Saturday, December 25, 2010
The Tragedy of King Arthur: Post War Trauma in The Alliterative Morte Athure
In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table perform great acts of heroism in battle scenes that are highly realistic and disturbing. These heroic deeds come at great cost in this tradition of Arthur. The anonymous writer presents physical and psychological wounds and scars that show the limits of human endurance. The battle realism is enhanced by an awareness of the psychological damage of violence, and the carnage of war in such close combat with the enemy. The writer uses the structure of Greek tragedy in his saga of Arthur. The story presents his rise as a great leader of men in battle, but it also shows the subtle psychological circumstances of Arthur’s fall through dreams and more battles that eventually lead to his death at Avalon. This Arthur isn’t coming back from the mystical island, like Jesus in his second coming to the faithful. He is really dead. The tragic Arthur becomes less legitimate as warfare leads to more warfare, and the cycle of violence undermines his virtuous character as a Christian king. By the end of The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Christianity is separated from nationalism and warfare itself in a post war, or even anti war, discourse through the complex psychological portrait of a king’s tragic downfall.
The king’s Christian virtue is dramatically highlighted in the opening battle with the giant on St. Michael’s Mont. This battle doesn’t read like a fairy tale; this tale could easily give an adult nightmares. It is a story of terrifying fantasy and realistic detail that shows Arthur’s Christian altruism against enormous odds. Who could be more legitimate than the Christian king who is willing to fight this grisly giant alone? Before the graphic violence on the mountain, Arthur has a dream of a dragon and a massive bear in an epic battle. The use of dreams is central in the rise and fall of Arthur as a tragic character in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. With the help of two sages who are Christian priests, Arthur understands that he is represented by the victorious dragon. He will soon do battle with a hideous and powerful giant, the dream bear, on a mountain named after the warrior angel St. Michael, the one who leads the army of God against Satan. That Christian priests are functioning more like Pagan oracles shows that there is little separation between the two traditions at this and other points in the anonymous Arthur legend. At this juncture in The Alliterative Morte Arthure, there is a direct and explicit connection between might and right. If Arthur can destroy the giant, surely he must be God’s chosen instrument. Both in the powerful dream and the terrible reality to come, the Christian king will triumph, with God’s help. The obvious messianism of Arthur will be manifest in the battle; the Spirit of the Lord is surely upon him. How else could he triumph against the giant? He is chosen just as David was chosen to lead the Israelites; slaying the giant Goliath makes it clear to everyone that the shepherd boy from Bethlehem has been chosen for great triumphs. A messiah figure must always win, it seems. There is no vision of a suffering messiah in defeat, and the Christian virtue of this particular campaign could not be clearer.
Arthur’s Christian altruism is overt; he is willing to sacrifice himself to end the terror of the giant. Five-hundred people have been killed and eaten over seven years. The crisis of the giant on the mountain is a moral apocalypse of Satanic violence; it is a dark time for Christian souls. The most recent event is the rape and murder of the beautiful Duchess of Brittany. Eating and sexual consummation are indistinguishable for the giant; the two acts are monstrously conflated: “To lie with that lady as long as life lasts”(494). The giant has sex with the duchess until the intercourse kills her; then he eats her body. The fairness of the duchess is in dramatic contrast with the hideous giant. Even the writer is moved by what the giant has done to her: “I shall never get over my grief for that creature!/ She was the flower of all France, of full five realms,/ And one of the fairest that was ever framed”(494). The emotional intervention by the writer points to an important element of this Arthur tradition; people don’t get over the violence they inflict and experience—or even just the violence that they hear about secondhand. The writer says that he will never get over what happened to the woman; he has been traumatized by the event. A sense of deep empathy for victims is expressed by the writer. As to our great hero, Arthur himself is no cool and collected warrior as he anticipates the fight to the death: “He tosses, he writhes, he wrings his hands-/ Not another living soul could know how he suffered”(495). This suffering is not solely about fear, though Arthur has plenty of reasons to be afraid. There is a subtle presentation of psychological injury; of wounds that have never healed. Is Arthur reliving past battles? Is he having flashbacks? This description is like the focus on the shaking hands of Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan. Captain Miller is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t cracked up on the inside. The emphasis on dreams in this tradition subtly points to an interiority in Arthur’s character. It isn’t ever easy to kill another human being, let alone a giant. There is a psychological battle, as well as a physical test, that Arthur undergoes on the mont. Moreover, his battle with the giant will follow the experience of rape and murder of the duchess; there is a vivid sexual element to the battle. In the king and the writer’s empathy, Arthur must feel the terror of the woman. If past experience with violence has been triggered by the bloody battle to come, as it apparently has in the descriptions of Arthur’s suffering, the writer is presenting a medieval version of post traumatic stress disorder. Given the nature of the close, even intimate, combat, there is no reason to wonder if medieval knights experienced trauma like soldiers do today. Even modern infantry soldiers are usually at a much greater remove from their combatants. The knights cannot get any closer to their enemies in combat and death; they are as close as lovers—perhaps even closer. The question then becomes how much worse soldiers must have been traumatized in this period, even the ones who believe God is on their side.
As Arthur goes to face the giant, his godly legitimacy is invoked by his harmony with nature, and nature’s harmony with him: “And with falcons and pheasants of fabulous hues;/ There flashed all the birds that fly upon the wing…/ They give vent to their joy with all manner of mirth”(496). Heaven and nature are both on the side of Arthur. He is God’s chosen instrument walking in creation, but this is no paradise. The birds are trying to care for Arthur in their multiple calls and songs; that they “Might soothe the sorrow of one who has never been sound”(496). This is an extraordinary statement: Arthur isn’t sound. Something is wrong in his mind, in his soul, and the experience of previous battles has wounded him psychologically. But there is no time to heal in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. God’s chosen is able to do amazing things, but there is a physical and psychological burden, one that eventually breaks him. There is no haven for the king. He must go into perilous battle again.
The death of the giant will be in the name of Christianity, and Arthur invokes God when he confronts the giant. He meets him in a scene that includes cooking children in a steamy caldron and humans mixed with wild animals turning on spits. The close combat between Arthur and the giant brings good and evil intimately together: “Had he not dodged the stroke, evil had triumphed”(498). The battle descriptions are visceral and graphic, and there is an erotic dimension to them that is recurring. The giant is described in meticulous detail, and he wears no pants as Arthur has no choice but to confront the gigantic genitals head on:
“So he buried the blade half a foot in,
And the hot blood of that hulk gushed over the hilt.
Right to the innards of the ogre he thrusts,
Straight up to the genitals, and slashed them asunder” (498).
Arthur specifically attacks the groin a second time—this time in the act of penetration, after apparently cutting off the giant’s penis : “But swiftly the king strains himself fiercely,/ Thrusts in with the sword so it punctured the groin”(498). Arthur is described as swooning while he delivers these awful, emasculating strokes on the giant. Manhood is clearly a much more precarious condition than any man—or giant—would care to admit. Even though the giant has lost his mammoth manhood, he still attempts to squeeze the life out of Arthur like a crazed and homicidal woman: “Wraps his arms round, to rupture his ribs;/ So hard he hugs that hero, his heart nearly bursts”(498). The homoerotic dimension of the battle is undeniable. In the most direct way, Arthur has to relive what the duchess experienced, in this case as the greater giant to the emasculated one. The intimacy of the combat points to internal wounds to the psyche; these go along with the destruction of the body, even in victory. Arthur has to penetrate the giant’s body to win; he has to do something worse than rape to win the day. He has to kill, and Arthur comes out on top. The intimacy of battle produces deep and intimate wounds. One of the striking elements of a boxing match is how close the combatants are to each other. They lean and drape their bodies on the other pugilist, almost with tenderness between them; as they deliver brutal blows, especially with the uppercut. In dire circumstances, a fighter will use the other man to stay on his feet. In ultimate fighting competitions, the fighters are regularly in the conventional missionary position, and the fighter on the bottom often wraps his legs around the other fighter. The close line between aggression and sexuality is established by these battle scenes in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. Furthermore, the erotic nature of the battle doesn’t even end with the giant’s death. It continues with the tender inspection of Arthur’s own body by Sir Kay. Arthur’s beaten body is described as beautiful. He is one hot king.
“Then they lifted up his hauberk and felt underneath it,
His flesh and his thigh and up on his shoulders,
His flanks and his loins and his fair sides,
His back and his breast and his fine arms” (499)
Like fighters who hug after the bell, just like they have been hugging in strange and paradoxical fellowship all along, Arthur expresses a genuine respect for the giant: “He was the strongest by far that ever I found;/ Had not my fortunes been fair, I had fallen fate”(499). If might makes right, the margin between good and evil is very small. The margin will eventually disappear at the end of this legend. The scene with the giant begins with an invocation to God, and it closes with prayer from the pious Arthur.
Thank God for this blessing, and no other being,
For it was never man’s making, but only God’s might,
Or a miracle of his Mother, who is merciful to all”(500).
Arthur then orders that a church be built on this mountain. Good has triumphed over evil, but this is the last time good and evil will be so clear in close combat. If Arthur currently has God’s blessing, might the Spirit of God also be lost, like it was with King Saul before David? The shifting of gratitude from God to his Mother in this closing prayer shows a fascinating theology in action. While Arthur ostensibly gives thanks to God the Father, he makes a shift mid-prayer; the theological change reflects that he actually meant God the Son in the principal invocation. The high Christology then elevates Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the potential source for the mighty victory. This shift brings up questions when Arthur meets the Lady Fortune in his second dream. The ambiguous Lady might have a hidden identity. She might be Mary herself.
After the clear demarcation of good and evil with the giant, the events of this tale become more complicated morally. The war with Emperor Lucius is a defensive one, and the refusal to bow to the great Roman Empire is an opportunity for Arthur to demonstrate that God—or God’s Mother—is truly on his side. The Romans are referred to as heathens, and they also fight with giants, which directly perpetuates the previous encounter with the giant. The battle is an opportunity for heroism for the knights of the Round Table, but combat is a place where fortune can quickly be reversed. With the writer’s graphic descriptions, it is also hard not to identify with the victims in their demise, which may be the intent.
“Then Sir Kay the keen levels his lance;
Gives chase on a courser and charges a king;
With a spear of Lithuania he rips through his ribs,
So both liver and lungs are impaled on the lance”(504).
But, in just a moment of combat, the fate of Sir Kay is sealed with a mortal blow from behind: “So the brutal lance ripped open the bowel/ And burst on impact, and broke in the center!”(494) Though Sir Kay knows this is a mortal wound, he turns towards his attacker and slices him in half. Then Sir Kay does a curious thing in his prolonged death throes. He goes to King Arthur and asks for holy unction; he asks for last rites in the midst of the chaotic battle scene: “Do now your rites, as the world demands,/ And bring me to burial—I beg nothing more”(504). In no other battle scene in any Arthur legend has anyone asked for last rites while the fight is still on. How would a fighting king have time for a sacramental administration? Could he stop the battle for a Christian ritual? Is it possible that the writer is suggesting that he do just that? This could be the first moment when the writer is subtly disconnecting warfare from Christian piety. At any rate, the future theological separation will be more obvious. But the action moves furiously on, and Sir Kay is apparently given his sacrament by a church official as instructed by the Arthur. But the battlefield itself is not the place for last rites; the writer has invaded the battlefield with a disruptive Christian piety. The death of Sir Kay (which hasn’t even happened yet) stirs Arthur to a gigantic rage, unleashing bloody carnage on the enemy with every stroke of his sword. He slices one man in half, and the writer notes darkly, even humorously: “Of that hurt, I vow, he will never be healed”(505). In the battle, Sir Gawain’s exploits and especially his pride in combat are highlighted in particular. This wild and crazed pride is even greater than Arthur’s rage. Pride and rage are not Christian virtues. In fact they are deadly sins: pride and wrath. How does one reconcile these deadly sins with the favor of God that is bestowed upon Arthur? There is a moral problem here, one that becomes increasingly thorny in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. Moral issues continue, even after the fighting has stopped. The realism of war is presented in the body cleanup by Arthur’s men. The dead bodies of the enemy are collected to be sent back to Rome, and this seems, initially, to be a deeply humane gesture by the great Christian king. But the caskets of the enemy are sent back to Rome as the monetary tribute demanded by the Emperor Lucius. Rather than it being a humane gesture, it is an act of vicious sarcasm. How do you like your tribute now? Arthur expressed more respect for the giant than he does for the Romans and their mercenaries.
The narrative continues with the attack on the Duke of Lorraine. If there is a moral line that is crossed by King Arthur, this is most likely the exact moment. This is not a defensive war, and it cannot be comfortably reconciled with the Christian Just War tradition. Arthur is launching an aggressive form of warfare, one that will give his knights of the Round Table greater opportunity for heroic deeds. But the writer’s pains to show the cost of warfare must make the reader question the morality and judgment of the Christian king. Arthur was different from Lucius in the previous battle, but now he has assumed the emperor’s role in a war for land acquisition. Wouldn’t it be better to go home and check on the state of his kingdom? Now that the deadly sins of pride and wrath have been unleashed on the battlefield, it is difficult to keep them under control. These sins beget greater sins. They must go to further fields of battle; a cycle of violence does not easily come to a just conclusion. The heathen emperor and the Christian king have become indistinguishable, and the Duke of Lorraine is in the defensive position that Arthur once occupied. Arthur becomes just another conqueror. Moreover, it is during this campaign that Mordred comes to power back at home and weds Guinevere. The queen is even pregnant with the child that Arthur could never give her.
Arthur’s tragic downfall occurs somewhere on the battlefield in Lorraine; he becomes the cuckolded conqueror. But he isn’t aware of his tragedy until the second dream of the tale. In both Greek tragedy and recorded history by Greek historians like Thucydides, the experience of sudden reversals and the fall of great men are frequent subjects. The wisdom of both history and tragic plays was intended to inculcate the virtue of radical humility before the gods; that human beings are not gods. Hubris or pride is frequently the tragic flaw that brings down the mighty; pride comes before the fall. The structure of Greek tragedy becomes a Christian morality play in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. Arthur is directly called to repent for his actions in a powerful dream encounter with the mysterious Lady of Fortune. In the conflation of Greek tragedy and Christian repentance, the relationship between pride and violence is condemned. Arthur may be powerful in battle, but he is not wise. The Lady Fortune who first found Arthur so fetching will ultimately find him lacking in this crucial area: “If you were wise, you would worship my will”(510). The Roman goddess of Fortune or the Greek Tyche is subtly combined with the judgment of the Christian God. Arthur has lost his divine blessing, and he wakes to this fact in the dream.
“And thus she led me about the space of an hour,
With all the fondness and love any man could desire;
But exactly at midday her mood changed completely,
And she turned on me with terrible words”(511).
This is not a confrontation with a Pagan deity. The Lady shows her Christian authority with powerful words indicating her origin: “King, you cry to no use, by Christ who created me!”(511) This statement possibly connects the Lady to the Holy Spirit or to the Mary of Arthur’s prayer after defeating the giant. These overtones are perhaps intended by the writer, though they are not fully clarified. But medieval and even Renaissance audiences were quite familiar with Fortune as a personage, and there was likely no discomfort in seeing her judgment being associated with the judgment of God. In the dream, Arthur’s body is crushed under her wheel of luck or blessing, just as the six great kings and conquerors before him. The Lady makes an explicit call to repentance for Arthur:
“I urge you: reckon and recount your outrageous deeds
Or you will too soon repent all your ruinous works.
Mend your heart, king, before you meet with misfortune,
And humbly seek mercy for the sake of your soul.”(512)
The relationship between violence and pride, and the earlier issue of might and right, are present in the final battle scenes. The characters of Gawain and Mordred bring up the danger of pride and the ambiguity of might as a reflection of divine blessing. There are constant references to Gawain’s pride and rage. In the battle with Mordred, Gawain puts his men in a difficult strategic position from the very beginning, as he leaves the boats before safely near land: “When he landed, in his rage he rushed into the water/…All alone with his troop—my sorrow is the more.”(516) Though rage makes Gawain an extraordinary warrior, it seems to dramatically affect his reason and judgment. His blood is described as boiling. Without pride and wrath, Gawain might have made better decisions for the well being of his men: “But to see us caught off guard, my grief is the more”(517). The other notable element of Gawain’s character is his twisted use of religion in service to his blood thirst: “Though we have unwittingly wasted ourselves,/ We shall turn it all to the glory of Christ”(517). This sounds, at first, like some kind of prayer. It is exactly the opposite. He is using God’s name in an oath of revenge.
“In the presence of the peerless Prince above all,
With prophets and patriarchs and apostles most noble,
Before that glorious Face that fashioned us all.
He who yields him to yonder sons of jades,
While he still has life and breath and is unbowed in battle,
May he never be saved or succored by Christ,
But may Satan send his soul straight down to Hell”(518).
This is an utterance that promises damnation for anyone who does not serve his violence utterly. He has first put his men’s bodies in danger by a disadvantageous position on the battlefield. Now he imperils their souls in a deal with the devil. Gawain is described as “reckless and rabid.” In contrast, Mordred is brave in battle and calmer in his decision making, and in his close combat. He gets the best of the raving Gawain: “With a sharp knife the traitor struck,/ Through helm and head up to the brain”(519). Though Mordred is clearly a traitor, he is still mighty in deed. There is no argument that Mordred has found God’s favor instead of Arthur or the knights of the Round Table, but his composure in battle further unsettles the connection between mighty power and moral rectitude. Might does not make right. The writer also reserves one of the more profound moments of grief for Mordred the traitor. He cannot continue in earnest after killing Gawain. He leaves the battlefield weeping for the man he has just slain. Mordred is just as tough, perhaps even tougher, than any knight of the Round Table, but the villain is still capable of swooning grief. He is also no coward in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. After composing himself, he returns to the battlefield to face the greatest warrior of all, King Arthur, who becomes as full of rage as the giant on St. Michael’s Mont.
Mordred’s anguish is multiplied by the emotional depth of Arthur’s own response to Gawain’s death. The grief of Arthur is the most memorable and moving scene in this tale: “And Sir Gawain the good, in his glorious arms/ Sprawled face down and clutching the grass”(520). The earlier elements of trauma and stress disorder in the tale are now full blown on the medieval battlefield. Only the romantic language of the swoon is sufficient to describe Arthur’s crackup: “The good king stricken, sinks into a swoon;/ But he staggers up suddenly and kisses him fondly/ Till his thick beard was bathed in blood” (521). Arthur’s embrace with the dead knight’s body is disturbing, loving, tender, and insane. He kisses his fallen warrior and mingles with his body intimately. They are much more than blood brothers; they are as lovers: “His great heart would have burst with grief then and there”(521). Sir Ewan’s attempted intervention and warning makes it clear that this scene is just as weird as it sounds. He warns the king of madness; he tells him he is weeping like a woman. The king is embracing Gawain like a woman. Arthur has gone over the edge. He must stop this at once or he will lose his mind: “’By Christ’s blood,’ cried the king, ‘cease shall I never!’”(521).
At this point Gawain’s rage becomes the king’s as he returns to battle, ready to slaughter the multitudes of Mordred. Arthur becomes a killing machine. Likewise the twisted use of religion by Gawain is continued by the king’s lewd litany of intended carnage. The king blames his own sins for the death of the heroic Gawain. The king takes an oath of revenge; it is not a prayer.
“To Christ and to Mary, Heaven’s merciful Queen,
Never again shall I hunt or unleash my hounds,
At any roe or deer that runs about on the earth,
Never let sprint my greyhound, or let hunt my hawk,
Nor never see fowl felled that flies upon wing,
Neither falcon nor formel hold on my fist,
Never again with jarfalcon rejoice me on earth,
Nor reign in royal splendor, nor call my Round Table,
Till your death, dear one, be duly avenged” (522)
Pride, grief, and wrath continue in the last scenes of battle. King Arthur defeats Mordred, who remains fierce in battle until the end, losing first his arm at the elbow, then his life. Yet there is no joy in this victory. The knights of the Round Table are dead on the battlefield as well, and King Arthur has received a mortal wound from Mordred. The last rites that were not described with the death of Sir Kay now occur for the king at Avalon. The king also receives a second sacrament, the sacrament of confession. In the downfall of King Arthur, Christianity and warfare are finally separated from each other. In the absolution for his sins, King Arthur is reconciled with his Christian faith. But Christianity and warfare are hard to keep together if The Alliterative Morte Arthure is taken to heart. Arthur is a tragic hero, not a villain, but war’s damage to the human soul is deep and goes to the grave with Arthur who is still unsound. There is no moment of genuine healing in this tale. His last scene is a swoon of grief, and he is more ordinary sinner than messianic king. The forgiveness before death is powerful in the reconciliation with Almighty God-- enough so for the author to place the last words of Jesus Christ in Luke’s Gospel on the lips of the dying king: “Into Thy Hands…”(527) But Arthur doesn’t finish the words of Christ. The identification is incomplete, and it cannot be completed in the world the way it is. The post war Arthur must seek his Father humbly, aware that warfare is the greatest evil that humankind has unleashed in God’s creation. Only with that awareness may the reader commend the good king’s spirit to his maker: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”(Lk. 23:46).