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Saracens & Muslim Representation in Arthurian Legends

While Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D’Arthur differs from classical medieval Saracen romances like La Chanson de Roland, it still contains stereotypical representations that warrant examination. After all, it was the Arthurian epics that popularized the Saracens as a major medieval literary theme in Britain.

The construction of the Arthurian identity involved positioning King Arthur in opposition to the vilified Saracens, paralleling Charlemagne's actions during the Crusades, with the Arthurian tradition providing historical context to contemporary crusades by referencing Charlemagne's efforts in turning back the Muslim tide from Europe.

In Morte D’Arthur, sporadic Saracen presence symbolizes a significant ideological reminder of perceived heathens, viewed as heretics and an affliction from God, highlighting King Arthur and his knights as saviours tasked with eliminating the threat to Christendom.

Saracens in Morte D’Arthur are depicted as demonic agents of war, subservient to the Roman emperor Lucius, portraying them as the "other" to a more civilized enemy, emphasizing their parasitic and less individualized role.

The supposed allegiance of Saracens to the Romans in Morte D’Arthur is crucial for the narrative's exploration of historical transfiguration, despite historical impossibility, given longstanding conflicts between Rome and Eastern civilizations, including Islam and Ancient Rome.

In fact, there have been countless devastating wars around the Mediterranean between Romans on one hand and Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs and other Muslim empires on the other hand.

Malory writes about the “Saracens” who flocked out to help the Roman emperor – including Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and India – basically representative of the territorial expansion of Islam in medieval times.

Malory described Saracens as “horrible people,” who sided with a Roman tyrant to destroy the Christian utopia of Camelot that King Arthur and his knights had striven to construct. This contrasts with the "democratic" King Arthur who assembles his parliament to declare a holy war against the Roman emperor and his Saracens.

Malory establishes a binary opposition between King Arthur's "democracy" and civilization versus the autocracy and barbarism of the Saracens, vividly depicted through Arthur's nightmarish vision during a decisive battle. Arthur’s dream or vision of the black bear that loomed from the “Orient”.

In the dream, King Arthur sees a dragon, interpreted by King Arthur’s’ “philosophers” as his divinely given invincible power. The dragon was then attacked by a large, fearsome black bear.

Whilst seeing Emperor Lucius as the black bear may be the first thought,  it may have very well visualized the Saracens, or even the Prophet Muhammad (S), for Lucius is neither depicted as the first military danger, nor the cultural other.

Malory's focus on the battle between Christians and Muslims, rather than the war between "English" and Romans, is evident in his detailed narration of the dual battles between King Arthur's Christian knights and the Saracens, emphasizing a thematic clash.

In the battle, Malory highlights the intense personal animosity between Sir Cador and the King of "Lybye," revealing a focus on the dehumanization of Saracen foes, and even corpses, through cursing and humiliation. Malory's battle narrative, akin to Hollywood Vietnam War films, emphasizes the Saracens as the real enemy.

Throughout Malory's text, the distinct enemies are consistently referred to as Romans and "Saracens," emphasizing Arthur and his knights overwhelming the latter, with specific instances of glorification for knights like Sir Lancelot based on Saracen kills, with little or no mention of Roman ones.

In Morte D’Arthur, Arthur's encounter with the "Grete gyaunts of Gene" parallels the symbolism of the black bear, emphasizing the Saracens as an embodiment of bestiality, paganism, and otherness, consistent with typical medieval portrayals associating Saracens with attributes like blackness and ferocity.

King Arthur and his Knights can serve as a source of cultural identification and aesthetic satisfaction in Saracen lands, with themes like chivalry and courtly love resonating well, aligning with central elements in the Arab, Persian, and South Asian literary tradition.

Despite the potential for cultural resonance, the Arthurian tradition carries a risk of cultural alienation in the Middle East due to its Islamophobic discourse and stereotypical representations, that might make King Arthur and his knights unwelcome in the lands of what Malory calls the “Saracens”.

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