Identity in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
It can be difficult to define the unifying themes of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur ; it can seem a tangle of random adventures mired with magic and religion, love and fate. What is the purpose behind all the seemingly similar adventures of so many similar knights? And what is the place that the books of Sir Trystram hold? These books make up the longest section of the work, yet Trystram plays no role in the search for the Holy Grail or the downfall of Arthur. There are many parallels drawn between Trystram and Launcelot: they are both the greatest knights of their time, both the greatest lovers, both become mad for a short time, etc. What distinguishes Trystram from Launcelot; what is his distinctive purpose within the themes of the work? I am indebted to Jill Mann’s “The Narrative of Distance, The Distance of Narrative in Malory’s Morte Darthur ” for helping me work out my answers to these questions. Though I do not fully agree with her theory that Le Morte is primarily concerned with the creation and obliteration of distance, I do find her ideas of narrative distance in relation to identity important.
Before discussing Sir Trystram and his role in Le Morte, I would like to use the episode of Sir Froll to illustrate the way that identity is important in the chivalric world of Arthur’s reign. Identity, in this chivalric world, has two aspects—public and private. Public identity is associated with fellowship and physicality; private identity with individuality and emotionality. A knight-errant is primarily concerned with his public identity, but identity (both public and private) obscures the seemingly straightforward duties of chivalry. Knights frequently begin quests and jousts unnamed in order to prevent their identity from complicating what is initially a clear duty—to joust with an encountered knight—but in order to render such a joust or quest meaningful, both publicly and privately , the knights must name themselves.
The “Sir Froll episode” begins when Sir Lamerok sees four knights fighting against one and he determines to rescue the sole knight (Malory, 337-341). The end is when Sir Bellyaunce, Sir Froll’s brother, reconciles with Lamerok after they fight to exhaustion. Mann, looking at this episode solely in terms of distance and wholeness (leaving a fellowship to follow a quest creates distance and the formality of identifying oneself creates wholeness by uniting the two jousting knights), finds that the meaning of the episode becomes confused:
Yet if Bellyaunce’s revelation discloses their linkage as a chronological sequence, it also disrupts their coherence at the level of meaning: the knight whom Lamorak had so recently been at pains to rescue from death is the very same one that he himself turns out to have killed—for no very compelling reason as it seems to us—a few days later. Lamorak’s second tangential entry into a sequence of events negates the...