Medieval romance has been a highly influential literary genre. Young men, over centuries, have been encouraged to go to war to prove their martial prowess; still today the US Marines employ chivalric imagery in looking for, the few, worthy to serve. Women, in romance, might find themselves worshipped as a domina: a position that was far from passive, since the knight might (again) be commanded to prove his worth. Indeed, a great knight such as Lancelot might be commanded by any damsel to serve her interests because he is Lancelot: who wields the power in this situation? Women might also learn and eventually monopolize the kinds of magical powers associated with Merlin; Morgan la Fay becomes Arthur’s great adversary; women sail off into the sunset when the Round Table is destroyed.
This advanced seminar offers the opportunity to follow the evolution of a specific genre and body of tales, Arthurian romance, in particular detail. We begin with Chrétien de Troyes, the great founding genius of the romance genre, who tells of Lancelot’s comical and disastrous loving of Guinevere; he also invents the Grail Quest. Next comes Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, a text that adapts the Arthur myth to suit the new Anglo-Norman overlords of England (while telling tales that Shakespeare will later develop, 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. All this leads to the core text of our course, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Written by a professional soldier who was active in the English civil conflicts of the fifteenth century, the Wars of the Roses, the Morte is one of the greatest and most pleasurable of all English texts. We will follow Arthur’s career from his early acquisition of the Round Table to its final destruction. We will see a society grappling with the dilemma that its greatest knight, the figure upon all hope and safety depends, is also cuckolding the king as his queen’s lover. We will also trace the fortunes of other great figures such as Tristram, Gawain, Gareth (kitchen boy made good), Nineveh (who supplants Merlin), Morgan La Fay, and the Fair Maid of Astolat. We will also see how Arthurian legend has been treated in film, from the work of Eric Rohmer to John Boorman’s Excalibur; and what about Spamalot?
This course offers the kind of satisfactions that you will only have opportunity or time for at Penn: to get to know ancient material in detail that, week by week, accumulates to provide a complex and detailed view of a fascinating fictional subject. Most of the material will be read in the original Middle English. Class assignments will thus be shorter than in a novel class; help will be given; no previous experience required. Once all the faint-hearts and chancers have dropped away, by about week two, we should have a tight-knit and supportive seminar that allows everyone to produce their best work. Assessment will be by one shorter essay and one longer one (with research component).