Psychology of a King: Arthur in the Lancelot-Graal Cycle

By Ingram, Amy L. | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Psychology of a King: Arthur in the Lancelot-Graal Cycle


Ingram, Amy L., Philological Quarterly


Although king of the Arthurian universe, the figure of Arthur in much of medieval literature is a remarkably simple one. Depicted first as a powerful warlord in the Welsh and Latin traditions, he becomes a passive and often weak character in Chretien's romances, abandoning the thrill of the battlefield in favor of his throne. (1) Indeed, in many early texts, he is consistently portrayed as a one-dimensional figure with little or no emotional depth. The thirteenth-century Lancelot-Graal cycle, however, presents us with a different Arthur, subtly and progressively revealing the man beneath the crown. (2) From the Merlin to the Mort Artu, his emotions are explored and, at times, integrated into the plot to reveal the consequences for his reactions on other characters and for the Arthurian world itself.

Curiously, though, the Lancelot-Graal authors are selective in their presentation of Arthur's inner life, more so than with that of any other character. Throughout the cycle, there is a constant dichotomy between the king and the man, and Arthur is often in conflict with himself; that is, with both his public and private personas. Nonetheless, his character progresses over the course of these narratives, when he evolves from a newly crowned king to a seasoned monarch who watches his world crumble around him and who eventually falls, along with his kingdom. That evolution is accompanied by numerous psychological complexities that themselves become more labyrinthine as we follow the legend from beginning to end. (3) More specifically, Arthur's emotional trials and tribulations, first made apparent in the Prose Merlin, increasingly reflect the duality of his being in the Lancelot Proper, and his dual nature is underscored even further in the Mort Artu. (4) Tracing the emergence of that duality is the function of this article.

It is only in the Merlin that the dichotomy of Arthur's character is not explicitly explored, (5) since he is on many counts an inexperienced young man slowly coming into his own. At this point in the cycle, the Arthurian universe is still in the beginning stages of its creation, allowing the soon-to-be-lost innocence of its namesake to shine through, for the first and perhaps only time. Yet, even here his private life is tied intricately to his public one. The initial display of his emotions is a purely personal one, as of course it must be, since his public persona does not yet exist. This reaction stems from Antor's revelation that, even though he raised Arthur, he is not his father by blood (Merlin, Micha 86. 33-34). The young Arthur is grief-stricken by the news and begs the only father he has ever known not to disown him. His private love for and devotion to Antor leads to Kay's prominent, public place in the king's court, since, to please his father, Arthur agrees to make Kay his seneschal.

The reader witnesses two additional personal reactions from Arthur in this romance, first when he meets and falls in love with Guenevere. Portrayed in this instance as a man with sexual desires, he overtly displays lust by his eagerness to gaze at her breasts that were "dures & roides comme poumetes," (Sommer 2:158) (6) [firm and hard like little apples] (7), and her skin that was "plus blance que noif negie" (Sommer II, 158) [whiter than new-fallen snow]. The narrator then explains that Arthur yearned for her so much that he "en fu tous pensis & en laissa son mangier" (Sommer 2:158) [lost himself in thought and stopped eating]. It is worth noting, however, that the lust described here dissipates after the marriage vows are exchanged, suggesting that once his private passion is made public, it ceases to exist. In a larger sense, the dissolution of his desire represents one of the first signs that these two facets of his being--the public and private--cannot coexist. At the same time, it hints at the emerging dichotomy of his character. …

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