Charles Ross. The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. xvii+205pp. ISBN 0 520 20430 1 Cloth.
J.B. Lethbridge
University of Tuebingen

Lethbridge, J. B. "Review of The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 10.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_let1.html>.

  1. A "custom of the castle" is "the moment when a knight comes upon a castle and confronts a ritual or tradition or institutional control presided over by some villain" (11); this topos "may be read as a meditation on the weight of custom or local practice in resolving problems of moral knowledge" (11). A custom is justified by an account of its origins; in this narrative structure, "clashing standards of behaviour open a gap between moral knowledge and moral action" (84), an epistemological dilemma which requires a narrative solution (14). Ross traces the custom of the castle topos from Chrétien to Spenser and Shakespeare with reference to changing conceptions of the law in France, Italy and England.

  2. In the French model, represented by Malory, customs "function as a form of natural law" (7); but such an identification is unstable because while customs change over time, natural law remains the same for ever (10). Thus Malory's Tristram needs to "fordo" the foul custom of the Weeping Castle (16), where "fordo" suggests both maintaining and overcoming the custom (16).

  3. The Italians, represented by Boiardo and Ariosto, try, on the other hand, to outwit the social system when something is wrong with it (16). Boiardo treats the custom of the castle as an allegory of the Other. The question for Ross is whether Ranaldo's violence in overcoming the custom is justified (40). "The issue then becomes what history meant to Boiardo" (55), and the answer is that Boiardo "uses the past . . . to give value to the moral imagination" (55). Ariosto's Bradamante outwits the custom of the Tower of Tristam, which insists that only the most beautiful woman may shelter there, by successfully arguing that since she herself gained entrance as a warrior and not as a woman, then Ullania should be allowed to stay despite having lost the beauty contest against Bradamante.

  4. Spenser, conscious that competing customs do not present criteria for choosing among them, and that any specific advice on how to be courteous will be defeated by competing customs, defines courtesy as "some sort of universal ideal" which resides in the mind (85), rather than as a specific set of instructions. Hamlet also "questions whether civility can ever be defined in a particular way" (116). The customs of the castle operate in Hamlet through the fear of offending one's ancestors, most obviously the ghost of Hamlet's father. In Macbeth, furthermore, "doubt and uncertainty attend the realization that customs may be created, that people alter the institutions they pass to the future." The castles of Macbeth "illustrate the distant future orientation of English customary law . . . Macbeth offers an oxymoronic vision of the future as the times of good custom" (116). This view of Macbeth depends upon seeing the end of the play as a moment when "banished good returns, evil is purged, savage customs are tamed. Macbeth's foul ways and his castles yield to the new dominion promised by Malcolm: domestic order, civility, proper burial, true succession" (128).

  5. These are excellent classifications, but some of Ross's readings are problematic. I shall provide two examples.

  6. An important step of the argument in the chapter on Malory is the suggestion that Tristram upholds the custom of the Weeping Castle until Galahalt arrives to provide a "unique means to eliminate the local custom" (30). But does Malory's text lead to this conclusion? In slaying Breunor and his wife under the terms of the foul custom, Tristram is upholding, not that custom but another custom of knight errantry, that of freeing a society from the foul custom of its lord. Galahalt does not, therefore, release Tristram as Ross asserts (31). Galahalt must (following another custom) avenge his father's death, which is why he arrives at the Weeping Castle, even though he firmly disapproves of his father's foul custom there. He tricks Tristram into surrendering, and once this trick is accomplished then another chivalric custom comes into play -- the custom in which the yielded life is treated as sacred -- and Tristram is granted mercy. Galahalt commands Tristram to find Lancelot, and Tristram is bound by the chivalric code to carry out that command; it is difficult to see that if Tristram does not do this Galahalt will enforce the old foul custom. The text's treatment of custom is more complex than Ross acknowledges.

  7. Ross mistreats the text, apparently because he finds it a "shock" and "no small surprise" (27) that Tristram cuts off Sir Breunor's head after defeating him (27). There is, however, no suggestion in the text that the narrator or the other actors are shocked or surprised. To Ross "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. Sir Tristram should eliminate the custom of judicial murder that obtains at the Weeping Castle, not necessarily kill the keepers of it." (27) It is not clear that the standards implied by "it would seem" and "should" are those of Malory's text. Similarly, the reading of Boiardo relies on the question whether Ranaldo's violence is justified (40); yet it is not clear that either the question or the criteria by which it is answered arise from the text.

  8. Secondly, to make the point that customs challenge each other and have no justification outside themselves, Ross must suggest that all customs are seen to be equally valid. He attributes this idea to Spenser, arguing that Spenser's anxiety in the face of competing customs controls his presentation of courtesy. The scene between Calidore and Briana in the first canto of Book VI of The Faerie Queene, "gives prominence not just to the difficulty but to the uneasiness that accompanies the establishment of civility" (87). Spenser does at times register such unease. To establish the point in this instance, however, Ross exaggerates Calidore's action when he enters Briana's castle. He writes that when Briana challenges him, Calidore "is putting the castle to the sword" (86). Spenser writes that the castle inhabitants "About him flockt, and hard at him did lay; / But he them all from him full lightly swept, / As doth a Steare, in heat of sommers day, / With his long taile the bryzes brush away" (6.1.24), which is not the same thing as "putting the castle to the sword." Ross states that "chagrin takes hold of Calidore" (87). Calidore is "abashed" (6.1.26, quoted at p. 87) at Briana's accusation that he is unknightly, but if "chagrin" is to mean "ashamed" or "regretful" of what he has done, it seems far from Calidore's confident assertion in the same stanza that Briana and the foul custom are at fault and not himself. Calidore unabashedly asserts the wrongfulness of Briana's foul custom and implies, as Ross says, "that good customs, which characterize civility, preexist the evil efforts of Briana and her people to negate them" (87). But if one qualifies these readings at all, there is little of the "nervous anxiety" which Ross finds raised by the "question of customary behaviour" (87). Spenser presents the custom as foul.

  9. Yet, despite these concerns, the book broaches an excellent subject and raises important ideas both generally and in the reading of individual episodes. The Custom of the Castle is good starting point for more detailed work.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(PB, LH, RGS, 15 September 1997)