Le Morte d'Arthur

by Thomas Malory

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What differentiates "good" and "bad" knights in Le Morte d'Arthur?

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Good knights in "Le Morte d'Arthur" include Arthur, Lancelot, Tristam, and Galahad. Bad knights include Mordred, Gaheris, and Aggravayne. The main difference between the two groups is that the good knights truly adhere to the ideals of knightly conduct and to the noble principles of the Round Table, whereas bad knights are more concerned with their personal advancement than with protecting others or upholding community values.

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Good knights in Le Morte d'Arthur include figures such as Arthur, Lancelot, Tristam, and Galahad, while bad knights include Mordred, Gaheris, and Aggravayne.

The main difference between the two groups is that the good knights, though they may make mistakes or have flaws (especially a weakness for falling in love with married women), truly adhere to the ideals of knightly conduct and to the noble principles of the Round Table. These principles could be summed up as, in general, putting the needs of others ahead of their own advancement, acting honorably, and being loyal to King Arthur. These good knights are those who protect the weak and vulnerable and do everything they can (albeit with some errors) to uphold and protect the community of the Round Table. They use their strength and privilege for the general good, not for themselves.

In contrast, a figure like Mordred is selfish and treacherous, only concerned with his needs and increasing his own power. He would gladly destroy the Round Table if he could benefit from that act. Mordred is the illegitimate son of King Arthur, conceived when Arthur was tricked into sleeping with his sister. Mordred's birth status underlines that he is illegitimate overall—not ever truly loyal to the ideals of knighthood. As a bad knight, he, with Gaheris and Aggravayne, stabs Sir Lamerok in the back—a dishonorable act which violates the knightly code. He also plots to seize the throne from his father and eventually kills Arthur in battle. All of these are acts that put the self ahead of the group, are representative of bad knights, and are destructive to a stable society.

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To ascertain the difference between "good" and "bad" knights in Le Morte D'Arthur, we must look at the standard knights were measured by during Arthur's time. This standard is referred to as the medieval code of chivalry. Today, we think of chivalry as courteous behavior, but in Sir Thomas Malory's time (and in Arthur's as well), chivalry constituted specific behaviors that substantiated a knight's loyalty to his king.

For example, you may have noticed that Sir Thomas Malory includes considerable examples of martial prowess in his story. This, by itself, is no accident. A chivalrous knight is a battle-ready warrior at all times, especially in service for his lord. Thus, characters such as Sir Launcelot, Sir Lamorak, and Sir Tristam exemplify the qualities of "good" knights when they engage in violent conflict against the king's enemies. Valor in service of the king constitutes service to God, an honorable work for a chivalrous knight.

Additionally, "good" knights are expected to have descended from great or noble families. In the book, Sir Launcelot expects that Sir Gareth Beaumains should be "of great blood" to deserve the privilege of knighthood. Indeed, some historians claim that Sir Malory himself was a knight from the lower nobility.

Despite this definition of the "good" knight, however, the corruptible influence of courtly love soon turned many a virtuous knight into a "bad" knight in Sir Malory's time. By the 15th century, the French concept of chivalry had utterly upended the chivalric code of conduct in English courts. One can conclude that the French corruption of the English chivalric code led to knights like Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawain losing their way as they navigated the treacherous waters between loyalties.

In the book, Launcelot struggles to reconcile his allegiance to his king with his loyalty to his lovers. As a knight of the new (French-influenced) chivalric order, Launcelot is impeccable in his veneration of women. Additionally, he is a force to be reckoned with in any jousting tournament:

When Sir Launcelot saw his party go to the worst he thrang into the thickest press with a sword in his hand; and there he smote down on the right hand and on the left hand, and pulled down knights and raced off their helms, that all men had wonder that ever one knight might do such deeds of arms.

Within the French tradition, the glamor and accoutrements of warfare are considerably worshiped. Thus, in any tournament, the "good knight" must concentrate on impressing favored ladies in the audience rather than to focus on the intricacies of savage warfare.

This new principle of impressing beautiful women soon leads "good" knights like Sir Launcelot to commit acts incompatible with the Christian tradition of chivalry. In the story, Sir Launcelot falls in love with Guinevere (or Gwenyvere), Arthur's queen, and by all indications, commits adultery. In the meantime, Mordred (King Arthur's illegitimate son) and Sir Agravain (one of Sir Gawain's brothers) plot to capture Launcelot and Guinevere in the heat of passionate love.

The two knights (with twelve additional knightly companions) corner Launcelot in the queen's bedchamber and demand that he surrender to them. Launcelot refuses and proceeds to kill every knight except Mordred, who manages to escape. He begs the queen to run away with him, but she is hesitant. Eventually, Guinevere is sentenced to be burned at the stake for her adulterous relationship with Launcelot. Despite this verdict, the knight-errant manages to save Guinevere and to bring her to his castle.

In Sir Launcelot, we see the interplay between the "good" knight and the "bad" knight persona. The dichotomy of the "good" and "bad" knightly attributes exemplify the conflict between the French and English chivalric codes. Essentially, no knight in Sir Malory's story can reconcile to any sort of acceptable degree the demands of the Christian chivalric code and the demands of courtly, adulterous love. For more, please refer to the links below.


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Is there an ethical difference between the "good" knights and the "bad knights" in "Le Morte d'Arthur"?

There certainly is.  While all the knights have valor and bravery, the "good" knights are the ones that hold to a standard of moral behavior.  This moral behavior is to give honor always to God.  Their fights should be on God's behavlf.  The "bad" knights are the ones that give up their moral standards for more personal aims.  In other words, they fight for their own honor or for their own goals, and forget their duty to God. 

Gawain is obsessed with family honor.  He kills Lamorak because Lamorak had an affair with his mother.  This murder, done for vengenance, is cited by Gawain himself as the reason for his downfall.  It is because he sought vengenance that Mordred is able to seize Arthur's kingdom. 

Mordred himself is of course the clearest example of a bad knight.  Although brave, he is selfish and power hungry, eager to seize Arthur's crown.  This pride is likened to the pride of Lucifer in wanting to take over God's kingdom.  Mordred is the villian in the piece and underscores the theme of honor and selflessness by presenting the foil to the virtuous knights.

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Is there an ethical difference between the good knights and the bad knights in Le Morte d'Arthur?

Historically, the code of chivalry dictated the actions of knights, and is well represented in Le Morte d’Arthur, the story of King Arthur and his knights. In these tales, there are both good, conscientious knights and more villainous knights—such as Gawain and Lancelot, respectively.

Gawain is commonly referred to as the most chivalrous knight, and he wears his chivalry like a badge of pride, while Lancelot tends to be more self-serving and acts sometimes as an adversary to King Arthur.

What seems fundamentally different is the characters' interpretation of the concept of chivalry. Gawain acts as a tried and true chivalrous individual, doing everything to preserve women's dignity, atoning for his own sins, and much more. Lancelot follows a much looser moral code, wherein he can essentially act as he pleases as long as he can justify these actions within some form of morality. He has an affair with Guinevere, but he justifies it because he despises Arthur and believes that he and Guinevere are a better fit, and he refuses penance for his deeds. So, while they technically adhere to the same moral code, the bad knights tend to corrupt and pervert the idea of chivalry to their own advantage.

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Is there an ethical difference between the good knights and the bad knights in Le Morte d'Arthur?

Indeed, there is a difference among knights, and the chivalric code certainly has its flaws. For instance, near the beginning of Le Morte d'Arthur, the reader learns that a good knight should live"to be with all ladies and to fight for their quarrels and that ever he should be courteous" (l.104). However, chivalry without a certain wisdom is not good; it is dangerous. For, to fight the quarrels of the likes of Morgan le Fay would not be noble or wise. And, while "courtly love" is chivalric, it conflicts with Christian chilvalry. Thus, Launcelot, who engages in adultery with Guinevere, alienates himself from the Christian element of chivalry. After his affair with Guinevere, he says, "now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me and shameth me." 

Launcelot, however, does attempt to atone for his sins and does not kill men; this is in contrast to Sir Gawain, who slaughters Sir Feldenek. In addition, Sir Gawain violates the courtly and Christian chilvalric codes as one of his first acts is to decapitate a maiden.

Sir Gawain would no mercy have but unlaced his helm to have stricken off his head. Right so came his lady out of a chamber and fell over him, and so he smote off her head by misadventure (I.102)

Further, Sir Gawain is unrepentant; after a hermit warns him to atone for his sins, Gawain says, "Nay . . . I may do no penance; for we knights adventurous oft sufferen great woe and pain" (II.266). Here again he is the antithesis of Launcelot, who makes amends for his sins through many heroic deeds in Book II.

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