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REVIEWS Dorsey Armstrong. Gender and the Chivalric Community in Malory’s ‘‘Morte d’Arthur.’’ Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. Pp. viii, 272. $59.95. This spirited and engaged account of Malory’s Morte highlights the importance of the Pentecostal Oath as a chivalric code, one that Malory produces in reaction to ‘‘the trouble of his day’’ and that ‘‘unintentional (ly)’’ institutionalizes ‘‘a particular ideal of gender relations,’’ only for its fulfillment to hasten Arthurian society’s downfall (p. 7). Armstrong offers a vigorous reading of how gender, community, and chivalric identity interact in the Morte, and traces how such concerns shape and give coherence to the narrative as a whole. Crucial to the argument is how the Arthurian knight both defines himself against and depends on a particular construction of the female as passive in complement to his own aggressive behavior. In successive chapters, Armstrong draws adroitly on literary theory to outline the effect of masculine and feminine as mutually defining and sustaining positions in the Morte, from the episode of Arthur’s campaign against Lucius, through assessments of knighthood as performative, to the Sankgreal as a ‘‘critique’’ of chivalric values, and the final catastrophe (although one might want to modify the argument that the exercise of gender relations per se is ‘‘progressively degenerative’’ [p. 24] in the Morte). In discussion, the Pentecostal Oath takes on a double function; it clearly reveals the failings of the society that produced it and that it produces, for the ‘‘stability of identity’’ it promises in codifying female and male roles is exposed as fictive in its disregard for the crucial role the feminine plays in masculine identity (p. 37), and while an inflexible gender model is imperative to maintaining the Arthurian order, adherence to it ultimately spells disaster for the community. At the same time, the Oath offers a guide to chivalric behavior, and the actions of women deemed to transgress its rule are also said to ruin the chivalric community while simultaneously exposing its inherent weakness as a social model. The tension in interpretation here seems to arise from the contradictions of Malory’s narrative, which continually demonstrates an apparent lack of self-awareness coupled with a knowing anxiety over, PAGE 289 289 ................. 11491$ CH13 11-01-10 14:02:21 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER and constant revision of, its own procedures. Armstrong is highly sensitive to the inadequacies of a restrictive binarism in considering gender in Malory, and yet local readings risk presenting women’s autonomy primarily in the terms of a masculine anxiety traditional to chivalric romance, as though the thinking behind the Oath’s prescriptions has sometimes leached into the act of critical reading. The suggestion that it is Morgause’s unruly volition that produces Mordred as monstrous (p. 54) is a somewhat disturbing case in point; the text itself does not condemn Morgause in these terms, and while the narrative may, of course, generally displace onto women problems that male chivalric behavior has generated, this reading homogenizes constructions of gender at a point where causation is most ambiguous and contested. If the Pentecostal Oath is the Morte’s ‘‘master signifier’’ (p. 28), it might be more productive to consider Mordred’s career in the light of the Oath’s astonishing conceptualization of, and inadequate provision for, ‘‘treson.’’ Similarly, the assertion that Guinevere ‘‘should be held responsible’’ for Lancelot’s actions at the end of the Morte, because ‘‘What Arthur seems to understand at long last is that the masculine project of chivalry is really nothing more than knights acting in accordance with the wishes of ladies’’ (p. 191), registers a specific power for the feminine as regards the action, but fails to address how the notuncommon knightly disavowing (and anti-Oath) defense of killing on the grounds of obedience to women demands, by this point, consideration within the general breakdown in the rule of law and of social relations. And richly comic as is the idea that Morgan and her fellow queens engage in sexual mischief in the absence of a handbook to instruct them in proper behavior (p. 98), it does not explain why and how Morgan is so much more complex a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 289-291
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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