Le Morte d'Arthur is a story of bravery, romance, violence and magic set in the Middle Ages. The story revolves around King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The Knights' primary mission in life is to serve their master, the king. Annually, at the Christian feast of Pentecost, it was a tradition established by Arthur that the Knights of the Round Table sat and reestablished their commitment to abide by the code of chivalry as set by King Arthur. The code of chivalry dictated that the Knights would show mercy, wage war only for good reasons, and rescue or protect any damsels in distress. The code was created to regulate the actions of the Knights. However, throughout Le Morte d'Arthur, the author shows the folly of human nature that it is difficult if not impossible for the Knights to uphold the code of chivalry. In their adventures, the Knights constantly get corrupted under the force of circumstances or weakness of human nature. In Le Morte d'Arthur human folly and the force of circumstances corrupt the pursuit of chivalry for the Knights leading them to carry out questionable actions.
To begin with, Arthur is of noble birth, being the lost son of King Uther Pendragon but was raised by another family. However, he ascends to the throne by claiming the sword known as Excalibur.' Arthur is the only one able to remove it from the rock where it had been embedded, and legend had it that only the rightful heir could free the sword. Merlin, the magician, counsels Arthur, but though his counsel is wise, Arthur is frequently at war with neighboring kings. When Arthur is married to Guinevere, he is gifted by his father in law a round table that can sit 150 individuals. The table turns into an important facet of his leadership. Around the table, the knights and their king tell tales and make important decisions with tales of chivalry dominating the conversation. Guinevere is a part of the life around the table where she rewards knights who show valor and dedication in their service while she admonishes who do not uphold the institution of knighthood. The stories of Sir Gawain, Sir Tor, and Sir Pellanor, in particular, are used to demonstrate the importance of chivalry and the lengths that the knights would go to prove their chivalrous nature.
The Knights in their quest to serve the king, go out of their way to seek conquests and challenges that would show their dedication and bravery. As a result, most of the tales in Le Morte d'Arthur as told of the Knights revolve around chivalry. While it is not mentioned explicitly, it can be deducted that the Knights are in an unspoken competition to outdo each other regarding noble deeds (Kaminsky 70). Not only do they revere chivalry, but they are also willing to make their lives about it. In Le Morte d'Arthur, chivalry emerges as a key Anglo-Saxon ideal that is pursued through acts of valor in spite of the risk to life and other consequences.
A majority of the main characters that include King Arthur, Launcelot, and Gawaine manage to stay true to their oaths of chivalry. On the other hand, they are not perfect in their quest to uphold chivalry and break their vows for various reasons on occasion. King Arthur fell under the charms of the sorceress Annowre (Book 9 Chapter 14). The sorceress Annowre was in love with the King and tried to lure him by her charms. However, when she realized she could not have him to herself and wills, she tried to get him killed. The Lady of the Lake warned Sir Tristram who in a show of chivalry, responded agreeably to her pleas for help. King Arthur kills the sorceress Annowre by beheading her as she tries to escape from the Forest Perilous.
The name of the forest where the sorceress Annowre resides is a symbol in itself. Peril means danger and the name Forest perilous forebodes danger. Despite the foreboding nature, King Arthur does not hesitate to follow the sorceress to her lair. Knights in their vow of chivalry pledge to be gallant to women, and above all to be courageous. The Middle Ages was a time when men were valued by their worth in protecting their women, children, and wealth (Bliese 203). Whenever the cliched damsel in distress came calling for help, the Knights would not hesitate to rush to their rescue despite the nature of the risk involved. For instance, Sir Tor does not hesitate to behead the false knight Abelleus at the request of a lady who rode into his castle (Book 3 Chapter 11). Sir Lancelot rides with a lady to offer her assistance and slays a knight that was known for harassing ladies (Book 6 Chapter 10). It is evident the Knights are not afraid to take risks especially when it comes to saving ladies in distress. As a mindset of the Middle Ages, chivalry led the men to carry out courageous, violent and impulsive actions.
Throughout Le Morte d'Arthur, the Knights face challenges in upholding their vow of chivalry. While some pay the ultimate price for it, some getaway with breaking the oath. Launcelot goes to battle with other Knights of the Round Table and manages to kill them. Launcelot also has an affair with the Kings wife and inflicts significant damage on their relationship. Gawaine encourages Arthur to go to war with Launcelot for the betrayal and treachery of Launcelot. Launcelot is coaxed into retrieving a falcon by the lady in the Chapel perilous and ends up getting deceived (Book 6 Chapter 16). Sir Tristram sought battle with Sir Marhaus because it was the quickest avenue for him to be made a knight by showing valor in battle, challenging a knight.
In Le Morte d'Arthur, chivalry emerges as an ideal that the Knights work towards and only hope to stay true to the oath as opposed to a virtue that they can effortlessly or reasonably attain and stay true to. The pursuits of the knights in their quest to uphold their vows of chivalry are representative of the prevailing culture of the Middle Ages. Society was run by the bravest and strongest (Jones 450). The chivalrous were the men that were looked up to. Ordinary men could attain knighthood by demonstrating their chivalry. However, chivalry was an idea easier said than done. The Knights ended up killing women and innocents, killing fellow knights and waging war without good reason. Whenever a damsel in distress came calling, the Knights would rush to her aid regardless of the circumstances. Such behavior led them to traps as seen by Launcelots and King Arthurs adventures. The Knights also picked fights with each other to show their bravery. Le Morte d'Arthur is a tale of the pursuit of virtue that is hindered by the imperfect nature of the human will that is prone to be affected by circumstances leading to making of questionable decisions.
Bliese, John RE. "Rhetoric and morale: a study of battle orations from the central middle ages." Journal of Medieval History 15.3 (1989): 201-226.
Jones, Max. "What Should Historians Do With Heroes? Reflections on Nineteenthand TwentiethCentury Britain." History Compass 5.2 (2007): 439-454.
Kaminsky, Howard. "The noble feud in the later middle ages." Past & present 177 (2002): 55- 83.
Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D'arthur: Volume 1. PDF, Project Guttenberg, 2017.
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