Transposing the Planes: Supernatural vs. Natural Elements in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
Many people are fascinated by the idea of the supernatural world. It seems something intangible and out of reach, thus having a “grass is greener” appeal. Of course, there are those who prefer the safe, familiar world in which they live and would rather not ponder supernatural things which may or may not exist. Many in the medieval period, though somewhat fearful of the supernatural, were also enraptured by its alluring appeal. It promised to rescue the average medieval worker from their toil, which in a time of widespread plague, harsh working conditions, and political upheaval, sounded very pleasing. But even in today’s world of modern medicine and conveniences, the supernatural holds a certain sway over people. Stories of “miraculous” or “coincidental” occurrences delight; and while there are those who favor stories with plausibility over those without, most people enjoy suspending disbelief, and if the story they are hearing is labeled as true, it becomes that much more sensational. Where, then, does this penchant for the supernatural come from? Is a love for the supernatural, in fact, a natural bent?
In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, there is much fluidity with the ideas of the natural and the supernatural. Sometimes, they cross each other, while other times they transpose each other, and still other times, the reader can hardly tell the difference between what is supernatural and what is not. While some believe this is Malory’s attempt to criticize the church, Malory’s use of supernatural elements is not solely critical. In Le Morte D’Arthur, it seems Malory’s intention to toy with the idea of the supernatural in such a way as to suggest that it is these elements that are the most natural—even to this world—while the “natural” things fail to last.
Defining the Supernatural
Before I go any further, it will be useful to my reader to understand the words to which I am referring as “supernatural” and “natural” are two terms that are used so often and with so many connotations, it will likely be confusing if these terms are not clarified within the contexts of this essay. Dr. James C. McKusick has written an essay entitled “Nature,” in which he explores the word’s earliest definitions:
“From the Latin verb nasci, meaning “to be born,” the first and earliest usage of the word nature denotes the inherent qualities of a thing—that which gives something its distinctive features and makes it unique […] Nature can also refer to the sum total of things in the universe and the aggregate of their respective innate characteristics. In this definition, nature is something static and unchanging” (Ferber 413-414).
Yet, McKusick offers a more current definition, as well: “The second, more recent, use of the term refers not to the sum total of attributes, but rather the sum total of forces and powers at work in the universe. This definition presents nature as dynamic, subject to change and causing changes” (414). So, in the first (and noted, earlier) use of the word, nature, by definition, is a fixed energy that is the inner life of something. We perhaps use this term today by saying “the nature of the beast” or “the nature of man.” Such terms describe unchangeable, unmovable force that has been with man since the beginning, is currently with man, and will forever be with man. Yet, McKusick notes that the more recent definition refers to outside forces. Nature may now refer to the sudden strengthening of a hurricane, the sudden drop in temperature, or an unexpected storm, all things subject to change and fluidity, and out of the normal repetition habitual to the first definition of “nature.” They appear to be opposite definitions, and yet, we understand both definitions as valid uses for the word “nature.” McKusick goes on to make one more point about nature’s nuances: “Because of the scope of its various connotations, nature is often explained in relationship to its conceptual opposites such as spirituality, art, or civilization” (414). It would seem then, not everything in the universe falls under the umbrella of “nature.” Simply existing does not make one “natural.”
Though McKusick never mentions the word “supernatural,” he points toward the idea of the supernatural. In his first definition, he mentions the innate qualities of a thing: the nature a person, animal, or outside world starts with. In his second definition, he mentions “forces and powers” at work within the universe, but never explicitly mentions what those powers are. In his third point, he claims “spirituality, art, and civilization” as opposites of “nature.” As there are forces at work in nature that are unexplainable by nature herself, and that by moving nature in certain directions, either pulling her down or pulling her up, those terms can be described only as unnatural or supernatural.
C.S. Lewis in his work, The Discarded Image, espouses a similar idea definition for the word “nature,” however, he takes it one step further as he attempts to connect this definition with a medieval understanding of the same word. He notes that one of the first concepts of nature was that of a union--Mother Earth and Father Sky: “he is on top, she lies under him […] he begets, she bears” (37), lending itself to the idea of the “above nature” or “super nature,” thus, supernatural. In this way, Nature as Mother Earth is accepted as a deity of sorts, and she cannot be understood without the idea of the supernatural (38). Therefore, in Lewis’ mind, Nature assumes McKusick’s first definition (that of the static), and as she was created by the Supernatural, She cannot be fully understood apart from it. By this logic, Nature is also a creation of the Unnatural, as well, considering sin was introduced to her by the “unnatural” world, according to the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Because, to the medieval mind, asserts Lewis, Nature is not everything: “She was created. She was not God’s highest, much less His only, creature […] Her own lawful subjects, stimulated by rebel angels, might disobey her and become ‘unnatural’. There were things above her, and things below” (38-39). It appears then that a chart can be drawn in which the “unnatural” world, filled with devils, demons, rebel angels, and such, can be placed on the bottom, the “supernatural” world, filled with angels, and creatures of the aether, sits at the top, while the “natural” world which is filled with men and beasts, and susceptible to the pullings of the worlds above and below, rests in the middle of the two. This comparison is not unlike the Great Chain of Being, with one exception: in the Great Chain of Being, no creature can move above or below his natural born state. In Lewis’ idea of the three worlds, no natural being can move outside of his natural born state, but the supernatural and unnatural beings frequently and freely move from one world to another. This understanding of nature as a static force to be moved by its creators, according to Lewis, is how many in the medieval world would have understood it, as well. And as we must look through historic lenses to truly understand Malory’s position, it would seem expedient to accept this definition.
The Medieval Situation
Yet there is little good in simply defining “natural” and “supernatural” without having the understanding of the concepts. These concepts were very important to the medieval person, despite how they are perceived in modern society. I must here side with Lewis, when he states:
“There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travelers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realize what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards mean to the natives[…]But I was writing for the other sort.” (Lewis ix-x)
While there are advantages to exploring a medieval event through modern eyes, in this particular instance, it would be best to explore the medieval culture through the eyes of medieval understandings, specifically in reference to “natural” and “supernatural” things. The medieval mindset was an intensely religious one, thanks in part to Charlemagne’s insistence on a society that was simultaneously classical and Christian (Rowling 13). Charlemagne wanted to mirror Roman society, while at the same time spreading Christian ideals.
By the time Thomas Malory is writing, Charlemagne has been dead for more than five hundred years—but his hopes for a Christian empire are still very much alive. The ideals and beliefs of Christianity were symbolized everywhere. The medieval people did not look upon a large stone church as merely a beautiful building, but as a link between themselves and a supernatural deity. Every aspect of the church was meant to represent God in a unique way: the beautiful windows represented God’s Divine light (“Western Europe” 434), the stone used to build the church represented God’s strength and resilience, while the height of the church represented the will to reach for Him (“Western Europe” 433), and the Bible stories told in the windows and by statues represented wisdom and learning that comes from God (“Western Europe” 437). Such beauty and strength elicits strong emotions from the worshiper.
Yet the medieval person was not merely interested in emotions. Some claim that contrary to popular modern beliefs, the medieval period was not a romantic one, but a rational one, as is seen by their attentiveness to detail, dislike of individualism, and moral strictness (Tatlock 302). While it is true that faith and spirituality today are often linked with the idea of having an emotional connection, not an intellectual one, the people of the middle ages did not make much of a distinction between the two. For them, the things of academia pointed directly to God, even mathematics: an orderly subject that mirrored God’s orderliness of the universe (Rowling 141). Many articles and essays were also written to prove God’s existence. St. Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, constructed a syllogism as proof of God’s existence, in which he claimed that since God cannot be conceived not to exist, He must then exist (“The Middle Ages” 169). Though his proof has been disputed, the intellectual exercise of such a proof cannot be denied. Such use of logic, as well as weighted theological writings were not uncommon during this period. So attached were these people to the ideas of the supernatural, that those whose duty they felt it was to “rise above” the natural world did so in ways that confound even the most prominent thinkers of our time.
One such example would be the anchoress Julian of Norwich, who chronicled her “sixteen revelations” that were showed to her by Christ:
“The place that the Lord sat on was simple, on the earth, barren, and desert, alone in wilderness; his clothing was wide and long and full seemly, as falleth to a Lord; the colour of his cloth was blue as azure, most sad and fair, his cheer was merciful; the colour of his face was fair-brown—with full seemly features; his eyes were black, most fair and seemly shewing, full of love and pity, and within him, an high regard, long and broad, all full of endless heavens.” (Norwich 95)
Such claims of “seeing” God or “visions” of the Divine occurred often during the period. In fact, these claims were taken quite seriously, and if one were to say God told him or her to do a certain thing, their claim would be evaluated much as a scientist’s theory would be today. The supernatural was not seen as existing on a plane to itself, with no interaction below; rather, the supernatural had interactions, however limited, with its created (natural) world. Interpreting these interactions involved more than mere “feeling.” Scholars of this time strove to understand the supernatural in quantitative and intellectual capacities, as well. Malory recognized this mindset and thus visions and images of God are often seen throughout Le Morte D’Arthur, treated as simultaneously miraculous and ordinary.
The medieval man’s love of the supernatural was probably due in part to their recognition of the fleeting nature of their world. With war, poverty, and plague entering the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was not long. What promise a never-ending world without disease and violence had. Why not aspire for that higher world? Edward Caldwell Moore in his essay “The Christian Doctrine of Nature” summarizes the early Christian mindset this way:
“What we call the order of nature, the everyday work of the universe, had, for the devout [medieval] man, its origin in the divine will just as truly as had special episodes. That is where we moderns touch the ancient man's belief again […] The poet saw the divineness in the dawn, although it happens every day. The common man saw it only when he thought he saw the sun stand still. The poet heard the morning stars when they sang together. The common man used the stars to sail by, a function in which everything depended on there being no caprice. He was not aware that this difference between what he called a miracle and the ordinary course of nature was in himself and not in the event.” (15)
Thus, it was not the world in which they lived that defined their ideals, but the perceptions they had of the supernatural that helped shape who they became. These understandings of the medieval relations between the natural world and the supernatural world should help one better comprehend Malory’s ideas.
The Supernatural Grail Quest
The Grail quest is perhaps the most well-known example of the supernatural and natural worlds intermingling in Le Morte D’Arthur. It is a tale that had been tied to Arthurian legend for several centuries, so Malory could hardly have ignored its importance in his work. Yet some have criticized Malory’s “downplaying” of the grail quest as his attempt to brush off the religious overtones of Arthurian legend. However, in reading the text it seems as though Malory is not trying to pretend the religious aspects of the legend are not important, but rather trying to weave the supernatural and natural aspects together to create what M.H. Abrams might call “Natural Supernaturalism”—naturalizing the supernatural and humanizing the divine (Abrams 68). While the divine in Malory’s work is not humanized in the sense Abrams is speaking of (giving human aspects to a divine being), the divine is often symbolized in human terms. For example, as Sir Lancelot is contemplating his sinful ways, he comes to a mountain he cannot climb, symbolizing his inability to ascend toward heaven. So, as he lies in a valley, he is visited by an old man, who says: “Ah, Lancelot of evil faith and poor belief, wherefore is thy will turned so lightly toward thy deadly sin?” and then disappears (Malory 713). After this troubling vision, Lancelot visits a recluse who tells him this vision meant that though he had many aspects of a spiritual knight in him, his earthly deeds (read: Guenever) prevent him from questing for the Sangreal (714). The vision is no doubt a supernatural one: after all, Lancelot notes that he did not see the man come, and he did not see him leave. It is also assumed by the message that the man was of the supernatural realm, and not an unnatural one. In this sense, the divine was given a human image, and as he appeared as an “old” man—feeble and ancient—and not a young, strong one, the divine was, at least physically, humanized. Yet his words, which are harsh and condemning, sound as though he knows Lancelot personally. And not only knows Lancelot’s thoughts and personality, but knows his heart: “wherefore is thy will turned so lightly toward thy deadly sin?” Who but a deity would know Lancelot’s attitude toward his own sin?
Another example of the supernatural expressed in natural terms comes in Sir Gawaine’s vision while he is on the grail quest. Gawaine, as an earthly knight, has no hopes of ever finding the Grail, but he persists in questing for it, anyway, for Gawaine is, according to Thomas Hann, “the chevalier exemplaire, the paragon against which manhood is measured[…]” (220). He is the knight of adventure, and must take up quests as they come along. However, in the case of the grail, he receives a vision that tells him otherwise:
“Sir Gawaine him seemed he came into a meadow full of herbs and flowers, and there he saw a rack of bulls, an hundred and fifty, that were proud and black, save three of them were all white, and one had a black spot, and the other two were so fair and so white that they might be no whiter […] And the remnant of the bulls said among them: Go we hence to seek better pasture. And so some went, and some came again […] and of the bulls that were so white, that one came again and no more.” (Malory 717)
A hermit translates this vision and tells him that only three of Arthur’s one hundred and fifty knights may quest for the Grail, and in those three are two whose hearts and bodies are pure, while the third is chaste. When faced with this news, Gawaine turns from the Grail quest and tries to find his adventure elsewhere (721-27). Gawaine, despite being the adventurous knight, knows that even he cannot overcome divine will, so he does not even try. Such visions are commonly called “Grail Visions” and are assumed to be of the Divine, as they eventually come to fruition (Manlove 13). They are, in a sense, “coded” messages, and only the “purest” of knights can achieve the true, unadulterated visions of the Grail.
For those who are only earthly knights, God himself is not shown to them, either in reality or in a dream. Rather, when an earthly knight receives a divine image, it is of a certain animal (bulls, snakes, dragons), or of a human (old men and young women, in particular). These images are familiar to these “earthly” knights. They are “natural” to the world in which they live. None of them have seen the supernatural or unnatural worlds, and such things are a little disconcerting. But if messages come to them through a “natural” source, they are more apt to accept them, even though these “natural” sources are more fleeting than the divine being sending the messages. For the three spiritual knights who are allowed the smallest glimpse of the supernatural world, they are forever changed. For Lancelot, who would have been a spiritual knight if not for his affair with Guenever, he receives the tiniest vision of the Grail, and is so overwhelmed—and under prepared—for the supernatural, that he faints and is presumed dead (Malory 769).
Lancelot’s Encounters with the Supernatural
Many in authority over the church at the time did not approve of Lancelot and Guenever’s relationship, or rather, how it was handled. It would have been one thing had Malory completely condemned it. To some, the fact that Lancelot glimpsed the Grail at all was an almost acceptance of the adulterous pair. Yet Malory’s handling of the affair was in no way accepting the act, but the frailties of human nature. This is evidenced by Malory’s own life. He was, in fact, a knight, but he was also a criminal. For centuries, critics have been puzzled by this man who wrote of such high, chivalric ideals, while himself participating in licentious acts. Perhaps Christopher Cannon makes a good point when he says: “[…]for Malory, crime is neither a threat nor an embarrassment to the good knight or the state he and his compeers found: since virtue is really only possible to the extent that there is such a thing as ‘evil’—since virtue consists in fighting that evil—chivalry could not exist without the ‘evyll wyll’—or, that is, without the mens rea and the individualities potential for criminal activity” (178). So, by this thinking, Malory is acknowledging the fallibility of all mankind. In this instance, Malory seems to identify with Sir Lancelot, and “crucifying” Lancelot by making him pay for his mistake throughout the story would be akin to crucifying himself.
For evil must exist in order for it to be fought, and if evil exists, then its purpose must be to bring down those who wish to see it destroyed. Before the reader is ever introduced to Lancelot personally, he is called one of the “best knights of the world,” by Merlin who prophesies that he and Sir Tristam (the other “best knight”) will fight each other and neither will die (Malory 59). He is esteemed by the other knights as great, because he is the very definition of chivalry, something they are not always. Despite this glorious entrance by Lancelot, however, it is soon brought to the forefront that he and Guenever are “in love,” something that the medieval church likely would not have approved.
Since it is true Lancelot participated in these acts and was still allowed to see the home of the Grail, Malory advocates second chances. Yet, even though Lancelot is allowed to the door of the Grail, there can be no happy ending for his love with Guenever. It is that love that is the instrument to the downfall of Logris—the last piece of the puzzle needed to complete the tale. This ultimate downfall is, in fact, not an approval of Lancelot and Guenever’s relationship, but an ultimate condemnation. The land, which had been restored through Arthur is now returned to its previous state of disarray. Despite the way things turn out, Malory ultimately allows for their redemption. It is this redemption which many mistook for support of the affair, but as Malory himself knew all too well the etherealness of the world, he championed second chances for Lancelot’s sake, and for his own.
Consider, for a moment, the ascension of Galahad to Heaven. Malory’s text reads thus:
“Fair lord, salute me to my lord, Sir Lancelot, my father, and as soon as ye see him, bid him remember of this unstable world. And therewith he kneeled down to-fore the table and made his prayers, and then suddenly his soul departed to Jesu Christ and a great multitude of angels bare his soul up to heaven, that the two fellows might well behold it. Also the two fellows saw come from heaven an hand, but they saw not the body[…]Sithen was there never man so hardy to say that he had seen the Sangreal.” (782)
Galahad’s last words were to Sir Bors, asking him to remind Lancelot of the instability of this, the “natural” world. “Stable” in Middle English has much the same meaning as it does today. By Galahad calling it an “unstable” world, he is calling into question the “steadfastness” of it; yet the word also had a religious connotation: “A person is ‘stable’ in faith or virtue, and stability is frequently invoked in the context of perseverance in the religious or monastic life” (Mahoney 390). Thus, the word “unstable” takes on an even larger meaning: not only is the world not steadfast, but it is impossible (or fair near to it) to remain true to faith and virtue in a world whose co-creator is “unnatural.” Now, think of the wording surrounding Galahad’s “death.” It does not appear as though he has ended. He is going to heaven, with the Sangreal, and the angels are taking him there. It can then be assumed that he shall go on existing, even if he is no longer a part of this world.
Now, take a separate passage referring to Queen Guenever:
“But nowadays men can not love seven night by they must have all their desires: that love may not endure by reason; for where they be soon accorded and hasty heat, soon it cooleth. Right so fareth love nowadays, soon hot, soon cold: this is no stability. But the old love was not so; men and women could love together seven years, and no licours lusts were between them, and then was love, truth, and faithfulness: and lo, in like wise was used love in King Arthur’s days[…]therefore all ye that be lovers call unto you remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenever, for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.” (836-837)
Here, Malory uses opposites to set up the differences between love in his time (c. 1469), and what he considered love to be in the old days. Love now (in the fifteenth century), he argues, is hot and cold, on and off. Love in Arthur’s time was solid and free from lust. It was simply love. As Malory makes this point, he asks that any of his readers who are also lovers, to remember the month of May. In both passages, someone is called to remembrance: Lancelot to remember instability of the world, and Guenever (a lover) to remember May. Upon close inspection, it seems as though they are both being asked to remember the same thing: life is fleeting. May in England is a lovely month, filled with warmer weather and growing things. It reminds one of rebirth and hope, and in medieval England, the first day of May was a celebratory one. To recall May is to conjure up images of love and growth (Malory 836), however, May is simply one month out of a year. It comes and then it leaves; like all good things in this world, it is fleeting. And, unlike Galahad’s ascension to Heaven with angels, this passage ends by saying, “and therefore [Guenever] had a good end” (837). There is no mention here of Guenever’s continuing in another world. Though it is assumed she will spend time in purgatory, Heaven, or Hell, the language of the text ignores this. While it does say she had a good end, the fact is, she ended. Though Malory praises her love as being high and virtuous (836), it cannot be denied that she lived for earthly things—things which cannot last.
Another episode I wish to mention is that of Lancelot’s death. Through Lancelot’s Salvation, Malory claims his own, as well. After Arthur is borne away by the Lady of the Lake, and after Guenever rejects him then dies, Lancelot is left alone. One cannot help but pity him, as he comes to the realization that the deaths of his friends were partly his fault. Had he forsaken Guenever, the table likely would not have split, and if the table had not split, there would have been no war. Yet he must live with those actions for the rest of his life, and he has a difficult time dealing with such things, as he ate and drank little until his death (Malory 934). When the time for his death came, he asked for religious rites and received them, then lay in his bed while everyone else went to sleep. The hour of his death is not recorded as someone watches, but rather through a vision—a form of supernatural communication:
“Ah Jesu mercy, said the Bishop, why did ye awake me? I was never in all my life so merry and so well at ease[…]Truly, said the Bishop, here was Sir Lancelot with me with mo angels than ever I saw men in one day. And I saw the angels heave up Sir Lancelot unto heaven, and the gates of heaven opened against him[…]So when Sir Bors and his fellows came to his bed they found him stark dead, and he lay as he had smiled, and the sweetest savour about him that ever they felt.” (935)
Here, it is interesting to note that the vision the Bishop had is never confirmed to be true, but it is implied as Lancelot is found with a smile upon his face and a sweet air about him, as though his soul had actually been caught up to Heaven by angels. The entire tale ends with Ector finding his brother dead and a survey of what happens to the country next, but the true finale of the story is Lancelot’s redemptive death. It seems as though Malory is saying: “Look at this earthly knight, who committed a few sins, but ultimately gave in to the supernatural and was restored.” As Lancelot’s death is recounted through the Bishop, and the reader or listeners are not firsthand witnesses, Lancelot’s death is seen as “less” than Galahad’s. Galahad’s death had witnesses to the supernatural ascension; Lancelot’s has only conjecture. Yet, the comparability between the two is undeniable. Both are said to be born away by many angels—“a multitude” in Galahad’s case and “more angels than I ever saw men” in Lancelot’s. Despite Galahad’s righteousness and Lancelot’s sin, both men are allowed the “sweet savour” of leaving the natural world for the world of the supernatural.
The Supernatural and Natural worlds collide often in Malory’s work. But, as Murray J. Evans points out, “Malory brings the supernatural down to earth.” The Grail comes to the natural world, and is borne away again; angels come to earth and bare away the souls of Lancelot and Galahad; an old man appears, gives a cryptic message, and then vanishes. While Evans believes Malory’s intent is to secularize the divine, I believe Malory does it to point out how close to the supernatural the natural world is. The only way he could show that the supernatural and natural worlds were linked was to bring them together, and while this drew the disapproval of some, it created entire fantastic worlds for others.
Malory was harshly criticized by the church when his work was released, and, as far as history can tell, while Malory himself was not the most upstanding citizen, it seems as though his work was not about the world as it was or had been in the past, but rather the world as it should be. It is true that his version of the tale did not place as much emphasis on spirituality as the French Quest del San Graal, but his piece of prose remains true to the original intention of that French work. Colin Manlove puts it this way: “yet, while the world is seen as a hollow fraud, and while truth is frequently seen as spiritual and allegorical […], the spiritual things are not mere abstractions, but realities, and within and beyond all is the reality of the Christian supernatural. Put aside the delusions of the world, and there is nothing” (19). We see it many times in Le Morte D’Arthur. The Lancelot and Guenever love story is just one example of the things in the natural world being ethereal, while the supernatural world lives on. The Lady of the Lake never grows old, and the reader assumes she likely never dies. She simply is, but she is a force that continually moves the creatures of the natural world into the directions she plans for them. So which is true reality? The love that falls apart, or the being who never dies? Manlove makes the point that in this legend “For those who will see, the world is not sufficient to itself, but is permeated by supernatural beings and events that demonstrate the eternal realities surrounding man in his cocoon of mortal illusion” (20). So the natural world is a static illusion allowing itself to be controlled by those outside forces which helped create the fantasy in the first place. The idea of the grand “battle of the cosmos” was alive even in Malory’s day, and while Le Morte D’Arthur is not about the war between the supernatural and the unnatural, it is about man’s coping with the idea that there is something besides himself—and even greater than himself—in the universe.