Monday, July 20, 2009
Le Roi et mort, vive le Roi!
Oh, hello. Yes, it has been a little while, hasn't it? Well, you see, I've been in medieval France reading what is considered to be one of the best Arthurian romances of all time and even when they're short, I find the romances are never fast reads.
The Death of King Arthur (author unknown), was both short and a not-fast read. It was not, in my opinion, one of the best medieval romances ever written. It was good, don't get me wrong; but it wasn't Chretien de Troyes good. (But what is...er, besides Chretien de Troyes? Sometimes Chretien de Troyes isn't even as good as Chretien de Troyes...)
The Death of King Arthur featured King Arthur much more than any other olde Arthurian tale I've ever read and for that reason alone it was compelling. He was actually integral to the tale instead of just always hovering on the edges while people like Gawain get themselves into various kinds of binds.
In this romance, Arthur is exceedingly old and given not only to making bad decisions, but also generally to ignoring reality in favour of believing that he and his kingdom will last forever and ever, amen. In particular, his inability to accept that Lancelot is cuckolding him and has been for a long time, even when confronted with embarrassingly obvious proof, is mirrored in the other obvious fact he refuses to acknowledge: that he, his kingdom, and the era that he defined are quickly losing their cultural power and significance.
The waning of the Arthurian era and the culture that defined it is reflected in the king's sexual and political impotence as well as the unravelling of the culture's two central tenets: chivalry and courtesy. Chivalry is seemingly alive and well what with all the battle scenes, but is shown to ultimately negate itself as Camelot's two most noble knights - Gawain and Lancelot - end up fighting against rather than alongside each other; and later, again, when Arthur is mortally wounded on the battlefield by his bastard son Mordred, and Lancelot just wanders away from battle in grief and ends up spending his final years cloistered.
Chivalry's decline is precipitated, I think, by the unsealable cracks in courtesy that quickly present themselves in this story, in particular, the way in which Lancelot is convinced that he is faithful and loving to King Arthur even as he continues to deceive the king about the fact that he's sleeping with his wife - and Arthur rather too courteously allows him to do so, so as to avoid considering what it says about his ability to rule in his 92nd year.
Obviously, there's lots of interesting stuff going on in The Death of King Arthur but for me, the interest was almost purely cerebral. It was not such a good read that I often found myself forgetting I was reading. Clearly, this isn't a requisite for everyone but it's really what I want right now: STORY, in all caps.
My husband has recommended that I jump forward in time again with my French literature project and check out The Three Musketeers if story is what I'm about these days. I say, the man's a genius and I will follow his timely advice and also make him carrot raisin muffins.
(No more progress on Henry James but I still feel confident that I can finish it by my birthday! )