According to legend, Arthur became king of England and established his court at Camelot. He then gathered the best knights of the realm to join with him in the fellowship of the Round Table. These knights lived according to a specific code of behavior—the chivalric code—which stressed, among other things, loyalty to the king, courage, personal honor, and defending those who could not defend themselves. The most famous model of chivalry was Sir Launcelot, Arthur’s friend and the greatest knight of the Round Table.
The earliest tales of Arthur come from Welsh literature of the 6th through 12th centuries. Most English-speaking readers know of the Arthurian legend through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (“The Death of Arthur”), completed about 1470, or one of its many adaptations. The excerpts you are about to read are from Keith Baines’ modern retelling of Le Morte d’Arthur.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, wandering storytellers would retell adventurous tales of knights and other noble heroes. Such tales were known as romances, and, by Malory’s time, they had moved from the oral tradition into written versions. Romance refers to any imaginative story concerned with noble heroes, chivalric codes of honor, passionate love, daring deeds, and sometimes–supernatural events. Writers of romances tend to idealize their heroes as well as the eras in which the heroes live. Medieval romances, such as Le Morte d’Arthur, are stories of kings, knights, and ladies, who are motivated by love, religious faith, or simply a desire for adventure. Such romances are comparatively lighthearted in tone and loose in structure, containing many episodes. Usually the main character has a series of adventures while on a quest to accomplish some goal.
Courtly love was a highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, first developed by the troubadours of Southern France and extensively employed in European literature of the time. The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated. It was a medieval European literary conception of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry. Medieval literature is filled with examples of knights setting out on adventures and performing various services for ladies because of their “courtly love”. This kind of love is originally a literary fiction created for the entertainment of the nobility, but as time passed, these ideas about love changed and attracted a larger audience. In the high Middle Ages, a “game of love” developed around these ideas as a set of social practices. “Loving nobly” was considered to be an enriching and improving practice.
Stages of courtly love (Adapted from Barbara W. Tuchman)
- Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
- Worship of the lady from afar
- Declaration of passionate devotion
- Virtuous rejection by the lady
- Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
- Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness)
- Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady’s heart
- Consummation of the secret love
- Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection
While we will have only a brief encounter with the Knights of the round Table, King Arthur, and his greatest knight, Lancelot, we are introduced to the components that make up the chivalric code according to which they live: Honor, Chastity, Loyalty, Courage, Truthfulness, and Courtesy. In Medieval literature, chivalry can be classified into three basic, but overlapping, areas:
- Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: mercy; courage; valor; humility; fairness; truthfulness; loyalty; protection of the weak and poor; and the servanthood of the Knight to his lord. This also brings with it the idea of being willing to give one’s life for another–whether for a poor man or his lord.
- Duties to God: being faithful to God; protecting the innocent; being faithful to the church; championing good against evil (pursuing justice); being generous; and obeying God above the feudal lord.
- Duties to women: courtly love (the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her all other ladies); a general gentleness and graciousness to all women.
This chivalric code is of great importance in the world Malory describes. For example, the code states that knights must be courteous to their opponents. This principle leads Sir Tarquine to pay the following compliment to his opponent in a joust:
“That was a fine stroke; now let us try again.”
However, some characters live up to the ideals of the code better than others, as you will see in the following excerpts:
1. THE CROWNING OF ARTHUR FROM Le Morte d’Arthur — Sir Thomas Malory
2. SIR LAUNCELOT DU LAKE FROM Le Morte d’Arthur — Sir Thomas Malory
3. THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR ~John Steinbeck