Susan K. Hagen
Teaching Arthurian Literature
28 March 2003
Kennesaw State University
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.
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. 
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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
know well, brother Agravain,
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
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.
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.’ . . .
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.
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.
Death of King Arthur,
trans. James Cable, p. 108.
Bors warns his kinsman of the danger of Agravain’s
plotting, but with no success.
Le Morte Arthur, trans. Brian Stone, 1776-83.
“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
treason or betrayal both
Took neither thought
They could not think of parting then,
Their love was such
To bed went Lancelot with the Queen,
Intent on staying all
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:
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;
Gawain denied it. ‘Never!’
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
he came over the crest, the King paused
The Alliterative Morte Arthure, trans. Biran Stone, 2386-95, 2406-2407, 3090-93.
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.
lesson of the dream is easily interpreted for Arthur by a sage who tells
The Alliterative Morte Arthure, trans. Brian Stone, 3394-3400.
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.
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:
Email to HERS listserve, September 11, 2001 5:26 PM
© Susan K. Hagen