Sir Launcelot Battles the Truth

In the modern-day world of “personal truths” and “alternative facts,” individual understanding seems to be shaped less by fidelity to objective reality than by the “narrative” of one’s selected social channels, news media, political allies, and conspiracy theorists. Words like “gaslighting” and “misinformation” have become essential components of the modern lexicon, along with phrases like “lived experience” and “other ways of knowing.” These developments suggest that an increasing number of people perceive truth as highly subjective: instead of being grounded in material conditions observable to everyone, it is now located in a series of personal experiences and beliefs which cannot be confirmed by anyone else. In such a world, addressing challenges—indeed, communicating at all—seems impossible, as people become incapable of agreeing about what the “facts” are, or if there are even any facts at all.

Yet we would be mistaken to believe that a disjunct between objective reality and truth is a peculiarly modern dysfunction. Writing at the end of the middle ages, Sir Thomas Malory captures in his Le Morte Darthur the conflict that occurs when truth as “conformity to objective fact” encounters truth as a thing that can be proved through fate, divine revelation, or personal might. Malory was himself a political prisoner, a veteran of the Wars of the Roses, and had good cause to reflect on the fraught interaction between evidence and interpretation, between personal beliefs and hard facts.

In Le Morte Darthur, Sir Launcelot is the conflicted paragon of knightly virtue, confirmed as the best knight in the world through his miraculous healing of Sir Urry, but morally undermined by his long-term adultery with Gwenyvere. In the closing episodes of Malory’s Arthuriad, Launcelot is finally caught during an attempted liaison with the Queen by Sir Mordred, Sir Aggravayne, and a dozen other knights. Launcelot escapes, killing all but Mordred in the process, only to return later at the Pope’s command. There, before the King, he makes a speech in defense of Gwenyvere’s fidelity, asserting that he will fight and beat any other knight who claims that the Queen has been untrue. He then addresses himself to his accusers:

For they that told you those tales were liars, and so it fell upon them: for by likelihood, had not the might of God been with me, I might never have endured with fourteen knights, and they armed and prepared, and I unarmed and unprepared. For I was sent for unto my lady your queen, I knew not for what cause, but I was not so soon within the chamber door but soon Sir Aggravayne and Sir Mordred called me traitor and false recreant knight.

Even if the fictional court only possesses evidence of a quasi-circumstantial nature at this point in the text, the reality of Launcelot’s adulterous involvement with the queen is essentially known to the reader. Although in the episode before the attempted arrest, Malory is careful to avoid explicitly confirming any form of sexual liaison, he is less cagey elsewhere in the Morte, where there are numerous details both to suggest and to confirm their guilt. Thus the problem arises: how to triangulate (1) the claims of Launcelot’s speech, (2) the fact of his impropriety with the queen, and (3) his other conduct which is in all other respects irreproachably honorable and chivalric. In short, how can this bald-faced-lying Launcelot be the same one represented elsewhere in the Morte? The answer to this question has implications for our own historical moment.

Shame versus Guilt and the Development of Truth

Mark Lambert addresses Launcelot’s apparent transformation from being Arthur’s best knight to being a murderous and unrepentant liar by arguing that “Lancelot is acting within a shame system rather than a guilt system,” in which the crucial distinction is not whether Launcelot is objectively guilty (in the modern sense), but whether he can be shamed by someone proving the charge through the means available for resolving disputes in the Arthurian court: trial by combat. Lambert writes that:

What matters for Lancelot here is not the fact of his guilt or innocence of the adultery and his personal awareness of that fact, but the public recognition of the charge, the public machinery for making the charge good, and the way the public accusation and public “making good” affect his reputation and the queen’s. [. . .] The important thing is not one’s own knowledge of what one has done (the inner life is not very significant in Malory), but public recognition of one’s actions.

This passage seems disturbingly prophetic when read alongside today’s social and news media, and it foregrounds the essential point that Launcelot’s understanding of reality is not confined solely to the literary world of the Morte. Lambert himself writes that, “It is Malory himself, not just his characters, for whom honor and shame are more real than innocence and guilt.” But Lambert’s observation is not only true of the fifteenth-century Malory: it is also true of twenty-first-century people, many of whom seem now to live within a shame system rather than a guilt system. In particular, the ability to make truth through force—to change what is accepted as reality—seems beguilingly modern when one considers the ever-present attempts to revise the historical record, redefine the meaning of words, and even reshape the human body. Carl Trueman identifies the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century strands of philosophy that undergird many of these attempts in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, but I suggest that the origins lie even further back: at least as far back as the middle ages and perhaps further still.

Mere objective facts do not matter to Launcelot; they are simply what happen to be the case—almost coincidental and open to manipulation or obfuscation.

Unfortunately for Camelot, and for us, an understanding of truth grounded in an objective “conformity to fact” will eventually be at odds with one grounded in subjective qualities such as “integrity” and “dependability,” and this is indeed the very conflict on display in so much of our current discourse about gaslighting and misinformation, just as it is during Launcelot’s speech in which he continually references both his dependability and his integrity. In that speech and in an earlier speech with similar content, Gawayne continually interjects, interrupting Launcelot’s description of himself as a True Knight with inconvenient facts such as the slaying of the innocent Sir Gareth and Sir Gaherys. Gawayne’s fixation upon the reality of Launcelot’s deeds is in contrast to Launcelot’s subjective description of his own character.

Gawayne, then, seems to represent truth as “conformity to fact,” a position with which many of us will readily agree, especially given how subjective definitions of truth act like a solvent that breaks down even the possibility of communication. But Malory suggests that there are advantages to Launcelot’s conceptualization of truth, for when Arthur goes abroad to besiege Launcelot at Joyous Garde, objective facts do at last bear out the truth of Launcelot’s earlier, subjective claim that his accusers are liars. Mordred forges documents proclaiming Arthur’s death, thereby proving that Lancelot was right about his accusers: they are liars, and his nonlinear, more subjective model of truth is more readily capable of ascertaining that reality than is Gawayne’s. The defenders of truth as “conformity to fact” must reckon with this challenge: Mordred is clearly a bad actor. Launcelot is able to determine that fact because he does not need to wait until there is hard objective evidence to substantiate it.

With that said, Launcelot is willing to draw in “facts” to support his claims, insofar as those facts are revealing of the integrity of actors, which for him is the essential truth. But mere objective facts do not matter to Launcelot; they are simply what happen to be the case—almost coincidental and open to manipulation or obfuscation. God (and, by extent, righteousness) on the other hand, is decisive and superlative. And when established integrity and dependability are insufficient, appeal to God is indeed possible—via combat, before witnesses, in which one knight is incontrovertibly defeated and thus in the wrong. 

Here too, the text provokes us to look honestly at what it means to pursue objective truth at all costs. According to such a view, Gawayne should defeat Launcelot in single combat during the Siege of Benwick: Launcelot has had an adulterous liaison with the queen, and he has lied about that liaison before the King and the rest of the court. But it is Launcelot who repeatedly defeats Gawayne in single combat, and in terms of the larger plot structure, it is only acceptance of Launcelot’s claims that would keep the kingdom together: Gawayne’s desire for vengeance leads to the Siege of Benwick, Arthur’s absence, and Mordred’s usurpation. Hence, Gawayne’s insistence upon truth as “conformity to fact” makes Launcelot’s guilt—and so the destruction of the kingdom—inescapable. 

Malory does not suggest alternatives, but we should try to imagine them, because being able to do so may be the approach that will help us to resolve the conflict between the competing notions of truth which operate in our moment. Is there a way for Gawayne to remain faithful to the objective facts of Launcelot’s adulterous and treasonous conduct, whilst also being open to what Launcelot’s insight into personal character may reveal? Is it even possible to give epistemological ground to the other side without fundamentally contradicting our notion of what truth entails?

Whether Launcelot’s speech reveals the moral economy of a noble man driven to absolute extremity, evidence of a chivalric culture of shame, or a developing semantic definition of truth, it is clear that his speech is a vital moment in the Morte and for our own time as we, too, grapple with what constitutes the nature of truth.