For admirers of Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies, the myth of King Arthur has an irresistible appeal.1 Arthur's identity as rex quondam rexque futurus resonates with Kantorowicz's analysis of the theological character of early modern royal succession, whereby the death of a king (the body natural) is a recurrent episode in the metaphysical life of sovereignty (the body politic). Scholars have identified this juridical insistence on the sempiternity of the sovereign in late medieval incarnations of a King Arthur who never dies or dies and returns in messianic fashion.2 Yet, as Giorgio Agamben points out, Kantorowicz fails to acknowledge the absolutist nature of sovereignty that this political theology entails. Rather than merely perpetuate the dignitas of the kingship, Agamben suggests that "the metaphor of the political body appears . . . as the cipher of the absolute and inhuman character [End Page 295] of sovereignty."3 In other words, the expense of the principle le roi ne meurt jamais is the evacuation of value from human life. By mitigating the impact of a king's death on the political body, sovereignty is simultaneously maintained and dehumanized. In this light, Arthur's legendary sempiternity is demystified as a trace of premodern statecraft.
Optimism about Arthur's return abounds in most Arthurian texts, but resistance to such political theology can be found in the early fifteenth-century alliterative Morte Arthure, an intimate portrayal of Arthur as a prideful sovereign. Critics have acknowledged the poem's ambivalence about war, but most have read its critiques of militaristic overreaching solely in contrast to the poem's primary sources, namely, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britannie and its vernacular translations. The influence of the Galfridian tradition upon this poem must be considered, since it is the basis for the poem's narrative content and structure, but Geoffrey's enthusiasm about the translation of empire from Troy to Rome to Britain runs counter to the Morte-poet's morbid dispossession of Arthur's imperial inheritance.4
Arthur is the natural symbol of sovereignty in the poem by virtue of his intention to reverse the track of translatio imperii and reclaim his Roman heritage. The origin of empire ironically becomes the coveted object of empire by Arthur, who seeks to establish an empire larger and more powerful than that of the Romans by obliterating his imperial [End Page 296] predecessor, thereby establishing a paradoxical desire of Britain to be and not to be Rome. This attempted reclamation of an imperial origin not only inspires self-destruction but also signifies a recurrent inability to obliterate a spirit of tyranny that runs throughout the poem. The label of "tyraunt" is transferred explicitly from the Roman emperor Lucius and his legions (271, 824) to the Giant of St. Michael's Mount (842, 878, 991) and implicitly to Arthur himself.5 Just as the Giant's tyranny "tourmentez" (842) people and causes the old widow to mourn the death of the Duchess of Brittany by "wryngande hir handez" (950), Arthur's destruction of Tuscany "turmentez þe pople" (3153) and transforms wives into widows who "wryngene theire handis" (3155). Instead of preserving the dignitas of the king, it is as if the greed of the tyrant never dies—when a tyrant is killed, his avaricious spirit fills a new body in the manner of the Virgilian transmigration of souls. As soon as Arthur kills the Giant of St. Michael's Mount, he becomes the Giant—as soon as he defeats the Roman emperor Lucius, he becomes a British "emperor."6 Rather than promulgate such translations of empire, this poem denounces assertions of authority as translations of tyranny. Translatio imperii becomes translatio tyrannidis.
I want to suggest that the poem achieves this macabre message—tyrannus non moritur—primarily through an unstable system of chivalric machinery: the art of heraldry. Alliterative romance is replete with heraldic assertions of nobility, but the Morte Arthure is unique in its necrologic interpretation of such chivalric devices. Rather than simply commemorate the deeds of ancestors and confirm the noble blood of the bearers, the heraldic signs of this poem operate as visual necrologies, or lists of the dead. Just as monks...