I’ve recently begun reading Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, quite a long text from the 1600s that tells the tale of King Arthur Pendragon. I’m going to be doing a series of reviews for this book, simply because it’s so long – and also exceptionally interesting – but, before I get round to that, I had to address this issue.
We always seem to glorify King Arthur, thinking him the quintessence of the chivalric knight, always putting his people first and generally serving as the best king that we could possibly put into words.
Perhaps we favour him because we relate to some of the issues that he sought to solve; the general point of the round table, after all, was that all of King Arthur’s knights would be seen as equal, preventing him from having favourites in the court. As equality is now still such an enormous issue, we approve of how, even so long ago, Arthur was fighting for a fairer, more equal society.
But there’s a twist.
There are quite a lot of things in the myths of Arthur that don’t quite fit in with our image of the glorious, faultless king of Camelot.
Then King Arthur let send for all the children that were born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he should destroy him and all the land should be born on May-day. Wherefore he sent for them all, on pain of death, and so there were found many lords’ sons and many knights’ sons, and all were sent unto the King. … and all were put in a ship to the sea, and some were four weeks old, and some less. And so by fortune the ship drove unto a castle and was all to-riven, and destroyed the most part.
I know this isn’t the easiest text to understand, so here’s a breakdown: Arthur has sent for all the children and babies in his court that were born on May Day, put them on a ship, and left them to drown.
He does have a reason for this, but that doesn’t redeem him much; Merlin has recently told Arthur that because he unknowingly slept with his sister (that was a surprise for me, too), he’d ensured his own destruction, for his sister had given birth to Mordred, the boy who would one day destroy Arthur.
Now, the kings had a habit in Arthur’s day of passing off their children onto their knights, so the queens wouldn’t have to mother the babies. So… Arthur doesn’t know where his son is, what he looks like, or what his name is. All he does know, is that he was born on May Day.
His solution: kill them all.
I was absolutely horrified when I read this short paragraph somewhere near the end of part I of the book. I simply hadn’t expected such brutally to be passed off so casually, and, even though there is a reason for it, this Herod-like behaviour seems entirely unjustified.
I did some more reading, and found Marie Nelson’s narrative of the event. According to her, Arthur was still acting nobly, because “Merlin told him that the man who would destroy him “and all the lorde” would be born on May Day. The motive for Arthur’s act could have been a desire to preserve his own life and thus protect his kingdom” (Nelson 267). Now, the key bit to note here, is that Merlin told that Mordred would destroy “all the lorde”, not just Arthur.
Yet, at the same, it does stand to reason that Arthur cannot protect his kingdom from beyond the grave. In that sense, I can understand Nelson’s view, yet, at the same time, and perhaps I’m being pretty anachronistic here, but I don’t feel as though a good, strong king, who sought only to protect his kingdom, would want to murder babies!
Perhaps I’m wrong, but, either way, I can honestly say that Le Morte Darthur is proving itself to be a fascinating read.
Malory, Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford UP, 2008.
Nelson, Marie. “King Arthur and the Massacre of the May Day Babies: A Story Told by Sir Thomas Malory, Later Retold by John Steinbeck, Mary Stewart, and T. H. White.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 11, no. 3 (43), 2000, pp. 266-281. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43308459.