Primary Sources: Le Morte D’Arthur, Book XIV Conclusions
So wow! Book XIV gets pretty crazy, huh? I’m going to start with the last thing that happens, Percivale castrating himself as penance for letting the Devil seduce him.
To be fair, what Malory says is thigh-wound. But I’m hardly the only person to interpret that as castration, some googling around tells me. All the wounded-in-the-thigh guys we meet are described in terms that suggest infirmity and impotence. There’s also a whole thing about sexual identity in the Middle Ages and castration in literature as being in some kind of dialogue with different versions of queer, and anyway. Percivale castrates himself. That happens, and then the Devil just leaves. It’s really unclear where she goes or why. I was expecting a big knight-versus-monster fight, but instead you have self-mutilation and then the monster just vanishes. It’s as though she was only into Percivale for his dick! The Devil is weird.
Speaking of, the way Malory has the Devil recount the story of her expulsion from heaven in Chapter 8? Maybe the cleverest bit in Le Morte D’Arthur so far, which makes me wonder where he ripped it off. She (odd that Malory gives the Devil a gender and that gender is female, though I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising) has a surprising depth of character, in that one scene: bitter, and yet trying to do good in her own way. Oddly sympathetic.
Which makes the bit in the next chapter, when Malory goes off on a little spiel about how at first the Devil plays coy like she isn’t interested in Percivale, but really she’s just toying with him because like all women she’s a trickster… that’s odd in a wholly different way. 1460 was a very different time and Malory’s culture is not my culture, even if we mostly share a language.
It’s also unclear just when Percivale’s dream ends. Or begins! Around the time he meets the three-hundred-year-old man, Evelake, the level of unreality in his story spikes upwards and it never really comes back down. You’ve got a demon horse, a funeral that exists apparently solely so that Percivale can crash it, Nacien out of nowhere, the Devil and her ship, the lion and the serpent and the maidens young and old… it’s like the weird mystic sequence in Book XI, when Bors visits Castle Corbin, but it keeps going on and on.
And although Malory tells us that for Book XV he’s switching back to Sir Launcelot for a bit, plainly Percivale’s marvelous adventure isn’t done yet.
I’ve always thought the Devil works best when he’s tempting people into sin instead of just slapping them around. I mean, beating the Devil isn’t kicking his ass; it’s standing up to him. I mean, if the Devil kills Percivale, what happens? Percivale goes to Heaven. What does that accomplish? Surely it’s better to leave him alive and try again later. Maybe “I’ll swap functioning genitalia for your soul.”
Here, Percivale castrates himself instead of giving in to his lust; the Devil loses. Killing Percivale isn’t on the agenda. The Devil loses a fiddle contest and walks away, because he’s already lost and smiting the kid doesn’t get him anything. Spider-Man swaps his marriage for his aunt; the Devil wins.
Yep, this was my take on it as well.