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Romance

ENGL 715.401
crosslisted as: COML714
instructor(s):
T 12-3

 

This course is designed to lead to the extensive and intensive study of one
remarkable text: Malory’s Morte Darthur. The Morte was composed by a
professional soldier who eventually died in Newgate, the prison reserved by the
London Guildhall for the most hardened criminals. Malory wrote by way of
demonstrating devotion to noble ideals that might one day win his freedom; he
also composed with an eye to the book market that thrived close to his cell at
Paternoster Row, close to St Paul’s cathedral. The commercial potential of the
Morte was recognized by William Caxton: his 1485 edition, which happily
coincides with the coming of the Tudor dynasty, converts to recreational
reading what was for Malory an interminable imaginative struggle in time of
civil war.

We begin with the great founding genius of Arthurian romance, Chrétien de
Troyes: most of Malory’s source materials were French, and key episodes in his
romance-- Lancelot and the cart, the Grail legend-- descend to him from
Chrétien (albeit in reworked or garbled form). Next comes Geoffrey of
Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, a text that adapts Arthurian myth
to suit the new Anglo-Norman overlords of England (while telling tales later
developed by Shakespeare, such as King Lear and Cymbeline). We then consider
the extremely violent Alliterative Morte, a text sees Arthur become an imperial
figure as he fights pagans and giants to become Emperor of Rome: this text, too,
is digested into Malory’s capacious Morte. In approaching Malory’s text, we will
pay due attention to differences between Caxton and Winchester: that is, between
the printed edition that was the lone witness to Malory’s work until 1934 and
the manuscript (discovered in a Winchester bedroom 1934, published in 1947).
Many readers, such as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, were deeply attached to
Caxton’s adaptation of the text, and were loathe to let it pass; the emergence
of the new Malory in the politics of the 1930s and 1940s is fascinating to
contemplate. And still today, Malory’s Morte exerts a powerful imaginative and
emotional hold over readers, especially male readers. The author was a
convicted cattlerustler, housebreaker, rapist and traitor. Yet there has always
been pressure to excuse the biographical record in order to elevate Malory as
foundational figure: he somehow embodies the ideal of English gentlemanliness
(carried to all points of the British Empire). Affect is thus an aspect of
Malory to be continually interrogated, even as it is enjoyed. Why, for example,
does the ship of queens that sails off into the sunset with Arthur’s body seem
alluring to so many readers? Does this suggest an alternative, feminine realm
in which the mass destruction of the Round Table might be escaped? Does this
alternative feminine realm have feminist potential? Or is it a fantasy
construction of males, wishing to invade a place that might save them from
their own incorrigibly violent impulses? Such questions proliferate around
narratives involving code-bound and complexly-motivated males such as Gawain
(leader of the most powerful, non-Arthurian affinity), Gareth (‘kitchen boy’
made good), Tristram (whose story takes up fully a third of the Morte).
Nineveh, the damsel of the Lake, sucks all magical knowledge out of Merlin and
leaves him trapped under a rock; Morgan La Fay, another superlative magician,
proves an implacable opponent of the Arthurian regime. But female agency is not
wielded exclusively through magic: for every damsel, worshipped as domina, may
send male lovers away on errands to prove their worth. Lancelot, the greatest
knight of the world, must honor every damsel’s request because he is the
greatest knight in the world.

This course offers a rare opportunity to get to grips with this singular, and
highly influential text, in detail. Some attention will be paid to the textual
and filmic afterlife of Malory and Arthurian tradition: Eric Rohmer, Perceval
le Gallois (1978) and John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) will be considered, along
with other adaptations. Students might also like to consider the longue durée
history of Arthurianism, as exemplified by studies such as Mark Girouard, The
Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981). Examination will
be by one research essay. The seminar will work collaboratively, and there will
be scope for presentations.