Sir Thomas Malory’s prose achieves the impression of simplicity, while comprising words beautifully arranged. His narrative has the quality of realism, even in his most fanciful scenes. He is also a master of naturalistic dialogue. For these reasons, he serves as the model for later writers of English prose, his work behind only, perhaps, the King James version of the Bible.
Malory presents himself as a translator of the French Arthurian romances. A chief source for his own writing might have been the twelfth century romances of Chrétien de Troyes, who introduced the separate legend of the Holy Grail into the Arthurian tales. The French romancers also contributed the concept of courtly love. In short, the Arthurian legend had been growing and evolving for centuries before Malory sat down to write Le Morte d’Arthur.
The historical Arthur, if he had existed, is said to have been a Celtic chieftain named Artorius who resisted the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the early sixth century. One contemporary historian describes a great British victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) around 500, but he makes no mention of Artorius. In the ninth century, Nennius places the battle somewhat later (516) and states that a person named Arthur had commanded against the invaders. By the next century, Arthur’s legend had grown considerably. In the twelfth century, Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136; History of the Kings of Britain, 1718), a work that makes Arthur into a great romantic figure. Geoffrey’s Anglo-French translator first mentions the Round Table, and soon Arthurian tales were appearing in Old French.
In Merlin, an early thirteenth century verse romance, a version is introduced wherein Arthur wins his crown by drawing a magic sword from a stone. By Malory’s day, Arthur and his knights are medieval heroes projected back into an ancient Britain. In 2004, the film King Arthur makes Arthur the leader of a warrior band in the time of the Roman occupation, and Guinevere is a fighting Celtic princess who paints her body before battle. Malory’s Knights of the Round Table are so fixed in the reading public’s imagination, however, that such attempts at supposed authenticity can succeed only as curiosities.
Malory was well prepared to describe the carnage of war in feudal times. He served in France in the latter part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and supported the Lancastrian side in the War of the Roses (1453-1487). He led a turbulent life and is believed to have written Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison. In his conclusion, Malory states that he completed his book in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV (r. 1461-1470, 1471-1483). Malory died in 1471, and his book did not appear until it was printed in 1485 by William Caxton, the first English printer. The extent of Caxton’s editing of Malory’s work was not known until 1934, when a manuscript dating from Malory’s time was discovered in the Fellows’ Library at Winchester College in England. It appears that Malory thought of his book as a series of eight romances. Caxton reordered, and in some cases rewrote, parts of the narrative and divided it into twenty-one books. Malory entitled, quite understandably, the last of his romances “Le Morte d’Arthur,” but Caxton chose that unrepresentative title for the entire compilation. Current editions are usually a combination of the Winchester and Caxton texts.
Critics complain that Le Morte d’Arthur is frequently rambling and repetitious, especially when Malory abandons his central theme to follow knight after knight, each of whom is experiencing essentially the same adventure in his quest for the Holy Grail. It is also true that while Malory appears to pay homage to chivalry, it is infidelity, recklessness, and betrayal that provide the narrative its drama. Malory is also criticized for having created one-dimensional characters who exist merely to serve the demands of the plot. These are indeed not the well-rounded characters readers will come to expect in Renaissance and later fiction.
In his most critical passages, however, Malory has a sure feel for the conflict, psychological as well as physical, which satisfying fiction must always possess. Guinevere loves her husband’s lofty nature and nobility, but she loves Lancelot with passion. Lancelot loves the king he has come to serve, but he loves Guinevere with passion. Arthur loves them both but is finally forced to stand against them. He feels a paternal sense of obligation toward his son, Mordred, so when he leaves for France he makes Mordred his regent—but Mordred betrays him. In the end, father and son kill each other. The Knights of the Round Table love their king but, as events spiral out of control, they must choose sides for a final, terrible battle. The result of these conflicted emotions is the poignant destruction of Malory’s idealized Merrie England.