Dwayne C. Coleman, University of Central Arkansas
Murder, Manslaughter, and Responsibility: Killing in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur
In “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney,” Malory relates of Sir Gareth’s future alienation from his elder brother Sir Gawain because Gawain, as he explains, “was evir vengeable, and where he hated he wolde be avenged with murther” (Malory 360). Malory is obviously referencing the murders of Sir Pellinor and Sir Lamorak that Gawain and his other brothers will commit later in “The Book of Sir Tristram.” He portrays these murders as being among the more destructive events in the history of the Round Table, and although Gawain tries to use the justification of blood feud, the killings are a clear breach of Arthurian chivalry as formulated in the Pentacost oath sworn at the ordination of the Round Table. More complex is Sir Lancelot’s later killing of Sir Mellyagaunt after denying his plea for mercy. The killing comes as part of trial by combat, and the duplicitous Mellyagaunt garners little sympathy. However, Lancelot’s determination to “be revenged” upon him pushes the boundaries of justice and creates an undercurrent of moral ambiguity (Malory 1138). No one ever questions the righteousness of Lancelot’s action just as Gawain is never really made to answer for Lamorak’s death, and these acts are taken as symptoms of the larger conflicts within the order. Both Gawain and Lancelot later seek to atone for moral failures, but these killings are not among them. The incidents demonstrate the challenge that Malory faces in establishing what is murder and what is a righteous killing.
Euan Drew Griffiths, UNC – Chapel Hill
Arthur’s Executioner: murder and legality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The fourteenth-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, presents a fascinating contrast between life and death, right and wrong. Sir Gawain, acting according to the rules of chivalry and courtliness answers a challenge on behalf of his king to behead the Green Knight. The consequences of Gawain’s actions, however, bind him to a greater web of legal and moral choices that convey him towards his own, seemingly unavoidable, execution. In the course of his road to death, the Green Knight presents Gawain with a series of “mind games” that challenge Gawain’s adherence to his former legal structure, the Old Testament, and he is introduced to a new moral and legal framework, the New Testament. Ultimately, Gawain must account for his actions, particularly his rash decision to kill the Green Knight, and he offers his own head in return. The poem rejects Gawain’s approach, and instead celebrates mercy and restraint in response to penalty and unabashed violence. Instead of death, Gawain receives the slightest of cuts to his neck and a green girdle, symbols of his mistakes to take with him back to Arthur’s court. Thus, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight confronts medieval chivalry and its legal framework through Gawain’s quest to the Green Chapel. The poem not only critiques the genre of Chivalric Romance, but also poses demanding questions regarding individual responsibility and violence as a punishment for sin.
Anne Latowsky, University of South Florida
Who Gets Killed and Why? Homicide in the Fabliaux Tradition