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...
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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...
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A Time of War
Life in fifteenth-century England was certainly turbulent during the period in which Malory was writing Le Morte d'Arthur. The century began with Henry V deciding to invade France. Henry found ways to justify his choice, claiming a hereditary entitlement to France and a desire to unite Europe under a Christian flag. These righteous claims allowed Henry to claim God's endorsement of this attack. As it turns out, Henry had need of God. Miserable weather and rampant dysentery hampered his invasion, but eventually Henry achieved great victories and succeeded in his quest to unite France and England. Henry emerged from these battles as a legend, having defeated the French at Agincourt, against almost impossible odds. The heavily armored French army, which was weighted down in the muddy field, quickly fell victim to the English archers, who deftly stayed out of the mud as they attacked from a distance. As a result, the French sustained thousands of lost lives and the English only a few. Henry gave credit to God, for having been party to the English victory. More importantly, Henry's exploits assumed a level more often associated with myth, and certainly reminding his people of the earlier British Legend, King Arthur, whose exploits on the battlefield were also legendary. To seal the comparisons, Henry also died soon after his victories, although not in battle as Arthur had, but of the dysentery that had plagued his men during the earlier...
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The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Characterization is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who that person will be and how that person will behave in a given situation. Most of the characters in Malory's epic are derived from characters who appeared in his sources. But, Malory has also changed some of the characters, giving them more depth, such as Launcelot, who is transformed from a minor character in the sources to a major character in Malory's epic.
An epic is a long narrative poem that presents characters and events of high position. There may be a central heroic figure, as in the case of Arthur in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur . There is frequently a muse who inspires the writer to create a work that is inspired and magnificent in its scope. The epic most frequently recounts the origins of a nation or group of people. Le Morte d'Arthur recounts the story of King Arthur, but it also establishes a history for the English people, providing a source of national pride. Epics usually share...
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Compare and Contrast
Fourteenth Century: In 1419, England's Henry V conquers all of Normandy, wining a battle at Agincourt, in which the heavily outnumbered English soldiers defeat the French. Henry's glorious win is considered as a sanction from God for having undertaken the war. Some scholars think that Henry's glorious exploits in battle serve for Malory's depiction of Arthur.
Late Twentieth Century: Neither the English nor the French are seen as great military forces, and indeed, both have fought on the same side all during this century. The twentieth century has not witnessed a military hero of the stature of either Henry or Arthur, although General Eisenhower perhaps comes closest.
Fourteenth Century: In 1428, the University of Florence begins to teach Greek and Latin literature, as a way to emphasize moral values. When this occurs, the early Greek and Roman epics, The Odyssey and The Aeneid are again taught. This results in a greater interest in the ancient epics and leads to the creation of many new epics within the next two hundred years, including Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, and John Milton's Paradise Lost. These authors were all interested in using the epic form to establish moral values and to promote the importance of religious faith as a positive influence.
Late Twentieth Century: Most modern authors have little interest in creating...
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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 explore their influences on Arthur's court and Round Table.
Contrast the images of legitimate love between Gareth and his wife and the adulterous love between Launcelot and Guinevere. What do you think Malory is saying about the role of legitimate love in his readers' lives?
Discuss Arthur's Round Table code to which his knights must adhere. Which knights do you think most closely follow Arthur's desires? And which knights most seriously deviate from these expectations?
Discuss the features of the epic genre, paying special attention to which features are present in Malory's text.
Explore the role of revenge in Malory's text and how this motif ultimately leads to the destruction of Arthur's Camelot.
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Knights of the Round Table, (1953 MGM, 106 min.) starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Mel Ferrer and directed by Richard Thorpe, was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Art Direction/Set Direction and Best Sound.
First Knight, (1995 Columbia, 134 min.) starring Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Julia Ormond, and John Gielgud and directed by Jerry Zucker was panned by the critics as unintentionally funny with a plot similar to a Harlequin Romance.
Camelot, (1967 Warner Brothers, 150 min.) starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings, Franco Nero, and Lionel Jefferies and directed by Joshua Logan, received Academy Awards for Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Score. This film also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor, Best Song, and Best Score.
King Arthur and His Knights, (1998 Greathall) narrated by Jim Weiss. Weiss is a storyteller whose work appeals to children. He uses song to tell several of the episodes from King Arthur's life.
Le Morte D'Arthur, (1998 Blackstone) narrated by Frederick Davidson, containing eleven (two-hour) cassettes, is a reading of selections from Malory's text.
Le Morte D'Arthur, (1997 Highbridge) narrated by Dereck Jacobi, contains six cassettes, and offers an abridgement of Malory's text.
Le Morte D'Arthur, (1963 Argo) is a dramatization starring Harry Andrews, William Squire,...
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What Do I Read Next?
Knighthood in the Morte d'Arthur, 1985, by Beverly Kennedy, examines knighthood as found in several medieval texts.
The Idylls of the King, 1833, by Tennyson, is a poetic presentation of the story of Arthur, from his meeting with Guinevere to the time of his death.
History of the Kings of Britain, 1136, by Geoffrey of Monmouth (reprinted in 1977 by Viking Penguin), is an epic work that begins with the founding of Britain. This book provides a history of Arthur, and may have served as one of Malory's sources.
The Evolution of Arthurian Romance: The Verse Tradition from Chretien to Froissart, 1998 by Beate Schmolke-Hasselmann (originally published in German in 1985), is a study of Arthurian verse romance. In it the author argues that scholars need to redraw the lines on the literary and linguistic map of medieval Britain and France.
Edmund Spenser's, The Faerie Queene, 1590-1596, incorporates many of the ideas and characters from Malory's work, including King Arthur and the search for the ideal, in this case the Faerie Queene.
The Scolemaster, 1570, by Roger Ascham (reprinted in 1996 by Thoemmes Press) provides Ascham's theories on education and includes his concerns about the moral influences of some books.
The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and literature, 1995, by Hilda Ellis Davidson, is a study of the archaeological evidence on...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ascham, Roger, The Scolemaster, rev. ed., Thoemmes Press, 1996.
Caxton, William, "Caxton's Preface," in The Works of Thomas Malory, Vol. I, edited by Eugene Vinaver, Clarendon Press, 1947.
Kennedy, Edward Donald, "Malory's Guinevere: 'A Woman Who Had Grown a Soul,'" in Arthuriana, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 37–45.
Lewis, C. S., "The English Prose 'Morte,'" in Essays on Malory, edited by Walter Oakeshott, et. al., Clarendon press, 1963, pp. 7-28.
Saul, Mary Lynn, "Courtly Love and the Patriarchal Marriage Practice in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur,’’ in Fifteenth Century Studies, Vol. 24, 1998, pp. 50-62.
Archibald, Elizabeth and A.S.G. Edwards, editors, A Companion to Malory, D. S. Brewer, 1996.
This book is a compilation of essays that focus on several of the themes and ideas present in Malory's text.
Benson, L.D., "Le Morte d'Arthur," in Critical Approaches to Six Major Works: Beowulf through Paradise Lost, edited by R. M. Lumiansky and Hershel Baker, 1968, pp. 112-120.
This article is a discussion on the thematic unity of Malory's text, which uses as its example the story of Gareth.
Caxton, William, "Caxton's Preface," in The Works of Thomas Malory, Vol. I, edited by Eugene Vinaver, Clarendon Press, 1947.
This text is from the original preface...
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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 “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...
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