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the knight's tale and le morte d'arthur

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Chivalric Warfare: 

The Knight's Tale and Le Morte D'Arthur

Chivalry as a concept was, Huizinga argues, ‘an amazing self-deception’. While some critics have argued that point, there seems to be a general agreement that that in late medieval literature representations of chivalry and particularly of chivalric warfare had to take account of the distortion which increasingly attached itself to its values. 

Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur each contain an implicit recognition of the oxymoronic nature of chivalric warfare. TKT is as Frost has argued, famously reinterpretable; ‘the point of the story’ depends upon reading it as epic or mock-epic. This ambiguity begins from the knight’s portrait and especially the roll call which is set in contrast to his sons. While Hatton has seen this as unambiguously ideal, connecting as it does to Roland’s battle against the Moors and chanson de geste, others have pointed out that in distancing the knight from more contemporarily relevant conflicts it creates a distanced figure. 

While Terry Jones’s argument that the knight’s depiction is an ironic presentation of a mercenary indicates the problematic nature of warfare in TKT, LMD is as Barber has said primarily a chivalric romance. It is not ambiguous in its presentation in the way TKT is, in fact there seems to be an avoidance of irony in what Field describes as its ‘verisimilitude and simplicity’. However, the depiction of chivalry cannot be seen as simply nostalgic, in the sense of an anachronistic record of past ideal conduct. 

In the 15th century chivalry was ‘newly revived but flourishing’ in Barber’s words, and in this sense Caxton’s idea that the book’s achievement is to enable ‘gentil’ men ‘to lerne chivalry’ can be seen less in terms of escapism than as a way for Malory to criticise wielders of power. The nowadays topos here is less ‘this world is nat so strong’ than a study of political disintegration in the context of the War of the Roses and the 100 Year War. While the style and tone of the two texts diverge, their depictions of warfare share an ambivalence which can be traced to the tension created between the individual and society, in terms of solitary aventure or errancy on the one hand, and communal quest or battle on the other. 

Significantly both texts seem to focus on the tournament or duel rather than the earlier melee, and are thus distanced from warfare in the typical sense. This is an indication of the move from the celebration of chivalric community to the ideal of the ‘perfect knight’. It is notable also that while both texts see the idealised lady as a cause for/of chivalric warfare, there is a sense in which the two spheres of the chivalric code are mutually exclusive. 

An interesting example of the two intersecting occurs in LMD as Palomides, preoccupied in thinking of Isolde, is challenged by Tristam and fails to respond. Edwards has noted that this “semi-fugue state” could be seen as a sign of the incompatibility of the two knightly codes. 

A more poignant example is Isolde’s urging Tristram to ‘go forth’ for it would not be right for other knights to say he is ‘cowryn within a castle.’ 

In TKT the war between Thebes and Athens has ended when the poem begins. Thesues’s triumph here is as Frost has noted, represented as a double one, subduing and winning both Ypolita and his war. This is something the two knights cannot accomplish. Their vacillation between desire and violence shows the incapacity of the chivalric code to incorporate the feminine other than as an occasion for violence. 

Emily and Guinevere are central to the oxymoron within chivalry. Emily’s reduction to ‘silent icon’ in Bisson’s words is pushed to an extreme which highlights the disjunction between her centrality to the war waged between Palomides and Arcite and the rupture of their fellowship, and the marginality of her position. It could be argued that her prayer to Diana (which critics have seen as an indication of Chaucer’s awareness of her subjectivity) is answered within the text, on both counts. 

Her ‘freendlich eye’ might be an indication less of changeableness than of her preference for Arcite—something which the text perhaps suggests in the echo of their May songs—while her wish to be free means Arcite’s death, a literalisation and inversion of the chivalric metaphor of the knight sickening and dying of a hearte soore. 

In a sense, the fact that Arcite is killed literally and metaphorically as Schweitzer has argued by his heartsickness highlights the game-like aura of the tournament and the amphitheatre, and detracts from the importance of chivalric battle and it’s ability to contain the ‘tansumtacioun’ of the 

In LMD on the other hand Guinevere’s faithlessness is as Riddy has argued in large part utilised as a disguising and delaying of Arthur’s impotence, revealed later as she is returned to him, by his inability to control his nephew and his own admission ‘ in me ys no truste ‘ 

It is significant that, as in TKT, the earlier part of LMD focuses on Arthur as imperial hero, particularly in the Roman War of Book II, a focus replaced by growing familial bonds as opposed to the bonds of the Round Table. Malory’s investigation of civil war through these familial bonds is, as Riddy has argued, presented as feminine and inward. Within the context of the War of the Roses, this exploration of tension between kin groups reveals the path to political disintegration and the descent to the last battle. 

And formulaic enclosures of the duel and disguises give way to a literalisation of chivalric postures as Lancelot’s whim of fighting ‘ayenste the king’ becomes reality, and his individualistic act becomes subsumed in a struggle which ranges kin groups and alliances against each other. 

In TKT, the battle in the grove, a duel which while stressing the individual nature of the struggle paradoxically effaces it as Patterson has argued in the brutality of the struggle, is turned into a game in the final curious combination of anachronistic melee and tournament. 

In LMD a similarly turning of ernest into game can be seen in the earlier books where Malory’s frequently laconic style emphasises the disjunction between the violence and the ritualisiation of it, as in ‘he smote off his head and then they wente to souper.’ 

This ritualisation is similarly emphasised in TKT, where material consumption is exaggerated, a way to perhaps suggest the superficiality and futility of human constructs. Examples of this exaggerated element occur throughout the text, for example in the description of the city with its walls hung with cloth of gold, in the amphitheatre in particular, and in the long descriptions of armour and chivalric badges of Lygurge and Emeturs. What seems most striking about the description of conspicuous consumption in the last part of TKT is that it can seem ethically meaningless. Pattersom makes the point that there is no moral reason for the way the hitherto carefully kept up parallelism between the two knights collapses. 

While Frost sees that in terms of the story Palomides is more worthy for his devotion, Hulbert’s argument that there seems no difference between the two is in a way emphasised by the continual equivalence given to them by the narrator. As Kathleen Blake has argued, everything is presented in alternatives but there is little ground for reasoned choosing. 

The fatalism which Patterson argues Thesues seeks to contain is finally brought to an end in a funeral and a marriage which Thesues can say will last for “ever mo”. This desire for conclusiveness is reflected from the Athenians to Theseus to the narrator—as Arcite’s “I nam but deed” is made literal. 

The nihilism of a chivalric mindset which set honour as reputation and social virtue above a moral ideal can be seen both in Palomides ‘sle me first’ and in Gawain’s asking Lancelot to kill him. 

This scene in LMD seems to mark a move from the honour which makes the fall unavoidable to one which stresses responsibility. Gawain’s acknowledging responsibility is however itself nihilistic, and it is significant that as Ector finally mourns Lancelot as a perfect Crysten knight, the focus is on the ideal of knighthood rather than any insight gained. 

Similarly in TKT, whether the first movere speech is political opportunism or philosophical insight, Thesues incorporating the chaos of cas as ‘destynee’ ignores what can be seen as Emily’s twice-fulfilled prayer. Emily’s wishes are reversed. Arcite—who wants her most— wins her. But this second wish is cancelled by the first wish, freedom from marriage, just as his victory of Emily is cancelled by his death. The fact that Emily is simply handed over to the second knight at this point could be seen as indicating the extent to which Theses Machiavellian manipulation is a necessity to chivarly. 

More widely, it suggests the static nature of a chivalric code which was as Riddy has argued unable to rewrite itself in response to socioeconomic change. 

In this sense Theseus’s ‘take it weel’ like Balin’s ‘take the aventure’ clearly emphasises the tension between a motivated struggle or quest in chivalric warfare and the enigmatic world of late medieval chivalric romances. Both Chaucer and Malory explore chivalry not as literary ideal but as Barber said of LMD “chivalry in the real world”, where it is “undermined by human weakness.” 

written: 2007
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