Le Morte d’Arthur (Masterplots, Revised Second Edition)
When King Uther Pendragon saw Igraine, the beautiful and chaste duchess of Cornwall, he fell in love with her. Since the obstacle to his desires was Igraine’s husband, King Uther made war on Cornwall, and in that war the duke was killed. By means of magic, King Uther caused Igraine to become pregnant, after which the couple married. The child, named Arthur, was raised by a noble knight, Sir Ector. After the death of King Uther, Arthur proved his right to the throne by removing a sword from an anvil that was imbedded in a rock. From the Lady of the Lake, he received his famous sword, Excalibur. When the independent kings of Britain rebelled and made war on the young king, they were defeated. Arthur ruled over all Britain. He married Guinevere, the daughter of King Leodegrance, who presented the Round Table and a hundred knights to Arthur as a wedding gift. Merlin the magician was enticed by one of the Ladies of the Lake into eternal imprisonment under a rock.
Five foreign kings invaded Arthur’s realm and were defeated after a long war. To show his gratitude to God for his victory, King Arthur founded the Abbey of the Beautiful Adventure at the scene of his victory.
Sir Accolon was the lover of Morgan Le Fay, enchantress sister of King Arthur. After she procured Excalibur from Arthur by black magic, Sir Accolon fought Arthur and nearly overcame him; only when their swords were accidentally exchanged in the fight, was the king able to defeat Accolon.
King Lucius of Rome sent ambassadors to Britain to demand tribute of King Arthur. When Arthur refused to pay, he was promised aid in war by all the knights of his realm. In the war that followed, the British defeated Lucius and conquered Germany and Italy. Arthur was crowned Emperor of Rome.
Back in England, Sir Launcelot, a knight of the Round Table and Queen Guinevere’s favorite, set out on adventures to further his and his queen’s honor and glory. After many long and arduous adventures, all of them triumphant, Sir Launcelot returned to Camelot, the seat of King Arthur, and was acclaimed the first knight of all Christendom.
Elizabeth, queen of King Meliodas of Liones, died in giving birth to a son, who was named Tristram because of the sad circumstances surrounding his birth. Young Tristram was sent to France with his preceptor, Gouvernail, where he was trained in all the accomplishments of knighthood. When the king of Ireland demanded tribute from King Mark of Cornwall, Sir Tristram defended the sovereignty of King Mark, his uncle, by slaying the Irish champion, Sir Marhaus, but he was wounded in the contest. He was nursed by Isolde, princess of Ireland. Tristram and Isolde fell in love and promised to remain true to each other. Later, King Mark commissioned Sir Tristram to return to Ireland to bring back Isolde, whom the king had contracted to marry. During the return voyage from Ireland to Cornwall, Tristram and Isolde drank a love potion and swore undying love. Isolde married King Mark, and Sir Tristram later married Isolde La Blanche Mains, daughter of King Howels of Brittany. Unable to remain separated from Isolde of Ireland, Tristram joined her secretly. At last, fearing discovery and out of his mind for love of Isolde, Tristram fled into the forest. In a pitiful condition, he was carried back to the castle, where a faithful hound revealed his identity to King Mark, who then banished him from Cornwall for ten years. The knight went to Camelot, where he won great renown at tournaments and in knightly adventures. King Mark heard of Tristram’s honors and went in disguise to Camelot to kill Tristram. Sir Launcelot recognized King Mark and took him to King Arthur, who ordered the Cornish sovereign to allow Sir Tristram to return to Cornwall. In Cornwall, King Mark attempted unsuccessfully to get rid of Tristram, but Tristram managed to avoid all the traps set for him, and he and Isolde escaped to England and took up residence in Castle Joyous Guard.
An old hermit prophesied to King Arthur that a seat that was vacant at the Round Table would be occupied by a knight not yet born—one who would win the Holy Grail.
After Sir Launcelot was tricked into an affair with Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles, the maid gave birth to a boy named Galahad. Some years later, a stone with a sword imbedded in it appeared in a river. A message on the sword stated that the best knight in the world would remove it. All the knights of the Round Table attempted to withdraw the sword without success. Finally, an old man brought a young knight to the Round Table and seated him in the vacant place at which the young knight’s name, Sir Galahad, appeared magically after he had been seated. Sir Galahad withdrew the magic sword from the stone and set out, with Arthur’s other knights, in quest of the Holy Grail. During his quest, he was joined part of the time by his father, Sir Launcelot. Sir Launcelot tried to enter the Grail chamber and was stricken for twenty-four days as penance for his years of sin. A vision of Christ came to Sir Galahad; he and his comrades received communion from the Grail. They came to a Near-Eastern city where they healed a cripple. Because of this miracle, they were thrown into prison by the pagan king. When the king died, Sir Galahad was chosen king; he saw the miracles of the Grail and died in holiness.
There was great rejoicing in Camelot after the questing knights returned. Sir Launcelot forgot the promises he had made during the quest and began to consort again with Guinevere. One spring while traveling with her attendants, Guinevere was captured by a traitorous knight, Sir Meliagrance. Sir Launcelot rescued the queen and killed the evil knight. Enemies of Launcelot reported Launcelot’s love for Guinevere to King Arthur. A party championing the king’s cause engaged Launcelot in combat. All members of the party except Mordred, Arthur’s natural son, were slain. Guinevere was sentenced to be burned, but Sir Launcelot and his party saved the queen from the stake and retired to Castle Joyous Guard. When King Arthur besieged the castle, the pope commanded a truce between Sir Launcelot and the...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Camelot. King Arthur’s primary residence and most important seat of power, home of the Round Table. Malory identifies Camelot as Winchester, though his sources had offered a range of other locations, mostly in southern England. William Caxton, for example, Malory’s first editor and publisher, writes an important preface to the work in which he concedes that the Round Table is indeed kept at Winchester but claims that Camelot itself is in Wales. Descriptions of the city and of the castle are as vague as those of its geographical location, and the image of Camelot seems to have been a rather fluid one, which each generation of writers and readers would visualize in terms of the cities and castles most familiar to them, whether from observation or from reading other romances.
Forest. Generic setting for many of the adventures of Arthur’s knights. The forest functions as the site of conflict and disorder in opposition to the civilized order and decorum represented by Camelot. By the end of the epic, Camelot itself has declined into a state of chaos and hostility. These forests function both as empty stages upon which the errant knights encounter perils (frequently in the form of other wandering knights) and as enchanted worlds in which the supernatural emerges more readily than in the comparatively realistic world of the court. Characters like Lancelot and Tristram go to the forest when they are driven temporarily mad. Although the forests are depicted as wildernesses where the laws of society are suspended, they are somewhat paradoxically well provided with abbeys, hermitages, and priories at which the knights can obtain food and lodging and hear mass. The forest also contains numerous massive castles built literally in the middle of nowhere.
*Glastonbury. Small English town that is the site of one of the most ancient British Christian communities and a major Benedictine abbey. Glastonbury is cited in a number of Arthurian contexts. By the early twelfth century it became the place to which Guenevere is taken when she is kidnapped. In 1190 to 1191, the monks of the monastery announced that they had found the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere in their cemetery under a cross bearing an inscription that conveniently identified them. Caxton’s preface to his...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Adderley, C. M. “Malory’s Portrayal of Sir Lancelot.” Language Quarterly 29, nos. 1-2 (Winter/Spring, 1991): 47-65. Charts the progress of the love between Lancelot and Guinevere and argues that, although the Round Table fails collectively, there remain individuals who excel in virtue and prowess.
Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1993. A convincing biography of Sir Thomas Malory that illustrates his political career during the Wars of the Roses and his several imprisonments.
Lumiansky, R. M., ed. Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of...
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