This is Lecture 3 in the Book Examiner's series of 13 Book Lush 101: The History of English Literature, Adult Beverage-style "lectures." To see the complete Course Syllabus, to peruse the first two lectures, or to proclaim your everlasting devotion to the cause of both literature and adult beverages, visit the Book Lush page here.
Lecture 3: Another round for the Knights of the Round Table -- Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur
Last lecture saw us pondering the triad of alcohol, literature, and sex in Geoffrey Chaucer's highly regarded and highly bawdy 1300s romp, The Canterbury Tales.
With the 1400s, however, came the desire to see the ever-popular trio portrayed in a bit less of a raucous light . As in every aspect of art -- literature, music, trashy reality television -- the pendulum inevitably swings back and forth periodically from the outrageous to the outrageously prudish. After so much wild sexual permissiveness in The Canterbury Tales, it was high time for a bit of restraint. Hence, the birth of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, full of every bit as as much alcohol and sex as The Canterbury Tales, but with the calming addition of that indefinable, romantic something -- chivalry.
While the first mention of the Knights of the Round Table came from a Norman poet (known only by the ridiculous moniker "Wace") in 1155, it wasn't until Sir Thomas Malory put his wildly romantic version of the tale into words in Le Morte D'Arthur ("The Death of Arthur," for all of you uncouth Yanks) that the tales of brave knights, lovely ladies, quests for the Holy Grail, excessive alcohol consumption, and inadvisable sex became a de rigueur part of the English Lit Hall of Fame.
The complete tales of the Knights of the Round Table moves through several distinct phases: the birth and rise of Arthur; his marriage to the lovely Guinevere; his purchase of the legendary Round Table from IKEA in order to speed the servants' trips during refilling runs as well as being part of an overall business expense taxbreak; the entrance of that smooth snake-in-the-grass, Lancelot, and his clandestine exploits with Mrs. Arthur; the quest for the Holy Grail for use as the Ultimate Beer Glass; and Arthur's eventual precipitous downfall.
Sir Thomas Malory's genius lay in his ability to combine the previously prosaic sex-lit-alcohol combo into something that stank of honor, integrity, and sacrifice, all the while preserving everything that made the original trio so compelling in the first place. The Knights of the Round Table were constrained by the Hallowed Rules of Chivalry, which required a knight to:
Never do outrage or murder.
Always flee treason.
By no means be cruel but to give mercy unto him who asks for mercy.
Always do ladies, gentlewomen, and widows succor.
Never force ladies, gentlewomen, or widows.
Not take up battles in wrongful quarrels for love or worldly good.
How to make a story worth reading with these sorts of restrictions? Simple -- make the innocent little ladies the aggressors.
In Le Morte d'Arthur, it's the gals who are the harbingers of doom -- Guinevere (a bit of Lancelot, anyone?), Elaine (daughter of the Fisher King, inspiration for the Lady of Shalot, who is thought to have seduced Lancelot by getting him drunk, I'm thinking on Bordeaux. Then the mirror cracked and doom came upon her -- hangover?), Morgan le Fay (down with Arthur).
There is very little forcing of ladies, gentlewomen, or widows occuring in the tales, yet quite a bit of succoring.
The tales of the Knights of the Round Table inevitably end in the frivolous or destructive attentions of some woman. Perhaps this has something to do with the Knights' favorite sit-around-and-swap-tall-stories beverage -- honey mead.As we've seen with Beowulf, mead is not a drink to be trifled with: it may sound innocuous, but it kicks like a bloody mule in the end.
Honey mead has a long and sexy heritage. In ye olden Medieval Times, a newly married couple was required to drink nothing but the honey wine nectar, or honey mead, provided by the groom's family for a solid month -- the first 30 days of the marriage, or one "moon." No wonder why the divorce rate is higher now than back in the day. In fact, the word "honeymoon" is a direct corruption of "moon" and "honey mead." There was plenty of honey mead and honeymooning going on in Le Morte d'Arthur, though precious little of it coincided with holy vows of matrimony.
Fill your cup to overflowing with these bookish offerings:
Lizzie Skurnick's Shelf Discovery and confessions of a nerdy and ungirly girlhood
The Sensitive Inspector Syndrome -- the scourge of the modern British mystery novel