BOOKS / Classic Thoughts: The fair maiden of Penge: Hugo Barnacle on Thomas Malory's down-to-earth Arthurian tales

Click to follow
CONTINENTALS read Don Quixote, not incorrectly, as a satire on the tales of Arthurian chivalry that held medieval Europe in thrall. The British merely read it as a comic study of a certain romantically deluded character type. This is not so much because we take the Arthurian legends seriously, but more because our own best-known versions of them, the ones written by Sir Thomas Malory while he was imprisoned for fighting on the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, are down-to-earth in a way the Continental ones are not. They do little to deserve or reward satirical attention.

Chretien de Troyes, the French poet who invented Lancelot, wrote a long moral allegory called Le Chevalier de la Charette. In Chretien's story, Guinevere is kidnapped on one of her maying- rides by a wicked king. Lancelot seeks her out far, far away, in the enchanted realm of the Terre Foraine, undergoing various trials in the process. Finally he loses his horse and comes to her rescue in a humble farm cart, symbolic penance for their adultery.

In Malory's free translation, The Knight of the Cart, when the queen is seized near Lambeth, Lancelot sets off from Westminster in hot pursuit and tracks her down the same day, a mere seven miles on, which places the villain's castle not in fairyland but somewhere like Wimbledon, Penge or Blackheath.

Malory would have no problem with this identification. In another tale in the cycle he introduces a fair maiden with mystic healing powers and happens to mention, delightfully, that she comes from Guildford. This is the kind of thing that places him beyond the reach of mockery.

When Lancelot's horse is shot by the villain's archers and he hijacks a passing cart, it is a demonstration not of humility but of virile can-do. Chretien was a troubadour; Malory was a hardened, and by all accounts dangerous, fighting man. It is also conspicuous that in Chretien's story, Guinevere snubs Lancelot for showing up in such a vehicle and refuses to speak to him; in Malory, after some simple and fetching dialogue, they go to bed.

Hoping - vainly, as it turned out - for a royal pardon, Malory wrote his works to endorse not only the aristocratic code but the ideal of Christian kingship, and besides all the rough stuff he creates characters of such decency and dignity, and lends some of their adventures such an artless and compelling air of religious mystery, that a few modern scholars are still trying their hardest to attribute the cycle to someone else: anyone but that rapacious blueblooded guerrilla we already know about.

But it was surely just that type of man who wrote Sir Ector's resonant farewell to his dead brother Lancelot, after the Round Table's fall. It is one of the noblest things in literature, yet it is an honest apologia for a life of warfare and adultery, which may be why it was so much quoted on the death of John F Kennedy.

'There thou lyest, that were never matched of erthely knyghtes hand. And thou were the curtest knyght that ever bare shelde] And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the truest lover, for a synful man, that ever loved woman, and thou were the kyndest man that ever strake with swerde. And thou were the godelyest person that ever cam emonge press of knyghtes, and thou was the mekyst man and the jentyllest that ever ete in hall emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in reste.'