Academic journal article Arthuriana

'The Honour of Bothe Courtes Be Nat Lyke': Cornish Resistance to Arthurian Dominance in Malory

Academic journal article Arthuriana

'The Honour of Bothe Courtes Be Nat Lyke': Cornish Resistance to Arthurian Dominance in Malory

Article excerpt

Malory explores the strengths and weakness of Arthurian chivalry in The Book of Sir Tristram by contrasting Cornwall with Camelot. (MWA)

In Malory's Morte Darthur, Arthur builds Camelot's power and influence through a series of armed conflicts against foreign and domestic powers. Quelling threats from Camelot's periphery, like Rome's demand for tribute, establishes Camelot as the primary European political force in the Morte Darthur (1:185.8-11).1 Arthur's invasion of Europe eliminates the threat from Rome by replacing the Roman Emperor with Arthur himself. Closer to Camelot, not only Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, but also Cornwall rebel against Arthur's authority and Arthur's triumph cements his power over the rebels. The relationship of Camelot to its British territories remains complicated throughout the text, and Cornwall's status is particularly problematic.

In Malory's The Book of Sir Tristram, Arthurian social norms and chivalric codes shift when they encounter the Cornish world outside the direct influence of Arthur's court. Dorsey Armstrong argues that The Book of Sir Tristram provides an interesting means of understanding the relationship of Cornwall to Camelot:

Malory 'colonizes' the Tristan to provide his narrative with a center; the court of Mark of Cornwall functions as a kind of 'satellite colony' of Camelot- inferior to Arthur's court but striving to adhere to the same ideals of chivalry, if only ever imperfectly.2

Cornwall is a satellite of the Arthurian court, but I disagree with Armstrong that Cornwall pursues the same chivalric project as Camelot, and that myopia inhibits Camelot's understanding of Cornish struggles. Vida Scudder's famous designation of The Book of Sir Tristram as 'Arthur-land at large' applies to more than just an 'interminable' sequence of tournaments and quests.3 I argue that it is with the Tristram material that Malory explores the strengths and weaknesses of Arthurian chivalry through its contrast with Cornish chivalry,4 and that, in spite of Lamerok's claims to the contrary, 'the honour of both courts' is, in fact, 'lyke' (1:443.33-34).

Cornish figures like Mark and Tristram engage Camelot in various ways, from Tristram's divided loyalties to his encounters with Morgan's magic drinking horn and painted shield, to Mark's letter to Arthur concerning Lancelot and Guinevere. A pattern of instruction emerges in which characters and events external to Camelot critique the Arthurian court. In Jeffrey J. Cohen's word, collisions between Camelot and the subordinated Cornish culture figure prominently in Malory's narrative as the 'roiling interpenetration of people and cultures, tempestuous intermediacies that undermine clean separation.'5 These spaces of cultural exchange blur the distinctions between the dominated and dominant cultures, thus creating opportunities for the dominated Cornish society to instruct the dominant Arthurian society. Cornwall, indeed, 'is both tantalizingly familiar and bafflingly strange'6 to Arthurian society.

Political power in Cornwall is unstable from the beginning of Malory's text.With competing claims to power, Cornwall is always on the edge of usurpation. Malory links that instability with the English court long before The Book of Sir Tristram. From the time of Uther's incursion into Cornwall in pursuit of Igraine (and his own tarnished honor) to Cornish King Idres fighting against Arthur at the Battle of Bedgrayne, resistance to outside interference seems ingrained in Cornish society.7 During these power struggles, we learn that Cornwall retains autonomy through the rule of its lord. 'Hit befell in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil' (1:7.1-4). Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall and Tyntagil, has the means to defy and withstand Uther's political will (albeit temporarily), while after Arthur's ascension, Cornwall seems to have gained status when Mark rules as a king, not a duke. …

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