Preferred Citation: Ross, Charles. The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Chapter Two Malory's Weeping Castle

Chapter Two
Malory's Weeping Castle

The episode of the Weeping Castle—a translation and "reduction" of the thirteenth-century prose Tristan —occurs in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur as Tristram escorts Isode from Ireland to marry his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. The travelers drink a potion on board ship and fall in love. In the French story, once Tristan hears Iseult say she loves him as he loves her, and realizes they are alone and that no one will disturb them, he has his way with her.[1] The narrator laments that Tristan's "aventure" (misadventure) will cause constant regret: "This passion which the philtre instilled in him caused him such great pain and anguish that no knight before or after was ever tormented by love as much as he was" ("Et de cele amor qu'il prist ensi par le boire amorous ot il puis poine et travail si grant que avant ne aprés ne fu chevaliers tant traveilliez por amors com il fu," T 448.15-17).[2] A few lines later another "aventure" disrupts their voyage to Cornwall as a storm drives their ship to the Distant Isles ("les Loigtiegnes Isles," T 450.7).

Malory's text, which omits the narrator's lament, shows far less interest in the tragic love affair than in Tristram's fame as a member of King Arthur's Round Table. As happens so often in the Morte Darthur , however, less is more, and Malory charms us with his prose:[3] "But by that their drink was in their bodies, they loved either other so well that never


their love departed for weal neither for woe" (MD 8.24).[4] A swirl of words in the Morte Darthur substitutes for physical action, and only the sequentiality of the text connects what follows with the perilous situation of the new lovers: "So then they sailed till by fortune, they came nigh a castle that hight Pluere, and thereby arrived for to repose them, weening to have them good harbor" (MD 8.24). Malory characteristically downplays physical love and adultery. Only the name of the castle—French for "tears"—mirrors the lovers' sad plight, their unfortunate love that Emmanule Baumgarten calls "un défi perpétuel au monde et à ses lois."[5] ç

Yet even as Malory isolates the theme of honorable friendship, the enigmatic, duplicative structure of the story retains, if it does not increase, the sense that the power of social customs is at stake. Tristram and Isode are suddenly imprisoned, without warning. They are contained within the castle, confined to a fixed space, and bound by a set of harsh rules—set in a scene so conventional that it suggests the new lovers are constricted not by themselves or King Mark or Sir Breunor, the lord of the island, but by convention itself:

For the custom of the castle was such, who that rode by that castle and brought any lady, he must needs fight with the lord, that hight Breunor. And if it were so that Breunor won the field, then should the knight stranger and his lady be put to death, what that ever they were; and if it were so that the strange knight won the field of Sir Breunor, then should he die and his lady both. This custom was used many winters, for it was called the Castle Pluere, that is to say the Weeping Caste. (MD 8.24)

The first part of the episode ends when Tristram and Isode arrive at the Weeping Castle and the narrator gives an incomplete statement of the custom of the castle (a beauty contest between ladies will supplement the required duel). The second section, beginning where the edition of William Caxton starts chapter 8.25, focuses on Sir Breunor, who paradoxically maintains a foul custom by fair means. The final sec-


tion features Tristram's chivalrous exchanges with Galahalt: conversations that release the constraints imposed by the custom of the Weeping Castle.

Each section of the episode of the Weeping Castle represents a crisis for a different keeper of the custom, a role played in turn by the local population, the lord of the castle, the outsider Tristram, and finally Galahalt, who returns from self-exile. Forced to maintain the foul custom, the keepers reaffirm the difficulty of changing a social system that looks to the past to legitimate its system of justice.


The power of social custom to shape behavior for good or ill, which characterizes the encounter between Tristram and the keepers of the Weeping Castle toward the middle of Malory's Morte Darthur , fascinated fifteenth-century England. Customs justified and governed the role of women and children and serfs digging on the lord's property, as well as conquerors and kings and all holders of property.[6] Richard II swore in his coronation oath to uphold "laws and customs," especially the "laws, customs, and liberties" conceded by King Edward the Confessor "to the clergy and people." He was deposed in 1399 because he "refused to keep and defend the just laws and customs of the realm, but according to the whim of his desire he wanted to do whatever appealed to his wishes."[7] Sir John Fortescue (appointed chief justice of the king's bench by Henry VI in 1442) wrote in De laudibus legum Angliae (composed for the young prince Edward) that a king may by royal decree alter tallage and other burdens, yet politically, he cannot change the laws of his country without the consent of his subjects "nor yet charge them with strange impositions against their wills." The king's justice is a transcendent virtue, but Fortescue is under no illusion about the difficulty of achieving it in the world. If a king hopes to succeed, he must respect existing institutions, whose origins are the equivalent of basic premises in the discourse of reason.[8]


Fortescue's argument shows the difficulty of change where a society has a rigid conception of morality. Law in the Middle Ages appealed to a different authority than it does today. In modern America, law is amoral.[9] Its origin is the state, and its sanction is the coercive power of the state to enforce it. Our law is "positive" or legislative law, not "natural" law. Customary law depends for its authority on moral arguments, which carry little weight in our current court system. Custom and tradition therefore play only a small part in modern American jurisprudence. During the Middle Ages, however, systems of justice based on custom were more common than they are today, not only because individual states and societies and institutions were slow to compile extensive sources of written law, but because natural law exerted a powerful influence. Customary law

passes over obsolete laws, which sink into oblivion, and die peacefully, but the law itself remains young, always in the belief that it is old. Yet it is not old; rather it is a perpetual grafting of new on to old law, a fresh stream of contemporary law springing out of the creative wells of the subconscious, for the most part not canalized by the fixed limits of law and charter.[10]

Customary law conforms to changing circumstances by appealing, somewhat paradoxically, to a more distant past, "to which the memory of man stretcheth not." An extensively oral culture augments this flexibility, since three or four repetitions often suffice to establish precedent. (Customary law is sometimes referred to as unwritten law, even when it was written down—there were customaries and charters and contracts and other documents—because the source of its authority was unwritten.) Shakespeare noticed that sixteen years sufficed "to plant and o'er-whelm custom" (The Winter's Tale , 4.1.9).

References to legal jurisdiction confirm our impression that the idea of justice, as well as an understanding of its practical implementation, is ultimately at stake at the Weeping Castle. Several features link the episode to a more obvious judicial encounter, the summoning of King


Agwisance of Ireland to King Arthur's court for treason (MD 8.20-23). There is, first, a symmetry of position. On his way to Ireland to fetch Isode, Tristram arrives at Camelot where he enlists as the champion of Agwisance. On his return to Cornwall, he encounters the Weeping Castle. Both episodes involve trial by combat. And both seem motivated by treachery. Tristram does not know why he is imprisoned, and Agwisance, who must leave Ireland to hear the accusation of Sir Blamor de Ganis, "wist not wherefore he was sent for" (MD 8.20). Once King Agwisance reaches Camelot, he learns that he is charged with murder and must fight to defend himself, "for the custom was such those days, that and any man were appeled of any treason or murder he should fight body for body, or else to find another knight for him" (MD 8.20). The story implies that someone in Arthur's court set up King Agwisance, perhaps to force him to forfeit his power: if he "came not in at the day assigned and set, the king should lose his lands" (MD 8.20). Events force both Tristram and Agwisance into a hostile jurisdiction, whether Arthur's court or Breunor's castle.

If Malory's story uses customs as a sign both of a fallen world and of a higher ideal, this dual usage reflects both the continued prestige of custom in English culture and its growing complexity. By Malory's time, for example, technically complex borough "customs" had been evolving for centuries. Between 1440 and 1500, the leading towns of England and Ireland were able to produce articles of incorporation giving them legal powers, including the right to hold lands. These documented customs help confirm how the Morte Darthur reflects the language of its time.[11]

In a somewhat more precise way, Malory's romance gives narrative form to the conflicts that gave rise to the legal concept of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is the legal principle that administers the king's claim to supervise the justice of his realm. Originally the writ of habeas corpus asserted the prerogative of the king's court, as it does in the case of Agwisance. Over time, the king's right became that of the subject. The primary function of the writ changed, as it became a mechanism to release


men from unlawful imprisonment. No writ issues in Malory's story, yet the romance still reflects the conflicting conceptions of justice that created the need for it. The wonderful intricacy of Tristram's discussions with Breunor, lord of the Weeping Castle, suggests the verbal dueling of two lawyers whose real subject is the right of Tristram to change venue. Tristram objects to his confinement, but he is trapped in a private prison, such as once existed in England.[12] The practical solution he hopes to win is to avoid being accused and tried by the same lord—one who, moreover, determines the local law.

The conflict between Arthur's power and that of local lords has led recent critics, following the structuralist logic of Claude Lévi-Strauss, to conclude that a myth such as Malory's tale of King Arthur tries temporarily and through the story to reconcile a central contradiction. Beverly Kennedy, for example, sees the submission of Agwisance as a sign of Arthur's imperial power. She argues that Tristram is aware of the "political implications of the judicial duel"; such duels "played an important role in the ongoing effort of late medieval monarchs to control feuding among the nobility and, at the same time, to enlarge the sphere of their judicial competence."[13] Elizabeth Pochoda's version of this establishment myth was that Malory's fiction offered a vision of institutional stability.[14]

If there is a problem with such conclusions, it is really one of generality. Centralization was well in hand at every stage of the development of Arthurian romance. It is not unique to Malory. For example, Marie of Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, patronized Chrétien de Troyes. Eleanor's second husband, Henry II, took the most important criminal cases, called Pleas of the Crown, out of the shire courts by a statute of 1166. His royal court of Westminster also assumed jurisdiction over land disputes. In the half century after the prose Tristan was written (ca. 1230), King Edward I initiated many statutes, such as the famous Quia emptores , a source of property law for centuries.[15] He also promulgated the Statute of Winchester (1285), which authorized local citizens to detain criminal suspects until the king's justiciar arrived to try


them. In Malory's time, King Edward IV reorganized the crown lands and contributed to the centralization of power in England.[16] He "took so keen a personal interest in justice that in the first fifteen years of his reign he well-nigh reverted, perhaps unconsciously, to the itinerant practice of early Angevin monarchy, becoming a peripatetic king visiting and doing justice upon every part of his realm."[17] Despite these royal efforts to expand power by legislation, no sovereign swung the pendulum decisively toward positive law. Royal bullying and the prying of a central administration are timeless practices.

In the Morte Darthur , a veneration for the past resolves the conflict between good natural law and foul local practice. This sentiment makes the idea of a "foul custom" an oxymoron, a contradiction to be explained away. When people felt customs conflict with higher law, rather than transmitting this law, they turned to an even deeper past: "A custom, in other words, might seem especially to deserve condemnation when it was too new."[18] That bad customs paradoxically reaffirm the power of the past is the key to the Weeping Castle as an allegory of social change. It reveals how a system based "on the idea that what has been has ipso facto the right to be" is able to absorb the charge that the behavior it authorizes conflicts with a higher morality, because the reformation of bad customs and reestablishment of the good old ways allows natural law (the ideal of chivalry) to flourish.[19]


Among the major critics of Malory's work, Eugène Vinaver is well aware of the custom of the castle topos but tends to see it as part of the fantasy that Malory tried to eliminate. Critics have not turned their attention to the customs of the Weeping Castle or to similar episodes, of which there are many, for the custom of the castle was a favorite device of Malory's sources and one that he retained for the most part as he reduced his story into English.[20] Other examples include episodes involving Balin (MD 2.13), Percival's sister (MD 2.13 and 17.10), Castle Orgulous (MD 9.3),


and the Caste of Maidens (MD 13.15).[21] Only Larry Benson pays any real attention to the custom motif. He considers it as part of a pattern of tests for a hero.[22] But an interpretation that focuses strictly on male chivalry ignores the issue of social conformity, which affects everyone.

The first part of the episode, where Tristram and Isode are imprisoned, establishes the Weeping Castle as an image of the constraint of social customs. Today, we think of custom as modes of behavior accepted and practiced by a group, but not binding on outsiders.[23] Tristram arrives at the Weeping Caste "by fortune," and his indignant reaction to the local rules identifies him as one outside the pale of the castle's way. Yet Tristram never argues that the long arm of Breunor's law unfairly hales him into battle. Nor can he, for the storm that drives his ship ashore obscures his own responsibility for entering the jurisdiction willingly, where he seeks adventures in the French text and hospitality, or "good herborow" (harbor or haven) in the English. His situation is not that of one who seeks to avoid the unknown, but of someone who gradually learns, to his distress, what actions others expect of him. His social (as distinct from his judicial) position resembles that of a young person suddenly facing a social rite of initiation. Such ritual elements make Arnold Van Gennep's Rites of Passage a tempting key for reading romances. We might turn to Northrop Frye's cycles of nature in The Anatomy of Criticism or seek parallels between romances and the rituals of James Frazer's Golden Bough or "the dreams examined by Jung."[24] What matters, however, is that Tristram's participation turns what might otherwise be an image of local piracy or provincial banditry into an allegory of the constraints of social ideology. The episode mirrors the situation of anyone who must justify her conformity to a difficult custom.

Traditional practices are not explicitly stated as something that ought to be done. Obligations seem to reach out to ensnare the knight errant and his lady. They are not necessarily moral or immoral. They are not justified "in terms of the consequences of the action prescribed."[25] No practical reason is found for them other than "that's the way it's done."[26]


But as John Ladd points out, moral teachers do not try to justify the old ways by assuming that the old ways are good because they are old: "the authority of tradition is never employed as a ground for a moral prescription."[27] There must be another factor, such as the superior wisdom of those who lived before, or the sudden discovery that what seems old is recent, the responsibility not of nature but of a person. In Malory's romance, the custom is both old and not so old: "so this custom was used many winters" (MD 8.24), and much of Malory's stylistic genius is in that grim synecdoche for time which he added to his source.

When a nameless knight and a lady visit Tristram in prison, Tristram feels "distress" at his ill treatment:[28]

What is the cause the lord of this castle holdeth us in prison? It was never the custom of no place of worship that ever I came in, when a knight and a lady asked harbor, and they to receive them, and after to distress them that be his guests. (MD 8.25)

Hearing Tristram's tirade, the anonymous knight and lady explain to him the cause and function of his imprisonment. The knight suggests that the custom at stake is not confinement but what the local people call battle and judgment. Tristram reacts to what he believes is the purpose of the custom, to eliminate weak knights and plain ladies. He exclaims that "this is a foul custom and a shameful," but he is ready to conform to it, however much he dislikes the custom, as long as he can fight "on a fair field" (MD 8.25).

A certain mouvance , perhaps reflecting the variability of oral custom, allows the keeper of the custom to influence its procedure.[29] Where the anonymous knight says Tristram's duel will precede a beauty contest between Isode and Breunor's wife, Breunor announces that the beauty contest comes first:

For and thy lady be fairer than mine, with thy sword smite off my lady's head; and if my lady be fairer than thine, with my sword I must strike off her head. And if I may win thee, yet shall thy lady be mine, and thou shalt lose thy head. (MD 8.25)


It would seem that a chivalrous knight's task would be to defeat Sir Breunor and reform his castle, while sparing him and his lady. Tristram should eliminate the custom of judicial murder that obtains at the Weeping Castle, not necessarily kill the keepers of it. It is no small surprise, therefore, that after Breunor's wife loses the beauty contest, Tristram takes what the original text calls an "awke stroke" and smites off her head. Nor are we quite prepared for the end of Tristram's duel, when "anon Sir Tristram thrust Sir Breunor down grovelling, and then he unlaced his helm and struck off his head" (MD 8.26). To our shock, Tristram fully conforms to the castle's custom. Tristram follows what society requires. In this way he resembles the inhabitants of the castle, who conform to the conditions they announce.

It is not unusual in Arthurian romance for the keeper of the castle to tell the story of the custom's origin, or oversee its operation, or participate in it himself. This literary technique is a form of what anthropologists call "descriptive ethics." In chivalric romances, the keeper may explain the custom, or he may justify the custom by appealing to its antiquity or the tradition of his father.[30]

In the French story the inhabitants of the Castle of Tears maintain the custom because it was formerly established years before by Dialetes to ensure that they would always have the best knight and most beautiful lady to rule them. They force Sir Brunor, who comes from Ireland, to maintain it. In contrast, Malory's Breunor seems to be the source of the foul custom. His death, combined with the way others differ in their conception of how the custom operates, raises the question of how various people and groups maintain their local practice.

Anthropologists investigate the extent to which individuals conform to the moral code they announce as well as the function of their social practices. In England, even private courts of the manor were open to spectators, however biased their local loyalties. Sir Breunor's reference to a "judgment" leads Tristram to fear that the local population may not reward Isode's beauty.[31] He instantly seizes on the fact that the verdict in the judgment will be given by the "estates and commons" who have


gathered, and he worries that they will be biased: "'Nay, I will not so,' said Sir Tristram, 'for here is none that will give righteous judgement'" (MD 8.25).

The all-embracing power of social usage implicates Sir Tristram even as he protests against the foul custom he faces. Malory's use of what Mark Lambert calls the "collective voice" emphasizes the relationship between a person or group's own statement of its ideology, or moral code, and its practice.[32] By means of verbal ambiguities and confusions, the stiff conversations of Malory's informants create a felt need for a transcendent power to resolve the constraints people impose on themselves in the name of order.[33]

Although Tristram threatens harm to anyone who votes against Isode, Sir Breunor and everyone else can see that Isode is the fairer lady. When, as a result of the verdict, Tristram cuts off the head of Sir Breunor's lady, Tristram himself becomes a keeper of the castle's custom. He conforms to local practice despite repeatedly exclaiming against it. Pressured by the presence of spectators he cannot control, Tristram fulfills the conditions of the foul custom of the Weeping Castle, which ensure the dominance of the best knight and most beautiful lady. Similarly, when Tristram defeats Sir Breunor and cuts off his head, he is not unfair or callous, but punctilious in honoring the local code.

At once all the people who belong to the castle ask Tristram to "abide there still a little while to fordo that foul custom." And "Sir Tristram granted thereto." But why is there need to "fordo" (eliminate) the local practice if Sir Tristram loathes it, Sir Breunor is dead, and the people of the castle who do "homage and fealty" to Tristram want it ended? Sir Breunor's son Galahalt, who appears in the third section of the episode, has left home rather than support what he calls "a shameful custom and usage" (MD 8.27). No one wants it, yet the foul custom continues to exist.

If the premise of the Weeping Castle is the conforming power of public attitudes, the moral and artistic problem raised by this romance convention is how to ameliorate a custom of the castle that perpetuates


itself, since according to the custom, any knight strong enough to survive is forced to continue the local practice. Tristram unwillingly defends what he despises. He does so until Breunor's son Galahalt provides a solution to the moral perplexity of his imprisonment in the third section of the episode.

Malory fails to identify Galahalt adequately, in keeping with his practice of minimizing the influence of the prose Lancelot . He says only that Galahalt is dwelling in Sorelois with Lancelot when Tristram kills his parents. In the French story, Galehaut's sister, named Delice, brings him the news of this tragedy. Galehaut vows to return to his estate to avenge his parents. He insists that his vengeance requires a single combat, despite the objection of the King with the Hundred Knights that such a duel is too risky for one on whom the safety of his realm depends. Gale-haut ignores him and forces his sailors to take him to the Far Away Islands against their will (T 472.25-26). When he lands Galehaut says he will not be a prisoner, since he is ready to follow the custom of the caste by facing Tristan: "I am prepared to engage the custom of the caste!" ("car je sui prez de faire la costume de cest chastel!" T 473.6).

A further comparison with the French text shows that Malory deepened the prose Tristan's analogy between chivalric loyalty and custom. Tristan and Galehaut maintain the ritual of combat until Galehaut, severely wounded, tells Tristan that his men, led by the King of the Hundred Knights, will kill him to complete Galehaut's revenge: "Tristan, now you are dead! You see my men have arrived! You killed my father; if I do not achieve vengeance, I am shamed" ("Tristanz, fait il, or iés tu morz! Voiz la roes homes qui la vienent! Tu oceïs mon pere; se je ne m'en venge a cest point, dont sui je honiz," T 479.7-10).

Tristan answers that he is certain that Galehaut would never use such villainy (vilenie ) as to rely on reinforcements during a single combat: "'Ah,' said Sir Tristan, 'you say that to scare me!'" ("Ha! dit Tristanz, tu le diz por moi espoenter!" T 479-10). Then, with a sense of discrimination if not casuistry typical of early prose romances, Tristan declares that he realizes that he himself will achieve no honor by killing Galehaut


now, since Galehaut is a good prince and badly wounded. To save Galehaut's honor, Tristan holds himself defeated and hands him his sword:

Now slay me if you wish; and if you wish, let me live. And as God is willing, I do not do this for fear of death, for I have never been afraid to die, for death is something, I know, that no one can escape. I do this to have your good will, if that may be.

Or m'oci, se tu veus; et se tu veus, lesse moi vivre. Et se Diex me conseut, je ne fais mie ceste chose por dotance de mort, que ja de mort n'avrai paor, que c'est une chose que je sai bien que je ne puis eschaper; roes je le te di por ta bone volenté avoir, s'il puet estre. (T 479.16-20)

Tristan's courteous offer follows a romance topos. Gawain and Yvain each claim to be defeated in Chrétien's Chevalier au lion in a scene of mutual deferral when the two knights serve as respective champions for the two daughters of the Lord of Noire Espine.[34] In the prose Lancelot Galehaut himself refuses to pursue his conquest of King Arthur, because the king has too few men, saying, "and if I conquered his land at this time I would not win honor, but shame."[35] The prose Tristan replays the theme by establishing Galehaut's admiration for Tristan, which mirrors his love for Lancelot. As the two knights become friends, Galehaut encourages Tristan to tour Grant Bretaigne as soon as he has delivered Iseult to King Mark, and he promises to give all the lands he has conquered to Lancelot and Tristan if only he can see them together.[36]

Malory seems to have missed the point: Tristram yields to his adversary not because he is embarrassed to fight a man so badly wounded that he cannot possibly win, but because Galahalt has more men ("I will rather yield me to you than die, for that is more for the might of your men than of your hands," MD 8.27). Yet Malory did not overlook the moment of courteous accord; he expanded it to involve a mutual exchange of promises between Tristram and Galahalt that also provides a unique means to eliminate the local custom.[37] For Tristram's surrender, which echoes his submission to the local custom, allows Galahalt to ex-


press magnanimity in language that constantly invokes the name of Lancelot. This honorable discourse occurs when Galahalt declares that he forgives Tristram because "he is the noblest man that beareth life, but if it were Sir Launcelot du Lake." Galahalt further explains that he will eliminate the customs of the castle if Tristram will promise to seek Lancelot and "accompany with him."

As Galahalt pronounces the end of the custom of the castle, Malory's syntax produces a powerful ambiguity that has no equivalent in the French source. Galahalt conjures a vision of a world where a knight and a lady can do as they wish, or, as Galahalt says, "Ye shall go where ye will, and your fair lady with you." This vision of freedom from the constraint of custom contrasts with the practice of the Weeping Castle. Paradoxically, this vision is also part of a logical proposition that the Weeping Castle contains, because only if the custom of the castle still obtains does Galahalt need to release Tristram from it. He offers to end its baleful shadow if Tristram promises to go not just anywhere, but "unto Sir Launcelot." The offer and release has a double gestalt. Even as Galahalt proclaims Tristram's freedom, he makes that freedom conditional on Tristram's accepting his bondage to Galahalt. For when Galahalt says "so ye will promise," the hidden threat is, if Tristram does not promise to live free, the custom of the castle will remain in force:

"And, Sir Tristram," said Sir Galahalt, the Haut Prince, "well be ye found in these marches, and so ye will promise rile to go unto Sir Launcelot du Lake, and accompany with him, ye shall go where ye will, and your fair lady with you; and I shall promise you never in all my days shall such customs be used in this castle as have been used." (MD 8.27)

By means of this verbal exchange Malory's promotion of chivalry makes the medley of formal contests for prowess and beauty at the Weeping Castle outward manifestations of a deeper cultural logic. Even foul customs have a good function insofar as they partake of the idea of a social contract. From Cicero to Locke, what Thomas Wilson in the


Renaissance called a "bargain" was recognized as the fundamental gesture of civilization. Based on the natural law notion that a promise must be kept, Malory makes an exemplary myth—a model of good conduct—of what in the French is an originary custom, founded on religious hatred and the problems of cultural transmission. What eliminates the evil custom in Malory's text is something higher than a judicial duel, or an invading army that burns the castle, or the arrival of a new generation ready to denounce their fathers. It is an exchange of promises familiar to the common law: an offer and counteroffer, a social bargain created by Tristram and Galahalt. By affirming a custom of fair dealing, it serves as a powerful alternative to the previous constraints of local law.


As an allegory of social pressure, the Weeping Castle invites many readings. Its polysemous quality makes it typical of romances whose allegories are not continuous, but concentrated in certain symbolic centers, usually a castle or a garden. For example, the first section of the episode, which concludes the story of the love philtre, points to a reading of the Weeping Castle as an allegory of impending adultery, where the love of Tristram and Isode stands in opposition to the social necessity of a political marriage. The story is also effective as a lesson in the oppression of women, a lesson Malory himself may not have recognized. Women are not only pawns in a male world of violence but judged by their beauty, effectively silenced, and turned into rivals of each other.[38] A New Historicist might further read this episode as the story of colonial conquest, where Tristram washes ashore and then insinuates himself into the existing system of power as a first step in altering it to his own advantage.

Such readings survive Malory's translation of his French original, although each is subversive of Malory's supposed intention to establish Tristram as a chivalric ideal, the model of conduct and bringer of justice. As a socially symbolic action, Tristram's confrontation with the foul cus-


tom-of-the-castle entrapment turns the episode into more than the story of impending adultery or a battle against tyranny or an image of righteous conquest. Malory leaves out much of his source. He practically extinguishes the Weeping Caste as an allegory of love: Tristram is more interested in finding Lancelot than idling with Isode. Malory also blurs the confrontation between Tristram and an alien culture. In the French text, Brunor's wife is a giant—the usual romance image for the Other—and part of the local population lives by piracy.[39] And Malory eliminates the origin of the caste custom, when Dialetes establishes a set of values (knightly prowess, female beauty) that convinces his people to reject outsiders.

It is hard to argue from omission and equally difficult to relate Malory's work to a specific historical context, despite two or three candidates scholars have offered as the real Thomas Malory.[40] We know little more about him other than that he was probably a member of the knight class in England who owned property and may have participated in the regional feuds among great lords that did more damage than the Wars of the Roses during the 1460s in England. We do not know much about Malory's thoughts on marriage or foreign trade. Nor does Malory's often ambiguous prose style give us much confidence in any precise reading or the meaning of any particular scene. These caveats notwithstanding, it seems fair to say that Malory's version of the Weeping Caste reflects a fifteenth-century consciousness of the moral, historical, and ritual power of social customs.

The contrast between an old and good, seemingly natural law and actual legal practice seems clear enough in the story at large. The Round Table represents an ideal that cannot survive the worldly limits the Grail quest exposes, or the conflicts, such as Lancelot's adultery, that chivalry should circumscribe. Mordred's treason and Gawain's hotheadedness bring Arthur from the height of the wheel of fortune to the dark pit of which he dreams before he is defeated in battle. He is finally ferried away by ladies who could heal him but arrive too late to save his life because Sir Bedevere fails to signal them by hurling Arthur's sword into a


lake. Bedevere twice lies to the dying king, claiming to have seen nothing but "waters wap and waves wan" (MD 21.5). Such moral ritual in Arthurian romance constantly reminds us that chivalry is a spiritual condition.

Moreover, what we know about Malory and his first printer, William Caxton, supports the overall conclusion of the scene: that keepers of customs should mind the ideals of Arthurian chivalry. For Malory promotes Tristram as one who named those practices by which good men may distinguish social classes. Tristram represents an ideal which those who pretend to be gentlemen should strive to imitate:

Wherefore, as meseemeth, all gentlemen that bear old arms ought of right to honor Sir Tristram for the goodly terms that gentlemen have and use and shall do unto the Day of Doom, that thereby in a manner all men of worship may discover a gentleman from a yeoman and a yeoman from a villain. For he that gentle is will draw him to gentle deeds and follow the noble customs of gentlemen. (MD 8.3)

In a similar way, William Caxton—who first printed Malory's text—viewed the immediate present as an age of decline, while the past was a time when men worked for the common good. For Caxton "the golden age is almost any other place and time than late fifteenth-century England."[41] He insisted his books were not for ordinary people but for nobles and the educated. Caxton claimed he printed romances because they assisted moral instruction. As a printer working in Westminster Abbey to supply aristocratic patrons, Caxton doubtless regarded King Arthur as symbolic of a social order that he also promoted with texts like the Book of Good Manners , the Feats of Arms , and the Knight of the Tower .

The hierarchical values set forth in the Morte Darthur promote the ideology of the ruling class for which Caxton published and Malory most probably wrote. Yet the Morte Darthur does not therefore remain the prisoner of a single social class. Caxton never defined his noble readers, and "probably such remarks were meant to indicate that his works


were fashionable rather than provincial."[42] As Northrop Frye reminds us, "An upper-class audience is inclined to favor romance and fantasy in its entertainment, because the idealizing element in such romance confirms its own image of itself." At the same time, "whatever an upper-class audience likes is probably going to be what a middle-class audience will like too."[43]

The Morte Darthur retains its appeal because it conjures a distant past of moral excellence, a sense of natural law that persuaded medieval audiences to venerate a former time. Both Malory and Caxton associated what they considered to be good values, such as courtesy and gentleness, with the "custom and usage" of medieval chivalry.[44] For Malory and Caxton, the word "custom" was part of the discourse of chivalry that belonged to an earlier era, already outmoded as they worked. To his translation of Ramon Lull's Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry , for which the prose Lancelot was an important source, Caxton adds an appeal for a revival of what chivalry represents:

O ye knights of England! Where is the custom and usage of noble chivalry that was used in those days? What do ye now but frequent baths and play at dice? And some not well advised use not honest and good rule: against all order of knighthood. Leave this. Leave it and read the noble volumes of St. Grail, of Lancelot, of Galahad, of Tristram, of Perseforest, of Percival, of Gawain, and many more.[45]

Malory also appeals to the past as a source of values. When he expresses his disappointment in fickle Englishmen, he does so by conjuring the image of a world usurped by foul customs: just what the Weeping Castle represents. His strong rhetoric gives the illusion of historical immediacy to this passage, where Arthur's knights desert him. It is one of Malory's longest personal asides:

Lo ye all Englishmen. See ye not what a mischief here was? For he that was the most king and noblest knight of the world, and most loved the fellowship of noble knights, and by him they all were up-holden, and yet might not these Englishmen hold them content with


him. Lo thus was the old custom and usages of this land, and men say that we of this land have not yet lost that custom. Alas! this is a great default of us Englishmen, for there may no thing us please no term. (MD 21.1)

As E. K. Chambers notes, this lament is not a political analysis of the fifteenth-century "breakdown of law and order . . . of the corruption of officials, of the excessive taxation, of the ruin of the countrysides by the enclosure of agricultural land for pasture."[46] Nor can we find in it such details as would have contributed to Erich Auerbach's notion that over the centuries literature grew in its capacity to represent reality. By glossing over motivations, Malory's elliptical style establishes the romantic mood readers of English associate with tales of the Round Table. Malory completely eliminates the prose Tristan 's story of how Dialetes founded a custom to punish Christians who arrived at his island. He gives little hint of what the French text makes clear, that Breunor himself is forced to maintain a practice he finds repulsive. Yet Malory retains the sense of entrapment so brilliantly narrated by the romance he turned into English.

Justice may require a rendering of what is due, but what is due depends on the acceptance of standards. When a group or a society accepts a questionable standard of justice—such as the foul custom maintained at the Weeping Castle—a gap opens up, creating a felt need for change. If the solution is merely a matter of passing a new and better law, there is no problem. But in a system of customary law, where custom is itself the standard of justice, even a bad custom may be justified. Change requires more than the sudden intervention of force; a society must accept a new vision of itself, which means redefining its customs and accepting, to a certain extent, a new morality. The custom of the Weeping Castle offers an abstract image of legitimacy and superiority to which Tristram objects and conforms with reluctance, but which he nonetheless honors, until a better, more chivalrous custom establishes its own legitimacy.


Chapter Two Malory's Weeping Castle

Preferred Citation: Ross, Charles. The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.