The story of the Roman War and a tentative itinerary

The genre of “literary landscape”–imaginative, creative non-fiction responses to the landscape–and the genre of literary travel itineraries have a long and popular history.  And this is what this blog is about–reading the Roman War chapter of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur and mapping this reading experience onto a 20th century landscape.

Three years ago, I followed the first part of the journey–from London to York to Sandwich.  From there I crossed over the English channel to Barfleur in Normandy, to Mont Saint-Michel, then on to Paris.

Now I have picked up the pieces, in a myriad of ways, and am traveling from Paris to Rome.  But first, here is the story the Roman War.

A young King Arthur has recently married Guenevere and they join together at Christmastime for a royal feast at Camelot for the first full celebration of the formation of the Round Table.  While enjoying the festivities, 12 ancient Roman ambassadors arrive, disturbing the celebration with the announcement that the Emperour of Rome, Lucius, is demanding tribute from Arthur.

Arthur cites old English chronicles and repudiates the Roman claim.  In consultation with his knights and lords, he decides not only not to pay the taxes, but to march to Rome to vanquish Lucius and claim what he now refers to as his rightful role as emperour.

From Camelot, he goes to York to hold a “parlement,” then heads to the southeast of England and departs from Sandwich, crossing over the channel at night.  During the night, Arthur has a prophetic dream about a bear and a dragon (or perhaps it is a boar and a dragon–much scholarly attention has been paid to this single word–see Peter Field, Thomas Croft, Meg Roland).

Once in France, Arthur hears about a gruesome giant at Mont Saint-Michel and, in a riveting account, grapples with the giant and kills him, directing that a church in honor of St. Michael should be built at the site.

Meanwhile, Lucius has left Rome with his men and allies from the East, including many “Saracens.”  The two armies meet in Champayne  (where one can get great sandwiches and sparking drink) and, after much knightly activity, Arthur slays Lucius.  But the campaign is not over.

From France, Arthur takes a bit of a circuitous journey into Flanders and Germany (Alemayn).  (I have just taken a similarly circuitous journey over to Nuremberg to see the Behaim Globe of 1492.)  But Arthur gets back on track and heads to Lake Lucerne, where he rests “taking his leisure with liking.”  And, indeed, the lake calls forth this very response still.

By now it is summer, and Arthur and his men continue the campaign, up and over the St. Gotthard Pass, a beautiful mountain pass in the Swiss Alps. From here, they descend into Lombardy, perhaps passing by Lake Como, subdue Milan, traverse Tuscany, taking Spoleto and Viterbo, before marching triumphantly into Rome.  There Arthur is crowned, in Malory’s account, emperour of Rome by the Pope.  In the 12th century version, Arthur’s triumph is cut short by news of treason back in England.  But in Malory’s version, Arthur takes the mantle of Rome and then spends the winter in Rome, which is not a bad idea.

Come spring, Arthur’s men are eager to return home to “sport with their wives” and so the journey back is undertaken, ending at Sandwich where Guenevere welcomes Arthur home.

That is the outline of the story and it would seem the geography and the journey would be straightforward, but there are lots of complications.  Arthur tells his intended route, we get the route the ambassadors take back to Rome with the fearful news that Arthur is coming in force, we get Lucius’ route from Rome to France.

As medieval narratives tend to do, there is a digression about Gawain and Priamus and when the central narrative thread picks up, Arthur is still in France, about to head to the shores of Lake Lucerne enroute to Italy.  This time the description of his itinerary is more detailed.  The manuscript version of Le Morte Darthur mentions Virvyn as a city Arthur subdues just before taking Milan; in Caxton’s first printed edition it was identified as Urbino.  One look at a map shows that this is not a likely possibility.  I have a new city to propose as a possibility as the location of Virvyn!

Figuring out this itinerary has been complex, but here is this summer’s journey:

France: Paris, Champagne

Germany: Nuremberg

Switzerland: Dornach, Lake Lucerne, St. Gotthard Pass

Italy: Lake Como, passing by Milan, through Lombardy, through Tuscany, into Spoleto, Viterbo, and then, Rome.

Rather than march with full armour, I decided to drive.

From Rome, I will re-trace the journey north, back over the St. Gotthard pass, into France and the town of Troyes (home of the famed 12th century romance writer Chretien), back to Paris, up to Calais, and, after a three-year sojourn, cross the English channel and return to Sandwich.  A trans-European, Arthurian sojourn over many lands to confront the question–what is owed, after all, to Rome?

Reader, if you have questions, comments, or corrections along the way, please let me know.  Now, it is on to Rome.

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5 Responses to The story of the Roman War and a tentative itinerary

  1. This moment was so wry, and I loved this thought in the midst of this serious post: “Rather than march with full armour, I decided to drive.” 🙂

  2. dragon345 says:

    It is quite interesting how Lucius is negatively painted in Le Morte Darthur. When Lucius first finds out that Arthur is determined to not pay truage, he decides to bring with him “many giants of Genoa, that one of them shall be worth a hundred of knights” (85). This is itself ironic, as Arthur easily bests one giant of Genoa. Yet it is even more interesting to see how the word “foul” is used in Arthur’s dream and in the giant of Genoa fighting scene. In Arthur’s dream, the bear is quite the hideous creature: “He was all wrinkled with lowering looks, and he was the foulest beast that ever any man saw. He roamed and roared so rudely that marvel it were to tell” (86). This is true of the giant of Genoa, as King Arthur finds him to be “the foulest freke that ever was formed” (89). Within the fight scene itself, the word foul is mentioned three times, each marveling how disgusting this giant is. The description of the movements of the giant reminds one of the prophetic dream of King Arthur: “And therewith sturdily he started up on his legs…Then he swapped at the King….Then he roared and brayed, an yet angerly he struck…” (90). Even after the battle is completed, the giant cannot escape notice, as Sir Bedivere proclaims the giant to be “a foul carl” (91). This giant of Genoa reflects badly on Lucius and the tax he seeks. Not only does he choose a creature who kills wantonly and, in the eyes of Arthur, unchristianly; he chose a creature who was meant to be the equivalent of one hundred knights (85). In the end, the wise words of Lucius’s senators haunt his marked existence, as they warned him that “of all the sovereigns that we ever saw, he is the royallest king that liveth on earth” (84). A piece of wisdom that accompanied him to the grave that Arthur carved for him, no doubt.

    • dragon345 says:

      By the way, Meg, this is Sarah Zisa. Whoops, forgot to tell you!:)

    • dragon345 says:

      Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur differs from Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte Darthur in breadth and manner of speech. First, Geoffrey says that the kingdom was entrusted to his nephew Mordred and Queen Guinevere (Romance 80). Another chief difference is Sir Bedivere’s presence, as he calms the distressed woman as Arthur goes on to fight the giant (Romance 81). Lastly, it is the duke’s niece who was carried off by the giant (Romance 81). In Mallory’s account, Arthur has a premonitory dream of himself and the giant of Genoa, the duchess is kidnapped by the giant, and he goes by himself to kill the creature (86, 88). Geoffrey’s account was meant to be historical, which meant that his style was dry and details were not always lyrical in texture. Mallory’s purpose in Le Morte Darthur was to give Arthur’s legend lyricism and exquisite details, so that the reader might better engage with the legend and Arthur.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I’ve only read the Roman War descriptions in the Caxton edition of Malory, so I’m curious about some of the additional place names. Is St. Gotthard Pass in another source? Or is it simply the most likely crossing spot for other reasons? I’m similarly curious about Lake Lucerne.

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