Ethics in the Arthurian Legend
Edited by Melissa Ridley Elmes and Evelyn Meyer
In a few short sentences, please tell us what Ethics in the Arthurian Legend aims to do?
Our purpose with this collection was to draw attention specifically to the manifold ways in which the Arthurian legend speaks to the broad subject of ethics. We are accustomed to reading the Arthurian legend for the themes of chivalry, courtliness, violence, honour, and treason, and all of these subjects are deeply implicated in the concept of ethics. However, with the exception of Jane Gilbert in her 2009 essay on the subject, scholars have not heretofore expressly linked their work on the Arthurian legend with the subject of ethics. The ultimate aim of this project was to answer the question “Does Arthur have ethics?”
What were the biggest differences you found between the various iterations of the Arthurian legend you looked at? Were there some similarities?
Every Arthurian text is written for its own time and place even when telling the same basic story. Each narrative speaks to the sociocultural milieu in which it was penned, and this is true when speaking of Arthurian texts from the Middle Ages through the present day. However, even in texts as disparate as those represented in this collection — from the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen to the English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the French Perlesvaus to the German Iwein, the Dutch Walewein, to the Old Norse Icelandic Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, and modern Arthurian narratives and games — we find clear and often intentional critiques of Arthur and his court, signaling a fundamental engagement with ethical considerations.
How did this study come about? How were the contributors chosen?
On the long drive back from the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, we, the editors, were bouncing around ideas for a session for the following year. Melle proposed something to do with Arthurian ethics, to which Evelyn retorted: “Arthur has ethics?!?” Debating the subject for the remainder of the ride home, we realised that it could be bigger than just a single conference session. At the Saint Louis University Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies the following month, we broached the subject with several colleagues in Arthurian Studies who met it with great enthusiasm. We then proposed sessions at both the ICMS and SLU SMRS the following year and the papers given in those sessions were developed into chapters in the book, which we then supplemented with invitations to scholars we knew who were working in adjacent areas to expand and diversify the collection’s content.
Tell us about your cover.
We started by looking for some sort of medieval representation of ethics but did not find anything we felt was suitable. We then turned to images of the Arthurian legend from medieval manuscripts but determined that these did not adequately represent a transhistorical collection of essays, or ethics for that matter. Melle then proposed a photograph of the statue in Cornwall located in Tintagel. The representation of traces of history in the present day, the controversy surrounding the placement of the statue in this location, the statue’s conveyance of the idea of permanence coupled with transitory reality, and the solidness coupled with the hollowness of the statue’s form, all seem to speak to the various ethical representations present in this collection, as well as serving as a de facto twelfth essay on ethics in its own right. We view the statue as visually symbolic of poking holes into the fabric of ethics.
What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
We would like our readers to come away with an appreciation for the complexity of Arthurian literature in general, which this collection makes visible through examination of the question of ethics. While we have located an overarching concern with ethics spanning every temporal and geographic realm examined in these essays, yet, the collection demonstrates that there is no overarching homogenous “Arthurian ethics.” Even when looking at the same tale written in different times and places, we find that narrative never simply replicated but always either subtly or outright transformed in accordance with its own time and place, or with concerns and anxieties and cultural complexities of its time. And even when dealing with the same or similar ethical considerations, authors in different times and places handle these in very different ways. While scholars who work regularly with Arthurian materials are well aware of this, we hope that this collection spurs our Arthurian colleagues to new scholarship specifically dealing with further ethical issues in the legend, and to energize scholars who don’t often consider Arthurian materials to view this corpus as one worthy of greater critical attention.
MELISSA RIDLEY ELMES is Associate Professor of English at Lindenwood University.
EVELYN MEYER is Associate Professor of German at Saint Louis University.