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The (Non-)Christian Knight in Malory: A Contradiction in Terms
By Dorsey Armstrong
Arthuriana, Vol 16.2 (2006)
Introduction: While in pursuit of the Holy Grail, Malory’s Sir Perceval encounters a female recluse who is both the former Queen of the Wastelands and his aunt. She serves as explicator and guide, interpreting Perceval’s past experiences and offering guidance for the next phase of his journey. In the midst of their conversation, she makes an interesting statement: ‘For all the worlde, crystenyd and hethyn, repayryth unto the Rounde Table, and whan they ar chosyn to be of the felyshyp of the Rounde Table they thynke hemselff more blessed and more in worship than they had gotyn halff the worlde’ (906.18–21). While this claim is striking in its suggestion that non-Christian knights may become full-fledged members of the Round Table brotherhood, what is even more startling is that it is made in the midst of the Grail Quest, arguably the most overtly Christian and religious portion of Malory’s text. There exists a striking gap between the idea of inclusiveness expressed in her assertion and the practice of knightly experience in Malory’s text: non- Christians must convert before they are granted full admittance to the Round Table, and the killing of unbaptized knights is frequently characterized as both honorable and necessary.
In this article I would like to suggest that the complex and vexed overlap, interaction, and occasional opposition of Christian and chivalric identity in Malory’s Morte Darthur reveals the limitations of the knightly ideal of Malory’s text. As the title of my essay suggests, non-Christian knights offer one of the greatest and most visible challenges to the identity of the Arthurian community; yet, the parenthetical enclosure of ‘non’ in that same title registers my contention that a devoutly Christian knight like Galahad provokes similar anxiety.