A wonderful thing about writing a book blog is that it gives me a platform to rave about books that I ordinarily would not admit to reading. I’m not ashamed of having really enjoyed Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’, but claiming this in public would usually be something of a conversation killer. Malory’s book was published in 1485 and is his own translation, re-working and (in some places) pure invention of elements of the Arthurian legend. It is non-satirical, utterly outdated and genuinely medieval in its language, tone and themes. I loved it.
Firstly, it is an excellent evocation of feudal times. Now I’ve read of society at the time being split into the ‘three estates,’ but I feel it’s taken this book for me to actually understand it. Feudal society didn’t have a modern class structure, it was a system based around obligation in which everyone has their set place in society:
1. Those who pray. These are the clergy. They have very little role in this book because, with the best will in the world, Christianity has little positive to say about wizards (Merlin), or magical women handing round swords (Lady in the Lake). There are brave attempts, such as the odd hermit who will appear for a page or two during the grail quest, but in general these stories don’t really have too much interest the first estate.
2. Those who fight. These are knights. I’ve never cared much for the second estate. I mostly know them through reading about the French revolution, by which time the aristocracy seem to be a parasitic force in society, existing only to spend money rather than actually do anything dangerous or interesting. Not so in Arthur’s court. Here, knights genuinely live to fight, ideally to the death. When not engaged in large scale battles, knights will be found taking part in organised competitions where they fight each other to the death or riding round the country-side looking for adventures. If you were wondering, an adventure in this context means finding another knight who you can challenge to fight to the death. I’m not claiming that these guys contribute any more to society than their leisured descendants, but they certainly earn their name within the three estates.
3. Those who work. This is everyone else. By the time that Malory’s tales were published the third estate had developed to include anyone who didn’t fall into the other categories of society (so it included merchants, lawyers and clerks as well as artisans and labourers). Published over a century earlier, Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ shows a real cross section of medieval society, not so ‘Le Morte D’Arthur.’ The sub-text is, if you’re interested in peasants over the flower of nobility, this isn’t the book for you. Personally, I was more than happy to accept a guest entrance into the ranks of the second estate for the sake of the reading experience.
I realise that I’ve sort of missed out another important split within Arthurian society. To generalise, men are mostly noble and good; women are usually evil. This may seem like a simplification, but trust me, it’s that sort of book. The problem is that most women don’t really get the whole chivalric thing. They keep on taking it personally when a knight’s vow of chastity prevents them having their wicked way with him. Oh, and some are incredibly ungracious when the knight in love them them slaughters hundreds of men in their honour. They don’t seem to realise that the appropriate response is to appreciate the gesture and gushingly accept the homage. The female characters are few and far between in this book, but I did enjoy it whenever they showed up.
Besides the view afforded of medieval society and history (because Arthur was supposed to have lived centuries before Malory recorded his story), the book also tells a great story. There’s the sword in the stone, ‘Sir Launcelot and Queene Gwenyvere’ and ‘the Noble Tale of the Sankgreal’ (or holy grail, if you go for a modern English edition). It contains all the Authurian highlights, because it gave us the Authurian highlights in their first popular, printed form. These stories form the backbone of so much of the literature we read today; centuries after they inspired Don Quixote to go on his absurd quest through seventeenth century Spain, Merlin shows up as a historical figure in the world of Harry Potter. And there’s always Monty Python, which makes me think that, with the right cultural references, I may just get away with admitting to enjoying such literary fare even outside the safe space of the book blog. Not exactly zeitgeisty, but a highly recommended read.