Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Malory's Morte Darthur and the Rhetoric of War

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Malory's Morte Darthur and the Rhetoric of War

Article excerpt

Sir Thomas Malory's rewriting of the Roman war episode has long been a source of debate for Malory scholars.1 In the second tale of his Morte Darthur, Malory departs from his main source, the late fourteenth-century poem the Alliterative Morte Arthure, to offer an account of the success and aftermath of Arthur's Roman campaign that is significandy at odds both with that of his source and with the majority of earlier insular narratives of this campaign. While in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, in a tradition stretching back to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (c.1138), Arthur never quite achieves the imperial crown and has to return to Britain to face rebellion, Malory not only has Arthur achieve imperial success, but also rewrites the chronology of the Roman war, moving it back to a much earlier point in Arthur's career and disconnecting it altogether from Arthur's downfall.2

As previous scholars have noted, the idea of repositioning the Roman war may have been suggested to Malory by his reading of the Old French prose text the Vulgate Suite de Merlin, which was a minor source for both his 'Tale of King Arthur' and 'Tale of Arthur and Lucius'.3 In the Suite de Merlin version also, the Roman war does not lead to Arthur's death, but is presented instead as one in a series of major batdes that takes place in the early years of his reign.4 Yet, although the identification of a possible model for Malory's rewriting and reordering of the Roman war episode has been useful, the wider question of why he chose to follow this version of events still requires discussion. In this article I offer an explanation for why Malory may have found the position of the Roman war in the Suite de Merlin particularly appealing.

In earlier insular accounts of the Roman war episode, Arthur's war against the Romans is linked, either temporally or causally, to his downfall. It is Arthur's absence abroad that allows Mordred to stage bis rebellion. That this was a common way of interpreting the connection between Arthur's foreign campaign and his fall is suggested by John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, written between 1431 and 1438-9 for Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In the envoy to his account of Arthur's reign, he connects Mordred's rebellion to Arthur's absence abroad, summarizing that 'Long abscence causeth deuisioun'.5 Indeed, all of these narratives of Arthur's reign imply, with varying degrees of emphasis, that prolonged absence abroad may lead to internal division.6 This implication is most fully realized in Malory's main source for his account of the Roman war, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a text which encourages an explanation of Arthur's fall which is grounded in his military activities on the Continent.7 I shall argue that it was precisely this implication - that outward war created internal division - which Malory wished to avoid. By altering the Alliterative Morte Arthure's tragic ending and by granting Arthur victory in Europe as opposed to rebellion at home, Malory seems to have rejected even the suggestion that successful external war could be responsible for internal division. In the rest of this article, I suggest that Malory rewrote his source material in this way, following the position of the Roman war in the Vulgate Cycle, as a result of the wider discursive context in which he was writing: one in which external war, far from creating internal division, in fact led to domestic peace and which regarded civil war as a product not of external war but rather of its absence.

A range of texts produced or circulating in England in the Middle Ages figured lack of outward war as potentiaUy damaging to the realm. For the late Roman writer Vegetius, whose treatise on warfare, De re militari, circulated widely in England, peace was both desirable but also harmful.8 Throughout his treatise, but particularly in his first book, Vegetius referred to the dangers that might attend long periods without external war: 'long tyme of pees hap made vs to chese vnkunnyngliche oure kistes'; 'Bot forsothe longe sikernesse of pees hap made oure werriours to 3iue hem to delices of sloggynes and sloube, and some to gouernayl and office in citees and townes as for more ese', argued the 1408 English translation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.