Friday, 30 November 2012

Call Unto Your Remembrance the Month of May

Studying a course on Middle English literature may sound pretty dull. But the coffers of the literary canon offer up a rich wealth of texts, which display the most modern of techniques; polyglot, intertextual, poetical and memorable, works such as Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur deserve ressurection.

The Arthur legend identifies itself as a story which engenders and expects reproduction, spawning a variety of imitations, from TV to film, children's cartoons and art. Ploughing its pages, you can see why. It is chronicle of epic proportions, at once romance, tragedy and quest. Yet the most notable, and most reproduced, aspect of the tale is the illicit love-affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

As she fled fast thro' sun and shade,/ The happy winds upon her play'd,/ Blowing the ringlet from the braid./ She look'd so lovely, as she sway'd/ The rein with dainty finger-tips,/ A man had given all other bliss,/ And all his worldly worth for this,/ To waste his whole heart in one kiss/ Upon her perfect lips.

From Alfred Tennyson's Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere.

Tennyson accurately exemplifies the potent, all-or-nothing nature of Lancelot and Guinevere's love. In tempests or breezes, war or peace - their love is the singular constant. Lancelot rescues her from any danger, and forgoes the advice of his noblest companions to unite with his lover. 

'I dread me sore that your going this night shall wrath us all' - Sir Bors.

Sir Thomas Malory - Le Morte Darthur.

When their affair is discovered the Round Table is blown apart. A bloody and devastating war is enacted between King Arthur and Lancelot; ranging two countries, consuming uncountable bodies and severing the closest bonds of brotherhood and fellowship. When the war is won and the King is dead, one expects the lovers to be happily reunited. Yet Malory, unwilling to present a satisfying conclusion amidst such blood and shame, thwarts our epistemophilia. 

'And therefore, Sir Lancelot, I require thee and beseech thee heartily, for all the love that ever was betwixt us, that thou never see me no more in the visage. [...] For as well as I have loved thee heretofore, my heart will not serve now to see thee, for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed'.

- Malory

Many critics have keenly attacked Malory's paratactic style, noting his sparseness and directness as a result of his limited ability. Yet, Malory's clean, simple style works so effectively at poignant moments such as this. Superfluous words and flourishing imagery would damage Guinevere's sentiment. The King is dead, the Round Table is disbanded - there is no possibility of recovery. The only possible salvation is not to be found in this world, but in heaven; Guinevere resigns herself to that end, renouncing earthy delight and human love, for the love of a higher power.

Following Guinevere's death, Lancelot, unable to sustain himself without her, promptly dies too. It is a familiar construct, yet Malory figures the twin deaths in such beautiful, simple and memorable prose, which arguably rivals (or even overshadows) the hyperbolic death-scenes of later writers such as Shakespeare. Malory concludes his epic chronicle with the exquisite, yet harrowing image of Lancelot smiling on his death-bed. Done with all the war, strife and shame of the mortal world, our protagonists enter another realm, one which remains necessarily unseen and incomprehensible.

'So when Sir Bors and his fellows came to his bed, they found him stark dead; and he lay as he had smiled, and the sweetest savour about him that ever they felt'. 

- Malory

Although we are deprived of the expected happy ending, Lancelot's smile signals that all may not be lost. From the gutted wreck of England, and the shattered splinters of the Round Table, a glimmer of hope and redemption shines forth. 'True' love, whatever that may be, transcends corporeal ties - residing somewhere we cannot possibly know, until like Lancelot and Guinevere, we succumb to death. 

'I liken love nowadays unto summer and winter; for like as the one is cold and the other hot, so fareth love nowadays. And therefore all ye that be lovers, call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as Queen Guenivere; for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore had a good end'. 

- Malory

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