Thursday, October 31, 2013

Malory’s Le Morte Darthur: Merlin’s Providence

Just a little Merlin (close reading) for some Hallowe'en reading...

The first noticeable difference in Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian legends from the previous existing accounts is the pervasive influence of Merlin. Although Merlin has been given a prominent place in the modern notions of the Arthurian tradition, Malory’s is the first text to truly establish Merlin as a crucial player in the accession of Arthur to the throne as well as a character. Because Merlin only seems necessary in a few points in earlier texts, he is given little description or attention. In fact, Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to have spent the most time on Merlin’s character, and then only in a small anecdote of Merlin as a child and the discovery of him and his prophecies. However, the prophecies are set apart from the rest of the account and only a few seem to be truly integrated. Malory, on the other hand, creates a much more prominent as well as integrated Merlin, undetachable from the rest of the plot. Malory’s Merlin becomes, in Le Morte Darthur, the motion of God’s Providence.

It seems unclear, in the beginning, why Arthur must not be brought up by his father, Uther, but instead by the lower Sir Ector aside from the fact that Merlin orders it so. Malory does not seem to elaborate on this much; however, it is clear that in this way, Arthur is brought up in such a way that he does not know his royal heritage. Therefore, Arthur has the opportunity to fill his later inherited role as a good and righteous king, sympathetic to the common people and naturally kind to his former equals. This is shown first when Sir Ector witnesses Arthur pull the sword from the stone and recognizes Arthur as his superior, and not his son. Arthur, of course, swears to be his foster family’s “good and gracious lord,” and to have his “foster broder Syre Kay” as “senceall of alle [his] landes” (9-10). It seems that the peasants also desire one of their closer peers to take the throne (especially after they see the sign of “Goddes wille”): “[A]lle the comyns cryed at ones, ‘We wille have Arthur unto our kyng” (11). In this way, Merlin has created a good and desirable king (even though some see his youth negatively) by influencing Arthur’s upbringing. 

Of course, it is also Merlin who devises the sign for everyone to see that it is Arthur who should be king. It is Merlin who advises the Archbishop of Canterbury to make sure all lords and “gentilmen of armes” go to London to see “somme myracle who shold be rightwys kynge of this reame” (7). Because this was all “counceilled” and “devysed” by Merlin, it also seems clear that Merlin is responsible for the “miracle” supposedly from “Jesu” (7). However, rather than completely undermining God’s Providence, Merlin seems to almost be enacting it, instead. Merlin does recognize God’s will as is seen before Uther’s death, but puts himself alongside the workings of God stating, “God and I shalle make hym to speke” (7). This is seen also when Merlin acts through the Archbishop of Canterbury, a representative of God. Malory even describes this as the Archbishop acting according to “Merlyns provydence” (italics mine 11). Yet, Merlin’s providence still seems to be under God’s Providence

Merlin’s many prophecies, though made by Merlin, are still foreseeing what will happen. Even though Merlin aids in the creation of certain ends, his prophecies (and especially the ones that are seen fulfilled) prove that there is a predestined future, inevitable in one way or another. For example, Merlin foretells both his and Arthur’s deaths, saying it is “Goddis wylle” that Arthur “be punysshed for [his] fowle dedis,” but yet he will have a “worshipfull dethe” while Merlin will only have a “shamefull dethe, to be putte in the erthe quycke” (31). Even so, knowing his fate, Merlin cannot change it as it is later fulfilled through his hopeless love for Nenyve, a damsel of the Lady of the Lake. Even though she only uses Merlin for the “wondyrs” he can teach her, he continues to follow her anyway, until “by hir subtyle worchyng she made Merlyon to go undir that stone to latte hir wete of the mervayles there; but she wrought so there for hym that he come never oute for all the craufte he coude do” (79). Merlin may help along and help devise some of the pieces along God’s Providence, but the end is still out of his control.

However, Merlin’s end is not the end of his devices. Merlin plants certain things for the future to let them play out as they will. One such “device” is set up after the burial of Balyn and Balan when Merlin puts Balyn’s sword
into a marbil stone stondynge upright, as a grete mylstone, and hoved always above the water, and dud many yeres. (And so by adventure hit swamme downe by the streme unto the cité of Camelot . . . And that same day Galahad the haute prynce com with Kynge Arthure; and so Galaad brought with hym the scaberde and encheved the swerde that was in the marble stone hovynge upon the water. . .) (61)
Merlin also leaves the scabbard “on thys side the ilonde, that Galaad shole fynde hit” (61). In this way, Merlin both prophecies what will happen and helps to make it happen without his being there to guide events in that future. Even though here Merlin is devising God’s Providence, God is left to oversee that these events happen. 

Perhaps the reason for including Merlin so much more thoroughly is Malory’s way of playing off of what had become a much more popular figure in the Arthurian legend and creating a more solidly memorable character. Perhaps Malory meant to attempt a more concrete explanation for the random and ungrounded supernatural events that must happen in his encyclopedia according to the previous romances, accounts, or compilations. Whatever the case, Malory does seem to be mixing the traditional explanation that sufficed at one time—simply that of “God’s Providence”—with a more realistic means for the events within Malory’s reinvented Arthurian world.
Works Cited
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: Norton, 2004. Print.

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