Monday, 12 February 2018

Le Morte d'Arthur

Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte d'Arthur volume one (1485)
I spent two whole weeks on this one and still only made it to Book VIII, and that's of the nine books assembled in this collection, which is only the first volume. I really don't like giving up on a book, and it's not something I do very often, but considering all of the things I could read from which I might get something, there simply didn't seem to be much point forcing myself. It's not that I found Le Morte d'Arthur impenetrable, because I've read and enjoyed plenty of material of similar vintage. It's not even that it was necessarily either boring or completely lacking anything I found interesting.

That said, I've never been particularly gripped by Arthurian legend in a general sense, at least not until Philip Purser-Hallard's Devices trilogy. Prior to that, it made for a decent Monty Python film but was otherwise - so far as I'm concerned - just one of those things upon which hippies and new age types tended to fixate, and usually the very worst kind of hippie or new age type. I'm thinking here of a specific individual, author of all sorts of dubious Shamanic material with a particular interest in Camelot last seen ranting about how them muzzies are killing our kids but we ain't even allowed to say nuffink because of political correctness innit. What a lovely day that wasn't.

Philip Purser-Hallard convinced me there was something interesting there, so I began working my way backwards. I didn't really get on too well with The Once and Future King, and so assumed I probably needed to go right back to the source. Anyway, it turns out that even Le Morte d'Arthur isn't it, but is rather a number of earlier vaguely related works retold and welded together by someone who lived very near where my father grew up five hundred years or so later.

As I got started, I began to wonder how much of this material might be historical, because it has the feel of something historical. Page after page of knights engaging with other knights reminded me of similarly repetitive passages in Mexican texts of roughly the same era, culturally speaking, and equivalent scraps in their texts tend to serve as metaphor for broader dynastic or regional conflict. Along similar lines, the passage describing competition between opponents identified only as a green, red, or black knight suggested a symbolic record of something which may actually have happened; but whatever the case may be, a quick pog at J.R. Green's A Short History of the English People convinced me of Arthur's entirely mythical composition, there being very few corners of the historical record into which one might shoehorn all that stuff about Camelot. So page after page after fucking page of lists of knights scrapping was presumably written for an audience who enjoy page after page after fucking page of lists of knights scrapping.

Certain passages hold the attention, whereas others tend towards repetitive examples of chivalry, swearing of oaths, loyalty, true love, breasts heaving with admiration for something of a generally chivalrous nature; and I am reliably informed that there are jokes in this text, but I'm fucked if I was able to spot any. What with all the noble brows held aloft and swearing fealty to someone a bit kingy, reading this was like listening to an early Laibach album with a playing time of two weeks; and so I suspect this sort of thing may be what Cervantes was taking the piss out of when he wrote Don Quixote. I suppose it might be said that I'm simply too thick to appreciate Malory, but fuck you - I breezed through the two volume Oklahoma edition of Codex Chimalpahin without breaking a sweat, and I really think this one is just a bit of a dud unless you have some hardcore investment in the subject.

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