“He sente for a philozopher”: Teaching Malory in Terms of Moral Philosophy

Felicia Nimue Ackerman (Brown University)[1]

Like many Arthurianists, I teach Malory’s Morte. I teach it in amounts ranging from brief excerpts to the “hoole book” (726) and in courses ranging from introductory to advanced. How are my Malory courses different from all other Malory courses? I teach Malory in philosophy courses.

As far as I know, I am the only person who does this. Other Malorians have used philosophical material, but the detailed, thorough discussion of Malory’s Morte in terms of moral philosophy seems to be a new approach. You need not be a professional philosopher in order to use this approach, and your students need no philosophy background in order to enjoy and learn from it. You can incorporate this approach into literature courses.

What is it to teach Malory in terms of moral philosophy? I start by leading students to identify the moral outlooks underlying various characters’ speeches and actions as well as the moral outlooks underlying the narrator’s comments. I go on to lead students to assess these moral outlooks on their own merits in the light of grasping “from the inside” how it feels to be these people and have these outlooks in these situations.
This philosophical approach to Malory’s Morte does not supplant literary and historical approaches. It supplements them. It encourages students to view the Morte’s characters as psychologically coherent individuals[2] whose lives, actions, and attitudes throw light on general moral issues, including moral issues that we face today. This promotes emotional involvement with Malory’s characters, as students try to empathize with them. Moreover, since many of the values and presuppositions of Malory’s world are so different from those of our society, assessing Malorian values in the light of experientially grasping the characters’ perspectives promotes intellectual growth. It shows students alternatives to our society’s conventional wisdom.

I will use the example of pity and self-pity in relation to an episode involving the knights Palomides and Epinogrus to demonstrate how this philosophical approach can enrich the teaching of Malory’s Morte as well as broaden students’ minds.

Virtually all students have had first-hand experience with pity and self-pity. This gives discussions of these emotions immediate relevance to students’ lives. My classroom philosophical discussion of pity and self-pity in relation to the Morte begins by asking students how they feel about being pitied. Most express the conventional wisdom that it is insulting to be pitied by other people.

I then ask my students how they feel about self-pity. Again, most express conventional attitudes. They seem to regard self-pity, especially if long lasting, as unhealthy self-indulgence — roughly the emotional equivalent of eating a quart of ice cream in one sitting.

The label ‘unhealthy’ discourages alternative perspectives because it makes the issue sound medical rather than moral. Here is how the Palomides-Epinogrus episode in Malory’s Morte can open students’ minds. When the lovesick Palomides comes upon Epinogrus making “the grettyst dole that ever he herde man make” (466), he can hardly recommend such modern remedies as psychotherapy or Prozac. Nor does he offer such bromides as “Count your blessings” or “Think about others rather than yourself.” Instead, he thinks about his own plight and says,

Lat me lye downe by you and wayle also, for dowte ye nat, I am muche more hevyar than ye ar. For I dare say that my sorow ys an hondred-folde more than youres ys. And therefore lat us complayne aythir to other. (466)

And so they do.

Except for the fact that he goes on to give Epinogrus practical help, Palomides is doing everything wrong by our conventional standards. He not only encourages Epinogrus to indulge in self-pity, but also joins him. Moreover, Palomides engages in emotional one-upmanship. He claims that his own sorrow is greater, before he even knows what Epinogrus’s plight is. (Upon learning that another knight has carried off Epinogrus’s lady, Palomides grants that Epinogrus’s sorrow is greater.)

Obviously, Malory is not reacting against present-day ideas about pity and self-pity. But present-day students can benefit from his recognition that it can be altogether fitting and proper to pity yourself when misfortune befalls you and to pity others when misfortune befalls them. Such responses acknowledge that bad things are just plain bad–instead of seeing them as “challenges,” which we are nowadays typically urged to do.

In teaching this episode in terms of moral philosophy, I show how the episode undermines a reason why our society labels self-pity as unhealthy. This reason involves the common assumption that, if you let yourself “wallow in self-pity,” you will have time and energy for little else. The Palomides-Epinogrus episode dramatically demonstrates that pitying yourself does not mean that it is all you do. On the contrary, Palomides’s self-pity, arising from the pain of unrequited love, enables him to empathize with Epinogrus’s romantic anguish and moves him to help Epinogrus get his lady back. I ask my students to consider whether our society’s conventional wisdom about pity and self-pity offers as much to people in distress as Palomides offers Epinogrus.

Our classroom discussion gets many of my students intrigued by the idea of saying, “Let us complain either to other” rather than what they are usually advised to say to a friend in distress, such as “Why don’t you get counseling?” or “Think about all the good things in your life.” This idea might intrigue your students, too.

You can teach this episode in isolation (using the Morte’s book X, chapters 82-83 and the first seven sentences of chapter 84, readily available online at the second website cited in endnote 1) or as part of a longer unit on Malory’s Morte. Unfortunately, this episode is often omitted in courses teaching just parts of Malory’s Morte. It is worth including for its ability to widen students’ outlooks, leading students to question our society’s ethic of adjustment, moderation, and restraint. The philosophical method I have sketched is also valuable in considering morally significant topics traditionally associated with Malory’s Morte, such as adultery, loyalty, courage, and repentance.

Even after classroom discussion, many students will probably still favor our society’s view of pity and self-pity over Malory’s. Exploring such disagreements is part of the fun of a classroom.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman is professor of philosophy at Brown University. Her publications dealing with Malory include essays, short stories, book reviews, and light verse, including the following light-verse summary of Malory’s Morte, which you may find an amusing way to introduce Malory to your students.

She’ll betray you, Merlin pleaded,
But his warning went unheeded.
Arthur’s choice was not in doubt.
Why should a king do without?
So his bride’s love got distorted.
She and Lancelot consorted.
Then he went to seek the Grail,
Putting her beyond the pale.
But, alas, he proved unstable.
Scandal ended the Round Table.
Lancelot held a great feast.
Later, he became a priest.
Saved his soul in the last inning,
After all the fun of sinning.
To the Lord his thoughts had risen,
As do mine, from here in prison.
 Oh, dear Lord who cannot fail,
 Spring me from this lousy jail.[3]

[1] Eugène Vinaver, Malory: Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 119. All in-text parenthetical references to Malory are to this edition, which uses the original Middle English spelling. For teachers who prefer an edition with modernized spelling, I recommend the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Janet Cowan (London: Penguin, 1970) or the edition available online at  http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Mal1Mor.html and http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Mal2Mor.html.

[2] For defense of the view that Malory’s characters can be seen as psychologically coherent individuals, see Felicia Ackerman, “‘Every Man of Worshyp’: Emotion and Characterization in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur,” Arthuriana 11.2 (2001): 32-42.

[3] This summary first appeared in Felicia Ackerman, “Flourish Your Heart in This World: Emotion, Reason, and Action in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXII: The Philosophy of Emotions,ed.Peter French and Howard Wettstein(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), p. 183. Such light-verse summaries of great literature are called “ShrinkLits.” They originated with Maurice Sagoff. See his ShrinkLits: Seventy of the World’s Towering Classics Cut Down to Size (New York: Workman, 1980).

Original Citation: The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VI, Issue 2, Fall 2008

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies