Sir Thomas Malory's Narrative of Faith

Article excerpt

Malory's narrative is an expression of a deeply held personal faith and as such bears significant resemblance to biblical narrative. (KTG)

Sir Thomas Malory's work presents us with an intriguing blend of Christian and chivalric values. I call the blend 'intriguing' because the precise nature of the interaction of Christian and chivalric values has been a recurrent topic in Malory criticism. Similarly, critics repeatedly question the nature of Le Morte Darthur. is it epic or romance or chronicle or proto-novel? one work or eight? chivalric panegyric or critique? The balance of Christian and chivalric values and the structural/generic natures of Malory's text, are, in fact, inextricably connected. I wish to approach the uniqueness of Le Morte Darthur by emphasizing its similarities to another book, the Bible. In many ways Malory's narrative is, like biblical narrative, a narrative of faith.

By 'narrative of faith,' I mean that Malory's narrative is driven by an underlying conviction that it represents immutable truth; Le Morte Darthur is a non-didactic entertaining narrative which is simultaneously an expression of personal faith. This makes Le Morte Darthur remarkably like a biblical narrative, particularly one from the Hebrew scriptures. I am not here attempting a detailed study of Malory's narrative style. In the first part of this brief essay, I call attention to central qualities of Le Morte Darthur and the Bible which are commonly recognized by scholars. By citing a few representative analyses, I demonstrate the similarity of these narratives through the medium of their critical reception. In the latter part of this article, I consider how Malory's guiding faith manifests itself in a few wellknown passages relating to Launcelot.

Recognizing parallels between Le Morte Darthur and biblical narratives reconfigures our sense of the narrator's performance and casts many of the well-noted challenges of Malory's text in a new light. Both the Bible and Le Morte Darthur are generally read as unified wholes, though made up of apparently discrete parts. The unifying principle in each case is one of content, not form. There have been many suggestions as to how to understand the structure of Malory's work, and the Bible is so formally varied that readers who do not question its unity arrange its parts in different ways.' In each case, what primarily gives unity to the assembled writings is the reader's assumption of an authorial focus informing the collection. Felicity Riddy made this point about Malory, and Martin Warner makes a similar observation concerning the Bible.2 In each case the separate parts are assumed to be unified by the will of an implied narrative-designer.

This is not to say that there are no meaningful, detectable narrative patterns in Le Morte Darthur or the Bible. The unity of bookishness is reinforced by the reader's perception of unifying themes. Recurrent central ideas link the parts of the works and make their contiguity sensible. Not surprisingly, ideas are frequently couched in recurring modes of expression. In her study of Malory's narrative, Elizabeth Edwards, arguing that Malory's primary mode of expression is symbolic, writes, 'a narrative typology is established, and this typology has precedence over explanatory codes.'3 This is similar to Robert Alter's analysis of the use of the type-scene in biblical narrative: 'The type-scene is not merely a way of formally recognizing a particular kind of narrative moment; it is also a means of attaching that moment to a larger pattern of historical and theological meaning.14

One need not agree with the details of Edwards's argument (though her case is a strong one) to recognize that she is responding to a quality of Malory's text which is also present in a reader's experience of biblical narrative. Significantly, both Malory and the biblical composers work with received materials. Meaning is already inherent in the story: the story is shaped to sharpen the revelation of the meaning. …