Every year, at the Christian feast of Pentecost, the Knights of the Round Table renew their oaths to follow the code of chivalry as proclaimed by King Arthur. Chivalry includes showing mercy, fighting for good, and protecting ladies whenever they may be in harm. This is a code that is meant to govern the knights’ actions throughout Le morte d’Arthur—however, Malory also takes care to show just how difficult, if not impossible, this code proves for many of the knights, as well as how it can be easily corrupted through circumstance and human folly.
Malory’s collected stories contrast the results of following the code of chivalry with what happens when a knight breaks that code or succumbs to temptation. Sir Gawaine, for instance, refuses to grant mercy to a man who asks for it (thus breaking part of the code) and, as his lover hurls herself forward to protect him, accidentally kills the lady—carrying the shame of this act with him for the rest of his adventures. Conversely, Launcelot always grants mercy to a knight that asks for it, underlining his characterization as an honorable knight—in battle, if not in spiritual purity.
Indeed, Malory’s view of the knights and of Arthurian society in general often verges on the cynical, as he shows how various knights succumb to the temptations of lust or of the selfish search for glory. For instance, only Galahad, who steers clear of both (mostly because he is so young and is also divinely fated to do so), can attain the Holy Grail, while the other knights are not “pure” enough—that is, they lack the greatest honor and chivalry. Malory thus shows how deep of a gap there is between the chivalric ideal and the sorry morals of those inhabiting it. Besides, even this chivalric ideal is internally contradictory: the ideal of chastity is somewhat at odds with the ideal of defending a lady, for instance, and Malory never explicitly condemns Launcelot’s affair with Guenever—even though it leads to a tragic end—simply because their love is so strong and “pure,” and because Launcelot is such a skilled knight in other aspects. Instead, Malory seems content to describe these contradictions as they are without reconciling them, and without explicitly condemning them to hypocrisy.
Honor and Chivalry ThemeTracker
Honor and Chivalry Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur
And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:— Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost by the faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I had liefer to die with honour than to live with shame; and if it were possible for me to die an hundred times, I had liefer to die so oft that yield me to thee; for though I lack weapon, I shall lack no worship, and if thou slay me weaponless that shall be thy shame.
Then the king wept, and dried his eyes with a kerchief, and said, Your courage had near-hand destroyed you, for though ye had returned again, ye had lost no worship; for I call it folly, knights to abide when they be overmatched. Nay, said Launcelot and the other, for once shamed may never be recovered.
I took none heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wrecked upon them that I had do withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was; for peradventure though I had meat in King Arthur’s kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places, but all that I did for to prove and assay my friends, and that shall be known another day; and whether that I be a gentleman born or none, I let you wit, fair damosel, I have done you gentleman’s service, and peradventure better service yet will I do or I depart from you.
For an it happeth an envious man once to win worship he shall be dishonoured twice therefore; and for this cause all men of worship hate an envious man, and will shew him no favour, and he that is courteous, and kind, and gentle, hath favour in every place.
Ah Gawaine, Gawaine, ye have betrayed me; for never shall my court be amended by you, but ye will never be sorry for me as I am for you. And therewith the tears began to run down his visage.
My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto great dishonour. For when I sought worldly adventures for worldly desires, I ever enchieved them and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfit in no quarrel, were it right or wrong. And now I take upon me the adventures of holy things, and now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me and shameth me, so that I had no power to stir nor speak when the holy blood appeared afore me.
Merlin made the Round Table in tokening of roundness of the world, for by the Round Table is the world signified by right, for all the world, Christian and heathen, repair unto the Round Table; and when they are chosen to be of the fellowship of the Round Table they think them more blessed and more in worship than if they had gotten half the world; and yet have seen that they have lost their fathers and their mothers, and all their kin, and their wives and their children, for to be of your fellowship.
He called to Galahad, and said to him: Come forth the servant of Jesu Christ, and thou shalt see that thou hast much desired to see. And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh began to hold the spiritual things. Then he held up his hands toward heaven and said: Lord, I thank thee, for now I see that that hath been my desire many a day. Now, blessed Lord, would I not longer live, if it might please thee, Lord.
For ever, said Arthur, it is a worshipful knight’s deed to help another worshipful knight when he seeth him in a great danger; for ever a worshipful man will be loath to see a worshipful man shamed; and he that is of no worship, and fareth with cowardice, never shall he show gentleness, nor no manner of goodness where he seeth a man in any danger, for then ever will a coward show no mercy; and always a good man will do ever to another man as he would be done to himself.
For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May, in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month, for divers causes. For then all herbs an trees renew a man and woman, and likewise lovers call again to their mind old gentleness and old service, and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence. For like as winter rasure doth always arase and defase green summer, so fareth it by unstable love in man and woman. For in many persons there is no stability; for we may see all day, for a little blast of winter’s rasure, anon we shall deface and lay apart true love for little or nought, that cost much thing; this is no wisdom nor stability, but it is feebleness of nature and great disworship, whosomever uses this.
Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world; for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain.
Then Sir Launcelot saw her visage, but he wept not greatly, but sighed.
Thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.