Re-reading the Roman War: Geoffrey and Malory

Students in my current Intro to Lit and Writing class were shocked at the violent and cruel King Arthur as depicted in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King’s of England.  This is not the lofty, idealistic King Arthur of Camelot that has come down to us in the 21st century.  How did that change happen?

One link between the ancient and the modern version is the massive prose work written by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century, Le Morte Darthur.  How did Malory re-craft the imperial-crazed war monger of Geoffrey’s account?  Arthur

Read comments from students in my class to find out.  Students, post your observation about a specific change that Malory makes to the Roman War narrative via the comment function on this page.

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15 Responses to Re-reading the Roman War: Geoffrey and Malory

  1. Nomen Nudum says:

    Malory’s account and depiction of King Arthur was altered so that it created a more genuine and relatable character. This personable adaptation forms a persona that those who are likely to read the story would be able to look up to or aspire to be. In Malory’s rendition, Arthur comes from humble roots as the (adopted) son of Sir Ector and younger brother to Sir Kay, and has to ‘prove’ himself worthy enough to be king via the “sword in the stone” mechanism. This is vastly different from the originating account by Geoffrey of Monmouth where Arthur is aware of his heritage and birthright, and thus has a sense of arrogance and entitlement.

    While both Geoffrey and Monmouth show that Arthur is well-liked by most everyone in general, they split in the purpose of what this serves. In Geoffrey’s work, Arthur is all about vengeance and duty, domination, power, and the need to command his subjects without having to justify this position. Malory on the other hand presents Arthur in the light of having to take action because of something being done to him—Emperor Lucius is demanding compensation from Arthur’s kingdom, he cannot simply sit by and allow this to continue, especially since he logistically can claim rights to Rome.

    Another change to Arthur’s character was that in Geoffrey’s version, the king is best described as sensible, courageous, and fearless, always quick to make decisions. In Malory’s version, however, we see a charismatic, reasonable leader who seeks council and wisdom from his knights and advisers. Arthur is given to contemplation and compassion, and only ever puts himself at risk.

    Tara Campbell

  2. Stacey Mills says:

    Part of what makes Malory’s Arthur different than Geoffrey’s Arthur is how each deal with the Roman invasion. Geoffrey’s text focuses on vivid descriptions of violence, including the statement: “Caliburn, wielded in the right hand of so able a king, … making them spit out their souls with their blood” (85). In contrast, Malory’s text has only a few short sentences regarding the actual fight stating: “Arthur himself kills Lucius in hand-to-hand combat, and a hundred thousand of their enemies are killed” (91). Malory’s text is straightforward and unadorned with details. Geoffrey’s text provides long excruciating details of the killing. Additionally, Malory’s Arthur spends most of his time focused on killing the giant. The act of killing the giant is designed by Malory to be seen as Arthur defending the innocent from the unjust, an honorable act by Arthur. In Malory’s text we have the honorable Arthur. In Geoffrey’s text we have the tyrant Arthur.

  3. Krista Lamproe says:

    When comparing the characterizations of King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s, History of the King’s of England, and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, there is a startling difference. From the beginning of the accounts we see the difference addressed in the way that Arthur treats the arrival and message of the Romans. In Monmouth’s tale we see Arthur is ready to engage in war, though he does, “debate what should be done to counter these demands” with his men and advisors (Monmouth, 72). We see them counsel, though it is more likened to readying a plan of attack, as each man is thirsty for the fight. Arthur seems eager to go to war, because he feels insulted and longs for revenge. In Monmouth’s account, Arthur rebuttals the demanding of tribute with telling Rome they need to pay him tribute, “Whoever tries to steal another’s possessions deserves to lose his own possessions to the very one whom he attacks” (Monmouth, 74). In this aspect, the attack can verge on petty in some reader’s eyes, which is a very different interpretation than is expressed in Malory’s depiction of the exchange.
    In opposition of this picture, Malory’s account shows a much more reserved and level-headed king, who will “not be too over-hasty”; Arthur says that he and the guests will “abide here seven days. And I shall call unto me my council … and when we have taken our advisement ye shall have your answer plainly”. Arthur takes his time to make his decisions, all the while the guests are treated kindly and, “no dainties [were] spared upon them”. In this text, Arthur is seen in a compassionate light; Arthur feels as though he has no choice but to go to war because he has been wronged. The reader can almost visualize this need to fight as a moral cause, because Arthur feels as though, due to his heritage he has been wronged in being asked to pay tribute to Rome. Arthur explains, “the empire [was] kept by my kind elders, and thus we have evidence enough to the empire of whole Rome” (Malory, v.1). The reader sees the wrong that has been done in Malory’s account, and can sympathize with this compassionate king, who thinks before acting.

  4. Celeste Perez says:

    Overall the Arthur in Mallory’s piece seems a more gracious and thoughtful King; there is a specific difference between the portrayals of the Arthur demonstrated in the scene with the giant. In Geoffrey’s portrayal, the king sends his cup-bearer, Bedivere, to sail toward the giant. Though in both accounts Arthur defeats the giant on his own, Mallory’s account differs where Arthur ventured alone to find the giant. He also does not inform the weeping “widow” by the fire that he is the King, only that he has been sent by him. This displays a more humble and resolved Arthur. There are also differences in imagery, where Mallory’s account of this attack on the giant is more violent and dark; “where he sat at his supper alone, gnawing on the limb of a large man…and there on were twelve children but lately born; and they were broached in manner like birds”. In Goeffery’s account, the giant is only feeding on swine, not children. Finally, Arthur exhibits respect through his power as king and commands that a church be built where Helena was killed by the giant (in Mallory). In Geoffery’s piece, it is Hoel who decides this.

  5. Looking at the Roman War from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory, I was interested in how the motivations for, and carrying out of, the war against Rome was described. In Geoffrey, as in Malory, Arthur is angry and offended at the attempt by Rome to collect a tribute. Both also cite Arthur’s lineage to the throne of Rome, but there is subtle differences in the approach that affect the coming battle and the motivations of the people involved. Geoffrey makes the distinction that Arthur’s ancestors conquered Rome in ancient times, creating a span of time between these events. Malory makes the connection much nearer to the present, involving relatives closer to Arthur’s time. When the messengers return to Lucius, they warm him that Arthur already believes he should be emperor, and remind him that his ancestors, except for his father Uther, have previously been emperors of Rome. Because of this closer connection to Arthur in Malory, the war has a more honorable and righteous purpose. Geoffrey used the connection as just one of many reasons for war, along with the accumulation of wealth and power, both of which become a more important source of inspiration for Arthur and his knights.
    The battle with Lucius is much shorter in Malory’s version, but contains an important piece of new information. After a longer, in relation to Geoffrey’s, description about the fight with the giant, Arthur and his forces battle with the Emperor is summed up in just one paragraph. Here though, we learn of the important difference in Malory’s re-telling. In Geoffrey, Lucius is killed in a massive melee between the two armies by an unknown soldier’s lance. Though they win the day, there is little personal glory for Arthur. Malory has Arthur defeat the Emperor Lucius in hand-to-hand combat. This gives Arthur the final blow in an important victory that wins him the crown of Rome, and helps to build the myth of King Arthur.

  6. Robert says:

    From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory the first reversal from the brutal war mongering characterization of Arthur to an Arthur attempting a peaceful reform is in the societal station in which the two different Arthurs are poised from. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur — with a sense of grandiose self-entitlement — is born heir — with a claim to the throne by noble birthright — of Uther Pendragon. This sense of self in Arthur, through Geoffrey’s narrative, can be seen in Arthur’s claim all, “Conquer or Die” valor seeking persona. Malory’s Arthur on the other hand is from comparatively humble origins as the foster son of Sir Ector. The re-imagining of Malory’s Arthur, catapults Arthur to the throne, carried by his purity, which allows him to draw Excalibur from the stone. This re-imagined Arthur, after being thwarted several times by the self proclaimed nobles’ from his destiny attempts a peaceful negation with Mordred, but fails as a result of one soldier not being able to except the deadly bite from a venomous adder, without brandishing his sword. Malory’s Arthur fails at negotiating peace as the result of one soldiers unwillingness to sacrifice his own life for the greater good of peaceful nation.

  7. I found the topic of Mordred interesting as I read the two works by Geoffry of Monmouth and Sir Malory. The stories about Guinevere and Mordred together are vastly different, however it stays the same that Mordred is treacherous because he takes over the crown falsely. In both versions, Arthur leaves his kingdom to Mordred and Guinevere in his absence. However, in Geoffrey’s version, Guinevere had “broken the oath of her prior nuptials, had been joined to (Mordred) in unconscionable lust.” Whereas in Sir Mallory’s version, Mordred insists Guinevere marries him, but she says “she would rather kill herself than marry him.” Geoffrey writes Guinevere to escape into a nunnery, where Malory has her lock herself up in a tower (only LATER to escape to a nunnery after finding out Arthur truly is dead). As Mordred’s treachery is what cause the war between them it seems in Geoffrey’s version there is more of an army that battles, whereas in Malory’s version there is more one on one battle between Arthur and Mordred.

  8. Sarah Allen says:

    May I say, before anything else, that “Then one of the knights messengers spoke aloud and said, ‘Crowned king, misdo no messengers, for we be come at his commandment as servitors should.’ ” sounds like our familiar phrase of “Don’t shoot the messenger”? :-)

    The passage that caught my attention was Arthur’s dream of a dragon fighting a bear, which in Malory are pages 86-87 and in Geoffrey is page 76.
    Malory wrote, “‘Sir,’ said the philopsher, ‘the dragon thou dreamest of betokens thy own person… And the bear that the dragon slew above in the clouds betokens some tyrant that torments thy people; or thou art likely to fight with some giant boldly in battle by thyself alone. therefore of this dreadful dream dread thee but a little, and care not now, sir conqueror, but comfort thyself.’ ”
    On the other hand, this is Geoffrey’s version, “… Arthur told those standing near what he had dreamed. They interpreted it, saying that the dragon represented him, but the bear represented some giant he was going to encounter. Their fight was the sign of a battle that would be between them, and the dragon’s victory was the victory that would come to Arthur. But Arthur interpreted it otherwise, believing that the vision was rather about himself and the emperor.”

    I think that the differences in passages speaks to each authors’ opinion of Arthur and how they wanted him to be presented to the audience. Geoffrey was writing about a warlike, more arrogant Arthur, whereas Malory had already lifted Arthur to a less human, more legendary persona. Geoffrey’s Arthur doesn’t listen to the correct interpretation because it doesn’t suit his agenda, whereas Malory’s interpretation does cover both ways of looking at the dream and Arthur does not question the ideas presented there. Malroy’s dream is very detailed and long, but Geoffrey’s is only a few sentences (how much of this is due to translations?). Malory was answering to the thirst for a story, but Geoffrey was recounting more of a history, which further explains the differences in styles.

  9. Janna-Marie Brown says:

    The ending of Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Mort Darthur’ differs greatly from the ending of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the King’s of England.’ In Geoffrey’s tale, a conquest-happy King Arthur stays away from his home too long and thus must be forced to return to quell a rebellion. Malory, on the other hand, ends his tale of King Arthur with a triumphant king returning home as soon as his advisors mention that they miss their wives. This more compassionate King Arthur is much closer to our modern interpretation.
    –J

  10. Lacey Hughes says:

    The stories of Arthur and the Roman War as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory have two different outcomes, hinged on the character Modred, nephew of King Arthur. Malory does not mention Modred, for if he did, Arthur would never have been crowned emperor. His absence from Malory’s account ensures that Arthur victoriously reaches the city of Rome. Modred’s betrayal, as depicted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is the sole reason Arthur never arrives to Rome. His presence (or lack thereof) is central to the outcome of each story.

    Geoffrey states that Arthur “entrusted the security of Britain to his nephew Modred and Queen Guinevere” (80). This detail is key, because just when Arthur was on his way to Rome, he learned of the affair between Modred and Guinevere, then reversed course to Britain. “Arthur postponed the invasion he had wanted to make against Emperor Leo” (91). Had Modred not been a central figure to the story, and no such affair existed, Arthur’s destiny might have concluded differently.

    On the contrary, Malory never mentions Modred. He wrote that Arthur “left the Queen in Sir Constantine’s and Sir Baudwin’s hands” (86). Modred is conveniently absent and Arthur is subsequently “crowned Emperor by the Pope’s hands” (93). Queen Guinevere remains faithful to Arthur and solemnly greets him in London.

    Malory paints Arthur as a king of valor and honor–his reputation intact, and his story compact. Whereas, Geoffrey’s version gives more depth to Arthur’s character. The tragedy he faces when confronted with Modred’s treachery, and his failure to reach the Roman Empire, tell an epic saga of King Arthur. Modred’s absence in Le Morte Darthur fundamentally affects the course of Arthur’s history, resulting in a diluted version in comparison to Geoffrey.

  11. Brian J. says:

    King Arthur stands as a hyper-violent extension of the crusades within the text of Geoffery of Monmoth, and such tyrannical tone sets apart Geoffrey from Mallory. In passages of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth, extreme descriptions of violence is coupled with spirituality. When a blow is struck or a conquest declared, prayers accompany war; “Invoking God’s name, he slew with a single blow every man he struck” (Geoffery, 69). For Malory, King Arthur is also a crusader, however, one whom allows more descriptive development of characters in relation to Arthur’s position which may lead to furthering the reader’s empathy; “Then Queen Guenivere made great sorrow that the King and all the lords should be departed, and there she fell down in a swoon; and her ladies bore her to her chamber” (Malory, 86). The Arthur of Malory is fighting for the same cause, and in the name of the same God, but the focus seems far more approachable in the experience of reading and contrasting the literature in the light of our modern day.

  12. Brian J. says:

    King Arthur stands as a hyper-violent extension of the crusades within the text of Geoffrey of Monmoth, and such tyrannical tone sets apart Geoffrey from Malory. In passages of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth, extreme descriptions of violence are coupled with spirituality. When a blow is struck or a conquest declared, prayers accompany war; “Invoking God’s name, he slew with a single blow every man he struck” (Geoffrey, 69). For Malory, King Arthur is also a crusader, however, one whom he allows more descriptive development via characters in relation to Arthur’s position which may lead to furthering the reader’s empathy; “Then Queen Guenivere made great sorrow that the King and all the lords should be departed, and there she fell down in a swoon; and her ladies bore her to her chamber” (Malory, 86). The Arthur of Malory is fighting for the same cause, and in the name of the same God, but the focus seems far more approachable in the experience of reading and contrasting the literature in the light of our modern day.

    • Brian J. says:

      Now that I am doing further research, I am coming to an understanding that I need to digest the legends as a whole to properly contrast. In doing my own research I came across a book I plan on ordering: ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend’ which the reviewer states;”….provides the first feminist analysis of both the Arthurian section of The History of the Kings of Britain and The Life of Merlin. Fiona Tolhurst argues that because Geoffrey creates nontraditional and unusually powerful female figures, he stands outside of – and works against the misogyny of – the medieval literary tradition. This study employs the strategies of both historicist and New Historicist critics and adds a new dimension to existing scholarship by proposing that the word ‘feminist’ can be used to describe a medieval text that presents female figures meaningfully and, in most cases, positively.”
      This argument would state that my surface reading of the text is wrong, and that Geoffrey is overall more “modern”.

      -Brian

  13. Matt H. says:

    War, what is it good for? Answer: absolutely nothing! This emphatic song lyric from 1969 by Edwin Starr makes one wonder: What is war good for? For Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory war seems to be good for stamping out invaders. Geoffrey’s Arthur stamps out the Saxons while Malory’s Arthur stamps out and assumes control of the Roman Empire. One is less grandiose in scale, but both make sure there is safety and peace for the British. The span of time between the writing of the two works sees changes in speech and aim; however, both consider the slaughter of thousands praiseworthy. Maybe war is good for writers of fiction.

  14. Gretchen Rice says:

    Malory’s version of Arthur defeating the giant is one that offers more in depth information and a more detailed account of the battle itself. Malory portrays the giant as a more brutal and murderous apponent, outright stating that “he forced her by filth of himself” and that “he sat..gnawing on a limb of a large man”(Malory 89). Though Geoffrey also states that the giant forced himself upon the duchess, he did not state the brutality of the giant as Arthur came to him. Geoffrey only stated that the giant was feasting on swine, rather that men. Malory also showed Arthur himself in a different light, stating that he sought out the giant himself, and was the one to come upon the women weeping for the young duchess. Geoffrey instead tells that Arthur had another search for the giant, and once Arthur did go to confront the giant he brought two others with him. The battle itself is also more brutal and revealing in Malory’s version, stating that Arthur did more than just kill the giant with a blow tot he head. He states that Arthur first opened his head causing blood to obscure the giants vision and also splits the giants stomach open, exposing all his insides, “…cut his belly asunder, that out went the gore that the grass and the ground was become all foul”(Malory 90). Geoffrey’s account is more forward and seems straight to the point, not imbelishing, rather getting straight to the death of the evil giant, “he thrashed the beast with his sword and did not rest till a death-wound was struck”(Geoffrey 77).

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