Stanzaic Morte Arthur, The

Stanzaic Morte Arthur, The
(14th century)
   The Stanzaic Morte Arthur is a MIDDLE ENGLISH poem composed probably in the North Midlands area of England in the middle of the 14th century. As the title suggests, the poem narrates the events leading up to the death of King ARTHUR and is an important link in the Arthurian tradition, drawing on a French source, Mort Artu, and ultimately influencing Thomas MALORY in the final two tales of his 15th-century Le MORTE D'ARTHUR.
   The poem comprises 3,969 lines and survives in one manuscript,Harley 2252 in the British Library. The manuscript is a miscellany, and the section containing the poem can be dated between 1460 and 1480. Generally, the poem’s eight-line stanzas have four-stress iambic lines, with a rhyme scheme of abababab, although the number of lines in the stanzas varies at points, as does the rhyme scheme. The poem’s beginning positions the action after the quest of the Holy Grail, as Arthur is urged by the queen to host a tournament to boost what she alleges is the waning honor of the Round Table. The tournament at Winchester brings the Lord of Ascolot and results in his daughter’s falling in love with LANCELOT. Ultimately, her love goes unrequited as Lancelot can only love Queen GUENEVERE (“Gaynor” in this poem), but before the maid’s death resulting from the discovery that Lancelot could not love her, the queen is so distraught by the appearance of a relationship between the two that she sends Lancelot away. Consequently, when the queen is falsely accused of poisoning a knight, she has no one to champion her against the charges of the dead knight’s brother, Sir Mador. Her piteous appeal to the knights whom she had served is an example of the dramatic scenes that pervade this poem. Although Bors pledges to fight for her should no other knight offer, Lancelot returns and defeats Sir Mador, grants him mercy, and Sir Mador forgives his brother’s death for the sake of Lancelot, who, given his reputation as a knight, honors him by fighting with him.At this point, the court considers how the poisoning could have occurred, and upon torture, one squire who served that day admits his guilt, and Guenevere is therefore exonerated. Lancelot’s restoration to the Round Table is short-lived, however, as the poem progresses and Agravain and Mordred plot to expose to Arthur the affair of Guenevere and Lancelot. Brothers GAWAIN, Gaheriet, and Gaheries disagree, but Agravain and Mordred are determined and they disclose it to Arthur. They set a trap for the lovers by purporting to leave them alone in the castle, and when Lancelot is caught within the queen’s bower without his armor, he attacks one knight, arms himself, then defeats the remaining knights and flees. A pivotal part of the poem occurs next when the court determines to burn the queen for her disloyalty to Arthur. Reluctantly, Gaheriet and Gaheries obey the king’s orders to stand guard over her and are thus, unwittingly, slain by Lancelot when he returns to rescue Guenevere. It is this unintentional double murder that turns Gawain irrevocably against Lancelot and is the underlying impetus for the remainder of the action of the poem. Gawain’s relentless determination to avenge his brothers death by either killing Lancelot or dying in the process results in multiple battles and Lancelot’s exile to the Continent.
   Subsequent warring with Lancelot in France leaves Arthur’s kingdom in the hands of his son, Mordred, who, unaccountably in this poem, betrays Arthur, acts as ruler in his absence and attempts not only to depose him and usurp the kingdom, but to marry his queen as well. Guenevere escapes to a tower where she barricades herself against Mordred, Arthur returns to fight Mordred and reclaim his land, and Gawain is struck dead in the penultimate battle. Arthur mourns Gawain and is motivated by a dream vision to appeal to Mordred for peace until Lancelot can arrive to battle alongside Arthur. In the meeting to discuss a truce, however, a knight strikes at an adder and the two sides, both deeply distrusting one another, believe the other has attacked, and they begin to fight.Arthur kills Mordred and barely escapes with his own life.After Bedivere returns Excalibur to the sea as Arthur directs, Arthur is transported to Avalon by three ladies. Bedivere discovers a grave he believes to be Arthur’s based on the report of the hermit and mourns the loss of his lord. The poem does not end with the death of Arthur, however. The poem follows Lancelot as he arrives in England to find the Round Table in ruin, and charts his meeting with Guenevere, their joint repentance of their sin, and his penance at a chapel for seven years.He is eventually joined by Bors and other knights. Thus the Round Table is dissolved and the knights dedicate their service, in the absent of their king, to God.When Lancelot dies, the remaining knights are joined by Ector, Lancelot’s brother,who mourns Lancelot in another dramatic scene. In hermit’s clothes, they advance to Aumsbury where they find Queen Guenevere dead. She is buried beside the grave purported to be Arthur’s and the poem thus ends with her death. Scholars have previously commented on the absence of Fortune in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and its focus instead on the impetus for the action of individual deeeds, as well as the psychological ramifications of the events upon its characters. Human error plays a role, as well, in Lancelot’s unintentional killing of Gawain’s brothers, and the presence of the adder at the battle. The Stanzaic Morte Arthur is an important work for Arthurian scholars in that it, along with the ALLITERATIVE MORTE ARTHURE, represents part of the English tradition of Arthurian literature prior to the works of Sir Thomas Malory,which synthesized so many of both the French and the English texts. Malory drew heavily from the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and the French prose Mort Artu (last romance of the VULGATE CYCLE and the source for the stanzaic poem, which condensed much of it) in constructing the books of “Launcelot and Gwenyvere” and “The Death of Arthur.” Like the author of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Malory also condensed much of his French romance sources, possible evidence that he was influenced by the example set by the stanzaic Morte. Because Malory shaped the Arthurian tradition and influenced subsequent writers, the effect of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur on him and his last two tales in Le Morte Darthur demonstrates the poem’s importance in literary history, in addition to the appeal of the text itself.
   ■ Barron,W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987.
   ■ Benson, Larry Dean, ed. King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974.
   ■ Knopp, Sherron E. “Artistic Design in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur,” ELH 45 (1978): 563–582.
   ■ Wertime, Richard A. “The Theme and Structure of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur,” PMLA 87 (1972): 1075–1082.
   Michelle Palmer

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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