by A. T. Miller
Study of "The Conspiracy Against Lancelot and Guinevere" by Sir Thomas Malory
| From Sir Thomas Malory’s tale, “Morte Darthur”, comes The Conspiracy Against Lancelot and Guinevere, a passage that suggests a general indifference among the Knights of the Round Table to the affair between the legendary knight, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. The irony of a beloved and much famed hero who sullies the prized jewel of Camelot, his queen, tells a story of bittersweet betrayal of honor and friendship for an act of sin that will only lead to even greater acts of betrayal and sin. As if from a medieval episode of the late night television show “Cheaters,” Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred, against the advice of Sir Gawain, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Gareth, sneak up on the lovers and bust them in their impropriety. Sir Lancelot’s protest that he and the Lady are knocking boots is meager and poorly timed, denying obviously amorous attentions paid to her in her own bedchamber, but this is not what chafes the powerful knight’s armor. He reacts to the ill will of his peers as if his adulterous affair with Guinevere is his just reward for numerous heroic deeds and the high esteem of his liege, King Arthur. His treason comes full circle when his need to lay with Guinevere forces him to slay thirteen of his brothers-at-arms, and wound a fourteenth, before offering to steal Queen Guinevere away from her kingdom.
From the outset of the story, Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred, whose very names seem to suggest unrest, vanity, and murder, appear not as pioneers who defy the convention that a hero is always as great as his noblest deed, but as villains conspiring to undermine the high esteem of a valorous knight by his king and fellow comrades. Even fate glares down upon the accusers, threatening their lives before they ever speak against Sir Lancelot’s betrayal. Despite their fate, winter itself watches events unfold, “…for winter with his rough winds and blasts causeth lusty men and women to cower and to sit fast by the fire—so this season it befell…a great anger and unhap that stinted not till the flower of chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain.” (421), with a pensive disgruntlement. Words like “lusty,” used in diction as a form of “merry,” is specific wordplay foreshadowing the joining of Sir Lancelot with Lady Guinevere, and the prediction made in the first paragraph, the death of chivalry, a sign of the destruction of all that is dear as a result.
Sir Gawain, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Gareth react unfavorably to the knights when they proclaim their intentions toward Sir Lancelot. They do not refute his use of Queen Guinevere’s bed and affections so much as sing praises to his many acts of courage in service to King Arthur. They equate might with right by ignoring that adultery, owing him their lives several times over, and by caving in to their fear of his prowess as a swordsman. King Arthur himself declares the indictment dangerous, “For, as the French book saith, the King was full loath that such a noise should be upon Sir Lancelot and his queen….for Sir Lancelot had done so much for him and for the Queen so many times…” (423), and is reluctant to press the matter. It is a hard thing to charge such a noble hero, a dear friend in both personal and professional life, that King Arthur’s own suspicions lay dormant until it became too obvious for him to ignore. The sin goes on quietly beneath the notice of the kingdom, but it will soon become impossible to contain.
A distressed Sir Bors, friend of Sir Lancelot, warns him of the plot to reveal the affair with Lady Guinevere, but the heads-up will not put the naughty knight off his lusty rendezvous. His spin on the meeting makes it seem like an honorable summons, and he a good knight (no pun intended) for spending the evening in her company. He denies the truth of his sin against his king, “So Sir Lancelot departed and took his sword under his arm, and so he walked in his mantel, that noble knight, and put himself in great jeopardy.” (424), but he does not deny the chance of discovery. His denial enables him to give in to his lust, and his lust propels him to meet with the queen, and “as the French book saith, the Queen and Sir Lancelot were together.” sully the honor he worked so courageously to accumulate. The sin is not his alone, but it was within his power to stop it, or at least conceal it better. Ignoring the warning, he set in motion an event that would force him to take measures that would damn not only himself, but also his entire kingdom.
King Arthur’s suspicions are realized, and Sirs Agravain and Mordred, along with their company of twelve, set upon Lady Guinevere’s door. This is the time for revelation and a noble sacrifice on Sir Lancelot’s part, but he lives in denial about the wrongness of his deeds. His love for Guinevere is so blinding that he searches for armor, and finding none, tricks the knights into sending in a lone representative for him to armor-jack. His actions assure his damnation, “Within a little while he laid them down cold as earth,” (426), as he took the lives of all but one of his accusers despite their finding him in such an undeniably guilty state. The sin he and Guinevere share has grown from mere adultery to mass murder. Neither Sir Lancelot nor the fourteen Knights of the Round Table are fighting a war in Guinevere’s bedroom, he on one side and they on the other. At least his attack could then be justified. His slaying is an act of pure treason, and it is not likely to be the last he will commit in the name of his lust for his queen.
Sir Lancelot knows that he has severed all loyal ties with King Arthur, and is unrepentant. He extends his hand to Lady Guinevere for their escape, but she reaches some internal conclusion, some balance within is set against her leaving. Proclaiming his true love to a married woman, the wife of his former good friend, King Arthur, Sir Lancelot gives her a pledge of their devotion and accepts one from her as well. She does not come to her senses when she says, “Sir, that is not best [ ] me seemeth, for now ye have done so much harm, it will be best you hold still in this.” (426), but that she believes he may still flee without challenge or pursuit. They exchange symbols, rings, of branding, their sins worn willingly for all to see. Queen Guinevere, however, feels the sin escalating and tries at last to stall the tsunami of bloodshed that is about to wash over Camelot. They lock themselves inexorably into their positions as the sin grows beyond their control.
Denial is a powerful enabler, allowing any sin imaginable to permeate even the most virtuous of homes. In Sir Thomas Malory’s version of Camelot, the friendship of Sir Lancelot and King Arthur, as well as the honor of the kingdom, is in dire jeopardy because of a sin that Sir Lancelot could have concealed or prevented. Stripping away the identity of the characters and leaving only their deeds, we learn the fertile consequences of sin to proliferate beyond our comprehension. How the reader perceives the love between the knight and his queen, and the ensuing battle, demonstrates an ironic shift that puts the transgressors in the light of altruism. The battle that King Arthur wages against Sir Lancelot, and vice versa, will be as much a war of man against his basest desires as it is between these mythic personas. We are both King Arthur, the thinker and leader who cherishes the abilities of the servants, the “tools” if you will, under his command, and Sir Lancelot, the strength and pride that blind us to the evils we create and perpetuate. Of course, if a rock is just a rock, then The Conspiracy Against Lancelot and Guinevere is just an interesting spin on the Arthurian legend worthy of merit for its insight into characters made more realistic by the incongruities of character and narrator perspective.