Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1719
Historically, the epic genre derives from the Greek tradition and is the oldest form of Greek literature, existing before drama or history developed. As it evolved from its Greek roots, the epic form was a continuous narrative poem that celebrated the achievements of one or more heroic individuals. Most frequently, the hero or heroes were important personages historically or traditionally. Their exploits, as recounted in the epic, were useful in establishing a national identity. For example, Homer uses Odysseus' journey and triumphs as a way to counter the current dismal picture of Greek life. The Odyssey reminded Homer's listeners of Greece's former greatness, and his stories offered hope that Greece would arise once again as a mighty force. Similarly, Virgil used The Aeneid to provide Rome with a glorious national history—something they needed very badly at that time. Thomas Malory does much the same thing with his story of Arthur and his Round Table. In Le Morte d'Arthur, Malory provides a history of greatness for Britain's past and the hope of greatness for the future. Thus, it is not important whether Odysseus, Aeneas, or Arthur actually existed; instead, it is the need for a sense of national identity and the promise of the future that is important in the classical epic genre.
The epic is ideally suited for the purpose of providing a national identity because it is most frequently used to recount the origins of a nation and to provide a sense of national pride. Le Morte d'Arthur offers the vast setting that is required: the creation of a nation and an early history of Britain. There are also the Knights of the Round Table, always prepared to do heroic deeds or set out on a divinely inspired quest. Malory includes supernatural forces in the personas of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. The quest for the Holy Grail also provides an element of the supernatural, in the miracles, and in the creation of Galahad as a Christ figure. This latter element clearly demonstrates an adaptation of the classical epic style to the Christian era. However, Malory's most important deviation from the classical epic is his use of prose, instead of verse, to tell Arthur's story. Greek and Roman epics use narrative verse, and both Edmund Spenser and John Milton will use narrative verse in their great epics, but Malory probably lacks the education and intimate knowledge of Greek epic, with which Spenser and Milton are familiar. Perhaps because he does not know the exact formula, Malory creates a new style of epic, blending the classical epic to the French prose tradition, injecting the French courtly romances into the heroic proportions of the classical epic. What Malory creates is a domestic epic, one that recounts the creation of a great king, providing both the battles and the victories to support Arthur's greatness, but also including the domestic tragedy that leads to the destruction of both the heroic figure and all that he created.
There is yet one other way in which Malory modifies the classical epic form. Instead of just one heroic figure, Malory creates several. Gawain, Gareth, and Galahad are each heroic figures in their own way, each one having a significant role in the epic, and yet, not the central role. The commanding heroic presence is, of course, King Arthur. But he is nearly upstaged by the heroic presence of Sir Launcelot. In his essay, “The English Prose 'Morte,’" C. S. Lewis notes that there are many elements of Le Morte d'Arthur that make it an epic. Although Lewis observes that Malory's heroes commit many barbaric acts, they also have a morality that guides them. Lewis calls this "the civilization of the heart," which provides "a fineness and sensitivity, a voluntary rejection of all the uglier and more vulgar impulses," that creates the heroic figure. If Arthur more closely fits the classical definition of the heroic protagonist, larger than life and of mythical heritage, Launcelot is the human counterpart. With Galahad assuming the Christ role, Launcelot is left to be Adam, a flawed but certainly human creation. Lewis observes that even Launcelot claims to be no better than lesser men, capable of sinning, as he does with Guinevere. Launcelot and Arthur present two disparate images of epic heroes. Together, these two men create an imposing presence, saving damsels in distress, performing good deeds, and winning battles. But one mortal woman undoes them, whom both love: Guinevere.
Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur offers something few other epics offer—an emphasis on women and the domestic sphere as a way to find salvation, as a way to complete a man's journey. However, some scholars would argue that it is the domestic sphere that hampers women in Malory's text and prevents them from enjoying the success that men enjoy. In her study of patriarchal marriage and courtly love, Mary Lynn Saul argues that women in Le Morte d'Arthur are portrayed as sexually insatiable, overly aggressive, needy, and more concerned with acquiring property than with male happiness. Arthur, on the other hand, is portrayed as loyal to his men, rather than to any woman. But this is the way a classic epic hero is expected to behave. Odysseus and Aeneas always put loyalty to their men and to the mission before the needs of their women. In this respect, Arthur is performing as he should perform. Saul also points that when love affairs go badly, "the woman may find herself receiving all the blame." As an example, Saul cites Launcelot's many love affairs, which Saul says work to serve his ego. Saul declares that "the benefit of loving Launcelot goes not to the women but to Launcelot, who receives their praise and gains in reputation by the number of women who love him." However Launcelot's ego is in keeping with what Lewis observed—Launcelot's humanity and humanness; his propensity to sin is one of his most important defining characteristics. Although Saul is critical of the way Malory treats women, comparing his treatment to the patriarchal system in place during the medieval period, she concludes that medieval women, and probably medieval men, are captive to the social structure that governs their behavior. Thus, she seemingly excuses the very behavior she criticizes.
Not all critical studies of Le Morte d'Arthur find the women characters at such a disadvantage. In his essay on Guinevere, Edward Donald Kennedy argues that Guinevere escapes the typical outcome of other feminine characters. Guinevere, says Kennedy, can give Launcelot something that no male character can: salvation. She sacrifices her happiness with Launcelot to prevent his sinning with her, to save his soul. Kennedy reminds his readers that Launcelot's love for Guinevere kept him from succeeding in the Grail Quest. Now in his love for the queen, he promises to devote his life to God, just as she has. Kennedy argues that Malory includes this final scene between the lovers as a way to provide Launcelot with a chance for salvation. After Guinevere is buried next to Arthur, Launcelot blames himself for their deaths. Like Aristotle's tragic hero, Launcelot is to be pitied because, in his grief over his mistakes, he is as human as any of Malory's readers. As Kennedy says, "[Malory] would not have had to read Aristotle to know that good people often make terrible mistakes and to realize it only after it is too late to do anything about it." The role of savior might have gone to Galahad, who, as the Christ figure, should have been able to save his father. Kennedy observes that "on the Grail Quest women had been depicted as a stumbling block on the road to salvation." Launcelot failed to find salvation from the quest because of his love for Guinevere, but now in their final scene together, Guinevere provides what Launcelot could not have otherwise achieved. Kennedy says that Guinevere emerges as a hero when she does what the male heroes could not: lead Launcelot to salvation. His choice to reject the secular life and marriage and, instead, embrace the church was the clearest way to redemption in the medieval world. Guinevere succeeds where men have failed, as a woman who leads Arthur's greatest knight to choose God.
Unlike Homer's Odyssey or Virgil's Aeneid, Malory creates a human woman in the image of the epic goddesses, a woman of complexity who is capable of leading a man to redemption. Where Odysseus has the goddess Athena to assist him in his journey, and Aeneas has the goddess Venus to led help when needed, Launcelot has only the love of an ordinary mortal woman. In a way, this change toward the mortal reflects the Christianizing of the World. In the pre-Christian world, Odysseus and Aeneas journey toward their homes or toward a new home. But in the Christian world, the journey is toward salvation. This is but one way that Malory adapts the epic tradition to fit his purposes and to fit the requirements of the Christian era.
Two hundred years after Thomas Malory composed Le Morte d'Arthur, John Milton used the traditional epic form to explore a domestic romance, between man and woman in Paradise Lost. Milton's use of the epic is more pure to the genre than that of Malory, but, like Malory, Milton saw the connection between the epic and the domestic. Malory took the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Launcelot and turned a domestic tragedy into an epic romance. Appearing as it does at the end of the fifteenth century, Le Morte d'Arthur straddles the move from the Medieval Period into the English Renaissance. Malory's text was, then, the last old and the first modern domestic tragedy of this period. In the five hundred years since Le Morte d'Arthur appeared, the domestic tragedy has become a staple of theatre and fiction, while in the twentieth century, Malory's text has adapted effortlessly to both novel and film. Whether he knew it or not, Thomas Malory created the first steps toward making domestic romance a legitimate topic of poets, playwrights, and novelists.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Epics For Students, Gale, 2001.
Metzger has a Ph.D., and specializes in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a Lecturer in the English Department and an Adjunct Professor in the University Honors
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4009
Insofar as adultery is considered wrongful, in medieval texts, it is often because it is connected in some way with an offence against property. This is either because of the importance laid on legitimate inheritance (which in turn requires wives to be faithful to their husbands), or because of the tendency to see women as themselves a form of property. In Le Mort le roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur), however, adultery is presented in relation not to property but to the taking of life. How and why this is so is what this chapter will explore.
The Mort is the last work in the great early thirteenth-century compilation known as the Prose Lancelot, and describes the decline and fall of Arthur's kingdom. The adultery between Arthur's queen Guenevere and his greatest knight Lancelot plays a key role in this apocalyptic narrative, since it leads to the estrangement of Lancelot and Arthur. When Arthur pursues Lancelot abroad, he entrusts his kingdom to Mordred, who usurps it for himself; Arthur feels unable to call on Lancelot to assist him against Mordred, and so his army perishes along with Mordred's.
In the early part of the Mort, Arthur is induced by court spies to ask himself repeatedly whether Lancelot and Guenevere are guilty of adultery. But he is also called upon to approve legal challenges against both of them for wrongful killing. For both have caused death, in episodes which present striking parallels. The victims in both cases are knights who have similar names (Guenevere kills Gaheris, Lancelot kills Gaheriet), and both are commemorated by inscriptions put up by members of the court. The brother of each victim wants to avenge his death: Mador de la Porte obliges Arthur to put Guenevere on trial; Gawain's love for Lancelot turns to implacable hostility as he pressures Arthur to go to war against Lancelot, and eventually challenges him to single combat. Then again, each of the killings could be described as accidental. Guenevere hands Gaheris a poisoned fruit which was prepared by someone else (Arvalan) and intended for Gawain; she was completely unaware that it was poisoned. Similarly Lancelot strikes down Gaheriet, who is his dear friend, without recognising him in the confusion of rescuing the queen. Finally, when each of the avenging brothers (Mador, Gawain) obtains a judicial duel (or approximation to one, in Gawain's case), he is pitted against Lancelot who fights first on behalf of the queen and then on his own behalf, and on both occasions wins. Although much of the romance is about efforts to ascertain whether or not Lancelot and the queen are lovers, attempts to entrap them are not successful. Thus Lancelot and the queen are never required legally to defend themselves as adulterers, only as killers. The killings, it seems, function as a displacement of the crime of adultery, and also as a narrative metaphor for it.
This metaphorical dimension is established textually by the close association that exists in each case between the question of adultery and the alleged wrongful killing. In the first case, that of Guenevere and the poisoned fruit, the link is established from the outset. Arthur has returned to court from the castle of his sister Morgan, who has shown him Lancelot's paintings which reveal his love for Guenevere. And so for Arthur "there was never a time again when he was not more suspicious of the queen than he had been, because of what he had been told." Only two sentences later those suspicions find an object, as Arvalan hands the fruit to Guenevere and Gaheris dies. Meanwhile, Lancelot has been dismissed from the court by the queen as a result of a misunderstanding, a fact which causes Boors to curse the love between them. The interweaving of these episodes associates the themes of love and death.
A similar convergence of these two themes occurs in the case of Lancelot's accidental killing of Gaheriet. It is causally linked with the adultery plot, since it takes place while Lancelot is rescuing the queen from execution. When later Lancelot hands her back to Arthur, he seeks to justify himself with respect both to the queen, and to the death of Gawain's brothers, so that the issues of adultery and the killing are linked again: "Sire, behold the queen, whom I return to you, who would earlier have been killed as a result of the disloyalty of members of your household, had I not taken the risk of rescuing her ... And it is better that they should perish in their treachery than that she should die." He goes on: "If I loved the queen with foolish passion, as you were given to understand, I would not give her back to you, not for months, and you would not win her back by force." But Gawain pulls the discussion back to Lancelot's guilt for Gaheriet's death: "You can be sure that you will not lack for war … for you will have it, and mightier than you ever did before, and it will last until my brother Gaheriet, whom you wrongfully killed, will be avenged on your own body; and I would rather see your head cut off than have the whole world."
These links between adultery and killing shift the ground on which the adultery is considered. Most characters in the text want to know whether Lancelot and the Queen are committing adultery as a matter of fact, not how to judge them if they are. For Arthur, adultery calls for automatic condemnation. Gawain, Guerrehés and Gaheriet prefer that he should not know, rather than cause enmity in the court. We readers, however, know that the couple are lovers; our problem, rather, is what attitude to adopt to this. As the story goes on, an increasing number of characters know the truth about their relationship, and some (such as Lancelot's kin) are clearly loyal to them. But no character, whether in the know or not, discusses the question which is uppermost in the reader's mind, namely how we should view their adultery. On the contrary, there is a gap between the discourse that maintains, of Lancelot, that he is the best knight in the world because of his love for the queen, and the discourse lamenting that, because of his love for the queen, a terrible cataclysm will engulf the Arthurian kingdom. If the text seeks to evaluate the fact of their relationship, it does so via the thunderous silence between these two positions. In the matter of the killings, however, the facts are agreed between readers and characters; it is their evaluation which is in question for all of us together. Both the judicial duels address the question of whether the killers are guilty of a disloyal and treacherous act. That is, they ask with respect to the killings what the reader might ask with respect to the adultery. In this way, the metaphorical importance of the killings becomes both more obvious, and more interesting.
The Guenevere trial considers disloyalty and treachery from the point of view of intention. Before the combat, Mador makes his formal accusation to Lancelot: "Sir knight, I am ready to prove that she killed my brother disloyally and treacherously," a charge Lancelot rebuts with an important change of wording: "And I am ready … to defend her on the ground that she never intended disloyalty or treachery." Lancelot's formulation is, for Gawain, an illumination of Guenevere's innocence. Arthur agrees that this new perspective makes it likely Guenevere's champion will win. And Guenevere herself repeats the winning formula: "I never intended disloyalty or treachery," she says. Win Lancelot duly does; the queen is exonerated. If, as I have argued, the trial is a metaphorical displacement of anxiety about adultery, can we infer from Guenevere's acquittal that she is also to be exonerated sexually because she "never intended disloyalty or treachery?" Is the text driving a wedge between intention and result, and inclining us to base our moral judgements on the former not the latter? The fact of Gaheris' s death is undeniable, but Guenevere has been found innocent because she did not mean to cause it; likewise, although her adultery has dire political consequences, since she did not intend them, should she be acquitted of responsibility for them too?
One could feel more confident about making this inference if the text were more committed to the concept of intention. When members of the court first find Gaheris's body, the question of intent is raised, and Guenevere protests her ignorance that the fruit was poisoned, but Arthur counters: "Whatever the circumstances in which you gave it to him, the outcome is evil and intolerable, and I greatly fear that you will suffer more for it than you imagine." No one believes Guenevere to be innocent or is prepared to dishonour himself defending her. The consensus view is unambiguously expressed by Gawain: "for we know very well that the queen killed the knight, as she stands accused; I saw it and so did many others." Even Lancelot who did not see it believes her to be guilty: "for I know truly, from what I have heard, that I shall be on the side of wrong and Mador on the side of right." He fights only because he loves the queen, and her reputation is hitherto unblemished. The outcome, not the intent, of her deed is what mesmerises everyone's attention.
So Lancelot's all-important formulation at the trial, which wins support and eventual acquittal for the queen, is curiously inadvertent; while the switch of position by Gawain and Arthur is almost somnambulistic. In fact, the text seems more inclined to dull the distinctions between intent, outcome, and responsibility than to illumine them. This obfuscation reaches a peak when Arthur, shortly afterwards, reproaches Gawain for having withheld the truth of the queen's adultery from him. Gawain's reply, "Indeed, my treachery never did you any harm," is simply mind-boggling. Has he forgotten what treachery is? His use of the term implies that he meant no ill, had no ill effect, and bears no responsibility: the word becomes empty of meaning.
Throughout the Mort, the capacity of the characters to form, or respond to, intention is extremely limited. The text contains several examples of unintended killing or wounding apart from the two cases I am concerned with. They include Lancelot being wounded twice (by Boors who failed to recognise him at the Winchester tournament, and a huntsman who missed his intended quarry in the forest); and Arthur killing his last-but-one survivor by hugging him too hard. On each occasion questions of intent and moral responsibility are dimly raised but they never get anywhere. Thus Boors tells Lancelot that he ought not to be blamed for wounding him since Lancelot was fighting incognito, and Lancelot agrees but nevertheless remains full of reproaches. Elizabeth Edwards has described the characters in medieval prose romance as resembling "a distinctive mark, or graving, on the surface of the text [… which is] of insufficient capacity to accommodate more than one code at a time." In the Mort, they seem able to focus either on intent or on outcome but not on both at the same time, as they would need to do in order to evaluate the ethical significance of one vis-à-vis the other. Guenevere's trial may involve the question of intent, but it no more succeeds in making it a determinate issue than these other episodes do. We cannot infer from it that intent defines the moral horizon of action in the Mort. Does the text, then, have anything clearer to say on the question of justice?
When Mador enters the judicial duel, he does not know who his opponent is. Only when he has been defeated does Lancelot declare his identity. Mador then protests to the king: "Sire, you have deceived me, setting my lord Lancelot against me." In the Gawain-Lancelot encounter over the death of Gaheriet, the question is again raised whether the outcome of a trial depends less on what is being fought over than on who is fighting. Gawain sends a messenger to challenge Lancelot to single combat. The messenger thinks he must be mad to fight such a "good and seasoned knight" and Arthur, repeating these same words, also fears that Gawain cannot win, but Gawain insists that justice will be done, for right makes a weak knight prevail, whereas wrong makes a strong one lose. In the course of the combat Gawain's strength grows and ebbs, so that he seems first likely to win, then headed for defeat. Does he lose because his strength declines, or because he was wrong to fight in the first place?
The Gawain-Lancelot combat echoes the concerns of the Guenevere trial. Once again, the charge involves killing "treacherously and disloyally." Different opinions are expressed as to which of the two, Gawain and Lancelot, is on the side of right, and Lancelot himself, acting as his own champion, is as diffident about the justice of his cause as he was when fighting for Guenevere. He prepares himself for the duel by confession and vigil, "for he was very afraid lest ill befall him against lord Gawain, on account of the death of his brothers whom he had killed." But rather than foregrounding the status of intent in relation to the notion of right, what is at stake here is the status of right itself. What is it and how do you know when you have it? Many of the Mort’s critics seem persuaded either that Lancelot clearly has justice on his side, or that he clearly does not. R. H. Bloch, for example, writes: "Lancelot's victorious support of a merely adequate cause against Mador and a patently indefensible one against Gawain can only be interpreted as the triumph of might over right." Convinced that Lancelot's causes are undeserving, Bloch is obliged to see the Mort as a world in which belief has been lost in the efficacy of an immanent God to achieve justice through human intermediaries. For other critics, however, Lancelot is just as obviously in the right, as borne out by his victories.
Such critical responses, it seems to me, make too much sense of a text which (just as in the murky issues of intent and outcome) clouds and inhibits judgements; the critics are reliant on notions of right and justice being transparent whereas in the Mort they are at best dimly lit, at worst wholly opaque. For justice in the Mort is linked to an irresolvable problematic of how far the world is governed by providence and how far by chance or fortune; and how far we could possibly know which, or what that meant. This is a problem on which, as Karen Pratt has shown, the characters can shed no light.
They are constantly 'reasoning why'—hence the frequent references by them to God, Fortune, Destiny, and their own guilt or sin. Yet they never reach a conclusion. This is because not only is it not man's place to reason why, it is also a futile activity, since it is evident that the world of the flesh is subject to laws which are far less just and predictable than those that govern the salvation of an individual's soul.
It is also a problem from which the text as a whole retreats into secular gloom, reflecting "the equivocal attitude of so many secular writers in the Middle Ages towards the problem of explaining history and the rise and fall of great civilisations." Thus while it is true that Lancelot emerges from his second duel having apparently demonstrated to Gawain's satisfaction that he did not kill Gaheriet "treacherously and disloyally," this duel does not clarify our ethical attitude towards Lancelot either as a killer, or as a lover. It merely leaves the whole field of ethical inquiry darker and more impenetrable.
So far I have considered the trial scenes of Guenevere and Lancelot as metaphors—inconclusive ones—for how readers might attempt to put them on trial for adultery. I now want to examine the crime with which they are charged. Why are they represented as killers? What do adultery and killing have in common?
The deaths for which Lancelot and Guenevere are tried (even if they are not found guilty) are only two among the indefinitely many to which their adultery might be said to contribute. For the Mort portrays an increasingly violent world, its conflicts aggravated by the rift between Lancelot and Arthur. The text opens with a series of tournaments, but these soon give way to genuine warfare in the wake of the attempted entrapment of the lovers and Lancelot's rescue of Guenevere. Arthur finds himself at war, successively, with Lancelot, the Romans, and Mordred. Armies are wiped out as civilisations crumble. Fighting dominates the text, and killing becomes necessary and unavoidable, simultaneously appalling and banal. (Bresson's 1974 film Lancelot du Lac, based on the Mort, excellently captures the frenzied meaninglessness of violence in this text.) In identifying the lovers as killers, then, the text both integrates their adultery to the Mort's cataclysmic canvas, and represents it as (literally) lethal.
The sinister and guilt-laden implications of this contrast markedly with the role of the philtre in the Tristan story, guarantor of the lovers' innocence. As the philtre marks equality between Tristan and Iseut, so the striking parallels between the deaths of Gaheris and Gaheriet signal the parity between Lancelot and Guenevere. But while the Tristan lovers drink the love-potion together, Guenevere, as if in reminiscence of Eve's role in the Fall, offers a poisoned fruit to someone else. And while the Tristan potion is a presage of the lovers' eventual death, in the Mort the lovers themselves are oddly immune to the fatality they are associated with. In fact, their killings are a curious reversal of the anticipated storyline, namely that they should be the ones to be killed. As in other Celtic-influenced texts, the penalty for adultery in the Mort is death, but Arthur is prevented from executing Guenevere. The couple might have shared the fate of other literary adulterers (such as Iseut) who die of their own accord, as though in acknowledgement of society's condemnation of them, but they do not. Like all the major characters in the Mort, Lancelot and Guenevere are at times so overwhelmed by grief or anger that they are convinced they will die, but only the maid of Escalot, much earlier in the text, is as good as her word and actually dies from her grief whereas Lancelot and Guenevere don't. Instead the plot effects a curious exchange between killing the lovers and having them kill others. Their enemies (except for Morgan) predecease them, dying violent deaths, whereas Guenevere does not die until very nearly the end and Lancelot outlives virtually everyone. In a text where death is so commonplace, the lovers are almost magically protected from it.
Not only that; the lovers also avoid deliberate killing. Lancelot does not kill Mador; he deliberately saves Arthur's life; and he refuses to kill Gawain ("I could not do it … for my heart to which I belong could not agree to it on any account.") Although the best knight in the world, he actually kills very few people. The crimes of which he and Guenevere are accused consist in killing outside socially prescribed norms; it is not the deaths but the aberrant circumstances of them that lead to their being perceived as "treacherous and disloyal," and if Lancelot had lost his two fights he would have been made to die a socially sanctioned death. Killing, the text seems to suggest, is inevitable and universal, and yet society polices it in such a way that accidental killing calls for legal investigation whereas killing on purpose does not. Adultery, likewise, is love in the wrong place, and thus perhaps only an arbitrarily censured instance of universal and inevitable behaviour. The guilt involved is one of social convention, not absolute value.
Indeed, the "guilt" of the "adultery killings" in the Mort begins to look quite innocent when one compares them with what could be called the "incest killings," the reciprocal slaying of Mordred and Arthur. Mordred, the text reveals, is both son and nephew to Arthur, a child incestuously conceived with his sister. In Arthur's absence Mordred usurps his throne and tries to marry his wife, thus compounding treachery with attempted bigamy and further incest. Despite repeated warnings that this war will bring his reign and his kingdom to an end, Arthur seeks out Mordred and each deals the other his death-blow. Here is a striking instance of how sexual crime and killing can be linked: this tight-knit family drama crystallises Freudian preoccupation by economically combining transgression of the two most sacred taboos: parricide and incest.
By contrast, both Lancelot and Guenevere (their adultery apart) show exemplary love and respect for Arthur and his authority. By sparing Arthur's life Lancelot avoids Mordred's parricide and by handing Guenevere back voluntarily desists from sexual transgression. As Méla says, because "Lancelot chooses to live henceforth in a state of unfulfilled desire out of respect for the Name of the Father … the essential achievement of La Mort Artu is to have integrated love for the king into Lancelot's love for the queen." Compared with the meaningful deaths of Arthur and Mordred, the killings for which Lancelot and Guenevere are tried are impressively insignificant. Their victims are neither figures of oppression (such as a father) nor are they rivals. There is no psychodrama involved: on the contrary Gaheris, recipient of the poisoned apple, has no connection whatever with the adultery plot, while Gaheriet was doing his best to keep out of it. Gaheris is the medieval equivalent of today's "innocent bystander," unheard of until killed. Gaheriet is slightly more prominent, but still a relatively minor figure. Each is simply the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The random character of these deaths in contrast with the Arthur-Mordred confrontation seems to indicate that anyone could die at any time. And the fact that they die by accident corresponds with the lovers' lack of control over the rest of their lives. The lovers' killings, in other words, can be read as a projection of their own mortality and frailty, a condition they share with the other characters in the text. Here at last the literal and the metaphorical converge: death is literally about human mortality and frailty, while adultery is their ethical expression. The poisoned fruit serves as a textual marker of this convergence, since the Genesis intertext links sexuality with human weakness and death.
This essay has grappled with the lack of clear interpretation available to readers of the Mort. We are offered the trials as metaphors for our inquiry into adultery; and yet they don't lead very far, and when one trial is over, we start again with the other and a further set of questions. The equation between adultery and killing, which seems so sinister and guilt-ridden, conveys in fact a curious innocence which makes it difficult to evaluate. I think, however, that the way that the point eludes the reader is the point, and that we are invited, in reading this text, to contemplate a depressing portrayal of human limitation. This is a penumbral text which, as it narrates the demise of civilisation, looks back (via the episode of the poisoned fruit) to the time before civilization began. In the intervening shadows, lacking the light of Eden or of heaven, we are uncertain about the ethical significance of intention and responsibility, guilt and sin, justice and truth. Love and death are worked together in a pessimistic duo, ingrained in the shallow experience of humanity, arbitrarily treated by society, fraught with violence, subject to uncontrollable intent and unpredictable outcome, and resistant to moral judgement.
Source: Sarah Kay, "Adultery and Killing in 'Le Mort le Roi Artu,'" in Scarlet Letters: Fictions of Adultery from Antiquity to the 1990s, edited by Nicholas White and Naomi Segal, MacMillan Press Ltd, 1997, pp. 34–44.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6401
In his Etude sur le Mort le Roi Artu, Jean Frappier has suggested that the "… thème de Fortune—du Destin—est sans doute le thème majeur de Le Mort Artu" ("… theme of Fortune—of Destiny—is undoubtedly the major theme of Le Mort Artu"). Elsewhere he restates this conviction when he refers to the "… cercle de fatalité qui pèse sur son [Arthur's] royaume terrestre" ("circle of fatality that weighs heavily upon his [Arthur's] terrestrial kingdom"). Everything, he insists, gives the impression of tragic inevitability so that at times Fortune even seems to acquire a force all its own: "… le destin est comme l'âme du roman; le thème en est traité avec assez de force et de profondeur pour que Le Mort Artu … puisse faire penser par endroits aux tragiques grecs ou au drame élisabéthain" ("destiny is, as it were, the soul of the romance. The theme is treated with enough force and profundity that the Mort Artu reminds one in places of Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama"). There is no doubt about the importance of fate in the Mort Artu, but to suggest, as Frappier and others have done, that the role of this one motif is so striking that it dominates all others would seem to place too great an importance upon its function to the detriment of other important themes in the story. Indeed, consideration of the work essentially as a fate-tragedy is to ignore, or at least to play down, certain essential characteristics which contribute not only to the superb psychological portraits of which the mediaeval author has proved himself a master, but also to the very structure of the romance itself.
Without denying the slow but inexorable rotation of the Wheel of Fortune in turning the tide in the affairs of men, Eugène Vinaver, however, argues convincingly for a much more complex and subtle pattern of cause and event leading to the final catastrophe. In his discussion on the poetry of interlace, he draws attention not just to "… one major cause, but [to] … several concurrent causes," citing in addition to this theme: the withdrawal of divine protection from both Arthur and Lancelot; conflicts arising out of the divided loyalties which Lancelot feels toward Guinevere on the one hand and Arthur and Gauvain on the other, as well as Mordred's incestuous birth. These, he indicates, are a part of the intricate setting, the vast design, without which there can be neither plot nor characterization. This complex fabric provides a "… continuous and constantly unfolding panorama stretching as far into the past as into the future—such are the things that hold the reader spell-bound as he progresses through these interwoven 'branches' and themes." Destiny, he asserts, is inextricably linked with character, and destiny means "… the convergence of simultaneously developed themes, now separated, now coming together, varied, yet synchronized, so that every movement of this carefully planned design remains charged with echoes of the past and premonitions of the future." Vinaver's arguments are eminently reasonable, accounting, as they do, for the complexity and apparent confusion of the many themes of the Mort Artu and lifting it above the state of a mere fate-tragedy to which the others would seem to relegate it.
There is, however, one essential theme which Vinaver does not take into account and which plays a major role in the development of character and plot in the MortArtu. I refer to a critical measure of free choice, granted to Arthur in particular, which permeates the story from beginning to end. It is this measure of free choice which lies behind all of Arthur's decisions, influencing and directing his behaviour in the various situations in which he finds himself. If, to the thirteenth-century mind, his fall from grace is unavoidable "… as a result of Arthur's rise to excessive heights of success and fame" the introduction of this theme of free choice clearly provides a tangible and logical foundation for the inevitability of that process. In this fact lies "… the convergence of simultaneously developed themes" to which Vinaver has referred. There is absolutely nothing inconsistent in that. However, the role of free choice is not a simple one in the Mort Artu. The King's inability or, more frequently, his unwillingness to distinguish between the appearance and the reality of a given situation directly affects his subsequent course of action. Consequently, this clouds his vision and prevents him from choosing wisely and correctly. When one realizes that the decisions which Arthur must make are invariably imposed upon him during a time of crisis in the story, it is relatively easy to understand how the effect of these decisions gradually builds up to the tragic battle on the Salisbury Plain, where not only King Arthur but also the entire Kingdom of Logres are destroyed. This, then, is the essential theme of the romance to which we have referred: confronted by a need to make a decision in a moment of crisis, Arthur is unwilling or unable to see the situation as it really is and invariably chooses the wrong course of action. It is not Fate acting wilfully and arbitrarily, but Arthur himself, who is ultimately responsible for his own demise.
In the opening pages of Le Mort le Roi Artu, King Arthur is confronted by the insistence of his nephew, Agravain, that his Queen, Guinevere, is involved in an adulterous affair with Lancelot del Lac. Even though the situation is a recurrence of an earlier illicit relationship which Lancelot has vowed to terminate (Queste del Saint Graal), Arthur is outwardly struck by disbelief and, at least initially, refuses to pay heed to the accusations. In spite of the fact that Agravain's suspicions are well-founded, the King's angry rejections of this contention as totally without justification would seem to indicate the impossibility of such a relationship. Arthur seems certain that Lancelot could never betray their friendship in so base a way, and yet, in virtually the same breath, he belies this apparent conviction and vacillates: "… et certes se il onques le pensa, force d'amors li fist fere, encontre qui sens ne reson ne peut avoir duree" ("and indeed if he ever did, he was compelled by the force of love, which neither common-sense nor reason can resist"). Aware of the inherent dangers in Agravain's accusation, Arthur vehemently denies the possibility of such behaviour on Lancelot's part, but in spite of his protestations, he knows there may well be something in his nephew's words. Thus, he immediately leaves himself this opening, but in so doing, he contradicts his own certainty in the matter.
This is but the first hint of many such instances in which the King proves himself at best indecisive and hesitant, at worst weak and pitiful. He is ill at ease in this situation, and his anger that he must do something is clearly evident. Thus when Agravain pursues the matter further and suggests that Arthur have the two lovers closely watched in order to prove the validity of these accusations, Arthur finds himself in a dilemma from which there is no easy escape. Although he has the choice whether or not to act upon Agravain's information, he closes his eyes to the truth of the matter because he is immediately and painfully aware of the consequences for the Kingdom should they prove to be true. Arthur does not want to know the truth and this is why he neither approves nor disapproves of Agravain's plans, for any confrontation with Lancelot del Lac at this particular moment would hardly be in the best interests either of Arthur or of the Kingdom of Logres. The quest for the Holy Grail has just been brought to a conclusion, but only at the cost of the lives of many of Arthur's knights. Indeed, aware of the crisis now facing them, and in a last desperate attempt to bolster the failing morale of a sadly-depleted Round Table, the King has just announced a tournament. Conflict with Lancelot at this time would surely spell disaster to his hopes for a rebirth of his Kingdom. It is abundantly clear to him that the well-being of the Round Table is directly dependent upon the choice he must now make. Consequently Arthur avoids taking the firm course of action necessary to discover the truth for himself, and at the risk of his honour, he is forced to close his eyes to the reality of Agravain's accusations, all the while trying to convince himself that they are not true.
That night there follows a period of deep soul-searching during which the King must wrestle with his problem. Ultimately, his predicament being what it is, he is able to persuade himself that there is no truth to Agravain's contention and therefore no need for action on his part, and yet, in spite of this, his actions in leaving the Queen behind when he goes to the tournament, "… por esprouver la mençonge Agravain" ("to put Agravain's accusation to the test"), clearly show that he is deceiving himself in order to avoid coming to terms with reality.
Although this psychological aspect of Arthur's character is important in itself, it has further implications for the structure of the romance. His moments of weakness, his vacillations and self-deception invariably occur in times of crisis during which the necessity for decisive action, the hallmark of the young King Arthur, is of the utmost importance. Here, as elsewhere, Arthur is faced by a freedom of choice between two distinct alternatives: the one centered in reality, the other in the illusion of reality. It is the latter, however, the deception of appearances, assuming the form of deliberate distortion or misinterpretation of the facts and half-truths, which invariably holds sway at these crucial moments in the story and ultimately brings about the final hours of the Round Table on the Salisbury Plain.
If the hatred of Agravain for Lancelot has been the impetus for Arthur's dilemma, his meeting with his sister, Morgan, further complicates the situation. Like Agravain, she, too, is motivated by hatred, but her means of revealing to Arthur the deceit of the two lovers whom she would destroy is even more carefully and deliberately planned. The proof with which she thus confronts him with all the supernatural powers at her disposal is, therefore, all the more difficult for him to ignore. Even the circumstances of the King's arrival at Morgan's castle would seem to suggest something more than mere chance; the subsequent systematic way in which she sets about to convince Arthur to take action against Lancelot and Guinevere would tend to reinforce this assertion. After his stay in Tauroc, Arthur enters the forest in which Morgan once imprisoned Lancelot del Lac. As he does so, he feels unwell and shortly thereafter he and his company have lost their way. The suspicion that the supernatural powers of Morgan are already at work is strengthened by the sound of the horn. Although it is later made clear that the King is tired after a long ride from Tauroc, the fact that no further issue is made of Arthur's illness suggests that it was a transitory state, probably induced by the supernatural powers of Morgan herself and followed up by the sound of the horn and the dazzling display in the castle itself. Clearly Morgan has laid the groundwork for her plan most carefully.
At first she tells him no more than is necessary for her purposes until such time as she is prepared to reveal her identity to him and to allow him to discover the pictures on the wall of the room to which he has been brought. Having once examined these pictures and deciphered them, Arthur is forced to consider the truth of the message they convey. Significantly, he is not yet prepared to accept the reality of the evidence that they present, for once he has recovered from the initial shock of his discovery, he immediately questions their authenticity. The consequences of the situation and the need for a decision, however, are obvious to him; his own honour and the well-being of the Kingdom of Logres are at stake. And so, in the light of Morgan's carefully prepared arguments which corroborate the message of the pictures on the wall, Arthur declares that he sees "toute aparissant" ("clearly") and that he is more convinced than ever of the need to act. In spite of the overwhelming evidence before him and in spite of his apparent resolve to take the steps that the situation demands, Arthur still refuses to admit the truth to himself and continues to seek a way out of the unpleasant circumstances which a deliberate decision on his part would bring about. "Et se il est einsi …" (53:59: the italics are my own; "If it is as …" [p. 73]). And again:
"Je en ferai tant … que se li uns ainme l'autre de fole amor, si com vos me dites, que ge les ferai prendre ensemble ains que cis mois soit passez, se il avient que Lancelos viegne a court dedens celui terme." (the italics are my own)
("I shall make sure … that if one loves the other adulterously as you say, I shall have them caught together before the end of the month, if Lancelot should return to court by then.")
Putting his crown on the line, he promises punishment to both, if they are guilty. It is obvious that Arthur has a choice how he will react: the tragic truth of the matter is that whichever way he moves, he stands to lose. Should he fail to take action to avenge his shame, his own position as King would be jeopardized, his authority a sham and his honour degraded. If, however, Arthur were to move against Lancelot he is certain that the reverberations of his actions would be sufficient to bring about the final destruction of the Round Table as he knows it. This is for him the greatest fear of all.
This latter consideration should not be underestimated. Subtle but repeated references to the glories of the past punctuate the entire text and make obvious the concern of an old man for a world—the only one he has ever lived for—which is slowly but surely crumbling about him. Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in the scene in which Gauvain and Arthur come upon the boat containing the corpse of the maid of Escalot. Gauvain remarks to the King:
"Par foi … se ceste nacele est ausi bele dedenz com dehors, ce seroit merveilles; a poi que ge ne di que les aventures recommencent."
("In faith … if that boat is as beautiful inside as it is outside, it would be a marvel; it is almost as if adventures were beginning again.")
Both are aware that they are living in the twilight of the Round Table.
When Arthur finally leaves Morgan and returns to Camelot, he is surprised to learn that Lancelot has spent but one day at court. As a result he becomes confused why this should be so if he loves the Queen adulterously. More than willing to accept the situation at face value, Arthur immediately finds in this just cause to doubt the words of both Agravain and Morgan:
"… et c'estoit une chose qui moult metoit le cuer le roi a aise et qui moult li fesoit mescroire les paroles que il otoïes …"
("This was a thing which went a long way to set the king's mind at rest and which led him to discount what he had heard…")
His escape from reality is short-lived.
If one were to apply Jean Rychner's linguistic analysis of the Mort Artu to this situation in order to substantiate these arguments even further, the willingness of the King to close his eyes to the truth would become adequately clear. Rychner suggests:
Entre lepn sj sans conjonction [sujet pronominal: i.e., le pronom personnel, il, ele, et le pronom démonstratif cil, cele] et le pn sj avec conjonction on peut être sensible à la même différence qu'entre sj nm [sujet nominal] et 'et' + sj nm: plus de calme et de ponderation d'un coté, et de l'autre plus de familiarité et de vivacité.
(Between the pronominal subject without a conjunction [i.e., the personal pronoun, il, ele, and the demonstrative pronoun cil, cele] and the pronominal subject with a conjunction, one can be aware of the same difference that exists between a nominal subject and "and" + nominal subject: more calm and equilibrium on the one hand, and on the other more intimacy and vivacity.)
Elsewhere he refers to the "… entrée plus vive et plus dramatique …" ("more lively and dramatic opening") of such phrases, and "Le syntagme en 'et il' de même sujet est habituellement prospectif et pourvu d'une suite" ("The syntagma in "et il" of the same subject is usually prospective and provided with a continuation"). The thrust of the story is, therefore, clearly in the direction of this clause rather than the preceding one and thus toward Arthur's attempts to discredit what he has heard and seen. He continues to close his eyes to the truth in the hope that the threatened confrontation with Lancelot will somehow disappear. The presence of the "et" which introduces this section looks ahead to the continuing attempts of the King to avoid making an unwanted decision.
The episode of the poisoned fruit follows and Lancelot is called upon to prove the innocence of the Queen in the death of Gaheris. Once he has done so, however, he falls more hopelessly in love with her: "Et se Lancelos avoit devant ce amee la reïne, il l'ama orendroit plus qu'il n'avoit onques mes fet a nul jor, et ele ausint lui…..." ("And if Lancelot had loved the queen before, from now on he loved her more than he had ever done in the past, and so did she him"). Unfortunately, their lack of discretion makes this illicit relationship obvious to almost everyone and ultimately leads to yet another crisis.
To some extent this crisis provides an interesting contrast with the initial Arthur-Agravain episode, for this time, Agravain finds himself on somewhat firmer ground. By now, the gravity of the situation is clear and he deliberately allows Arthur to overhear the conversation between himself and his brothers. Once he has captured the King's attention, he then allows both Gaheriet and Gauvain to parry Arthur's questions in order to cover up the truth about Lancelot and Guinevere. In spite of the King's anger, neither will yield to Arthur's pressure and tell him what they have been discussing. Significantly, he reacts to their refusal in a totally irrational way, demanding to know their secret, first, on the oaths they have sworn to him, and then, threatening them on pain of death if they should fail to inform him. In spite of these angry words, neither Gaheriet nor Gauvain gives in and both leave the King's presence; Arthur does nothing about it. Left in the room with the others, Arthur asks them, begs them and finally, beside himself with rage, stands ready to strike Agravain dead with a blow from his sword. No longer in control of himself, Arthur shows signs of cracking under the strain of his dilemma. However, as soon as Agravain has finally told him what he wants to know, Arthur recoils from the truth he fears; subconsciously, he does not really want to hear the truth: "Comment, fet li rois, me fet donc Lancelos honte? De quoi est ce donc? Dites le moi…" ("What," said the king, "is Lancelot dishonoring me? What are you talking about? Tell me…"). One would almost think that he was hearing this news for the first time! When Agravain assures him of the facts, Arthur turns pale, and as earlier in the initial Agravain scene, as well as in the scene with Morgan, falls silent, lost in deep thought. He can no longer take refuge in appearances; the truth is out and the reality of the situation known: "… car il set bien de voir que, se Lancelos est pris a cest afere et il en reçoit mort, onques si grant tormente n'avint en ce païs por la mort d'un seul chevalier" ("He knew perfectly well that if Lancelot were caught in adultery and put to death, there would be such torment in the country as had never before been caused by the death of a single knight"). Once again in a position to make a choice (although admittedly the options open to him are not very attractive) Arthur is so emotionally involved because of the faithlessness of his wife, the deception of a friend, and the certain downfall of all his kingdom that he can hardly act with a clear and rational mind. Accepting the treacherous advice of Agravain, he rejects his loyal nephew, Gauvain, and from this point onward, acting out of "desmesure" ("lack of moderation"), he swears revenge upon Lancelot and the Queen. Unlike Morgan, who finds herself forced to remind Arthur constantly of the steps he must take, Agravain no longer needs to goad him into action. He merely capitalizes on a situation from which Arthur cannot escape. Once the oath has been sworn to him, there can be no turning back—the crisis which must inevitably lead to bloodshed has been reached.
The death of Gaheriet, a direct result of Agravain's hatred for Lancelot, is significant, falling as it does almost exactly in the middle of Le Mort le Roi Artu. Once again, appearances play an essential role in the progress of the plot and lead to an irreversible turning point in it. Gaheriet's death is a simple case of mistaken identity, for he is not who he seems to be or Lancelot would never have slain him willingly. This single event, originating in appearances, irrevocably alienates Gauvain and sets him off on his senseless quest for revenge upon Lancelot. This, in turn, marks the beginning of the end and that which Arthur fears more than anything else: a confrontation between himself on the one hand, and Lancelot and Ban's kin on the other. The King is quite aware of the inevitable consequences of such a conflict for the Kingdom of Logres.
Lancelot's love for the Queen, while obviously important in itself, finds its real significance, not in adultery, but in the fact that it threatens to bring about the confrontation which Arthur has sought to delay as long as possible. The King is prepared to close his eyes to the truth, to accept the appearances of the situation, as long as he can postpone the inevitable. The pity he betrays when he sentences Guinevere to death is indicative of the genuine love he still has for the Queen, while the anger he shows at Lancelot's good fortune in the tournament at Karahés is a reflection of his frustration that the very knight he loves most should be the catalyst in his dilemma. Indeed, there are times, in particular when Lancelot's actions seem to contradict the reality of the situation, when Arthur's vacillations would seem to suggest that he could almost live with the shame of the Queen's adultery if only he could somehow avoid the impending conflict with Lancelot. Let there be no mistake; it is not because Arthur fears Lancelot, but because he loves him and because he is quite aware of the consequences of his choice that he finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. From a structural point of view, it is important to note that the adulterous love affair plays a less significant role in the second half of the story than the first, although that aspect of it which would lead to confrontation is retained and developed, not in the love affair itself, but in Gauvain's passionate hatred of Lancelot. The thread of unity in the work is thus maintained.
As we have seen, the love affair aggravates the dilemma in which Arthur finds himself by slowly but surely forcing a confrontation between Arthur and Lancelot del Lac. The "desmesure" of Gauvain takes up where this adulterous relationship leaves off and continues inexorably to force Arthur into a conflict which he knows will ultimately destroy himself and, more significantly, the Round Table. Gauvain's obsession for revenge plays an important role in the second half of the Mort Artu not only as an end in itself, for that is certainly important, but also insofar as it contributes to the death of Arthur and with him, the downfall of the entire Kingdom of Logres.
The death of Gaheriet is significant for our discussion of appearances and reality, for out of it arise the hatred and irrational behaviour of Gauvain, who, in a state of shock at the news of his brother's death, is unable to see the situation as it really is. Blaming Lancelot for slaying Gaheriet willingly, he does not realize that it was a case of mistaken identity and that Lancelot would never have killed the man he loved so much. Gauvain should have known this, but his inability to recognize the truth of the matter leads him to an "idée fixe"—a fatal aspect of "desmesure." He derives his very "raison d'être" from the thought of revenge upon Lancelot, and this grows so out of proportion that he cannot see clearly nor make rational decisions. He neither can nor will recognize the truth. Motivated by blind passion which originates in mistaken observations, Gauvain's subconscious quest for his own death which so dominates the second half of the romance begins, bringing with it the realization of Arthur's fears of an end to the glorious days of the Round Table. Overwhelmed by grief, he mistakenly lays the blame for his brother's death and his own sorrow on Fortune, for therein would seem to lie the source of the problem. But he fails to see that Agravain's hatred—a hatred which he, himself, has already warned against—has contributed directly to Gaheriet's death and that he is mistaken in his accusation of Lancelot. Gauvain, in emotional shock, is therefore deceived by the appearance of things.
When Gauvain lays the blame for his tragic loss upon the whims of Fortune, he is making a serious error, for Fortune is only the apparent cause of his troubles. Indeed, she almost becomes the scapegoat for his own weaknesses, since the real source of his dilemma lies within himself, in his "fol apel," his irrational behaviour, his inability to see things as they really are. But it is easier and perhaps more human for Gauvain to blame Fortune rather than himself. In this, the mediaeval author of the Mort Artu measurably broadens the scope of his characterization of Gauvain.
Arthur's reaction to Gaheriet's death is also significant, for even though the King has retreated somewhat into the background in a scene devoted primarily to insight into Gauvain's behaviour, the author has found it essential to re-emphasize those elements that retain the thread of unity throughout the work. As one might expect, Arthur views the events of the past few hours less in terms of the death of Gaheriet, himself, than in terms of his own personal loss. Still preoccupied with himself and his own dilemma, he considers Gaheriet's death an extension of his own problems. Since these problems, at least as far as he is concerned, find their origin in Lancelot, the King accuses him and holds him directly responsible. The inevitable confrontation has drawn closer; there can be no turning back once the oath of vengeance has been sworn from his followers. Thus, at this most critical of moments, both Gauvain and the King are confronted by a choice and both are incapable of acting rationally. The former, blinded by his emotional shock and his desire for revenge, and the latter, obsessed by his fears that the end of the Round Table is in sight, both fail to distinguish reality from appearances.
If King Yon's pleas for moderation are readily discounted, in particular at the urging of Mordred whose own motives are suspect, it is hardly likely that Lancelot's offer of explanation and submission to the will of the court can be accepted either. Once again, men are deluded and deceived by the appearance of things and are therefore vulnerable to the baseness of such men as Mordred. Consequently, they reject truth and reason. Repeated warnings have no effect: "… vos en seroiz destruiz er menez a mort, ou li sage home par maintes fois sont deceii" ("You….. will be destroyed and brought to death as a result of this war; you know that death often deceived wise men"); and Gauvain is admonished for his foolishness. Although the main thrust of the story is now, at least temporarily, carried by Gauvain, whose actions at times overshadow those of Arthur, the author of the Mort Artu never really loses sight of the King as the central figure in the story. Arthur continues to display the weakness that characterized him in the first half of the romance, wavering back and forth between love and hatred, admiration and contempt for Lancelot. Whenever the latter makes a chivalric gesture (quite in contrast to Gauvain's behaviour) by sparing Arthur's life or by willingly returning his Queen, Arthur's resolve begins to vacillate, much to the anger of his nephew. The King still hopes against hope that conflict can be avoided. Had he indeed the courage of his convictions, recognizing the senselessness of a war between his forces and Ban's kin, he would then reject those unreasonable demands that Gauvain is making upon him, but instead, he allows himself to be swayed by the apparent truth of Gauvain's arguments. "Puis que Gauvains le velt … il me plest bien" ("Because that is what Gawain desires…it is what I want too").
Thus the human weakness inherent in his own character inevitably leads to the tragedy Arthur would avoid. Finding himself in a situation for which there is now no satisfactory solution, he is obviously aware of the consequences of continued confrontation with Lancelot, and yet, by refusing to draw the line, he brings about his own destruction and that of the Round Table with him. In this he parallels Gauvain who is also accused of pursuing his own death. By this time, Arthur's passive acceptance of the inevitability of the conflict becomes clearer and he becomes an almost pitiful figure. He has had several opportunities to make a clear decision, but he has failed to avail himself of them. Now he almost seems to believe that only death can relieve him of his burden and so he is no longer willing to struggle against a situation he thinks he cannot control. Perhaps he is right. The events which have been set in motion could have been stopped only by a firm stand by the King himself and this is something beyond the capabilities of the older Arthur of Le Mort le Roi Artu.
In the scene involving Arthur and Gauvain and the old woman, the King and his nephew are both criticized for their foolishness. To the King she says: "Saches veraiement quec'est grant folie et que tu crois fol conseil…" ("I can tell you truly that it is a great madness and that you are ill-advised"). Gauvain, too, does not escape her remarks: "… vous porchaciez si durement vostre damage que vous jamais ne reverrés le roialme de Logres sains ne haitiés" ("You are so resolutely pursuing your own destruction that you will never again in good health see the kingdom of Logres"). Her warnings represent the reality, the truth, of the situation in which they find themselves, but Arthur's weakness, indeed by now the loss of his desire to live, coupled with Gauvain's stubbornness, close their ears to her words. Arthur is still unsure of himself and Gauvain continues to cling stubbornly to the apparent truth that Lancelot deliberately killed his brother. In his anger and grief, Gauvain is unable to distinguish between appearances and reality and pursues his foe to the end, dragging with him Arthur and the remnants of the Round Table to their destruction. Not even Lancelot's magnanimous offer of penance can dissuade him. Thus "desmesure," "outrage," and "desreson" ("irrationality"), the most serious sins a knight could commit, bring about his death.
These are the root causes of the tragedy; man himself by his excesses, and not Fortune as an active force intervening in the affairs of men, is responsible. Although Gauvain blames his problems on Fortune, he does so mistakenly. It will be some time yet before he realizes that he does have a measure of control over his own destiny. But that moment will come and when it does, the moral lesson of the author will be clear: in spite of the seriousness of his sins, there is still hope for the true penitent which Gauvain ultimately becomes. Seeing the error of his ways, Gauvain recognizes his own guilt—not Fortune's—in this tragic situation. Rising above self-indulgence and ego, he soon attains the Kingdom of Heaven. When his quarrel with Lancelot is over, resulting as it does in the subsequent death of Gauvain, a man the King held most dear, there remains virtually nothing more for Arthur in this life. His loved ones and his Kingdom are gone. The fight with Mordred which must now follow serves only to wipe away the final remnants of a once glorious society.
It is significant at this point in the story that Arthur has not yet reached the level of awareness and understanding which Gauvain finally attains and still cannot recognize that the source of his problems lies within himself and his inability to see the reality of things. As Gauvain did before him, therefore, he, too, mistakenly shifts the blame for his own shortcomings upon the vicissitudes of Fortune:
Hé! Fortune, chose contrere et diverse, la plus desloial chose qui soit el monde, por quoi me fus tu onques si debonere ne si amiable por vendre le moi si chierement au derrien? Tu me fus jadis mere, or m'ies tu devenue marrastre, et por fere moi de duel morir as apelee avec toi la Mort, si que tu en deus manieres m'as honni, de mes amis et de ma terre. Hé! Mort vileinne, tu ne deüsses mie avoir assailli tel home comme mes niés estoit qui de bonté passoit tout le monde.
("Ah! Fortune, contrary and changeable, the most faithless thing in the world, why were you ever so courteous or so kind to me if you were to make me pay so dearly for it in the end? You used to be my mother; now you have become my stepmother, and to make me die of grief you have brought Death with you, in order to dishonour me in two ways at once, through my friends and through my land. Ah! base Death, you should not have attacked a man such as my nephew, who surpassed the whole world in goodness.")
Arthur, to whom the weight of the plot now shifts, still must learn that Fortune, whom he blames for his predicament, is only the manifestation, the apparent cause of his troubles. In a sense, Fortune functions as a kind of symbol here. This becomes adequately clear in the scene in which she takes Arthur up on her wheel and tells him the real reason for his impending downfall. Arthur has just been admonished in another dream by the crowd following Gauvain. They tell the King that his nephew, as a true penitent, has indeed attained the Kingdom of Heaven: "…et fei aussi comme il a fet… " ("follow his example"). In other words, overcome foolish earthly pride, and salvation will be guaranteed. But Arthur does not. Instead, he commits himself even more completely to the inevitable battle on Salisbury Plain. Lifting him up on her wheel, Fortune warns him of the consequences of his actions, the direct result of his own unwillingness to see the truth: "Mes tel sont li orgueil terrien qu' il n' i a nul si haut assiz qu'il ne le coviegne cheoir de la poesté del monde" ("But such is earthly pride that no one is seated so high that he can avoid having to fall from power in the world"). The baseness of human actions, then, which overwhelms knightly virtue, and not the whimsical intervention of blind fate, leads to the rude awakening that Arthur experiences in his dream. There is no suggestion that the King could not have retained his lofty position even longer if he had acted in accordance with the chivalric code of behaviour. Arthur's worst fears, the final destruction of his Round Table, are about to be realized; the climax has been reached. He knows this but he also believes that he has come too far to turn back. Like Gauvain immediately before his fateful battle with Lancelot, he continues to deceive himself by trying to convince himself that victory is possible and that there is an apparent hope for him. The Battle of Salisbury Plain puts an end to these illusions.
From the initial scenes of the Mort Artu, the main thread of this story has dealt with the downfall of Arthur and with him the destruction of the Round Table. The events which began with Merlin, his prophecies and his relationship to Arthur at the beginning of the Vulgate Cycle (Sommer: Vol. II) have now come full circle. But it is important to stress that the prophecies that Merlin makes there are inevitable only insofar as Arthur's own behaviour makes them so. These events are destined to occur because they must, for after all, they are a part of the traditional story which the mediaeval author has inherited from his predecessors; but with a remarkable degree of sophistication, that same author has introduced a tangible motivation beyond that of Fate or Fortune to justify their occurrence. Arthur's own weakness and unwillingness to see the truth provide the story with another dimension—another of the "branches" to which Vinaver refers. When he finally does realize that the tragic end is near, he cannot go back. It is too late.
Source: Donald C. MacRae, "Appearances and Reality in Le Mort le Roi Artu," in King Arthur: A Casebook, edited by Edward Donald Kennedy, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996, pp. 105-19.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2613
In his recent article, "From Grail Quest to Inquest," Professor Bloch has analysed the legal aspects of the two trials by combat described in the Mort Artu with special reference to the picture they give of the workings of feudal justice in the early thirteenth century. Professor Bloch has earned the gratitude of all Arthurians by his sensitive and minute analysis of the legal background and implications of these two duels which provide a major part of the structural framework of the romance. In his discussion of the second duel, however, that between Lancelot and Gauvain, there seems to me to be some misinterpretation of the French text in the matter of the exact form of the oaths sworn by the combatants before the battle so that it seems worth looking at this particular question in more detail.
When the terms of the battle are discussed outside Gaunes, Gauvain reminds Lancelot that: "vos savez bien que entre moi et vos avons enprise une bataille si grant comme de traïson mortel por la mort de mes freres que vos oceïstes en traïson, desloiaument, ce savons nous bien tuit; et si en sui apelerres et vous deffenderres." The use of the past tense indicates that Gauvain is here referring back to his original challenge to Lancelot, after the reconciliation between Arthur and Guinevere. On that occasion however, the term traïson was not used: "A la guerre ne poez vos faillir … tant que Gahereiz mes freres, que vos oceïstes malvaisement, sera vengiez de vostre cors meïsmes," Lancelot did not reply to this first attack but the challenge was taken up by Bors: "Si avez dit que messires ocist desloiaument vostre frere … je deffendroie mon seigneur encontre vostre cors, si que, se g'estoie veincuz en champ, que messires Lancelos fust honniz, et se ge vos pooie recreant fere, que vos fussiez maubailliz comme faus apelerres." Gauvain accepted Bors's challenge but the king "refusa d'ambes deus les gages et dist que ceste bataille ne seroit otroiee en nule maniere." In this original challenge, then, the point at issue was the killing of Gaheriet only, but in the confrontation near Gaunes, Gauvain talks of the death of "mes freres," that is Agravain and Gaheriet. Gauvain adds on this latter occasion an offer that if he be defeated, Arthur will swear not to continue the siege: "einz leront del tout le siege et s'en iront arriere en leur païs?" Lancelot's answer is, firstly, to try to forgo the battle even if he were judged a coward thereby: "tout soit il ore issi que ge ne la porroie lessier que la honte n'en fust moie et que l’en nel me tornast a coardise." Secondly, Lancelot offers reparation on a noble scale: he and all his kin, save the two kings, Lionel and Bors, will swear fealty to Gauvain; in addition Lancelot himself will set off alone, barefoot and in rags, for an exile of ten years, and should he die during that time, his kin will hold Gauvain innocent of his death. Lastly, Lancelot is ready to swear an oath "seur seinz que onques au mien escient n'ocis Gaheriet vostre frere et que plus m'en pesa qu'il ne fu bel." The crux of this last oath is that it does not raise at all the question of the death of Agravain. Gauvain mentions brothers, mes freres, Lancelot mentions one brother, vostre frere. (It is surely significant in considering this whole quarrel, that Gauvain never attacks Bors for having killed his third brother Guerres.) Gauvain refuses Lancelot's offer completely and repeats his accusation, this time formally: "Lors tent son gaje et dist au roi: 'Sire, veez me ci prest de prouver que Lancelos ocist desloiaument mes freres'." Lancelot does not formulate his reply in legal terms, he merely accepts the battle: '"Vez ci mon gage por moi deffendre" ….. et li rois reçoit les gages d'ambedous'. Gauvain's own cousin Yvain claims that Gauvain is in the wrong: 'Sire, pour coi avés vous emprise ceste bataille, et encore a tort, car il se deffendra a son droit', and later he and the king agree that right is not on their side: "ci ot si grant offre [that made by Lancelot] qu'aprés ceste chose je ne puis veoir par devers nos se desreson non … por ce que je voi par dela le droit et par deça le tort." Lancelot himself is uneasy and makes his confession: 'car moult doutoit qu'il ne li mescheïst envers monseigneur Gauvain por la mort de ses freres qu'il avoit ocis'. Lancelot does not, however, even here admit the accusation of traïson.
In the light of these quotations, it is surely not possible to accept that in this battle, Gauvain's accusation, unlike that of Mador, has a strong basis in fact. Lancelot did kill his brother with harmful intent and in a deceitful manner, (my italics). The brother referred to here, is Agravain, whom, Bloch claims, Lancelot slew in a premeditated attack from ambush. Bors, at the time, declared it was an open attack after challenge: "onques en traïson n'oceïstes ses freres, mes en apert, en tel leu ou il avoit plus de cent chevaliers." Bloch may be right in claiming premeditation since Lancelot certainly declares his intention of killing Agravain if he can, but it seems arguable if an attack that can be seen coming, can be considered legally a secret and therefore treacherous killing: "chascuns monte seur son cheval, et pranent escuz et lances; si tornent cele part ou il voient le feu. Et quant cil qui es prez estoient les virent venir, si s'escrierent tuit ensemble: 'Veez ci Lancelot! fuiez! fuiez!," (my italics). If the killing of Agravain is only possibly treachery, there can be no doubt at all that the killing of Gaheriet was not merely not premeditated, it was quite unintentional: "Lancelot, qui aloit les rens cerchant, nel connut mie" (my italics). Indeed, Lancelot is deeply distressed when he learns what he has done: "Moult fu Lancelos courrouciez por la mort de Gaheriet, car ce estoit uns des chevaliers del monde que il plus amoit." It is, therefore, incorrect to claim that "Lancelot killed Gaheriet with evil intent according to the medieval formula of traison."
Professor Bloch deduces from this battle that "the combatants" fatigue at the end of this second struggle reflects an exhausted method of ascertaining judicial truth, but it seems rather that the whole incident represents an excellent example of the duel judicaire. Gauvain's cause is bad, but he genuinely believes it good, and this gives him the power to prolong the battle for a full day against the hitherto invincible Lancelot:
Si te di bien que, se je n'i veïsse mon droit apertement, je n'assamblasse oan a lui por la meillor cité del monde, … Mes ce sevent bien tuit que torz et desloiautez feroit del meillor chevalier del monde mauvés … et ce est la chose par coi je douteroie moins Lancelot, car je sai bien que li tors en est siens et li drois en est miens; par coi ne toi ne autres ne devez avoir poor de moi, car en toz leus aïde Nostre Sires au droit: c'est ma fiance et ma creance.
After such a declaration it seems unreasonable to claim that: "Mador's and Gauvain's accusations engender a crisis of belief in the efficacy of the Dei judicio." It is true that this form of trial only proves the point made on oath, but that after all was what it was intended to do. It would be wrong to criticise or to hold that the author of the Mort Artu wanted to criticise the system of judicial combats for not doing something it was never designed to do. Gauvain, believing he was right, attacked Lancelot and was defeated because he was, in fact, wrong. He, himself, admitted this on his death-bed: "Se ge veïsse celui que ge sei au meilleur chevalier del monde et au plus cortois et ge li peüsse crier merci de ce que ge li ai esté si vilains au derrien, il m'est avis que m'ame en fust plus a ese aprés ma mort."
The changing attitude of the thirteenth century towards judicial combat is indeed reflected in Arthurian romance, though not, I would suggest, in this combat. In the prose Tristan, however, there is an example of a trial by battle in which the winner is later proved to have been in the wrong. King Arthur is deeply distressed when this discovery is made and we are told that after this battle the combatants in future duels had to swear an oath sur seinz that their cause was good: a manifest attempt to prop up what had been shown to be an inadequate method of achieving justice, "car devant ce que cele aventure avint n'avoit l’en fet nul serement, ne il n'en fesoient nul se il ne leur plesoit." The incident is summed up by the author in terms that could not have been used in the Mort Artu: "et cil qui por Dieu et por droit se combatoit i fu ocis; ainssi ala li tort devant le droit en l’ostel le roi A. en la plus loial cort et en le plus droituriere qui a celui tens fust en tot le monde."
In response to Dr. Muir's remarks I should like to make the following points. First of all, in contracting the battle outside Gaunes, Gauvain refers not to "his original challenge to Lancelot, after the reconciliation between Arthur and Guinevere," but to his challenge of the preceding day: "Va t' en leanz en la cité de Gaunes et di a Lancelot del Lac, s'il a tant de hardement en soi qu'il ost deffendre que il mon frere n'oceïst en traïson, je sui prez del prouver encontre son cors que il desloiaument et en traïson l'ocist." Although Dr Muir is correct in assuming that the word traïson is not used in the original defiance some months prior to the eventual trial by combat, she fails to point out that Gauvain twice repeats the accusal of traïson in establishing the wagers of battle on the day before actual confrontation. Again, Dr. Muir is right in observing that Gauvain speaks at the time of his brothers' death of only one brother, but the fact that he also speaks in the encounter near Gaunes of 'mes freres' serves to support the contention that Gauvain's challenge harks back to the self-contained episode of Gaunes and not to the peace concluded before the walls of "La Joyeuse Garde."
Second, the fact that Lancelot, in responding to the challenge, only claims to have slain Gaheriet unwittingly—"vos jurai seur seinz que onques au mien escient n'ocis Gaheriet vostre frere"—does not mean that he did not kill Agravain intentionally. In fact, the evidence at the time of slaying is just the opposite, and Lancelot's response may be a shrewd verbal manoeuvre to avoid the issue of intent altogether. His subsequent uneasiness when praying for God's help may be caused by his own sense of guilt, for he includes in his prayers reference to the death of Gauvain's three brothers and not just Gaheriet. In any case, the use of verbal trickery within the judicial ordeal is an increasingly common theme in twelfth-century and thirteenth-century literature; see, for example, Le Roman de Renart and Béroul's Roman de Tristan.
Third, Yvain claims that Gauvain is wrong not because of the righteousness or weakness of his case, as Dr Muir maintains, but because Lancelot is the stronger knight: "Haés vous si durement vostre vie, qui avez emprise bataille encontre le meillour chevalier del monde vers qui nus Hom ne pot onques durer en bataille qui ne fust honis au daerrain?" Yvain's recrimination is a cynical recognition, in contrast with Gauvain's belief in the efficacy of the judicium Dei, that might makes right. Like the Lancelot of the first battle, Yvain perceives the extent to which an ordeal of immanence can be manipulated by human intention. Yvain's and Arthur's recognition that "right is not on their side" does not refer to the question under judicial dispute, but to Gauvain's stubborn refusal to accept Lancelot's magnanimous offers of compromise. The expiatory pilgrimage and homage were, incidentally, standard means of reconciliation without recourse to the duel.
Fourth, Bors's claim that the death of Gauvain's brothers is justifiable because it was witnessed "by more than a hundred knights" represents an attempt to stretch the definition of justifiable homicide; it is yet another instance of the manipulation of judicial institutions through the clever use of language. The essential distinction between manslaughter and murder (traïson), under feudal law, centres around the issue of challenge. I refer the reader to the following passages from thirteenth-century customals not cited in my article:
Murtres si est quant aucuns tue ou fet tuer autrui en aguet apensé … (Beaumanoir, Coutumes) Et murtre si est, quant home est ocis nuitantre, porquoi il ne viegne apenséement à la meslée, ou en trives ou en agait de chemin, ou en menière que il ne voie le cop venir, ou quant il est sorpris que il n'a poer de soi deffendre. (Li Livre de Fostice et de Pletz)
Ironically, the Gauvain of Chrétien's Perceval finds himself accused of treacherous homicide for "having slain without challenge":
Ainz l'apele de felonnie Et dist: "Gauvains, tu oceïs Mon seignor, et si le feïs Issi que tu nel desfïas. Honte et reproce et blasme i as, Si t'en apele de traïson."
Ganelon, accused of treason at the end of La Chanson de Roland, denies the charge on the grounds that he challenged Roland publicly and not in secret.
Thus, Agravain's death is not "possibly treachery," as Dr Muir contends: the circumstances of its enactment—a premeditated attack without challenge from a hidden location—make it morally and materially an act of murder. This is all the more significant because the circumstances surrounding criminal wrongdoing matter much more, under feudal law, than the question of criminal intent. It mattered not why one killed another, but how he did it. Premeditation was deduced in an a posteriori fashion from the character of the crime. In other words, Gauvain's cause is not "bad," as Dr. Muir asserts; it is an essentially justifiable cause. His deathbed confession harks back to his earlier refusal of Lancelot's offers of peace and compromise rather than to the legality of his suit: "Sire (Arthur), se vos avez perdu Lancelot par ma folie, si le recouvrez par vostre savoir."
Finally, though Gauvain does manage to "prolong the battle for a whole day against the hitherto invincible Lancelot," he does eventually lose. Moreover, he is only able to sustain the fight as long as he does because his opponent refuses to exert his full martial strength and because of the solar myth attached to Gauvain's prowess but irrelevant with respect to judicial right.
In conclusion, I do not reproach the author of La Mort le roi Artu for "criticizing the system of judicial combats for not doing something it was never designed to do." Rather, I credit him, along with Chrétien, Béroul, Marie de France, the authors of Perlesvaus, Le Roman de Renart, and the prose Tristan, for his awareness of the insufficiencies, pitfalls, and paradoxes of feudal judicial procedure during a period of profound legal transformation.
Source: Lynette R. Muir and R. Howard Bloch, "Further Thoughts on the 'Mort Artu,'" in Modern Language Review, Vol. 71, Issue 1, January, 1976, pp. 26-30.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8774
For a novel which begins in earthly splendour and spiritual plenitude La Mort le roi Artu ends in a curious spectacle of chaos and decline. This final sequel of the enormous thirteenth-century Lancelot-prose cycle contains what should have been the golden age of Arthur's court, knighthood having returned to the native soil of Camelot after the distant Grail quest. Instead, it proclaims the twilight of the Arthurian world, the steady disintegration of the courtly and chivalric ideals which are the very stuff of romance. Of the hundred thousand knights who gather for the last battle of Arthur's reign—"la derreniere qui i sera au tens le roi Artu"—only four survive the end of an empire and the end of an age: "Einsi commença la bataille es pleines de Salesbieres dont li roiaumes de Logres fu tornez a destrucion, et ausi furent meint autre, car puis n'i ot autant de preudomes comme il i avoit eü devant; si en remestrent aprés leur mort les terres gastes et essilliees, et soufreteuses de bons seigneurs, car il furent trestout ocis a grant douleur et a grant haschiee." The wasting of Logres and the depletion of its ruling class of "preudomes" and "bons seigneurs" is, to a limited extent, attributable to those who least desire it. Lancelot's adultery with the Queen, Gauvain's thirst for vengeance, Arthur's blindness and weakness all contribute to the chain of catastrophe that drives the novel towards its apocalyptic finale. And yet none justifies, ultimately, the collapse of a kingdom, its noble families, ruler and all that surrounds them. Rooted far deeper than personal foible or folly, the decline of Arthur's world reflects a crisis of values and institutions—in particular judicial procedures—that is traceable to the decline of feudalism in France in the century and a half that preceded the poem's composition. The kingdom of Logres is, in its form, a mirror-image of the feudal world: a collection of independent political states structured around ties of fealty, clannish loyalty to family as part of the vendetta ethic, archaic practices of private war and trial by battle. A system that offers no distinction between private and public domains, Arthurian kingship resembles the feudal monarchies of the late Carolingians and early Capetians as seen from the increasingly national perspective of a Philippe-Auguste or Saint Louis. From this point of view, the death of Arthur and destruction of the Round Table along with its baronage of "bons seigneurs" looks like the failure of feudal organization to deal with the problems of a new more centrally oriented era.
The first real test of the strength of the realm comes about quite unexpectedly. At dinner one evening Gauvain' s enemy Arvalan prepares a piece of poisoned fruit which he offers to Guinevere, believing that she will, in turn, offer it to Gauvain. To Arvalan's surprise the Queen hands the fatal dessert to a third knight, Gaheris de Karaheu, who dies "as soon as it passes his neck": "La reïne prist le fruit qui de la traïson ne se gardoit; si en dona a un chevalier qui estoit compains de la Table Reonde et avoit non Gaheris de Karaheu; ... et si tost comme il en ot le col passé, il chaï morz erranment voiant la reïne et touz cels qui furent a la table." Arthur reacts to Gaheris's death with astonishment and sadness but takes no cognizance of the event in terms of criminal action. Arvalan disappears entirely from the author's tale. The Queen, in spite of the fact that many have witnessed her part in the deed, is not indicted; and Gaheris, after an honourable burial, is soon forgotten. Forgotten, that is, by all except his brother Mador de la Porte. Upon arrival in Camelot for the next assembly, Mador learns of Gaheris's death and proceeds to Arthur's court where, long after the infraction has taken place, redress is first mentioned in connexion with Guinevere's crime. He pronounces publicly the formal accusation of murder: "Sire, or vos requier ge comme a roi que vos me faciez droit de la reïne qui en traïson a ocis mon frere; et se ele velt noier et mesconoistre, que ele traïson n'ait fete et desloiauté, je seroie prez del prouver contre le meilleur chevalier que ele i vodra metre." Arthur warns the defendant that if convicted she will be in sorry straits—"vos est alee"—then adjourns for a period of forty days during which time she will be free to seek a champion: "aucun prudome qui por vos entrast en champ et qui vos deffendist."
The criminal procedure under which Guinevere is indicted for the murder of Gaheris is not unknown within the Western legal tradition. Prevalent in Greece and Rome, it disappeared during the latter days of the Empire and reappeared in Germanic feudal custom; portions are preserved in the judicial institutions of England and the United States. According to this and similar "accusatory" methods of legal process, a criminal action can only be initiated by the victim of an offence or, as under feudal law, the family or liege lord of the offended party. Every citizen is, under an accusatory mode of indictment, eligible to become the plaintiff in a judicial proceeding, but no action can be undertaken independently of private pleas for recognition. In other words, neither the civil apparatus of the state nor its representative agent, the judge, has the power to proceed against offenders like Guinevere without the formal appeal of a Mador to the justice of Arthur's court.
For the well-armed and well-trained warrior aristocracy of the feudal era trial automatically implied physical combat. Almost any accusation punishable by mutilation or death featured the judicial duel as its primary mode of proof. Even in minor actions, where testimony is sometimes permitted, the only means by which testimonial evidence might be contested is by challenging the witness to battle. In both cases the burden of proof rests upon the shoulders of the defendant, who is forced either to accept the challenge or stand guilty as accused. Arthur explains the situation to Mador and the Queen: "Mador, la querele la reïne doit estre menee a fin par tel maniere que, s'cle en ce jor d'ui ne treuve qui la vueitle deffendre, l’en fera de son corps ce que la cort esgardera. Or remanez ceanz jusques a eure de vespres; etse dedenz celui terme ne vient avant qui por lui empraigne ceste bataille vos est quires de l'apel et ele est encolpee." As far as Guinevere is concerned the absence of a defender is tantamount to conviction. Mador's charge—"apel"— which works by definition against the accused, conforms historically to the procedure of indictment in use well after the novel's composition. Beaumanoir outlines in the Coutumes de Beauvaisis the correct method of accusal: "De tous cas de crime l’en puet apeler ou venir a gages se l'acuseres en veut fere droit acusacion selonc ce qu'apeaus se doit fere, car il con vient que cil qui est apelés s'en defendre ou qu'il demeurt atains du fet duquel il est apelés." For Beaumanoir as for Arthur, accusation—"apeler"—is equivalent to a wager of battle—"gages"—as long as the proper judicial formula—"droite acusacion"— has been observed. Failure to defend oneself or to provide for representation carries the force of confession.
Despite the obvious seriousness of arriving for trial without a defender, Guinevere nonetheless experiences a great deal of difficulty in locating a champion. Because of the clear and evident nature of her offence none of the knights who would have ordinarily undertaken her cause will do so against Mador. Lancelot's clan is absent from court. Arthur is prohibited by his role as justiciar from openly advocating the Queen's defence, although he does later seek without success a supporter on her behalf. Both Arthur and Guinevere have lost all hope of finding an advocate by trial time, when Lancelot, who has heard meantime of the Queen's predicament, arrives at court, defeats Mador and simultaneously redeems the defendant's honour and her favour. Lancelot's victory and vindication of his mistress corresponds generally to our own ideas of justice. The passage from false accusation to ultimate acquittal serves to reaffirm the efficacy of a judicial system in which the innocent are cleared in the end despite intervening moments of hesitation or doubt. Yet the seemingly just correlation of innocence and acquittal obscures a number of logical dilemmas concerning Arthur's support of the Queen, Lancelot's espousal of her cause and the impunity with which the true culprit escapes. Instead of assuring the integrity of the feudal mode of justice, Guinevere's exculpation calls into question the philosophic and pragmatic bases of trial by battle.
The duel judiciaire belongs to the series of ordeals common to any primitive sense of justice in which legal process remains indistinguishable from divine process, human will from godly will, positive law from divine law. Historically, it came to France from the Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus and Caesar though there is some evidence of its practice by the Gauls before the northern invasions. The efficacy of the Deo judicio rests upon a belief in the immanence of supernatural powers within the natural sphere. As in the Chanson de Roland where the contests between Charlemagne and Baligant, Thierry and Pinabel, are clearly linked to a transcendent contest between good and evil, all physical combats between mortal opponents reflect a superhuman struggle. For Homer the immanence of justice was often the result of capricious disputes between semi-human divinities; medieval man was much more likely to picture the judicial duel in terms of a conflict between the forces of Satan and those of a Christian God. Underlying both outlooks is the assumption that nature remains incapable of indifference to the outcome of earthly events and that the judicial process represents but one expression of a constant dialogue between nature and man.
The role of human judgement in criminal actions, is, under an immanent legal mode, reduced to a bare minimum, the assumption being that God alone judges and that men, having acted either innocently or with guilt, then become the passive objects of divine scrutiny. The cognitive decisions that we associate with the active binding judgeship of the Roman praetor or modern magistrate have little meaning for the feudal judge. Unable to disregard the law and unable to indict of his own accord, he presides to pronounce sentence and ensure the fairness of the proceedings. Much like the referee in a sporting event, he possesses sufficient discretionary power to apply the rules that have applied in the past without the authority to change them through the precedent of his decisions. Free to fix the fine details of Guinevere's trial, the forty day adjournment to find a champion, Arthur is nonetheless obliged to establish the conditions under which a direct encounter between plaintiff and defendant can take place. That encounter, the judicial ordeal, represents an attempt to elicit supernatural intervention in human affairs. Both the unilateral ordeals of trial by fire, water, burning oil, or coal and the bilateral "ordeal of the cross" and combat seek to force God to show his hand in cases where the righteousness or the culpability of the parties is not apparent. Justice becomes manifest through the burns that either heal or fester, the bearers of the cross who endure or falter, the combatants who kill or are killed, the entire process dependent upon the theoretical premise that the Lord does not abandon the just man and that he punishes those who have failed him. Before facing Lancelot in battle Gauvain professes his faith in the unerring justness of the duel judiciaire: "Mes ce sevent bien tuit que torz et desloiautez feroit del meillor chevalier del monde mauvés, et droiz et loiautez feroit del plus mauvés et seür et preu." Whether or not Gauvain's cause is, in fact, just, he believes that right and force are sufficiently allied to insure judicial fairness.
The strictness of the rules governing combat and the obligation on the justiciar's part to apply them are meant to facilitate God's work in making his judgement evident. The accusation and denial, acceptance of the wagers of battle, swearing of oaths that accompany the actual physical match are conducted according to precise formulas whose slightest infraction can invalidate the entire proceeding. By the twelfth century the rituals have been christianized to such an extent that trial has become a sacrament. At the end of Roland Thierry and Pinabel visit church, hear mass, take confession and offer pious gifts before battle. Lancelot too confesses his sins in an all night vigil before meeting Gauvain (p. 184.11). The premise that God judges according to the comparative moral status of the two contestants makes it a matter of utmost importance to enter combat as free as possible from any trace of lingering sin. Ritualization—blessing of relics and arms, swearing of oaths, hearing of mass and confession—is aimed at establishing a direct rapport between the divine judge and the human instruments of his judgement. Cases are submitted to God for his decision, per duelli probationem; the ceremonial trappings ensure his participation. Thierry declares to Pinabel, "Deus facet hoi entre nus dous le dreit!" Harold decrees before the Battle of Hastings, "Dominus inter me et Willelmum hodie quod justum est descernat." Both are aware that God alone judges the petty quarrels of men and that his judgement often surpasses their understanding.
Representation in battle by a champion was an ancient Germanic prerogative (sunnis or avoué) by which direct participation of the parties involved in litigation can, under certain circumstances, be waived. Mentioned in the Frankish capitularies and the sixth-century Lex Burgondionem, provisions for substitution in the judicial duel are a constant feature of medieval procedure. In Roland representation is automatic: Ganelon's trial hinges upon the appearance of Thierry to substantiate Charlemagne's accusation. According to Beaumanoir, if a defendant is missing a limb, is over sixty-years-of-age, has a sickness that prevents excitement or a chronic illness (quartaine or tierçaine), he has the right to find a champion to fight in his place. The Coutumes de Beauvaisis also contains a specific proviso for women: "li quins essoines, si est se fame apele ou est apelee, car fame ne se combat pas." Hence, Arthur, as judge, is perfectly warranted in permitting Guinevere a stand-in for the actual trial by battle. His position becomes considerably less tenable through his active solicitation of support. Where the Queen acquiesces to the lack of champion Arthur first turns to the knights of the Round Table who baulk at the idea of defending a cause in which defeat is a foregone conclusion: "car il sevent bien que la reine a tort et Mador a droit." He next approaches Gauvain who refuses on the grounds that no loyal knight would enter combat with the knowledge of his party's fault, not even if the party were his own mother: "car nos savons bien que la reïne ocist le chevalier dont ele est apelee."
What stands out most clearly in Arthur's attempt to find a champion for Guinevere is his hesitancy to let the process of divine justice run its natural course. The king is not content to trust the matter of God's judgement to the invisible mechanism of infallible providence, but feels compelled to hasten the progress of providence with his own interventions. Nor is he secretive about his reasons for wanting to protect the Queen: Arthur's personal commitment to the woman he loves leads him to disregard her evident guilt. And whereas the judge within an immanent accusatory system should remain neutral once he has established a direct confrontation between parties, Arthur confuses his public role as justiciar with his private role as husband. Mador accuses him after the trial of having manipulated the proceedings: "Sire, vos m'avez deceü qui encontre moi avez mis monseigneur Lancelot."
In the long run, the efficacy of the judicial duel depends upon the faith of those who participate in it, a faith that God's will ultimately protects the innocent and punishes those who perjure themselves in his presence. The fear of perjury in the name of a bad cause explains Gauvain's and the other knights' reluctance to respond to Arthur's call for help. Lancelot, however, reacts differently to the news of the Queen's dilemma. Fully aware of her guilt, he nonetheless consents to champion what is commonly acknowledged to be a faulty cause:
Certes, fet Lancelos, s'ele me devoit haïr a touz jorz en tel maniere que ge ne trouvasse jamés pes a li, si ne voudroie ge pas qu'ele fust deshonoree a mon vivant; car c'est la dame del monde qui plus m'a fet d'enneur puis que ge portai armes; si me metrai en aventure por li deffendre, non mie si hardiement come j'ai fet en autre bataille, car ge sei bien veraiement, a ce que g'en ai oï dire, que li torz en sera meins et li droiz Mador.
Lancelot's acceptance has been attributed by some to shock and momentary weakness. Be that as it may, his decision seems more conscious than a transitory slip. He states explicitly that he will defend the Queen not because he believes in her essential righteousness, but because of her past reputation. In reflecting upon his decision Lancelot accepts the prospect of entering battle "half-heartedly" due to the certainty of her guilt: "car ge set bien veraiement … que li torz en sera meins et li droiz Mador." And in so doing, the greatest knight of Logres shows himself clearly willing to undertake what amounts to an adequate but not wholly valid judicial cause. His readiness to perjure himself and thus to compromise with the sine qua non of feudal justice, a belief in the omnipotence of the divine judge, has far-reaching implications. For Lancelot the absolute certainty of God's vengeance no longer poses a serious threat. His attitude is much closer to an Aristotelian vision of a universe created by God but existing apart from his continual presence than to an immanent universe in which the divine being penetrates every object and events. Lancelot's action implies a world in which human and divine will function independently of each other, a world from which the gods have withdrawn, leaving humans responsible for the consequences of their deeds.
Further doubt concerning the efficacy of the immanent legal system emanates from the trial itself. According to the Deo judico, every effort is made not only to force the parties into a situation of direct confrontation, but to establish a clear-cut contradiction between their respective allegations, the assumption being that one of the two will, of necessity, be guilty of perjury. Accusations are therefore repeated orally, publicly and according to set formula. Denial also takes place in accordance with a fixed pattern requiring verbatum—verbo ad verbum—refutation of the charges.
At Guinevere's trial Mador repeats the allegation originally pronounced upon arrival in Camelot. Lancelot refutes it word for word: "Sire chevaliers, ge sui prez de prouver qu'ele desloiaument et en traïson a ocis mon frere.—Et ge sui prez, fit Lancelos del deffendre qu'ele n'i pensa onques desloiauté ne traison." Mador's accusal and Lancelot's denial carry us a long way from Gaheris's death and the common knowledge of the Queen's part in it. Mador maintains that Guinevere not only killed his brother, she did so knowingly and treacherously: "desloiaument et en traïson a ocis mon frere." In fact, the accused at no point denies having handed the fatal piece of fruit to Gaheris despite her disavowal of any knowledge of the poison. Yet the formulary accusation opens the delicate question of intention behind criminal behaviour. The Queen's case hinges upon a subtle distinction between intentional misdeed and the absence of intent, a difference that often escapes the ken of primitive legal methods and that becomes especially muddled in the judicial apparatus of Arthur's court.
In spite of his initial concern about the motive surrounding Guinevere's act, Arthur seems to be singularly indifferent to the notion of intention. He says nothing when Mador first accuses her of wilful murder, nor when she questions her accuser's use of the words "treason" and "disloyalty," nor at the time of the acceptance of the wagers of battle along with the repetition of the original charge. It is not until the final accusation has been pronounced and the combatants have left for the battlefield that the error becomes apparent. Gauvain points out to Arthur the weakness of the plaintiff s allegation: "Or creroie ge bien que Mador fust en mauvese querele; car comment que ses freres moreust, je jurroie seur seinz au miens escient qu'onques la reïne n'i pensa desloiauté ne traïson; si l’en porroit tost max avenir, se li chevaliers avoit en lui point de proesce." With Gauvain's sudden awareness of the inaccuracy of Mador's charge the Queen's originally indefensible position becomes justifiable once again. Lancelot's cause, through the unconscious mishandling of judicial formula, unexpectedly becomes the right cause, as Mador's carelessness with words during the proceedings neutralizes Arthur's clumsiness prior to trial.
The outcome of Guinevere's case points to a judicial system that succeeds despite itself. Its fragile triumph, coming as it does after a series of fortunate errors of judgement and procedure, can be attributed to Lancelot's willingness to risk perjuring himself and to Mador's misconception of the events surrounding Gaheris's death. At root, the weakest point in the entire process centres around the issue of criminal intent. Arthur's court, like most feudal courts, does not possess the investigatory apparatus—system of inquest, testimony, witnesses, written proof and documentary evidence—to determine the motivation behind wrong-doing, much less to apprehend the offender when his action is not apparent.
In many ways, Guinevere's offence constitutes what in modern jurisprudence is a case of accident or neglect, a special category of infraction under medieval law. For the jurist of the Middle Ages the perpetrator of a criminal act, however innocent his intentions, was nonetheless liable for his misdeed. Negligence as we know it did not enter the picture. Harm done a stranger with unguarded weapons was, under Anglo-Saxon law, attributable to the owner of the arms. Borrowing or stealing arms was a frequent means of obscuring evidence and thereby deflecting guilt. The medieval law of deodand, showing traces of the Roman noxal actions, specifies that where injury is inflicted the nearest object—animate or inanimate—bears the responsibility and should by rights be handed over to those obliged to avenge the crime. Damage done to humans by dogs or other animals is ascribable to the owner "according to a scale of compensation increasing after the first bite" The Coutume de Tourraine et Anjou prescribes a fine of 100s. Id. payable by the master of an animal that causes the death of a man. And in England, if two men are at work in a forest and one lets a tree accidentally fall upon the other, the tree belongs to the victim's kin. When injury occurs under the jurisdiction or protection of the king's forest the blameworthy object is automatically transmitted to the royal agent of justice. Both instances acknowledge that where one brings about the death of another he is, like Guinevere, liable regardless of intent.
Pragmatic to an extreme degree, feudal law offers solutions to obvious situations and punishes misdeeds of a general kind without regard to the motivation or circumstances surrounding the crime. Harm inflicted upon one's fellow man constitutes criminal action, but where no harm is done no crime has been committed. The thoughts of a man were not to be tried, nor was attempted offence any offence at all. For medieval man the idea of guilt does not exist apart from actual infractions against specific individuals. He possesses no concept equivalent to the Roman culpa or the modern sense of negligence within the criminal sphere. On the contrary, feudal justice had no use for such abstract precepts, its immediate goal being the cessation of hostilities between private parties, its long range aim the prescription of indemnities to be paid the injured party or his family. Without injury there is no need for reparation; and when retribution is required, the amount of compensation is determined by the victim's social status and the fixed tables of payment, the wergeld or relief d'homme. At no stage does the need arise to consider the offender's motive or intent.
Although archaic Germanic law provided for only one degree of homicidal guilt, with little distinction between premeditated and accidental manslaughter, it did possess limited means of differentiating a few cases of aggravated slaying known as morth (Latin murdrum, Old French murdre). The term morth designated an unemendable crime involving concealment of the victim's body. Salic law, for example, specifies that if a dead man's corpse has been hidden in a well or in the branches of a tree, the deed falls into the category of morth, or homicide odieux. Otherwise, it constitutes plain manslaughter, homicide simple, for which the tariff of compensation is considerably lower. Allemand and Frisian law set the price of murder at nine times the figure set for an ordinary slaying.
The essential distinction between homicide and murder hinges, throughout the Middle Ages and up until the fourteenth century, upon the idea of open as opposed to hidden misdeed. Glanvill defines murdum as a "killing seen by none"—"Dou autem genera homicidii. Unum est quod dicitur murdrem, quodnullo vidente." The Très Ancien Coutumier de Normandie, written about ten years after Glanvill's death in 1190, classifies murder among the irreparable crimes occurring under the cover of darkness. The thirteenth-century Livre de Fostice et de Plet is even more precise: slayings carried out at night automatically constitute murder: "homicide fet nuitantre fet murtre." Thus for Germanic custom, Glanvill, the Très Ancien Coutumier, and the Fostice et Plet the notion of murder necessarily implies treachery, or killing in which the guilty party, through ruse or surprise, takes unfair advantage of his victim.
Treacherous homicide comprises, on the one hand, any slaying not enacted openly, that is not the result of direct conflict between the slain man and his slayer. Saint Louis incorporates both the concept of night-time deed and that of unfair advantage in the definition of murder found in the Établissements. For Louis, murder was synonymous with death in bed, or in any way that does not involve a fight: "Murtres si est d' ome ou de fame quant F en la tue en son lit, ou en aucune meniere por coi ce ne soit en mellée." Murder implies trickery, the denial of a fair chance at self-defence. As such, it entails an automatic death sentence without the obvious benefit to the killer of trial. All that Louis required to admit the possibility of legal process was that the slayer show by the presence of scars inflicted prior to the victim's death proof that open conflict did, in fact, occur.
The notion of murder comprehends, on the other hand, the idea not only of treachery, but of surprise. A murdered man has been taken unawares either in his sleep or in a contest without formal challenge or equality in the means of confrontation. When Charlemagne accuses Ganelon of treason the defendant denies the charges on the grounds that his defiance of Roland was made publicly and not in secret:
Jo desfiai Rollant le poigneor Et Oliver e tuiz lur compaignun Carles l'oïd e si nobilie baron. Venget m'en sui, mais n'i ad traïsun. (Roland)
Ganelon's distinction between treason, a punishable misdeed, and vengeance, a justifiable one "Venget m'en sui, mais n'i ad traïsun"—centres around the visible nature of his action. The challenge to the emperor's nephew took place in the open, that is to say within the hearing range of all concerned: "Carles l'oïd e si nobilie baron." Instead of denying the accusation Ganelon makes a virtue of the openness of the deed which, by feudal standards, did not constitute criminal offence. Feudal law recognizes only two sorts of homicide, vengeance and treason, overt and covert slaying. The fine distinctions that Bracton later draws between killing in self-defence, in execution of a death sentence or in apprehending a man who is himself a criminal, in short, the circumstances that give each act its particular character, are completely ignored. It matters little why one man kills another, but how he does it. Abidance by the rules of public challenge suffices to render homicide legal, and all killings conducted properly are essentially justifiable.
When Mador accuses Guinevere of having killed his brother "treacherously" he is, in effect, accusing her of premeditated murder. She must have, according to his allegation, been aware of the poison hidden in the piece of fruit and intended to trap Gaheris with her gastronomic deceit. Yet the reader knows what Lancelot only suspects: that the Queen is completely innocent of any premeditation and that her part in the slaying is the product of accident. Not even a case of the old Germanic homicide simple, Guinevere's crime constitutes what today is considered involuntary manslaughter, an ambiguous mixture of guilt in deed and innocence of intent that defies the legal mechanism of Arthur's court. Structured around a well-defined and undeviating series of binary options, feudal procedure has no means of assimilating events like Gaheris's murder that cannot be reduced to a strict either/or proposition. In the first place, there exists no regularized method of prosecution, a fault shared by all purely accusatory systems. Guinevere's act either escapes any sort of public notice, as during the period prior to Mador's arrival in Camelot, or she finds herself charged with intentional wrongdoing; the Queen either eludes prosecution altogether, or is indicted for murder with evil intent. And whereas the author of La Mort possesses a language in which to recount such ambiguous happenings as accidental death, Arthur's court has no legal language in which to couch such equivocal phenomena. The formula of accusation together with the inflexible contradictory response disclose the insufficiency of a judicial process that has no way of affirming the reality of an event, its simple occurrence, without at the same time confirming conscious motivation, an act of will on the part of those involved. The failure of the justice of the Round Table reaches far beyond a mere lack of familiarity with problematic criminal action to a lack of discourse by which to assimilate partial, relative, non-exclusive truths and therefore to give adequate legal meaning to Guinevere's misdeed.
The breakdown of procedure during the Queen's trial would not offer such incontrovertible evidence of a more general crisis of legal institutions were it not for the novel's second judicial combat, that which pits Lancelot against Gauvain before the walls of Gaunes. Here, trial by battle has been agreed upon as a suitable means of resolving the blood-feud following the death of Gauvain's three brothers, in particular Gaheriet. Gauvain, like Mador, adopts the standard accusatory formula under which all homicide becomes premeditated homicide: "Lancelot, fet messire Gauvains, messires le rois est ci venuz por fere ce que vos m'avez requis; vos savez bien que entre moi et vos avons emprise une bataille si grant comme de traïson por la mort de mes freres que vos oceïstes en traïson, desloiaument, ce savons nos bien tuit; si en sui apelerres et vos deffenderres." Lancelot responds in the appropriate manner, with a direct denial of the charges: "vos jurai sur seinz que onques du mien escient n'ocis Gaheriet vostre frere." Once again the question put to legal test is not whether the accused did, in reality, perpetrate the act of which he stands accused, but whether his actions were intentional. Gauvain insists upon the premeditated quality of the deed—"vos oceïstes en traïson"—while Lancelot disavows any conscious intent—"du mien escient n'ocis vostre frere."
The issue under judicial dispute occurs during the quarrel over Guinevere's execution after her capture in flagrante delicto. In the struggle to save her Lancelot's men kill Gauvain's brothers. Boort maintains that the original conflict took place openly, in an area where there were more than one hundred knights, and that the resulting deaths were therefore justified: "onques en traïson n'occeïstes ses freres, mes en apert, en tel leu ou il avoit plus de cent chevaliers." Lancelot's cousin thus establishes the traditional opposition between treacherous and overt wrongdoing. In looking back at the actual incident being judged, however, it seems clear that Lancelot did, in fact, literally ambush the party accompanying Guinevere to the stake. As the Queen's escort approaches the place of execution he waits, hidden in the woods, for a message from court: "Tant alerent parlant entre Agravain et Gaheriet qu'il aprouchierent del feu. Et Lancelos, qui fu enbuschiez a l'entree de la forest a toute sa gent…" When Lancelot hears that his mistress has been condemned to die he singles out Agravain, the man responsible for the entrapment of the lovers, as the prime target of attack: "Or doint Dex que, si onques oi priere de pecheeur, que ge truisse premierement Agravain qui m'a cest plet basti." Lancelot's lying in wait at the entrance to the forest—"embuchiez a l'entree de la forest"—bears the mark of the original sense of ambush (Latin am-būsca ) implying a concealed attack "from the woods." His designation of Agravain as the object of assault reveals a degree of premeditation that cannot be denied. The crime of which Gauvain accuses Lancelot combines the Roman notion of aforethought with the germanic concept of surprise attack or guetapens.
Thus Gauvain's accusation, unlike that of Mador, has a strong basis in fact. Lancelot did kill his brother with harmful intent and in a deceitful manner. The episode in question reveals none of the uncertainty that surrounds Guinevere's case; and yet the outcome is even more ambiguous. Lancelot wins the judicial duel, but he wins on the grounds of a technicality long after his opponent has been, for all intents and purposes, physically vanquished. Arthur, acting in his capacity as judge and upon an appeal from the defendant, puts an end to the fight: "Lancelot, Gauvains ne lera pas la bataille, s'il ne li plest; mes vos la poez lessier, se vos voulez, car ja est eure passee; si avez bien fet ce que vos devez." Through his reference to the hour that has come—"ja est eure passee"—Arthur invokes the medieval judicial custom according to which any defendant who manages to fend off his accuser until evening stands acquitted. The Grand Coutumier de Normandie defines the terminus ad quem of judicial battle with the appearance of stars in the sky. Lancelot sets the limit at the hour of vespers in a last-minute plea to end the struggle: "et dedenz vespres qui apele home de traïson doit avoir sa querele desresniee et sa bataille veincue, ou il a perdue sa querele par droit" (p. 201.12). Lancelot scores, then, what amounts to a technical knockout in a present-day prizefight. His victory is neither complete, as against Mador, nor the product of his efforts alone; for with Arthur's intervention the application of human procedure, positive law, succeeds where divine justice has failed.
Having undertaken what was a dubious cause in Guinevere's defence and a patently poor cause in his own case, Lancelot emerges victorious from both encounters. The first can be justified in terms of a sudden reversal due to inappropriate judicial formula; the second, however, can only be explained as the triumph of superior physical force. Unlike the Chanson de Roland, where God intervenes at crucial moments to save the hero and thus reaffirm men's faith in his abiding presence, the two trials of La Mort only serve to undermine credence in the fundamental tenets of feudal justice: that the righteous, though not necessarily the most powerful, man emerges victorious and that human error and chance play no part in the functioning of the legal process. The Deo judicio no longer punishes wrongdoing, nor does it vindicate injury swiftly and clearly. It has failed in its chief capacity, which is the designation of intrinsic but unobvious guilt through an irreducible contradiction of parties. Trial by combat has ceased, even, to distribute justice fairly. Arvalan and Lancelot, the guilty parties in the two legal actions, elude prosecution; Mador and Gauvain fail to obtain redress.
The ineffectiveness of trial by battle can, in Mador's case, be ascribed to the formulary weakness of the system, and in Gauvain's to the substantive failing of the duel itself. A more inherent defect lies at the epistemological root of immanent justice. Stated simply, the outcome of the ordeal by battle exists independently of the notion of cognitive truth. The justice of Arthur's court depends upon the observance or non-observance of a series of fixed rules—formulas of accusation and denial, adjournment, representation, wagers and termination of combat—that matter much more than the collection and assessment of information concerning the criminal act. In fact, within a feudal accusatory system the only means of challenging the truthfulness of the proceedings is to prove that the rules have not been applied with sufficient rigour, that the judge has either refused to hear a case brought before him or that he has mishandled the precepts at his disposal. Both require an additional wager of battle, tendered this time against the judge by the party that questions his probity. Neither involves reference to the original deed whose truthfulness or falsity is never really tested. Arthur initiates no investigation at the time of Guinevere's crime, he calls no witnesses and holds no inquest during her trial; nor does anyone present at the original accusation raise the question of what, in point of fact, occurred at the time of Gaheris's death. The attempt to recreate faithfully the reality of past events remains a non-essential concept within the feudal legal system, whose only concern is the prevention of their recurrence. At best a means of regularizing and codifying single hand-to-hand conflicts, the duel judiciaire represents a symbolic re-enactment of the original deed brought before the court. It can in no way be confused with the endeavour to recapture the basic truth of the crime: the coherence of its etiology, strategy, and resolution.
Founded upon the weakest of fragmentary evidence, the truth of events stands, under the procedure at Arthur's disposal, only loosely bound to the process of rational human thought. Judicial truth, that involved in the trial itself, is witnessed by the presence of the barons at court, affirmed by the judge, who receives the accusations and pronounces sentence, and risked by the parties who expose themselves to divine wrath. The barons are, in this respect, the repository of collective truth, the customs of the community as expressed by the judge. The memory of the latter represents, in turn, a storehouse of appropriate rules intended to provoke a manifestation of higher truth. Logically, an accusal and wager of battle, once pronounced, can either be accepted or refused; if rejected, the accused stands guilty as charged; if accepted, the allegation may still be either true or false. Assuming that it were true, then the defendant would supposedly lose the judicial duel; and if false, then and only then would the judgement of the gods fall upon the accuser. As is evident, the act of accusal coupled with the agreed upon conditions of confrontation occupy the centre of the trial. It is only at the final stage of arbitration that a distinction is theoretically drawn between innocence and guilt and that divine wrath punishes the offender. Until the conclusion of battle the opposition between falsehood and truth plays a relatively minor role in the proceedings.
In Guinevere's case the deed of which she is accused did take place, although her indictment is, strictly speaking, false because of the innocence of her intentions. The wager of battle is accepted by Lancelot who, as defendant, defeats Mador. In the second judicial test the infraction did again occur, but the accusal is essentially true this time, since Lancelot killed Gaheriet with evil intent according to the medieval formula of traïson. Once more the defendant, Lancelot again wins the duel judiciaire. Thus both trials of La Mort begin from the same initial premise: the occurrence of the act submitted to the court. Yet in both cases the link between the truth of the misdeed and the outcome of the Deo judicio is at some point severed. Mador disturbs the progression at the outset through the inaccuracy of his accusal; from that moment on it is no longer a question of the veracity of the events surrounding the Queen's wrongdoing. With Gauvain's suit the alliance of justice and truth is not disrupted until the battle itself when the plaintiff loses despite the truth of his allegations. Here, the victory of a defendant faced with a true accusation can only be taken as a failure of divine judgement and hence of the entire set of assumptions underlying immanent justice. The combatants' fatigue at the end of this second struggle reflects an exhausted method of ascertaining judicial truth.
For the knight-warrior caste of the feudal era the judicial duel was a privilege of class, a symbolic means of terminating personal quarrels like that of Lancelot and Gauvain in the absence of any more effective civil mechanism. As such, the right to participate in the duel judiciaire was considered a seigneurial prerogative inseparable from the general maintenance of arms incumbent upon the holding of land in fief. With the reconstitution of the national monarchy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, the archaic feudal mode of proof came under heavy attack from several quarters: the Church, the northern municipalities, and especially the late Capetian and Angevin kings of France. Suppression of the Deo judicio along with the appearance of a coherent system of judicial appeal stood at the heart of the royal programme of administrative centralization aimed at creating direct legal ties between king and subject; in this way, the crown hoped to undermine the local seigneurial jurisdiction of a former age. It was with this objective in mind that Saint Louis in the late 1250s prohibited the ordeal of battle within the royal domain. In its place he substituted the old Frankish practice preserved throughout the Middle Ages in canonical courts, the enquête: "Nous deffendons les batailles partout nostre domoine en toutes quereles, mais nous n'ostons mie les clains, les respons, les contremanz, ne touz autres erremanz qui ont esté accostumé en cort laie jusques à ores, selonc les usages de divers païs, fors tant que nos en ostons les batailles; et en leu de batailles nos metons prueves de tesmoinz et de chartes." The proof by witnesses and written documents—"preuves de tesmoinz et de chartes"—that Louis prescribes as an alternative to trial by combat implies a radically different concept of the goals and methods of criminal procedure. Justice will henceforth focus not upon the payment of reparation to the injured party, but the establishment of legal truth. Intended to recreate the reality of past events as they actually happened, the inquest suddenly introduces the notion of rational truth, human rather than divine, into the centre of the judicial process. The pivotal position formerly occupied by customary rules of accusation and denial followed by divine intervention is now filled by the judge's obligation to render cognitive legal decisions independent of any system of higher causality. Under an inquisitional system man and not God determines innocence and guilt according to comprehensible logical criteria.
The primary basis for judgement by inquest is the collection of information regarding the act or issue in question through the sworn statements of witnesses. Normandy possessed an inquisitory procedure in use before the Conquest and certainly before the re-annexation of the Duchy in the early thirteenth century. As a matter of course a defendant had the right to refuse a wager of battle, insisting instead upon an examination of the merits of his case by loyal and credible men of the vicinage under oath to appraise the facts as objectively as possible. The presiding judge then transmitted their decision to the duke. Where a question of custom or possession arose the wise men of the community gathered to determine the precedent practice or title. In criminal cases a man arrested on suspicion of serious offence might be asked to submit to an inquiry into the deed of which he is accused. An enquête du pays would be ordered. Twenty-four neighbours likely to know about the infraction were summoned individually before four knights and a bailiff who questioned them and committed their testimony to writing. The resulting account of criminal action sworn to by many witnesses constituted an act of public notoriety equivalent to capture of the accused party in flagrante delicto.
The canonical inquest or Inquisitio generalis represented a standard principle of procedure long prior to its re-introduction within the public sphere. Throughout the Middle Ages the bishop or other high church official could force members of the clergy or laymen to disclose known ill-doers from among the populace; an indictment elicited in this manner automatically led to trial. The visitatio of the bishop for the purpose of hearing complaints from the community at large was reinforced by the presence of a permanent judicial officer, the promotor or prosecutor, charged, in addition to the general populace, with the denunciation of notorious offenders. The ideal method of processus per inquisitionem as outlined by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) first required the establishment of the infamia or infraction either by the promotor acting on his own or the judge acting upon the plea of a third party. Witnesses were then called and testimony recorded by a notary. At that point the defendant was summoned, informed of the charge against him and permitted to produce his own witnesses whose testimony was to be weighed against that of the opposing side. After hearing both depositions the judge decided between the two adversaries.
The differences between the feudal accusatory system of Arthur's court and the inquisitory system utilized by the Church and eventually adopted by the civil authorities are enormous. In the first place, the inquisitory judge or his affiliate has the power to proceed against offenders like Guinevere and Lancelot without the formal complaint of a Mador or Gauvain. The accused is, moreover, obliged to submit to the court's jurisdiction with no possibility of refusing the wager of battle tendered against him. The trial itself no longer implies a direct confrontation between opposing parties, but a mediated encounter through a third party who hears the testimony of both sides independently and thus arrives at a satisfactory solution. Finally, the inquest represents a secret judicial process conducted behind the closed doors of the judge's or promotor's chambers. The oral public character of the feudal court, its authority conferred by the presence of the barons, gives way to a privately conducted investigation whose main objective is the constitution of a written dossier. In Paris an inquest directed by the highest court of the land, the Parlement, began with a written demand to the Chambre des Enquêtes which issued a letter of justice authorizing legal action; the court then summoned the adverse party whose deposition under oath (serment de calomnie) was recorded by the greffier . If the defendant could prove his innocence through existing documents, he was acquitted. If not, the court appointed trained commissioners to collect the information needed for the inquest and, where necessary, to travel to the place of infraction. This board of inquiry recorded the sworn testimony of witnesses, as in the enquête du pays, sealing their declarations along with any other relevant evidence in a sack to be returned to Paris. A dossier compiled in this fashion was expedited to the Grand Chambre of the Parlement where its contents were examined and an arrêt or decision finally pronounced.
The end product of the inquisitory system—the dossier—denotes an attempt to uncover the truth of a crime, to capture, in essence, the guilty party in the act of offence by assembling the facts surrounding the alleged wrongdoing. More importantly, the designation of guilt where infraction is not apparent is no longer a matter for God alone to judge according to an infallible logic invisible to humans and a posteriori to the deed in question, but a matter to be determined by the scrupulous ordering of past events into a coherent scenario of action. Justice, under this second mode of procedure, does not exist independently of the notion of truth, which constitutes its chief raison d'être. The enquête seeks to transcribe the memory of the crime into concrete intelligible form.
The author of La Mort offers no remedy for the failure of feudal judicial institutions—entrapment in flagrante delicto, vendetta, private war, and trial by combat—to resolve the disputes arising naturally between the members of any given social group. On the contrary, they complicate and extend them. Mador's and Gauvain's accusations engender a crisis of belief in the efficacy of the Deo judicio. The capture of Lancelot and Guinevere in the act of adultery provokes the gratuitous slaughter of Gauvain's three brothers. Their deaths initiate the endless cycle of vendetta and war that sets one half of the kingdom against the other and that leads, in the end, to the usurpation of kingship by Arthur's bastard son. At no point do the archaic legal mechanisms of immanent justice prevent the violence of private grievance from menacing and destroying the integrity of the realm. La Mort rtu represents, from this perspective, a declaration of bankruptcy of the most cherished values and institutions of the feudal world two centuries after the beginning of the end of feudalism in France. Private war and its symbolic termination in trial by combat suffice within a society of small independent political units; they fail to provide adequate responses to the problems of a larger political body, the national monarchy of Saint Louis and his successors.
A novel without explicit resolution of the dilemma that it portrays, La Mort does contain, in the opening paragraph of the text, an implicit antidote to the drama of social decline:
1. Aprés ce que mestres Gautiers Map ot mis en escrit des Aventures del Seint Graal assez soufisanment si com li sembloit, si fu avis au roi Henri son seigneur que ce qu'il avoit fet ne devoit pas soufire, s'il ne ramentevoit la fin de ceus dont il avoit fet devant mention et conment cil morurent…; et por ce commença il ceste derrienne partie. Et quant il l'ot ensemble mise, si l'apela La Mort le RoiArtu.'
2. Quant Boorz fu venuz a cort en la cité meïsmes de Kamaalot de si lointeignes terres comme sont les arties de Jerusalem, assez trouva a court qui grant joie li fist;… Et quant il ot aconté le trespassement de Galaad et la mort Perceval, si en furent tuit moult dolent a court;… Lors fist li rois metre en escrit toutes les aventures que li compaignon de la queste del Seint Graal avoient racontees en sa court.
In Henry II' s invitation to Walter Map to record the tragic "end of those he has already mentioned" and in Arthur's command to put into writing the 'adventures recounted by the companions of the Holy Grail Quest, we detect the basic formula of inquest: the commission by the ruler in a position of legal authority to transcribe the reality of the past. Evoking the image of Henry II, the man responsible in large part for the transformation of English jurisprudence from a feudal to a national system, and Walter Map, himself a jurist and man of letters, the text itself can be regarded as the transcription of a legendary oral past into concrete written form. The author's effort to register the truth of the tale (li contes) that constantly escapes him—"Mes atant lesse ore li contes … En ceste parti dit li contes"— coincides with Arthur's own search for the truth of the Queen's adultery. Both recognize the possibility of a logical ordering of objects and events, the existence of rational human truth separable from the immanence of divine truth, upon which the legal and literary discourse of the modern world depends.
Source: R. Howard Bloch, "From Grail Quest to Inquest: The Death of King Arthur and the Birth of France," in Modern Language Review, Vol. 69, Issue 1, January, 1974, pp. 40-55.
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