Stephen Mark Carey

title.none: Kim, The Knight Without the Sword (Stephen Mark Carey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0112.009 01.12.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen Mark Carey, Emory University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Kim, Hyonjin. The Knight Without the Sword. Arthurian Studies, Vol. xlv. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Inc, 2000. Pp. v, 155. 60.00. ISBN: 0-859-91603-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.12.09

Kim, Hyonjin. The Knight Without the Sword. Arthurian Studies, Vol. xlv. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer Inc, 2000. Pp. v, 155. 60.00. ISBN: 0-859-91603-0.

Reviewed by:

Stephen Mark Carey
Emory University

This brief study grew out of Professor Kim's doctoral dissertation. The author aspires to challenge assumptions of Malorian Chivalry as anachronistic escapism on the one hand and as a complementary but irreconcilable aspect of fifteenth century life on the other. Kim aspires to offer a view of Malorian Chivalry compatible with reality of the gentry in fifteenth century England. Of course, the first assumption challenged cannot be seriously defended and the inclusion of this position evidences the author's heavily reliance on older research in particular that of Eugene Vinaver. The second assumption, as the author himself demonstrates, is not so clear-cut. Many of the scholars cited by Kim have attempted to reconcile Malory's Morte Darthur with its social context. Nonetheless, Kim certainly provides several convincing readings substantiating an advocacy of the gentry in the Morte Darthur.

Ultimately, Kim's close readings and range of historical data do indeed demonstrate a "gentry bias" in the language and structure of the Morte Darthur. The difficulty I had with this work lies in abscence of any theoretical discussion of the relationship of the literary work to its historical context. A superficial handling of earlier romances exacerbates this problem and the limited perspective results in the author finding "unique" correlations between Malory's Morte Darthur and its historical context, which are actually endemic in the romance tradition. For example, the second stated goal of the study expresses these problems: "Second, I will examine how Malory exploits the romantic motifs of loyalty and friendship to implant a distinctively late medieval form of political institution in his timeless world of adventure. I will also demonstrate how he articulates, by weaving an intricate network of such personal relationships, some of the weightiest social concerns of the fifteenth-century aristocracy including the concept of good lordship." (18) The world of Arthurian adventure is not necessarily timeless. At the very least, the romances are governed to some extent by the liturgical calendar. Furthermore, all of the Arthurian romances contain some expression of contemporary concerns relating to their historical contexts and Kim never seems to recognize that tradition or Malory's place in it. Moreover, the engagement with question of ideal lordship plays as great a role in the entire the Arthurian tradition as does the figure of Arthur himself and it is not something specific to Malory.

The final chapter, "The Myth of Gentility and Gentleness", treats gentility of birth and gentility of virtue. Here the author offers some problematic assumptions about the romances of the High Middle Ages. We are told that the "idea of gentility prevalent in the medieval romance is apparently antithetical to this claim of virtue [nobility of virtue]." (103) Further, Kim asserts that, "Chretien never recognizes the competing claim of virtue [nobility of virtue]." (107) The relationship between nobility of blood and nobility of virtue in Chretien's romances is oversimplified here. Nobility of virtue constitutes a central interest of the romances and the correlation of this phenomenon to blood nobility is a well-worn literary trope inherited from epic narration all the back to antiquity. The correlation of the two generally occurs in the romances, with pronounced exceptions like Chretien's Damoisele Mesdisant (Perceval 4609-4683) whose very existence makes it clear that the medieval authors are playing with appearance and the tension between blood nobility and nobility of virtue. Moreover, the situation is not all together different in Malory's Morte Darthur as Kim's own handling of Pellias episode demonstrates. The over-simplified treatment of Chretien culminates in the assertion that "Chretien's verse romances were constructed around relatively simple designs and well-focused sequences of action". Kim then cites Vinaver's discussion of the technique of entrelacement employed in the prose romances as if that somehow differentiates them from the verse romances. As promised in the prologue to Erec et Enite, Chretien's "bele conjointure" renders the seams of his narrative strands invisible.

In his conclusion, Kim finally devotes a few sentences to the theoretical question of the relationship between text and historical context. For this, however, he discusses a brief quote from Erich Auerbach's 1946 opus, Mimesis, to which he questionably ascribes the assertion that the romances were "characterized by the complete absence of socio-historical reference". Kim cites Auerbach's estimation that the romances were "removed from reality". Auerbach, of course, refers to what he perceived as the absence of concrete narrative time and space in the adventure and that fact that romances do not present a realistic picture of medieval life. It is, however, quite a stretch to re-interpret that as an assertion of the 'complete absence of socio-historical reference in romances', especially since Auerbach himself is careful to note "it [the romance] offers a great many culturally signifigant details concerning the customs of social intercourse and external social forms and conventions in general [. . .] it does contain a class ethics which as such claimed and indeed attained acceptance and validity in this real and earthy world." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 136) It is ironic that Kim refers to Chretien's Chevalier au lion at this juncture, because that very work thematizes issues of the lower nobility in the figure of Enide's father, the vavassor. Kim counters his own understanding of Auerbach with the undeniable assertion that "The 'penetrating view of contemporary reality' that, he thinks, the medieval romance lacks is, as we have already seen, abundantly found in the pages of Malory's prose cycle." He then goes on to unfairly attack Auerbach: "If Auerbach fails to see any meaningful like between romance and reality, it is more likely because, like numerous other scholars, he does not stretch his field of vision beyond the chivalrous front of Chretien's Arthurian landscape." (139) However, Auerbach did see a relationship between romance and reality and precisely on the point that Kim investigates, namely on the point of the romance's ability to reflect and shape class consciousness. On this point, Kim's study would have benefited enormously from the work Auerbach's Russian contemporary, Mikhail Bakhtin. Bahktin provides a framework for looking back at the beginnings of the romance tradition for the models of socio-historical engagement that Malory inherits--a perspective unfortunately lacking in this study.

It must be noted that Professor Kim demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the Morte Darthur and its sources. Furthermore, Kim admirably achieves the final goal of his study, which is a great strength of the work: "Third, I will argue for the centrality of myth and gentility and gentleness to the Malorian idea of chivalry, and, in so doing, demonstrate how Malory elevates the position of gentlemen like himself in his imagined Arthurian hierarchy." (18) Kim's close reading of Malory's terms of social positioning in the work and in fifteenth century England substantiates the theory that Malory expresses the ambitions of the gentry in the Morte Darthur. Kim's textual analysis shows how Malory altered or appended his sources in order to emphasize issues of landownership and enfranchisement in the political relationships of the Arthurian Court. He also shows how this presentation reflects the concerns and practices of the gentry in late fifteenth century England. Therefore, despite the problems briefly discussed above, the book offers some interesting readings and a notable collection of works dealing with the Morte Darthur and the issue of the gentry and should be of interest to those who treat this topic.