The flawed ideal : justice and injustice in Malory's Morte Darthur.




Bedwell, Laura K.

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In his Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory portrays Arthur, not as the strong, fully just king of later portrayals, but as a weaker monarch more in keeping with those of fifteenth-century England. Arthur begins well by establishing his Pentecostal Oath, which provides strict behavioral guidelines for the knights on whom he must rely to establish justice in his kingdom. He also has at his disposal legal custom and the patronage system, both of which can provide strong levels of control. However, Malory’s Arthur makes inconsistent use of the tools of governing. Though he at times punishes the violators of his laws, he as often condones improper and even criminal behavior. Likewise, the knights of the Round Table too often place their own desires above their responsibility to establish justice in Logres. As a result, the fall of the kingdom can be attributed to the failure of justice in the realm. Though this study engages in much close reading of Malory’s text, such reading alone is not sufficient for informed judgments regarding the relative effectiveness of the justice of Malory’s Arthurian realm. Therefore, the study is grounded in considerations of justice stemming from the medieval English judicial system. Political theories of justice drawn both from works in the speculum principis tradition and from chivalric manuals provide additional historical context. Comparison of the episodes Malory represents in his text with historical theory and practice implies that Malory’s Arthur is not an ideal king, nor is his Logres an ideal kingdom. Malory instead represents both the strengths and weaknesses of Arthur and his knights, confirming and at the same time criticizing the behavior of his characters. In the end, though, it is the flaws inherent in Arthur’s justice that destroy both him and his kingdom.



Malory, Sir Thomas., King Arthur., Medieval literature., 15th century literature., Justice., Middle ages., Kingship., Knighthood.