The book largely supports and defends the ideals of honor and chivalry, but these ideals are then often contrasted with the actions of many knights who fail to live up to them. As part of the requirement of maintaining their honor, the Knights of the Round Table must either defend a woman—or one’s “ownership” of a woman—or else defend their land and property from rivals. Malory gives us an unflinching view of the petty jealousy and rivalry of many of the knights, although his tone shifts regularly from gravity to irony, depending on the situation.
Launcelot, for instance, is usually a more tragic than comic character in his wholehearted desire to compete for Guenever’s heart, and to defend her against any other rivals (even though she is married to King Arthur). The lust between Launcelot and Guenever—and the increasing lack of subtlety in their affair—ultimately leads to the downfall, not only of Arthur, but also of the kingdom itself. The affair sets in motion a series of circumstances, from Arthur’s sentencing of Guenever to death to the murder of several knights to the declaration of war between the two camps, that seem to lead inevitably to a tragic conclusion. The code of honor that the knights follow, indeed, seems to make revenge a never-ending affair, as each side continues to declare an act of revenge for the other side’s prior act. This is also true in the realm of politics, as with King Arthur’s knights’ battles with Rome, just as much as it is in love.
Other subplots in the book emphasize just how extensive these so-called values of competition and revenge can become. The love triangle between Sir Tristram, Isoud (whom he loves), and King Mark, who marries Isoud, is shown as tragic but also, as with Guenever and Launcelot, immoral, given that it rests on adultery. In this case, too, competition and jealousy are part of an unending process of battle and response, one in which secular desire and pride are portrayed as just as powerful, if not more so, than the Christian and courtly ideals the knights are supposed to follow.
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge ThemeTracker
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur
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.
Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength. And because she deemed that Sir Launcelot loved Queen Guenever paramour, and she him again, therefore Queen Morgan le Fay ordained that shield to put Sir Launcelot to a rebuke, to that intent that King Arthur might understand the love between them.
But wit ye well Sir Palomides had envy heartily, for all that night he had never rest in his bed, but wailed and wept out of measure. So on the morn Sir Tristram, Gareth, and Dinadan arose early, and then they went unto Sir Palomides’ chamber, and there they found him fast asleep, for he had all night watched, and it was seen upon his cheeks that he had wept full sore. Say nothing, said Sir Tristram, for I am sure he hath taken anger and sorrow for the rebuke that I gave to him, and La Beale Isoud.
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.
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.
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.