Friday, March 22, 2013

Perceval at Bat: Camelot’s Legends in Bernard Malamud’s "The Natural"

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers of the book and film The Natural.

Sir Perceval (left) and Sir Lancelot (far right, w/Queen Guinevere) are two of the main inspirations for Malamud's Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, center).

          The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in Camelot has been one of Britain’s most famous legends for centuries. The most famous author to have brought popularity to Arthur and his world of knights, romance, magic, and chivalry would be Sir Thomas Malory and his collections of stories, compiled to create Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), written in the fifteenth century. Malory’s tale “has served as the direct or indirect basis for almost every Arthurian work in any medium: poems, novels, children’s books, science fiction, films, advertisements, cartoons, modern heritage paraphernalia – everything from epics to T-shirts” (Cooper ix). Some of these adaptations and translations may sound familiar to you. Films such as Lancelot and Guinevere (1963), Disney’s animated feature The Sword in the Stone (1963), the musical Camelot (1967), Excalibur (1981), First Knight (1995), and King Arthur (2004), as well as novels such as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1938-1958), Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953), John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), and Meg Cabot’s Avalon High (2005) all are based on the King Arthur legend. While these examples are direct adaptations (sometimes with creative license) of the King Arthur legend, there are some works in novel and film which are a loosely-based correlation. One such work is Bernard Malamud’s 1952 baseball novel The Natural, and its 1984 cinematic adaptation by director Barry Levinson. Some might not think a book and film about baseball could relate to a legend about kings, queens, swords, magicians, and knights. However, there are similar stories and characters from King Arthur’s world which relate to Malamud’s tale of baseball, money, championships, and love.

        For those who do not know, the legend of King Arthur is the story of a heroic, brave, honest king who, through magic and honor, ruled Britain between the late Fifth to early Sixth Century. Since the Ninth Century there have been stories of Arthur’s exploits (Higham 38). It was not until Malory’s Romantic-era compilation that Arthur became a famous legend. After reading the tales of Arthur, his wife Queen Quinevere, his father King Uther Pendragon, the sorcerer Merlin, and knights Lancelot, Perceval, Gareth, Gawain, and Tristan, there are no doubt themes of love (Arthur and Guinevere, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde), honor/betrayal (all of the knights), and loyalty. King Arthur’s story is most notably recognized, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, as the tale of a humble boy who has a humble upbringing and is considered meek and clumsy. One day, the boy – known as Wart – is tasked with finding his older brother, Kay, a sword for a tournament. Upon entering the city, Wart finds a small churchyard with “a heavy stone with an anvil on it, and a fine new sword was stuck through the anvil” (White 203) with words on the sword which read: “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of This Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England” (White 197). Without having read the inscription, Wart pulls the sword out of the stone, thus making him the King. This correlates with Malory’s version of events as King Uther Pendragon sires Arthur with a rival Duke’s wife, Igraine, and the boy is raised by Sir Ector before becoming King.

       With The Natural, author Bernard Malamud stated, “[b]aseball players were the ‘heroes’ of my American childhood. I wrote The Natural as a tale of a mythological hero because, between childhood and the beginning of a writing career, I’d been to college. I became interested in myth and tried to use it, among other things, to symbolize and explicate an ethical dilemma of American life” (Lasher 36-37). Malamud’s protagonist in the book and film is Roy Hobbs, an honorable, talented pitcher and hitter who begins with a promising start of a baseball career. However, after being shot by the sultry, murderous Harriet Bird, leaving him with a permanent limp, Hobbs’ baseball career is limited to the semipro leagues until he is hired to play for a losing National League baseball team, the fictional New York Knights. Hobbs is warily welcomed by the team and its coach, Pop Fisher. Throughout the novel, Hobbs falls in love with Fisher’s niece, the manipulative Memo Paris, followed by the virtuous Iris Lemon.

        Malamud’s Hobbs can be compared to Malory’s versions of knights Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristan, two knights who have similar stories. Both knights are members of King Arthur’s Round Table and both have a story in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, but Lancelot’s actions and its consequences will eventually become Arthur’s downfall. Lancelot is described of being the best knight of the Round Table, for “in all tournaments, jousts, and deeds of arms, both for life and death, he passed all other knights” (Malory 95), although, Lancelot’s loyalty is put into question when he falls in love with Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere. In Malory’s text, Guinevere and Lancelot have a true love for one another, although Lancelot claims to love her simply so he can shield himself from serious, committed relationships with other women. Lancelot believes loving a woman drains a knight of his strength and distracts him from his duties, therefore, his love for a woman who is unattainable is his ruse to avoid relationships with other women. Throughout Lancelot’s journey, his love for Guinevere most often gets him into trouble or misfortune. When Lancelot is deceived by Elaine of Corbenic, daughter of the Fisher King, into sleeping with her – thus conceiving Galahad – he is driven a bit mad and banished by Guinevere from Camelot. When he returns to Camelot, he joins King Arthur in his quest for the Holy Grail (Jesus Christ’s cup used at the Last Supper). Ultimately when Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair was discovered by Arthur, he sentenced them to death – Lancelot by hanging and Guinevere by being burned at the stake. Lancelot rescued Guinevere and Arthur sent Sir Gawain and his brothers, Gaheris and Gareth, to capture and kill Lancelot. However, the knights were defeated with Lancelot killing Gaheris and Gareth. Out of a blinding rage, King Arthur decided to pursue Lancelot in France himself. While Arthur was gone, Mordred – the King’s illegitimate son – took over the throne. When Arthur hears of this, he returns to Camelot and kills Mordred at the Battle of Camlann, where he receives mortal wounds. Soon after Arthur’s death, Lancelot and Guinevere meet one last time, but the two former lovers do not rekindle their romance, for they are separated by the grief and death brought forward from their betrayal – Guinevere joined a convent in hopes of penitence, and Lancelot lives life as a hermit, doing good deeds as his penitence.

          Another character from Malory’s book that resembles Roy Hobbs is the knight Sir Perceval. Perceval’s story begins when he is a teenager, raised by his mother, who meets a knight and hears of his adventures and equipment, and sets out to become a knight in King Arthur’s Round Table. Perceval is educated by his mother and trained in knighthood and chivalry by Gornemant de Goort (de Troyes 50), then soon succeeding in obtaining his knighthood and marrying de Goort’s niece, Blanchefleur. While traveling to visit his mother, Perceval comes into a wasteland where he discovers a king – the Fisher King – who is severely ill. The Fisher King invites Perceval to stay the night at his castle and have dinner with him. Perceval accepts the invitation and is given a sword as a gift. After dinner, Perceval witnesses a procession in which “[a] youth enters the hall, carrying a white lance that holds a single drop of blood on its tip. Next, two more youth enter bearing golden candelabra. Finally, a beautiful maiden enters bearing a dazzling golden cup. Perceval wants to ask about these items, but he holds his tongue for fear of offending the old man [Fisher King]” (sparknotes). The next morning, Perceval awakens to find the castle empty so he leaves. As he leaves, the castle vanishes and when he visits his mother, he finds her dead. Perceval then comes across a loathly lady and tells her about the recent events. The lady informs him “the lance was the one that pierced Jesus' side, and that the cup was no less than the Holy Grail itself” (sparknotes). Perceval is chastised by the lady, who says that had he simply asked the Fisher King what the cup was, Perceval could have healed the Fisher King and brought life and prosperity back to the desolate kingdom.

         In Malamud’s novel The Natural, the protagonist Roy Hobbs mostly mirrors Perceval in that he too is raised by his mother and is good and wholesome. Roy has a natural talent for baseball in the same way Perceval does for knighthood, however, both characters are innocent and naïve. When Roy is hired by the New York Knights – the mascot being a representative of King Arthur’s Round Table – he is introduced to the manager, Pop Fisher – a reference to the Fisher King – who has athlete’s foot on his hands and is ill with every loss the team accumulates. The baseball field with which the Knights play on is dry and barren, just like the wasteland of the Fisher King’s kingdom.
The mysticism of King Arthur's mighty sword, Excalibur, is represented in Roy Hobbs' bat Wonderboy, which he made from an oak tree which lightning struck. This bat leads Roy to his victory just in the same way Excalibur helped King Arthur.


         The source of Roy’s natural power or talent appears to stem from the baseball bat he made, called “Wonderboy.” According to Roy, his explanation of making the bat over buying one was: “…this tree near the river where I lived was split by lightning. I liked the wood inside of it so I cut me out a bat” (Malamud 69-70). Like King Arthur’s Excalibur, Wonderboy is an extension of Roy’s talent, leading him to winning games. The first time Roy goes to bat with Wonderboy, he is able to achieve exactly what Pop Fisher cheers him to do, which is to “knock the cover [of the baseball] off of it” (Malamud 79). And when Hobbs' winning streak turns towards a losing streak, Wonderboy appears as almost flaccid, giving credence to the phallic metaphor the bat represents.

The women of the book & film The Natural fulfill three archetypes of Malamud's women in his stories: Iris Lemon (Glenn Close) (left) -- the good -- is the caring, selfless, humble "vegetative goddess and a fruitful, energy-giving force,” who appears as almost an angelic presence with the sun hitting her hat, appearing like a halo, when Roy first sees her in the stands; Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) (center) -- the mix of good and bad (resulting in complicated & damaged) -- a self-proclaimed "dead man's girl" who, even though she has some care and slight love for Roy, uses Roy as a means to an end, and is, according to her own uncle, "always dissatisfied and will snarl you up in her trouble"; and Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) (right) -- the bad -- a femme fatale who uses her wiles and sexuality merely for destruction and emasculation.

       The love life of Roy Hobbs is also similar to that of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as Perceval and Blanchefleur. First, Hobbs meets and falls in love with Pop Fisher’s niece, Memo Paris, a red-headed, sexual woman who Hobbs first sees partially naked. Like Memo to Pop Fisher, Perceval’s eventual wife Blanchefleur is his mentor Gornemant de Goort’s niece; however, the similarities in character stop there. Memo is more of a resemblance of Queen Guinevere, a woman with good intentions and niceties when need be, but who is also selfish and petty.

        Although it is an adulterous relationship, Lancelot and Guinevere do have a deep love for each other (Malory 444). In Malory’s tale, Guinevere is portrayed first as rebuking Lancelot’s advances, but then giving in to him. Afterwards, she acts like a jealous and petty woman as she often shows these qualities when Lancelot does show any love toward another woman – such as Elaine, when they both make love and conceive Galahad – and calls him a “false knight,” then banishing him (Malory 285). Memo loves Roy when he is providing fame and attention for her ego, but even Pop Fisher warns Hobbs about Memo, saying “she is always dissatisfied and will snarl you up in her trouble in a way that will weaken your strength if you don’t watch out” (Malamud 126). Just as the relationship with Guinevere does drain Lancelot of his honor – deceiving and betraying King Arthur – and his knightly duties, Memo’s relationship with Roy makes his performance on the field suffer, causing the Knights to lose. Roy’s lust for Memo causes him to take a bribe from the Knights owner, the Judge, to throw the pennant playoff game.

           By contrast is Roy’s relationship with Iris Lemon, her name, made up of a flower and fruit, “evokes both her conception as a vegetative goddess and a fruitful, energy-giving force” (sparknotes) – a similarity to Perceval’s love interest Blanchefleur, a name in French meaning “white flower.” Iris is the opposite of Memo as while Memo seems to drain Roy’s strength, Iris gives him strength and self-assurance of his talent. By the end of the book, 
             

Works Cited

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Ed. Helen Cooper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Higham, N.J. King Arthur, Myth-Making and History. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. 1939, 1940, 1958. New York: Ace Books, 1987. Print.

Lasher, Lawrence, ed. Conversations with Bernard Malamud. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. Print.

de Troyes, Chrétien. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Raffel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. Print.

“Mythological References in The Natural.” http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/natural/section11.rhtml. SparkNotes LLC, 2013. Web. 4 March 2013.

Malamud, Bernard. The Natural. 1952. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.

“Analysis of Major Characters from The Natural.” http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/natural/canalysis.html. SparkNotes LLC, 2013. Web. 4 March 2013.

First Knight. Dir. Jerry Zucker. Perf. Richard Gere, Sean Connery, Julia Ormond, and Ben Cross. Sony Pictures, 1995. DVD.

Aronstein, Susan. Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

The Natural. Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley, Darren McGavin, and Robert Prosky. Sony Pictures, 1984. DVD.

“King Arthur's Round Table Revealed.” http://www.history.co.uk/shows/king-arthurs-round-table-revealed/history.html. History Channel UK, n.d. Web. 4 March 2013.



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