The Other Side of McMedieval Feudalism, or The Use of Mythic Distance in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur”

So that fascinating thing I hinted at about the setting in my last post about Le Morte D’Arthur – it’s totally generic McEurope, but instead of this being a design flaw, it’s a design feature.

Actually calling it McEurope is too specific. It’s more McMedieval Feudalism seen from the top without ever looking down. It’s an aristocracy divorced from all other social classes with an endless supply of weapons and armor to fight with. You have to at least enjoy that stuff as aesthetic trappings without any attendant realism. Only once does someone go to town and see a craftsperson to get a thing fixed. That’s your realism. Peasants hardly ever appear in it, and knights apparently have nothing better to do than stand all day beside bridges challenging whomever happens to walk by. “None shall pass”, etc.

What locales there are all blend together. Bridges, cloisters, and wells with maidens (or knights) weeping beside them lend some decoration to the otherwise indistinguishable setting. There are castles, and outside every castle is a forest. Inside the forest adventures happen.

But I said this is a feature rather than a flaw. What makes it fascinating is how quickly bright sanitized McMedieval Feudalism can become weird foreboding mythic id-laden fairyland. The one rule is when you go into the forest stuff happens to you. That stuff can be the frat-house jousting (with accompanying sides of homoeroticism and misogyny), or something a lot weirder and subconsciously ripe. It’s no surprise that “the forest” gets transformed into “the wasteland” during the Grail Quest.

What to make of this? On one hand the setting is so bland and divorced from reality as to be nonsensical. On the other hand that blandness has an advantage when telling a story and playing with archetypes, especially because the bland is divided in half, a mundane world and its fantastic reflection, and the archetypes are never quite certain when the one will shift into the other. Not just this, but any deviation from the uniform setting stands out.

So it’s okay to be bland as long as it’s a conscious choice. Use it to your advantage. Dive deep and swim in the dark waters waiting beneath the bland’s placid surface. Find those pearls waiting down there along with those toothsome beasts. What you find might be wonderful or it might be ugly, but it won’t be bland. That’s for certain.

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4 responses to “The Other Side of McMedieval Feudalism, or The Use of Mythic Distance in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur””

  1. Rick Bowes says :

    Yes! The Castle and The Forest are the two main locales – never the village. We must remember that all and every incident collected by Malory was part of an evening’s entertainment. They had to have a common reference, a limited range of motivations and responses. The Arabian Nights are said to have four locales – The Palace, The Garden, The Market and the Desert. But that is a commercial compilation not a myth system.

    Malory is a completist, he grabs every piece of Arthuriana he can remember or find. But he isn’t a Homer. He doesn’t find the over-arching theme that could turn all of this into the Iliad or the Odyssey.

    • Justin says :

      I agree on all accounts. A lot of the appeal is not because of Malory’s skill as a storyteller, but because he’s gathered everything he could and is trying to make it all fit together, when it patently doesn’t, and that’s when the weird stuff happens.

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