Heaven and earth seem divided by a thin line at times, never closer to one another than in prayer. But in the Middle Ages, this border might dissolve, especially in the person of the king, for whom the spiritual implications of his person and actions ran deep. We might think briefly of the mythos surrounding Louis IX, or of the marvel of the King’s Touch to heal scrofula. But there existed in English jurisprudence a “theology of kingship,” asserted by the so-called Priests of Justice as early as the twelfth century, which proliferated to the continent over the next two centuries, a kind of royal Christology. The king was the representative of Christ, and as such, he became the divinely sanctioned center of medieval society. Political theory equated to political theology, and the king was “‘liturgical’ as a king because, and in so far as, he represented and ‘imitated’ the image of the living Christ.” Often, with the practice of primogeniture and buttressed by such political theology, medieval governments remained relatively stable institutions. But in fifteenth century England, the Plantagenet dynasty was anything but stable. The norms of succession were repeatedly challenged, and Parliament, though much more secure a body than that of the monarch in those turbulent years, did not have the divinely sanctioned authority as the image of Christ. Without the transcendent image of the king, upheld by the political theology of the church, society could not long hold together.
When Sir Thomas Malory completes his Le Morte D’arthur in 1470, it is the “ninth yere of the reygne of Kyng Edward the Fourth” (726.19-20:XXI.13). That same year the king is challenged by the previous monarch Henry VI viz. Margaret of Anjou, who were assisted by the opportunistic Earl of Warrick. Edward successfully defeats this challenge and is unquestionably reinstalled as king in April of 1471. By the time the Morte goes to press in 1485, the year of Bosworth Field and the first year of the Tudor dynasty, all prior claims appear to have dissipated; but England has had four kings, four rebellions and depositions, and four monarchs dead. A once unquestioned devotion to the divine right and to an ideology of chivalry has been deposed by self-interest and personal satisfaction. Justice, the preeminent virtue in the text’s purported ethical system, has been abandoned by all levels of English society.
It is in the midst of this upheaval that apocalyptic fears become more prominent. Apocalypticism, like political theology, holds as its highest aspirations the final establishment of justice. As a theory of history, it assumes the inevitable conclusion of time, asserting, in its medieval depictions at least, a providentialist direction. For the Middle Ages, during which people lived in a “more or less constant state of apocalyptic expectation difficult to understand for most of us today,” there was a cultural anticipation that the world could end at any moment. Writing in prison almost certainly because of his affiliation with the Lancastrian party, Malory superimposes over his text the issue of kingship reflected in the Wars of the Roses, for we observe that “when the Morte Darthur as a whole is compared with its sources, it shows an increased emphasis on the way in which the division of noble houses could ruin a kingdom.”
Malory is certainly not the only author to associate the death of Arthur with the End Times. Penn Szittya tells us that the Anglo-Normans would illuminate their Apocalypse manuscripts with pictures of Arthurian romances, and that the “association of romance and apocalypse, eschatology and knighthood, remains a prominent feature of the Arthurian tradition, both in literary works and in military orders like the Knights Templar.” Generations of writers, both English and continental, had styled Arthur as conqueror, as high king, as ruler of the greatest kingdom since Rome. Nearly all of them highlight his shortcomings, but only the Morte depicts him as a failed messiah who fails to save us from the End. Nor were the Wars of the Roses, or “The Cousins’ War” as it was popularly known at the time, thought merely a skirmish in the chronicles of English history, as this dynastic conflict carried its own apocalyptic connotations. No less a sensationalist than John Foxe includes this episode in his Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, complete with horrific devastation and a salvific figure:
After this victory obteined, the Northren men aduaūced not a litle in pride and courage, began to take vpon them greate attemptes, not onely to spoyle and robbe Churches, and religious houses, and villages, but also were fully entēded, partly by them selues, partly by the inducement of their Lordes and Captaines, to sacke, waste, and vtterly to subuert the Citie of London, and to take the spoyle therof: and no doubt (sayth my history) would haue proceded in their conceaued gredy intēt, had not þe oportune fauour of God prouided a spedy remedy. For as these mischieues were in bruing, sodeinly cōmeth þe noble Prince Edward vnto London, with a mighty army, the. xxvij. day of February, who was the sonne and heyre to the duke of Yorke aboue mēcioned, accōpanied with þe Earle of Warwicke, & diuers moe. Kyng Henry in the meane tyme, with his victorie, went vp to Yorke: when as Edward beyng at London, caused there to be proclaimed certaine articles concernyng his title to the crowne of Englād, whiche was the. 2. day of March (6.863-64).
The reality was not so dire as that. England had endured civil strife before; she would certainly do so again. But the fact that Foxe even includes the Wars of the Roses in his litany of martyrdom suggests the deeply religious connotations this conflict possessed. For here the doctrine of the divine right of kings was put to the test, as it would later be in 1648 in the English Civil War. It was believed in such a struggle that the nation could not survive, and perhaps even that these wicked times were but portents of a rising disaster: the final destruction of mankind. And while the Wars of the Roses was in fact a time of cataclysmic change, it appears in retrospect to signify a shift of smaller catastrophe but of no little significance: the apocalyptic finale of the Middle Ages.
To express more fully the urgency of his own apocalypse (Malory would die the year after he completes the Morte), and to better depict his angst regarding national apocalyptic justice, the author invests his heroic protagonist with the same notions of political theology, overlaid with a drama of messianic expectation. An apocalypse thus conceived asserts an eschatology of transformation rather than annihilation. While the orthodox reading of the End Times, reaching its fullest expression in St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, anticipated an eschatology of annihilation — the final translation of the faithful to heaven with the destruction of the cosmos — other readings look forward to a transformation of the heavens and the earth into a more Edenic state. A millenarian reading, popular in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, saw God’s plan unfolding, if not in the here-and-now, in the soon-to-be, with the righting of all wrongs in an ideal government.
Regardless of one’s personal eschatology, many would agree that Arthur’s story reverberates with the promise of divine kingship. His birth contains several parallels to that of Jesus of Nazareth, though with less holy purposes and no explicitly preordained mission. Malory’s readers would have already been familiar with the Arthurian origin tale, which had been re-told from dozens of authors from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Robert de Boron. Arthur’s father, the envious Uther, desires Igraine, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, claiming right over her as king. His unjust demands are contrasted by Igraine’s holiness, of whom it is said she “was a passyng good woman and wold not assente unto the kynge” (3.10-11:I.1). By no means a virgin, as she is already married, she nevertheless possesses the Christian virtue of chastity that puts her in company with Mary, the mother of Christ. Through the magical transformative powers of Merlin, Uther deceives her into thinking he is her husband and takes his claim. Uther seals this compact with the wizard, ironically swearing an oath on the Four Evangelists “as a true kyng enoynted” (4.27-30:I.2). Just as the Evangelists tell the story of the coming Messiah, so too Arthur’s birth and ascension are to be heralded by these same Evangelists, drawing the analogy between Arthur and Christ. Thus, Arthur is conceived, not immaculately but miraculously, to be echoed by Galahad’s similar birth years later. He is then taken into hiding, not unlike the story of the holy family’s flight into Egypt (Matt. 2:19-23). St. Matthew draws typologically on Jewish scripture and moves forward in time to demonstrate that Jesus is the antitype of Moses, complete with Egyptian upbringing, regal lineage, and escape into the wilderness; so too does the text treat Arthur as a Christ figure. All of the Christological parallels suggest we should read the future king as a kind of Christ in his second, though surely metaphorical, incarnation. At this stage, then, we may expect Arthur to complete the work of Christ, not in terms of salvation but in the militant conquest of his second coming.
For the unconvinced critic who might think these parallels stretching credulity, we should note that such allegorical readings were common in the Middle Ages. Dante’s critical analysis of the anagogical interpretation prescribes looking for glimpses of Christ in all texts. Such a view is also prevalent in Constantinian artistic portrayals. According to John Buckley, Constantine replaces his patron god Sol Invictus with Christ, compares himself to the Father and his son Crispus to the Son, intends to be baptized in the Jordan River like Jesus, and dies on Whit Sunday. At least in Roman conceptions of Christ, kings could look backward and see themselves as types of the salvific antitype. So, too, for medieval readers, Arthur’s similar origins to Jesus of Nazareth would have invested him with a nationalist messianism.
Though Uther formally chooses Arthur for his successor (12.1-7:I.4), Merlin does not reveal the boy, in all likelihood for his own protection. Yet years later he determines to settle this question of regal appointment through the test of the Sword in the Stone, demanding that all the lords of the realm come to London at Christmas
and for this cause, that Jesu, that was borne on that nyghte, that He wold of His grete mercy shewe some myracle, as He was come to be Kynge of mankynde, for to shewe somme myracle who shold be rightwys kynge of this reame” (7.19-22:I.5). As all the estates leave matins they find the mysterious sword with the inscription, “Whoso pulleth oute this swerd of this stone and anvyld is rightwys kynge borne of all En(g)lond” (7.34-36:I.5).
Arthur’s removal of the Sword is indeed remarkable but apparently not sufficient, so Arthur is required to pull the sword again at each feast of the liturgical cycle (New Years, Candlemas, and Easter) until Pentecost, the celebration of the establishment of the church and now the re-establishment of a politically strengthened England. This repetitive testing signifies a resistance of the ruling class to accept the young candidate. Assuming him the son of a poor knight, they would also assume him incapable of governing. For the gentry he represents the potential of social mobility for the lower classes and threatens their own viability as a distinct estate. Despite Arthur’s success, they will later reject the symbolic value inherent in his sword because of his “lowe blood” (11.21-22:I.8) and take up their own swords against him in rebellion. Curiously, it is in Malory’s version that the role of the commons is augmented. When the lords continually test Arthur and refuse to believe that a boy should rule over them, the commons cry out: “We wille have Arthur unto our kyng! We wille put hym no more in delay, for we all see that it is Goddes wille that he shalle be our kynge, and who that holdeth ageynst it we wille slee hym” (10.22-24:I.7). Though divinely ordained, Arthur is also democratically confirmed to lead England, “to be a true kyng, to stand with true justice fro thens forth the dayes of this lyfe” (10.30-31:I.7). He is both of royal blood and approved by the people. He is, therefore, an ideal leader: imbued with the allegedly innate ruling talents of the nobility, and a man who has been raised with the allegedly moral virtues of the commons. This synthesis creates “an image of solidarity of all the estates” and emphasises the “social contract between the king and his subjects.” Even more so, however, his festival extractions prove his ordination by God, with the expectation that he will fulfill an even higher mission.
Though his weapons always have magical associations in various iterations of Arthur’s story, the sword has an even larger symbolic power for Malory — of which there are three in the Morte — mystically arbitrating justice and recognizing just individuals. The Damsel of Avalon’s sword chooses the best knight, Balin, (39.33-34:II.2) and later settles on the Grail knight, Galahad (520:4-5:XIII.5). In both of its appearances, the Avalon sword serves to re-order society: the choice of Balin replaces Arthur as the man of greatest character, and the choice of Galahad replaces Lancelot as the greatest knight. There is, secondly, the Excalibur sword, which embodies national unity, and since both sword and sheath magically empower their wielders, its presence also implies divine protection on the realm. Arthur rides against the rebellion of the gentry, drawing Excalibur which was “so bryght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys, and therwith he put hem on bak and slewe moche peple” (12.43-13.1:I.9). But it is the sword in the stone that is most significant in this part of the tale in that it determines royal succession. Its powers extend beyond the mere ceremonial and symbolic since it can only be pulled by the rightful heir of all England. It, too, re-orders society, pacifying national insecurities through the establishment of political and moral justice. Combining the anthropological rites of kingship with Celtic magic and Christian political theology, the text illustrates that by drawing the sword, the king has been chosen by Christ as God’s representative of justice to the nation.
Arthur’s messianic connotations assert that his is to be a kingdom central to God’s plans and purposes for humanity. This first moment in Arthur’s reign will be a launching pad for the English national ethos, which, as we will see, will then spread outward to the rest of Europe, affecting the entire world. The rituals at Pentecost repeated every year remind us of the Christianization of the Jewish Pentecost, when St. Peter affirms fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:14-41). After this seminal moment in Jerusalem, Jewish believers then return to their homes and begin to carry this new teaching throughout the Roman world. Similarly, Pentecost also establishes Arthur’s kingdom and sets the tone for his reign. Though there are no flaming tongues of fire or miraculous visions — yet — his rise is surrounded by supernatural occurrences that can be attributed to a divine presence in his installment and as the culmination of salvation history. This divine appointment culminates in Arthur’s victorious effort to re-establish justice in the realm:
Also thenne he made alle lordes that helde of the croune to come in and to do servyce as they oughte to doo. And many complayntes were made unto sir Arthur of grete wronges that were done syn the dethe of kyng Uther, or many londes that were bereved lordes, knyghtes, ladyes, and gentilmen. Wherefore kynge Arthur maade the londes to be yeven ageyne unto them that oughte hem (16.24-30:I.7).
As representative of God’s justice, Arthur’s purpose is to restore the kingdom that has crumbled in his father’s absence. Not unlike the messianic arrival of the Year of Jubilee when everyone’s property was returned to their families (Lev. 25), Arthur is successfully re-ordering medieval society toward its ideal state. It is a purpose that, viewed in the context of Jubilee, is as moral as it is political.
Yet soon after his installment and reaffirmation as king, the Arthurian mythos begins to crumble. Arthur commits three major sins, which culminate in the prophecy that he will lose his kingdom. Hard against their rebellion, Arthur butchers King Lot’s men in an affront against the medieval virtue of chivalry. The zealous king earns a swift and damning rebuke from Merlin, who proclaims, “Thou hast never done. Hast thou nat done inow? Of three score thousande thys day hast thou leffte on lyve but fyftene thousand! Therefore hit ys tyme to sey ‘Who!’ for God ys wroth with the for thou woll never have done” (36.28-30:I.17; emphasis mine). The seer continues his condemnation immediately following with the warning that if the king persists, then God will assist Arthur’s enemies and help Lot to “encres” instead of Arthur (36.32-34:I.17).
The second sin, seemingly insignificant compared to the death of tens of thousands, has indelible implications for Arthur and for the realm as a whole. He sleeps with King Lot’s wife, who, unbeknownst to Arthur, is also his own sister Morgawse. Much like his father Uther fell prey to lust, so too does the son, and in his incontinence will beget Mordred. Merlin again alights from the shadows to condemn the young king’s actions:
ye have done a thynge late that God ys displesed with you, for ye have lyene by youre syster and on hir ye have gotyn a childe that shall destroy you and all the knyghtes of youre realme . . . for hit ys Goddis wylle that youre body sholde be punyssed for your fowle dedis (29.33-42:I.20).
Though Arthur commits the sin of incest unknowingly, the sin of adultery is still a blemish on his character. Given that a king has more to consider than his own personal pleasure, he must take into account what his relationships may imply for the whole of his kingdom. The result is that Arthur’s son, Mordred, will be the agent of his father’s destruction — and the destruction of the realm. If Arthur is to be viewed as a type of Christ, Mordred, then, becomes an Antichrist figure. He is simultaneously knight, nephew, and son to the king, an antithesis arising from Arthur’s own body.
Arthur refuses to accept Merlin’s prophecy, attempting to thwart the inevitable unfolding of history by trying to kill Mordred. This third sin is so despicable that Merlin, possibly frustrated by Arthur’s deafness to his warnings, allows the act itself to condemn Arthur. The king orders all the baby boys born on May Day executed, “for Merlyon tolde kynge Arthure that he sholde destroy hym and all the londe sholde be borne on May Day” (37.11-13:I.27). This diabolical order is reminiscent of the Biblical accounts of the Egyptian execution of the Hebrews and King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. In this act, Arthur divests his messianic connotations to take up a posture of evil, all in an attempt to fight the future that Merlin has predicted. It seems more appropriate that this slaughter occurs as a result of pride, a vainglorious assumption that the king may precede fate — and may therefore precede justice itself. Yet as a wielder of the sword of justice the king was considered to be
free from the ties and restrictions of the law just as he should be free from the fetters of sin He is, and acts as, a persona publica. And in that capacity he is expected to consider all issues with regard to the well-being of the res publica, and not with regard to his privata voluntas.
Such was the view of John of Salisbury in Policraticus, who considered the king legibus solutus because he is “expected to act on the basis of his innate sense of justice.” In other words, medieval theorists regarded the king not to be above the law but the embodiment of the law — and therefore subject to it. However, when Arthur slaughters the innocents he is acting out of a privata voluntas. His physical body takes precedent over the good of the body politic. Whereas the king is supposed to be the representative of Christ’s justice on earth, Arthur relinquishes this role to protect his own person and advance his own interests.
Yet all is not lost. To formally establish his rule, Arthur acquires the Round Table — and with it the hand of Guinevere. The image of the Table legitimizes his reign perhaps even more so than the sword in the stone, as it creates a picture of shared authority spread amongst his knights. The sword determines whom would rule, while the Table determines what kind of kingdom will be ruled. The Table creates a locus of leadership for his subjects, expressing Arthur’s idealism for this new world order of civil peace. This light of civilization finds expression when he imposes the Pentecostal Oath:
than the kynge stablysshed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys; and charged them never to do outerage nothir morthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, upon forfiture worship and lordship of kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allwayes to do laydes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes strenghte hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for no love ne for no worldis goodis. So unto thys were all knyghtis sworne of the Table Rounde, both olde and yonge, and every yere so were the sworne at the hyghe feste of Pentecoste (75.36-76.2:III.15).
All of the events in the narrative thus far have been looking forward to the climactic moment of the Pentecostal Oath. It is the imposition of order which reasserts Arthur’s messianic purpose. Far beyond simply re-establishing property rights, the Oath brings a new moral code to the realm. This code, which mirrors Christian ethical standards, becomes the social force that civilizes violent knights, instils sexual norms and mores in young ladies, and empowers kings to enact justice. It is an ideal that includes not just the aristocracy but protects every man and woman in all estates of society. It is a patrician belief system, which in Malory’s paradigm applies democratically to all people, encouraging them through an idealistic philosophy to develop the good in themselves and to work for the commonweal. Terence McCarthy believes that this interest in the polis encapsulates Malory’s value system, and his abiding concern for the future of England, when he states,
The commonweal is such a vital concern for Malory that it is impossible to err by paying too much attention to it. A knight cannot have too great a love for the community. The only loves which are immoderate and ‘oute of measure’ are loves at the private, essentially secondary, level. A king who neglected his public role for the sake of his private occupations would be guilty indeed.
Without this governing principle, each knight would exist only for himself; but with the Oath we see an ideal government beginning to take shape that will affect all the nations.
We similarly cannot underestimate the apocalyptic connotations that arise from the Round Table and Oath. Just as Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Spirit and the establishment of the Church, so, too, Arthur’s kingdom, when understood from this perspective, creates the expectation of the kingdom of heaven on earth. It is in the metaphorical nature of apocalypse wherein we recognize that ultimate “redemption expands outward from the national and interhistorical perspective to a cosmic and transhistorical one, with the coming messianic kingdom poised ambiguously between real time and eternity, just as the apocalyptic sage hovers between the terrestrial and the celestial realms.” Arthur’s messianism is cosmic as his kingdom becomes global, and his English values spread to the rest of the world. Because of the representational power of the Round Table, Arthur’s reputation and the reputation of his knights increase, to the degree that even foreigners give their allegiance to the king. In Malory’s conception, Camelot is not merely an exclusively English creation, but the center of a global community. Not only does it establish justice and impose a new order of morality, as an entity it reaches out to cover the entire earth, a messianic crescendo that reaches a fevered pitch in Arthur’s conquest of Rome.
When Lucius Hiberius unjustly demands tribute from Arthur, the king replies that he will, “by the rever of Rome holde Rounde Table” (115.30-31:V.2). In response to Lucius’ imperialist dictates, Arthur responds with equal force to protect his people: “Wherefore I command him and all them of Rome that incontinent they make to me their homage, and to acknowledge me for their Emperor and Governor, upon pain that shall ensue” (V.2; Caxton). This exchange is prominent in most Arthurian texts, yet most of them do not conclude with Arthur’s succession to the Roman Empire. Interestingly enough, this is the first literary instance where Arthur is successful in defeating Lucius and becomes emperor. In all other stories, he throws down the emperor but must quickly return home as Mordred has attempted a coup. But Malory’s purpose is to acknowledge Arthur’s messianic kingship first before later shattering the kingdom. His advance on Rome has some sacred connotations — we might even liken it to a pilgrimage. Incidentally, Arthur’s success achieves what first-century Jewish messianism never actualized: the defeat of Rome. Like for those early rebels, Arthur’s is a quest as religious as it is political. He orders his men not to defile themselves with women (243.10-14:V.12), foreshadowing the chastity ideal of the future Grail quest. He also “made lordes to rule tho londes & lawes as a lord ought to do in his owne countrey” (V.12, Caxton); not only is he expanding and consolidating his kingdom, but he is also replicating the principles of justice put forth at his coronation and in the Pentecostal Oath.
Arthur is promoting his conception of ideal government beyond England to extend throughout Christendom, in essence creating a world government like that expected in Christian millenarianism and transformationalist eschatology. His imperial crown is modeled upon his English one, and he accomplishes the restoration of justice in Rome that he does in Britain:
And at the day assigned, as the romaynes me tellys, he was crowned Emperour by the Poopys hondis, with all the royalté in the worlde to welde for ever. There they suggeourned that seson tyll aftir the tyme, and stabelysshed all the londys frome Rome unto Fraunce, and gaff londis and rentys unto knyghts that had hem well deserved. There was none that playned on his parte, ryche nothir poore (145:14-20:V.12).
Even the Roman senators carrying the Emperor’s message are in awe at the Camelot civilization:
And of all the soveraynes that we sawe ever he is the royallyst kynge that lyvyth on erthe, for we sawe on Newerys day at his Rounde Table nine kyngis, and the fayryst felyship of knyghtes ar with hym that durys on lyve, and thereto of wysedome and of fayre speche and all royalté they fayle of none (116.28-32:V.2).
The distribution of lands and the concord between rich and poor reasserts that Arthur is not self-aggrandizing or imperialistic but self-restraining and just. It may be Malory is intentionally channeling the idealized image of that great English hero Henry V, conqueror of France and father to Henry VI (whose own kingship is contested as Malory writes), and recalling the Pope’s coronation of Charlemagne.
Arthur’s military success evinces images of the Last World Emperor of medieval eschatology. The Last World Emperor is the penultimate monarch of the Holy Roman Empire who will establish a reign of peace and justice throughout the world before the rise of Antichrist. Because this myth was popularly disseminated in the fifteenth century (though it originated in the seventh century and began gaining traction in the literature in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), it makes sense that Arthur’s meteoric rise from high king of the British Isles to emperor over all Europe has some triumphant if not also haunting eschatological overtones. Medieval readers would have surely been aware of the apocalyptic context of Arthur’s conquest and coronation, which also meant they would have been expecting the subsequent appearance of Antichrist — a parallel role which Mordred fills nicely. Arthur’s imperial title signifies to his people that this victory is the end of war and national conflict: “Blessed by God, your war is finished and your conquest achieved, in so much as we know none so great nor mighty that dare make war against you” (V.12; Caxton). According to the eschatological timeline, this last emperor is predicted to lead the armies of Christ to destroy Antichrist and usher in the End, achieving a transformation of the earth and hastening the parousia for a millennial reign. Everything, therefore, points to a predictive unfolding of apocalyptic events in Arthur’s future.
Yet the remainder of the Morte and the majority of the book focuses not on Arthur but on the knights of Round Table. From the Book of Sir Tristram, filled with tales of infighting and adultery, to the Grail Quest, grudgingly accepted by the king when pressed against the wall by Galahad, it is Arthur’s agents, not Arthur himself, who take center stage. Because of the events of the Dolorous Stroke, the kingdom has been slowly decaying, and a spiritual malaise is evident in the immorality and infighting of the knights. Strangely, Arthur has no desire to repair the damage done to his realm, in spite of the miraculous vision and the prophetic appearance of Galahad. Having failed to draw the Grail sword from the stone, Gawain makes his rash vow not to return until he has found the Sangreal (522.10-22:XIII.7). This oath evokes great despair from Arthur, who is more concerned with losing his fellowship than achieving a relic (522.32-35:XIII.8). Arthur is right, it seems, to fear the outcome of the Grail quest because, like in The Saga of the Mantle, he knows the spiritual shallowness of his court. But he also completely misses the Grail’s spiritual and material blessings for his kingdom. Because Arthur does not seem to consider the quest crucial, neither he nor they can undertake it with the necessary devotion. And yet it is crucial: the Grail quest serves as a spiritual counterpart to the secular chivalry of the Roman conquest, without which neither can be complete. Thus, only a knight from outside the fellowship, Sir Galahad, can complete it because he has not tainted himself with the weaknesses of the fellowship. The Grail quest is the opportunity for Arthur and his knights to belay the prophecies of destruction and halt a destined doom by emphasizing those spiritual qualities that are demanded by a spiritual quest. Their failure, which represents a significant failure to redress previous sins, ensures the fracturing of the Table.
Yet it is Lancelot’s love “oute of mesure” that will finally destroy Camelot. He chooses ‘to resorte unto quene Gweivere agayne and forgate the promyse and the perfeccion that he made in the queste’ (1045.10-12:XVIII.1). In the Grail quest he achieves a spiritual renewal and perfection through suffering and expiation, but he loses sight of his duty to his lord and to the Table when he chooses to regress to his own individual desires. His lack of control breeds jealousy and infighting — specifically Mordred’s lust for Guinevere and for the throne, and Agravaine’s hatred of the queen and her knight. Then, in retribution for the death of his brother, Gareth, Gawain successfully turns Arthur against Lancelot. The lex talionis has proven victorious over the Pentecostal Oath, and the king hunts his favorite knight all the way to France. During this time, Mordred takes the opportunity to attempt a coup of the kingdom, including pursuing Guinevere’s hand in marriage. Readers will be reminded that not only are Mordred’s actions treasonous, but they also continue the deplorable cycle of incest begun by Arthur himself. His morally reprehensible actions are a mythological throwback to hierogamy, an ancient Celtic concept of the sacred marriage and sexual union of the king with the goddess Sovereignty, and they are also paralleled in Absalom’s public desecration of his father David’s harem (2 Sam. 16:21-22). Yet his desire for the queen is not motivated solely by lust and an anthropological urge; it is also a political move designed to legitimize his claim. Herein we see the eschatological timeline taking shape as we witness the events of the English apocalypse unfolding. For Mordred’s usurpation parallels the prophetic fulfillment of St Paul’s claims about the Son of Perdition, who tries to take control of a heavenly ordained government. If Arthur is presumed to be a Last World Emperor and messianic figure, then Mordred’s rebellion is a precursor to Doomsday. The English, the very subjects who assented to Arthur’s rule years prior, are now all too ready to accept Mordred’s rule, provoking a stern rebuke from the narrator:
Lo ye all Englyshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshyp of noble knyghtes, and by hym they all were upholdyn, and yet myght nat thes Englyshemen holde them contente with hym. Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe, and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom. Alas! Thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme (708.34-41:XXI.1).
The narrator’s address to “all Englysshemen” regarding the treachery of Mordred and the peoples’ willingness to follow him is a direct attack on the fickle nature of their political passions and an assault on the decidedly English trait of infidelity towards monarchs. In these words we can almost hear the fifteenth-century echo of the opening of Parliament on November 26, 1469, when Henry VI is reinstalled, and the Archbishop begins the proceedings with a sermon from Jeremiah 3:14, stating “‘Return, O backsliding children,’ saith the Lord.” While medieval theory argued that “an attack against the king’s natural person was, at the same time, an attack against the body corporate of the realm,” this realm welcomes the new body of the king, reversing the original assent of the commons at Arthur’s coronation (16.12-15:I.7). This assertion of the sovereign will may make the treachery seem more acceptable, but certainly no less ironic, since Mordred makes up part of the king’s corporate body (as a Knight of the Table) and part of the king’s physical body (being both nephew and son). He even becomes essentially another Arthur, as he is “the personification of private sin disrupting the public life.”
Though some like Barbara Nolan believe that there is no overarching paradigm to the text, neither Christian nor Aristotelian, and as such the characters succumb to forces beyond their control, C. David Benson claims that “To consider the fall of the Round Table as a series of unhappy accidents that might well have been avoided is to diminish Malory’s tragic vision.” Arthur’s abdication of his role as justiciar makes him both responsible and deserving of the disastrous consequences that turn the world upside-down. He claims he must be a “ryghtfull juge” when Guinevere is accused of murder by Sir Mador (614.28:XVIII.4), yet he turns against Lancelot on nothing but a rumor, telling Gawain, “as hit ys sayde, sir Launcelot slew them in the thyk prees and knew them nat. And therefore lat us shape a remedy for to revenge their dethys” (686.41-43:XX.10). Arthur, far from his former messianic image, becomes a type of Saul hunting David, while Lancelot, true to his ideal, refuses to raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed — unless, of course, Arthur should try to hurt Guinevere.
This inversion results in the apocalyptic conclusion of Camelot. The Last World Emperor is deposed by Antichrist. Sir Lucan stylizes this apocalypse the “wicked day of Desteny” (713.40:XXI.4) for never “was thee seyne a more dolefuller batalyle in no Crysten londe” (713.7-8:XXI.4). For in addition to undermining his own royal purposes, it would appear that cosmic forces are arrayed against the king — including, for example, his dream of being surrounded by snakes as prelude to his vision of Sir Gawain from the grave (711.19-712.11:XXI.3) and the inconvenient serpent that bites a knight’s foot and sparks the battle (712.43-713.6:XXI.4). Each of these events demonstrates the higher workings of metaphysical forces on the battlefield. Christ’s supernatural agents have abandoned Arthur, it would seem, in his fight against the Dragon and his agents. There is possibly no stronger symbolism, however, than the joining of Arthur and Mordred on the king’s spear.
And whan sir Mordred felte that he had hys dethys wounde he threste hymselff with the myght that he had upp to the butte of kyng Arthurs speare, and right so he smote hys fadir, kynge Arthure, with hys swerde holdynge in both hys hondys, upon the syde of the hede, that the swerde perced the helmet and the tay of the brayne. And therewith Mordred daysshed downe starke dede to the earth (714.7-13:XXI.4).
Though neither character is fully good nor fully evil, they separate into these two dichotomies momentarily before joining together. The division of Arthur into father/king and son/knight that began with Arthur’s incestuous sin, and the concomitant fissure of his kingdom, are finally healed — though simultaneously destroyed — in the mutual death of these two dynamic vectors.
Arthur does indeed defeat Antichrist, but not without a mortal cost. All but a handful of the Round Table knights are defeated and “an hondred thousand leyde dede upon the erthe. Than was kynge Arthure wode wroth oute of mesure, whan he saw hys people so slayne frome hym” (713.16-18:XXI.4). Even Arthur suffers their fate, and as he lies dying, commoners strip the dead of their possessions like vultures on an animal carcass, which is “a signifier of aristocratic crisis . . . a failure to project a future.” Indeed, there is no future for Camelot. Whereas the commons previously served to support the new king, as society falls apart, they fight over the remnants of a dying civilization.
This tragic coda reaches a crescendo when Bedivere, the last witness to see Arthur alive, is charged with casting off Excalibur, the enduring image of Arthurian greatness. At first Bedivere resists and cannot bring himself to do so; he plays out the heart-rending drama three times before casting the instrument of God’s justice into the depths of the lake. In his first attempt he refuses to relinquish the sword because of its gold and precious stones, the second because to do so would be “synne and hame” (715.28:XXI.5); his first trial is a temptation of wealth, but the second seems to be a nostalgic plea to hang on to one final reminiscence of the past. Though he ultimately obeys Arthur’s command, and the Lady in the Lake takes Excalibur down under the waves forever, Bedivere recognizes that this apocalypse — the deaths of the knights, the demise of the king, and the loss of the sword — is the end of hope.
Whereas most authors covering the king’s death suggest the prophetic possibility of the Breton Hope, the restoration of Britain’s glory through a re-embodied Arthur, Malory’s text grants little to no expectation. Prior iterations of the legend, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Layamon, intimate that Arthur does not truly die — or, if he does die, will experience a resurrection and return to reign. The text anticipates our hopeful prospects in the king’s miraculous return, not unlike his mystical birth, but refuses to let us indulge them. The ladies who escort Arthur to Avalon are weeping and shrieking, which does not suggest Arthur is going to be healed from his grievous wound. Sir Bedivere is convinced that Arthur was buried in the chapel and not taken to Avalon (1241.20-21:XXI.6). The strongest evidence in favor of a majestic return is the “mysterious Latin inscription — ‘rex quondam rexque futurus’ — promises transcendence for the hero” but it is an epigraph on a tomb with “the status of hearsay, just as others ‘say’ that Arthur will return for a crusade.” The text defies the imposition of meaning, and it dismisses loftier, supernatural claims of another advent. A crusade, as purposeless as it is anachronistic, will not redeem Camelot nor return her to former splendour. There is no savior, no deus ex machina to reinvigorate the narrative and complete the story. Silence, it seems, would have the final word.
But perhaps the strongest words are in the authoritative voice of Arthur himself: “for in me ys no truste for to truste in” (716.24:XXI.5). In pronouncing this final judgment, Arthur rejects himself as the English embodiment of the eschatological expectation. Even though he may have been formerly fully committed to this hope, he confirms that expectation in the Round Table, of which he is the symbolic embodiment, is ultimately empty and foolish. This ambivalence surrounding Arthur’s return highlights the text’s disillusionment not only with the Breton Hope but, in a larger sense, with the Britain Hope. The imprisoned author dies in the middle of a thirty-year war, sixteen years before it resolves. Having spent a great deal of that time as a casualty of politics, Malory himself probably held little optimism of a resurgence of British greatness. Arthur, like England herself, rejects the chivalric code that makes him great, destroying the civilization he created. Thus, the image of the ideal king is finally fractured, as is England’s desire for political reconciliation. Camelot, like England, fades into obscurity.
Apocalypse is therefore realized, not in the triumph of the church militant or in the establishment of an eternal kingdom, but in the end of all things. History surely has a conclusion: the approaching tide of destruction. For the Morte, this destruction is both personal and universal: the end of our lives and the end of our way of life. Understanding the rhyming revolutions of history, we can watch the changing of the seasons and anticipate when our own time will come. In this way we can find the moral improvement William Caxton promises in the Preface when he labels the Morte a book in which
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 renomme (xv).
Caxton also preempts the reader’s assumptions of Arthurian lore, laying his interpretive narrative upon the text and marketing it as a book of virtue. Perhaps he is merely trying to salvage from Malory’s tragedy divine enlightenment. But this didacticism does not strictly appear to be Malory’s only purpose. He imagines the end not simply to confirm moral truth; he imagines the end because he is facing the end. And not only is he facing his destruction, he sees also that personal catastrophe reflected in England’s own. Asking himself what exists beyond the end, he sees national majesty degraded to insignificance, unfulfilled passion transformed into ambivalence, glory turned into gloom, salvation to hopeless resignation. What he sees, finally, is emptiness, where heaven and earth both dissolve into nothing, where the world ends with a bang rather than a whimper. And perhaps emptiness is the most apocalyptic tone of all.
Johua S. Fullman, “Malory’s Apocalyptic Vision,” An Unexpected Journal: King Arthur Legendarium 6, no. 2. (Summer 2023), 138-167.
Ibid., 87. This view was inherited from Jewish conceptions of Messiah (which themselves go back to earlier models of the “magic or divine king,” as for rabbinic messianism Moses is, according to Windengren, “the ideal model of the Israelitic ruler, uniting in his person the three offices of the Israelitic king, priest and prophet, and thus being the pattern of the sacral kingship in Israel.’” See Buckley, John. “A Note on the Kingship of Christ.” Folklore 66:4 (Dec, 1955), 410.
Citations for Le Morte will be referenced according to scholarly convention in Malory studies. The first page and line numbers come from the Winchester manuscript, supplied by Eugene Vinaver; the second set with Roman and Arabic numerals are William Caxton’s book and chapter division.
We will take as our assumption the conclusions of P.J.C. Field (The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. D.S. Brewer, 1993), who narrows down the possible contenders for Malorian authorship to a Warwickshire knight convicted first for rape and then for supporting the Lancastrians before the Yorkists came to power.
See, for instance Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Revised and Expanded Edition (New York: Oxford UP, 1970). Cohn identifies transients and out-groups as being especially vulnerable to millenarian expectations, as they are often eager for apocalyptic fulfillment through societal revolution.
Il Convivio (2.1). Though he is not the first to develop this reading, Dante’s articulation of the fourfold method of exegesis (the Quadriga) is probably the most widely known. Similar readings are explained in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1.Q1.A10), St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (2.4), and earlier church fathers. See also Dante’s “Letter to Can Grande della Scalla,” The Latin Works of Dante (London, 1934), 347-348.
Malory would have been very aware of the problems surrounding child kings: Henry VI was only nine months old when he inherited the throne, and though his reign was never contested at birth, his youthful inexperience may have impacted the effectiveness of his governance, which was a matter of future dissension.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that the Day of Judgment “will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship (2 Thess. 2:3). Tertullian connects this passage directly to Antichrist in his treatise, On the Resurrection of the Body.
Properly recognizing himself as a defender of justice, he must maintain justice even if it is against his queen: “for favoure, love, nother affinité there sholde be none other but ryghtuous jugemente, as well uppon a kynge as uppon a knyght, and as well uppon a quene as uppon another poure lady” (618.8-11:XVIII.6).