Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007
There are many examples of courtly love in Le Morte d'Arthur, including the story of Sir Gareth, his defeat of the Red Knight, and his winning of the Lady Lyonesse as his wife. Gareth represents the ideal love, one that ends in marriage and is, above all else, honorable. But the story of romantic love and chivalry that most often comes to mind is the story of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, a love that is clearly adulterous. After his introduction into the text, it is clear that many of Launcelot's heroic actions are designed to please the queen. He is clearly her favorite, and justifiably so, since in all of his adventures, Launcelot is brave, honorable, and strong. Because Launcelot fights to please and honor Guinevere, and not God, he is excluded from the quest for the Holy Grail. This image of courtly love changes when Launcelot is called upon to fight to save Guinevere's life. In the first instance, Guinevere is unjustly accused of murder, and a disguised Launcelot becomes her champion, overcoming Sir Mador and freeing the queen. According to romantic tradition, a knight entering a tournament might also wear a lady's token to express his love. Sir Launcelot wears the token of Elayne of Astalot, but does so only to enhance his disguise. Later, he wears the queen's token, thus making public his love for her. Another aspect of courtly love is the knight's rescue of his lady. Launcelot has already rescued Guinevere once, but when she is kidnapped, he rescues her again from Melliagaunce, her kidnapper. Launcelot then fights and kills Guinevere's oppressor. But because of these events, Guinevere is judged guilty of adultery and treason and is sentenced to be burned. Again, Sir Launcelot rescues his lady, but as a result, sets into motion events that will lead to the destruction of Arthur and of the Round Table. Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere's courtly love was far more than a harmless romantic interlude.
When Arthur establishes the code for the knights of his Round Table, one important element is honor. Arthur's knights owe him honor, but, more importantly, they owe honor to God. Most of the knights waver on this last requirement. For nearly all of the knights, their adventures, battles and tournaments, are fought to honor their king, or more immediately, themselves. Gawain fights for personal and family honor, and Launcelot fights for the queen's honor. Because of this, almost all of the knights fail in their quest for the Holy Grail. Only Galahad, Bors, and Percival place honor of God ahead of personal honor, vanity, and pride. Therefore, only these three knights are permitted to complete the quest for the Grail. Malory makes individual character an important element of his story, and how each character conducts himself, in an honorable fashion, is a key point in the text.
Fate and Destiny
Thanks to Merlin's prophecies and his magic, many times the readers are told of a prophecy that includes death and destruction. Characters are fated to meet one another on the battlefield or in tournaments, and fated to win or die based on an action that occurred much earlier, and for which, they may hold no responsibility. For example, Balyn easily draws out the sword affixed to a scabbard worn by the damsel. By doing do, he is fated to kill his dearest friend, his brother. In another example, the burial spot of Launcelor is fated to be the sight of the battle between Launcelot and Tristram, two knights who love one another and who would not willing fight one another, but who are destined to do so. This fate or destiny is not attributed to God or other spiritual matters, but instead to characters present in the text. Both Merlin and the Lady of the Lake act as representatives of fate, manipulating the characters and their actions to create a fate they predict.
Obedience is an element of the duty and responsibility that all knights owe to their king and God. Obedience to Arthur is a part of every knight's code, even when obedience results in certain death. There are several examples of obedience to Arthur's commands, where to do so will bring harm to the knight. One such example occurs at the beginning of the quest for the Holy Grail, when Arthur learns of the sword in the floating stone. Arthur learns that the legend promises that only the best knight in the world can claim the sword, and if any others try to pull out the sword, they will be cursed. Launcelot refuses Arthur's order to try, but Gawain willingly obeys Arthur's order because Arthur is his king and he has commanded it. In another section, Arthur orders Guinevere to be put to death. In this instance, Gawain refuses to obey his king's command, but his brothers, who also object, are present. As a result, Gareth and Gaheris are murdered by Launcelot during his rescue of the queen.
Much of the action in this epic revolves around revenge. The eye for an eye motif runs through the individual character's stories. For instance, Sir Pellanor kills King Lot, and Lot's son, Gawain, to avenge his father's death, will later kill Pellanor. In another example of revenge, Gawain and his brother, Gaheris, murder Lamerok, whom they accused of an adulterous relationship with their mother. This feud, between Lamerok and the sons of King Lot, has motivated many of the sons' actions before culminating in death. Finally, it is Gawain's insistence that his brothers be avenged that leads to the destruction of the Round Table. Because Arthur and Gawain are pursuing Launcelot, they leave Britain and the queen unattended and Mordred seizes both. Had Gawain been able to pass on the need for blood revenge, the battle in which he and Arthur were destroyed, would not have happened. Ultimately the theme of revenge, most particularly the familial blood revenge, runs throughout the epic and leads to the destruction of all that Arthur had created
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