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An Examination of the Family in ‘The Tale of Sir Gareth’
Master of Arts, Texas A&M University, May (2011)
Malory’s Le Morte Darthur has become one of the most popular medieval romances, and it has remained continually in print since Caxton’s 1485 edition. The “noble chyvalrye, curtosye, humanyté, frendlynesse, hardynesse, love, frendshyp, cowardyse, murder, hate, vertue, and synne” which William Caxton found within the book have captivated both scholars and average readers for centuries. Curiously absent from the critical record, however, have been examinations of gender and the family, themes which are of the utmost importance to the characters within the Morte Darthur. This thesis investigates the theme of family interactions within Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth,” examining the tale itself as well as looking at several analogous stories to determine if the theme is Malory’s own or if it could have come from a probable source. “The Tale of Sir Gareth” follows the thematic patterns set forth early in the Morte Darthur. The tale’s main interests are knightly gaining of worship and how knightly families interact. The two themes are connected by the proof-of-knighthood quest which calls for a combat between family members. Gareth operates within a realm dominated by familial groups. Outside of Arthur’s court, knights rely on family links for protection and honor. Even within Arthur’s Round Table fellowship, knights cleave to kin groups. Gareth enters Arthur’s kitchens with the intention of discovering who his true friends are. He breaks the normal pattern of familial association: after gaining worship, he separates himself from his brothers. Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth” has been troubling to scholars, as “Malory had before him in the writing of this ‘Tale’ no ‘source,’ at least not in the sense that we use in considering the other segments of Le Morte Darthur.” While no clear source is available, many analogous Fair Unknown Romances exist.
Five romances which have been suggested by Robert H. Wilson and Larry D. Benson are Le Bel Inconnu, Lybeaus Desconus, Wigalois, Erec and Enide, and Ipomadon. In these romances, the theme of familial conflict is not an important one. This suggests that Malory inserted the theme of familial violence into his tale. The majority of the action within the Morte Darthur comes in the form of knights on quests to gain honor and worship. Being a member of a knightly family is a necessary pre-condition for being a great knight as knights rely on their family for honor and renown and also must fight against close family members as proof of their prowess. This creates a destabilizing force within Arthur’s Round Table Fellowship, and the majority of the conflicts within Malory’s Morte Darthur can be traced to interfamilial conflict.