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Tennyson’s Idylls > Tennyson's Lancelot (vs Malory’s)

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message 1: by Lia (new)

Lia | 522 comments Mod
Tennyson's Lancelot has little in common with Malory's high-spirited, stylish hero.

The Idylls focuses on the catastrophic consequences of adultery, so Lancelot's role is shameful rather than glamorous.

Tennyson omits all of Malory’s L’s scenes of gallantry that are central to the early legends -such as the occasions when he dashingly saves his lover from immediate death

Tennyson changes the essence of the Lancelot/Guinevere love story to a warning against such behavior.

Malory's Launcelot is to be admired and emulated; further, to avoid any possible offence, Malory adds the possibility that the connection between the Queen and her knight was not of the "modern" type and may have been purely platonic and virtuous:
And ryght so faryth the love nowadayes, sone hote sone colde. Thys ys no stabylyte. But the olde love was nat so. For men and women coude love togydirs seven yerys, and no lycoures lustis was betwyxte tham, and than was love trouthe and faythefulnes. And so in lyke wyse was used such love in kynge Arthurs dayes.
(1120; bk. 18, chap. 25)

Tennyson's comments upon the immoral, corrupt bond between Guinevere and Lancelot show a stance completely antagonistic to Malory's understanding and acceptance of courtly love.


Source Camelot in the Nineteenth Century: Arthurian Characters in the Poems of Tennyson, Arnold, Morris, and Swinburne


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 50 comments I have a hard time believing that the idea of courtly love was much more than a myth--something a later generation imputed to an earlier one. "In the good old days, when knighthood was in flower..."

So when Tennyson puts his own spin on it, I think it's a spin on a spin. I'm going to have to think about the Lancelot/Guinevere thing a little more--I remember being a kid and thinking that it was pretty awful--that Arthur got a bum deal. Actually, it's kind of the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo/Princess Leia deal. I saw the first film in the theaters, so the whole 'she's your sister, dude!' storyline has always felt tacked on to me. So, originally, I had identified more with Luke, and thought, 'of course--women always go after the scoundrel'. I don't even want to say how awful I felt when Vader dropped his bomb.




message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Bryan wrote: "I have a hard time believing that the idea of courtly love was much more than a myth--something a later generation imputed to an earlier one. "In the good old days, when knighthood was in flower......"

A quick response:

Current scholarship holds that "courtly love" was a literary fashion, and that suggestions that it had, as a system, any social existence are based on misreadings of texts. The whole idea is attributed to a nineteenth-century medievalist, Gaston Paris, who found the term in one or two texts, compared it to the poetry of southern France, and came up with a shining illusion.

I'll come back to this after I've had some to dig up my notes on the subject.


message 4: by Lia (new)

Lia | 522 comments Mod
I'm hoping Ian will chime in, it seems he would agree with you RE the myth of Courtly Love / spin on a spin thing. See: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/... Oh look, speak of the devil...!

But regardless, based on what little Malory and Chrétien de Troyes I've read, it's clear to me that their gender-norms and "moral code" are very different from whatever didactic message Tennyson is serving (IF it is in fact didactic. I think it is, but it's another can of worm that I'm not prepared to open…) Because of that, I think the point (in msg 1) still stands -- call it whatever, but Guinevere (and Lancelot) seemed to be more sympathetic in the medieval versions, though I'm not actually sure if Tennyson's G&L are entirely unsympathetic.

I do tend to sympathize with female characters being treated like objects to be traded between powerful male characters, and I want to cheer for them a little when they rebel, even if it turns out to be morally repugnant. (And I’m not sure if Tennyson wants his readers to cheer for that kind of female rebels.)

Now ... don't judge, but I haven't seen the show with Luke and Leia … so I shouldn’t judge either, but I get very annoyed when fictions or shows unproblematically regurgitate the “nice guy ends last” cliche, I like to think of it as the symptom of too many male writers and producers expressing their subjective view of gender relations and make women out to be villains blameworthy for all the male frustrations. And I’m working overtime trying to figure out what Tennyson’s position is. I think he certainly blames Guinevere disproportionately compared to his medieval sources, so he’s making a point. But I’m not sure if that’s a commentary *on* Victorian society, or his own view of what brings the world and all its heroes down (i.e. women.)


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 50 comments Lia wrote: "I get very annoyed when fictions or shows unproblematically regurgitate the “nice guy ends last” cliche, I like to think of it as the symptom of too many male writers and producers expressing their subjective view of gender relations and make women out to be villains blameworthy for all the male frustrations. And I’m working overtime trying to figure out what Tennyson’s position is. I think he certainly blames Guinevere disproportionately compared to his medieval sources, so he’s making a point. But I’m not sure if that’s a commentary *on* Victorian society, or his own view of what brings the world and all its heroes down (i.e. women.) ..."

Thanks for bringing out that viewpoint--sometimes these clichés are so embedded it's hard to realize some people can be annoyed by them. Believe me, I have enough of my own irritants in that regard.

I suppose this still touches on the Tennyson/Malory question: That Guinevere betrays Arthur with Lancelot is another one of those events that resonates with me, even if I can't put my finger on why. When I say resonate, I mean to say that it feels as if I've been clued into an aspect of how the world works, though I can't regurgitate it in words very well. And that isn't to mean that I see it as the only way the world works, but a sliver of it. I had the same sort of feeling with the Arthur/Modred model that I mentioned in another post--how I felt as though Tennyson short-changed the power of the story by removing the incest theme.

So...Mallory vs. Tennyson--before this discussion, I might have said that it was mythical retelling that fit into a natural groove vs. a mythical retelling that, I think you mentioned before, was to serve a didactic purpose, which was to deny nature. I don't doubt that the Victorians (and many others besides) saw themselves as having the capability of rising about natural consequences by the force of will. I don't know if I've changed my ideas about it, but I've never given it this much consideration before.


message 6: by Lia (last edited Jul 17, 2018 05:34PM) (new)

Lia | 522 comments Mod
Thanks Bryan, going OT a bit: what I really love about reading Conrad is how he illustrates that we are all locked inside our own subjective worldview, and we all struggle to make other people understand our subjective POV. I wish I had your ability to express subjective view points without antagonizing people. What’s your rate? Can I hire you as my English tutor? :p

For me, the sympathy for Guinevere comes from the early Idylls, when it seems obvious that Guinevere fell in love with Lancelot but felt nothing for Arthur. Her father’s male-male bonding with Arthur sealed her fate, her actual nature, her personality, her needs were never considered. It’s not her fault that as a terrified young woman, she bonded with Lancelot. Obviously, you can’t control your feelings, but you can control your actions, so she’s still guilty of betraying Arthur — but Arthur seems especially bloodless ... like he’s not even really a person of this world. It’s hard to imagine he would be capable of having relationships with women, and it’s especially unthinkable that he might actually have intercourse.

So Guinevere did betray him in the worst imaginable way (for Victorians anyway), she is culpable, but also worthy of sympathy. Your judgment and mine — it’s like one of those old hag/ pretty young lady ambiguous drawings
B83_FDD1_C_4_A1_F_43_C0_8424_420_CF7_F10369
70_E0343_B_284_B_49_E8_94_DB_26_E1_BA56_D16_E
both views are valid, but when you are focusing on one interpretation, it seems impossible to also hold the other view at the same time.

But it becomes curious when Tennyson pointedly excludes Lancelot’s heroic deeds and the more “laudatory” aspects of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. I think he’s trying to say something, I just can’t decide what. I don’t know if it’s actually moralizing, as in don’t be that guy/gal — or if it’s a participation in the public polemics about the “rising threat” of female emancipation in Victorian era.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 50 comments That's another good point--about how in the Idylls (and maybe Mallory, for all I know), Guinevere is never given a choice--she's just handed over to Arthur. In my mind, I think I still have the Excalibur film in my mind--whether that film says anything different or not, I don't know, because it's been so long since I've seen it, but the impression that it made when I was younger (which has since petrified, like a fly in amber) was that Arthur and Guinevere were the perfect couple in the beginning. A kind of platonic marriage--not in the sense of being sexless, but in the sense of being an ideal. That was one of the things that made the betrayal so awful, in the film--both the lovers knew they were destroying something that was perfected in the union of Arthur and Guinevere, but they were compelled to succumb to their humanity, to their passion.

So I always have that in my mind, as that was my first in-depth exposure to the story--perhaps the first that (however corny it could sometimes be) attempted to treat the subject in a mature manner. (Don't hold me to that! It's been so long since I've seen it, I might cringe at what I've just written, were I to see it again.)

Anyway--the idea that Guinevere never really had much feeling for Arthur makes sense, though it wasn't a viewpoint that I'd thought of. (I'm very far behind you and Ian as far as studying this and being as familiar with it as the two of you are. You'll have to excuse my bumbling)


message 8: by Lia (new)

Lia | 522 comments Mod
Bryan you’re not bumbling! (At least not any more than I am.) We just have different preconceptions. I’ll leave it to Ian to terrify you with the vastness of the Arthurian universe. I haven’t seen Excalibur, so I have a different preconception, that’s all. I’ve only read some chapters (books?) of Malory and Chrétien de Troyes, which is a precarious thing to do. I’ve completely misinterpreted some of the tales because I didn’t read the preceding chapters. I hope Ian will clarify Malory’s Lancelot/ Guinevere for us, because I don’t trust my incomplete reading at all.

Also, I haven’t seen many TV shows or movies ... it’s not your fault you’re talking to a creature that just climbed out from under a rock! I used to take my dinner to my bedroom whenever there’s an especially upsetting or loud show on TV. My brother and my dad STILL tease me for how upset I get by pixels. (I got the Jurassic Park amber reference though! Do I win anything?) I feel like Joseph K a lot, talking to people who take for granted things that are perpetually foreign to me.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 50 comments Lia wrote: "Bryan you’re not bumbling! (At least not any more than I am.) We just have different preconceptions. I’ll leave it to Ian to terrify you with the vastness of the Arthurian universe. I haven’t seen ..."

Well, I get the Kafka reference, so we've still got cultural touchstones to go by. I don't know if I would recommend Excalibur or not. I think I'll probably have to hunt down a copy now, though, just to see what I think of it after all these years. I do think it was pretty faithful to the storyline though.


message 10: by Ian (last edited Jul 18, 2018 10:55AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "I hope Ian will clarify Malory’s Lancelot/ Guinevere for us, because I don’t trust my incomplete reading at all. ..."

I'm not sure that Malory's view of the Lancelot/Guinevere matter in "Le Morte D'Arthur" (completed 1469-1470) *can* be completely clarified.

Explaining why this is so requires a digression into the history of the Arthurian texts represented in Malory, which I will simplify as much as possible. I know that this isn't terribly helpful at first glance. It took me a long time to figure out all of this from the secondary literature, and some modern translations from the French, and I found at the end of the process that I had learned a lot, but not solved the problem I was interested in. But I will present the situation.

To begin with, however, there is a running critical debate on whether Malory thought he was producing a unified narrative about Arthur and his knights (with some "flashbacks"), or rather that he was just translating and abridging ("reducing into English") diverse French (mainly) romances.

The former view goes back to Caxton, who, although calling what he had printed "The Death of Arthur" (in French), in a colophon also described it as "the Hoole Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table." Although critics noted various inconsistencies and discrepancies in the book Caxton printed, this was the prevailing view in Tennyson's time, and well after.

The debate opened in 1947, when Eugene Vinaver published a then-recently-discovered manuscript, older than Caxton's edition, under the title of "Complete Works," arguing that Caxton had imposed the idea of a unified story on Malory's work. (Presumably as a piece of salesmanship.) This position remains controversial, although it has taken hold in some popular venues. For example, in a poll to determine the "100 Best Novels," the BBC dismissed "Le Morte D'Arthur" as not being a novel, because it is a series of short stories -- I would have thought that it being a medieval romance, a different type of storytelling, was reason enough.

The point here is that which side a critic takes on this issue should also determine whether or not linking up passages from different portions of Malory's long book is considered a legitimate procedure.

In either case, some disunity was built into the text by Malory's way of working. Whether or not he wrote it while a prisoner, as his comments seem to indicate, he clearly worked from romances which were originally of different dates, and composed under various influences. He must have used whatever copies were available to him, and didn't order some bookseller to seek out nice, complete, manuscript copies of a particular version he wanted to use!

Malory begins with material from the "Suite du Merlin," a recasting of the early parts of the Arthur's story made some time in the thirteenth century, probably the later part. This is followed by the "Roman War" episode, which Malory mainly derived from the Middle English "Alliterative Morte Arthure," from about 1400, which he turned into prose. (Caxton, or someone, heavily abridged this in the printed text of 1485.) None of this has much bearing on the question at hand.

Malory switches from the Roman War to a series of adventures of Lancelot (finally), which are selected from what is known as the "Vulgate Cycle" of Arthurian Romances (see below), and it looks like he was going to likewise condense more material from that version. This is followed instead by the "Tale of Sir Gareth," of unknown origin -- possibly Malory's original work. In the "Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac," it is clear that Lancelot's feelings about the Queen are known to others, as at one point he feels he has to deny that he is seeking adventures to win Guinevere's love, insisting that he is doing so in order to win honor ("worship") among men.

However, Malory's narrative then shifts into (mostly) material from a revision of the vast "Prose Tristan," dated to the third quarter of the thirteenth century.

This expanded "Tristan" (which was already quite long) incorporated material from what is known as the "Vulgate Cycle" (i.e., the commonly accepted version), or "Lancelot-Grail" romance, itself from about 1215-1235, mentioned earlier. In its final form, it extended from the origin of the Holy Grail to the deaths of Arthur and the other leading characters. (The "Suite du Merlin" is classified as part of a "Post-Vulgate Cycle.") In its earliest form, without the "History of the Grail" and the "Prose Merlin," the "Lancelot-Grail-Mort" was a very tightly constructed work, with well-coordinated sets of interweaving stories, and even a chronology that enables it to give the ages of the characters with reasonable consistency. (Unlike Malory, whose chronology is hopelessly chaotic.)

Malory then leaves the Tristan (Tristram) story dangling -- the available manuscripts may not have included the remainder -- and switches over to the Vulgate Cycle proper, translating and abridging its Quest of the Holy Grail, and adapting its "Mort Artu," in the latter also using more material from the "Alliterative Morte," and having as a model for abridging and re-arranging the Middle English "Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur," from some time in the fourteenth century.

So some of Malory's version of the early Lancelot-Guinevere relationship comes from the Tristram material, a book saturated in the adulterous love of Tristram and Isolde (various spellings), but full of chivalric adventures of other important characters. Despite this, Malory is sometimes able to dance around whether Guinevere is more than emotionally attached to Lancelot. Their sympathy for Tristram and Isoude suggests otherwise.

A switch to the Vulgate "Quest" changes things. The Vulgate Cycle sometimes has a rather monastic view of sex in general, and its Grail Quest in particular is strongly suspected of being written by a Cistercian. (It may have a particular view of the nature of the Eucharist, which is not apparent in Malory's redaction, and relevant here only as supporting evidence for a religious influence on the story.)

In that context, Lancelot's connection with Guinevere is physical, and a serious sin, the one which prevents him from achieving the Grail, this being reserved for his son (by another woman) Galahad, and for Perceval, both being virgins, and for Lancelot's cousin Bors, who is "almost" a virgin: Lancelot being otherwise the "perfect knight."

The switch to the "Death of Arthur" proper, however, gives Malory another chance to avoid the issue of actual adultery, while admitting that their love is, ipso facto, sinful, and subversive of Arthur's rule.


message 11: by Lia (last edited Jul 18, 2018 10:35AM) (new)

Lia | 522 comments Mod
Thanks Ian, this confirms my suspicion that I cannot deduce Malory’s position based on some chapters I’ve read.

My initial perception is that Malory’s Lancelot performed many “selfless” heroic deeds in order to impress Guinevere. That is, Lancelot and Guinevere “fall” in ways that make them imperfect but as good as sinful-by-nature earthlings can be, as their sinful love motivated them to do good for all the wrong reasons.

Am I injecting “fortunate fall” theology into this? Kind of like how Perceval must arbitrarily fall first before he can repent and finish the grail quest.


message 12: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Bryan wrote: "That's another good point--about how in the Idylls (and maybe Mallory, for all I know), Guinevere is never given a choice--she's just handed over to Arthur. In my mind, I think I still have the Exc..."

In Malory (Book Three, Chapter One, in Caxton's edition), Arthur has seen Guinevere, and is in love with her from the beginning, but we are never told her feelings.

This is still one step better than most top-ranking medieval marriages, in which it was very likely that neither partner had ever seen the other before, as they lived in different kingdoms. (Henry VIII once fell into the trap of relying on pictures and descriptions, but that is another story, irrelevant to Malory.)

In the course of their discussion of the proposed marriage, Merlin actually warns Arthur that Guinevere will love Lancelot. Arthur persists in his plan despite this.

It also happens that her father, King Leodegrance, is a useful ally in Arthur's struggle to establish his rule, and that he also possesses the Round Table (which was made by Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, at Merlin's suggestion), which then passes to Arthur with the marriage. He is then faced with finding knights to sit at it.

So, despite Arthur's sentiments, it is a diplomatic marriage, after all, and, for those who want to psychologize characters in medieval literature, Guinevere may be thought to feel that she is just a bargaining chip for her father.

Which, realistically speaking, was pretty sure to be the case in real life royal matches, even where favorite children were concerned.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 50 comments Lia wrote: "My initial perception is that Malory’s Lancelot performed many “selfless” heroic deeds in order to impress Guinevere...."

I don't know why, but I always had it in my mind that Lancelot threw himself into a harsher form of knight errantry in order to either a) forget Guinievere, or b) at least remove himself from the scene of temptation. He is forced to return and compete at a tournament at some point (after he's already been wounded in some other scuffle) in order to settle an accusation that Guinevere is not all the lady she should be. He defeats the accuser, which means to everyone there that Guinevere is innocent of the charge, but Lancelot didn't want to do it, because it would look as though he was taking to great an interest in the affair.

Now, I don't have a clue where I got all that--I know I read it somewhere, because it's very vivid in my mind. I had the idea, then, that Lancelot was trying to run away from his fate, which was to betray Arthur with Guinevere. Guinevere's role in all this was less than flattering--in my memory she was portrayed as being incapable of resisting her attraction to Lancelot, even though she knew it was wrong. As if women, as a class, were not able to rise above their emotions.

Now, none of that has anything to do with the Tennyson vs Mallory cage match we've been discussing--it's more the Bryan Byrd version--sorry for muddying the waters.


message 14: by Lia (new)

Lia | 522 comments Mod
Bryan wrote: "Lancelot was trying to run away from his fate...."

Lancelot du Byrd, I like this. I hope the Arthurian Encyclopedia scribe is copying this.

I might be reading too much into this, (or mixing up Chrétien and Malory), but in Malory’s Lancelot of the Lake, he ostensibly fought Kay’s battle in Kay’s armors, so that the honor would go to Kay, and the wounded Kay would get to ride home safely wearing Lancelot’s armor without being challenged to fights, because Kay makes enemies everywhere.

Noble gesture! Except everybody knows it’s Lancelot and not Kay. So now Lancelot gets brownie points both for his extraordinary win ratio and for being “above vanity.” And the irascible Sir Kay is in his debt. He killed (!) three byrds with one gesture! I don’t know if he “planned” this, if so, that’s grandmaster level hypocrisy — he wants fame, but he engineers theatrics so that the world believes he fights for virtue and not fame, and Kay thinks he fought to save his life and not for winning recogntions.

Also, Lancelot sends his prisoners to Guinevere, not to King Arthur. That’s kind of unusual.

And when some ladies tried to have their wicked way with Lancelot, and accused him of desiring only Guinevere (i.e. everybody knows they’re an item), Lancelot denies that and swears Guinevere is loyal to Arthur.

But we all know how it ends. If Lancelot is the best of the Round Table, and ultimately his thing for Guinevere brings him down, it’s hard not to read his glorious white-knighting as hypocrisy, and calculated attempts to woo Guinevere without admitting he’s wooing Guinevere.

IIRC this comes from Chrétien, but I think Lancelot was scorned by Guinevere for being too shy to own up his adulterous intent, and the humiliating cart-ride was about overcoming his coyness or rejection of shame. I was kind of distracted when I read Chrétien, and it’s in verse so I could be totally misreading this, but that comes to mind when you said Lancelot was trying to run from his fate but was ultimately entrapped by Guinevere.

Also, the women-as-a-class thing — I think it used to be common belief that women are essentially sexually insatiable by nature, they can’t help themselves; men are the ones who have to protect themselves from their malicious beastly scheme to “get some,” because if men get too much sex stolen by greedy women they will get cold or something. I don’t know when that got inverted (i.e. men “naturally” obsess over sex but women play hard to get), but I think that went as far back as ancient Rome (if not older.)


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