Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Masculinity in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Masculinity in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur

Article excerpt

Malory's Morte Darthur undoubtedly belongs among the most influential Arthurian stories in English Literature - kept alive by the best of British writers from Spenser to Tennyson and classics of the twentieth century such as T.H. White's The Once and Future King. Many more lovers of the Arthurian matter have almost invariably read and adopted the lengthy prose narrative of this - for quite some time - mysterious knight.1 Thomas Malory, who found himself in prison towards the end of the War of the Roses, summarized all the major Arthurian tales of his time, both Old French and Middle English. Malory was looking for a new language that would drop the courtly tone of some of his sources, deliberately searching for words to match the world he lived in, a world of war and male codes of behavior, rewriting more or less any gendered narrative to a male perspective. Communication seems hardly to take place between the two sexes unless it maps out the intricacies of male power and anxieties signifying - generally speaking - anything but a genuine interest in women.2 With the exception of Guinevere, Isolde, or the Lady of Astolat, none of the female characters retains the complexities present in Malory's sources, none but Elaine of Astolat, who seems to be conceptionalized as an agent acting independently in the center of the subplot to which she belongs.3

Quite a few critics have suggested that Malory tampered so much with some of the subtle love stories in his sources because he had no interest in female characters such as Guinevere or Isolde. For Malory, one woman seems to have been as good as any other one. Unless he could represent differences in male characters by doing so, Malory's approach did not allow him to recognize individual differences among female characters, differences which he must have found in his sources. In the best case women are saved to bring honor to a knight; in the worst case women are sacrificed to save a man whose chivalric status or life is in jeopardy. The overruling question Malory tried to answer was whether the relationship between a given knight and his damsel or queen could inform the values of men in situations that might weaken their positions of power.

In her studies about Menacing Virgins, which also include chapters on male virginity in Morte Darthur, Kathleen Coyne Kelly voices a truism with regard to Malory when she confirms that "the female body has figured prominently as site, as meeting-place for ideological conflict. The male body, on the other hand, has been often and emphatically constructed literally, a thing in and of itself."4 Kelly argues that "when the male body is threatened ... a feminine and feminized body takes its place within the narrative frame". Substitution, then, is only one way of protecting the male body, where another one is "transformation of the masculine into the feminine for precisely the same reason - the feminized masculine body preserves the body chivalric from any real critique".5

This reading is based on R.W. Connell's assumption that gender relationships in patriarchal societies are defined by "body-reflective practices".6 These practices are inscribed into the body, which, being both agent and object, stabilizes hegemonial masculinity. In this understanding, gender "is a social practice that constantly refers to bodies and what bodies do, it is not social practice reduced to the body".7 Connell's concept emphasizes the connection between gender identity and social identity. Masculinity then assumes the hegemonic position by "the configuration of gender practices which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women".8

For Morte Darthur this means that, whenever Malory cannot avoid telling stories of gender relations, he almost exclusively reflects aspects of manhood referring to "a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power". …

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