Study Guide

Le Morte D'Arthur Identity

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"This nyght ye shalle lye with Igrayne in the castel of Tyntagyll; and ye shalle be lyke the duke her husband." (5.8-9)

Arthur is conceived when Uther swaps identities with Igrayne's husband, Gorlois – the duke. Of course this disguise makes Arthur's right to the throne all the more confusing. Who is going to believe that this illegitimate child with a murky history can legitimately be King of England? Not the alliance of Northern Kings, that much is sure.

"Now," said Sir Ector to Arthur, "I understonde that ye must be kynge of this land." "Wherefore I?" sayd Arthur, "And for what cause?" "Sire," saide Ector, "for God will have hit soo, for ther shold never man have drawen oute this swerde by he that shal be rightwys kyng of this land." (9.25-29)

Here, Arthur's pulling the stone confirms one part of his identity: he is King of England. But that's <em>all </em>it does. It does not explain <em>why </em>Arthur has the right to be king, which is a big problem for the other noblemen, since his identity as Uther's son is still unknown, even to Arthur himself.

"Also I know what thou arte, and who was thy fadir, and of whom thou were begotyn: for Kynge Uther was they fadir and begate the on Igrayne." (31.25-27)

Merlin's revelation to Arthur in the likeness of a child begins Arthur's process of discovery surrounding his true identity. After this, Arthur insists on having the information he learns from the "child" verified by his foster-father and by his mother, Igrayne. Perhaps Merlin decided to appear in this disguise so that Arthur would be <em>forced </em>to verify his information, which will prove his parentage beyond a shadow of a doubt.

"Allas!" said Balan, "that ever I sawe this day, that thorow myshap I myght not knowe yow – for I aspyed wel your two swerdys, but bycause ye had another shild I demed ye had ben another knyght!" (60.7-10)

This moment shows us just how important a knight's armor is in establishing his identity. Here, a shield-switch prevents Balan from recognizing his own brother. The result? The two kill each other. It doesn't get more tragic than that.

"That shall lytyll nede," seyde Sir Kay, to do suche coste uppon hym, for I unirtake he is a vylayne borne, and never woll make man -- for and he come of jantyllmen, he wolde have axed horse and armour; but as he is, so he askyth –
"And sythen he hath no name, I shall gyff hym a name whyche shall be called Beawmaynes – that is to say, 'Fayre Handys.'" (179.3-8)

Kay thinks the knight who shows up asking for lodging and food must be a poor commoner, since a nobleman would never ask for something so simple. But then notices that this boy's hands look like they've never done a day's worth of hard labor. So Kay calls him a commoner, and then fails to catch the hint that the smooth hands of the mystery-man reveal his true noble status.

"Than I pray you," seyde Beawmaynes, "geff me the order of knyghthod."

"Sir, than muste ye telle me your name of ryght, and of what kyn ye be borne."

"Sir, so that ye woll nat dyscover me, I shall tell you my name."

"Nay, Sir," seyde Sir Launcelotte, "and that I promyse you by the feyth of my body, untyll hit be opynly knowyn."

"Than he seyde, 'My name is Garethe, and brothis unto Sir Gawain of fadir syde and modir syde."

"A, Sir, I am more gladder of you than I was! For evir me thought ye sholde be of grete bloode, and that ye cam nat to the courte nother for mete nother drynke." (182.17-28)

Since receiving knighthood is pretty big step for a young man, carrying with it plenty of adult responsibilities, it makes sense that Launcelot would request the man's name before granting it. He wants to know who he's dealing with. Here, Gareth chooses to define himself by his relationship to Gawain, an identity is one he will later disavow, along with the blood feuding associated with being the brother of <em>any </em>of Lot's other sons.

"Than woll I have hym in examynacion myself – for tyll that I know what is his ryght name and of what kynrede he is commyn, shall I never be myrry at my herte." (203.10-12)

Lyonet is understandably cautious about hitching her wagon to a man with a mysterious identity. She'd rather question Gareth on her own, than simply take the dwarf's word for it.

"A, dere modir," seyde Sir Gawain, "I knew hym nat." "Nothir I," seyde the Kynge, "That now me repentys, but, thanked be God, he is previd a worshypfull knyght as ony that is not lyvyng of his yerys – and I shall nevir be glad tyll that I may fynde hym." (210.39-44)

Because Launcelot has promised not to reveal it, Morgause must reveal Gareth's identity to the court. His mother would be the most logical source of this information, since she would know better than anyone whose child Gareth is, right? Right. So Gareth's identity is absolutely verified, beyond a shadow of a doubt, by his mother, just as Arthur's was.<em>

"Sir," seyde Tramtryste, "now shall I tell you all the trouthe. My fadyrs name is Sir Melyodas, kyng of Lyonesse, and my modir hyght Elyzabeth, that was sister unto Kynge Marke of Cornwayle [...]And because I wolde nat be knowyn in this contrey I turned my name and let calle me Tramtryste. And for the trwage of Cornwayle I fought, for myne emys sake and for the ryght of Cornwayle ye had possessed many yerys." (242.14-20)

When Trystram hides his identity, it's to protect himself from the vengeance he knows the Queen of Cornwall will seek for her dead brother. When he reveals it, he "comes out" specifically as a Cornish knight, as if to say, hey, it was nothing personal. I'm Cornish, too.

"What knyght ys that," seyde Sir Trystram, "with the blacke shylde and blacke horse?" "I know hym well," seyde Sir Persides. "He is one of the beste knyghtes of the worlde." "Than his ys Sir Launcelot," seyde Sir Trystramys. "Nay," seyde Sir Persides, "his is Sir Palomydes, that ys yett oncrystynde." (313.29-33)

An important part of Sir Palomydes' identity is his religion. As a Pagan, but one who nevertheless fights well, he presents a problem to the story's Christian values-system. But that problem is quickly solved when Palomydes finally receives baptism at the end of the Tale of Trystram. So now his devotion matches his skill on the battlefield, and Le Morte always prefers it that way.

"Why," seyde Sir Trystram, "woll ye do batayle wyth me but yf I telle you my name? Forsothe, that lytyll nedyth you? Abnd ye were a man of worshyp, ye wolde nat have ado with me, for ye have sene me this day have had grete travayle." (337.19-22)

The King is the most important "identity-giver" in <em>Le</em> <em>Morte D'Arthur</em>, since all of the people in the story define themselves through their relationship to him, whether as his vassal, wife, brother, sister, etc. So Trystram's decision to keep who he is a secret from Arthur might mean that he's not quite ready to participate in this identity-giving system just yet.

Than at the last Sir Launcelot spake and seyde, "Knyght, thou fyghtyst wondir well as evere I sawe knyghte. Therfore, and hit please you, tell me your name." "Sir," seyde Sir Trystram, "that is me loth to telle ony man my name." "Truly," seyde Sir Launcelot, "and I were requyred, I was never loth to tell my name." "Ye sey well," seyde Sir Trystram, "than I requyre you to tell me your name." "Fayre knyght, my name is Sir Launcelot du Lake." (343.43-49)

Why is <em>this </em>the moment when Trystram finally chooses to reveal his identity? Maybe it's because Launcelot is the knight he most respects. So now that he has battled him to a draw, he feels proud enough to admit his name. Plus, Launcelot has told him <em>his</em> name, so it's only fair.

"I requyre you of one thynge, that whan ye com to Kynge Arthures courte, discover nat my name, for I am sore there behatyd." (351.2-3)

Knights like Gareth and Trystram chose to withhold their true identities for reasons of honor. But of course, Mark, the man everyone loves to hate, must disguise himself simply because he's a jerk. His pathetic reason for doing something other knights do for honorable reasons just highlights how despicable and deceitful he is in comparison to all the other people in the story.

"Sir, I say you sothe," seyde the damesell, "for ye were thys day in the morne the best knyght of the worlde, but who sholde sey so now, he sholde be a lyer, for there ys now one bettir than ye be. And well hit is prevyd by the adventure of the swerde –

"Whereto ye durst nat sette to your honde: and thus ys the change of youre name and levynge." (501.28-33)

The toughest thing Launcelot has to face is the loss of his identity as "the best knight in the world." In fact, he has to hear it three times during the Grail Quest before he actually believes it, the poor sap. Nobody is saying that Launcelot's no longer the best on the battlefield, though; it's just that something as religious as the Grail Quest, he can never hope to do well because his loyalty lies with Gwenyvere instead of with God.

Than Sir Galahad was a lityll ashamed, and seyde, "Madame, sithyn ye knowe in sertayne, wherefore do ye aske hit me? For he that ys my fadir shall be knowyn opynly, and all betymys." (504.39-41)

Galahad responds to Gwenyvere's question about whether or not Launcelot is his father with the somewhat evasive response that his true father will be revealed "all betymys" – in good time. Galahad's physical father is Launcelot, but he could also be referring to his heavenly father, God, identifying himself as a child of God first and foremost. Oh now that's interesting…

So whan the shylde was com, Sir Gawain toke of the case; and whan he byhylde that shylde he knew hyt anone that hit was Sir Launcelottis shylde and his owne armys [...]"So God me spede," seyde Sir Gawain, "fayre damesell, ye have ryght, for and he be youre love, ye love the most honorabelyst knyght of the worlde, and the man of moste worship." (607.8-10, 18-20)

Gawain is surprised to find that the knight who has worn this damsel's sleeve is Launcelot; it doesn't really jive with Launcelot's loyalty to Gwenyvere. But this moment reminds us of another place in the story where an armor-switch caused some confusion -- the "Tale of Balyn and Balan." But how do these two moments compare?

Than Quene Gwenyvere sent for Sir Launcelot and seyd thus: "I warne you that ye ryde no more in no justis, nor turnementis but that youre kynnesmen may know you, and at thys justis that shall be ye shall have of me a slyeve of golde." (618.28-31)

Oh man, Gwenyvere is not happy. That'll teach Launcelot to wear another woman's favor in a joust. Of course if Launcelot wears Gwenyvere's favor, that runs the risk of revealing the one big part of his identity that he's managed to keep a secret so far: his love for Gwenyvere. But maybe that's just it. Maybe Gwenyvere has had it with all this sneaking around, and she wants Launcelot to claim his true identity as her true love, no matter the risks.

"And as Jesu be my helpe, and be my knyghthode, I slewe never Sir Gareth nother hys brother be my wyllynge – but alas that ever they were unarmed that unhappy day!" (668.21-23)

Gareth and Gaheris' lack of identifying armor in battle leads Launcelot to kill them by mistake. Now that's a big oops. The mistake is particularly tragic because Gareth was such a bit Launcelot fan that he insisted that Launcelot be the one to knight him – the very act that, in the long run, put Gareth in this position.

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