One of the biggest problems for modern readers of medieval literature is making sense of the internal logic of human actions.
Reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, early in book one, you come across the pillow talk between Uther and Igraine.1 Recall that Igraine first met Uther during a formal visit to his court, in the company of her first husband, the Duke of Tintagel. Igraine’s first impression of Uther was unfavourable, the man was a creep, and she rightly feared for her honour, the only thing a woman had at the time of any real value. Uther was spurned, he besieged the Duke’s castles, and eventually, the Duke was killed in an ill-advised counter-attack.
Three hours after the Duke’s fortuitous, if poorly timed, demise, Uther, disguised as the Duke through Merlin’s cunning, visited Igraine and knocked her up. Igraine learned of the conflicting chronology which made this whole event improbable, but kept it quiet. She became a little more concerned when it was obvious she was pregnant. Even the shot-gun wedding to Uther, understandable on the grounds of political expediency, couldn’t account for the pregnancy.
Igraine, rightly concerned about all of this, broaches the subject with Uther and asks his advice on the matter. Uther, in a tone that comes across as downright casual, almost jocular, even in Caxton’s awkward verbiage, explains the whole ruse and that Igraine should rest easy, the bun in the royal oven is Uther’s after all. No worries.
This is par for the course in medieval romance literature, but it’s Igraine’s response to this news that is so puzzling. “Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child.”2 Apparently, knowing that her pregnancy was begotten through a ruse de guerre that even Charny would have balked at, involving the very man whose creepy intentions caused her to spurn him into a a large-scale siege operation, finally leading to her first husband’s death, and a marriage, likely deemed essential for her own survival, to that self-same creep, is a relief and cause for “great joy.”3 This leads me to conclude that either Igraine has an imagination of such morbid potency that this scenario turns out to be preferable to the dark and obscene alternatives, or, she is a fantastic actor, trapped in a marriage to a sociopath.
A final explanation, which, unfortunately, is probably the likely one, is that Malory is describing Igraine in terms that most contemporary 15th century readers would recognize. Rather than react in a way that is perhaps more true to emotional reality, Igraine reacts as a stereotypical woman (in the literary 15th century idea of gender stereotypes) might react, with relief that her honour, and that of her husband, is uncompromised. If the Duke had not been killed prior to Uther’s enchanted visit, Igraine could have been considered unfaithful. Forget that there was no way for her to get out of this scenario, the facts would place her in a untenable position. Also, since it’s Uther, her present husband, and not some third party, her honour remains intact. Her child is legitimate, and she is free from accusations of infidelity. This is, at least, my simple reading of this. A period reader may have reached this point with some similar discomfort over Uther’s casual honesty and Igraine’s naive acceptance, but we don’t have much in the way of 15th century reader responses to Malory, least of all, a close reading like this.
Merlin does provide some support for the last theory when he reveals Arthur’s legitimate decent from Uther in book 1, chapter 9. Merlin stresses that Arthur was conceived after the death of Igraine’s 1st husband and was born in wedlock.4 This does not satisfy everyone, but it does suggest that it was a concern over legitimacy and fidelity that motivated Igraine. At least we have that internal reference.
Marcus Bull had a great argument in favour of the study of medieval history; “the liberating richness of human diversity, across time and across space.” Some of that diversity is familiar, comfortable, some is alien, offensive, frustrating, and inexplicable.5 Igraine appears again in chapter 21, but it’s not much more than a walk-on, part of a dispute over Arthur’s legitimacy. One might think that Merlin did all this on purpose, just to mess with things, but I haven’t finished the book yet. Don’t spoil it for me!
I like to think that Igraine was relieved by her early, second widowing. I’m sure it was a lot of work keeping a smile on her face around that creepy man for two years. It does explain why she had no obvious problem with handing off her child, presumably her first-born, to “what poor man ye meet at the postern gate.”6 Who knows which ‘father’ the boy might take after; the illusory Duke, or the corporeal King.
1- I’m quoting from the Penguin version, edited by Janet Cowen. Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (London: Penguin, 1969).
2- Ibid., v. i, 13.
3- Geoffroi de Charny (d. 1356), considered this sort of deception to be dishonest and unbecoming of a knight. Charny was, however, a pragmatist when it came to military expediency, attempted to seize Calais by deceit. It didn’t work. See Geoffroi de Charny, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy, eds. (Philadelphia, PA.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 10-12.
4- Malory, 22.
5- Marcus Bull, Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave, 2005), 136.
6- Malory, 15.