The Death of Arthur

I have my degree in Medieval Studies. That said, my husband probably knows more about the Middle Ages than I do. Why? He reads about it in his free time. I’ve lost the gift of reading in my free time. One of my new years resolutions is to regain that gift.

And not just re-reading Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, either. I need to read things that feed my mind and make me think. The work I’m doing creating a curriculum is really good for that, but if I’m going to be the person I want to be, I need more.

So I’ve started reading L’Morte D’Arthur (or however those apostraphes go). For those of you who don’t know, Sir Thomas Malory’s book is the quintessential Arthur. It’s not the first (Chretien de Troyes was earlier). But what you know about Arthur and Merlin and Morgan Le Fay all starts with Malory. The book is a prose chronical of Arthur and his court. It has a lot more in common, stylistically, with medieval history books than novels or even poems. Malory is acting as though he’s simply compiling a historical text about a historical Arthur.

In some ways the book seems unreadable. There is almost no description — Malory’s vocabulary seems highly limited. A knight is either worshipful or recreant. A lady is fair and gentle, but you have no idea if she’s blonde, brunette, has a great nose, or a figure that won’t quit. You get no motivation for the actions people take. There’s not really any meaningful dialogue. It’s almost entirely plot.

But yet it inspired and excited generations of writers. In fact, I was reading some C.S. Lewis last night, and Lewis uses Morte D’Arthur as an example of something that excited him. You can see the fingerprint of the historical chronicle of a mostly-fictitious character all through Western literature. Why? Because into that framework of actions, lacking so many critical components, the imagination runs wild. Why did Gawain sleep with Elaine when he’d made a vow (plighted his troth, amusingly enough) to Pellinore? Was it because he was weak? Was it part of his plan? Did he think Pellinore was in the wrong? What was he going to do in the first place? Mallory gives you none of it, so you have to make it up. You get the sense that before you is the outline for a fabulous story, and your mind rushes to fill in the detail. I cast back on the Arthurian stories I read, and think about how others have done so, and marvel that they got it from this sparse text. And it’s fun — to wonder, to imagine, to ponder what lies behind the chronicle.

It’s the perfect book for small children with wild imaginations. If you’re going to enjoy it as a grownup, you have to put yourself back into the mindset of a small child, delighted by the sparkling knight on the charger — anonymous without his shield. But you know, that’s a place I’m happy to be.

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