The Medieval Review 12.08.03


Clark, David and Kate McClune. Arthurian Literature XXVIII: Blood, Sex, Malory. Essays on the Morte Darthur. Arthurian Literature. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 197. $80. 978-1-84384-281-1.



Reviewed by:


Kevin Whetter
Acadia University
kevin.whetter@acadiau.ca

Blood, Sex, Malory is a special issue of Arthurian Literature devoted to Malory's Arthuriad. As the Preface makes clear, the volume originates in a conference on the same theme held at Leicester in 2009. As Elizabeth Archibald and David Johnson note in their General Editors' Foreword, it is a sign of the vibrancy of Malory studies that so many young scholars appear in this volume, though the health of the discipline is equally apparent in the presence of several established scholars. It is also a tribute to Archibald and Johnson that they gave two of these junior scholars the opportunity to edit this volume. Despite some weaknesses, Blood, Sex, Malory is, in general, an interesting collection, in places corroborating recent scholarly work on the Morte Darthur (especially in the area of gender studies), in places building on existing paradigms, and in a few places pointing us in new directions.

The volume opens with Christina Francis' "Reading Malory's Bloody Bedrooms" (1-19). Francis begins with the decapitation of Garnysh's lady and her false lover, coupled with Garnysh's own bleeding, to argue that, "Throughout Morte Darthur, expressions of sexuality reveal the anxiety surrounding bloodshed, particularly male bloodshed," and particularly ways in which the "knightly body" becomes a transgressive inversion of its female counterpart (1). Equally, illicit sex usually disrupts social order. Her major examples are Gareth and Lyonesse's attempted pre-marital union, which would have dishonoured Lyonesse's brother; Launcelot's seduction by Elayne, where Galahad's creation offsets the anxiety; and Trystram's affair with Segwarydes' wife, in which, says Francis, Trystram's thigh-bleeding is both menstrual and dishonourable. Launcelot and Gwenyvere's consummation of their love in the Knight of the Cart episode is complicated by comparison with the sources, by Malory's whitewashing of the affair, and by the subsequent Healing of Urry--an interesting view that is never fully explicated. Ultimately, for Francis, "the consequences of illicit sexual conduct are mapped onto the male body," with bloody beds and sheets acting as a "public record" of the knight's lack of self-control (18-19).

Malory's bloody beds are also explicated by Megan G. Leitch in her "(Dis)figuring Transgressive Desire: Blood, Sex, and Stained Sheets in Malory's Morte Darthur" (21-38). Leitch likewise focuses on knights who bleed during sex to argue for a transgression of knightly identity and social status, linking this to (and thus also highlighting) excessive female desire in the Morte. Leitch traces this motif back to Gottfried's Tristan and Chrètien's Charrette before arguing (contra Peggy McCracken) that knightly bleeding in the bedroom denotes an "unraveling of the knight's" gendered, chivalric and social identity (29). Malory adopts and "intensifies" this bloody bed motif (31), partly by repeating similar language in the liaisons between Trystram and Segwarydes' wife and Launcelot and Gwenyvere, thereby alerting the reader who is aware of the bed-motif to Launcelot's eventual expulsion from court. Gareth's attempted liaison with Lyonesse, says Leitch, helps alert us to the prominence of female desire and agency in these scenes. All of which announces the Morte's "somatic," "semantic," and "sexual" anxieties about women disarming men (37).

Both Francis and Leitch explicitly follow and--especially in Leitch's case--challenge Peggy McCracken's The Curse of Eve (2003), and Francis cites in passing Kathleen Coyne Kelly's work, but does so without acknowledging the overlap between her thesis and Kelly's. Neither author sufficiently engages with the truly relevant portions of Kathleen Kelly's argument, including Kelly's explication of the same bedroom scenes and bloody sheets involving Launcelot and Trystram discussed here. [1] Both Francis and Leitch ultimately go in different directions from Kelly, but their arguments would be stronger for including Kelly's discussion of the feminization of the male body through bloody sheets.

In "Bewmaynes: The Threat from the Kitchen" (39-55), Helen Phillips takes the twinned concerns with blood and identity in new directions, arguing that Gareth's dual identity as kitchen-boy and aristocratic knight elucidate medieval fears about social hierarchy. Phillips contextualizes the story of Bewmaynes against a wide variety of late- medieval literary texts to claim that Bewmaynes epitomizes aristocratic anxieties about "the enemy within," the kitchen worker who poses one or more social, chivalric or sexual threats to the court hierarchy (39). Phillips argues that Malory manipulates this tradition "into a fable about [disguised] knighthood" (45), concomitantly raising the possibility that deeds and virtue, rather than birth, determine gentilesse. This, too, Phillips reminds us, is a commonplace trope in medieval literature from Chaucer to The Squire of Low Degree. For Phillips, Malory's "Tale of Gareth" ultimately both admits and shuts down such fears of the social and chivalric parvenu.

In what is one of the finest papers in the volume, Carolyne Larrington takes advantage of recent trends in psychoanalysis to analyze "Sibling Relations in Malory's Morte Darthur" (57-74), rightly observing, amongst other things, that Malory is not much interested in incest or fratricide [2], and that love between brothers is both an ideal and a problem in Morte Darthur. The complexity of family relations is ably illustrated by the tangled skein of familial interactions underlying the Balyn story, a story with an "excess of brothers" revealing also potential conflicts between brotherly love and heterosexual love (61). While these loves are more harmonious in Malory's "Gareth," Larrington argues for "a powerful tension" between the Orkney brothers and the family into which they marry (64). Larrington's final sets of siblings are the Fair Elayne and her brothers and Urry and his sister, characters who are used in part to emphasize "Launcelot's charisma and its relationship to service and to gender" (69). Larrington concludes that Malory's understanding of family is a key component of his understanding of the "crucial and central questions of power, gender, sex and blood" (74).

The Orkney brothers continue to feature prominently in the next several papers, including Lydia Fletcher's "'Traytoures' and 'Treson': The Language of Treason in the Works of Sir Thomas Malory" (75-88). For Fletcher, the Morte displays two treason registers, a literary mode inherited from the French sources, and a legal mode reflecting Edward III's Treason Act (dated here to 1351, but usually assigned to 1352). The text also, says Fletcher, reveals Malory's knowledge and understanding of "the legal definition of treason" (76). The Orkneys (always excepting Gareth) exemplify how knights can be guilty of treacherous behaviour without formally being labeled "traitor." The remainder of her argument, however, about Gwenyvere and Launcelot's actions during the Poisoned Apple and Knight of the Cart episodes, requires greater clarity and care, since Gwenyvere is supposedly both guilty and not guilty of treason, and Launcelot's battle with Mellyagaunt supposedly interrogates trial by battle. This latter view in particular needs more explanation and engagement with the relevant scholarship, none of which is cited. Similarly, Fletcher is one of a spate of recent critics focusing on treason in Morte Darthur, and while Leitch's excellent treason article from Arthurian Literature 27 may have "appeared too late" (75 n1), Fletcher should have consulted E. Kay Harris and Robert L. Kelly. [3] And since she invokes the sources, she might have analyzed where and how Malory adapts their language instead of just citing medieval French treason laws.

Kate McClune then turns to an analysis of "'The Vengeaunce of My Brethirne': Blood Ties in Malory's Morte Darthur" (89-106), arguing that blood-feud is even more common in Malory than his sources because "Malory is preoccupied with blood" (90), notably the dangers demanded by ties of consanguinity and feud. Arthur's relations with male and female Orkneys reveal a potential clash of loyalties between blood and the Round Table fellowship and Oath. McClune offers some fine insights, but she also overlooks some important relevant scholarship. Much is made, for instance, of Gawayne's penchant for vengeance without acknowledging the lengthy exposition by Beverly Kennedy on this very topic. [4] McClune also rightly emphasizes the tragic conflict of loyalties in the final scenes of the Morte without citing Vinaver (amongst others) on the same subject, and her important observation that the phrase "hys fadir, kynge Arthure" (105) is used of Mordred only in the final battle, whilst true, is presumably indebted to Helen Cooper's fine essay "Counter-Romance" (1997), cited early in her paper but not here.

Malory's depiction of the Orkney-Pellynore feud may well owe something to the Wars of the Roses, as various critics have suggested, including Field in his revision of Works, but for Sally Mapstone in "Malory and the Scots" (107-20), too little attention has been paid to the essential Scottishness of Malory's Orkneys. For Mapstone, Malory effectively combines source-material with specific aspects of Scots culture. The sort of "implacable hostility and protracted state of feud towards a foe" epitomized by the real-life Stewart-Douglas feud illustrates that Gawayne and his brethren "are behaving like Scots" (113-14). Hence scholars need to widen the political contexts of the Morte Darthur north of the Wars of the Roses. Doing so alerts us to the fact that Malory sympathizes with Gawayne, a conclusion with which I heartily agree on textual grounds as well as contextual ones.

In "Blood, Faith and Saracens in 'The Book of Sir Tristram'" (121-35), Caitlyn Schwartz examines blood from the angle not of family but of race, noting that Malory's Palomydes is different from typical romance Saracens, but that he nonetheless is never fully incorporated into the Round Table fellowship. For Schwartz, Palomydes is more individual, and less culturally threatening, than is typical of the romance Saracen; at the same time, Malory constantly reminds us of the gap between Palomydes' private Christianity and his public identity as Other. According to Schwartz, Palomydes' partial isolation is ultimately guaranteed by the fact that he all but disappears from the Morte Darthur after his conversion (although so too does Trystram), and because he and his brother Segwarydes are constantly foiled in their relations with women. Schwartz offers an interesting reading of Palomydes, brings in a wide array of evidence from other Saracen romances, and avoids an overly simplistic theorization of Palomydes--something not always true of the increasing number of studies on this fascinating character. Yet, again, her overall argument would be stronger if she were to engage with, or at least show awareness of, some of the recent work on the subject, none of which is cited and some of which is quite closely related to her thesis. [5]

In contrast, Maria Sachiko Cecire begins her "Barriers Unbroken: Sir Palomydes the Saracen in 'The Book of Sir Tristram'" (137-54) with a brief overview of the recent scholarship and her position therein. Cecire makes the important point that Palomydes partly controls his own destiny, even though his Saracen identity colours the various knightly actions in which we see blood: combat, kinship, sex, and (in Palomydes' case) race and "baptism" (137). Despite being repeatedly recognized as a knight of prowess and worship, Palomydes, "as a Saracen, an unwanted lover and a defeated knight[,]...is 'unmanned' in Malorian society" (141), not even being allowed to bleed in the bedroom like Launcelot or Trystram.

In the penultimate paper, Anna Caughey turns from Saracens to "Virginity, Sexuality, Repression and Return in the 'Tale of the Sankgreal'" (155-79), arguing that the focus on virginity and miracles or mysticism in Malory's Grail Quest, stripped as it is of the Vulgate Queste's doctrinal exegesis, ironically brings sex and magic once more to the foreground of the Morte Darthur. Bors' one sexual act, for instance, is regularly recalled. But, for Caughey, the virginal Grail knights are "problematize[d]" men whose "blurring of gender lines" recalls the similar figures of Merlyn and Nynyve, thereby conflating necromancers and Grail knights as beings of equal untrustworthiness (163 and 169). And thus virginity, sex and magic threaten Arthurian masculinity--and consequently the very survival of the Round Table.

In the final paper, Catherine La Farge examines "Launcelot in Compromising Positions: Fabliau in Malory's 'Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake'" (181-97). La Farge draws attention to the generic differences between romance and fabliau, including their different depictions of domestic and geographic space, to argue that those moments when the Morte takes on aspects of fabliau reveal "the crisis of confidence besetting Malory's contemporaries" (182). After an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile this thesis to Felicity Riddy's well-known notion of the Morte compensating for the loss of English empire, La Farge argues that scenes like Launcelot's encounter with Belleus, with Phelot and his wife, and with Pedyvere and his wife have a "fabliauesque" humour bordering on anarchy. The resultant confusion of gender and genre in these moments suggests "that everything may be other than...it seems" (183). Such fabliau elements also consistently threaten, or at least make fun of, Launcelot's sexual and chivalric identity.

Although this is a special edition of a journal and not an essay collection, there are several scenes and topics that are discussed repeatedly from similar angles: more cross-references between papers could have been supplied to alert interested readers. Many authors do provide such cross-references, but the overall pattern is inconsistent across the volume as a whole. And, as I have noted, there is frequently a need for more detailed engagement with some of the existing criticism. My final quibble regards a number of typographical errors, which I list here in case some of these papers eventually get reworked into larger projects: there is a badly erroneous sub-title (14, n. 48); a faulty cross-reference (64, n. 22); a superfluous "of" (77, l. 13); a Caxtonian inversion of titles where Morte Darthur [sic] is twice given as the title of Tale VIII (88); and a similar of conflation of titles where reference is made to "The Stanzaic Morte Darthur" [sic] (100). Finally, the wrong Hoffman article is cited in two cases (168-69, nn. 47 and 49). All of these minor criticisms are meant to suggest ways in which the scholarship on offer in Arthurian Literature 28: Blood, Sex, Malory could be even stronger, as it is scholarship that has much to offer to Malorians.

-------- Notes:

1. Kathleen Coyne Kelly, "Menaced Masculinity and Imperiled Virginity in the Morte Darthur," in Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Marina Leslie (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), 97-114.

2. Contra Catherine La Farge, "Blood and Love in Malory's Morte Darthur," in A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c.1350-c.1500, ed. Peter Brown (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 634-47.

3. E. Kay Harris, "Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory's Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination," Exemplaria 7 (1995): 179-208; Robert L. Kelly, "Malory and the Common Law: Hasty jougement in the 'Tale of the Death of King Arthur'," Medievalia et Humanistica NS 22 (1995): 111-40. More recently, see Ryan Muckerheide, "The English Law of Treason in Malory's Le Morte Darthur," Arthuriana 20.4 (2010): 48- 77; and Megan G. Leitch, "Speaking (of) Treason in Malory's Morte Darthur," Arthurian Literature 27 (2010): 103-34.

4. Beverly Kennedy, Knighthood in the Morte Darthur, 2nd ed., Arthurian Studies 11 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992).

5. I am thinking especially of Dorsey Armstrong's "Postcolonial Palomides: Malory's Saracen Knight and the Unmaking of Arthurian Community," Exemplaria 18 (2006): 175-203.



Copyright (c) 2012 Kevin Whetter



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