Study Guide

Le Morte D'Arthur Betrayal

By Sir Thomas Malory

Betrayal

"But I fele by thy wordis that thou haste agreed to the deth of my persone: and therefore thou art a traytoure – but I wyte the lesse, for my sistir Morgan le Fay by hir false crauftis made the to agré to hir fals lustis." (90.30-33)

One of Arthur's own knights, Accalon, betrays him, hoping to become king by marrying the current king's sister, Morgan le Fay, and killing Arthur. Yet Arthur… forgives him? Later, Arthur's kingdom will be brought down by a similar betrayal by his own son. Maybe if Arthur should've made an example of Accalon instead of being so soft on him.

So uppon a day Sir Trystrames talked with La Beale Isode in a wyndowe, and that aspyed Sir Andred and tolde the kyng. Than Kyng Marke toke a swerde in his honde and cam to Sir Trystrames and called hym "false traytowre," and wolde have stryken hym.<em> </em>(266.19-22)

There's actually a double-dose of betrayal going on here. The one that probably first comes to mind is the affair between Trystram and Isode, which is a betrayal of King Mark. And the other? Andred's exposure of Trystram, his own cousin.

Than the kynge made his quene to drynke [from the horn], and an hondred ladyes with her; and there were but foure ladyes of all tho that dranke clene. "Alas!" seyde Kynge Marke, "this is a grete dyspyte," and swore a grete othe that she sholde be brente, and the other ladyes also. (269.4-8)

The magic horn from which only a faithful wife can "drink clean" reveals Isode to be unfaithful to Mark, which shocks a grand total of no one. Yet it also shows that Isode's in good company – apparently, adultery is widespread in Mark's court.

Than seyde Sir Launcelot, "Fye uppon hym, untrew knyght to his lady! That so noble a knyght as Sir Trystrames is sholde be founde to his fyrst lady and love untrew, that is the Quene of Cornwayle!" (272.7-9)

Launcelot, like Trystram, is having an affair with his king's wife. Launcelot repeatedly rejects other women out of his utter loyalty to Gwenyvere. Trystram, on the other hand, has the gall to marry another woman besides his beloved Isode. So who's the better paramour? Plus, notice that Trystram is scorned for marrying someone different from his love, but no one (except for Mark) seems at all upset that Isode has brazenly and repeatedly stepped out on her man, King Mark.

"Alas madame! The good love that I have lovyd you, and many londis and grete rychesse have I forsakyn for youre love! And now ye are a traytouras unto me, whych dothe me grete payne." (299.33-35)

Isode's acceptance of another man's love letters, which is what Trystram is referring to here, is a forbidden intimacy for a woman who is already in a relationship (or two). What's interesting is that Isode's real betrayal is to Trystram, who is supposed to be her true love, and not to Mark, who is her actual husband. In this case, love seems to be much more important than marriage.

And whan Sir Trystramys was in the se, he seyde, "Grete well Kyng Marke and all myne enemyes, and sey to hem I woll com agayne whan I may. And sey hym well am I rewarded for the fyghtyng with Sir Marhalt [...] And many othir dedys have I done for hym – and now have I my waryson!" (306.17-20, 33-34)

Trystram ironically "thanks" Mark for his treatment of him in exchange for all he's done. This speech reminds us of one by Launcelot at the end of <em>Le</em> <em>Morte, </em>in which he recounts all the times he's gotten Arthur and his knights out of trouble. What they're both saying, rather sarcastically, we might add, is that Arthur or Mark should overlook a man's adultery with his wife as long as that man remains a loyal knight on the battlefield. Do you agree?

"I have sworne and seyde over-largely afore Kynge Arthure, in hyrynge of all hys knyghtes, [that I shal not sle nor bitraye hym; it were to me overmoche shame] to breke my promyse."

"Ye sey well," seyde Sir Launcelot, "but ye ar called so false and full of felony that no man may beleve you." (367.16-21)

Everyone knows that King Mark will never keep his promise to treat Trystram well, because he keeps breaking practically every promise he makes. Sheesh. We might read this as the narrator's attempt to make Trystram and Isode's affair seem like less of a betrayal. After all, how much loyalty does a knight or a queen owe to a king who doesn't seem all that loyal (or true to his word) in the first place?

And Quene Isode was lad unto her pavelons; but wyte you well she was wrothe oute of mesure wyth Sir Palomydes, for she saw all his treson, from the begynnynge to the endynge. (445.24-27)

The "treson" Isode has witnessed is Palomides's decision to fight <em>against</em> Trystram in a joust despite having formerly promised to fight <em>with</em> him. Of course Palomydes only did this out of jealous, so the irony here is that he actually gets further away from ever possessing Isode by causing her to think badly of him as a knight. Maybe he should have thought that one through.

"All thys ys trouthe," seyde Sir Bors, "but there ys one thyng shall corrayge you and us all: ye know well that Kynge Arthure and Kynge Marke were never lyke of conducions, for there was never yet man that ever coude preve Kynge Arthure untrew of his promyse." (654.19-23)

King Mark may be a big fat oath-breaker, but Arthur is never "untrew of his promise." Our man <em>always </em>keeps his word. But here's the interesting part. If Mark's trouble keeping his word frees Trystram and Isode of guilt about their affair, Arthur's "trueness" condemns Launcelot and Gwenyvere for theirs.

The law was such in tho dayes that whatsomever they were, of what astate or degré, if they were founden gylty of treson there shuld be none other remedy but deth [...] And right so was hit ordayned for Quene Gwenyvere. (654.46–655.5)

Uh oh. Things are not looking good for our queen. In fact, Gwenyvere's position as an adulteress is different from that of any other woman in the kingdom. Because Gwenyvere is married to the king, she not only commits adultery, but also treason,<em> </em>by betraying him with another man.

Wherefore Sir Mordred made a parlemente, and called the lordys togydir, and there he made them to chose [hym] Kynge; and so was he crowned at Caunturbyry. (679.5-7)

Like Gwenyvere's Mordred's crime here is two-fold, because he not only betrays his king, but his father, too. In this case, who's more forgivable? Does Gwenyvere redeem herself by refusing to marry Mordred and choosing a religious life instead?

Lo, ye, all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and most loved the felyshyp of noble knyghtes – and by hym they all were upholdyn – and yet myght nat thes Englyshemen holde them contente with hym. Lo, thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe; and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom. (680.25-31)

In this aside, the narrator blames "custom" and "usayges" for the peoples' abandonment of Arthur in favor of Mordred. Later, he goes on to accuse both them and his own people of being too "new-fangill" – in other words, preferring novelty to the status quo. In a book like <em>Le</em> <em>Morte, </em>in which loyalty is one of the most highly-valued traits in a knight, such flightiness as "custom," or a matter of longstanding tradition, is a serious failing. Should we be thinking of <em>Le</em> <em>Morte</em> as an allegory for Malory's contemporary England?

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