Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Squaring the Round Table: Time, Hierarchy, and the Fall of Camelot

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Squaring the Round Table: Time, Hierarchy, and the Fall of Camelot

Article excerpt

Romance is, by its nature, a protean narrative form, one that can undergo significant changes and still remain true to itself. It has survived a shift from poetry to prose, it can support allegory (as in the Roman de la Rose), politics (Faerie Queene), sentimentalization (Amadis de Gaula), and burlesque or parody (Don Quixote). It can end in rejoicing or tragedy. The only strategy that defies romance's essential adaptability is the total rejection of its idealistic ethos based on chivalry. Thus, the two texts that have taken chivalric romance where it cannot go and still remain generically viable are those that disavow its fundamental value system: not, as it is customary to claim, Cervantes's Don Quixote, (1) but its "false" continuation by the pseudonymically designated Avellaneda, and before that, the Queste del Sainte Graal.

From the very beginning, the Queste del Saint Graal (2) represented a radical departure--in content and significance--from the Arthurian chivalric narrative tradition. Unlike most of the tales of the Arthurian heroes, the Queste presents the stories of a series of failures. It recounts the superseding of the previous generation of Round Table heroes--Lancelot, Gawain, Arthur himself--and their secular code based on valor, friendship, and idealized love, by the representative of the next, and last, generation--Galahad, Lancelot's illegitimate son--and his clerical values of celibacy, sainthood, and martyrdom. In the process, the Round Table brethren are scattered to the four winds, most to die in a foredoomed attempt to prove themselves worthy of the Grail, leaving Arthur and Camelot bereft. (3) Only Galahad is allowed to enter into the full presence of the Grail (although Bors comes closer than the other knights). The events that the Queste portrays are, therefore, often brutal, its sermonizing heavy-handed. From its clerical perspective, every worldly beauty is a trap, every earthly tie either a delusion or a temptation to mortal sin. Desire is rape and/or permanent estrangement from Heaven, and (with apologies to Freud) a snake is never just a snake. Galahad, the new hero that the tale proposes, is a completely artificial character, in spite of the elaborate genealogy created to link him organically, indeed, genetically, with the Arthurian world and the Grail story from its inception. (4) While the Queste maintains the chivalric trappings of knighthood, references to adventure, and lovely damsels in distress, it turns their significance on its head. If it is a romance (something that critics have disputed (5)), it is clearly one at war with the basic values of the genre. As such, it highlights and elaborates certain persistent conflicts that had always existed in Arthurian romance, including the representation of the Arthurian universe in time and the tension between the symbolic value of the Round Table and the hierarchical nature of medieval society. In doing so, the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail cracks open the balanced unity of Camelot and engineers its fall, although it leaves the portrayal of that disaster to the following text, the Morte Artu.

Both time and hierarchy are schema that provide an ordering design for events and entities that may not possess their own organization. The intersection of the two plans in the Queste produces a structure of immense complexity. Time alone moves in an extraordinarily complicated fashion for a narrative with a largely eschatological focus. As scientists, philosophers, and theologians (as well as poets) have discovered, time is not an easy concept to define. In his Confessions, for example, St. Augustine admitted: "What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know" (287). A more recent theorist asserts: "Our idea of time is a mental construction that we only gradually learn to perform, our awareness of it being based on the number of changes that we observe occurring in a given interval" (Whitrow 64). …

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