The Hermit in Lore: Malory's Morte D'Arthur

The image of the hermit in the European Middle Ages, especially Britain, mingles the images described in Mary Rotha Clay's book: formal ecclesiastic and reclusive forest wizard. Malory's epic Morte d'Arthur confirms the popular impression, where hermits play significant cameo roles.

A hermit does not appear until half-way through the work. In Book 12, chapter 3 (12.3), Sir Lancelot kills a boar but is himself wounded by it, reminiscent of Parcival's symbolic wound. A hermit in the forest hears the commotion and comes to the knight's aid, but Lancelot refuses and threatens him. The hermit runs off, encounters several knights in another part of the forest, bids them help, and they agree. The take Lancelot to the recluse's hermitage. "There the hermit healed him of his wound," but due to fever and consciousness of his past sins, Lancelot cannot be healed spiritually. Only Sangreal, the Holy Grail, can do that, says Malory.

Because no reference to priesthood or sacrament is made in this section, we probably have an example of a forest recluse, a hermit willing to help others but living as a solitary. How did he heal Lancelot? Presumably a knowledge of herbs.

Lancelot stays overnight with the hermit. Seeing his kindness and presuming a special wisdom, Lancelot asks the hermit for advice concerning a vision or dream. The insightful hermit reveals to him that Galahad is Lancelot's son.

In another section (16.3-6), Gawain and Hector come to a hermitage. Now Malory shows us that the hermit in this case is a priest named Nacien dwelling in a poor house, and beside the chapel a little forest, where Nacien the hermit gathered worts, as he had "tasted no other meat of great while."  We know that the hermit is a priest because the visitor confesses to him and the hermit interprets their dreams. Later Sir Bors comes for the same boon.

In 8.22, a hermit heals Lancelot of an arrow wound. Is it the same hermit in all three incidents, or is Malory obliged to barely distinguish them? The hermit is not important enough to be remembered but not obscure enough to be ignored.

With 21.6-11 comes the climax of the epic and some new insights. Sir Bedivere has come to a chapel, where a hermit is found praying for a dead man. The land is now a chaos of violence and recrimination; the noble goals of the Round Table are irretrievably lost. Camelot is over. The hermit turns out to be the former Bishop of Canterbury. Bedivere wants to imitate the hermit's piety but realizes that the dead man is Arthur.

The Bedivere swooned, and when he awoke he prayed the hermit he might abide with him still there, to live with fasting and prayers. "For from hence will I never go," said Sir Bedivere, "by my will, but all the days of my life here to pray for my lord Arthur.' "You are welcome to me," said the hermit, "for I know you better than you know what I do." ... Sir Bedivere put upon him[self] poor clothes, and served the hermit full loving in fasting and in prayers."

Then Lancelot happens upon the same hermitage where the hermit and Sir Bedivere are and insists on being shriven, renouncing all worldly ambition. Next arrives Sir Bors, who does likewise, plus seven other knights, who "when they saw Sir Lancelot had taken him to such perfection, they had no lust to depart, but took an habit as he had."

The powerful spirituality of the hermit's example has engendered a virtual monastery! After six years of penitence, Lancelot took Holy Orders from the former bishop's hands. In a vision Lancelot sees Queen Genevieve dead. He and the others journey to bring her body for entombment next to Arthur. The sight of Genevieve kindles remembrance in Lancelot against which the hermit cautions, but it is sorrow and repentance that now grieves Lancelot. A year later, Lancelot is dead, and the monk companions wonder if his penitence was efficacious. The hermit laughs quietly, revealing to them his vision (or dream) wherein he saw Lancelot escorted to haven by angels.

And so ends the Morte d'Arthur, with the memorable image of the benevolence, counsel, and wisdom of the hermit.