Remember Me: Memorializing Complex Events on Tombstones in Malory

As I read the section in Morte Darthur titled “The Poisoned Apple” in Book VII, The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, I was surprised at the lengthy description of the text written on Sir Patryse’s tomb:

Than was sir Patryse buryed in the chirche of Westemynster in a twombe, and thereuppon was wrytten: Here lyeth sir Patryse of Irelonde, slayne by sir Pynell le Saveaige that enpoysynde appelis to have slayne sir Gawayne, and by myssefortune sir Patryse ete one of the applis, and than suddeynly he braste. Also there was wrytyn uppon the tombe that quene Gwenyvere was appeled of treson of the deth of sir Patryse by sir Madore de la Porte, and there was made the mencion how sir Launcelot fought with hym for quene Gwenyvere and overcom hym in playne batayle. All thys was wretyn uppon the tombe of sir Patryse in excusyng of the quene.

My first thought was: wow, that must have been a pretty big tombstone.

But then I thought how interesting it is that on this man’s tomb (which is probably a lot larger than the gravestone I originally imagined), the main part of the story memorialized here has nothing to do with him. He is an unfortunate casualty of a plot to kill and blame others, and in fact the point of the text, as Malory writes at the end, was “in excusyng of the quene.”

The only part of the text that Malory cites directly is the sentence directly concerning Patryse, and the rest detailing the accusation and vindication of the queen is summarized. That in itself is a point worth investigating. But here I’m going to muse on a few other points.

Kenneth Tiller, in “En-graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burial, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s Tale of King Arthur,” explains that tombs are used in Malory as spaces to encode chivalry and to make sense, especially in Book I, of the chaotic events, and that at times these inscriptions are used as tools of revisionist history. He cites Balin’s tomb, which “rewrites the history of a bloody-handed and fratricidal warrior into one of an admirable and ‘chivalric’ knight” (39).

In the case of Sir Patryse, the history being recorded is an attempt to clear the name of the queen, who had been accused of treason and murder. It seems not to be revisionist history, because the events recorded on the tomb reflect exactly the events Malory has given us just before this.

Where things got interesting for me was when I read another section for this week’s seminar, “Slander and Strife” in The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur Saunz Guerdon. This week’s seminar is focusing in part on trial by combat, but this episode does not have the same structured trial by combat as the other two we read for today (“The Poisoned Apple” and “The Knight of the Cart”).

Lancelot fights, wounds, and kills the knights who attempt to catch him in the act of adultery with the queen, but it’s more of a desperate attempt to evade capture than a fight of honor, and it proves nothing anyway – Guinevere is still sentenced to death, still accused of treason.

Another article we read for today, E. Kay Harris’s “Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination,” changed my view of things a bit. (I wrote the title of this post before reading Harris’s essay, and I’m not actually talking about that anymore, but I like the title, so it stays.)

Harris uses the concept of treason by imagination, as used to define the act of treason in a 1352 statute. In this framework, a person could be accused and convicted of treason if there is proof that he imagined the death of the king. How to prove imagination? Words, Harris explains. A thief can be convicted when he is caught with the stolen goods, the physical evidence of the crime, and a traitor can be convicted when he is caught with treasonous words, the physical evidence of the crime.

So words in this case are physical.

Harris says that the constant “noyse” of the knights as they accuse Lancelot as he is in the queen’s chambers stands, in this model, as proof of Lancelot’s crime of treason. Once the words have been spoken in accusation, the statute and its subsequent interpretations meant that this accusation itself could stand as actual evidence of the crime.

Malory deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Lancelot did sleep with the queen, a point many have addressed, including Harris in this essay. But ultimately, according to Harris’s analysis, it doesn’t matter, because the words of the accusation themselves convict Lancelot and the queen: “Without offering evidence that would prove either the innocence or guilt of Lancelot, Malory consigns Agravain’s accusation, teh clamor of ill-fame, to the imaginative realm. Even so, that accustaion which produces and publishes Lancelot’s treason brings about his banishment” (203).

But Harris cites an example of imaginative treason in 1444:

…in 1444 a woman acosted the king after Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, had been convicted of treason…For her words, the justices ruled that she be placed in a cart and paraded through London ‘with a paupire about hir hede of hir proude and lewed langage,’ and, according to the chronicler, she subsequently was pressed to death… (192)

Although it was her spoken words which condemned her, before being killed she was made to display them as written words. While the imaginative realm was enough to convict her, those intangible words needed to be made tangible. Harris does not explore the idea much farther than this.

But I find intriguing the correlations between Guinevere’s vindication by lengthy writing on a tomb, memorializing Lancelot’s defense and proof of her innocence through an honorable and structured system of trial by combat, and Lancelot’s conviction by spoken words, proving nothing in actuality.

If we are to believe Malory is presenting events honestly in “The Poisoned Apple,” the tomb in this case does not act as a tool for revisionist history, but merely records the facts as they occurred. Malory’s ambiguity and inconsistency, which is part of Harris’s starting point for this essay, means that the non-recorded words may in fact be acting as revisionist history.

So I don’t have a conclusion about any of that. Still thinking. And I want to take closer looks at all the tombs and their inscriptions throughout the whole book. But it’s all kind of fascinating.


Harris, E. Kay. “Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination.” Exemplaria 7.1 (1995): 179-208.

Tiller, Kenneth. “En-graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burial, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s ‘Tale of King Arthur’.” Arthuriana 14.2 (2004): 37-53.

Human Agency and Responsibility in Malory's "Balin or the Knight with the Two Swords"

The story of Balin in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is littered with moments when Balin seems to watch in horror as events set in motion by his own actions spiral far out of his control with disastrous results.

The tale begins with Balin proving he is “a passynge good man of hys hondys and of hys dedis, and withoute velony other trechory and withoute treson” when he pulls the sword from the sheath carried by a damsel into Arthur’s court. But this perfection is in doubt from the very beginning, starting with the way Balin waits until every other knight has tried his hand at drawing the sword and the damsel is about to leave in disappointment. In contrast to Arthur’s response to the damsel’s challenge, “I woll assay myselffe to draw oute the swerde, nat presumynge myselff that I am the beste knyght,” Balin waits because he is poor and shabby, and also because he had been imprisoned for having killed a knight who turned out to be Arthur’s cousin. Though he had been freed by the barons, he was far from Arthur’s favorite and presumably was trying to keep a low profile. The damsel at first scorns him because of his poor dress, but he convinces her to let him try, and he succeeds in drawing the sword where all the others had failed.

This seems to prove that Balin is indeed a worthy and virtuous knight, which is necessary for the tragic tones of all the consequent harm that he inadvertently causes. But immediately after this apparent proof, Balin refuses to return the sword to the damsel, insisting on keeping it even when she warns him that only harm can befall anyone who keeps this sword. None of the major calamities that happen throughout the rest of the tale are Balin’s fault directly. But is his refusal to act logically on the information given to him a factor that might assign blame?

Following the narrative through the various altercations that Balin and his brother Balan engage in can get complicated. I stopped numerous times as I read to go back and check the relationships of all the figures involved in the slaying and avenging cycles. The most disastrous pairing is when Balin unknowingly kills his own brother, but from the start of the tale, instances where Balin slays knights whose identities become important only after he has killed them abound, the first being Arthur’s cousin for whose death Balin had been imprisoned.

The three negative qualities the damsel says must be lacking in the knight who will be able to draw the sword are “velony,” “trechory,” and “treson.” The Middle English Dictionary includes in the definition for “trecherie”

Faithlessness to a sworn oath or sacred obligation

and for “treisoun”

treachery to one’s kin, esp. contriving the death, exile, or imprisonment of a relative.

Though Balin does not set out to perform treachery in regard to his and others’ kin, does his refusal to return the sword negate his devotion to following what has been ordained to happen to him?

Balin’s brother Balan tells him, “ye must take the adventure that God woll ordayn you,” after Balin has failed to save Columbe, who kills herself because Balin has killed her lover. This knight was fighting Balin because he had been sent by Arthur to avenge the Lady of the Lake, whom Balin had killed because she had killed his mother, though the Lady says Balin killed her brother. The complicated allegiances and possible treachery are further complicated by the idea that whatever happens to any of the characters is ordained by God.

Balin himself, when refusing to return the sword, says, “I shall take the aventure…that God woll ordayne for me. But the swerde ye shall nat have at thys tyme, by the feythe of my body!” The question is, are the events that follow ordained by God, or are they a consequence of Balin’s choice to keep the sword? How does one determine which “aventure,” which chance happening, is caused by divine and which by human agency?

But going a bit farther back, when Merlin reveals what exactly was happening with the damsel who brought the sword to Arthur’s court in the first place, casts more questions on the cycle of vengeance throughout:

‘Now shall I sey you,’ seyde Merlion; ‘thys same damesell that here stondith, that brought the swerde unto youre courte, I shall telle you the cause of hir commynge. She is the falsist damesell that lyveth – she shall nat sey nay! For she hath a brothir, a passyng good knyght of proues and a full trew man, and thys damesell loved anothir knyght that hylde her as paramoure. And thys good knyght, her brothir, mette with the knyght that helde hir to paramoure, and slew hym by force of hys hondis. And whan thys false damesell undirstoode this she went to the Lady of Avylion and besought hir of helpe to be revenged on hir own brothir.

‘And so thys lady Lyle of Avylion toke hir this swerde that she brought with hir, and tolde there sholde no man pulle hit oute of the sheethe but yf he be one of the beste knyghtes of thys realme, and he sholde be hardy and full of prouesse; and with that swerde he sholde sle hys brothir…’

Turns out, the origin of the sword destined to be drawn by the best knight is riddled with treachery as well. In this recounting, though, no mention is made of the knight being required to return the sword. Would that have made a difference, after all? Merlin says “with that swerde he sholde sle hys brothir” – if he hadn’t had the sword when he faced his brother, would he have been spared this fate?

The section of this tale after Balin has enabled Arthur’s defeat of Ronys is parallel to the episode in which Columbe kills herself, despite Balin’s attempts to prevent her, after Balin has killed her lover. Merlin had prophesied after Columbe’s death that Balin would “stryke a stroke most dolorous that ever man stroke,” wounding the truest knight and causing death and destruction on a huge scale. In this last section, Balin attempts to avenge the death of a damsel’s lover, whose death Balin is only indirectly responsible for. The knight who killed the damsel’s lover is the brother of the one whose death causes all this destruction.

But this “dolorous stroke” is not delivered by the sword. In fact, as pointed out by many, the fact that Balin is the “knight with two swords” seems to have been forgotten at this point, and when his sword breaks during his fight with Pellam, he has to run around looking for another weapon. He finally finds a spear in one chamber, which is actually the spear which pierced Jesus on the Cross, and wounds Pellam with that, causing the destruction of the surrounding land (as part of the Grail story).

The damsel dies as a result of this stroke as well, meaning that if this were supposed to be somehow repairing the way Columbe died as a result of Balin killing her lover, it has not worked. But this whole thing seems to have nothing to do with the sword itself, actually. Balin killed Columbe’s lover who was trying to avenge the Lady of the Lake, who has no connection to the sword that Balin drew from the scabbard.

After this, Balin rides out alone and the story ends with Balin wearing unrecognizable armor and going to fight another knight who turns out to be his own brother, Balan, also wearing unrecognizable armor. They kill each other and ask to be buried together.

The two strands of the tale – one related to the sword, the damsel who wants revenge on her brother, and the curse that the bearer would kill his own brother; the other related to the Lady of the Lake and Balin’s failure to save the grief-stricken Columbe from suicide – seem to be largely unconnected. What they have in common is ambiguity about Balin’s fault in any of the disasters. On one hand, Balin is the victim of a curse (the sword) and another’s actions (Columbe), but on the other hand, he did take actions that had a part in bringing those to completion. He insisted on keeping the sword, and although he acted with the best of intentions, he did cause Columbe’s grief.

Just after Balin wounds Pellam, there is one short episode unconnected to either strand. Balin meets Garnysh and attempts to unite him with his love. Acting again with the best of intentions, he shows Garnysh that his love is “upon a quylt of grene samyte, and a knyght in her armes fast halsynge eyther other.” Garnysh, anguished, kills both of them, and then himself. While Balin explains that he showed Garnysh “that ye myght see and knowe her falshede, and to cause yow to leve love of suche a lady,” Garnysh’s response is “now is my sorou doubel that I may not endure, now have I slayne that I moost loved in al my lyf!” Balin tried to do right, but the effects of his actions are disastrous – just as with Columbe and the resultant “dolorous stroke,” and just as with the sword as he tried to follow “the adventure that God woll ordayne.”

Nothing results from this episode with Garnysh, and the next occurrence is Balin entering the castle from which he will venture forth to fight the knight who turns out to be his brother. Is this episode then in some way a comment on human agency and responsibility? The chain of vengeance, the complex relationships, the ignorance of characters as to each others’ identities, and this apparently stand-alone episode in the midst of Balin’s narrative arc, all point to the impossibility of knowing exactly what the consequences of any action will be.

Malory's Merlin: Shadows of the Druids in Arthur's Christian Court

(I am just beginning to read Malory now but want to write as I read, and not only when I have read it all. This is therefore not fully developed and is really just speculative and setting things up for my further wonderings and research.)

The figure of Merlin in the Arthurian tradition is interpreted by readers in many ways and differs in subtle but significant details from one text to another, one language and region and period to another. Most modern readers think of Merlin as a wonderful wizard, the all-knowing and totally devoted counselor. My first encounter with Merlin was in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and I’ve hung on to an attitude of pitying indulgence toward him from that early stage, viewing him as mostly motivated by selfish personal gain but also failing just enough to be pitiable.

The trouble with seeing Merlin as a wholly wise and fatherly figure to Arthur is mostly in his demonic parentage, but also to a large extent, though not overtly addressed in medieval texts his manipulation of magic that does not quite comply with the Christian framework within which Arthur’s court exists.

But is the framework of Arthur’s court always and only Christian? And how exactly does the Merlin figure fit into that historically?

There has of course been plenty of discussion about the origin of Merlin. In a 1995 Arthuriana article, C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor suggest that the Merlin figure entered the Arthurian legend via a trans-Caucasian people, the Alans, who invaded the Roman Empire and settled in what would become France, eventually receiving land in the north of Britain from William the Conqueror, all the while gaining power and prestige as nobility and clerics. Since many of Merlin’s activities, including the Sword in the Stone story, echo Alans rituals, Littleton and Malcor argue fairly convincingly that the Merlin figure may be based on and/or intended to signify a descendant of the Alans people.

Most scholars, though, assume a British Celtic origin for Merlin, and Littleton and Malcor acknowledge this dismissively: “Other scholars see a lingering reflection of the ancient druids, those shadowy priest-magicians who played such a central role in pre-Christian Celtic religion everywhere” (89). These authors raise questions about why the earlier sources are less clear about Merlin’s magic and connection to the Sword in the Stone, and then go on to formulate an argument about Continental origins of Merlin’s earlier manifestations.

I think, though, that an insular origin for Merlin is more plausible and that the earlier sources don’t emphasize this “shadowy priest-magician” aspect because their political purposes and allegiances were different from the later material.

Whether Arthur is a historical figure or not, he did serve as a national hero for the people left in Britain after the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons invaded, a king who united his people and helped keep the invaders at bay. But the English and Anglo-Normans later claimed Arthur as their own national hero, even as their ancestors were the ones Arthur had supposedly battled against. They tried to insert Arthur into their own national histories, beginning with Brutus fleeing Troy and founding Britain.

The ambiguities inherent in Merlin – his birth, his practices, even his linguistic appellations – are laid out in Gareth Griffith’s chapter on Merlin in Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance. He is not only “shadowy,” he is ambiguous, apparently deliberately so. One of his main ambiguities lies in whether he actually is associated with the devil or is in fact a servant of God. “Robert [de Boron]’s Merlin hovers on the borders between sacred and sinful powers” (100), a detail which has also been greatly discussed, but which I would like to apply to the possible political purposes of the later legends.

Merlin first begins to assume magical powers with Wace’s Roman de Brut, as the Normans attempt to create a chain of succession proving their ancient ties to Britain and their legitimate claim to the throne. Before this, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Merlin figures as a wise man and a cleric, but he performs his feats with the use of drugs and not magic. Geoffrey was himself Welsh (or at least had a strong connection to Wales), though writing for the Norman court, and Griffith, as do many scholars, points to the Welsh Myrddin as the basis for the Merlin figure, a character whose gift was prophecy – not the same thing as magical abilities. (The pre-Norman Bede and Gildas do not even mention Arthur at all.)

Magic in Arthurian legend has always fascinated me for the way it does not seem to mesh at all with the overt Christian framework and is in fact far more congruent with beliefs of the older religions that Christianity replaced in Britain. Again, this is a topic that has been discussed extensively, but I want to look at Merlin specifically as a part of that and the role he might play in the transition, particularly in Malory’s portrayal.

I am most familiar with the Welsh tales of the Mabinogion and the French romances of Chretien de Troyes, and my observations are based on these though informed by others as well. The difference between these that always struck me in regard to magic was that the Welsh tales have a strong focus on magic involving natural materials like earth and stone while the French, although of course containing magic involving nature, tend to use more magic involving textiles, clothing and armor, etc.

If, as I am positing, Merlin serves as a connection between the people whose national hero Arthur supposedly originally was and the people claiming him now, his trajectory in Malory is in accord with this observation. Much of Merlin’s magic involves natural materials, especially stones. Most notably, Merlin orchestrates the Sword in the Stone episode at the beginning of Arthur’s story, and later Merlin is magically buried under rock, ending his own story.

The rhetoric around Arthur’s success in pulling out the sword is closely aligned to a Christian framework:

“Now,” said sir Ector to Arthur, “I understande ye must be kynge of this land.”

“Wherfore I?” sayd Arthur, “and for what cause?”

“Sire,” saide Ector, “for God wille have hit soo, for ther shold never man have drawen oute this swerde but he that shal be rightwys kyng of this land…”


But in fact, Merlin, the “shadowy druid” figure, is the one who sets this in motion. The Archbishop calls the nobles together to attempt to withdraw the sword only because Merlin tells him to, and Merlin continues to orchestrate every aspect of the unfolding events.

That the natural stone guards the sword which legitimates Arthur’s rule, and that the whole episode is administered by a druid-like figure, creates a link between the earlier times from which Arthur springs and the later kings.

Merlin’s end also comes about through stone, as he is trapped under rock by Nynyve, the Damsel of the Lake, whom Merlin had been trying to sleep with but who managed to simply use Merlin and get him to teach her his craft before using that craft to trap him permanently under rock. Essentially, the main material of the Celtic magic is used against the magician and perhaps signals a possible transition to more clearly Christian tones.

The Damsel of the Lake takes over much of Merlin’s position, which is giving me pause in this particular point of my interpretation. And the tone of the magic in Arthur’s court in the rest of Malory may not change all that much – I will be revisiting this as I continue to read.

The ambiguity surrounding Merlin’s sacred or sinful nature makes sense, then – he needs to be “good” in some sense in order to provide a legitimate link to the past. But that past is being superseded, and so amid his goodness must be hints that while it might have been fine for Merlin to use the old magic to shepherd in the rightful king, once that new era has been secured, the old magic will no longer be good and will be fully replaced by Christianity. That the magic and the Christian God’s providence mingle at times, especially in the Sword in the Stone episode, is not as puzzling with this perspective.


Malory: Complete Works. ed. Eugene Vinaver. 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1971.

Littleton, C. Scott and Linda A. Malcor. “Some Notes on Merlin.” Arthuriana 5.3: (1995) 87-95.

Griffith, Gareth. “Merlin.” Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance. ed. Neil Cartlidge. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2012. pp 99-114.