Study Guide

Le Morte D'Arthur Strength and Skill

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Strength and Skill

"I am seke for angre and for love of fayre Igrayne, that I may not be hool." "Wel, my lord," said Syre Ulfius, "I shal seke Merlin and he shalle do yow remedy, that youre herte shal be pleasyd." (4.16-19)

The marriage between Igrayne and Uther comes about because of Merlin's magical skill: he transforms Uther into Igrayne's husband to trick her into sleeping with him. Unfortunately, this is not the last time that magic will be used to entice someone into bed. Later in the story, Elayne of Corbin seduces Launcelot in just the same way.

And the thyrd syster, Morgan le Fey, was put to scole in a nonnery, and ther she lerned so moche that she was a grete clerke of nygromancye. (5.44-6.2)

It's curious that Morgan emerges from the nunnery, where she was supposed to be learning about God, as a "clerke of nygromancye," or a sorceress. Guess that whole Christianity thing didn't stick. But this little tidbit could also reflect the fact that nunneries and monasteries were actually the only centers of learning the medieval period in England. So if a woman wanted any kind of education at all, she had to go to one.

And whan they herde of hys adventures, they mervayled that he wolde joupardé his person so alone. But all men of worship seyde hit was myrry to be under such a chyfftayne that wolde putte hys person in adventure as other poure knyghtis ded. (38.33-36)

One of the things that sets Arthur apart from other kings is his skill as a fighter and his willingness to engage in one-on-one combat. As the story goes on, however, Arthur starts to delegate, so that by the end of the story, he's more a leader than a fighter.

And anone the clamoure was howge aboute all the contrey, and then they wente withone voyse tofore the Kynge and thanked God and hym that their enemy was destroyed.
"All thanke ye God," seyde Arthur, "and no man ellys" (125.16-19)

Okay, so Arthur has totally just wrestled an ogre to its death with his bare hands. Pretty impressive, no? But Arthur won't take any personal credit for the feat, preferring instead to give it all the props to God, which shows that he values his Christian devotion over his role as a knight.

So forth the wente wyth the Kynge, tho knyghtes of the Rounde Table. Was never kyng nother knyghtes dud bettir syn God made the worlde: they leyde on with longe swerdys and swapped thorow braynes; shyldys nother no shene armys myght hem nat withstonde tyll they leyde on the erthe ten thousand at onys. (135.46-136.5)

During Arthur's war with Lucius, Emperor of Rome, he and his knights perform miraculously well on the battlefield, even though they're outnumbered, all because they have God on their side. Of course this also means that Arthur is the rightful ruler of the Roman empire.

Sone aftir that Kynge Arthure was com from Rome into Ingelonde, than all the knyghtys of the Rounde Table resorted unto the Kynge and many joustys and turnementes. And som there were, that were but knyghtes, encresed in armys and worshyp and that was well proved on many. But in especiall hit was preved on Sir Launcelot du Lake, for in all turnementes, justys, and dedys of armys, both for lyff and deth, he passed all other knyghtes – and at no tyme was he ovircom but yf hit were by treson other inchauntement. (151.33-43)

Tournaments and jousts are a way for young nobodies to prove themselves and win glory and honor in <em>Le</em> <em>Morte D'Arthur</em>. Luckily, Arthur seems to be quite a fan, so he gives these knights a ton of opportunities to joust. In the end, this is one of the things that makes him such a beloved king. He really knows what the people want.

"Hit doth me good to fele your myght. And yet, my lorde, I shewed nat the utteraunce."

"In Goddys name," seyde Sir Launcelot, "for I promyse you be the fayth of my body, I had as muche to do as I myght have to save myself fro you unshamed – and therefore have ye no dought of none erthely knyght." (182.8-13)

The fact that Gareth is able to battle Launcelot to the draw while not even doing "the utteraunce" (trying his hardest), marks him as a truly excellent and strong knight. In fact, as Launcelot tells him here, it basically means that he will be undefeated, since Launcelot himself can't be beat. Welcome to the ranks, Gareth.

"Alas," she seyde, "that ever suche a kychyn page sholde have the fortune to destroy such two knyghtes! Yet thou wenyste thou haste done doughtyly? That is nat so, for the fyrste knyght his horse stumbled, and there he was drowned in the watir, and never hit was be thy force nother be thy myghte; and the laste knyght, by myshappe thou camyste behynde hym and by myssefortune thou slewyst hym." (184.17-23)

Gareth's female companion just can't seem to believe that he is a good knight. So why is she being so skeptical? Probably because she sees him as a poor nobody, and most people in her day thought that a knight had to be a nobleman. In a way, his success threatens her very belief system. Except for the fact that he is, in fact, a nobleman.

He sente yonge Trystram with Governayle into Fraunce to lerne the langage and nurture and dedis of armys. And there was Trystram more than seven yere.

So whan he had lerned what he myght in tho contreyes, than he com to his fadir Kynge Melyodas agayne. And so Trystram lerned to be an harper passyng all other, and there was none suche called in no contrey; and so in harpynge and on instrumentys of musyke in his youthe he applied hym for to lerne. And aftir, as he growed in myght and stregnth, he laboured in huntynge, and in hawkynge – never jantylman more that ever we herde of. (231.5-15)

Trystram is a little bit different from most of the Arthurian knights because, besides being a great fighter, he's something of a Renaissance man. His father sends him to France to school to learn the language and knightly skills, and when he returns home he also becomes a great musician. Finally, he excels in hunting and hawking. He's quite the well-rounded guy.

Than the kynge for grete favour made Tramtryste to be put in his doughtyrs award and kepyng, because she was a noble surgeon. And whan she had serched hym, she founde in the bottom of his wounde that therein was poyson, and so she healed hym in a whyle. (237.45-238.3)

Just as Trystram differs from other knights in <em>Le</em> <em>Morte,</em> there's more to Isode than just beauty and good manners. She's also a skilled healer. Later, she learns to harp from Trystram, becoming an excellent musician as well. It seems that these two are a well-matched pair.

Then she seyde all with wepynge chere, "A, Sir Launcelot, how youre grete doynge ys chonged sytthyn thys day in the morne!"

"Damesell, why sey ye so?"

"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." (501.24-30)

When Galahad arrives at Arthur's court, he pulls the sword marked for the "best knight in the world." As his ship comes in, Launcelot's goes out, because Galahad's arrival marks the beginning of the Grail Quest – a spiritual, rather than physical, battle. This is why the mysterious lady can now say that "there ys now one bettir than ye be," since Galahad is better than Launcelot in all things spiritual.

"A, Launcelot," seyde she, "as longe as ye were knyght of erthly knyghthode ye were the most mervayloust man of the worlde, and moste adventurest."

"Now," seyde the lady, "sitthen ye be sette amonge the knyghtis of hevynly adventures, if aventure falle [the contrary at that turnement,] have ye no mervayle; for that turnamente yestirday was but a tokenynge of Oure Lorde."<em> </em>(537.7-13)

It's clear by now that Launcelot's skills in combat just aren't getting him as far as they used to. Launcelot is surprised that he's just fought on the losing side in a tournament, but as the lady explains here, his loss is symbolic of his ultimate defeat in the Grail Quest. Launcelot's playing a different game now, and one for which he's ill-prepared since, unlike his son, he has devoted his life to Gwenyvere rather than to God.

Than had Sir Gawain suche a grace and gyffte that an holy man had gyvyn hym, that every day in the yere, frome undern tyll hyghe noone, hys myght encresed tho three owres as much as thryse hys strength. And that caused Sir Gawain to wynne grete honoure. (676.6-10)

Gawain's mysterious increase of strength, which occurs from nine until noon, just might be evidence of the fact that this character has its roots in Celtic folklore about a sun deity, or God. But in this case, it also casts some serious doubt on Gawain's honor as a knight. It doesn't really seem fair that he should win acclaim for a strength that's supernaturally enhanced, now does it?

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