Edward Donald Kennedy

title.none: Batt, Malory's Morte Darthur (Edward Donald Kennedy)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.017 04.02.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Edward Donald Kennedy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Batt, Catherine. Malory's Morte Darthur: Remaking Arthurian Tradition. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xiv, 264. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-22998-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.17

Batt, Catherine. Malory's Morte Darthur: Remaking Arthurian Tradition. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xiv, 264. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-22998-4.

Reviewed by:

Edward Donald Kennedy
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Catherine Batt's Malory's "Morte Darthur": Remaking Arthurian Tradition reads Morte Darthur in the light of recent literary theory and is an attempt to offer, as Felicity Riddy comments in the blurb on the book's cover, "a Malory for the twenty-first century." The book should appeal to readers interested in theoretical approaches to medieval works, for it applies a virtual Who's Who of major theorists to Malory's book (Lacan, Freud, Derrida, Homi Bhabha, de Man, Kristeva, Levi-Strauss, Hayden White). Even those not all that interested in theory or who might justifiably question the applicability of some of it to Morte Darthur will be impressed by the author's familiarity with a tremendous amount of both primary and secondary materials concerning Malory's work, and this well-documented book offers its readers a wealth of bibliographic information.

The first chapter, "Structures and Traditions," examines some of the material that preceded Malory. This chapter reminds one not just of Malory's immediate sources but of other Latin and English works, particularly of the earlier Of Arthour and of Merlin and of the later Lancelot of the Laik, which give us some English narratives against which we can measure Malory's achievement. It also compares Malory's compilation with that of his French contemporary Micheau Gonnot.

The second chapter, "Desire, History, Violence," considers the readers whom Caxton was hoping to attract with the publication of Morte Darthur and compares Malory's book to the English Prose Merlin, a close translation of the French Vulgate Merlin. Batt argues correctly that the English Prose Merlin takes on meanings of its own in isolation from the context of other romances of the Vulgate cycle. She might have added, however, that the same could be said for some manuscripts of the French version: judging from eight of its surviving manuscripts, the French Merlin also circulated as an independent romance and thus was also often read in isolation from the other romances of the Vulgate Cycle (See Richard Trachsler, Clotures du cycle arthurien: Etude et texts [Geneva: Droz, 1996], p. 559). Batt makes sound observations about Malory's opening tale, including his beginning the story "in medias res" with the account of Uther's love for Igrayne and thus relying on his readers' familiarity with the chronicle versions of the story, and she draws our attention to the theme of "love out of measure," which will recur in relation to the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere and Lancelot and Elaine. She concludes the chapter with good discussions of the Balin story of Malory's first tale and a discussion of "Women and Order" in this part of Malory's book.

Some statements in this chapter are questionable. Batt should have given more emphasis to the fact that the English Prose Merlin is a close translation of its French source, and what is in the English is usually in the French. Thus when she says that "The English text...stresses...God's direction of events according to the moral behavior of human beings" (47) and illustrates this with a quotation from the rebel King Ydier that God is punishing him for fighting against Arthur ('ffor by the synne [...] that we have done a-gein [Arthur] falleth to vs all these myschaunces"), she implies that this is something new to the English text; it is, however, simply a close translation of what is in the French. (See the translation in Lancelot- Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, gen. ed. Norris J. Lacy, 1 [New York: Garland, 1993], p. 272: "...for through the sin we have on us because of that...all these mishaps have befallen us.") In the same chapter her discussion of Arthur's becoming king, based on earlier scholarship, misleadingly implies that the support of the "comyn peple" for Arthur is Malory's addition to the French (57); it is found, however, in both the Vulgate Merlin and in Malory's immediate source, the Post-Vulgate Merlin (see Lancelot-Grail, ed. Lacy, 1: 214, 217, 220).

The Third Chapter, "Narrative Form and Heroic Expectation," concerns Malory's next three tales, "Arthur and Lucius," "Lancelot," and "Gareth." Her emphasis in her discussion of "Arthur and Lucius" on "Guinevere's emblematic association with nation and its defense" (74) is questionable in light of the small role Guinevere plays in this tale. It is also misleading to say that the dream of the wheel of Fortune in the alliterative Morte Arthure, which Malory omits, "will emerge at the end of [Malory's] Morte...its nightmarish vagueness intimating something known but long suppressed" (82): there is no textual basis for assuming that the vision was "known but long suppressed," and the comparatively vague dream that Malory includes at the end of his book is taken directly from the Vulgate Mort Artu and the stanzaic Morte Arthur and not from the alliterative poem. Her discussion of Malory's "Lancelot" offers a good reminder of the differences between Malory's tale and the French prose source. This section of the chapter, however, will appeal more to those who accept current scholarship on Lancelot's "vulnerability to 'feminization' and the amenability of his selfhood to discussion in psychoanalytical, and especially Lacanian terms" (73) and less so to those accustomed to more traditional interpretations of Lancelot's character. Her acceptance of recent scholarship concerning the "gendered anxieties" of the "Lancelot" (83), her arguments that Lancelot's "very name suggests the feminine" (84), and her belief that Malory "may...project onto this character...his own anxieties about the masculine" (84) will seem dubious to many, as will her acceptance of scholarship arguing for "deep anxieties about masculine order" (100) in the "Gareth."

The fourth chapter, which concerns Malory's "Tristram," is necessarily selective in its discussion of themes in this long tale. It offers generally good discussions of the themes of madness, the questing beast, and the account of the conception of Galahad and good contrasts with Malory's contemporary Micheau Gonnot's one-volume French compilation of Arthurian romances. The next chapter also offers a good discussion of Malory's adaptation of the French Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal and of the scholarship on the French Queste. Here her discussion of Lancelot's "different registers of earthly and divine chivalry" (135) is more on the mark than her comments about Malory's "Tale of Lancelot," and her comparison of Malory's "Sankgreal" with contemporary English devotional material is also good. At the conclusion of this chapter she discusses, from the next tale, the account of Lancelot's healing of Sir Urry, an episode that parallels Galahad's healing of the two maimed kings in the "Sankgreal," and Malory, without source authority, surely intended to draw parallels between Lancelot and his son. Her belief that Malory's association of the Grail with the vessel containing the blood of Christ is "heterodox" (137) is untenable. Although the Grail was associated with the host or body of Christ in Malory's immediate source, as early as the late twelfth century Robert de Boron had associated it with the blood of Christ; and after Glastonbury monks maintained that Joseph of Arimathea had brought a vial containing the blood of Christ to Glastonbury, this was a popular conception of the Grail in England. Malory was here following orthodox English tradition.

Chapter 6 is devoted to Malory's seventh and eighth tales. It includes good discussions of Malory's often noted "May passage" and of the political importance of Guinevere in the final books. Oddly enough, Guinevere, she observes, is relatively unimportant in the scene in which she is to be executed in Malory's book in contrast to her role in the French source (172). Batt offers some thought-provoking comments on the theme of death and commemoration in the final tale. She contrasts Malory's ending with the little-known dismal conclusion to the Post-Vulgate Roman de Graal in which King Marc invades Arthur's kingdom and destroys all of the relics and monuments, including Lancelot's tomb. Her statement that Malory "shows no great interest in royal pageantry," which was suggested by an essay by Claire Vial, should be modified in light of the more recent study by Ann Bliss. (See Vial, "Images of Kings and Kingship: Chaucer, Malory, and the Representation of Royal Entries," in "Divers toyes mengled": Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Culture in Honour of André Lascombes, ed. Michel Bitot with Roberta Mullini and Peter Happe [Tours: Universite Francois Rabelais, 1996], pp. 43-54; Bliss, "The Symbolic Importance of Processions in Malory's Morte Darthur and in Fifteenth-Century England," in The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory's" "Morte Darthur," ed. D. Thomas Hanks, Jr. and Jessica G. Brogdon [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000], pp. 75-93.)

Many will welcome the application of modern theory to Malory's book, but it is at times difficult to see the relevance of some of this material to Malory or to understand what Batt is trying to say. For example, she applies Lancanian theory to Malory's account of the Grail quest:

Malory's motifs and metaphors of fatherhood in the Sankgreal intersect with fifteenth-century accounts of God the Father, but I want also to set the complexity of such imagery against the occlusions one meets in the work of Lacan, who defines the child's relation to the symbolic Father as the necessary means to enculturation. Lacan and Malory compare interestingly in that each appears to be working simultaneously in conformity with and against already available paradigms, whether literary or psychoanalytical. Lacan's occlusion of the biological father in his account of enculturation offers an interesting counternarrative for Malory's treatment of biological fatherhood. The Grail itself invites psychoanalytical interpretation as the object desire [sic] for which is constituted by its very absence [sic], although the association of the Grail with the Eucharist complicates this interpretation, for Aquinas explores the importance of the faithful's constitutive desire, in relation to the sacrament of the Eucharist, as a two-way process. Attention to Lacan's assumption of a particularly masculinist enculturation model may, however, also uncover something of the anxieties surrounding the Sankgreal's investment in the literal.

She then discusses Lacan's interest in gender identity and finds that "the interest for Malory's text lies precisely in the continuing slippages between literal and figurative, and the implications of a deconstructionist phallic enterprise for a paradigm of the dynamics of power" (147-148). Although psychoanalytic theory can certainly help explain various medieval versions of the Grail quest (e.g., as in Emma Jung and Marie Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, trans. Andrea Dykes [New York: Putnam, 1970]), I do not see that much of the above is applicable to Malory. In fact, her statement in this section "Malory's account highlights the paradoxical status of Launcelot's fatherhood as sign of election and ground of sin" (148) is dubious since it is not really Launcelot's fatherhood that is the "ground of sin" here but his adulterous love for Guinevere. Perhaps Batt is referring to the fact that Launcelot, in lying with Elaine, was under the misconception that she was Guinevere, but if so she does not make that clear. It is possible, of course, that I have not understood what Batt is saying here. It is, in fact, probable that I have not understood it.

There are other passages, not necessarily theoretical, that many will have to read slowly. Thus we find sentences like the following:

Where Thomas Hoccleve, over fifty years earlier, had confidently placed religious matters outside the reach of Arthurian romance, Malory's partial dismantling of the French Grail story's method and epistemology tests its relevance in the context of fifteenth-century anxieties about faith and community, but in this context I shall also discuss the later, non-Sankgreal episode of the 'Healing of Sir Urry' as an ambivalent celebration of the redemptive by means of the ritual deployment of chivalric embodiment that simultaneously articulates the power and the limits of Malory's Arthurian vocabulary, and reflects on narratorial positioning and perspective. (xxiii)

Our accumulating memories of individual manifestations of Arthurian violence complicate our response to its generically various representation across the Morte, and the narrative works ideologically on bodies and our response to bodies' fragmentation. In complex relation to their sources, the three consecutive and formally discrete sets of stories sequential to Vinaver's Tale of King Arthur in the Winchester Manuscript...debate violence and its representations through a series of diverse Arthurian narratives that engage the differently constituted readerships inscribed in the text in continuing negotiations of what the Arthurian 'means,' deploying the male chivalric body as focus for celebration and for anxiety. (71-72)

In Gareth's tale, which invites reading as paradigmatic of a normative masculine romance heroism, the motif of physical vulnerability is again reformulated to suggest a fantasy in which violent male action is largely depoliticized. But the stress on narrative containment and on display in that tale will raise its own unresolved questions about enculturation and agency, as well as exposing the limits of chivalric narrative. (73)

It would be misleading and unfair to say that the passages above are typical of the whole book, for Batt can write well, and parts of the book are lucid. I realize too that many readers today are accustomed to and enjoy prose like that found in the passages above and probably write like that themselves. For many, however, such passages will be an irritant and for some enough of a turn-off that they will ignore the good points this study of Malory has to offer. Scholarly books are, in general, intended for a quite limited readership, but that readership becomes even more limited to a select coterie if the reader is forced to struggle through much of its prose. That is unfortunate because Batt has put a great deal of work and thought into this study, and many could benefit from reading it.