God, I loved this book. I loved that it wasn’t all about Tristram and Palomides having repetitious adventures, and there isn’t all that much jousting, even! Is this the best book of Le Morte D’Arthur? Only time will tell. Maybe after things chill a bit and we get back to normal here at Primary Sources, the shine will come off Book XI. I mean, it’s not perfect.
Take Elaine, for instance. She’s your usual Malory “heroine,” and I use that word hella loosely, inasmuch as she almost entirely lacks initiative. Her handmaiden/governess/lady-in-waiting/personal enchantress Dame Brisen is the one who orchestrates the plan to seduce Launcelot, both times. Elaine just whines or moons over Launcelot; that is literally pretty much everything she does.
Book XI is nominally about Launcelot, and it opens with a significant event in his life, the conception of his son Galahad. Malory, I think, wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, Launcelot is the cruel victim of enchantment, but on the other hand, he is totally best you guys and so Malory can’t help making it a little ambiguous whether Launcelot was really aware he was sleeping with Elaine either time.
The first time, okay, I’m willing to give Launcelot that one. He has no reason to expect a bunch of illusions, and he has to deal with an illusory courier, an illusory ring, and goblet of what is either straight-up whisky or else a magic potion. Malory is real clear that Launcelot’s judgement is clouded and he’s not wholly himself until the next morning.
Brisen’s second plan is a lot less intricate and Launcelot has more reasons to be suspicious. Quick math break: Arthur met Guenever back in Book I, but didn’t marry her until Book III. Say she was fifteen at their wedding. Even in medieval times brides were usually older than that, but the nobility skewed young. After that, a stripling young Gawaine becomes a knight. Sometime after that, Gawaine’s son Gingalain becomes a knight. There’s a whole hilarious story about Gingalain that Malory never goes into, by the way. But figure a twenty year gap between them getting knighted, just as a first estimate. Then there’s all the stuff that happens after Gingalain gets mentioned as a knight, like, all of Book X which by my estimation took roughly eighty years to get through. However you slice it, Guenever’s minimum age is late thirties, and that’s being generous. Meanwhile, Elaine is a teenager. I feel that even if they were the same height and general build, Launcelot ought to be able to distinguish between them in the dark. Brisen doesn’t warn Elaine that she has to be silent during the tryst, because otherwise Launcelot will recognize her voice as not Guenever’s…
Also Launcelot’s breakdown makes more sense, to me at least, as being motivated by guilt over something he chose in a moment of weakness, versus self-flagellation over a scenario in which he’s as much the victim as anyone.
Moving on. I liked Bors’s crazy surreal strange adventure wherein he was almost mauled by a lion and saw a dragon breathing smaller dragons. It’s great that the Grail is finally starting to have an impact on the plot, and if Malory were just a little bit better at structuring novels, I’m sure he’d draw an explicit parallel between Balin and Balan killing one another, and Percivale and Ector almost killing one another but being miraculously healed by the power of the Grail. It’s almost as though all the stuff Merlin ran around setting up in Book II is finally coming to pass!
Speaking of Percivale, I don’t know what got up his butt about Aglavale. Again, a writer who was not Sir Thomas Malory would maybe (just maybe) set up Aglavale as callous towards Manuel, or responsible for his death in a way that exonerated Percivale, and generally put the two halves of Percivale’s adventure into some kind of unity. Plus Veronica showing up seemed kind of random. So, not great.
Still, so much better than Book X.