Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Yggdrasil - A Story


After the fall of Rome and the Wolf Times came the age of Viking exploration.  In Spain and the Middle East Scandinavian adventurers encountered the lost science and literature of the Greeks and the Romans which reshaped their culture and paved  the way for the Norsk Imperial Age – Encyclopedia of the Norsk, Oslo

I don't know why I came back.  But when we marched from the woods to the amphitheater following the red banner, and the people ran to the tables to change their bets because they saw me limp and heard my heavy breath, I was blinded by tears.  I love this land.  I love the dragon-headed ships swaying in the fjord below the rocks where the performance is held.
The red banner pumps and wrinkles with the sail-loving, ship-killing wind.  Painted upon it, in white, is the figure of an old, one-eyed man wearing a sword and hanging from a tree:  Odin nailed to the ash tree of life.  Perhaps, I've come back because of that.
                 The banner is posted in the middle of the stage; it is time for the invocation.  I heave the old wolf cloak over my shoulders, the boys put on their bright helmets, the old woman smears a little more kohl across her pale cheek, Torval admires his painted scars in the reflection of a goblet wrapped with silver snakes, and they follow me out onto the boards.  They have seen my age and infirmity, now we'll show them strength.  As Sturluson says, 'it's best to begin with a mystery.'
                 At the same time, Eric and his come on from the right.  He wears a silver chaplet and his short, blond beard outlines his handsome features more than hides them.  Helena is with him, also the great fat man.  For just a moment I hate Eric for his youth, his success, and his place in the competition which was once mine.  We wait, and we don't wait, while the priests invoke Thor.  My hatred is arrogant but I know it.  That is one of the few benefits of age.
Well, good.  I need arrogance:  I play the king.  No one has dared play him since Wulfgar One-Eye died;  that was before I left.  I glare at the patron, the shipbuilder, Otha, who purchased the performance to please the gods and win good winds.  He loses his thin man's smile.  But it is the children in the front who give me what I need:  they are truly fearful.
Of course, the others use the time as well.  Eric demonstrates his easiness.  He grins a little and looks at the mountains.  Torval scratches his groin and pretends great confusion at the people watching us.  Helena stands perfectly still.  She doesn't move and she is beautiful.
The priests finish and all of us leave the stage:  Eric and his to the right, I and mine to the left.
"What could possibly keep you away for ten years, Haakon?" Torval whispers when we are off stage at the edge of the scrim.  The people can still see us, of course.  Nothing must be hidden.
"I don't know," I say, telling the truth.
He isn't satisfied, he rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue as the character he plays would.  His characters are never far off; it is part of his technique.  He wants a better answer.
I give him one.  "I sailed for three years,  then I sang with the skalds, I plowed fields with the Berlings who took their lands from the Franks."
"And where did you act?"
"I didn't," I say and smile.  And for a moment I feel that my life has come to nothing.
"And I didn't fart once while you were gone."
I glare; he is nonplused.  There are three blasts from the horn; the first scene is ours.  "It is time.  Now I must be the king."
"Indeed you are," he answers in a rugged, full voice not at all like the one he is using for the madman and puts his hand on my shoulder.  "I'm glad you came back, old man.  They say we'll lose.  I don't know of anyone who's ever won from this side."
"Winning is a complex thing,"  I answer.
"Remember, you're playing Lir, not his son."
I go first, followed by the young men, my guard in this scene, and Torval who hunches and squats and leers.  Helena, who plays my daughter, comes from the right.  Her black hair is pulled into a single plait and she stands tree-still and stares at me with implacable green eyes.  I have the first words, they're good first words and I love to say them.
"A single man's memory has more knots and coils than the dragon that curls around the great tree Yggdrasil.  We bind ourselves with our own cleverness and luck, but what else does a man have?  This world is dragon-minded.
"I have lived too long."  I lumber across the stage looking alternately at the audience and Helena.  "I must give away my son's birthright.  I am King of the Norsk, but I have no choice."
                 Helena turns to the audience and asks reasonably if I have agreed to give her in marriage to the son of the King of the Danes.
I stare out at the mountains, at the broken shape of a solitary tree breaking a ridge line. I count to two and turn to her.  "A woman cannot rule a kingdom.  You will need a man to rule for you.  And you will be queen over both lands."
                She turns to face me and in a low voice screams, "What about my brother?"
I'm as amazed as anyone else.  She was never capable of anguish like this before.  There's something stretched in her; she wants the scene.  I give away a small smile with half closed eyes.  As I expect, the audience takes this as even greater pain.  I relinquish a scene to no one, not even her.
"He is the source of this," I answer, reasonably.
"He said he would return."
"One summer is long enough for a cattle raid; two are enough to sail from one edge of the world to another.  He has been gone six."
"You don't know that he's dead."
"I don't know that he lives.  I hope for the sake of our people that he is dead."
                 The first scene ends with the marriage processional.  Everyone leaves the stage except the old woman, who sits in the center throwing runes whilst staring off at the sky.  Of course, it's nothing more than a device to create an atmosphere of portentousness.  It works better if there's something out there, like clouds, or if the wind is blowing.  Today the sky is blue and quiet.  Yet it works, even for me though I've seen it a hundred times.  The gods never tell us when they're with us and when they're not.  This is not the world at all and part of me believes in it utterly.
                 I nod as the old woman comes off and she smiles in return.
The next scene is Eric's and I stand at the edge of the boards and watch.  The old man and he are in rags.  They have been shipwrecked.  Eric wonders what to do; he had meant to return to his homeland in dragon ships swimming deeply with holds filled with riches.  Instead, because of a storm and Thor’s will, he is thrown up onto the empty beach of his homeland with nothing.  He addresses the audience as if they were the gods and asks what he should do.
They're silent as they always are, as we expect them to be.  The fat old man with him suggests that they should come to me and that Eric should assume his birthright.  Eric then goes down on a knee as if the fat old man were I and asks for the kingdom.  The old man parodies me in a gross way, says that Eric has been naughty for staying away for six years, and agrees.  Then he asks what reward he can give to the "great, good man that has returned my son to me."  Eric grimaces and he and the audience laugh.  It's a bit overdone, but it plays.  For Eric, the competition is a courtship and the most important thing is to be pretty and clever in the eyes of the beholders.
"Haakon?"  someone hisses.  I know it's Torval without looking.
"What," I hiss back and turn, and then I see.
Helena stands at the edge of the wings.  Everyone backstage is watching her suspiciously; she is from the other side, after all.  She stands as she stood on the stage and so I know she is nervous, too.
"Haakon, Eric would like to talk to you about the third act."
"Helena!" I say, opening the fur cloak and holding my arms out to her.
She doesn't move nor does her expression change.  "It's been nine years, Haakon," she says.
I wait for a moment, then drop my arms.  "This cloak is very heavy.  It's hard to hold it open like that."  I cough.
"Why did you come back?" she asks, her voice gentle yet icy, too.  I remember that now she is capable of roaring as well.  She has become a lioness.
"I don't know.  Maybe for you.  But wouldn't you rather know why I left?"
"Not anymore."
"Hmm," I muse, "You're about at the age now that I was when I left.  Who was I then?"  Her eyes grow wide and she sets her jaw; obviously age is a delicate issue, so I press on.  "And Eric is about the age you were then."
"The world has forgotten you," she answers, declaring the obvious.
Still, it hurts.  But then it was meant to.  There is still something between us.  It's time for a different attack.  "I missed you."
She's crying.  But she wipes her eyes as if she doesn't care who sees.  This is a strange indifference.  "What should I tell him?" she asks in the same flat voice.
She’s amazed:  bargaining over the last act is part of the game, the part of the performance that’s offstage, only partly seen and heard.
"Not now," I say.
She looks at me one last time, turns for the stairs, remembers something and turns back.  Her hair is red in the afternoon sun.  "Eric knows how fond you are of dying."
Then she is gone.  Only now am I aware of Torval standing at my side, watching where she stood.  I look at him and after a minute he looks at me.  "This is why you came back, Haakon," he says and steps hard on the boards.  "This."
Everything about me is suddenly more present and immediate.  My mouth is dry when I go out on stage again.  This is my first scene with Eric.  I'm nervous, so I cough.  I'm an old man playing an old man, and old men cough.  "Let me see my son," I say and Eric walks on.  The silver chaplet and his rags are inspired; I wonder if he thought of the costume himself.  I cough again to spoil his entrance.
"Years ago, I feared you had died.  Later, we mourned you as if you had.  From that window you can see the mound where we buried the ship with the weapons and armor you left behind, but not your corpse-" I say the words casually.  But then I break down and turn partly away.  I give the audience the tears they expect and turn a little towards the afternoon sun so they can see them clearly finding their peculiar way down my weathered cheeks.  "We gave you all that your honor deserved and more.  Since then I have tried to learn to live as if I'd never had a son."
"Why?"  He honestly doesn't understand.  Well, the line can be played that way.  But there can be more in it.  He's made a mistake.  I intend to take advantage of it.
I smile; the audience reads anguish again.  "Why have you come back?  How is it you come now?"
"I don't understand.  You talk as if I were no longer what I am.  Where is my sister?"
"Where were you that you couldn't send us word?  The ships of our people are in every sea and Norway is a small land.  Yet we heard nothing.  What was I to do?"
"Has it been so long since you yourself sailed to make your own fortune?"
                "Fortune!  What need?  You were a king's son."
                "How could I rule in your place if I hadn't proven myself?  How could I lead other men if I hadn't pulled an oar with others and carried the sword and the round shield?  We are but what we make ourselves.  Has it been so long since you sailed with the summer ships that you have forgotten what it is to live by your wits alone?  How else can you find out what you can and cannot do?"
"And so what have you discovered?  What have you learned about yourself?  What fortune do you bring to increase the renown of our great house?"  I say the words gutturally and sarcastically, my voice rising with each question.
"My ship was lost.  All was lost.  Should I not have come here?"
Eric seems almost simple.  He looks from me to the audience and back.  What does he want from them?  They want a clever hero; not a foolish one.  Cleverness is all he has now and it will be the only thing he has when the written words end and the last act begins.  And if he grows wonderfully clever then, the audience will never believe it and the judges will give the scepter to us.
"One ship, just one ship?"  I scowl.
"One ship.  The ship we left in.
“The first summer we hunted the coasts of the Irish.  But their gold and silver and women had been taken long ago."  Eric turns away from me, glances at the ships below us, then, smiling, speaks to the audience.
"We were rich in wind.  The stars were clear and sailed with us.  We sailed north and west to Iceland.  We were welcome there, though we brought nothing.  I remember the fair-haired women in the torchlight in their great walled halls.  The wind sang all night to us and our love-making."
"These are the occupations of a summer or even two.  But winters you were needed here.  The house jarls needed to see you growing into what would be yours."
"But I had nothing to bring back.  What would the house jarls have said to an empty ship?"
"What will they say to no ship at all five years later?"
"Maybe they will say I'm luckless.  There is nothing worse, is there?
“But where is my sister?"
"Your sister is queen of the Norsemen and the Danes," I say bitterly.  "You truly are without luck.  One summer earlier--she is married to the son of the Danish King.  They will rule here together when I die."
"What have you done?"
"What have I done?"  I could give the question to him, but I give it to the Gods instead and for a moment it is as if I'm all alone on stage. "Luckless!"
"There is one thing I've learned," Eric says, almost too softly to be heard.
The audience has turned to him.
"Sometimes a man makes his own luck."
The words are just too much; he wins the scene anyway.  It ends with him asking me, simply, what I will do.
"You cannot beat the words, Haakon," Torval says when I come off.
"Can't I," I roar dramatically.  The first act has ended and the audience is so noisy now, going out to change bets, changing seats, talking to friends, that I don't worry about being heard.  "It's time to talk to Eric."
"Certainly.  Let's go."
"Haakon, you've changed."
We walk around and behind the scrim at the back of the stage.  At once the wind is louder than the people on the other side and the stage seems small and fragile, merely a stage.  As we climb the stairs on the other side, some of the talking stops.  Both the other actors and the audience are straining to hear.  Eric meets us at the top of the stairs.
"What do you want Haakon?"
"We've come to talk," I step past him to the center of this small space and turn so that I stand between him and the stage.  I hope the symbolism isn’t lost on him.
                Helena is there, too, and is wary.  I know that Eric is watching both of us, and I wonder what he'll do.
"I wanted to talk to you, too, Haakon," he says, suddenly cheerful.  "I'm glad you came across.  Truly."
"And what did you want to talk about?"
"Like everyone else," he says, watching Helena, "I wondered where you went, why you left and now, why you've come back.  Of course, it’s an honor to play against someone who was once so great.  But why did you leave?"
"Honor or not, you mean to win."
"Obviously," he answers, looking me in the eye with his character's easiness and strength.  "You didn't answer my question."
"Should I?" I look straight back.  I can look into anyone's eyes.  There's nothing to that.
He shrugs easily.  He thinks he wins something if I don't or can't.
Let's see how he plays against the truth.  "Everything was easy.  I was good, I was rich, we never lost.  My deaths were always triumphs.  And no one else dared die if they were playing against me.  No matter how well someone clutched at his side and spat pig's blood and said brave words, giving up the stage in the last act was suicide.  I was lucky."
Eric smiles.  He thinks I've grown sentimental.
"Yet luck isn't why I left.  It was because of this," I remember Torval stepping on the boards and saying similar words; instead I open my hands toward Eric, gesturing the boards, the painted scrim, the people, the air.  "This isn't real.  The wars, the passions, the lives and deaths, come from the image in a single man's mind.  The ideas and laws ruling men's lives that we discover here aren't true.  They are what someone wishes were true.  Here we die and then rise again.  I didn't want to come to the end of my life and realize I'd never lived.
"So I became what other men are.  I bought a sword and pulled an oar.  I plowed fields and when the crops failed and it looked as though we might starve, (there was a woman then and a child), I started singing for food because I knew songs and there wasn't anything else and I was afraid.  I  found what was real, the fear that you can taste, the sorrow that can fill all things."
"And now you have grown wise," Eric says and looks again at Helena.  "And have returned to warn us."
"Not at all," I answer indifferently. "You asked."
"I did.  You still haven't explained why you came back."
"This," I say.
"Or maybe you had nowhere else to go."
I risk an easy smile of my own.  "I'm considering dying in the last act, by the way.  I thought you might be interested."
"You might find that difficult.  By the rules we have the next entrance.  What if one of my men, a messenger say, then comes on and says that you have recovered."
"No one will believe it."
"People don't have to believe for me to win."
"They don't?" I'm honestly bewildered, like a child.  Then I understand what he means:  he doesn't need to win this competition; he only needs to make sure that I don't.
It's nothing to him if the performance fails.  But it should be.
"There is winning and there is losing and there is nothing else," I say. "Be certain you know the difference.  Torval, let's go."  I'm furious.
"Did you win or did you lose?"  Torval asks as we're walking back.
"It's not over," I answer and then wonder if Torval meant something else.
                 It's time for the last written act.  There are two scenes, one with Eric and one with me and Torval.  Helena is in both.  She is brushing her hair and watching the sea when Eric walks up behind her.  He is in arms; a red dragon curls around the edge of the shield he carries with a spear in one hand.  Helena stops brushing her hair, turns slowly and begins to wail.
"I knew it was going to rain," I observe with sarcasm to Torval as we watch.  "How long have they been over-playing everything like this?"
He looks at me, then answers.  "They're not overplaying it."
But they are.  I've seen grief.  There was a hovel in Ireland near the sea.  An old man came at us with a scythe and one of my shipmates, who was always grinning, sensibly drew his sword and split the man from the shoulder to the waist.  Then his woman came running out of the hovel.  She wasn't crying, or screaming.  But I could hear her rasping breath.  Her face was blank with anger and simple confusion.  She was grief.
She was also old and had lost all her teeth so we killed her, too.
Helena recites her next line, "You will go to war though he is your father?  He had no way of knowing you still lived.  My husband will be with him," Helena says.
"If I didn't fight, I would not be who I am," Eric answers.
Torval helps me into a habergeon and I trade the crown for a helmet.  There is a large slanting hole in the back of the chainmail; someone probably died wearing it and the family gave the armor to us because it was unlucky.  "I have to remember not to turn my left side to them."
"The wolf cloak will cover it," Torval answers.
"No, I'd rather you carried it."
"Let's go then.  Eric is gone."
I gulp a big breath, there isn't room for huffing or coughing in this scene.  Torval and I walk out onto the boards.
"Lady, where is your husband?  The night is dying, we should be planning how to join our several powers for tomorrow's battle."
"Have you considered that your son is on the other side of the river?"
"Yes, and the Swedes are with him.  Where is your husband?"
"I have to stop this," she says plaintively.
"There isn't time for this; someone else knows where he is."  I start to turn, remember the hole in the back of the chain mail and don't turn quite as far as I would otherwise.
"Aren't you attending to what I'm saying?"
"My husband.  He is putting on his armor.  He'll be here."
I fold my arms and look out at the audience.  Their eyes are shining with the reflection of the afternoon sun.  I wonder how long the play will last, perhaps into the dark.  Then torches will be brought.
"Haven't you talked to Eric?" Helena asks.
"I have."
"You should be with him, fighting together for what is his."
"Then you, your husband and the Swedes would be on the other side of the river,"  I answer.
"I don't understand," Helena says simply as Helena herself would speak, were we alone.  "This isn't how I thought things would turn out.  This isn't what I wanted my life to be."
She looks straight into me with simple confusion and I have no words, no lines.
Everything is gone.  Maybe it's her.  Maybe those aren’t her lines.  Are those her lines? It doesn’t matter:  she is saying those words to me, Haakon; the words are real.  And I don't know how to answer for me or my life.
                 It's Torval that saves me.  He moves over a little and throws the wolf cloak across my shoulders and that is enough.  I remember.  Her words are right.  How is it I never heard them before?  They're small, simple, true words.  I want to cry.
"We chose this because we are who we are.  He wouldn't be my son if he didn't fight and I wouldn't be his father if I did not.  The rest is luck."
The scene is over, thank the gods.
"What happened?" Torval hisses when we're in the wings.  He is amazed.
"I forgot Helena's lines, then I forgot my own."
"You forget lines?"
"Yes.  You know, I never heard those words, but they were there all the time."  I look out to the west.  The fjord is the color of blood and the sun is settling into the jagged cliffs.
"What words?"
"It doesn't matter.  The poet's words are finished.”
Torval turns and walks over to talk to someone else.  Suddenly, I'm impatient.  I stomp once hard on the boards.  This isn't the world I expected.  This is the last act.  But now I understand what it is I have to do.  There will only be our words now, rough, improvised.  And true.

-Thomas Jensen
 Copyright 2015 - All Rights Reserved.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 20: How I Read Malory


“I’m always sleeping with the wrong people.”  Or perhaps, “Ego semper in malo populum dormientes.”   No, the Latin doesn’t sound any better.  It sounds like a rock star’s lament or a motto for Sir Lancelot.  First, there was that evening when he was riding alone through deep woods and came across a beautiful, if somewhat eerie, red silk pavilion replete with an empty bed.  He disarmed, climbed in and went to sleep, whereupon another knight, the pavilion’s owner arrived, saw the shape of the sleeping knight, presumed it was his mistress, and climbed in beside Lancelot and “toke hym in his armys and began to kysse him.   And whan sir Lancelot felte a rough berde kissing hym he sterte oute of the bedde lyghtly, and the other knight after hym.”

The two went for their swords.  And, as T. H. White re-imagined it, fought naked in the moonlit glade until Lancelot wounded Sir Beleus “sore nyghe unto the deth.”

Later, there was the terrible incident with Elaine that changed his life.  That was a result of sleeping with the wrong person, too.

This is episode 20 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

White portrays the first incident as comedy.  It certainly begins that way, like something out of The Canterbury Tales, but read simply and directly, it then takes a surprising, dark turn of violence that isn’t at all comic.  In Le Morte d’Arthur, violence has real and terrible consequences.  People die.

This post is simply about how I read Malory.  In my investigation of his life I’ve reached the period of his lengthy imprisonments when he most likely translated, compiled and wrote the majority of Le Morte d’Arthur.  It seems appropriate to spend some time discussing the work itself and, therefore, how I approach reading it.

My first and most important goal is to enjoy Malory.  My second is to read it as clearly, directly and with as much immediacy as possible.  As much as I love T. H. White and others who have retold the tales, I want it to be my reading, not a reading through the lens of someone else’s imagination and interpretation, even a beloved one.  If you’re reading Malory no matter the reason, I recommend you do the same.

I prefer the famous edition of Eugene Vinaver, (entitled Malory Works,) which is a compilation of both the Winchester and Caxton editions and provides original spellings.  However,  serviceable editions with modernized spellings exist if they’re more to your taste.  Remember the first goal.

I read slowly, and do everything I can to make the scene and situation visual and tactile.  I want to engage with characters’ emotions as much as possible.  Here’s a simple example.  Lancelot and his cousin Lionel leave court together to “preve” [themselves] “in straunge adventures.”  After some time they come to a shadowed copse and Lancelot declares “for this seven yere I was not so slepy as I am nowe.”

“So there they alyted and tyed there horsys unto sondry treis, and sir Launcelot lade him downe undir this appyll-tre, and his helmet undir his hede.  And sir Lyonell waked whiles he sl[e]pte.  So sir Launcelot slepte passing faste.”

For me the place is the Danebury Iron Age fort in Hampshire and my images of it come from a solitary midsummer walk around it when I had a ferocious cold and was feeling warm, sleepy and distant.  There were copses of beech trees there but I don’t recall an apple tree so I have to provide one from a different context.  When I was a child, our neighbor had an immense, tall one in his wild and extensive backyard.  On early summer afternoons, a neighborhood girl, a tomboy ironically named Gwen, and I would sneak into his yard, climb the tree and sit together on a high limb and eat small, green under-ripe apples.  So now I have the place and the apple tree.  Lancelot places his helmet under his head.  What kind of helmet is it?  Indeed, what does his armor, his harness, look like?  I ask myself what would Malory have imagined.  So I see early fifteenth century armor.  It’s plain and simple plate with chainmail at points as necessary for flexibility that fits very well.  The helmet is not a large heavy tilting casque, such as Henry V’s in Westminster, but rather something more practical, nevertheless with a face covering visor and no crest.  His simple and traditional shield has the coat-of-arms attributed to him by Gerard J. Brault painted upon it:  argent three bends gules.  He is sleeping in his armor but his physique is long and sinewy, like a climber’s.

Of course, you can imagine the scene differently.  And you should imagine it for yourself.  But that’s how I take those three sentences from 500 years ago and make them personal, direct and mine.

I’ve always found Malory’s portrayal of evil intriguing.  For example, the psychology of the giant who horrifically murders the Duchess of Brittany is never discussed.  He simply seems to be an embodiment of an evil passion.  But there are others, of whom we learn more because we observe more of their behavior.  Sir Turquine is the stuff of nightmares.

We observe him three times.  First, as Lancelot is sleeping, his cousin Lionel observes three knights riding, “as faste fleynge as they myght ryde” from another “grete” knight who over takes the three and defeats each in turn.  Lionel pursues the great knight, jousts against him and is also defeated.  Sir Turquine, the knight, then binds the four to their horses and takes them to his castle where “he unarmed them and bete them with thornys all naked, and aftir put them in depe preson where were many mo knyghts that made grete dole.”  Malory’s language is concrete and specific and if you let it do its work, the incident and scene is grotesque and frightening.

Next, Sir Ector de Maris, Lancelot’s half-brother, who is following Lancelot and Lionel, comes to Sir Turquine’s castle.  There he sees a lonely tree before the castle and “many fayre shylds” hanging from it, including his brothers “the whyche greved his herte.”  It is one of the eeriest, gothic scenes in Malory and it deserves some additional imagination.  For me the tree is a bare Hawthorne.  There’s a  cold wind and the castle is a severe square, Norman keep, like Castell Dolwyddelan in Conwy County, Wales (or perhaps one of the Scottish border castles.)  No one else is around.  A copper basin also hangs from the tree.  In the failing afternoon light, Sir Ector beats upon it with his lance which summons Sir Turquine.

I don’t need to describe Sir Turquine, do I?  It also doesn’t take much effort to imagine yourself in Sir Ector de Maris situation:  alone, looking for your brother and cousin in cold, wild country, coming across your cousin’s shield hanging from that tree, wondering what horrors have befallen him.  The knight that appears, is larger, stronger, on a greater horse and though you know you’re good you also know that there’s only so much you can do against the advantages of greater strength and force.  I can make my heart pound.

They joust.  And though Sir Ector is a more capable opponent, he, too, is defeated.  Malory tells us how Turquine’s lance catches Sir Ector under his right arm and bears him clean out of the saddle.  I imagine the sudden, terrible blow, the pain literally shocking him into breathlessness on the ground.

Turquine takes him into his castle and throws him down onto the middle of the floor in his great hall.  I imagine the hall dark but for a great fire burning in a fireplace.  Turquine, then, surprisingly, shows a ghost of something like gallantry.  Because Sir Ector fought so well he offers Sir Ector his life if he will promise to be Sir Turquine’s “trew prisoner” which I interpret to mean his servant.

I ask myself would I have the courage to say no and I think Malory wants us to ask this question of ourselves.  Sir Ector finds the courage.  And Turquine takes aways his arms and clothes, tortures him as he has the others and throws him into the dungeon with the rest.  And “whan sir Ector saw sir Lyonell, than made he grete sorow.”

When, at last, Lancelot arrives at the castle, after several adventures throughout which I’ve worried about poor Lionel and Ector, Sir Turquine is tardy.  Lancelot beats on the basin hanging from the tree until the bottom falls out and rides back and forth before the castle for half an hour before Sir Turquine finally appears with yet another knight tied to his saddle.  Malory understood suspense.

Of course they fight, and Malory’s description of their combat is detailed and visual.  How can Lancelot hope to vanquish such an opponent who is almost a sadistic force of nature?  And, in the midst of it, when they’re exhausted and leaning on their swords, (I always recall how exhausted you can in a fencing tournament after only a few DE bouts),  Turquine in one of his weird moments of magnanimity offers to free all of his three score and four prisoners if Lancelot will but tell him his name and if he is anyone but the one knight whom he hates above all and is the reason he has slain and cruelly maimed so many.

Turquine explains why he has acted as he has, or at least why he believes he has acted as he has.  And great evil often is that banal, simple, and simply self-serving.  And yet, it has made him into the stuff of nightmares.

Lancelot’s story, like so many in Malory’s tales, combines domestic comedy, epic conflict, the stuff of nightmares and asks us to face our deepest selves.  That’s why I read Malory.  Hopefully, I’ve made you want to read him, too, and maybe given you some practical help with how to do so.

Episode 21 can be found here