Study Guide

Le Morte d'Arthur

by Thomas Malory

Le Morte d'Arthur Analysis

Le Morte d’Arthur (Critical Survey of Literature, Masterpiece Edition)

The Story:

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 king. Sir Launcelot and his followers went to France, where they became rulers of that realm. King Arthur invaded France with the intent of overthrowing Sir Launcelot. In Arthur’s absence, Mordred seized the throne of Britain and tried to force Guinevere to become his queen. Guinevere escaped to London, where she took refuge in the Tower. Hearing of Sir Mordred’s actions, King Arthur returned to England and in a great battle drove the usurper and his false knights back to Canterbury.

At a parley between King Arthur and Sir Mordred, an adder caused a knight to draw his sword. This action brought on a pitched battle in which Mordred was killed and King Arthur mortally wounded. On his deathbed, Arthur asked Sir Bedivere to cast Excalibur back into the lake from which the sword had come. Sir Bedivere hid the sword twice but was reproached by the king each time. Finally, Sir Bedivere threw the sword into the lake, where it was caught by a hand and withdrawn under the water.

King Arthur died and was carried on a barge down the river to the Vale of Avalon. When Sir Launcelot returned from France to avenge his king and queen, he learned that Guinevere had become a nun. Sir Launcelot retired to a hermitage and took holy orders. Sir Constantine of Cornwall was chosen king to succeed King Arthur.

Critical Evaluation:

The authorship of Le Morte d’ Arthur is controversial, because more than one “Thomas Malory” exists who could have written the work. Many believe the author was most probably the unusual Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel. The strange circumstances of his life contributed significantly to the shape and meaning of his masterwork. Born about 1400, he served with Richard Beauchamp, the earl of Warwick, was knighted in 1442, and was elected a member of Parliament in 1445. After that, Malory turned to a life of irresponsible violence and spent most of his last twenty years in prison until his death in 1471. It was during his imprisonment that Malory composed, translated, and adapted his great rendering of the Arthurian material. Malory lived in the active fifteenth century, just a little past the age of chivalry and at a time when the elegance and leisure of that age had to be rationalized. That accounts for many of the differences between his vigorous narrative and the story’s contemplative, ruminative antecedents in chivalric literature.

Malory is the most influential of all Arthurian writers. He was the source and delight of Edmund Spenser and the main wellspring of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859). First printed by William Caxton in one volume in 1485, Le Morte d’Arthur has been consistently popular since, except during the Augustan period of the early eighteenth century. Caxton’s printing is the source of all extant versions except a manuscript discovered in 1934 in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College. The Winchester manuscript, which seems generally more reliable than Caxton, not only made the identity of the author more certain but also showed that Caxton had condensed the original.

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is itself a condensation, adaptation, and rearrangement of earlier materials. It is based primarily on the French Arthurian Prose Cycle (1225-1230) known as the Vulgate, a conglomeration of courtly stories of Lancelot that are ostensibly historical accounts of the court of Arthur and stories of the quest for the Holy Grail. Eugène Vinaver, the foremost editor and critic of Malory, has explained that the differences between the Vulgate and Malory’s narrative are good indicators of the nature of Malory’s achievement.

The primary structure of the Vulgate is episodic, and its narrative movement is largely backwards. Episodes prepare for and elucidate other episodes that may chronologically have preceded them. The work did not grow by accretion; its shape is a reflection of an alternative aesthetic. The result is a web of themes in which forward movement of the narrative is subordinated to the demonstration and clarification of the dominant ideals of the work. Malory took this source, added matter from the fourteenth century English Alliterative Morte d’Arthur and, to a lesser extent, from the Stanzaic Morte, and fashioned a new kind of fictional structure. The result is not simply condensation but a disentanglement of the elements of the narrative and a recombination of them into an order, an emphasis, and a significance entirely alien to the sources.

Vinaver has identified two primary ways in which Malory transformed the structure of the narrative. First, certain episodes are formed into self-contained units, almost short stories, by detachment from their context and the excision of extraneous detail. In the Vulgate, for example, the incidents grouped together by Malory as the story of the Knight of the Cart appeared long before the Grail quest; Malory puts them long after and organizes them as an exemplum of Lancelot’s noble ideals rather than as a prefigurement of his amatory commitment, thus giving the episode a different significance by omission and diminution. Malory’s second mode of transformation is to fashion a coherent narrative from bits and pieces scattered throughout his sources. In the story of the Fair Maid of Astolat, he organizes disparate details into a sequential form.

The most striking change in the sources is Malory’s imposition of a consistently forward chronological movement. The courtly digressions and the significant configurations of explanatory episodes are gone. Instead, there is a straightforward narrative that alters both the tone and meaning of the original. Malory had no comprehension of or sympathy for the tradition of courtly love that permeated his sources. Where its vestiges cannot be omitted, Malory translates them into something more compatible with his genius. Therefore, Lancelot is no longer the “knight of the cart” because of courtly self-debasement for the beloved but because of a dedication to chivalric ideals. The elegance and controlled artificiality of his antecedents are changed by Malory into directness and moral earnestness. Lancelot becomes a Christianized, somewhat sentimentalized figure who is a model of the moderation that leads to supernatural rewards. Similarly, in the story of Pelleas and Ettard, Malory makes Pelleas’ behavior more practical than courtly. After Ettard’s infidelity, Malory substitutes the poetic justice of her death and Pelleas’ happiness for the courtly self-abnegation demonstrated by Pelleas in the Vulgate.

Sometimes Malory’s fiction suffers from the tension between his sources and his rendering of them. As E. K. Chambers has noted, characters are not always sustained on the same level of the narrative. Moreover, not all the courtly and mysterious elements are completely rationalized into the new intention. Some undecipherable oddities result. Le Morte d’Arthur remains, however, a vigorous and compelling narrative full of the spirit of adventurous knighthood. As Vinaver has shown in detail, Malory has substituted outdoor images for courtly affectation, the real English countryside for the conventional French, vigorous speech for conventional dialogues, and direct, human relationships for the elaborate rituals of courtly love. All of this is accomplished in a blunt and lively prose that is the antithesis of the intricacies of the French sources and perfectly suited to Malory’s more direct structure and more forthright moral attitude.

Bibliography:

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 “Le Morte D’Arthur.” Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964. Consists of eight chapters, each of which deals with a different one of Malory’s “tales.” The object of the book is to show that the tales are interdependent and the work is therefore single and unified.

Moorman, Charles. The Book of Kyng Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965. Moorman argues that the success of the Round Table depends on the integration of love, chivalry, and religion. It fails as a result of adultery, feuding, and the failure to find the Holy Grail.

Vinaver, Eugène. “Sir Thomas Malory.” In Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. An ideal starting point for understanding Malory scholarship. Vinaver sets forth clearly his idea that Le Morte d’Arthur is not one book but a series of eight separate tales.

Le Morte d'Arthur Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Camelot

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

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

*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 edition of Malory also locates his sepulchre there. A legend was soon popularized that the religious site had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, who is supposed to have brought the Holy Grail to the Isle of Avalon, putatively located near Glastonbury. At the end of Malory’s work, Sir Bedivere, the only survivor of the final battle between Arthur and Mordred, becomes a hermit in a chapel beside Glastonbury. Lancelot and seven other knights join him as hermits, and Lancelot dies there.

*Salisbury

*Salisbury. Town in southern England that is the site of the climactic battle between the forces of Arthur and his nephew/son Mordred, in which the Knights of the Round Table are virtually all killed. Arthur himself is mortally wounded and sent off in a mysterious barge to the vale of Avalon to be healed.

Avalon

Avalon. In most versions of the legend, the magical valley or island to which Arthur is taken after his final battle to be healed, and from which he shall one day return to lead the English people again. Malory himself does not support this part of the story.

*Rome

*Rome. Arthur’s military campaign against the Roman emperor Lucius, which results in Arthur’s being named emperor of Rome, makes up one of the few sustained military operations in the work and one of the few in which Arthur himself is a primary participant. Notable among the battles along the way is Arthur’s combat with a giant at La Mont-Saint-Michel. Popular legend claimed that Britain had been founded by (and named after) Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas, who had paved the way for the founding of Rome after fleeing Troy. This cultural myth of the translatio imperium saw the history of the world as a progress west from Troy to Rome to England, the third great world power after the empires of Greece and Rome.

Joyous Gard

Joyous Gard. Lancelot’s castle in England, usually located in the northern part of the country, perhaps in Northumberland. He brings Guenevere here for protection after rescuing her from Arthur’s knights when she is about to be executed for treason. Arthur and Gawain besiege the castle to recover her, but even though the pope intervenes to impose peace, the alliance of Lancelot with Arthur’s court is effectively ended. Lancelot renames the castle Dolorous Gard after his split with Arthur. Lancelot is taken there for burial after his death at Glastonbury. Malory locates the castle and the associated town in Alnwick or Bamburgh.

*Tintagel Castle

*Tintagel Castle. Castle in which Arthur is conceived by his father, Uther, and his mother, Ygerna, at that time the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. Tintagel is also the primary castle of King Mark in the legend of Tristram. Ruins in the area have suggested to some that there may have been a historical basis for the location of a stronghold there.

Logres

Logres. One of the names for Arthur’s realm. A near-synonym for England for Malory and other English writers, much less precisely located for most French writers. Depending upon the context, Logres may comprise large expanses of Europe, up to and including the Roman Empire, to which Arthur lays claim and then conquers. It also covers such imaginary countries as Lyonesse, the home kingdom of Tristram, who typifies the internationalism of Arthurian legend: He is born in Lyonesse, raised in Cornwall, educated in France, married in Brittany, and serves in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, besides being one of Arthur’s knights in Camelot.

Le Morte d'Arthur Historical Context

A Time of War
Life in fifteenth-century England was certainly turbulent during the period in which Malory was writing Le...

(The entire section is 1403 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur Literary Style

Character
The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur Compare and Contrast

Fourteenth Century: In 1419, England's Henry V conquers all of Normandy, wining a battle at Agincourt, in which the heavily...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur Topics for Further Study

Religion plays a significant role in Malory's epic, often as allegory. Discuss some of the images of Christianity that are present and...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur Media Adaptations

Knights of the Round Table, (1953 MGM, 106 min.) starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Mel Ferrer and directed by Richard Thorpe,...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur What Do I Read Next?

Knighthood in the Morte d'Arthur, 1985, by Beverly Kennedy, examines knighthood as found in several medieval texts.

The...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur Bibliography and Further Reading

SOURCES
Ascham, Roger, The Scolemaster, rev. ed., Thoemmes Press, 1996.

Caxton, William, "Caxton's Preface,"...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Le Morte d'Arthur Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

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 “Le Morte D’Arthur.” Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964. Consists of eight chapters, each of which deals with a different one of Malory’s “tales.” The object of the book is to show that the tales are interdependent and the work is therefore single and unified.

Moorman, Charles. The Book of Kyng Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965. Moorman argues that the success of the Round Table depends on the integration of love, chivalry, and religion. It fails as a result of adultery, feuding, and the failure to find the Holy Grail.

Vinaver, Eugène. “Sir Thomas Malory.” In Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. An ideal starting point for understanding Malory scholarship. Vinaver sets forth clearly his idea that Le Morte d’Arthur is not one book but a series of eight separate tales.