Le Morte d’Arthur
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.
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.
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.