Posts Tagged ‘Free Will in Le Morte D’Arthur’

In Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory greatly reduced Merlin’s character from a great magician and prophet to little more than a counselor to King Arthur.  Malory’s story begins with how Arthur became king, totally omitting Merlin’s early history and actions prior to King Arthur’s birth.  While Malory may have expected his readers already to know the tales of Merlin’s early life so there was no need to repeat them, Malory’s primary concern was to give a history and portrayal of Arthur’s court.  Peter Goodrich states that Malory was more interested in expressing his concept of kingship than showing how Merlin could control events with his magical powers (130).  Malory’s text reflects a rejection of any magic or prophecy that might control events.  Instead, Malory’s intent is a portrayal of how characters’ actions are determined by their own free will.  In establishing Camelot, however, someone other than the young and untried Arthur was needed to make believable the foundation of the court and its ideals.  Perhaps also feeling Merlin was too integral a part of the Arthurian legend to be deleted, Malory transformed Merlin from a great magician and prophet into King Arthur’s counselor.  While Merlin does still display some magical and prophetic aspects in Le Morte D’Arthur, he primarily counsels Arthur in establishing Camelot.  Occasionally Merlin does use magic or utter prophecy, but in such situations, Merlin only does so to establish the values of Camelot or to open up opportunities for the characters to make important choices.  Merlin is a tool for the possibility of free will rather than a person who can manipulate future events.

Merlin and Baby Arthur by N.C. Wyeth

Merlin taking away the child Arthur, an illustration by N.C. Wyeth from Sidney Lanier's "The Boy's King Arthur"

What Malory retains of Merlin’s mystical and prophetic side is embodied in Merlin’s role as counselor to Arthur and the other characters.  Lambert remarks that Malory’s reduction of Merlin to counselor does not reflect his attitude toward “fairye” but instead reflects his purposes and attitudes about his writing (115).  Lambert also believes Malory was indifferent about religion (118).  I believe religion and magic (“fairye”) were both of minor concern to Malory because they did not fit his purpose of expressing free will.  Just as Malory sparsely uses magic, he rarely uses Christian miracles to promote the action, with the exceptions of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and the Grail Quest.   In “The Tale of the Sankgreal”, Malory largely secularizes the story by deleting the theological explanations in the work, so the story, not the religious message, is most important, unlike in his source the Queste del Saint Graal (Vinaver, “Malory”, 547).  Vinaver says Malory does not give doctrinal interpretations because Malory wants the story to speak for itself (“Malory” 548).  I would go one step further by adding that Malory wants the reader to interpret for himself rather than accepting an author’s imposed viewpoint.

The lack of interpretation and magic also allows the characters to act by their own choices rather than exist in some predestined world over which they have no control.  Malory does not want magic or a Supreme Being to act as a type of “deus ex machina” to rescue the characters from difficult situations.  Instead, the characters must make their own choices and accept the results.  Malory’s treatment of Merlin best exemplifies how magic is used only when absolutely necessary, while at other times, Merlin merely makes suggestions that open up situations where the characters can exercise their free will by making their own choices.  Neither does Malory allow Merlin’s prophecies to effect the characters’ actions.  Goodrich states that Malory did not feel comfortable with the authority Merlin has by being a prophet (164).   If Merlin tells characters what the future holds, the characters could be interpreted as purposely bringing about that future, thinking they have no other choice.   Malory does not allow Merlin to control the characters’ futures by prophecies about their destinies because chance occurences are problematic enough for the characters to base their choices upon;  the choices made in chance situations are what determine the fate of the characters’ world (Mann 89).  When Malory does allow Merlin to utter prophecies, the prophecies are vague enough not to control the actions of the characters, and usually the characters reject or ignore the prophecies.  Mann remarks that Malory’s use of Merlin is to show how the action occurs not in the adventures but in the knights’ own decisions (74-5).  What control Merlin does have over the action is a manipulative role where he stays in the background, offering advice and suggestions.  Characters who take his advice are usually wise to do so, while those who do not heed his advice end up in tragic situations, but what remains important is that there is always a choice open to the characters.  While Merlin appears authoritative and tells characters what to do in “Merlin”, as the narrative progresses into the “Balin or The Knight with the Two Swords” and “Torre and Pellinor” sections, Malory lessens Merlin’s control, placing him more and more in the background, and only making suggestions rather than giving orders for the characters to follow.  These latter two sections are the most important to understand how Malory uses Merlin to illustrate the characters’ opportunities to make their own choices and exercise their free will.  In these two sections, Merlin primarily acts as a counselor or a manipulator of events, but he never participates in the primary action.  In other places, Merlin does utter prophecies, but these prophecies are only a means of foreshadowing future events in the narrative to retain the reader’s interest.  The prophecies never have a direct influence upon the story’s action.

Two of Merlin’s prophecies occur in “Balin or The Knight with the Two Swords”.  Merlin appears to King Mark at the tomb of the Lady Columbe.  Here he prophesies that Tristram and Lancelot will fight at the tomb, but neither one will slay the other (Malory 45).  The foreshadowing of this event is an advertisement for upcoming scenes in the book, but the prophecy has no effect on any of the characters’ actions.  Those who hear the prophecy do not even remark or seem to pay any attention to it.  Immediately after uttering this prophecy, Merlin is asked who he is by King Mark.  The wizard replies, “ ‘I woll nat telle you.  But at that tyme sir Trystrams ys takyn with his soveraigne lady, than shall ye here and know my name;  and at that tyme ye shall [here] tydynges that shall nat please you’ ” (Malory 45).  This prophecy is also of little effect, and King Mark does not even react to it.  More importantly, the prophecy does not state what the outcome will be of sir Trystram being taken with his “soveraigne lady”.  It is not even clear, though perhaps implied, that the “soveraigne lady” will be King Mark’s wife.  Merlin makes a more important prophecy in the next scene.  Malory writes, “Merlion tolde unto kynge Arthure of the prophecy that there sholde be a grete batayle besydes Salysbiry, and Mordred hys owne sonne sholde be agaynste hym” (Malory 49).  But Merlin does not tell Arthur what will be the result of this battle.  For all the king knows, he may defeat Mordred or the battle may end with a peace treaty.  Oddly, Malory does not even make Arthur curious enough to ask what the result of this battle will be.  Again the prophecy has no effect upon the story, but instead, it works as a foreshadowing.  Merlin might as well be speaking to himself, considering the lack of reaction from Arthur.

In the following book “Torre and Pellinor”, Merlin makes another similar prophecy without explaining what will be the full effect of the event he foretells.  When Arthur wishes to marry and chooses Guinevere, Malory says, “But M[e]rlyon warned the king covertly that Gwenyver was nat holsom for hym to take to wyff. For he warned hym that Launcelot scholde love hir, and sche hym agayne” (Malory 59), but then Merlin changes the subject to the adventures of the Holy Grail.  He omits to tell Arthur that Lancelot and Guinevere’s love will result in the fall of Camelot.  Merlin appears only to be giving Arthur information rather than forbidding Arthur to marry Guinevere, so Arthur is left to make his own choice, and he chooses Guinevere despite Merlin’s words.  Arthur is not even depicted as considering what Merlin’s words might mean.  Instead, Arthur is simply given knowledge of the future, but the knowledge is so incomplete that Arthur cannot know the future’s outcome.  This ambiguity places Arthur in a position where he does not have to feel the future is destined to be a disaster.

Only twice does Merlin utter prophecies that characters respond to, and curiously, these prophecies are Merlin’s most specific ones.  The first occurs when Merlin warns Balin of what will happen because Balin failed to save the Lady Columbe.  Merlin states:

“because of the dethe of that lady thou shalt stryke a stroke moste dolerous that ever man stroke . . . . For thou shalt hurte the trewyst knyght and the man of moste worship that now lyvith;  and thorow that stroke three kyngdomys shall be brought into grete poverte, miseri and wrecchednesse twelve yere.”  (Malory 45)

Balin responds, “nat so;  for and I wyste thou seyde soth, I wolde do so perleous a dede that I wolde sle myself to make the a lyer” (Malory 45).  Rather than reply to Balin, Merlin now vanishes.  Even though the dolorous stroke does later occur, Balin’s reaction is a refusal to believe in destiny;  therefore, Merlin’s prophecy in no way determines Balin’s actions.  The second response to one of Merlin’s prophecies is uttered by King Pellinor in the “Torre and Pellinor” section.  Pellinor returns from a quest and tells the court how he did not help a maiden when she asked for his help.  As a result of Pellinor’s inaction, the maiden was later eaten by a lion.  Merlin then tells Pellinor:

‘Truly ye ought sore to repent hit . . . for that lady was your own doughtir . . . . And because ye wolde nat abyde and helpe hir, ye shall se youre best frende fayle you whan ye be in the grettist distresse that ever ye were othir shall be.  And . . . he that ye sholde truste moste on of ony man on lyve, he shall leve you there ye shall be slayne.’

‘Me forthynkith hit,’ seyde kynge Pellynor, ‘that thus shall me betyde, but God may well fordo desteny.’  (Malory 75)

Like Balin, Pellinor rejects that there is a future that must be his destiny.  Although both prophecies come true, the characters’ reactions reflect that Merlin can in no way be considered an agent in making destiny shape the characters’ future decisions rather than allowing them to exercise free will.

Merlin’s prophecies are less important than the way Merlin manipulates situations for the good of the kingdom.  The wizard often makes suggestions or pulls strings to create situations that provide the characters with choices.  When characters make the right choices, the kingdom prospers.  A simple example of such a situation occurs when Merlin suggests to Balin and Balan that the two brothers ambush King Royns who is waging war against Arthur.  While Merlin suggests the action to Balin and Balan, the two brothers are the ones who act.  Unlike in the text’s earlier scene where Merlin enchants Pellinor so Pellinor will not see or harm Arthur (Malory 36), Merlin is now placing the fate of the kingdom in the hands of the characters rather than using his own powers to establish the kingdom’s security.  Balin and Balan choose to act on Merlin’s suggestion, and they succeed in capturing King Royns and bringing him as a prisoner to Arthur (Malory 46).

Once King Royns is captured, his brother Nero and King Lot decide to attack Arthur.  They lead their armies against Arthur, but Merlin prevents Lot from going into battle.  “And Merlion com to kynge Lotte of the Ile of Orkeney and helde hym with a tale of the prophecy tylle Nero and his peple were destroyed” ( Malory 47).  This passage leaves unclear whether Merlin detains Lot with a story or more likely enchants him in some way.  When Lot then hears that Nero’s army has been destroyed while Lot tarried, Lot is angry at Merlin, exclaiming, “thys faytoure [impostor] with hys prophecy hath mocked me” (Malory 48).  Here Merlin does effect the action, as earlier when he enchanted Pellinor, but Malory explains Merlin’s purpose by stating that Merlin

knew well that [and] kynge Lot had bene with hys body at the first batayle, kynge Arthure had he and all his peple distressed.  And . . . that one of the kynges sholde be dede that day;  and . . . he had levir kynge Lotte of Orkeney had be slayne than Arthure.  (Malory 48)

Malory only allows Merlin to act in situations where it is vital that Merlin protect the king.  As long as Arthur is safe, Merlin appears content merely to manipulate events while letting the other characters perform the action.

As with Arthur, Merlin plays the role of counselor to Balin.  Merlin warns Balin that the knight will strike the dolorous stroke, but Merlin does not attempt to prevent it from happening.  However, after Balin has struck King Pellam and the castle has crumbled, Merlin appears and rescues Balin from where he lies among the castle ruins (Malory 54).  It is significant that Merlin acts only after Balin has acted for himself, so Merlin in no way causes the dolorous stroke.  Merlin now gives Balin a horse and tells him to leave the country.  Balin agrees to go, remarking to the wizard that they will never meet again.  I believe, however, that Merlin appears once more in Balin’s life.  When Balin later approaches the castle where he will slay his brother in a tournament, Balin is met on the road by “an old hore gentylman” who warns him “ ‘Balyn le Saveage, thow passyst thy bandes to come this waye, therfor torne ageyne and it will availle the,’ and he vanysshed awey anone” (Malory 55).  Merlin often appears in disguise as well as often vanishing so disguising himself as the old man would be characteristic of Merlin.  Even if the old man is not Merlin, what is important is that the old man’s words are only a suggestion and do not control the action.  Balin is told what would be the best choice, but he instead chooses to go to the tournament.  Only after he has given up his shield does Balin repent the deed, but then he knows he cannot change it, remarking “I will take the adventure that shalle come to me” (Malory 56).

Merlin reappears after Balin and Balan have slain one another.  The wizard now removes the pommel from Balin’s sword, replacing it with another.  Upon the pommel, Merlin writes the prophecy that Lancelot will slay Gawain with this sword.  Then Merlin places the sword in a stone and floats the stone down the river where it will eventually come to Camelot for Galahad to achieve.  Merlin also takes Balin’s scabbard and leaves it on the island for Galahad to find (Malory 58).  Although Merlin does tell an unnamed knight that no one shall use Balin’s sword again until Galahad, the text is ambiguous as to whether the unnamed knight witnesses what Merlin does with the sword and scabbard.  Merlin may be making preparations for the future, but these preparations may, like many of the prophecies, merely be a foreshadowing to keep the reader’s interest since there is no indication that the other characters know of Merlin’s actions.  After Merlin makes these preparations for the Grail Quest, Malory writes that Merlin told Arthur how Balin committed the dolorous stroke, and also how Balin died, but Merlin does not mention that Balin’s sword and scabbard will be important in the Grail Quest.  Later in “Torre and Pellinor” when Arthur and Merlin are discussing Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, Merlin changes the subject, “and so he turned his tale to the aventures of the Sankegreal” (Malory 59), but the obscurity of this passage leaves unclear what Arthur knows about the Grail Quest other than that it will take place.  “The Tale of the Sankgreal” suggests that all the characters except Merlin are largely ignorant about the Grail Quest.  When Galahad appears, no one at Camelot remarks that this knight is the one whom Merlin foretold would come.  Even Arthur marvels at the stone floating in the river which holds Balin’s sword, never reflecting that Merlin foretold this event (Malory 516-19).  Whatever Merlin told Arthur could not have been very detailed.  Oddly, it is Galahad who remarks that the sword once belonged to Balin (Malory 520).  Galahad had not even been born when Merlin was at Camelot, and since no one seems to understand the appearance of the sword, it is unlikely that Galahad came by his knowledge of the sword from one of the knights at Camelot.  The only knight who might know about the sword is the knight to whom Merlin had told the sword’s prophecy, but since this knight is nameless, the reader does not know whether this knight is present when Galahad achieves the sword.  The anonymous knight merely seems a tool Malory uses so Merlin will have someone to hear his prophecy, thereby allowing the prophecy to appear in the text as a foreshadowing to keep the reader’s interest.  Merlin’s actions and prophecies regarding the Grail Quest have only set up a situation for the characters to react to while Merlin in no way controls the characters’ actions regarding the Grail Quest.

Merlin also sets up the Round Table at the time of Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding.  The wizard creates seats for all the knights, including creating the Siege Perilous;  he foretells that in the Siege Perilous shall sit the greatest, most worthy knight (Malory 63), but as usual, Merlin is ambiguous in presenting information, not saying who that knight will be, nor that the knight is the one who will achieve the Holy Grail.  As earlier with the sword in the floating stone, when Galahad sits in the Siege Perilous (Malory 518), no one remarks that Merlin foretold Galahad would specifically be the knight to occupy that seat, nor is Merlin responsible for determining which knight will have that honor.

Now that Merlin has established Arthur as king, prepared for the Grail Quest and organized the Round Table, Merlin’s remaining task is to set up the values which will be the standards of Camelot.  These values are established during Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding celebration.  Malory does an ingenious job of depicting Merlin as manipulator of the action to the point where Merlin’s own actions are almost not noticeable in the text.  Merlin’s manipulations show that he does not impose a set of values upon the Round Table but merely opens the way for the characters’ actions to be used in the creation of these values.  At the wedding feast, a hart, a brachet, and thirty hounds run through the banquet hall.  They are followed by a knight, a lady, and then another knight who carries the lady off by force.  After this interruption, Arthur is thankful to have peace restored to his castle;  however, Merlin tells him “ye may nat leve hit so, this adventure, so lyghtly, for thes adventures muste be brought to an ende, other ellis hit woll be disworshyp to you and to youre feste” (Malory 63).  Merlin has not forced Arthur to act, but merely made a suggestion.  Arthur acts upon the suggestion by selecting Gawain, Torre, and Pellinor to follow the company that has just passed through the banquet hall.  The king requests that the knights return with the beasts, knights and lady so the strange adventure can be explained (Malory 64).  The three knights split up, each having a separate adventure.  Upon the knights’ return, Merlin suggests that Arthur order the knights to swear to tell their adventures.  “Merlion dud make kynge Arthure that sir Gawayne was sworne to tell of hys adventure” (Malory 67).  The same order is given to Torre and Pellinor.  Arthur, not Merlin, forces the knights to tell their tales, but Merlin has indirectly caused the tales to be told.  After each knight tells his story, the court passes judgment on each knight according to his deeds.  Torre is found honorable while Gawain and Pellinor have both made mistakes judged unworthy of knights.  After judgment has been passed on the knights’ actions, Arthur, for the first time without prompting from Merlin, stands up and declares what will be the values of Camelot (Malory 75).  This scene is the epitome of Arthur’s instruction under Merlin for now the king has learned to judge and act upon his own without Merlin’s tutelage.

The Beguiling of Merling by Edward Burne-Jones

"The Beguiling of Merlin" by Edward Burne-Jones

            Now that Arthur is a capable monarch and Camelot’s values have been established, Merlin’s work is finished.  In the next section, “The War with the Five Kings”, Merlin immediately falls in love with Nenyve, and in only a page and a half, Malory summarizes Merlin and Nenyve’s trip to the continent and how she traps him in a tomb.  Although Merlin has known what his fate will be, when Arthur asks if Merlin cannot stop the events from happening, Merlin replies “Nay . . . hit woll not be” (Malory 76).  Merlin is the only character to whom a prophecy is completely revealed, and he is also the only character who does not question or act contrary to that prophecy.  While Malory allows his other characters to make their own choices, Malory does not give Merlin free will, largely because Merlin’s omniscient nature makes Merlin unable to act without knowing the future.  Malory’s treatment of Merlin appears as a cruel trick, denying free will to the one character who has provided free will to the others.  While Malory is following his French sources in Nenyve’s enchantment of Merlin, Malory’s banishment of Merlin from the text seems much too sudden, but it results from Malory no longer having a purpose for the wizard (Goodrich 130).

            Malory’s use of Merlin reflects the impossibility of making any link between Camelot’s fall and any human or divine will (Mann 91).  Merlin provides characters with a chance to exercise free will rather than follow a preordained destiny.  While Merlin opens up situations for the characters to make choices, however, there are also occurences which happen by chance rather than being caused by the wizard.  Characters’ choices cannot always govern their world because chance events occur which people cannot control.  Merlin can prophesy what will happen to a character, as he does with Pellinor and Balin, but he cannot stop such events from happening.  When the values of the Round Table are established, the wizard has no control over Gawain, Torre, and Pellinor’s experiences.  Instead, Merlin merely knows what their actions are, and he uses this knowledge to manipulate the establishment of Camelot’s values.  Malory’s Merlin symbolizes how characters are not controlled by destiny but by the choices they make in whatever situations they encounter, whether such situations occur by chance or by Merlin’s creation.  While Merlin was traditionally a prophet and magician, Malory ingeniously twisted Merlin’s character into an example of how free will, not destiny, can shape the outcome of a person’s life.

Works Cited

Goodrich, Peter, ed.  The Romance of Merlin:  An Anthology.  New York: Garland, 1990.

Lambert, Mark.  Malory:  Style and Vision in Le Morte Darthur.  New Haven, CT:  Yale UP, 1975.

Malory, Sir Thomas.  Works.  Ed. Eugene Vinaver.  Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1971.

Mann, Jill.  “ ‘Taking the Adventure’:  Malory and the Suite de Merlin”.  Aspects of Malory.  Eds.  Toshiyuki Takamiya and Derek Brewer.  Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1981.  71-91.

Vinaver, Eugene.  “Sir Thomas Malory”.  Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages:  A Collaborative History.  1961.  Ed. Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1979.  541-552.


copyright 2012 Tyler R. Tichelaar

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