- The Arthurian Way of Death: The English Tradition
Arthur studies is a fascinating field in part for the range of material it can include and the range of audiences it can attract. To study an Arthur story is almost inevitably to study the story as an intertext. The intertextuality of an Arthuriad—whether a history, a romance, or some combination of the two—brings out the embedded assumptions of a historical period perhaps more distinctly than any other set of intertexts, as arguably no other storyline is more hybridized and diverse but yet prescriptive than the Arthur one. One felicitous byproduct of Karen Cherewatuk and K. S. Whetter’s collection of essays on Arthur is that we can clearly see dramatic shifts in cultural and political values taking place over time. By focusing the collection on the representation of death in Arthurian legend, the editors have provided a neat historical survey on attitudes toward killing and violence, war and crime, leadership and chivalry, nobility and heroism, sin and guilt, God and mystery, storytelling and the function of legend, and strangely, in a word, life. From chronicle to romance, from one century to the next, the manner of Arthur’s death, or the death of one of his knights, reveals how life is valued at a given time. More likely to be read by scholars interested only in individual chapters, the collection as a whole nonetheless singles out some of the most revealing moments in Arthur storytelling—the death scenes or indeed their absence—not only to remind us of the continuously central role death plays in Arthuriana and indeed in history but also to stress the discontinuity of history. [End Page 213]
The collection is divided into three parts: early Arthur stories, Malory and Middle-English romances, and modern Arthuriana. Si–n Echard’s thoroughly convincing essay, “‘But here Geoffrey falls silent’: Death, Arthur, and the Historia regum Britannie,” begins the collection with an examination of battlefield prowess in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum. Echard deftly distinguishes the language used to describe the deaths of early British leaders killed in warfare and the language surrounding Arthur’s death. She can stress from this close reading of death scenes the tenuousness of Geoffrey’s generic balance between a muted romance and cold, implacable history. The second essay is Edward Donald Kennedy’s “Mordred’s Sons.” Kennedy compares Geoffrey’s initial addition of Mordred’s two sons to the story of Arthur, and its political implications, to subsequent versions of Arthur stories featuring Mordred’s sons. Looking at the various uses of the sons’ death—in Geoffrey’s Historia regum, after the sons are killed by Constantine in a church, God metes out appropriate punishment and in later versions, generally speaking, good is divided from evil when the killings of the sons is unambiguously represented as justified—Kennedy traces the political and national implications of this Arthuriad. The final essay in this section, Karen Cherewatuk’s “Dying in Uncle Arthur’s Arms and at his Hands,” examines the alliterative Morte Arthure. Cherewatuk’s paper begins with a study of the uncle-sons relationships (Arthur, Gawain, Mordred) in the Historia regum, in Wace’s Roman de Brut, and Laʒamon’s Brut, all of which relate Mordred’s betrayal to the fall of Arthur’s reign, and then compares those to the alliterative Morte, which complicates, according to Cherewatuk, the moral of this storyline, making it much more ideologically indefinite than its predecessors.
Part two of the collection is devoted to Middle-English romances and especially Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Michael W. Twomey’s opening essay in the section, “‘Hadet with an aluisch mon’ and ‘britned to noʒt’: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Death, and the Devil,” is a striking retraction of an early argument he made about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here Twomey argues that the new but now commonplace reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—that Gawain lacks spirituality or true faith—fails to recognize...