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.

Historia Calamitatum

Most of the time, when someone first finds out I study Arthurian literature, they mention Monty Python. I smile and nod and move the conversation on as quickly as I can, because – I’d never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Until today. As I’ve been putting together material for the Indiegogo campaign, inevitably Monty Python came up in discussions with friends who were offering help and encouragement. I reacted the way I usually do, saying that “that’s not real Arthurian stuff.” And then I realized I can’t possibly say that without ever having seen more than a few clips of it. Besides, it’s supposed to be funny, right? So worst that can happen is I have a fun, mindless couple of hours. It was definitely fun. But it was far from mindless. See, part of my fascination with Arthurian legend – most of my fascination with Arthurian legend – is rooted in its adaptability. I love modern retellings of Arthurian tales, including YA books like Meg Cabot’s Avalon High series, which is set completely in the twenty-first century and yet I still consider it Arthurian! And I’ve been saying for a long time that I love A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of the way Mark Twain plays with the legend – but that’s exactly what Monty Python does, albeit in a decidedly different manner. I also resisted watching it because I thought it was untrue to the “Arthurian spirit.” I still think that. It is. But it departs from the Arthurian spirit with obvious thought and deliberation as to how and why to do so. In the end, what Monty Python does with the legend is exactly what I’ve been saying I admire about how the legend lives on. Every new retelling, every variation, puts its own spin on it, molds the legend to fit its own purposes. The modern re-enactors I saw who do call themselves knights – they use the Arthurian legend unironically, and I think it’s amazing the way they use centuries-old traditions of honor and chivalry to inform their daily lives. Monty Python uses the Arthurian legend ironically in order to comment on absurdities and inconsistencies in both the legend itself and in contemporary times (if you consider 1975 contemporary). And both of these are valid and important uses of the legend and tradition, and both of these should be studied. I consider myself suitably chastened and have adjusted my view to encompass more of that “everything” I thought it already did.

Le Conte du Graal

I’ve been drawn to Arthurian legend for as long as I can remember.

When I realized a few years ago that I didn’t have an answer as to why I’m interested in the tradition, I thought about it and figured it must have started with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain), which I read an abridged version of when I was about 10 or 11.

connecticut yankee

One of my favorite scenes from that book: when Hank smokes through his helmet and they all think he’s a fire-belching dragon. Also the pigs/princesses, especially because the book I read (above) had an illustration there with actual pigs and not princesses. I can’t find an image of that online, but  interestingly, I found this:


What’s interesting is that I liked the illustrations in the edition I read because it showed reality while everyone was hallucinating or making things up, and here the illustration shows Hank as a fire-belching dragon. In fact, I found this image as part of “centaur alternatives.” How does an editor/illustrator choose to show reality or the fantasy? Now there’s something fun to think about…

As an undergrad, I tried a few times to take a course on Arthurian literature, but every time I registered or almost registered for a class, something came up and I couldn’t take it.

I wrote my senior thesis on Arthurian literature without ever having formally studied the tradition itself. I had an amazing thesis director who guided me in reading texts that could help me get the basics in addition to the scholarship needed specifically for my paper.

But I never gave up on the dream of systematic study of Arthurian literature and legend.

Now that might be happening…

The University of Exeter is offering a summer course on Arthurian legend this year, and I was so excited when I found out about it, I just applied right away.

But it’s kind of expensive, what with airfare on top of tuition.

The program offered me a partial scholarship, which helps tremendously, and I’m working on applying for academic grants. I also set up an Indiegogo campaign to supplement that.

I desperately want to get to this program. The syllabus touches on so many aspects of Arthurian legend that interest me: history, kingship, chivalry, court life, magic, and the continuation of the legend in contemporary media.

Besides, I’ve been dreaming of traveling in the UK for so many years. Maybe even since I read The Secret Garden and heard the sound of the wind on the moors.

I was also always interested in accents, which made me want to visit the UK even more. There are some really bad movies I watched just because they were set in Scotland or Wales or somewhere with a recognizable accent.

This is my Grail, and I’m chasing it!