14.02.10, Hanks Jr. and Jesmok, eds., Malory and Christianity

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 14.02.10

Hanks Jr., D. Thomas and Janet Jesmok. Malory and Christianity: Essays on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Studies in Medieval Culture, 51. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013. Pp. viii, 214. ISBN: 978-1-58044-176-6.

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

This collection of nine studies grew out of several sessions on the religious dimension of Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Morte Darthur organized by D. Thomas Hanks, Jr., at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in May 2005 and 2006. It is conceived as a continuation of the set of essays collected by James W. Spisak in his 1985 Studies in Malory and hopes to challenge or qualify the influential view of Eugène Vinaver expressed in the three volumes of his monumental Works of Sir Thomas Malory, 3rd ed. revised by P. J. C. Field (1990), and elsewhere, that the Arthurian author (and convicted felon) was only a perfunctory, nominal Roman Catholic with very little interest in the spiritual aspirations of late medieval piety, especially those expressed in one of his key sources, the thirteenth- century Old French Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal. Malory's disregard for the biblical resonance and devotional priorities of this Cistercian-inspired text is argued from the supposed slavishness with which the author replicated the plot and characterization of his original--he follows it more closely than any other source--or, alternatively, from the brutality with which he is claimed to have expunged interpretive commentary from his own rendering--he shortens the length of the Queste by a third, as he does almost all of the other sources he "reduces" from French into English (Caxton's term in the Preface to his 1485 printed edition; cf. Craig R. Davis, "Biblical Typology in Malory's Morte Darthur," Mediaevalia 17 [1994 (for 1991)]: 243-58). In addition, some of the resistance to a more positive view of Malory's religious sensibilities, especially his idealization of Lancelot's son Galahad as leader of the quest of the Holy Grail, stems from its association some decades ago with "Robertsonianism," that is, a determined Augustinian reading of medieval vernacular literature expressed by D. W. Robertson, Jr., in his Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (1962). It is thus high time for a thoughtful and nuanced reconsideration of the question of Malory's religion, which the contributors to this volume have generously supplied.

In "'All maner of good love comyth of God': Malory, God's Grace, and Noble Love," Hanks shows that Malory heightens rather than suppresses the theological implications of his sources through selective pruning, yielding a clearer demonstration of his narrative's spiritual themes. For Hanks, Malory's originality lies not in his worldly impatience with the pious inspiration of some of his source material, but in his own special understanding of human love as an inherently ennobling force whose ultimate origin is God. This love inspires much self- sacrifice and other virtues, but can also, of course, be twisted by pride, jealousy and resentment--willful passions that produce the tragic results for Arthur and his realm that Malory illustrates. Nonetheless, love itself--even passionate eros--is a noble emotion for Malory, reflective of the love that governs the universe, so that its sincere expression, even in dangerous or destructive ways, always retains a potential for redemption. In Malory's theology, all things work together for good to them that truly love, period-- if not in this world, then in the next (cf. Romans 8:28).

Corey Olsen takes a similar, but somewhat less celebratory view in "Adulterated Love: The Tragedy of Malory's Lancelot and Guinevere," stressing the unresolved contradiction at the heart of the medieval author's attitude toward his lovers' passion. According to Olsen, Malory insists that the love of Lancelot and Guinevere is a truly noble one that transcends the messiness of its long-delayed, even desperate physical consummation. The lovers are never intentionally disloyal to their lord. They plot no treachery to his rule or honor, but are only made to seem unfaithful by the malicious tongues of Aggravaine and Mordred, the real enemies of the king and his just rule. Malory "rarely allow[s] his readers to relax into either wholehearted approval or unruffled disapprobation of Lancelot and Guinevere's relationship" (38), but accepts the effective culpability of his lovers by depicting their repentance, which would be unnecessary if they were completely guiltless. Interestingly, Lancelot is the more reluctant of the two penitents, only inspired to undertake the religious life by his lady after her first turning to God. Yet, the knight thereby achieves an even greater beatitude by revealing his purer devotion to her, confirmed by the odor of sanctity and vision of his welcome into heaven. In these scenes, Malory's lovers repent of the results of their love rather than the love itself, whose sincerity is validated by their final redemption. Rather than suppressing this paradox, Malory deliberately exposes it in order to promote his doctrine of love's saving power. Even though that love was compromised--"adulterated"--by the political and marital disloyalty revealed by its public disclosure, the lovers themselves are saved by the depth of their devotion both to each other and to the king whom they loved as well.

Sue Ellen Holbrook considers "Endless Virtue and Trinitarian Prayer in Lancelot's Healing of Urry." This episode in which Lancelot heals through the power of his grace a wounded knight has presented something of a conundrum to Malory scholars, since Lancelot's unrepentant love for the queen, recently revealed in his failure on the quest of the Holy Grail, has been thought necessarily to obviate the spiritual potency of his prayers. Many have concluded that Malory simply does not care about his hero's supposed deficiency and that he introduces the scene to redeem him in the reader's estimation, incongruously appropriating for this sinful knight the healing power of Christ and his saints. In Malory's celebration of secular chivalry, it is superior knightliness rather than moral sanctity that heals a knight wounded in the exercise of his martial duties. To the contrary, Holbrook argues, Lancelot precedes his handling of Urry's wounds with an invocation of the full power of the Christian Godhead--Father (Judge), Son (Redeemer) and Holy Spirit (Paraclete)--the only such prayer in the entire Morte Darthur and Malory's own invention for the scene. As a truly humble sinner, both in obedience to his king and through the depth of his own sympathy for Urry Lancelot becomes a worthy vessel for the healing power of God's grace. Like the Magdalene, Lancelot's sins are forgiven because he loves much, a sincerity of purpose that he reveals in his heart-felt prayer and its beneficent result.

Karen Cherewatuk moves from healing prayers to "Christian Rituals in Malory: The Evidence of Funerals," examining death-bed confessions, reconciliations and priestly administrations of extreme unction in the context of fifteenth-century practice and belief. The common thread in all of these death scenes is grief, humility and categorical repentance in the face of eternity. Even the passing of King Arthur to Avalon in a barge with his half-sister Morgan le Fay--ripe as it is with pre-Christian narrative motifs--nonetheless serves as a tender rapprochement between the antagonistic siblings. Furthermore, this semi-pagan passing is quickly superseded by a depiction of the king's closed sarcophagus in a Christian chapel with the prophecy of his eventual return inscribed in a Latin hexameter and the author's own commentary on the condition of his soul:

[Y]et some men say in many partys of Inglonde that kynge Arthure ys nat dede, but had by the wyll of Oure Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse. Yet I woll nat say that hit shall be so, but rather I wolde sey: here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff. And many men say that there ys wrytten uppon the tumbe thys: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS ['Here lies Arthur, once King and King to be'].

Cherewatuk notes that Malory carefully juxtaposes the deaths of his main characters--Gawain, Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur--to illustrate a number of orthodox tenets of fifteenth-century Christian faith: the immortality of the soul, the necessity of repentance, the power of intercession, the resurrection of the dead, and the reward of future bliss for penitents.

In "Rhetoric, Ritual, and Religious Impulse in Malory's Book 8," Janet Jesmok sees secular class solidarity rather than sincere spiritual vocation in the vows of Lancelot's companions to follow him into the religious life, just as frustrated love for his lady is what inspires Lancelot to undertake monastic vows once Guinevere chooses the veil and rejects further communication with her old lover. Jesmok stresses the formal features of late medieval Christianity in Malory's world, that is, the ritual observance or "role-playing" of public behavior that functions to co-opt rather than deeply reconcile the competing demands of knightly loyalty, courtly love and religious devotion. Jesmok finds it ironic that in his superbly performed piety Lancelot achieves "the ultimate Christian experience, sainthood, by clinging to his earthly values" (102).

In contrast, in "Christianity and Social Instability: Malory's Galahad, Palomides, and Lancelot," Dorsey Armstrong sees not a papering over of the secular and spiritual contradictions at the heart of Malory's work, but rather an explicit demonstration of their incompatibility. In this contest, the traditional values of the Christian religion have been appropriated by those of secular chivalry affirmed in the Pentecostal oath invented by Malory. Armstrong sees Galahad's superior piety as threatening to supersede these earthly values, a threat which Arthur himself realizes as his knights ride off on the quest of the Holy Grail. Conversely, Palomides threatens the Christian pretensions of Arthurian society from another direction, since the Muslim knight demonstrates that religious confession is not at all essential to the exercise of knightly virtues. Malory uses the figure of Lancelot to dramatize the struggle between secular and religious ideals, an unstable concoction that inevitably explodes in the disaster the author depicts in his conclusion.

In "Slouching toward Bethlehem: Secularized Salvation in Le Morte Darthur," Fiona Tolhurst agrees that Vinaver has exaggerated Malory's secularization of the spiritual concerns of the Queste, but she notes that the medieval author still tries to soften that idealism into a somewhat more humanized and realistic depiction of religious devotion. In Tolhurst's reading, Malory downplays the single-minded piety of his three Grail knights--Galahad, Percival and Bors--while stressing the sincere faith of Lancelot in order to bring them all into a rough parity of plausible spiritual aspiration. Galahad retains much of his allegorical resonance as a Christ figure, for instance, but this biblical typology is regularly complicated by his earthly relationships with other characters, especially his father who, despite Lancelot's internal conflicts, is elevated to the role of prophet, healer and death-bed saint. Malory thus offers Lancelot as his true role model for the reader, not so much in his capacity as a knightly champion or courtly lover, but as a sincerely searching Christian soul.

K. S. Whetter disagrees strongly with this assessment in "Malory's Secular Arthuriad." He argues that the medieval author's heart is much more deeply devoted to his brotherhood of deadly fighting knights sworn to uphold their warrior code than to the depiction of sorrowful Christian penitents. Knightly honor is what Malory really cares about, freshly articulated in the oath he creates for the Table Round,

Never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of forfiture of their worship and lordship of kynge Arthure for evermore; and allwayes to do ladyes, damsels, and jantilwomen and wydowes sucour: strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for no love ne for no worldis goodis.

Of course, many of Malory's knights fail to live up to this Decalogue of chivalry: that failure is what inspired its establishment in the first place. But the author never rejects or criticizes these ideals themselves. Earthly deeds of arms are what matter most to Malory. They are the true test of a knight's moral quality. We know Lancelot is the noblest knight in the world because he is the best fighter, only temporarily superseded by his son whose superiority is similarly demonstrated by invariable victory in arms. Arthur is the best king in the world because he is the most just and loyal to his followers. It is this secular society of the Round Table that Malory loves the most, its demise what he most laments, revealed through the emotional passages he specially invents, like Arthur's weeping farewell to his knights on the quest, Lancelot's healing of Urry punctuated by tears-- "And ever sir Launcelote wepte, as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn"--and, finally, Ector's passionate threnody at his brother's bier:

"A, Launcelot!" he sayd, "thou were hede of al Crysten knyghtes! And now I dare say," sayd syr Ector, "thou sir Launcelot, there thou lyest, that thou were never matched of erthely knyghtes hande. And thou were the curtest knight that ever bare shelde! And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the trewest lover, of a synful man, that ever loved woman, and thou were the kindest man that ever strake with swerde. And thou were the godelyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghtes, and thou was the meekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in the reeste.

These are Malory's rock-bottom values: he wrote in fetters when of God and the Grail, at liberty about his beloved Lancelot. The loss of the noblest king and finest fellowship of knights who have ever lived is an unmitigated tragedy for the medieval author, only faintly and notionally relieved by the spiritual comfort his characters achieve in their ends.

"In my harte I am [not] crystynde': What Can Malory Offer the Nonreligious Reader?" asks Felicia Nimue Ackerman, reversing the affirmation of the unbaptized Saracen Palomides. Ackerman suggests that Malory's work supplies a fully realized imaginative world, one rich with moral dilemmas and illustrative personal choices. These scenes provide food for thought on many questions of contemporary relevance that transcend the historical period and religious convictions of individual readers, including what constitutes true honor, indelible shame and ultimate personal worth? What are the proper attitudes we should take toward death--our own, that of loved ones, those of enemies? What is the appropriate expression of powerful emotions like grief, anger, loss and love? Ackerman finds that Malory's "celebration of lavish emotionality offers a vibrant alternative to the mental health ethic of our [own] society, which encourages people to scale down their passions rather than flourish their hearts. How remarkable that a fifteenth-century Christian knight who was reactionary in his own time could have such an apt and subversive lesson to teach conventional 'progressive' nonbelievers nowadays!" (189).

This reviewer found in these essays a refreshingly unpredictable engagement with the core values of Malory's religious and ethical vision. I compliment the authors on conducting such a diverse and searching conversation.

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Craig R. Davis

Smith College