Monday 20 July 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, 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! )


Heidenkind said...

Vive le Roi!

I generally like Arthurian-related tales, but I think I'll avoid this one. Short AND took a long time to read? UHG.

The Three Musketeer, now, that sounds fun!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I skipped this back when I was reading medieval books - sounds like it's more for specialists than Chretien. Always interesting to hear about these more marginal books.

And the explosion of Arthur stories post-Chretien, that's such an interesting story right there.

Meytal Radzinski said...

Ah... "The Three Musketeers". Nothing like absolute fun to make a person experience absolute fun.

The thing is, this actually sounds kind of interesting... but in a fairly boring way as well (slow and short... never a good sign). Which is disappointing, I suppose, but I guess not all seemingly interesting books are winners, right? I'll stick to Dumas.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: I know eh? I don't feel badly turning you off this one - as we both know, there are so many mountains of good books out there to read...

Amateur Reader: I'm also fascinated by the influence on Arthurian lit's propogation that Chretien seems to have had but issues of political and nationalistic influence aside, I can't blame anyone for trying to write romances that damned fine. They just weren't Chretien and so couldn't.

An Anonymous Child: "absolute fun" sounds absolutely perfect to me. The Three Musketeers will be my next French read for sure. :)