For centuries, the Arthurian legend has captivated an untold number of readers. What is it about Camelot that draws us into its complex code of chivalry and amusingly brute anecdotes? Human nature, as one can surmise from antiquated literature, has still not changed in the least—we still experience the boons and pitfalls of love, joy, envy, lust and sorrow. This certainly explains why the tantrums of Malory’s jealous Queen Guinevere strike chords of familiarity and even evoke an empathetic chuckle. Yet it fails to explain why a certain well-respected knight would receive such acclaim after delivering a ruthless and fatal blow to an innocent man’s head simply for the use of his cart. A closer glimpse into the saga of Le Morte D’Arthur reveals one possible answer to the question of the legend’s continuing appeal. The lapse of a few centuries since the last time a Western political entity has expressly defined, enforced and lived by a multi-tiered code of behavior (one that accommodates pride to Christianity) makes the motivation behind the misadventures of the knights of the Round Table downright fascinating to the modern reader. This mysterious motivator—honor—is a dominant theme in Sir Thomas Malory’s work and easily claims paramount importance above all other Arthurian virtues.
Where does Malory define honor in his tales? Since he provides no straightforward definitions, one simply must observe the actions, dialogue, and logic of those deemed “honorable” by King Arthur’s court. The chronicles of Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and (of course) King Arthur—all remarkable examples of bravura personified—are ample sources for indirect definitions of h...
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...t is impossible to consistently relate to the characters in the Arthurian stories without a minimal understanding of the complex code of honor upheld by their many chevaliers and nobles. Malory, thankfully, injects ample evidence of this system into the dialogue and storyline. The prevalence of this abstract idea of honor leads one to safely make the conclusion that it is the paramount theme in Arthurian legend, as recounted by Sir Thomas Malory. And for those who strive towards Arthurian excellence, King Pelles offers advice that is simpler and more attractive than slaying fire-breathing beasts and winning jousts with tied limbs: “…Here shall no knight win [distinction] but if he be of [honor] himself and of [righteous] living…” (Malory 78).
Malory, Sir Thomas. King Arthur and his Knights. Eugene Vinaver, ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.
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