Notes on Le Morte d’Arthur

Having made my way through two volumes containing one William Caxton’s 1485 edition – apparently the first published – of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, I am left with rather mixed impressions.

As to structure, in Caxton’s hands it has very little; according to John Lawler’s modern introduction, Malory devised a scheme of eight books reminiscent of ancient epic; how Caxton’s twenty “books” correspond is not easy to tell. One can make out a structure of roughly three parts: Arthur’s birth and establishment in the kingdom, with various wars including his invasion of France to fight with the Romans, following the British story found in Nennius, Geoffrey, etc.; then the story of Tristram; and finally the quest for the Holy Grail and the subsequent events leading to Mordred’s betrayal and Arthur’s death.

Interspersed through the first two parts – and bleeding into the last – are accounts of various quests and tournaments; the tournaments particular get a little repetitive and whatever their literary value I suspect they have more as a reflection of Lancastrian courtly expectations – or earlier French ones, depending how close Malory stayed to his sources. Some of the passages are quite well done – and the bit where several knights all end up on each other’s horses amused me – but the eyes glaze over a bit after the third or fourth virtually identical scene within thirty pages. Actual tournament ethics are baffling – at times our champions will avoid another knight doing well in order to help him to the prize, but at other times the best knight on the other side is the one to fight. It seems to have something to do with friendship or feud beforehand, but I can’t come up with a consistent rule.

When Malory is actually getting on with the story, he’s quite interesting. The individual quests are mostly well-done little vignettes; and the longer narratives – King Uther, Arthur’s discovery and early wars, the war with Rome, and the story of Sir Tristram (setting aside most of the interruptions for side-quests) all capture the imagination. (Apart from the odd decision – whether Malory’s or Caxton’s – not to actually finish the story of Tristram, whose sorry end is merely mentioned in passing later.) And the Grail and King Arthur’s death crown the book effectively.

The language does not require translation, and only a few words even require the glossary found in modern printings. A few things stood out. “W” is used instead of “g” in certain words, most commonly “wallop” for “gallop” and “wood” for “good”. “Wood” requires careful treatment, however. It is found as, of course, a noun meaning a collection of trees; as an alternate (in some passages more common) form for “good”; as an adjective with persons or behavior, glossed as “wild” (as in “mad” or even “berserk”, from context; it is tempting to suppose a derivation from “woad” and its martial connotations); it is, especially in the later tales, used adverbially, though “wildly” doesn’t always fit, and it seems to serve as an intensifier; and in certain places the only coherent reading is to take it as a contraction of “wounded”.

“Big” has its modern meaning sometimes but is primarily a synonym for “strong” although it’s used so loosely in places I’m almost inclined to suspect it of being fifteenth century slang. And finally, the verb “yede” (past tense “yode”) appears to mean “go quickly” or “hurried” but, since it seems to be used mostly of person given a specific message or mission, certain sentences result in which the very recent internet neologism “yeet” (meaning most closely, to throw or get rid of something in a hurry) would not be out of place instead at least as an analogy. As far as I know, there’s no actual derivation here, although it’s tempting to imagine one!

Malory’s combination of British and French sources results in some oddities. In the first parts, the causes and results of quarrels are often more reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas, while the later French stories are mostly issues of manners or love. In the British sources, the story knows nothing of knights as such and the story is more direct: Arthur’s war with Rome is interrupted by Morded’s treachery. Malory incorporates this but has him defeat Rome itself, and thus when he crosses to France a second time to fight Sir Launcelot after his adultery is discovered, this is only because Arthur was made to have installed various of his supporters as kings and lords over conquered Gaul.

Characterization of the knights – most notably Sir Kay – also seems to change with the source. In the British sources, Sir Kay and Sir Lucan are Arthur’s primary companions and among his most notable champions; in the quest stories, Sir Kay is full of himself and either a troublemaker or the butt of the story’s jokes, depending. Sir Gawaine’s position is ambiguous throughout. Once we get to the courtly narratives, Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram are acknowledged near-equally as the best knights – along with Sir Lamorak, who seems to have dropped out of popular remembrance entirely. Sir Gawaine and Sir Palomides are sometimes considered their equals and sometimes not.

The story’s sexual morality is more or less non-existent. “Courtly love” in its decadence is in full effect, save for the Quest of the Grail, whose original author seems to have been trying to make a point. Otherwise the narrator is on the side of the knights in their affairs: even King Arthur remains more impressed by Sir Launcelot’s skill at arms than distressed by his betrayal, which is barely noted as such; and King Mark, whose maintainance of a long-running, often patched-up feud with Sir Tristram is about the only understandable reaction, is portrayed as a villain when not (variably) a coward.

More startling yet is King Pellinor’s rape of a woman (resulting, naturally for the genre, in a son who himself will be a knight) which is made to be practically excused by her husband, on the grounds that at least the child’s father was a king. In comparison, Arthur’s own affairs (two recorded – before his marriage, but one (unknowingly) with his sister – barely register. On the other hand – or perhaps as a result – bastardy is barely a concept: a knight’s own deeds define his worth.

There is, strangely, an element of monogamy retained: knights having declared one love are considered to be guilty, at least of bad manners, should they be caught in another affair or – by necessity or trickery – wind up married to some other lady. One suspects mediveal marriage for advantage at court – and possibly suspicion of marriage arising from over-valuing virginity – bears some blame for diminishing to honor of the wedded estate and allowing – demanding? – another code governing passions.

Overall Malory succeeds in combining his sources into a mostly coherent whole. If Caxton chose to call the work Le Morte d’Arthur – Malory’s intended title is uncertain – we can easily understand why, because the final third of the book contains the best writing.

Review: Uncompromising Honor

I’ve left spoilers out of this post. I’m debating another one with spoilers, but it would mostly just be listing all the things that annoyed me. The linked post from last year does have spoilers from War of Honor.

As series finales go, Uncompromising Honor is already the second one in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which by itself neatly sums up the difficulty of trying to judge the book fairly. It is not in any sense a stand-alone novel, and while I’m incapable of thinking myself into approaching in in that frame of mind at this point, I suspect the flaws would loom larger than the successes.

The successes, from a plot and series perspective, are considerable. Weber has neatly gathered up the loose ends due to his own foibles as a writer, together with the frayed ones where Eric Flint got a bit carried away with his spin-off series (technically co-authored with Weber, but as best I can tell this amounted to making sure the timeline didn’t get too impossible to sync with the main series), and tied them off neatly enough. Flint’s next book will – whatever the plot overlap – be, I suspect, essentially launching a new storyline, while I’m not sure what, if anything, Weber still intends to do with the Honorverse.

The failures are individually smaller, and in line with the same authorial bad habits I detailed a year ago when I called War of Honor “The Worst Honor Harrington Book”: Weber attempts to maintain realism and present all sides, but the coincidences work out too well, the good guys don’t make enough mistakes to make the bad guys’ howlers believeable while readying, and when it comes to political characters shades of gray are distinctly missing. In addition, this one shows up Weber’s tendency to utopian thinking a bit too strongly to be plausible at the climax.

Still, if as a book At All Costs – the first attempt at a series finale – was better, by then the side stories were spiraling out of control: this one actually manages to put a cap on things. It does leave plenty of questions unanswered – let’s call them plot hooks – and I suspect the forthcoming volume will have plenty of cans of worms to open up, but the main set of problems has been dealt with.

If you’ve read the series but not this one, you’ll probably want to. (If you haven’t read the series yet, but want to, it’s quite long, not to say outsize, at this point. The first three books – On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, and The Short Victorious War are probably the best. The first two actually can be read as stand-alone novels, but the third invokes long-term plot arcs so if you get that far and you’re a completionist on these things… well, you can probably imagine.)

Vacc to School

Although it seems like schools just let out for the Summer, we’re more than halfway through the break. I’ll be starting orientation activities in four weeks – and I really don’t want to have to put that mask back on, let alone deal with any attempted re-institution of all those social distancing rules and online (or even “hybrid”) schooling protocols.

And there’s really no reason I – and at least the vast majority of other teachers and students – should. Even with the new variants, the vaccines seem to be pretty good.

In point of fact, my best estimate is that at the school where I teach the measures would already be completely unnecessary: vaccines were made available very early on to staff, students last year were on the whole eager to take their turn, and the school population is overall quite healthy – but if concerns about the coronavirus persist, I’m also quite sure the school administration will take steps – whether to provide a sense of security and solidarity, or merely to fend off any potential legal quibbling, I couldn’t quite say.

But the fact is that those conditions which justify avoiding further abnormal precautions at my school don’t quite apply yet a lot of places, and returning to normal isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense unless we all take steps to get back to normal. And the obvious step is to get your COVID vaccine if you haven’t yet. There are plenty of ways to find out where: here’s one that allows you to look anywhere in the US.

Here’s a quick summary. I don’t really have single sources for these: it’s a matter of stayng informed and following a bunch of reporting. If you’re really curious I can dig up some of the recent stories.

  • Take this thing seriously. We’ve seen in Italy, in weeks-long “spikes” especially in metropolitan areas, and now horrifically in India what can happen when this virus goes uncontrolled, especially in a high population-density area. And schools are pretty high-density during the day.
  • There are very minor health risks – most seem to be related to heart conditions – but if you know that might be at risk you probably already have a doctor who can confirm one way or another.
  • There are some moral concerns about how vaccines are developed – most commonly whether particular research uses (or builds on) cells procured by abortion – but even Roman Catholic moralists I’ve read (who tend to be the most cautious) have largely approved at least the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
  • With a large enough population, we’ve seen the vaccines aren’t perfect: but they clearly lower risk of infection, reduce the severity of illness if infection happens, and significantly reduces risk of further transmission. Yes, even with the variants.

I don’t even have a great idea who reads this thing any more, but I want to get this out there. A year and a half of these restrictions is enough when there’s no reason it should need to keep going: we’ve got the resources to stop it, but everybody has to take a part.

Vacation Reading

While on vacation, I tend to read other people’s books, rather than (or in addition to) the ones I actually brought with me. Some quick notes:

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – Hans Rookmaker, 1970
Rookmaker examines the explicit messages and implicit worldviews conveyed by painting in different styles. He also explores connections between artists’ expressed philosophy and their work. The latter is the most successful theme in the work, although I suspect that by focusing on artists he overstates the degree to which modernist etc. ideas were minority and even “hidden” opinions before mass media. The power of his thesis is hampered by two things: first, although he recognizes the focuses created by iconography and devotional art his defense of them as a Protestant is at best half-hearted; and second, he seems to me to have little love for his own Dutch tradition, suspecting it of already transitioning towards the modernity he distrusts. As a result he does not quite appear to have a role to give to beauty.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – Charles Haskins, 1927
Haskins’ work gives an overview of learning in the twelfth century. He details works made newly available in Europe through contact with the Byzantines, Arabs, and Moors, as well as outlining developments in education from monastery and cathedral schools and court establishments to the initial stages of the recognizeable university. Appears to be one of the earlier attempts to correct perceptions of the “backward” Middle Ages and extended “Dark Ages”.

Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought – David Fischer, 1970
Fisher theorizes that good arguments about history follow a logical structure, albeit one not (fully) captured by formal logics as developed for strictly verbal or mathematical proofs. This work attempts to discover those rules by illustrating failures of argument, organized around several themes. When it comes to stating theses, finding and analyzing data, and organizing formal arguments (as appropriate), it’s a very useful resourse. Fischer is a little hindered by his rejection of relativism while refusing to set a firm standard himself. He insists in introducing the work that he is interested in “fallacy” primarily in form and that the primary responsibility of a historian is to make his working premises clear – but later rejects several common and plausible sets of premises, mostly having to do with relating history to moral judgment, as themselves fallacious.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard, 1885
Probably the best known of Haggard’s books, at least in part due to the number of film adaptations. Also looks to me like an inspiration for significant parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A decent thriller marred for current reading by subservience to the racial theories of the day, it seems to me that its actual literary value will be difficult to judge without significantly more cultural distance from those particular errors. It’s worth noting that Haggard clearly felt something was wrong with the scheme, but also wasn’t going to challenge it: he uses “Negro” only a few times and explicitly rejects ruder forms, prefering descriptions of individuals to stereotypes (though ironically one suspects the success of this work set a few); and includes an African love interest for an English gentleman – though ultimately kills her (not him) off complete with a monologue about how it wouldn’t work out.

In Praise of Good Order

The following reflections are prompted by my recent vacation. I admittedly do not travel to new place a great deal: one of the results of living a good distance from family and older friends – to say nothing of the disruptive effects of our now-decling pandemic – is that time I have to travel typically is spent in visiting with those family and friends.

What struck me particularly in the past couple weeks is the fact that family does not sprawl. I don’t mean this geographically: my family is, for various reason, scattered now across the country and beyond. Although maybe I do mean it – I’ve never known or lost track of a number of extended family members I’ve never been able to meet easily. But family, practically, will mean those family members one does live and interact with: as distance of space or relation grows, a new family nucleus establishes itself – known parents, grandparents, and so on, interlocking with other families but not quite the same. Or, tragically, a person can find himself cut off from family – from interaction – by his own will or theirs.

But I noticed something odd, which I will represent with the symbol of each-his-own-car. Each family member is also a bundle of individual interests and – here is my question – these interests are today regularly (given sufficient wealth) unconstrained – if one can maintain a vehicle, one can go where one wants and do as one pleases. Religion, hobbies, purchases, leisure, fitness.

I don’t know that this is a bad thing – but the other odd thing is that to find these we scatter to the four winds and only later wind up back to the family center, the home. Life oriented on a home is good. But I find myself and see others reluctant to abide this natural if involuntary orientation to a shared center in the two other spheres of religion and civil society.

In the first case, the American church of course features its denominations, and it strikes me that even the Roman Catholic organization’s parishes are hardly held to definitively.

In the second, I have been struck by the number of people who resent jury duty; the lack of enthusiasm – I admit fault here myself – for open meetings of local government (to say nothing of the difficulty in finding such information, which seems not to be widely resented); the number of people who expect officials to fix everything for them; and a corresponding number (I’m more prone to this temptation) who don’t expect them to get anything done at all. As somebody pointed out to me recently, you tend to get what you expect, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that when it comes to any given problem it can seem that half the politicians don’t want to change a thing and the other half think micromanagement of behavior is the only solution.

The odd thing about these involuntary connections is that they indicate duties which need to be voluntarily assumed to be maintained. Even family can become virtual strangers through distance or abandonment; the other relationships seem even more vulnerable to neglect.

I don’t propose to explain the origin of our dissociation: it’s hard to tell the symptoms from the causes, and too tempting to blame modern phenomena. In broad strokes it’s easy to say something like: “Americans get hung up on “freedom” and don’t want to interfere, but family life tells us somebody has to watch the kids”. I have my theories, ranging from the Christian declaration that the fear of Lord is a necessary guidance to half-learned principles of good urban design to the thought that perhaps prioritized the concentrated over the distributed is not always wise.

But all I really want to do here is note the necessity of these natural but involuntary – as far as the facts of their existence and relation to individuals – structures and encourage you to participate in yours. We are, I think, very good at building order and community in what might be called “communities of interest” – a shared passion, skill, or hobby – but I suspect us at times of trying to replace the more important responsibilities to the common good of disparate peoples with attention to the easier-to-manage organization of the like-minded.

Review: The Rings of Saturn

I received an email notification yesterday that the due date for this book did not automatically renew – I suppose someone else had a hold on it – which bumped it up my reading list, though I still had plenty of time, given how quickly I read and that it’s Summer break right now. Yesterday evening I meant to read for a bit and then watch a movie: instead I finished the book.

The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn) is a recent (1995) masterpiece from German author W. G. Sebald. (The W. G. stands for Winfried Georg – one wonders what his friends call him but authors are entitled to initials in these circumstances.) I am not in a position to comment on the original but Michael Hulse’s translation work – although apparently supervised by Sebald himself – deserves commendation.

The work is framed by a trip – mainly walking – along the Suffolk coast, a year or so prior to the book’s publication. The sights and events of the trip serve as prompts for discursions on all manner of topics from herring fishing to Belgian colonialism. As nearly as I can tell, there are no fictions perpetrated, though the selection of facts is Sebald’s and to actually verify his accounts would require duplicating his research. The tone seems to owe much to Thomas Mann, although something indefineable makes me suspect Sebald was also familiar with Izaak Walton.

Like much of Mann’s writing, this is not a cheerful work. The overall effect is much like listeing to a sad old man yarn in a tavern. Sebald presents an occurrence of illness – apparently mental – as the impetus for beginning the book. With much of the other introductory material it is then dropped and never mentioned again, but melancholy – as his Victorian biographical subjects might have said – pervades the work. Those subjects seem also on reflection – although it does not obtrude often – to have been selected at least in part through some fascination on Sebald’s part with real or suspected homosexuality. As the account wanders on, dreams and dream-imagery, often bordering on nightmares, occur with increasing frequency. Even real happenings – assuming them actual – become odd: it is really quite strange as an American to find ghost towns (or the next thing to them) in Auld England.

But in fact, while evidently written with elaborate care, the end of the book is not quite satisfactory. The trip never quite wraps up; its events become confused in the narrative – as I said, this is clearly deliberate – with those of an earlier visit; the final digression as written evidently relates much more closely – as it touches on Germany itself – to Sebald’s own concerns than it does to the history of the area he has toured through, which is a marked departure from the majority of the book.

The work demands re-reading but not, perhaps, very soon. I find on proof-reading I have not even mentioned the work of Thomas Browne – another framing device which, apart from Browne’s interest in (and creation of) the fabulous I do not profess to understand.