Heredity in the Morte Darthur*

Byung-Eun Lee

    It is generally known that Sir Thomas Malory was a Warwickshire gentleman of Newbold Revel, and his aristocratic ancestry is traceable at least from the early thirteenth century.  His father was Commissioner for the peace, member of Parliament for Warwickshire and sheriff of Warwickshire and Leicestershire.  Upon his father's death Thomas Malory succeeded to the ancestral estate.  By the time of his father's death he was already an accomplished knight.  Some twelve years before he succeeded his father, he served 'with one lance and two Archers' in the retinue of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, whom all his contemporaries regarded as the embodiment of the chivalric ideal of the age.  In brief, Sir Thomas Malory was a knight.1)  Of course, chivalry in Malory's England was no longer an absolute standard of behavior in the society, and it was no longer concerned with the practical business of warfare: Malory's age was an age of transition with the impact of humanism, classicism, new discoveries in the world, and the gradual rise and improvement of the middle and lower classes.  Chivalry, however, still was a very important cultural element in the fifteenth century, and still exercised a strong binding force among aristocrats of all over Europe including England.  It acquired a social meaning and function as the code of ethics and politics of the governing class.  I think that Malory must have had the blood-based chivalric consciousness when he was writing the Morte Darthur, and this paper is primarily concerned with the epic of Arthur from which we can determine medieval concepts important to heredity.

    Apparently Malory intended for his work to have impact on his own day.  It is known that Malory was knight-prisoner following the War of Roses and for some reason remained a prisoner having been excluded from general pardon extended by King Edward IV.  It is assumed that he wrote the Morte Darthur during his prison years, the ninth year of Edward IV, i.e. between 1469 and 1470, and thus the evidence in it of moralizing about England's problems both historic and medieval.  Edmund Reiss comments that Malory "does tend to describe the Arthurian adventures as if they were taking place in an English world" (21).  He agrees with Eugène Vinaver that Malory possessed an essentially moralistic attitude toward contemporary ideals and toward the function of literature.  Caxton's Preface underlines this attitude in stating his reason for publishing the book:

     And I . . . have doon sette it in enprynte to the entente that noble men may see and lerne the noble actes of chyvalrye, the jentyl and vertuous dedes that somme knyghtes used in tho dayes, by whyche they came to honour, and how they that were vycious were punysshed and ofte put to shame and rebuke; humbly bysechyng al noble lordes and ladyes wyth al other estates, of what estate or degree they been of, that shal see and rede in this sayd book and werke, that they take the good and honest actes in their remembraunce, and to folowe the same; . . . Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renommee.  (Vinaver Works cxiii-xiv)

This medieval attitude toward the didactic purpose of history and literature leads us to the thematic morals of the story of Arthur.2)

    Heredity shows itself as an important fundamental in medieval thinking.  Arthur himself illustrates the concept that "blood will tell" by his coming to kingship.  His ability to govern effectively, his prowess as a military leader, and his chivalric code of conduct represent his virtue.  The nobility of his blood has allowed him to illustrate these characteristics.  Lancelot, Gawain, Tristram, and others, also of noble blood and knightly chivalry, add strength to the theory that virtue is directly responsible to high birth.  Vinaver explains that the Morte Darthur is aristocratic in tone.  The story of the "rich blood of the Round Table" is largely based on the distinction between noble and churl.  Malory's favorite motive is that of a kitchen knave or cowherd's son who proves his "noble descent" by feats of prowess (Vinaver Malory 1).  Gareth, the kitchen boy; Brunor, of the "evil-shapen coat"; and Tor, the cowherd's son all illustrate the type of hero who represents nobility in disguise.  If any man succeeds in knightly adventure, it is not because he is individually brave and strong but because he is in reality a noble.  "It is not he, but his lineage which carries away the victory" (Vinaver Malory 2).  Before engaging in knightly quests, Perceval and Agloval tell their mother that they may not dwell at home because they have come of king's blood of both parties, and therefore it is their kind to practice arms and noble deeds.  Sir E. K. Chambers concurs that "in Morte d'Arthur itself, the distinction between noble and churl is fundamental.  If there are sparks of nobility in a cowherd's son, like Tor, or a kitchen knave, like Gareth, you may be sure he will turn out to be a king's son in disguise" (Coulton 240, recited).  Class distinctions were real and important in the Middle Ages, and the distance between the upper and lower classes was great.

    Arthur himself is, of course, the primary illustration of this medieval idea.  His conception, made possible through Merlin's magic and Uther Pendragon's "courtly" lust for Igraine, and consequent fostering by Sir Ector set the scene.  Upon Uther's death "stood the reame in grete jeopardy long whyle" until Merlin announced that whoever could remove the sword from the stone would be king (1.12).3)  Arthur provides the first in a series of proofs that he is of kingly quality and high birth--he removes Excalibur.  Sir Ector speaks for the times, in awe of his foster son's feat: ". . . I was never your fader nor of your blood, but I wote wel ye are of an hyher blood than I wende ye were" (1.14).  Ector feels that "high blood" can be the only logical explanation for Arthur's ability.  The negative reaction to Arthur's claim to the throne also indicates the prevailing attitude: "Wherfor ther were many lordes wroth and saide it was grete shame unto them all and the reame to be overgovernyd with a boye of no hyghe blood borne" (1.15).  When Arthur offers some gifts to the kings, they refuse the gifts because the gifts are from "a berdles boye that was come of lowe blood" (1.17).  The kings ask Merlin for what cause Arthur should be king, and Merlin says that Arthur should be their king because of his blood: Arthur is King Uther's son, born in wedlock, gotten on Igraine, the duke's wife of Tintagil.  It is also very meaningful that Arthur is not a bastard, according to Merlin, because he was begotten after the death of the duke, more than three hours, and thirteen days after King Uther wedded Igraine.4)  He is a legitimate child to be crowned.  Moreover, Arthur's success as a warrior and as a leader after his coronation are further examples of noble blood providing virtue.  His defeat of Lucius and consequent crowning as Emperor in Rome afford him the ultimate degree of noble title, Christian virtue, knightly valor, and honorable conduct.

    His sin, incest with his sister, however, results in the conception of Mordred, to be Arthur's fateful downfall.  Arthur sleeps with Lyonors producing Borre; he then wants to marry Guinevere; but the greatest sin is his copulating with Margawse, who is not only wife of King Lot and mother of Gawain, Gaherys, Agravain, and Gareth, but also his own sister.  To some critics Arthur's incestuous and adulterous sin does not seem as serious a problem: it would seem that conventions of courtly love would have ignored if not allowed the adultery.  Vinaver argues that retribution for his sin is not the reason for Arthur's ultimate defeat (Works lxxx- lxxxv).  He says that to understand Malory's account of the destruction of the Round Table it is enough to read his last two romances, The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere and The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur Saunz Gwerdon, which do not deal with Arthur's incestuous adultery.  It is also apparent that Malory's sources, French prose writers, endeavoured to make the wheel of Fortune responsible for the death of Arthur.  There seems to be inextricable tie between sin and fate but an intangible one.  But incest, to me, is the most critical point in the Malory's work because Malory wants to centralize chivalric idealism through Arthur's downfall.

    We cannot overemphasize the value of the scene in which Merlin clearly prophesies that the product of Arthur's incestuous union usurps both Arthur and his kingdom: "ye have done a thynge late that God ys displesed with you, for ye have lyene by youre sister and on hir you have gotyn a childe that shall destroy you and all the knyghtes of youre realme" (1.44).  He also says that "Mervayle nat, . . . for hit ys Goddis wylle that youre body sholde be punyssed for your fowle dedis" (1.44).  This prophesy of Merlin exactly shows why Arthur's kingdom was collapsed; Malory's attitude towards the legacy of the Middle Ages was essentially that of a knight as moralist.  Even though Arthur did not know the fact Margawse was his sister when he slept with her, incest must have been very serious to Malory.

    Especially a comparison of Malory with his sources tells how differently Malory deals with the death of Arthur from his sources.  In the earliest stories before the Vulgate Cycle, according to Bogdanow, Arthur's downfall is represented as a mere accident of warfare (142).  Arthur was preparing to march into Italy when news reached him that his nephew Mordred had seized his crown and married the Queen.  He returned to Britain and defeated Mordred at Richborough and at Winchester, but in the final battel on the river Camel in Cornwall he was fatally wounded and Mordred killed.  In the Vulgate,5) According to Bogdanow, the original narrative is combined with the story of Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery, and gives it a spiritual background by linking up Arthur's downfall with the doctrine of the Wheel of Fortune and that of the Grail (142).  The destruction of the kingdom is interpreted partly as a retribution for the sin of Arthur's knights, including Lancelot and Guinevere's sinful love, and partly as a sequel to their rise to fortune.  Mordred's revolt succeeds because of the dissensions that weakened the kingdom, and these dissensions are the direct result of Lancelot's adultery and its discovery by Agravain.  In the Post-Vulgate, accoding to Bogdanow again, the part played by Lancelot and Guinevere is reduced as much as possible, and Arthur after the last battle realized that the real cause of the tragedy is his own sin (148).  But his sin of incest is not mentioned in Arthur's deliberate outrage: "so He now has the power to lower me again through ill adventures that I deserve on account of my sin" (Bogdanow 149, recited).  In brief, none of his sources makes any connection between Arthur's incest and his death, and Merlin's prophecy on Arthur and his kingdom's fall because of Arthur's incest is Malory's invention.

    The wondrous happenings that follow ostensibly occur because of his sins and are in themselves symbolic of future events.  After his union with Margawse, Arthure had a dream: "whereof he was sore adred . . . hym thought there was com into hys londe gryffens and serpentes, and hym thought they brente and slowghe all the people in the londe; and than he thought he fought with them and they dud hym grete harme and wounded hym full sore, but at the laste he slew hem" (1.41).  After this obviously prophetic dream, Arthur sees a "grete harte" which he chases.  The stag hunt is traditionally the prelude to a supernatural event.  To follow this magical animal is, in effect, to go deep into the world of faerie, and Arthur sees next "the strongeste beste that ever he saw or herde of" (1.42).  He falls asleep again and sees a knight on foot who takes his horse to follow the strange beast.  In these scenes we are not sure whether Arthur is asleep or awake.  All that appears is a shadowy play of figures: a play that is more a symbolic comment on the action of the story than a part of the actual narrative itself.  It seems that Malory has an important message here for the readers, which is so much moralistic.  The knowledge of his sins pursues Arthur: when he is hard-pressed he sees the hand of God punishing him for his offence.

    The approaching knight is Pellinore, known as 'The Knight with the Strange Beast' for his pursuit of the Questing Beast.  I think that Malory mystifies the scene through Pellinore to emphasize Arthur's limitedness, but still elevating idealism of gentility.  Pellinore once fights with Arthur and defeats him, breaking Arthur's sword, presumably Excalibur.  He would have killed Arthur had not Merlin enchanted Pellinore.  It is also noteworthy that Pellinore is supposed to be the man, according to Merlin, who will reveal to Arthur the name of Arthur's illegitimate son "begotyn of youre sister, that shall be the destruccion of all thys realme" (1.52).  Pellinore's presence seems to be an indication of the future trouble in store for Arthur's realm.  Malory, moreover, does not forget to mention that, in spite of his foul deeds, Arthur has so much noble blood enough to have a 'worshipful death': Merlin says that "for I shall dye a shameful dethe, to be putte in the erthe quycke; and ye shall dey a worshipfull dethe" (1.44).

    Other examples of Malory's morality as a code of chivalry are his occasional remarks on the practice and the ideals of chivalry.  Some of these remarks refer to principles of chivalric behaviour seemingly distinct from the mere art of fighting.  Malory says that a knight should be courteous and gentle.  He should not indulge in useless fighting: his bravery is a means not an end, and those who abuse their physical superiority forfeit their claim to perfect knighthood.  An example for this can be found in a story of Lancelot.  Once Lancelot rode for some time without finding shelter, and at last he discovered a pavilion.  He went to bed, and the owner of the pavilion returned to lay down beside Lancelot whom he took for his mistress.  When he embraced Lancelot, Lancelot seized his sword to overtake him.  In a French prose Lancelot killed him, but in Molory Lancelot just wounded him showing his courtesy.  Later he also showed his courtesy to the knight's mistress who lamented on seeing her lord grievously wounded.  Malory could be described as a sincere exponent of the moral ideals of chivalry.

    Mordred is an important figure in the discussion of heredity.  The bloody battle which brings Arthur's mortal wound at the hand of his son Mordred is also the downfall of Mordred.  Mordred has inherited the ability of a warring knight: he alone remains among the bodies of his dead army.  He has illustrated that "blood will tell."6)  He escaped the execution of "all children that were borne in May-day, begotyn of lordis and borne of ladyes" (1.55).7)  He was the sole survivor of the shipwreck and "a good man founde hym, and fostird hym tylle he was fourtene yere of age, and than brought hym to the courte, as hit rehersith aftirward and towarde the end of the MORTE ARTHURE" (1.56).  His acceptance into the Round Table attests to his knightly stature and noble heredity.  He also was the only one of the group of fourteen knights to live through the raid on the queen's bedroom.  Remaining the only one alive after a bout with Lancelot, who is the greatest knight living, is quite an achievement.  His heredity, however, is sinful, which is apparently important to his evil.  The fact that he was incestuously conceived may account for the basic evil inherent in both him and the sin which produced him, and his ultimate defeat.

    Galahad, also conceived out of wedlock, is interesting contrast to Mordred.  Lancelot is under a spell when he participates in bringing to reality the prophecy that he will father a perfect knight.  The idea of "seminally transmitted virtue" is apparent here.  Galahad must inherit the highest knightly quality; he must be Lancelot's son.  Lancelot is appropriate for several reasons: he is deeply in love, he himself cannot be completely perfect, yet only he can pass on the qualities which a perfect knight must epitomize.  Elaine, noble herself as King Pelles's daughter, loves Lancelot dearly and, given the noble motives of fulfilling prophecy and contributing to perfection, she is not liable for accusation.8)  This device for the "getting" of Galahad excuses him from the failure consistent in Mordred.  Lancelot's love for Guinevere, however, is not as blameless as his "enchantment" with Elaine.  The conflict prompted by love between Lancelot and Guinevere is, according to Vinaver, of primary importance to understanding Malory's morality.  Vinaver discusses two kinds of loyalty: the heroic loyalty of man to man (mutual love of warriors who die together fighting against odds, "brothers of the Round Table") and the blind devotion of the knight-lover to his lady (including the courtly tradition of love) (Malory 18).  The conflicts between these conceptions of human love and service is neither an accident nor a matter of destiny; it is inherent in the very structure of medieval idealism, which eventually causes the downfall of the Round Table.

    Malory's sources generally do not emphasize the matter of hereditary virtue.  Historical sources as well as French romances have a differing age and point of view though development of the idea can probably be traced through some of them.  The several tales which Malory constructed are not considered creatively his own, except for the additions and omissions which illustrate the thoughts and problems of his own day.  The material dealing with heredity in the minor characters of Beaumains, Gareth, Tor, and Brunor is for the most part addition to French sources.  These prove themselves noble, and their inherited ability showing through is but one representation of Malory's concern with the idea.  The treatment of Arthur, Lancelot, and Tristram also illustrates the importance of heredity to Malory.  Though he has less dramatically altered source material here, shifts in emphasis, additions and deletions serve to accentuate his idea (e.g., Tristram's recognition by La Beale Iseult, Lancelot's by Elaine; the playing down of "earthly" love of Lancelot and Guinevere so they could retain unblemished nobility).

    Chivalry became the definition of conduct which Malory considered necessary for his, or any, age.  Chivalry was, to Malory, not only a code of conduct but a matter of good breeding, gentleness, and loyalty which equip the perfect knight for his task and produce a type of warrior ready for any sacrifice and conscious of the importance of his calling.  Thus chivalry--its honorable code of conduct, and its high ideals--belongs to "blood," i.e., nobility and can only be sustained through "blood."  The idea that chivalry could be maintained by and used as a means for moral perfection also was popular in fifteenth century Europe.  Several orders followed the example of Edward III's Order of the Garter, and noblemen still were encouraged to cultivate skills and virtues apposite to an aristocratic class, even though it seemed that their success was limited by their changing definition of chivalry.  Malory wanted to re-establish its historic idealism as a political and ethical code of behavior through his stories which still were concerned with contemporary social issues.

(Hansung University)

Works Cited

Bogdanow, Fanni.  The Romance of the Grail: A Study of the Structure and Genesis of a Thirteenth-Century Arthurian Prose Romance.  New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.

Coulton, George Gordon,  Medieval Panorama; the English Scene from Conquest to Reformation. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Kennedy, Beverly.  Knighthood in the Morte Darthur.  Cambridge: Brewer, 1985.

Reiss, Edmund.  Sir Thomas Malory.  New York: Twayne, 1966.

Sanders, Charles Richard, and Charles E. Ward, eds.  The Morte Darthur.  London: Irvington, 1940.

Vinaver, Eugène.  Malory.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1929.

              Works of Sir Thomas Malory.  London: Oxford UP, 1954.

Watson, Jessica Lewis.  Bastardy as a Gifted Status in Chaucer and Malory.  Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen, 1996.


Heredity in the Morte Darthur

Byung-Eun Lee

Chivalry was no longer an absolute standard of behavior in the society of Malory, but it still was a very important cultural element and exercised a strong binding force among aristocrats.  This paper is to prove that Malory, knight himself, shows the blood-based chivalric consciousness in the Morte Darthur.  Arthur illustrates the "blood will tell" concept by his coming to kingship.  The nobility of his blood has allowed him to illustrate his characteristics of king.  His sin, incest with his sister, however, is his fateful downfall.  Inventing the connection between Arthur's incest and his death, Malory wants to centralize chivalric idealism through Arthur's downfall.  The mystified Pellinore scene also emphasizes the significance of Arthur's incest.  Mordred has inherited the ability of a warring knight, but his heredity is sinful.  The fact that he was incestuously conceived may account for the basic evil inherent in both him and the sin which produced him, and his ultimate defeat.  Malory's shifts in the characters of Arthur, Tristram and Lancelot from his sources also accentuate his idea of heredity.  Malory wants to establish chivalric idealism as a political and ethical code of behavior.

Key words: Malory, Morte Darthur, heredity, incest, aristocrat, chivalry, Middle Ages

* This research was financially supported by the Liberal Arts Research Center of Hansung University in the year of 2003.

* This research was financially supported by the Liberal Arts Research Center of Hansung University in the year of 2003.

1) There have been at least 3 persons who could be claimed as the author of the Morte Darthur, and all of them belonged to the gentry class.

2) A few critics insisted that the belief in Malory's morality is based not so much on his work as on Caxton's Preface to it.  However, as a reader I read the same strong morality in the Morte Darthur as Caxton must have read.

3) All my quotations of the Morte Darthur are from The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Eugène Vinaver 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1947).  Volume and page numbers will be listed parenthetically in the text.

4) Malory includes bastards like Torre, Borre, Elayne le Blank, Gylberte the Bastarde, Mordred, and Galahad, making the illegitimacy of their births clear.  It is significant that the most worthy knights, like Lancelot and Bors, and even Arthur, are fathers of illegitimate children.  It seems that Malory acknowledges both the positive and negative views of bastardy apparent during his lifetime, still valuing on heredity.  Blood is a bond that binds family members together.  It also bonds those illegitimate offspring who may not be connected to their fathers by their biological parents' marriage.  Jessica Lewis Watson's feministic and New Historic reading of Malory on the matter of bastardy is interesting, though easy to be questioned.

5) The authors of the Vulgate Cycle seem to have invented the notion of Mordred's incestuous birth, perhaps on the model of the legend of Charlemagne's incestuous begetting of Roland, perhaps on the more general, "almost universal tradition of heroes born in incest," simply "to heighten the horror of the final tragedy" (Bogdanow 144).

6) Kennedy has an interesting assumption: Arthur may have thought of Mordred as his successor because he was his son (318-20).  Arthur must have hoped to have legitimate son by Guinevere, but their marriage is still, and probably forever will be, childless.  Mordred is alive: he alone of all the infants survived by fortune.  Kennedy insists that Arthur's feeling for Mordred must have changed from fear and mistrust because of the prophecy to love and trust because he is his own son.

7) Malory makes the reader think of Mordred's birth and of the terrible infanticide that followed.  Arthur, like King Herod, requires the murder of all the babies born around May first, hoping to kill Mordred, his own illegitimate son.

8) Elaine knowingly bears Galahad since he is predicted: God or some higher power has told her father of his future greatness, and her father told her so.  This foreknowledge of Elaine's also makes her like Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, who knew whom she carried.