Fallen Camelot's Lesson for Us and the U.S.

 

Susan K. Hagen
Birmingham-Southern College
Teaching Arthurian Literature
28 March 2003
Kennesaw State University

Given what is going on in the world today, I feel as though I must begin with a disclaimer of sorts.  The current war in Iraq has made portions of this paper occasional by implication if not by direct connection; I assure you that I am not clairvoyant and did not foresee these events when I submitted this idea to Barbara last October. Any political statement you hear in it was intended as political in the sense that Hannah Arendt uses it, having to do with the body politic—the civic and civil interactions of people within the human condition.  The paper did, however, have its beginning in a particular political event a year and a half ago.  I was scheduled to deal with the so-called digressions in Beowulf in a survey of medieval literature at 9:30 central time on the morning of September 11th 2001. 

We had already worked through the Cain, Grendel, Unferth connections of jealousy, envy, and murder.  My intent this day was to lead students to see how all the stories of quelled hostilities breaking out again between marriage-allied factions due to revenge were not side-steps at all but really quite central to the poem, how they connected to the dragon’s fire-breathing vengeance for a stolen cup and to the end of the poem and the Geat’s predictions of their own impending demise.  Not two hours after the horrific events in New York, we spent our time discussing enmities among Christians, Jews, and Muslims as ancient as the poem we were studying, putting the Twin Towers’ horror in the poignant literary context of the Danes, the Frisians, and the Geats.  Later that evening I shared these thoughts with a listserv of women in higher education administration. [1] The thoughts trailed me and the class as we moved on to Arthur, his achievement and his demise.  Themes of jealousy and revenge seemed to follow us like the smoke and the dust of 9-11.  The media speculated about retaliation on the Taliban all the while carrying stories about understanding Islam.  And the jealousy and envy of Agravain and Mordred, the love addiction of Lancelot and Guenevere, the hastiness and vengeance of Gawain, and the vainglory of Arthur became more than the legend of Camelot--it became a microcosm of the human condition.  

So, when the opportunity arose to share what I have found to be a successful—if somewhat sobering—way of engaging students with Arthurian literature, I proposed this topic.  In that medieval literature survey in 2001 we read the early fifteenth-century alliterative Morte Arthure and the mid fourteenth-century stanzaic Le Morte Arthur.  I also teach a course in legacies of medieval literature in popular culture, for that course I use a translation of the early thirteenth-century medieval French The Death of King Arthur.  All of these texts, as well as an edition of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, are readily available in inexpensive Penguin Classics editions, suitable for high school and lower-level undergraduate use.  It is from those translations and editions that my quotations today are taken.

Students  come to the Arthurian material inculcated with the romance of the legend, the noble dream of Camelot, the glory of the Round Table, the irresistable love of the finest knight in the world and the most beautiful queen, the color and pageantry of tournaments and feasts and courtly gatherings, the sagacious rise-above-it-all understanding of the forgiving Arthur.  They also come accepting that White Tower burgers are tasty, that Camelot records are a fairly priced, that Excalibur dry cleaners are reputable and careful.  But in expecting the romance of the legend, they tend to overlook the day-to-day reality of the characters’ human emotions.  So while they fantasize being Galahad or Lancelot  or Guenevere or even Morgan, they tend to miss the fact that they may be acting like Agarvain or Mordred, or even Gawain with consequences not so grand but certainly harmful on a personal level.

If you will allow, then, I’d like to show you a montage of excerpts from these four works that focus on envy, pettiness, indiscretion, vengeance, and pride that can be used to direct students to think about their own actions and interactions with those they love, like, and dislike.   I begin with Malory’s introduction of the scheming of Agravain and Mordred:

So in this season, as in the month of May, it befell a great anger and unhap that stinted not till the flower of chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain; and all was long upon two unhappy knights, the which were named Agravain and Sir Mordred, that were brethern unto Sir Gawain.  For this Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred had ever a privy hate unto the queen Dame Guenever and to Sir Lancelot, and daily and nightly they ever watched upon Sir Lancelot.

Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XX.1

 

The matter of fact way in which the destruction of all “the flower of chivalry” is introduced is striking.  Agravain and Mordred hated Guenever and Lancelot—and from that came unstoppable anger and destruction.   It is not only the author who is aware of the inevitable outcome of this hatred either, as the poet of the stanzaic Le Morte Arthur makes clear.  As Agravain speaks of telling Arthur about the treasonous love affair, Gawain warns

‘You know well, brother Agravain,
  That harm is what we’d win;
So better to hide the thing than make
  Chaos and war begin.’

Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, trans. Brian Stone,  1672-79, 1684-87, 1692-95.

 

Knowing that “all was lost in ruin,” Gawain, accompanied by Gaheris and Gareth (Gaheris and Gaheriet), leaves the presence the two conniving brothers, declaring “’What’s now begun will not be done / By God for many a year’” (1722-27).  Malory’s Gawain, too, warns “war and wrack” (XX.1) will arise from telling the king of the love between Lancelot and Guenever.  Nonetheless, Agravain’s strong-headed response is “’Fall of it what fall may’”  (XX.1). 

With little prodding, students see the effects of spiteful actions in the lives of ordinary people.  We may not set events in motion that will bring down a kingdom, but we can disrupt an athletic team or club or a social group; we may not bring down a university but we can make committee meetings hell in an academic department.  And it is not just the worse of us who are capable of such nastiness.  Students are often surprised that Sir Bors, too, can be vicious and hurtful.  Let me go back a little in the story to make the point.  After the poisoned apple incident, Guenever can find no champion to defend her against the charge of Mador, after all, the knights saw her hand the fruit to the doomed Scottish knight.  In the stanzaic Morte, she appeals to Bors for his help only to be told

‘By the body of God on the Holy Cross,
  You well deserve to be burned!
The noblest body of flesh and blood
  That ever breathed here below
Was forced by your vile capricious mind
  Away from us to go.’

Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, trans. Brian Stone, 1340-55.

 

Rage overpowers Bors’ usual gracious demeanor as he lashes out at the Queen in the wake of his own pain.  The Death of King Arthur, too,  leaves no doubt that his words are an act or revenge.

‘My Lady,’ [Bors] replied, ‘God forbid that you receive any help from me, because as you have taken from me the man I loved above all others, I ought not to help you but do all I can to harm you.’ . . .

Then Bors left her, having taken his revenge on her by what he had said.

The Death of King Arthur, trans. James Cable, p. 102.

 

This is just the kind of verbal stabbing students can recognize in their own behaviors.  Some are slightly ashamed of Bors; others understand if not condone is behavior.  But all recognize the stinging power of vengeful words.

Let me turn now to the gentler Bors and his protective concern for Lancelot, if not for Lancelot and Guenever.  “The French Book” tells us that after the Queen is vindicated of the death of the Scottish knight and the lovers are reconciled, their renewed affections lacked common wisdom.

And if Lancelot had loved the queen before, from now on he loved her more than ever he had done in the past, and so did she him.  They acted, however, with such a lack of discretion that many people at court discovered the truth about them, and even Sir Gawain knew it for certain, as did all his four brothers.

The Death of King Arthur, trans. James Cable, p. 108.

 

Bors warns his kinsman of the danger of Agravain’s plotting, but with no success.

‘Stay tonight, I [Bors] counsel you:
  Some plot’s afoot, I fear,
From Agravain of evil mind
  Who day and night lurks near.
Of all nights you’ve gone to her,
  Not one distrubed my calm
Or made my heart as sick as this,
  Which fills me with alarm.’

Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, trans. Brian Stone, 1776-83.

 

Intending “only to go to Guenevere,/ To hear  what she will say” (1786-87) and expecting no trap, Lancelot assures Bors that there is nothing to worry about.  But once together, the couple

For treason or betrayal both

  Took neither thought nor care.

They could not think of parting then,

  Their love was such delight.

To bed went Lancelot with the Queen,

  Intent on staying all night.  (1802-07)

Now this type of behavior resonates readily with students, if not for it sexual nature at least for its better intentions abandoned.   The real point here is not the sexual addiction but the power our emotions can have over our better judgment and over our perception of the world around us. 

            We know, of course, the result of their indiscretion: the death of Agravain, the sentencing of the Queen, her rescue by Lancelot, and the deaths of Gaheris and Gareth.  Lancelot retires with Guenever to the Joyous Gard; overcome with grief and anger over the death of his two brothers, Gawain prevails upon Arthur to lay siege to the castle.  Even then, Arthur would be reconciled with Lancelot were it not for Gawain and his insistence on vengeance:

But as the French book saith, the noble King Arthur would have taken his queen again, and would have been accorded with Sir Launcelot, but Sir Gawain would not suffer him by no manner of mean.  And then Sir Gawain made many men to blow upon Sir Lancelot; and all at once they called him false recreant knight.

Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XX.12.

 

Even after Lancelot returns to France, Gawain’s anger and Arthur’s army follow him, and once again Gawain stops the peace that could have saved Arthur’s kingdom.  Lancelot sends a virgin emissary to sue for peace; 

King Arthur called for counsel then
  From all his valiant knights
And said, ‘We must consider this
  And settle it to rights.
Only a fool would spurn her speech
  And this fair offer ignore,
For it would be great pity if
  All were to end in war.’

 . . .

Sir Gawain denied it.  ‘Never!’ he said;
  ‘Many a grievous thing
He’s done, and falsely killed my brothers
  For love of you, Sir King!
I’ll not return to England till
  He’s hanged upon a tree,
For while I live and my power last,
  There are folk who’ll fight for me.’

     Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, trans. Brian Stone, 2668-83.

Gawain will not be dissuaded from his consuming desire for revenge, and his wish to see Lancelot dead creates the opportunity for Mordred’s treachery.  He will, himself, come to see this but too late for his own life—and too late for Arthur’s kingdom.

‘Mine uncle King Arthur,’ said Sir Gawain, ‘wit you well my death day is come, and all through mine own hastiness and wilfulness; for I am smitten upon the old wound the which Sir Lancelot gave me, on which I feel well I must die; and had Sir Lancelot been with you as he was, this unhappy war [with Mordred] had never begun; and all of this am I causer, for Sir Lancelot and his blood, through their prowess, held all your cankered enemies in subjection and danger.  And now,’ said Sir Gawain, ‘ye shall miss Sir Lancelot.  But alas, I would not accord with him.’

  Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI.2

 

 Gawain’s pain here is not just the pain of a hero knight of the Round Table accepting his part in its demise; it is also the pain of everyone of us who gives up too late a destructive anger whose trail of devastation will not be set right again.  Students can connect with this pain because they have felt  hastiness and  willfulness and spite with consequences not quite so grand, but maybe as irreversible.

In thinking of the all too human emotions of these legendary figures of Camelot, I recently saw the ritualistic return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake in a slightly different light.  At Arthur’s first  request of Bedevere to throw the sword in the lake Malory writes

   So Sir Bedevere departed, and by the way he beheld that noble sword, that the pommel and the haft was all of precious stones; and then he said to himself, ‘If I throw this rich sword in the water, thereof shall never come good, but harm and loss.’  And then Sir Bedevere hid Excalibur under a tree.

  Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XXI.5  

 

Similarly, the stanzaic Morte tells us Bedevere thought “To waste that weapon in the sea!--/ No man could be so mad,” (3458-59), and he hid it under a tree. Whether for greed or misplaced reverence, how oddly human to think we can hides miraculous things from magical entities, how fully human to hold on to things even as everything around us disintegrates and passes away.  I never saw  Bedevere as a power grabbing man or as a covetous man, but now I see him very much as a man, as one moved to hold on to the sign of the past, incapable of comprehending what, in fact, is passing.

In the alliterative Morte, though, it is Arthur himself and not the machinations of Agravain or the adultery of Lancelot and Guenevere or the vengeful spirit of Gawain that opens the door for Mordred’s treason and trickery.  In the poem, Arthur righteously  defeated the Emperor of Rome who unjustly demanded tribute from him, he "routed the great Romans, trouncing them for ever” (2374), but he does not stop there.

After that, from Autun, King Arthur at once
With his armed hosts entered Germany,
Lingering first in Luxemburg with his loyal knights
To heal his wounded henchmen, as lord in his own right,
Then called a council on St. Christopher’s Day
Of kings and kaisers, clerics and laymen,
And ordered them to exercise their ingenuity
In counciling him how to conquer the country he claimed.
The kingly conqueror, courteous and bold
Himself spoke these splendid words in council.
. . .
Then in Lombardy, land lovely to look on,
I shall lay down laws that shall last forever.

 . . .

As he came over the crest, the King paused
And with his whole army eyeing the prospect,
Looked down on Lombardy and loudly announced,
‘Of this lovely land I intend to be lord!’

 

The Alliterative Morte Arthure, trans. Biran Stone, 2386-95, 2406-2407, 3090-93.

 

Ozymandias-like Arthur decides to conquer more lands and “lay down laws that shall last forever” or at least until Fortune, that great medieval tester of reality, steps in.  In the second of two prophetic dreams Arthur has in this poem, he hears the stories of the six of the nine worthies who went before him and sees Fortune turning her wheel.

She whirled a wheel about with her white hands,
Turning it intrepidly as she was tasked to do.
. . .
A seat of sparkling silver was set on top,
Chequered with carbuncle rubies of changing colours.
On the circumference clung kings in succession,
Their crowns clear gold all cracking to pieces.
From that seat six of them had suddenly fallen.

 The Alliterative Morte Arthure, trans. Biran Stone, 3260-61, 3266-70.

 

 The lesson of the dream is easily interpreted for Arthur by a sage who tells him,

. . . ‘Fortune is finished with you.
You shall find she is your foe, force it how you will.
You are at the height, have it truly from me.
Chance and challenge as you will, you will achieve no more.
You have destroyed sinless men and spilled much blood
In vainglory in your victories in various kings’ lands.
Take shrift for your shames and shape up for death!’

 The Alliterative Morte Arthure, trans. Brian Stone, 3394-3400.

 

 Two things seem at work here, the natural cycles of Fortune and the ramifications of pride.  In a desire for more conquest, Arthur has left his own kingdom vulnerable.  Soon after this dream, Arthur learns of Mordred’s treason; Gawain fights hastily and is killed; the King and Mordred engage in mortal combat; and Fortune’s wheel comes one full turn.  There seems a lesson here for nations as well as individuals.  There were nine worthies because fortunes change and cultures rise and fall.  Arthur’s laws did not last forever.  There is much to celebrate the human spirit in the story of Arthur's Camelot, but there is also much to remind us that Camelot was a place of the human condition.

In relation to that thought, in closing, I’d like to draw your attention to a commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition by James Reston Jr. broadcast on 6 March 2003.  Reston, a historian, wrote Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. In the commentary, he draws parallels between the Crusades and the then impending conflict in the Middle East, pointing out the contemporary significance 900 years of Arab memory of the crusades when blood, it was said, ran ankle deep during the taking of Jerusalem.  Reston notes that the Latin Kingdom in the east lasted 80 plus years, but they were never really years of peace.  He reminds us that when the wars of the crusades were ended, the aftermath was not easy.  I recommend the commentary to you—and you can still access it in the Morning Edition archives as npr.com.  In many ways it takes us back where this paper started, with tenuous peace and memories of hostilities that last longer than laws.

 

Eric J. Tilford, USN/UPI

 

1. Today I was to teach the so-called "digressions" in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Those side stories deal with the attempts to end fighting between nations by marrying a daughter to the son of a warring kingdom. In the poem this is never successful. In the words of the Seamus Heaney translation:

the guardian of the kingdom sees good in it
and hopes this woman will heal old wounds
and grievous feuds. But generally the spear
is prompt to retaliate when a prince is killed,
no matter how admirable the bride may be.

The poem also stresses that Grendel is the descendant of Cain and leaves the sensitive reader with the haunting reminder that enmity between "brothers“ is the legacy--and enemy--of humanity. Beowulf is an 8th century poem. Cain and Abel are much older. Are we any the wiser?
Email to HERS listserve, September 11, 2001 5:26 PM

 © Susan K. Hagen