This was final paper for ENGL 222 – English Literature 1750 – To The Present.
Fair warning: This paper is rather lengthy (9 pages double spaced).
Narcissists of the Round Table
The Legend of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot are iconic stories immediately drawing to mind images of knights in shining armor, assorted mental imagery in regards to the concepts of honor and chivalry, and often the holy grail, be it the more serious iterations or the Monty Python take on it. People often speak of the Arthurian legends as ideals, inspirations, or even romantic. What it does not draw to mind is thoughts of cautionary tales or concerns over narcissism. It is not only one iteration of these stories that subtly warns against the dangers of self importance, but two. Both Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (in specific Coming of Arthur and Passing of Arthur) as well as Williams Morris’s Defence of Guenevere illustrate that the primary characters (Bedivere, Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot) all function as the marionettes to a parable for the folly of self-importance.
Let us start with the first knight and the last knight, Sir Bedivere. This knight of the Round Table makes an appearance in both the Coming of Arthur and the Passing of Arthur with a bookending functionality in both works. In the Coming of Arthur he yields a version of Arthur’s birth and will be the last knight standing in Passing of Arthur. While the version of Arthur’s birth that Bedivere tells is the most realistic origin of the ones presented, it is not by any means confirmed. This means the story must be relegated to remaining a rumor. Thus we have the first knight of Arthur spreading a rumor to another king on the origins of his sworn liege, rather treasonous sounding in this light.
It may seem that what Bedivere does is a courtesy to the King Leodogran as well as a courtesy to his liege Arthur as a confirmation of his lineage and thus his legitimacy. However the assertion that he is a reputable source of information and even that he is an ordained mouthpiece for his king is questionable at best. Arthur has been unwilling to furnish any kind of proof of his lineage. What right does Bedivere have circumventing his king’s will? How many other times has Bedivere acted in what he believed to be for the benefit of his king? Is Arthur even aware of Bedivere’s actions in this regard? Would he approve of them if he was? How many other times were the words he spoke mere rumors? We then have a knight who tells foreign kings rumors which easily draws one to be concerned about Bedivere’s self-importance and the possibility of his own descent into narcissism.
We see this bloom further in the final volume, Passing of Arthur. He is the last remaining knight and will live to tell the tale of how Camelot fell to infighting, treachery, and the corrupting influence of delusional self-importance. Sir Bedivere claims that his dying king instructed him to return the legendary blade, Excalibur, to the Lady of The Lake. Bedivere swears to his king that he will do this and goes to complete the task. Bedivere describes the blade as “Sparkled keen with frost against the hilt: For All the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long That both his eyes were dazzled.”(223-227) This is a major crack in the facade of fealty and selflessness that Sir Bedivere fronts in such a simple set of lines. He takes care to describe the wealth within the hilt. One could say that he is simply trying to exemplify the beauty of the blade, but he could have easily left that to the imagination of the listeners. This isn’t a simple comment like “a bejeweled hilt” or anything else so brief. Bedivere doesn’t say ‘jewels’ but very specific gem types. He is able to identify these stones as he looks upon the hilt, all when he should be mortally distressed by the state of the kingdom he resides in as well as the fading life of his liege. He is familiar with these kinds of stones, and it is likely that he has studied the monetary value of this blade in the past.
Bedivere is swayed from his task by avarice for the material wealth set into the blade’s hilt, returns, and lies to his liege on the status of the task. He is sworn to follow his king, and he (like the rest of the fallible knights of the round) claims to hold chivalry as his philosophical paradigm. But if he cannot hold himself as genuinely courteous to his king, who among these sworn knights can be believed to be the stern adherents they claim they are?
When Bedivere is sent a second time he is swayed again, this time by thoughts of Arthur’s Legacy becoming questionable if the sword is lost to history. This train of thought runs deeper than what Sir Bedivere implies. If Arthur’s legacy is questionable, then so is the whole of Camelot as well as the Knights of the Round Table meaning that Bedivere and his feats and loyalty would become suspect to the eye of history. To be so concerned with the eye and mind of history itself is a dangerous precipice of self-importance. When he finally disposes of the sword, he cannot look as he throws the blade as he is afraid that he will again convince himself to stop short. This implies a concerning lack of self control and agency within the first knight of Arthur. One could question how long Bedivere has been so afflicted with this failure of self-control. While Bedivere is the first and last knight of Arthur and often implied to be his most loyal knight, he is still not sent to retrieve Arthur’s bride-to-be, Guenevere. Could this be a hint that Arthur had issues trusting Bedivere with such a task?
Instead of Bedivere, Lancelot is sent. While it is certainly questionable for Arthur to have to send anyone to fetch his bride for him, the knight sent is a harbor of questions. Lancelot is not given any particular depth within the Idylls and is briefly mentioned by Guenevere. In fact, Lancelot does not particularly exhibit any form of agency. Of all of the characters to be discussed, he is quite possibly the closest to following any derivation of the Chivalric Code. He also functions as an imperfect foil to the overly self-centered characters of these stories. He is most closely resembles a pane of glass compared to the narcissistic mirrors the other characters embody in their motives and actions. He obliges Guenevere. He does what he can to keep his dalliances with her out of the public eye and is regarded as a genuinely powerful combatant. When the Defence of Guenevere draws to a close we know that he is riding to her aid to be her champion even though he has to know that Arthur will be nonplussed, at the very least, by this action.
While Lancelot is closest to being a paragon in his general adherence to chivalry, and thus has a general disregard for self-importance, he is still partly to blame for the war as much as Guenevere and Arthur. He would not bend the knee. Nor would he flee with Guenevere. This is the character fault within Lancelot and his gateway to narcissism, his unwillingness to compromise. In this he isn’t unlike Arthur. There is a great irony in two ‘noble knights’ being unable to see anyway forward other than to declare war amongst themselves and among their sworn brothers in arms. They cannot see the forest for the trees.
Similarly, Guenevere herself is not able to find Arthur, a needle in the haystack of knights. It is implied by the coming of Arthur that she is aware of who Lancelot is already. Knowing of him previously may have led her to make her decision finding him to be a serviceable pawn. Further, we see in the Coming of Arthur that she is given to Arthur by her father to broker a peace, limiting her agency and the ability to express herself in any meaningful way. She is relegated to being an object.
However, Guenevere finds a way to try and escape her individual prison by turning the code of chivalry against its believers. If one is to presume that Guenevere initiated the relationship with Lancelot, this can very easily be read as her making an attempt to escape from her arranged marriage to Arthur. It is to be noted that we are not given any explicit evidence as to Guenevere being the instigator of the relationship with Lancelot. Given that he is not being forced into marrying someone, he lacks any real stakes in the situation. Conversely, it is a particularly powerful act for Guenevere to take this agency on herself.
However, it is paradoxical that such a schemer would not take into account the fealty that Lancelot has sworn to Arthur. That is, of course, an assumption based on her having not witnessed Lancelot and Arthur interact. She only knows of Arthur from what she has heard chiefly from her father and rumors. To her it is impossible that one could hold such loyalty to Arthur, one who acts as he does, as she holds no such fealty to this demanding king herself. The idea that someone could be loyal to a man who behaves as Arthur does is baffling to her.
The fact that Lancelot will not leave with her and keeps the indiscretions secret until they have gone too long and far does not appear rational to her. However, Guenevere the schemer falls into a trap herself affording Mordred a means to weaponize these secrets against Arthur and utilizes the disillusionment spawned by the revelation to instigate a civil war between two men who value their reputations above the good of the kingdom and the people they care for within it. Had Guenevere and Lancelot simply fled, Mordred may not have been able to cataclysmically catalyze these acts of intimate rebellion. This outcome spirals far beyond the scope of Guenevere’s aspirations. But in the end, an apocalyptic version of her hopes are achieved. She and the whole of the world are freed of Arthur.
The breadth of Defence is Guenevere is doubling down on her decisions even though she knows she is at fault. “God wot I ought to say, I have done ill, And pray you all forgiveness heartily!”(13-14) This paradoxical statement runs counter to her declaration of Gauwaine lying. She knows that she is wrong. She also knows that she should be repentant and beg for forgiveness from these men. She knows that her agency as a woman in this world, even as Queen, is restricted. She also contemplates begging for forgiveness from men who are not directly involved in the situation, neither Arthur nor Lancelot. She is to beg forgiveness from the court of public opinion.
However, we are still shown a flawed human being trying to make peace with herself, her choices, and to justify her actions which will result in the death of many and the fall of a kingdom. She resolves to cling to her defense of innocence and begins making attacks against Gauwaine saying that “Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,/Whatever happened on through all those years,/God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie./Being such a lady could I weep these tears/If this were true? A great queen such as I/Having sinn’d this way, straight her conscience sears;”(142-147). Her own words illustrate subtly that she is at fault and feels shame for it. While it is hard to believe she is ashamed of the action, it seems more plausible that she feels shame in being reliant on Lancelot and relying on lying in order to act with even a sliver of agency. While her mind knows she is guilty, she must continue to profess a belief that she is the victim not only in being ‘falsely’ accused but also robbed of agency and not having any options to act as her own person. While this isn’t incorrect, it is the lack of consideration for the consequences of her actions and the behaviors exhibited that really work against her arguments. She knows she has limited agency. She fights the only way she can, by doubling down on her convictions.
While Defence illustrates Guenevere as having affections for Lancelot beyond utilizing him to create her own agency, she is still wholly reliant upon him for that agency. Not only does she want to rely on him, but she must. She cannot rely upon Arthur, and it is unlikely that any of his other knights would be willing to side with her. She cannot defend herself, nor can she champion herself in combat.
And even with all of her plotting, she cannot rely upon herself either. She illustrates this all too well in Defence by the way she must resolve herself. She has been without any real agency for so long that she must manipulate herself into believing she is correct and just, that she is so just that another will see it too and come to her aid. She strains to listen for Lancelot to return to her. The aid she needs will most assuredly not come from Arthur.
Arthur himself is a convoluted mess of a character. His absence in Defence speaks volumes. His wife is about to go on trial in a land where he is king. He does not offer for her to flee. He does not pardon her. He will not even see her as she is taken to trial. He, while religiously focused, has the capacity to institute change in his kingdom. It is implied that Arthur was aware. He could have simply released her from the marriage. Instead he is “forced” to acknowledge the situation, levy charges against his wife, and forced to act against Lancelot by Mordred’s treachery and scheming. He then takes up arms against his sworn brothers in order to put Lancelot back in his place, not against Mordred, who in a few versions is evidence of Arthur’s own infidelity. He fights and kills his subjects/knights. And why? Because of his delusional pride.
His narcissism begins to rear its head in the Coming of Arthur. He rides unadorned, but believes that people should still recognize him, though they have never met him or have any inkling as to who he is. He will not discuss his parentage or origins, instead leaving this to rumor and hearsay spread by sources of varying veracity. He feels “the light of her eyes into his life, smite on the sudden”(56-57) when he presumes that Guenevere has looked upon him. He feels that she must be so beautiful, that even though he does not see her, she must shine and emit light which as we see through her actions, she does not. He laments that “What happiness is to reign a lonely king”(81), unable to imagine a world where he doesn’t get his way. This lamentation also shows us that he has convinced himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he must marry her to become a truly great ruler. He places his own feelings above all others. He places his own feelings above rationality. This is a delusional psychosis or at the very least a delusion of grandeur. This narcissistic condition will doom Camelot.
These delusions also extend to religious fanaticism, that of a messiah complex. In the Coming of Arthur, we are told that the realm is in utter chaos; that beasts roam, that no one is safe, that the realm itself is a wasteland. Only by Arthur appearing and killing does the world become ‘right’ and ‘just’. He fashions himself a creation myth out of the conflicts of the land. He demands that other kings must bend the knee with no explanation on his part. He feels that his royalty is visible to all around him, which itself feeds into a messiah complex; that his lineage is not what makes him a ruler, but rather divine providence which should be as a corona or light around him or so he believes it should be.
He is convinced that he is able to keep to his faith even though he kills. He believes that he is chosen by God, as though he is a Christ metaphor made flesh. He is so far gone that he believes that “Nay – God my Christ – I pass but shall not die.”(28) And yet Arthur does not turn the other cheek. He does not forgive. He is convinced that he must be a paragon, that all the world will use him as a measuring stick for the actions of others. And terrifyingly enough, we often do. As mentioned earlier on, mentioning King Arthur draws people to think of nobility, honor, and other such lofty ideals, ideals which proved rather to be lip-service than foundation for the realm of Camelot.
Arthur is the axle on which the wheel that is the fate of Camelot, and the fates of all its players, spin upon. Narcissism is the force that makes the wheel spin, slowly at first, and then dangerously fast. His delusions and narcissism are the catalyst for the creation and collapse of this fabled kingdom. Infected by his narcissistic reality all of the figures of Camelot, particularly Bedivere, Guenevere, and Lancelot, are knocked cleanly out of the orbit of ‘morality’. The entire narrative arc is a massive rube-goldberg machine. This device, powered by the flailings of self important paragons, accidentally forges ‘an ideal kingdom’ and manages to annihilate it so thoroughly that it falls into legend over the course of a single generation. Not even natural disasters like Pompeii so thoroughly annihilate a civilization. Yet Camelot was felled by mere human hands and by human hearts poisoned with narcissism. And if a great king, his queen, and his knights of utmost valor can fall to such a toxin, what of the rest of us? We can learn from the folly of this legendary kingdom and strive to be more noble than the Narcissists of the Round Table.