The Abyssal King draws champions to his realm with the promise of glory and renown. It is a twisted, broken land, dotted with castles, towers, and ruins, scattered amid craggy peaks and thick, gloomy forests. Only the bravest, most daring, and ruthless can ever hope to win a place at the Abyssal King’s table. Others must wins service with the lesser lords and ladies, or carve a domain for themselves out of the wilderness where fearsome beasts dwell. And beneath it all the Moldrig wait, the cursed dwarfs who once ruled over men, steeped in terrible wisdom. plotting their insane schemes, and working their arcane forges.
Whether by sword or sorcery a knight seeks but one thing: glory.
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.
First thing you need to know is Monty Python totally nailed it. Read the book, then watch the Black Knight “None shall pass!” scene, and you’ll agree. They nail it.
Second thing, all the knights are jackholes especially Gawain. (An arguable exception is Galahad, but he’s basically Jesus. Okay. There’s a few others who aren’t so bad, but it’s like five guys out of a thousand.)
Third thing, Malory didn’t invent any of this stuff. He edited oral traditions, pieced together narratives, and slathered on a layer of romanticized 14th century Christian chivalry to make the pre-Christian folk heroes palatable to his audience. He also wrote it in jail for a rather impressive laundry list of violent crimes, so when the knights behave terribly you have to figure old Tom knew what he was talking about .
The book’s divided into eight “tales”.
1. The Tale of King Arthur.
You have to read this. It has Merlin, Excalibur, and Arthur’s rise to power. In the first ten pages eight hundred named characters show up. Stuff happens and the jousting is still interesting.
2. The Tale of King Arthur And The Emperor Lucius.
This is great. Arthur unites England and marches on Rome. Rome has giants in its army. Much of it reads like a ten year old freeform rambling a D&D game. “You walk into the room and there are two hundred giants there. Roll for initiative.”
3. The Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lake.
I have no memory of what this was about. I suspect it was dull, because Launcelot is dull except during the quest for the Holy Grail, when he’s basically having a bad acid trip.
An aside, throughout the book there’s a very keen ranking system of knights that’s reminiscent of a baseball fan’s fixation on batting averages, only it’s jousts and sword-fights being counted. So a knight shows up and everyone says, “It’s Sir Hoppinscotch. He’s the 36th bestest knight in the realm. Let’s see how he does in the left-handed face-smash head-kebob event.”
4. The Tale of Sir Gareth.
This book is fun. Gareth is Gawain the Jackhole’s half-brother, but he’s cool and not at all like Gawain. (Gawain kills their mom when he busts in on her and her lover even though dad’s been dead for years.) Gareth’s like the third best knight in Camelot, depending on if Sir Lameface is dead or not. He has adventures and they are interesting.
5. The Tale of Sir Tristram of Lyoness.
By now it’s all knight-errantry and jousting with the occasional interesting bit like La Cote Male Tayle or Sir Palomides trip to the Red City. It’s 200 pages that read like 800 pages each of them nearly identical and looking like this:
”One morning Sir Launcelot left the castle and rode into the forest. Soon he came upon a well where a maiden was weeping. She said, “Oh good knight can you protect me from the knight who is chasing me?” Sir Launcelot said “Yuppers” and rode off to meet the knight and did so by the bridge where they jousted and both were knocked from their horses. They then fought with swords for so long that the blood ran from their armor and soaked the ground. Finally Launcelot said: “Who are you knight that is so strong?” The knight removed his helmet and it turned out to be Sir Tristram, and the two embraced and shared kisses for they had long pledged loyalty to each other, at which time the maiden appeared and Tristam chopped off her head because she was a sorceress.”
It’s wretched. The big thing is Sir Palomides is in love with Iseult the Fair and it makes him a complete jackhole.
6. The Tale of the Sangreal.
This is awesome Pagan-Christian Mystic hallucinogenic weirdness. Loopy stuff as if the knights of the Round Table got lost in a stoner-metal album. I suspect Malory was mining a tradition here well beyond his usual — and the only way he could make sense of it was basically having Galahad be Jesus, which kind of sucks deus ex machina and all that, but the whole thing is so weird that you just have to go with it. Or read the Mabigboingboingoinen to get the pure stuff.
7. The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwynevere.
Launcelot’s been schtupping the Queen. (Like you didn’t know.) Arthur finds out. Mayhem ensues.
8. Le Morte D’Arthur.
Arthur dies. It’s the name of the book. Everybody else dies too, or goes away and becomes a hermit/nun.
* * *
There’s actually some fascinating setting stuff here that I’ll probably get into next time.