Reading Romance: Literacy, Psychology, and Malory's le Morte D'Arthur

By Margaret Dumais Svogun | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Creating Meaning

The knights of medieval romance often set out on a quest for an object they do not really expect to find, and this may sometimes be acknowledged openly in the texts themselves, as is the case in Malory's version of the Grail Quest: “Ye two knights ... go to seek that ye shall never find”. 1 Some critics, such as Charles Moorman and John Steevens, go so far as to suggest that a knight may not even know what his object is; Moorman asserts that “the romantic knight is mostly unguided and roams an apparently purposeless universe in search of an object which seems increasingly vague, even to him” 2, while Steevens says of a knight that he is drawn on his adventure by his “inward being”, but “on to what? He does not know.” 3

Why, in the face of such circumstances, would a knight set forth, and why would he persevere?

A knight's apparent inability to find either true purpose or realistic hope in the putative object of his quest (assuming he knows even that much) is a malaise with which most people could—and still can—identify. The hunger for meaningfulness, accompanied by the temptation to despair of it is scarcely limited to men of any one particular era; Bruno Bettelheim observes that

if we hope to live, not just from moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. 4

Daunting though the prospect is, and difficult (or pointless) as the task may sometimes seem, then, the knight sets out because, ultimately, he must; he has no other truly viable alternative. (Bettelheim also points out that those who are “too timorous and narrow-minded to risk themselves in finding themselves must settle down to a humdrum existence—if an

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