood to represent the connection in Christian consciousness between the earth and the Christian concept of sin.

  In pre-Christian traditions, nature was associated with sacred space: “If there was an Indo-European homeland, there were no temples there, only landscape. Sacral area must therefore in origin be identified by geography, not buildings[…] “nature’ inevitably underlies the choice of place in which to perform ritual” (Dowden 27).  By contrast,  in the Christian world-view, sacredness was grounded in objects and in persons, rather than in the elemental forces of nature.While it may be obvious to even the casual reader of Malory that Christian mythology  plays a central role in his articulation of the myth of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, what may be less obvious is the complete manner in which Christian ideals and images are intended to replace older, pre-Christian mythologies and ideas which were rooted in a feminine sense of nature and in the ancient Goddess religions.  In fact, it is not at all too strenuous an assertion to suggest that Le Morte Darthur represents, in its entirety, an attempt by Malory to  erect a throughly Christian facade on the scaffolding of ancient pagan myths.

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  One of the most important aspects of this facade is the way in which feminity and feminine sexuality are used as a bridge by which ancient suppositions of myth and nature are made into “modern” Christian myths which reflect a patriarchal rather than matriarchal vision of both nature and human society.Book thirteen of Le Morte Darthur, which covers the quest for the Holy Grail, comprises a microcosm of Malory’s  blending of Christian and pagan mythologies.  Within the context of  the work as a  whole, perhaps no individual book within the famous Winchester manuscript demonstrates more clearly Malory’s intention, whether conscious or not, to usurp pre-Christian mythologies with Christian myth.  Not only does this chapter provide a clear case of pagan mythologies: those associated with the “Fisher King” myth, being subsumed by a distinctly Christian myth: that of the Holy Grail, but the figure of Galahad functions with the same transformative power, replacing — ultimately — all perceived feminine virtues once associated with pagan myth with the masculine-centered qualities of chivalric knighthood.  As the sole “perfect” representative of the Christian knight, Galahad is an extremely important  facet of Malory’s overall transformation of associated myth into a coherently Christian vision.Such an intention may or may not have been a conscious idea on Malory’s behalf but rather, emerged as an instinctual outgrowth of the combining of mythological material with Christian sensibilities. Another example of this potentially unconscious tendency emerges, clearly, in the introductory verses of Chretien’s “Lancelot,” which invokes feminine imagery as its source of moral inspiration, under the guise of a devotion to royalty:Since my lady of Champagne wishes me to undertake to write a romance, I shall very     gladly do so, being so devoted to her service as to do anything in the world for her,       without any intention of flattery.(Chretien 1-30) Similarly, when Book thirteen of Le Morte Darthur opens, it is clear that Malory intends the following tale to demonstrate not only aspects of adventure but aspects of morality, as well.

  The opening scene of the book describes the arrival of a “ful fayre gentylwoman” (Malory, 612)  who gallops into Camelot, rising so fast that “her hors was al besuette”  (Malory, 612).  Here there can be no doubt that the image of a fair woman of gentle breeding astride a hot, excited horse is meant to convey anything other than sexual energy. In point of fact, the lady’s errand is one of a summoning which is connection to an earlier erotic interlude wherein Lancelot was hoodwinked into sleeping with  Elaine, King Pelles’ daughter.  Underlying this past-incident is an extremely  important detail: that Lancelot had believed Elaine to be Guinevere.This is an important fact because it reveals that Lancelot, unwilling to commit the common sin of fornication with Elaine, maintains his knightly virtue.  However, Lancelot is fully willing to commit adultery with his Queen, despite the fact that this adulterous behavior will destroy his knightly virtues and, in fact, endanger Camelot itself.  This reveals that Lancelot is essentially a “pagan” at heart, unwilling to accept the Christian morals of temperance and allegiance to a King, and not a Queen. Lancelot is a “goddess worshiper” and this single fault in his otherwise virtuous character, brings about the downfall of Camelot which, ironically, is only reversed by Lancelot’s bastard son with Elaine, Galahad.

  What is notable about the rather intricate relationships between the characters of Arthur’s court and those who associate with it is that relationships are immediately brought into a singular and ever-present contrast: the contrast between masculine virtue and feminine virtue. This contrast is very often expressed as outright conflict and in every case where there is a conflict between two characters, that conflict can be understood as a function of the gender-based division of virtues which is the underlying theme of not only Book thirteen, but of Le Morte Darthur as a whole.Again, this predilection toward the convergence of matriarchal imagery with directly Christian myth is conveyed directly through the relationships between the characters in  Le Morte Darthur.  For example, the character of Lancelot as envisioned by Malory, departs from Chretien’s earlier envisioning, specifically in regard to the sexual relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere.  For Chretien, the focus of the relationship is on Lancelot as an object of the Queen’s desire.  This desire, masked as it must be, plays a key role in Lancelot’s climactic fight against Meleagant which is foreshadowed in  Chretien’s “Lancelot” by Guinevere’s internal monologue.  As the Queen assesses Lancelot as the most desirable of knights, so, too, the reader of Chretien’s “Lancelot” will see him as flawless. Along with the Queen, the reader will feel ” never so glad in her life as she was for his return” (Chretien, 6730) and Lancelot will appear to be the “completion of joy.

”  In Queen Guinevere’s fascinating inner-monologue, Chretien paints a portrait of Lancelot as the most sublime of figures:Why is not her joy complete? Is it mingled with anger or hate? No, certainly, not at all; but it may be that the King or some of the others who are there, and who are watching             what takes place, would have taken the whole situation in, if, while all were looking on, she had followed the dictates of her heart.(Chretien 6729-7004) Chretien goes so far as to suggest that the Queen desires infidelity with Lancelot, “postponing the greeting until it shall see and espy a suitable and more private place where they would fare better than here and now” (Chretien, 7004), but he refrains from injecting reciprocaldesire in Lancelot’s character outside of that which manifests as “knightly deeds’ in the Queen’s honor. The division of virtues has signaled a moral lapse on the part of the Queen in Chretien’s story; Malory, however, pushes the relationship a step further in implicating Lancelot directly in the erotic sin of adultery.  Of note is the historical fact that “when Malory wrote about Lancelot and Guinevere, he did not use Chretien as his source” (Goodrich, 62)  and this fact is evident in the portrayal of the  couple in Le Morte Darthur.Although Malory regards the focal point of the breakdown of virtue on the patriarchal side of the equation, that is, on Lancelot’s, rather than Guinevere’s desire, his impulse to do so is based on the fundamental Christian understanding that the seductive power of feminine sexuality is corruptive to even the most noble of knights.  In other words, it was natural in the Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages to equate sin with sexuality and women, as agents of sexuality, are then posited as agents of temptation and sin.  Similarly, because women are viewed as being closer to nature and closer to nature’s corrupting forces, the Christian dogmas which reject the earthly world in favor of the neo-Platonic conception of “heaven” are the same impulses which, in the Middle Ages, contributed to the view that women’s sexuality, even a Queen’s, was naturally corruptive.

However, such a transition from myths which originally exalted nature and feminine energy to myth which  essentially inverted these ideas was neither directly accomplished by medieval writers, nor fully expressed as such by them.Instead, strange combinations of nature-imagery and Christian imagery collide in the Arthurian romances of Malory and Chretien and these strange collisions produce unique and beautiful images which reflect, not a total conversion from animism to Christianity or from femininity to masculinity in spiritual myth, but the intention to accomplish such a total transformation. A great example of this collision of myths can be found in Chretien’s description of the King’s sycamore field: “In the field there stood a sycamore as fair as any tree could be; it was wide-spread and covered a large area, and around it grew a fine border of thick fresh grass which was green at all seasons of the year” (Chretien Vv. 7005-7008).  Obviously, this description is animistic, and deeply rooted in nature and one might convincingly take it as an expression of animistic (or pagan) spirituality.  The image recalls the pre-Christian idea of sacred spaces in nature which emphasizes natural objects rather than created temples: “the sacrality of a grove may rest in the identifiable wood or forest, rather than on the altar placed, doubtless conveniently, within it” (Dowden 26).

The next passage, directly following, reveals the simultaneous impulse toward Christianity: “Under this fair and stately sycamore, which was planted back in Abel’s time, there rises a clear spring of water which flows away hurriedly” (Chretien Vv. 7008-7009).  Note that nature has been anchored in a patriarchal energy, Abel’s energy, in this passage, which concludes “There it pleases the King to take his seat where nothing unpleasant is in sight” (Chretien Vv. 7119.).  The passages reveal a dual impulse: one toward nature and one toward Christian morality — which is an important duality and in fact a possible duality only to a mind which projects a state of “sin” onto both femininity and the natural world.If one understands the division of virtues based on gender  to indicate merely the admittedly idealized social mores associated by Mallory with a mythical, European past, then necessarily, the urgency of the protection of virtues along gender lines as it is expressed throughout  Le Morte Darthur becomes dogmatic, and almost absurdly so.

  However, if the schism of virtues — based on gender — is viewed as indicative of a more fundamental, in fact religious function of myth, then the objectification of women as expressed  in Le Morte Darthur stands for something much more than a set of social mores.  The objectification of women in  Le Morte Darthur is, in fact, the main way in which Mallory is able to subvert matriarchal myths to patriarchal myths; pagan myths to Christian myths. Nowhere is this intention (or unconscious subversion) more obvious than in Malory’s characterization of Galahad.

  In addition to being the off-spring of Lancelot’s sinful tryst with Elaine (whom he mistook for Guinevere),  Galahad marks the  pivotal transition point in Book thirteen of Le Morte Darthur — simply by  appearing.  The appearance of Galahad implies two profoundly important things: first, that “sin” has consequence no matter how seemingly unintentional — and secondly, that goodness (or redemption) can be born from sin, which is a specifically Christian idea, reflected most obviously by the crucifixion of Christ itself.The idea of redemption through Christ is Malory’s thematic target in Book thirteen of Le Morte Darthur.  However, because the animistic myths and pagan legends that infused his work ran contrary to this impulse, due to the Christian positing of nature as being both feminine and intrinsically sinful, Malory had recourse to devise some symbol which would essentially unite the pagan myth of the Fisher King with the Christian myth of redemption. This symbol, obviously, is the Holy Grail, but the Holy Grail is defined, in Le Morte Darthur not so much by any intrinsic capacities or powers which are overtly attributed to it; rather its qualities are defined by those who seek it: primarily Arthur and Galahad.   The grail essentially stands for all of the aggregate qualities which reside in the hypothetical knight (or King) who receives the grail, qualities which, in turn, are embodied by the seekers.  This means, to understand what the grail represents in Malory, it is foremost necessary to understand the character of Galahad, who, alone, eventually succeeds in finding the Holy Grail.Galahad is introduced to the reader as having come from femininity and from nature.

  Lancelot discovers him living amid nuns in a beautiful woodland and the nuns regard Galahad as the essence of purity: “Sire sayd they alle we brynge yow here thys child / the whiche we haue nourisshed / and we praye yow to make hym a knyght / for of a more worthyer mans hande may he not receyue the ordre of knyghthode” (Malory, 613)  Galahad’s connection with the Holy Grail is thereby foreshadowed and  explained.  He will emerge as the truest of knights because he is the purest.  When Lancelot regards young Galahad, he views him as “semely and demure as a douue / with alle maner of good fetures / that he wende of his age neuer to haue sene soo fayre a man of forme” (Malory, 613) and this implies that Lancelot instinctively knows his son is a more complete knight than he is himself.The key to understanding that both Galahad and the grail represent the redemptive power of Christ is to remember that Galahad was born from feminine trickery and was raised in the sinful influence of wild nature, among women, separated from his knightly father due to his father’s carnal sin.  Therefore Galahad is, himself, “born of sin” and as Guinevere notes that, “he resembled moche vnto sire Launcelot I may wel suppose said the quene / that syr Launcelot begatte hym on kynge Pelles doughter / by the whiche he was made to lye by / by enchauntement” (Malory, 617).

  She remembers that Galahad no matter what his virtues seem to be, was born of feminine “enchantment” and she is able to use this mindfulness to deceive herself into believing that Lancelot, despite his sin, remains noble and virtuous.The complete transformation of the cyclical re-birthing qualities which are inherent to nature and which had been a previous part of the feminine-centered pagan religions which were based in an animistic appraisal of nature, is accomplished by Malory merely by the inclusion of the character of Galahad himself: “sir Galahad is a mayd and synned neuer” (Malory, 641).  By describing Galahad as a “maid” and yet not intending to diminish his stature, Malory is conferring upon Galahad the virtuousness and spiritual exaltation which had been previously bestowed upon femininity in the pagan and animistic religions which preceded Christianity.  The basic thrust of the sobriquet is to suggest that Galahad is chaste.  This is the reason that the word “maid” deserves special consideration.By contrast, Sir Gawaine, who also seeks the Holy Grail, like Lancelot, has experienced an immersion into feminine trickery disavowed him of this same capacity: to unite the virtues of feminity with the virtues of masculinity and in doing so become Christ-like.  Instead, he is told that he, Gawaine, has failed a crucial test: “Soo thow syr launcelot whan the hooly Grayle was broughte afore the / he fonde in the noo fruyte / nor good thoughte nor good wille and defowled with lechery ” (Malory, 641).  Therefore Galahad’s status as a “maid” surely refers most significantly to his chastity and his ability to resist the decadent charms of feminine sexuality.

While Malory’s objectification of feminity may be too subtle for the modern reader to fully comprehend, this same impulse is given excellent expression by director John Boorman in his film Excalibur, which expresses the same fusion of feminine/pagan and masculine/Christian motifs in its portrayal of the quest for the Holy Grail.However, the movie distorts Malory’s original conception of the grail quest by substituting the character of Percival for that of Galahad.  This substitution is also resonant with the work of Richard Wager who, in 1882, created an opera called Parsifal which was, itself, inspired by  “the enormous popularity of Parzival” (Goodrich, 77) a poem written by Wolfram Van Escenbach “between about 1200 and 1210”  (Goodrich, 77).  This poem reveals a similar transformation pagan-to-Christian ideals and images, indicating the heros are those who fight on behalf of the Christian church: “See how Christian men baptized to Rome wend their pilgrim way, So there was the heathen custom.

At Bagdad was their papal right, And the Baruch as ‘seemed his office purged their sins with his word of  might. (Wolfram, 206-209).  Both Van Escenbach’s and Boorman’s depiction of Parsifal is meant to evoke, like Malory’s Galahad, a character which  is equal to the Holy Grail itself and which defines the Holy Grail.The transformation from  Galahad to Percival in the movie Excalibur is backed up by the use of a Wagnerian score. This let-motif helps the viewer to understand that Parsifal is a character who embodies spiritual qualities, rather than merely those qualities which are commonly associated with knighthood.

  In Excalibur, the Wagnerian score signals the “Death of the Gods” because it signals the death of paganism and the birth of Christianity.  With this transformation comes the transformation of femininity and the disempowerment of women.  Women become aspects of the pre-Christian world, the world before redemption which is vividly described in the draft-script for the movie Excalibur, during a scene in which Percival approaches Morgana’s tree of death: “Dangling from the branches of a dead tree are a dozen dead knights of the Round Table, crows pecking at the rotting flesh in the chinks of armor. Perceval rides up, cries out in horror, and spurs his horse away” (Excalibur).  This is the land when Morgana rules, this is the same feminine power of destruction that gave birth to Mordred through trickery.

  This is the inverse power of the Holy Grail; rather than masculine redemption in Christ, wanton destruction, thirst for power and revenge, and dangerous feminine sexuality have overtaken the world.  It is a world of disorder and implies by negative what the world would look like under the rule of a feminine power.Just as Morgana pledges herself to this world of disorder and revenge when she tricks Arthur: “The moon flows in my blood to meet your seed. And already I bear him who will be King” (Excalibur) she subverts nature, commits incest in order to further her desire for power and revenge.  Excalibur portrays the threatening aspect of femininity just as it is portrayed by Malory as being 1) rooted in nature and 2) rooted in sexuality.  Of course, the two ideas may be considered united in the sense that it is ultimately feminine reproductive power which stands as the central focus of both male and female virtue in regard to Malory’s idealized vision of the chivalric code.

Purity is equated with redemption, but it is not the purity or redemption of birth into the natural world, but the purity and redemption of the rebirth of the individual in Christ which is true purity.  As such, the Christian concept of universal sin supplants the pre-Christian ideal of nature and birth as sacred processes adn replaces these ideas with the concepts of sin and redemption.  Because one is born sinful, birth is, itself, an evil.

  Birth being deeply associated with women and with feminine reproductive sexuality is also evil.  Percival, being born out of sinful lust, must be redeemed through Christ.  The let-motif of Wagner’s “Death of the Gods” insists that where the pagan gods vanish, a new God arises, and this musical cue, in Excalibur, centers the viewer’s attention on the redemptive aspects of the Holy Grail.As the draft-script of the movie indicates, the music is intended to function as the “voice” of the Holy Grail: “Enchanting music from unseen singers grows and weaves. Perceval looks back to see the drawbridge slowly closing, trapping him inside” (Excalibur).

  This “voice” ultimately transforms into human words and a riddle is posed “What is the secret of the chalice? Who does it serve?” (Excalibur).  This riddle is the crux of Malory’s transformative mythology, as represented by Boorman.  Obviously, in iconography of pagan or per-Christian mythology, the answer to the riddle would be “the Queen” or the “the Goddess” as Lancelot or even Gawaine might have answered.Instead, because the story of the grail marks an attempt at a  complete transformation of pre-Christian nature-myths to Christian symbology, the correct answer to the riddle is the ultimate disempowerment of femininity, because the correct answer for Malory and Boorman is that the Grail represents Arthur who is the King and who is now with the land.  When Percival answers: “You and the land are one. Drink from the chalice.

You will be reborn and the land with you” (Excalibur) this answer transforms the land to rebirth.  the profound overthrow of pagan ideas is nearly complete: where once the earth was a place of sin and dangerous feminine sexuality, the land is now reborn in Arthur, in Christ, through the Grail which redeems the world. Where once nature stood for sacredness and holiness, now an artifact: the Grail and a man: Arthur stand as sacred entities.  Percival’s final answer to the Grail is to divulge the secret that the Grail is, itself, a man: “You are my lord and King. You are Arthur” (Excalibur). That redemption in Christ is the sole way in which one may attain a state of purity and innocence is a distinctly Christian idea.

  The use of pre-Christian myths and imagery, largely drawn from nature, by Malory in Book thirteen of Le Morte Darthur serves the dual function of supplanting pagan ideals with Christian ideals and providing a deep, mythological basis for his “modern” legend of the Knights of the Round Table.


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