Throughout historic times in which war was rampant, a hero of the age always seemed to follow suit. In the audacious tales of Le Morte D’Arthur and Beowulf, the epic poems describe the most heroic men of the chivalric and Anglo- Saxon times. It is important, however, to note that even though there are a significant number of similarities between these two works, there also exists an immense variety of dissimilarities that contrast them. In this essay, we will identify and expand upon three of the most staggering cultural disparities presented by Sir Thomas Malory, the ingenious dramatist who fathered Le Morte D’Arthur, and of the unknown author of the epic Beowulf.
It is indisputably easy to pinpoint the values and system of beliefs presented within different pieces of literature, as they nearly always reflect the culture and time period from which they were written. Beowulf, famously known for being the longest surviving story of Old English literature, is estimated to have been written somewhere between the years of 610- 1000 AD. It is an excellent citation for the values and culture of the Anglo- Saxons, who inhabited the northern parts of Sweden at that time. Le Morte D’Arthur was no exception to this either. Sir Thomas Malory’s take on the social spectrum present in the late 1400s is impressive as well, as it is the underlying tone behind each of the story’s characters and themes. Written nearly eight-hundred-and-seventy-five years apart, these works show a clear change in traditional and cultural values, including those of gender, religion, and the means by which someone achieved honor.
Due to the importance of male heroism in Beowulf, the significance of women’s contributions to the story was minimized. However, despite the popular idea that women are meant to be obedient and docile, the women of Beowulf were strong, self- assured, and assertive. This is a direct reflection of the widely accepted Anglo- Saxon culture, and was denoted as a traditional way of life from the fifth century until the later half of the eleventh century, when Catholicism quickly enveloped Great Britain and Sweden. In 1485, Sir Thomas Malory composed Le Morte D’Arthur. During the time in which Malory wrote the epic, society valued women as objects to be handed over to a man after childhood. Their sole purposes were to tend to their husbands houses, produce an heir, and to stand at their husbands side as an aid of support. This clearly translates into his writing, as many of the Knights of the Round table tend to see the women as potential or actual possessions. They often talk of getting the “right” to a woman, or of “gaining” her, just like a horse or a shield. Much of this language, though ludicrous to a modern audience, would have been quite normal in this time period of literature. The clear powerlessness of women in Le Morte D’Arthur can be deceptive at times, however, as many women gained and exerted power by seducing men and plotting their downfall. The most dominant woman in the narrative is justifiably Guenevere, who through her sexuality and struggle with Sir Lancelot, caused the kingdom to fall.
‘Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend/Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild/Marshes, and made his home in a hell./Not hell but hell on earth. He was spawned in that slime/Of Cain, murderous creatures banished/ By God, punished forever for the crime/ Of Abel’s death.’ – Beowulf, Lines 101-108
Most of the pagan themes and references used in Beowulf are depicted through the lense of a medieval Christian idea of what Norse Paganism was. A perfect example of this is how Grendel is commonly referred to as a monster or a demon, despite the fact that his origins are attributed to Caine, a character described in the Old Testament Of the Bible, who murdered his brother Abel in cold blood. It is also said that Caine fostered a line of unrighteous descendants, further using Christianity to blanket a historically pagan tale.
Many, upon first reading Beowulf, realize the abnormal use of Christian and Pagan references throughout the story. What is difficult for many to decipher, however, is why a systematically pagan society would write a story using monotheistic, Christian ideologies. The answer to this is simple; Beowulf was not originally written, rather it was passed on by the ways of mouth, an intimate tradition between the storyteller and their audience. Because of this, the Beowulf that we know today is not the original narrative, but rather a translation of the narrative after it had already been told for hundreds of years. It is this that has lead many to believe that whoever translated Beowulf from oral to physical composition practiced as a Christian monk, as monk scribes are responsible for nearly all of the substantiate Old English that we have today, including non- Christian works.
Incredibly, almost all of what information was recorded by the ancient Scandinavians about the Norse religion was translated by, and comes from, Snorri Sturluson, an explicitly Christian man. Sturluson, and others like him, did this so that future Christian poets, who were not raised up on these ancient Norse beliefs, could continue to write and interpret the convoluted runes that required a deep knowledge of deities and culture to properly preserve this vast part of our world’s history. The opposite can be said for Le Morte D’Arthur, however, which is manifested with loaded to the brim with monotheistic, Christian ideas and references.
From the very beginning of Malory’s epic, there is a subtle and implicating moment that suggests Arthur will be named the King of England. Civilians of every social background, nobles and peasants alike, attempted to remove the Excalibur from its stone. This went on for a duration of time, unsurprisingly without any success. Arthur, a commoner who society deemed as unworthy of God’s blessing to become King, however, was an exception. Ironically though, he received divine blessings from God the Father repeatedly, as he successfully removed the sword from its keeper after having put himself to the test more than once. As his first act as King, Arthur helped sustain his people by repossessing land to those who had suffered great misfortunes and had been evicted from their homes following the death of King Uther.
“… many complaints were made unto Sir Arthur of great wrongs that had been done since the death of Uther – of many lords, knights, ladies and gentlemen who had been bereaved of lands – and thus King Arthur made the lands to be given again to those who ought to possess them.” – Le Morte D’Arthur
This act of kindness can be closely likened to the Biblical passage found in the book of John, chapter 6, when Jesus fed five-thousand of his disciples using a small share of only two fish and five loaves of bread. Both men showed kindness to their people by meeting their needs and providing for them. From the very beginning, readers can acknowledge that King Arthur as a man of God. Though later events reveal his fall from divine holiness to temptation , it was God who ultimately chose Arthur to unite everyone under the name of Great Britain.