Alliterative Morte Arthure

Alliterative Morte Arthure
(ca. 1400–1402)
   This masterpiece of the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL survives in a single manuscript, Lincoln Cathedral Library 91, compiled ca. 1440 by the scribe Robert Thornton. Although the date of composition is uncertain (with some scholars putting it as early as ca. 1350), it is now thought to have been composed in the later years of the 14th century. For this particular narrative, date of composition can be key to how it is read: If a later date is accepted, the poem’s unromanticized and starkly realistic presentation of warfare and its consequences tends to support those who see the poet’s pacifist sympathies and seeming critique of imperialism as combining to create what can only be called an antiwar narrative. (Critiques of war are less common in mid-century when England was celebrating significant victories over France in the Hundred Years’War.) Indeed, even with an earlier dating, it is difficult to read the poem as a conventional Arthurian tale either in its plot or in its characterization.More epic than ROMANCE, the narrative focus is concerned with heroism and tragedy, with battlefields and hubris, and with King ARTHUR as uncommonly central in his role of warrior. The COURTLY LOVE conventions of other Arthurian works in which relations between men and women, and the conventions of idealized chivalric knighthood are thematically central, give place here to a masculinized world, dominated by the warrior Arthur who, in his ambivalent and ambitious characterization, is considered by some to be the most complex Arthur in literature.
   The Arthur of the Alliterative Morte Arthure is both grand and deeply flawed, in the manner of epic or classical tragic heroes. There are early indications of his pride and rash behavior, and these moments anticipate later events in which Arthur, emboldened by military success, is transformed from defender to aggressor, his military campaigns becoming increasingly imperialistic and unthinkingly aggressive. Breaking from tradition, in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Arthur’s hubris and overly ambitious desire for conquest cause his tragic downfall and the failure of the ideals of the Round Table. The poet’s direct sources are not known, but the general story line can be found in the chronicles of GEOFFREY OFMONMOUTH and WACE, and in LAYAMON’s Brut. Nonetheless, the poet embellishes his tale from other sources, most notably in Arthur’s character, his dream of Lady Fortune and the inclusion of the NINE WORTHIES as exemplars. The Alliterative Morte Arthure is both the source for one of the central episodes in MALORY’s LE MORTE DARTHUR and probably the most significant English Arthurian work used by Malory for his own complex Arthurian narrative.
   There is a finely balanced symmetry to the Alliterative Morte Arthure’s plot structure, and the rise-and-fall action is more suggestive of tragedy than romance. In its foreshadowing, also, the narrative has more in common with epic tragedies than with its own tradition of Arthurian romance. The action begins with Arthur refusing to pay homage or tribute to the Roman emperor Lucius and preparing for war. Arthur leads his knights to France, having left England in the care of Mordrede, and en route has a prophetic dream in which a dragon (representing Arthur) defeats a bear (representing either the tyrants who oppress his people or single-handed combat with a giant [823–826]). The dream is taken as an omen of victory and proves true when Arthur, upon arriving in Brittany, kills the giant of St. Michael’s Mount. Arthur and his knights then prevail over the forces of the emperor and send as tribute the Romans slain in battle. Emboldened by this military achievement and prompted by his own rash pride, Arthur proceeds to besiege the duke of Lorraine, wins this battle, and continues into Italy conquering towns along the way. The Romans finally offer Arthur the imperial crown and at this pinnacle of success, Arthur dreams of Lady Fortune who, with a turn of her wheel, dashes him down. This dream also proves prophetic: The next morning Arthur learns that Mordrede has taken both crown and queen, and Arthur returns to England where Gawayn’s knights are outnumbered and Gawayn himself is killed in a battle scene of uncommon realism. Bitter with sorrow, Arthur kills Mordrede in a final battle in Cornwall but is himself mortally wounded and buried in Glastonbury.
   The Alliterative Morte Arthure is informed by elegant speeches and vows, detailed descriptions of landscapes and characters, elegiac moments and powerful laments for lost heroes, hubris and heroics, and an unflinching portrayal of the brutalities of war. The characters are developed considerably beyond the conventional superlatives usually invoked and this complexity of character and motivation underlies the whole of the narrative.Heroic and tragic, with a fatally flawed King Arthur at its center, the Alliterative Morte Arthure transforms tradition as it portrays both the glory and the horrors of war. If, as some argue, the poet is ambivalent about the consequences of war, and concerned over the sometimes subtle distinction between just and unjust wars, there is also sufficient heroism here to support a reading of Arthur as epic hero engaged in epic feats of arms. As one critic notes, perhaps we need not choose between two thematic interpretations but need to read the poem as holding in unresolved tension conflicting points of view.
   ■ The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Valerie Krishna.Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983.
   ■ Benson, Larry D. “The Alliterative Morte Arthure and Medieval Tragedy,” Tennessee Studies in Literature 11 (1966): 75–88.
   ■ Göller, Karl Heinz, ed. The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Reassessment of the Poem. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1981.
   ■ Hamel, Mary, ed. Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition. New York: Garland, 1984.
   ■ Harwood, Britton J.“The Alliterative Morte Arthure as a Witness to Epic.” In Oral Poetics in Middle English Poetry, edited by Mark Amodio, 241–286. New York: Garland, 1994.
   ■ Matthews,William. The Tragedy of Arthur: A Study of the AlliterativeMorte Arthure.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
   ■ Patterson, Lee W. “The Historiography of Romance and the Alliterative Morte Arthure,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13 (1983): 1–32.
   ■ Peck, Russell A. “Willfulness and Wonders: Boethian Tragedy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” In The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach, 153–182. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981.
   ■ Westover, Jeff. “Arthur’s End: The King’s Emasculation in the Alliterative Morte Arthure,” Chaucer Review 32 (1998): 310–324.
   Elisa Narin van Court

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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