I’ve been giving some lectures on medieval literature this term, and it has required the enjoyable process of rereading bits of texts such as The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte Darthur. Something new always strikes me on these rereads, and this time it was how the first book of Malory’s Arthurian masterwork connects the story of its hero to the liturgical year – in ways which both aggrandise and undermine the young king.
It begins at Christmas, as all the barons and knights of the kingless realm travel to London for a mass at the biggest church in the city – Malory’s text rather charmingly notes that he does not know whether this was St. Paul’s or some other church, as his source does not specify whether that was the biggest church in London at the time of Arthur (“whether it were Powlis or not the Fresshe booke maketh no mencyon”). I had not noticed previously that the visit to London was not simply an annual gathering, but was jointly arranged by Merlin and the Archbishop of Canterbury. On their orders, all the barons vying for the throne, and all the best knights, visited London for the mass:
Thenne stood the realm in grete jeopardy long whyle, for every lord that was myghty of men made hym stronge, and many wende to have ben kyng…So the archebisshop, by the advys of Merlyn, send for all the lords and gentilmen of armes that they shold come by Crystmasse even unto London.
Thus it is at Crystmasse, the celebration of the Incarnation, that Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone and is identified as the hoped-for king. As modern readers, we probably instinctively associate Christmas less with kingship than many of the people who read Malory in the medieval period, but of course kingship is one of the major attributes of the messiah. The Magi specifically ask to be shown the “king” whom they have come to visit, as emphasized in the celebrations of Epiphany:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Clearly Arthur is not born at Christmas, but his recognition as the rightful king happens at this festival. I would not have made more than a cursory connection with this, except that the text goes on to list the other points of the liturgical year at which the barons and knights gathered again. Many of them were not impressed with Arthur’s pulling out of the sword from the stone, and demanded that the decision be put off until Candlemas. At that festival Arthur repeated his feat, but the barons asked for another delay until another point in the liturgical year:
And ryght as Arthur dyd at Crystmasse he dyd at Candelmasse…whereof the barons were sore aggreved and put it offe in delay until the hyghe feste of Eester…
Easter came, and the sword came out of the stone again, but there was still no agreement, and another deferral was demanded, until Pentecost. But in the meantime, Merlin and the Archbishop took steps to ensure that this would be the last delay:
Yet there were some of the grete lords had indignacioun that Arthur sholde be kynge…Thenne the Archebisshop of Caunterbury by Merlynes provydence lete purveye thenne of the best knyghtes that they myghte gete, and suche knyghtes as Uther Pendragon loved best and moost trusted in his dayes. And such knyghtes were put aboute Arthur as Syr Bawdewyn of bretayn, Syre Kayes, Syre Ulfyus, Syre brasias; all these with many other were alweyes about Arthur deye and nyghte till the feste of Pentecost. And at the feste of Pentecost alle maner of man assayed to pulle at the swerde that wold assay, but none myghte prevaille but Arthur, and pulled it oute afore all the lords and comyns that were there.
When Arthur performed this proof for the latest time, he was acclaimed by the “comyns” (the common people, as opposed to the lords who had been delaying):
Wherefore alle the comyns cryed at onces, “We will have Arthur unto our kyng! We wille put hym not more in delay, for we alle see that it is Goddes wille that he shall be our kynge”
Two aspects of this story seem to me to be particularly connected with Pentecost, and to weave Malory’s Arthurian “origins story” within the liturgical year. Firstly, the fact that this is the first mention of Arthur having knightly followers, who will become the fellowship of the round table. Sir Ulfius, Sir Baduin and the others are presumably placed round Arthur in order to bolster his practical claim to the throne, to link him to King Uther’s reign, and to make sure that nothing unfortunate or underhand happens to the claimant. At the same time, they are the first gathering of Arthur’s retinue, and it seems significant that Pentecost is the festival which shows us Arthur’s followers. It is less obvious at the time, since the attention is definitely on the young man’s claim to the throne, but looking with an alert eye to the liturgical year, we can see this as the knights’ apostolic moment, when they are assembled as a body, and identified with their king, for the first time.
Secondly, the detail about the “comyns” sticks out, as different from what happened at the previous festivals. Pentecost is the feast of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the anointing of the apostles, but it is also a feast of the proclamation to the gospel to the gathered crowds. Just as Peter and the other apostles are described in Acts as preaching to the gathered people, with the resulting baptism of three thousand, Arthur’s kingship is declared in front of the common people, and they acclaim him in response. There are distinctly “Pentecostal” aspects to Arthur’s narrative at this point.
All of which is not to suggest that Malory is suggesting that Arthur is Christ – that would be too simple and reductive a reading. The Biblical and liturgical connections here are running relatively quietly alongside the main narrative, but they fill in and shadow much of its meaning. They provide comparisons, echoes, resonances, which enrich the implications of the tale. And that can redound both to Arthur’s credit, and to his disgrace. As I mentioned above, the liturgical echoes can subvert Arthur’s kingship as well as proclaiming it.
At the end of the first book, Arthur hears a prophecy about the knight who will eventually destroy him, and seeks to prevent it ever coming true. This involves rounding up all the children who were born at a certain point in time:
“Well, seyde Arthure,” I shall ordayne for hym in shorte tyme.” Than Kynge Arthure lette sende for all the children that were borne in May Day, begottyn of lordis and borne of ladyes, for Merlyon tolde Kynge Arthure that he that sholde destroy hym and all the londe sholde be borne on May Day. Wherefore he sente for hem all in payne of dethe…and all were putte in a shyppe to the se, and som were foure wekis olde and som lesse. And so by fortune the shyppe…was all to-ryven and destroyed the moste party…So many lordis and barownes of thys realm were displased for hir children were so loste”
Without the earlier insistence on the liturgical festivals which punctuated and enabled Arthur’s rise to the throne, I might not have noticed the echo here. But of course Arthur is returning to the Nativity story, and acting out a different role this time. This is Childermas, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents:
When Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
This is where Malory’s first book of Arthurian tales ends, and it has brought us – as well as the young king – back to the liturgical and Biblical echoes of the early narrative. After all, the liturgical year is a cycle, and Arthur cannot simply turn his back on it and imagine it is ended. He can all too easily find himself echoing Herod, just as earlier he echoed Christ and his knights echoed the apostles. Quietly, terribly, the Christian year is turning underneath him, and the once and future king does not remember that there is more than one king in the story.