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Cody Austin

Dr. Drake

Research Paper

ENGL 458

Sir Thomas Malory uses disguise in his medieval romance Le Morte Darthur as a means

of criticizing chivalric ideals. Through an array of characters, Malory applies thematic disguises

to each medieval figure. Starting with Merlin and Gareth who both take on disguises of poverty,

to Sir Launcelot whose disguises indicate a theme of self-defeat. Malory uses each disguise as a

platform to critically examine the chivalric values once held to such a high standard. By doing

so, Malory builds a case against the chivalric society, reducing it to a shell of its former self.

Through each unique disguise, Malory actively contradicts the knightly virtues upheld by the

knights of the Round Table. This is done by undermining King Arthur who represents the zenith

of a chivalric society, starting from his sordid conception all the way to his death. All of this

works to express the futility of chivalric society.

It is important to first understand the chivalric ideals as they exist within the world that

Malory creates. In the article Theatricality of the Chivalric World in Thomas Malorys Le

Morte Darthur, author Joanna Bukowska provides a concise list of some major knightly

virtues: prowess, valour, strength (Bukowska, p.35). These are all values overtly

exemplified by the knights of the round table. Malory describes the virtue of prowess: but he

[Arthur] overcam hem al-as he dyd the remenaunt, thurgh the noble prowesse of hymself and his

knyghtes of the Round Table (Malory, p.11). Prowess is essentially a demonstration of aptitude

and capability. Sir Launcelot and Sir Cador demonstrate astounding valor against tens of

thousands of Roman soldiers. Though vastly outnumbered they fruyshed forth all at onys
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(ibid., p.131). And by enduring and killing thousands of Romans, resulting in the opposing

soldiers fleeing from battle, King Arthurs knights exhibit tremendous strength, the third virtue

Bukowska lists. Though these are not the only chivalric ideals, they will be the primary focus for

framing this essay.

One theory that examines the significance of the many disguises was put forth by Arthur

Samuel Kimball in his article Merlins Miscreation and the Repetition Compulsion in Malorys

Morte Darthur. Kimball examines how Merlin miscreates Arthurs reality. Kimball prefaces

this article by framing Malorys work through a Freudian perspective: .He [the creative

writer] builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams (Kimball, p.27). Kimball

parallels this with Malorys Morte Darthur which on the surface provides a landscape of fantasy,

but is also reality-oriented as Malory aims to address the problems with a miscreated world

(ibid., p.28). Kimball details the disharmony caused by the very conception and birth of Arthur.

Kimball claims that through Uthers contradictory emotions of pure angre and grete love of

fayr Igrane, Uther simultaneously falls for Igrane (ibid., p.30). King Uther then murders

Igranes husband and uses a disguise to sleep with her and conceive Arthur, all achieved through

Merlins guidance. Kimball claims that after King Arthurs conception, the remainder of the

romance is a means of therapy, and that it is dealing with the traumatic tensions created by

Arthurs birth as orchestrated by Merlin. These tensions include adultery, murder, and incest that

take place from Arthurs birth to his death.

Kimball makes a compelling point in saying that Le Morte Darthur was Malorys way of

addressing the challenges of reality through a fantasy realm. It is clear that Merlin does shape

King Arthurs entire reality from the very start. Merlin is also certain to act as a constant

reminder of his anomalous existence as a mystic figure. And by having Merlin take on various
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disguises, Malory further highlights Merlins presence. One theory that is fascinating to consider

however is the more macrocosmic concept of Merlin controlling Arthurs reality. In a way

Merlin could be viewed as not just disguising himself, but rather he is disguising Arthurs entire

perception, or as Kimball puts it, miscreating Arthurs reality.

Given Merlins devious predisposition, this concept of him miscreating Arthurs reality is

not hard to digest. Merlin makes his very first appearance to Sir Ulfius disguised in his beggars

aray, to which Sir Ulfius disregards Merlin initially telling him that he has lytyl ado to telle

him, only for Merlin to reveal himself causing Ulfius to pay greater heed to him afterwards.

Merlin later appears disguised in the presence of King Arthur: And Merlion was so disgysed

that Kynge Arthure knew hym nat, for he was all befurred in blacke shepis skynnes, and a grete

payre of bootis (ibid., p.27). King Arthur proceeds to call Merlin a chorl, a term used for a

medieval peasant. Though King Arthur cannot recognize Merlin, Ulphuns and Brascias identify

him with little difficulty, to which Merlin reveals himself, leaving King Arthur feeling

abaysshed (ibid., p.28).

Merlins first encounter with Sir Ulfius shows the hypocrisy between the ruling elite and

the peasants within a chivalric social hierarchy. Sir Ulfius does not hesitate to turn his nose up at

Merlin immediately, but quickly changes his tune and accepts Merlin the moment he takes off

his disguise of poverty. This reveals a sort of desperation on the part of Sir Ulfius, as he could

not move on without the help of Merlin. Malory blurs the lines between Merlin and a peasant to

show how the wealthy elites need the common folk in order to survive. And the instant desire for

Merlins assistance after the disguise is removed exposes the weakness of the ruling class in

chivalric society. This weakness is in direct contrast with the aforementioned knightly virtue of

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King Arthurs position as king is demeaned by Merlins disguise of poverty, as Ulphuns

and Brascias are able to recognize Merlin through his disguise, whereas King Arthur cannot.

This holds great significance as it comes to reveal a dichotomous relationship between the ruling

elite, King Arthur, and those who are lower-ranking, Ulphuns and Brascias. This interaction

reveals the disconnect between King Arthur, the embodiment of the ruling elite, and the more

common people. The chorl that Merlin disguises himself as represents the common folk. King

Arthurs inability to recognize Merlin exposes his ineptitude, the complete opposite of prowess,

one of the knightly virtues mentioned by Bukowska. Through these passages, the typical

authorities glorified in a chivalric society are undermined through characterizing Sir Ulfius and

King Arthur as desperate, weak and incompetent. Malory accomplishes this while also

showcasing the ruling elites inability to connect with the common people, represented by

Merlins disguises of poverty. Both of these weaknesses expose the flawed structure that is

upheld by chivalric ideals within King Arthurs society.

King Arthurs kingship is interrogated in Ruth Lextons article Kingship in Malorys

Morte Darthur. Lexton asserts that King Arthur goes against the typical conventions of romance

at the time, in that he does not undergo adventures in order to prove that he is an ideal leader, but

rather he seems to be agreed upon practically unanimously by the "comyns" (Lexton, p.176).

When considering the legitimacy of Arthurs kingship, it is important to understand the

circumstances of Arthurs conception. Merlin instructs Uther, This nyght ye shall lye with

Igrayne in the castel of Tyntigayll; and ye shalle be lyke the duke her husband (Malory, p.5).

When taking into account Lextons argument, it is important to consider how Arthur was

conceived through the disturbing practice of the bedtrick. Uther Pendragon deceived Igrane

through disguising himself and essentially raping her, leading to Arthur's birth. This circles back
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to Merlin, a proven expert in matters of disguise, who guides Uther in order to orchestrate the

birth of Arthur. By setting up King Arthurs birth in such a sleazy way, Lexton is very justified

to criticize Arthurs kingship. Lexton also makes a good point in addressing the comyns, who are

represented as a conglomerate of unquestioning sheep. By portraying common folk in such an

insulting way, Malory sort of breaks the fourth wall for his less-wealthy reader. The majority of

the people reading this are likely to be commoners of Malorys time, and this could be his way of

trying to tell a cautionary tale of a failed king born of questionable means. This is very well done

as the story can also be viewed as glorifying chivalric society which can act as a sort of disguised

narrative for the more wealthy readers.

Further building on the concept of disguised poverty, in his article On the Genesis of

Malorys Gareth, Thomas Wright analyzes Sir Gareth, more commonly referred to as

Bewmaynes. He writes, King Arthur and Gawain admit that because of Gareth's humility and

his disguise of poverty they failed to recognize him (Wright, p.578). As Gareths mother the

Queen of Orkney, or Morgause, enters the court, Sir Gawayne, Sir Aggravayne, and Sir Gaheris

arose and wente to hir modir and salewed hir uppon their kneis. Morgause goes on to address

King Arthur and his knights without hesitation: Where have ye done my yonge son, Sir Gareth?

For he was here amongyst you a twelvemonthe, and ye made a kychyn knave of hym-the whyche

is shame to you all- (Malory, p.210). Morgause goes on to address Sir Kays remarks he made

towards her son: ...Sir Kay dud mok and scorne hym, and gaff hym to name Bewmaynes; yet

Sir Kay named hym more ryghteuously than he wende, for I dare sey he is as fayre an handid

man [and wel disposed] - and he be on lyve-as ony lyvynge (ibid., p.211).

Wrights description of Sir Gareth taking on a disguise of poverty is crucial in

understanding the significance behind Gareths disguise, as it also parallels Merlins many
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disguises of poverty. In a way, Sir Gareth could be viewed as carrying the torch of Merlin after

he becomes ensnared by Lady Nenyves trap (ibid., p.79). Being referred to as Bewmaynes is

essentially a disguise in and of itself. And much like with Merlin, it is the reaction of the high-

ranking members of this chivalric society to this disguise of poverty that acts as a criticism

towards the chivalric ideals perpetuated by King Arthur and his court. By putting Sir Gareth

under the relentless scrutiny of Sir Kay, Malory is really holding a mirror to those at the top of

the social hierarchy, reflecting the criticisms back at them. In this scenario, Sir Kay is being put

on the spot by Sir Gareths mother Morgause as she reflects on the demeaning name he

prescribed to Sir Gareth. This comes to show Sir Kays inability to cooperate with a member of

the lower class. This is significant as it characterizes those who rank higher within a chivalric

society as being disconnected from the common people who are a necessity to them, as Sir

Gareth comes to proves himself to be an incredibly worthy knight.

Morgause is also sure to shed a positive light on Sir Gareths perceived disguise of

poverty that is paired with the name Bewmaynes, a name intentionally meant as an insult which

actually turns out to be true in a positive light. This strengthens the sentiment of Gareths

disguise of poverty, initially being viewed as a scorned knight, only to reveal himself later as

adept and fair-handed. Sir Gareth ends up fulfilling all three knightly virtues of prowess,

strength, and valour. His strength and valour are depicted through his journeys with Lynet as he

bests various knights and even performs well against Sir Launcelot. Gareths prowess is even

verbally validated by Sir Launcelot: ...for ye shall ryght well know that he is com of full noble

bloode - and as for hys myght and hardynesse, there bene but full few now lyvynge that is so

myghty as he is, and of so noble prouesse (ibid., p.201). All of this works as a criticism towards

the chivalric elite, as a knight of Sir Launcelots magnitude giving his blessings to Bewmaynes
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speaks volumes. And fittingly, Sir Gareth is still only known as Sir Bewmaynes, a name intended

to demean him at this point, the name which his poverty-disguised self has embraced.

In the article Morgause of Orkney Queen of Air and Darkness, Raymond H. Thompson

describes the actions of Morgause in the Sir Gareth section of Le Morte Darthur. Thompson

states that there is no evidence of hostility between Arthur and Morgause. Their meeting in

The Tale of Sir Gareth" is cordial once the confusion over Gareth's year as a kitchen knave is

resolved (Thompson, p.3). By asserting this, Thompson is neglecting the significance of the

meaning behind this encounter between King Arthur and Morgause. Sir Gareths disguise of

poverty ignites a series of subtle criticisms against the chivalric society that King Arthur

dominates through Morgause.

By addressing King Arthurs court in such a disgraceful manner as overtly shaming it

(Malory, p.210), Morgause demeans King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Morgause

verbally degrades them all within their own domain as she addresses their inability recognize Sir

Gareth as royalty and their transgressions towards him. King Arthur has no choice but to

acknowledge his wrongs and acquiesce to Morgauses criticisms, exposing a weakness which

goes against the aforementioned knightly virtue of strength. This works in building the case

against the ruling elite in this chivalric society. The ineptitude of King Arthur and his court are

also highlighted, working against the virtue of prowess that the Knights of the Round Table are

supposed to uphold. Lastly, it is important to note how Morgause immediately asserts herself as

a dominant figure in King Arthurs own court as King Arthurs knights drop to their knees in her

presence (ibid.). This shows both weakness and cowardice as the court has no choice but to give

into the Queen without any pushback. This demonstration of cowardice is acting in direct

opposition to the knightly virtue of valour. And so in reality, Sir Gareths poverty-disguised self
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Bewmaynes successfully beats the entire court at its own game. In doing so, Malory has literally

allowed the lower class, represented by Bewmaynes, to essentially annihilate the chivalric

society represented by King Arthurs court.

Sir Launcelot is hands down the greatest offender when it comes to using disguises. In

the beginning, Sir Launcelot takes on the disguise of Sir Kay. First however, it is important to

note that Sir Kay is King Arthurs foster brother, and was appointed seneschal of England after

Arthur pulls the sword from the stone (Malory, p.11). It is also important to understand that Sir

Launcelot is already established to have feelings for Queen Gwenyvere, feelings that she

reciprocates: Quene Gwenyvere had hym in grete favoure aboven all other knyghtis, and so he

loved the Quene agayne aboven all other ladyes dayes of his lyff, as he saves her through his

noble chevalry (ibid., p.152). This is an affair that Merlin warned King Arthur about: But

Marlyon warned the Kyng covertly that Gwenyver was nat holsom for hym to take to wyff, for

he warned hym that Launcelot scholde love hir, and sche hym agayne (ibid., p.62). Disguised as

Sir Kay, Sir Launcelot smites Sir Sagramour, Sir Ector, Sir Uwayne, and Sir Gawayne (ibid.,

p.170). Sir Launcelot later disguises himself during a tournament: Then at the requeste of

Quene Gwenyver and of Kynge Bagdemagus, Sir Launcelot com into the thrange - but he was

disgysed, that was the cause that feaw folke knew hym. During this tournament, Sir Launcelot

bests his own brother Sir Ector, Sir Bleoberys, and the Kynge of Northe Galys (ibid., p.389).

Sir Launcelot is a chivalric anomaly; he symbolizes a living contradiction of the Round

Table that he works for, challenging the chivalric ideals being perpetuated by King Arthurs

society. Sir Launcelot is considered the strongest knight of Arthurs Round Table, as seen

through his prowess during battle. Therefore Sir Launcelot successfully fulfills two of the three

knightly virtues, those being strength and prowess. Where the contradiction comes into play is
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with the virtue of valour, which is demonstrated through Sir Launcelots ever-present cowardice.

By constantly taking on disguises in order to best his opponents, Sir Launcelot is exhibiting great

weakness. It is also very fitting that Sir Launcelot takes on the disguise of Sir Kay, a knight who

plays a foundational role in Arthurs kingship. By creating this scenario, Malory is putting Sir

Launcelot in a position to fight against the knights of the Round Table. Malory is paving the way

for Sir Launcelot to dismantle the Round Table from the foundation up, starting by

masquerading as one of King Arthurs closest allies Sir Kay.

By characterizing Sir Launcelot as being the strongest knight of the Round Table, Malory

is quite literally creating a self-defeating situation for Arthurs chivalric society. As Launcelot

pummels his own fellow knights while in his disguise, he demonstrates the fruitless nature of a

chivalric society. Again, Sir Launcelot is considered a knight of the highest degree, and yet he is

fighting the knights closest to him, including his own blood relative Sir Ector. Though Sir

Launcelot has prowess and strength, he is delegitimized through his ignoble actions.

Launcelot and Gwyneveres adulterous relationship also foreshadows the path of

destruction for the Round Table. However Launcelot and Gwynevere are not entirely to blame,

as Merlin did warn King Arthur of this from the very beginning. Of course Merlins words fell

on deaf ears as King Arthur still proceeded to marry Gwynevere. This demonstrates the

ineptitude of King Arthur, as he practically tempts fate for the future collapse of the Round Table

that Sir Launcelot will bring. Sir Launcelot and Gwyneveres relationship being described

through the terms of noble chevalry is in direct juxtaposition to its adulterous nature. Here,

Malory is playing with the idea that chivalry is not always synonymous with being noble.

Though described as such, the relationship proves to be as toxic as Merlin had predicted, and

again would not have resulted in the collapse of the Round Table if King Arthur had followed
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Merlins advice. All of this combined is designed to criticize the ideals of chivalric society. It

exposes all of the the highest-ranking chivalric figures of the Round Table, King Arthur, Sir

Launcelot, and Queen Gwynevere.

Later on, Sir Launcelot takes on a disguise of a different sort: ...Sir Launcelot disgysed

himselff and put uppon his armour a maydyns garmente freysshely attyred. Launcelot does this

as a means of deceiving a fellow knight of King Arthurs, Sir Dinadan. The passages goes on:

But Sir Launcelot cam on hym so faste that he smote Sir Dynadan over his horse croupe,they

dispoyled hym unto his sherte and put uppon hym a womans garmente. Launcelot then brings

Sir Dinadan into Queene Gwynevere's presence, where she bursts out laughing at him (ibid.,


In order to give this excerpt greater context, it is important to understand the

mistreatment of women throughout Le Morte Darthur. A notable woman to take into account is

Sir Percivals sister as described in the tale of The Sankgreal. Percivals sister is drained of her

blood in order to revive a jantillwoman of a castle who has become diseased with leprosy

(ibid., p.571). Though Percivals sister perishes in the process of giving her blood, the

jantillwoman is healed (ibid., p.572). King Arthurs knights proceed to leave the castle, only for

it to be destroyed, as a suddeyne tempeste of thundir and lyghtnynge and rayne strikes,

resulting in half the castle getting destroyed (ibid., p. 573).

Sir Percivals sister is essentially drained of her life in absolute vain. After being

sacrificed in order to save the nameless woman of the castle, half of that castle is immediately

destroyed. This renders the selfless act of Sir Percivals sister to be completely moot.

Furthermore the mere fact that she is never given a name speaks volumes towards the social

status of women in Malorys work. Her title as Sir Percivals sister is especially demeaning as
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it only acknowledges her in relation to a man. This shows Malorys emphasis placed on the

importance of men within his work, while also enforcing the fact that women are essentially the

property of men.

Now that the roles of women have been analyzed, Sir Launcelot disguising himself as a

woman in order to capture Sir Dinadan can be given greater meaning. When Sir Launcelot takes

on the disguise of a maiden, he is emasculating and demeaning the reputation of the knights of

the Round Table. This is proven by the fact that after capturing Sir Dinadan, Sir Launcelot

dresses him up in the womans attire in order to embarrass him in front of Queen Gwynevere, a

feat which is successful in its execution. There is a sort of irony here, as Sir Launcelot and the

Queen are able to poke fun at Sir Dinadan in the womans attire. However, in order to capture Sir

Dinadan by surprise, Sir Launcelot had to take on the very disguise of femininity that he was

mocking. This again follows the running theme of Sir Launcelot being a self-defeating knight.

He is not only defeating himself by wearing a disguise he mocks, but he is once again taking on

his own fellow knights. This once again demonstrates how Sir Launcelot is dismantling the

structure of the Round Table from within.

Raymund Papica examines the use of armor as a sort of extension of the self in his article

The Armor Network: Medieval Prostheses and Degenerative Posthuman Bodies. More

specifically, Papica takes a closer look at the antics of Sir Launcelot and his doubleness, as he

uses armor as a disguise in order to slide into the roles of both protagonist and antagonist. Papica

writes, Launcelot is responsible for injuring, and killing, fellow knights of the Round Table, as

well as his opponents (Papica, 106). These knights include Gaheris and Gareth, to which Sir

Gawaine then confronts Sir Launcelot: what cause haddist thou to sle my good brother Sir

Gareth that loved the more than me and all my kynne? And alas, thou madist hym knyght thyne
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owne hondis! Sir Launcelot responds, ...I had nat seyne Sir Gareth and Sir Gaherys (Malory,

p.661). This was namely due to them being both unarmed and without their heraldic coat of arms

(ibid., p.657).

Sir Launcelot plays a significant dividing force of King Arthurs Round Table at this

point. It is in this moment that Sir Launcelot slays his own fellow knights, transcending the role

of protagonist to antagonist. He is actively dismantling the Round Table by killing his fellow

knights. A major factor playing a role in the delegitimization of Launcelot here is that the knights

of the Round Table are unarmed. This acts as a form of disguise as the knights are not wearing

their coat of arms that would have set them apart during Sir Launcelots rampage. By doing this,

Malory has reversed the roles as to create a backlash for Sir Launcelot who has frequently taken

on his own disguises throughout the tale. In short, Sir Launcelot is not attacking knights of the

Round Table as they are disguised, as opposed to the usual case where he is disguised while

attacking these knights.

The use of disguise is abundant in Sir Thomas Malorys Le Morte Darthur. It is designed

as a criticism of the chivalric values and hypocrisy of the ruling elite. The story of King Arthur

was doomed from the very start, as Merlin assists Uther Pendragon with the rape of Igrane

through disguise. This is Merlins way of controlling King Arthurs conception, followed by his

reality. Merlin takes on many disguises of poverty in order to expose the incompetence and

disconnect between the Round Table and the common folk. Sir Gareths disguise of poverty

comes to show the ineptitude and cowardice of the knights of the Round Table such as Sir Kay

who openly mocks Sir Gareth as Sir Bewmaynes, only to be proven wrong later on. Lastly and

most notably is Sir Launcelot, a living anomaly within the chivalric system, constantly working
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against the values he supposedly holds. Sir Launcelot is a self-defeating character who King

Arthur instigates by going against Merlins prophecy.

Works Cited

Bukowska, Joanna. "Theatricality of the Chivalric World in Thomas Malory's Le Morte

D'Arthur." International Journal of Arabic-English Studies, vol. 3, no. 1-2, Dec. 2002, pp. 33-44.



Lexton, Ruth. "Kingship in Malory's Morte Darthur." The Journal of English and Germanic

Philology, vol. 110, no. 2, 2011, p. 173+. General OneFile,


Malory, Thomas, and Stephen H. A. Shepherd. Le Morte Darthur, or, The Hoole Book of Kyng

Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table: Authoritative Text, Sources and

Backgrounds, Criticism. Norton, 2004.

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Papica, Raymund. "The Armor Network: Medieval Prostheses and Degenerative Posthuman

Bodies." Dissertation Abstracts International, vol. 78, no. 1, July 2017. EBSCOhost,


Thompson, Raymond H. "Morgause of Orkney, Queen of Air and Darkness." Quondam Et

Futurus: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations, vol. 3, no. 1, 1993, pp. 1-13. EBSCOhost,


Wright, Thomas L. On the Genesis of Malory's Gareth. Speculum, vol. 57, no. 3, 1982, pp.

569582. JSTOR, JSTOR,