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Sitting on the Sidelines: Disability in Malory
Halmstad University, School of Education, Humanities and Social Science, Contexts and Cultural Boundaries (KK).
2013 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Late medieval tournaments were not a safe sport; deaths and injuries are mentioned by contemporary chroniclers, the most famous case being the death of Henry II of France in 1559. Clearly some of these injuries, where the knight escaped death, led to long-lasting or permanent disability. The disability need not hinder an active life: Götz of Berlichingen, having lost his right arm in battle, wore an articulated prosthetic arm. This shows the importance of warlike endeavour to the knightly classes, considering the ingenuity expended on allowing the disabled man to participate in physical activities and, when in armour, present an able-bodied image.

In Malory’s works, as in all narratives of chivalric deeds, death is an expected and frequent outcome of knightly activities. However, we encounter few disabled characters: knights either die or heal. In Malory’s text, ability is normalised: lasting injury and disability is outside the norm, marginalised to the point of invisibility. This is surprising, considering that the audience must have been familiar with permanent, more or less disabling, effects of knightly life. Oliver Auge has argued that “affected nobles were ... seen as disturbing elements within the society” and may have internalised this perspective;[1] thus, in Malory’s perfect Arthurian world, disability is not admissible. The exceptions to this are Pellam -  the Grail guardian - and Sir Urry. These two characters, while sharing a long-term disability, differ in narrative function. Pellam is the literary descendant of the Fisher King of earlier Arthurian texts,[2] who is always, as Kisha G. Tracy has pointed out, “defined by his disability.”[3] Sir Urry, on the other hand, seems to appear in the narrative only to provide Lancelot with proof of his worthiness.

Malory introduces Pellam’s disability at the very beginning, making it a significant part of the story of Sir Balin. Here we see Pellam engaging in battle, desiring to avenge his brother, but resulting in Pellam himself being injured: “and kynge Pellam lay so many yerys sore wounded, and myght never be hole tylle that Galaad the Hawte Prynce heled hym in the queste of the Sankgreall”[4] – at which point his name has changed to Pelles and the story of his maiming is different.

The story of the maimed king and his healing is, even for Malory, inconsistent and confusing. King Pellam/Pelles is wounded – though there are contradictory stories of that wounding - and will be healed by Galahad; however, there is another Fisher King, and once the healing takes place, not Pelles but another unnamed knight is the object of healing. Pellles’s disability is by no means as dominant in Malory’s text as in the various earlier Perceval/Grail texts: it is only referred to in the two stories of his wounding and once mentioned by Galahad. The same silence about disability can be found in the narrative of Sir Urry. Sir Urry’s injury, which occurred in a tournament, has been aggravated by sorcery and caused disability: his healing restores him to full knightly ability. Thus, we see the disabled knight only briefly, and focus is on the attempts at healing.

Despite disability being the defining characteristic in previous literary incarnations of the Grail king, and despite the experience of Sir Urry – long-term disability after an injury – being a realistic feature of the chivalric world, disability is consistently hidden by the reader’s attention being diverted, the symbolism of the disability, or even the disabled character, shifting throughout the narrative. Disability and the disabled are unstable sites in the text, and seem to be sites of anxiety for the intended audience.

[1] Oliver Auge, ”Noblemen injured in fights and jousts: in the field of tension between honour and ability” Medizin, Gesellschaft und Geschichte 2009/28 21-46, abstract.

[2] Although clearly not identical in Malory, as Galahad asks to be remembered “unto my grauntesyre kynge Pelles, and unto my lorde kynge Pecchere, and say hem” Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugéne Vinaver, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977) 519 (my emphasis).

[3] Kisha G. Tracy, “Representations of Disability: the Medieval Literary Tradition of the Fisher King” Ryler, Joshue E., ed., Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010) 105-118, 105.

[4] Malory 54.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2013.
Keywords [en]
Malory, Arthurian, disability
National Category
Specific Literatures
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:hh:diva-22225OAI: oai:DiVA.org:hh-22225DiVA, id: diva2:622379
Conference
Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 4-7 April, 2013
Available from: 2013-05-21 Created: 2013-05-21 Last updated: 2018-03-22Bibliographically approved

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