The Value of Family in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur
Sir Thomas Malory placed great importance on the role of the family in his rendering of the Arthurian legends. For good or ill, familial ties in Le Morte Darthur have tremendous impact on men and women and those around them. Arthur’s conception comes from lust and deception. Deception also plays a part in Mordred’s conception. The bond between Arthur and his foster father, Sir Ector, is one of the few wholesome relationships. Jerome Mandel, Professor Emeritus of Tel Aviv University and author of numerous books and articles on medieval English literature, notes in the Middle Ages, “the word ‘family’ more often referred either to an extended set of kinfolk who did not live together or it designated a community of co-residents who were not necessarily linked by ties of blood or marriage” (90). The latter definition describes Arthur’s fostering with Ector and his relationship to his foster brother, Kay. They stand in stark contrast to the largely dysfunctional families which are “political unit[s] composed almost entirely of vengeful men, though occasionally vengeful sisters or daughters appear” (90). Tristram’s moving plea for his step-mother’s life is another example of proper love and devotion. These two sets of relationships shine as lights in darkness to serve as models for healthy and loving relationships.
Merlin gives the baby Arthur to Ector and ensures he is named and baptized. Ector’s wife breastfeeds him. The child grows up in a loving home as the “nourished brother” of Kay (Malory 7). Within this stable environment, “From the very beginning, Arthur assumes the validity of family” (Mandel 92). He has no idea his mother and father are other than who brings him up. The loyal and loving service Ector and his wife demonstrate to the young man what a family should be. They are his true family, no matter who gave birth to him or fathered him. He truly is nourished in all ways. One instance of this happy fellowship is after Kay forgets his sword for a tournament, he asks Arthur to retrieve it. The young man races home, eager to aid his brother, but he finds no one to help him (Malory 7). He innocently thinks to pull the sword he saw sticking out of a stone and give it instead. He draws it easily with no knowledge of how important it is or how impossible it is for any but Britain’s true king and brings it to Kay (7). This irrevocably changes the trajectory of Arthur’s life, but it does not change what love taught him in childhood. Ector and his wife helped shape his heart well.
The only trouble in Ector’s household is Kay’s briefly attempted usurpation of Arthur’s destiny, as Kay claims the kingship because he has the sword. Ector quickly thwarts this in interrogating his sons and in the unequivocal and astonishing revelation Arthur is the one meant as king. Arthur readily agrees to Ector’s request Kay become Arthur’s steward and says no one else shall have the post while he and Kay have breath in their bodies (7-8).
This steadfast devotion Arthur has to his foster family, and they to him, are pure lights to shine against the dark dysfunction of other families, where “the family provides the source of political antagonism and tension” (Mandel 91). Ector shows great humility, as he kneels before the astonished Arthur, who moments before was under him as his foster son and now will be over him, over all, as king. Kay’s immediate and ready submission demonstrates humility as well (Malory 8).
Another strong example of love is Tristram’s forgiveness of his step-mother, who sought to poison him, so he would not displace her own children’s inheritance. His father condemns her to death, but Tristram intercedes on behalf of his would-be murderer and begs for her life (241-242). His heart remains unsullied by the darkness that consumed her and reaches to rescue her not only from a fiery bodily death, but from the fire of hate which ate away her heart. He also works for and attains reconciliation of the bond between his father and step-mother, which otherwise his father would have sundered without a second thought. Tristram’s actions brings wholeness and wholesomeness to a deeply dysfunctional state of affairs (242). The blessed end result is the healing of the rift between him and his step-mother, and the one his father caused between them, because unlike them, he chose love over hate, forgiveness over retribution, mercy over justice (243).
Through the already healthy relationship of Sir Ector and Arthur and the relationship of Tristram and his step-mother which becomes healthy, the value of family ties is shown to impact and save lives and destinies. Mandel notes, “Malory uses the family in the Morte Darthur to reflect the political realities of his fifteenth-century world,” (97). While many of these realities demonstrate an utter lack of love, respect, and devotion, Malory also makes use of others to bring light to the world. He shows what is possible with the heart rightly orientated. Arthur’s conception came from lust, but he knew only love in his upbringing. King Meliodas’ second wife escapes the dark prison she had locked herself into with her hate for Tristram because the man she wished to murder gives her the keys. Every age needs examples of healthy relationships between parent and child. Brokenness is no less prevalent today than the centuries previously. There are flowers blooming apart from the minefields where most relationships in Le Morte Arthur are rooted. Ector, Arthur, and Tristram sow these for themselves and their world – and for ourselves. Let us heed well the lessons we find!
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Wordsworth Editions, 1996.
Mandel, Jerome. “The Idea of Family in Chrétien De Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory.” Arthuriana, vol. 12, no. 4, 2002, pp. 90–99, www.jstor.org/stable/27870490. Accessed 23 May 2019.
This is one of the essays I wrote for my Master’s Degree at Signum University.