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Motif in Literature

King Motifs In The Medieval Arthurian Tradition

Kingship, along with issues of power—who wields it, and how—can be said to obsess literature in general and medieval literature in particular. Take the weak king of Arthurian tradition—discussed by Edward Peters as an example of rex inutilis (the useless king) and frequently defined as exemplary of the roi fainéant (idle king) of medieval romance. Together with his Knights of the Round Table, he is already lost in decline, sliding toward the betrayal and civil war that will annihilate the Arthurian world. The Arthur of late medieval literature is himself largely absent from narrative action and almost always silent—his court a place of contention; his knights cowardly and his champions far away; his queen physically threatened, kidnapped, and ultimately unfaithful; his servants and realm vulnerable to violence and attack (as, for instance, in the works of Chrétien de Troyes [fl. c. 1170]). Exemplifying the character motif of weak, ineffectual king, this Arthur has persisted in literature, a king who is familiar today through Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King), T. H. White (The Once and Future King), and John Steinbeck (The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights), or via the cinematic creations of Robert Bresson (Lancelot du Lac, 1974), John Boorman (Excalibur, 1981), or Jerry Zucker (First Knight, 1995).


The "alphabetical" organization of Thompson's six-volume motif-index may at first seem counterintuitive. Thompson arranges material into twenty-three index categories—A to Z (excluding I, O, and Y)—but the category headings themselves are not arranged alphabetically. There is no correspondence, in other words, between a category's letter and its topic—category A collects Mythological Motifs; category B, Animal Motifs; category C, Motifs of Tabu; D, Magic; E, the Dead; F, Marvels; G, Ogres; H, Tests; J, the Wise and the Foolish; K, Deceptions; L, Reversals of Fortune; M, Ordaining the Future; N, Chance and Fate; P, Society; Q, Rewards and Punishments; R, Captives and Fugitives; S, Unnatural Cruelty; T, Sex; U, the Nature of Life; V, Religion; W, Traits of Character; X, Humor; and Z, Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs. Each index category is subdivided, some much more so than others. For a detailed list of the categories and their divisions, see the beginning of volume one: "General Synopsis of the Index," 29–35.

And yet, far from first appearing on the literary scene as weak, Arthur is initially an impressive heir to the warrior kings of early medieval epic. The earliest and most complete literary version of King Arthur, that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, proves to be almost indistinguishable from the likes of Beowulf's Shield Sheafson, a king whose name defines his role as defensive armament to his people, and whose violent leadership is praised in such terms as (in Seamus Heaney's translation) "scourge of many tribes," "wrecker of mean-benches," and "terror of the hall-troops." As encapsulated by the Beowulf poet, Shield Sheafson "was one good king." Arthur, too, conquers, and with similar abandon: in the early years of his reign, the fifteen-year-old king defeats all of Britain—exterminating (in Lewis Thorpe's translation) "without mercy" and with "unparalleled severity" the Saxons, Scots, Picts, and Irish—before expanding his realm with the subjection of Iceland, Gotland, the Orkneys, Norway, Denmark, and Gaul. Moreover, this Arthur delights in close combat and general slaughter. "White hot in the fierceness of his rage," he laughs as he singlehandedly slays the monster of Mont-Saint-Michel, "driving the whole length of the blade into his head just where his brain was protected by his skull." Though not explicitly named his nation's armament, as is Shield Sheafson, Geoffrey's Arthur is nonetheless memorable both for his sword, Caliburn (the Excalibur of later tradition), and for his shield, on which "was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced [Arthur] to be thinking perpetually of her." When Arthur invokes the Virgin's name as his battle cry, her apparent blessing enables "unheard of slaughter." Thus, the savage violence of Beowulf's kingship gains in Geoffrey's History divine sanction and favor.

Interestingly, the sword and shield of Arthur—in Geoffrey's History such forceful sources of the king's warrior might—are parceled out to knights in later tradition: in Chrétien de Troyes's Story of the Grail, Excalibur is wielded by Gawain rather than by Arthur, and by the end of the fourteenth century it is Gawain rather than Arthur who carries the Virgin Mary emblazoned on his shield. The literary Arthur and the objects that help define his kingship demonstrate how motifs can transform even while persisting; such character and object motifs contribute to and elaborate a changing thematic of kingship, one that moves from praise of the warrior king to general neglect, to a new emphasis on knights and their quests.

What is the point of tracking literary change in a character motif, or of conducting motif-based analysis in the first place? Motifs in and of themselves, after all, are not what literature is about; if we recall Sollor's distinction made above, they are merely the small elements that treat what literature is about. What exactly gives motif-based analysis methodological force? Even our brief consideration of the figure of King Arthur, of his transformation from inimitable warrior king to weak and inactive ruler in need of knights, allows us to raise much larger thematic questions about the nature of royal power. We can begin, for instance, to chart a literary trend away from the king as heroic conqueror toward a focus on the exploits of champion knights—toward a kind of redistribution and redefinition of power that in fact coincides with actual, historical change. Such wider thematic potential is arguably what makes motif so integral to literary criticism—and so useful to readers, students, and scholars.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Motif in Literature - Ambiguity, Size, Etymology: Dynamism, King Motifs In The Medieval Arthurian Tradition, Stith Thompson's Motif-index Of Folk-literature