Thomas Malory Essay - Critical Essays

Malory, Thomas


Thomas Malory c. 1410-1471

English prose writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Malory's life and works. For additional information on his career, see LC, Volume 11.

Acknowledged as a seminal work of English literature, Malory's Le Morte Darthur is often credited with laying the foundation of the modern prose narrative in English and with establishing the version of the Arthurian legend that remains dominant to the present day. Malory wrote the work while in prison, taking years to create a powerful narrative that focuses on the life and times of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. In addition to being praised as a key text of the English language, Le Morte Darthur is also studied for the light it sheds on medieval culture and society.

Biographical Information

Malory was born in Warwickshire, England, about 1410. He was the son of Sir John Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, the local sheriff and a man of modest means. Sometime in his youth it is thought that Malory served as a soldier under the banner of King Henry V. Scholars believe that he was a member of the company of the great Earl of Warwick, Richard Beauchamp, and that he took part in the battle of Agincourt and may have witnessed the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Three times in Malory's stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table women are bound to the stake and condemned to death, but unlike Joan of Arc, they are always saved at the last minute. Malory returned to Warwickshire after the end of the fighting in France. When his father died in 1434, he inherited his father's estates and may also have succeeded to a title of knight. A few years later Malory married a woman named Elizabeth who bore him a son, Robert, who died before him. In 1445 he became a member of the Parliament at Westminster. Thereafter, records show, his life took a downward turn. From legal archives of the time, he is cited in lawsuits, charged with rape, robbery, extortion, cattle stealing, and with breaking into the Abbey of Coombe. For his various crimes, Malory served at least four prison sentences in the last twenty years of his life. According to a legal document from Northampton, Malory and a companion were charged with having by force and arms insulted and wounded the plaintiff at Sprotton in Northants, and with having stolen his goods. In 1454 Malory was released from prison on bail, but proceeded to steal cattle and other personal property. Malory was subsequently imprisoned in Colchester; he escaped, but was recaptured and sent to Marshalsea Prison, which housed all types of criminals, including debtors, murderers, and thieves. In 1456 Malory was released through a royal pardon and sent to Ludgate, a debtor's prison. The following year he was released on bail but was soon returned to prison, again at Marshalsea. The last recorded arrest came in 1460, when he was sent to Newgate Prison, where he translated the French Morte Arthure. In this book, Malory gives the only recorded information about his life. Referring to himself as a “knight prisoner,” Malory implores the reader: “I praye you all jentylmen and jentylwymen that redeth this book of Arthur and his knyghtes from the begynnyng to the endynge, praye for me whyle I am on lyve that God send me good delyveraunce. And whan I am deed, I praye you all praye for my soule. For this book was ended the ninth yere of the reygne of King Edward the Fourth, by Syr Thomas Maleore, knyght, as Jesu helpe hym for His grete myght, as he is the servaunt of Jesu bothe day and nyght.” In 1471 he died at Newgate, probably of the plague. He was buried near the prison at Grey Friars Chapel.

Major Works

Although Malory is now widely accepted as the author of Le Morte Darthur, scholars debated the authorship and sources of the text for many years. However, examination of the only extant manuscript, a transcription dating from 1475, has led to a consensus regarding Malory as the creator of the narrative. Le Morte Darthur has two major plot elements: The first focus is on the end of Arthur's reign, marked by the dissolution of the Round Table; the second is the quest for the Holy Grail. Beginning with the adulterous conception of Arthur, the tale traces his exploits after he obtains his sword, Excalibur, from the Stone and establishes the Round Table. As Arthur and his Knights defend the realm, engaging in numerous adventures, Malory includes narratives extolling the prowess of such knights as Sir Palomides, Sir Lancelot, and Sir Tristram. The culminating adventure in which the Knights are engaged is the quest for the Holy Grail, which leads to the loss of many lives, including that of Sir Galahad, son of Lancelot. The quest fails, however, eventually resulting in the dissolution of the Round Table. Its failure is attributed primarily to the shortcomings and spiritual failures of the Knights, who were once considered paradigms of knightly virtue. At the end of the story, the Round Table is broken, Arthur is dead, and his wife Guenevere has entered a convent.

Although Le Morte Darthur tells the story of King Arthur and his reign, it is also an allegory that explores the conflict between knightly and Christian behavior. The conflict, most clearly personified in the adulterous relationship between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenevere, remains unresolved in the end, eventually precipitating a tragic collapse of the ideal society created by Arthur and his Knights. In addition to being an alliterative tale about the conflict between social and religious ideals, Le Morte Darthur is a chivalric romance, presenting Malory's view of the power of chivalric virtues and the nature of true love.

Critical Reception

The first published edition of Le Morte Darthur is attributed to the workshop of William Caxton and is dated 1485. This version of the text was divided into 21 books and had over 500 chapters. It was believed to be the only existing text of Le Morte Darthur until 1934, when W. F. Oakeshott discovered a manuscript of the text in the Winchester College library. Although there are few major differences in the two texts, the two versions have caused debate among scholars regarding Malory's intention, with some scholars arguing that the work is a series of separate romance tales, and others contending that the work is a continuous narrative. In his introduction to his edition of Le Morte Darthur, which he titled The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, Eugène Vinaver addressed the issue of structural unity in the text, noting that there is ample evidence to support the theory that Malory did not intend for his Arthurian narratives to be read as a single, composite work. In contrast, Charles Moorman, in his book on the structural unity of Le Morte Darthur contended that the three major plot elements of the work—Lancelot and Guenevere's relationship, the quest for the Grail, and the Lot-Pellinore feud—all tie together in the end to create an integrated text.

While the controversy over the structural unity of Le Morte Darthur continues to be a hotly debated critical issue, other aspects of the work have garnered much attention as well. For example, the historical veracity of the text is another major area of scholarly attention, with Caxton himself devoting at least half of his preface to proving his contention that the tale tells the true, factual history of Arthur and his reign. In his introductory essay to Le Morte Darthur, D. S. Brewer has examined the sources and traditions Malory drew upon to create his version of the Arthur legend, noting that although parts of the book are based on contemporary historical events, Malory's intent in writing this story was not to record historical fact, but to present a fantasy grounded in political and historical relevance for the readers of his own time.

Although many of Malory's characters have been studied in detail by critics, none continue to raise scholarly interest as much as Guenevere, wife of King Arthur. Often considered a representation of everything that is wrong in the world of chivalry—she is often depicted as jealous, greedy, and eventually, unfaithful—Guenevere's character has been regarded by Ann Dobyns as someone who is complex and worldly at the same time, “capable of ideal nobility” even while she is vulnerable to temptation. According to Dobyns, Guenevere is the metaphoric representation of Malory's view of the conflict in the chivalric ethic. In her examination of Guenevere's characterization, Carol Hart has argued that despite the often arrogant and inconsistent behavior displayed by the queen, she is in fact an uncharacteristically heroic and influential female character for her time. Other studies of Le Morte Darthur have focused on the role of kingship as exemplified by Arthur, as well as the reasons for his failure and eventual downfall.

Principal Works

*The Noble and Joyous book entitled le morte Darthur Notwythstondying it treateth of the byrth, lyf, and actes of the sayd kyng Arthur, of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, theyr meruayllous enquestes and aduentures, thachyeuyng of the sangreal, & in thende the dolorous deth & departying out of thys world of them al [printed by William Caxton] (prose) 1485

Le Morte Darthur. 2 vols. [edited by H. O. Sommer] (prose) 1889-91

The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vols. [edited by Eugène Vinaver] (prose) 1947

Le Morte D'Arthur 2 vols. [edited by Janet Cowen] (prose) 1969

The Winchester Malory: A Fascimile [edited by N. R. Ker] (prose) 1976

The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vols. [edited by Eugène Vinaver; revised by P. J. C. Field] (prose) 1990

*There is no evidence that Malory gave this work a title. This title was supplied by William Caxton, printer of the first edition.

†This edition was based on the only extant manuscript of the work, and is a transcription in the hands of two scribes, believed to date from 1475.


Eugène Vinaver (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Vinaver, Eugène. Introduction to The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver, vol. I, pp. xiii-lxxxv. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1947.

[In the following essay, Vinaver presents a detailed analysis of Le Morte Darthur, including an overview of its textual history, sources, and critical reception.]


Ever since 1485, when Malory's romances first appeared in print, the only clue to their authorship has been the following paragraph at the end of the book:

I praye you all Ientyl men and Ientyl wymmen that redeth this book of Arthur and his knyghtes from the...

(The entire section is 30232 words.)

Charles Moorman (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Moorman, Charles. “All Whole Together.” In The Book of Kyng Arthur: The Unity of Malory's Morte Darthur, pp. 64-91. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Moorman contends that the three main plots in Malory's Morte Darthur are interconnected, thus providing a sense of unity to a text based on a variety of disparate sources.]

Two tasks remain to be accomplished: first, to point out how Malory's three plots—the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, the Grail quest, and the Lot-Pellinore feud—interconnect and bind together the whole of the Morte Darthur and, second, to show, at least by example, how Malory...

(The entire section is 9591 words.)

D. S. Brewer (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Brewer, D. S. Introduction to The Morte Darthur: Parts Seven and Eight, by Sir Thomas Malory, edited by D. S. Brewer, pp. 1-36. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1968.

[In the following excerpt, Brewer traces the history of Arthurian legend, in addition to providing an overview of the structure, sources, and thematic concerns addressed in Malory's text.]


Malory's series of stories has delighted five centuries of readers, whether or not their own lives have been as exciting as his book. The Arthurian tales, that mixture of myth, adventure, love-story, enchantment, tragedy, live in his work as the essence of medieval romance, yet always with...

(The entire section is 18013 words.)

Elizabeth T. Pachoda (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Pachoda, Elizabeth T. “The Arthurian Legend Exposed: Le Morte Darthur, Tales V-VIII.” In Arthurian Propaganda: Le Morte Darthur as an Historical Ideal of Life, pp. 102-40. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Pachoda outlines Malory's use of the Arthurian myth and its accompanying traditions as structural foundations for Le Morte Darthur.]

In turning to the collapse of the Arthurian ideal in Le Morte Darthur, we are forced to confront some problems related to the structure and nature of myth; such a consideration is crucial, since after all the Arthurian “myth” of social unity and...

(The entire section is 13360 words.)

Larry D. Benson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Benson, Larry D. “Knighthood in Life and Literature.” In Malory's Morte Darthur, pp. 163-85. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Benson contends that Malory's depiction of chivalric deeds and tournaments in Le Morte Darthur was based on incidents and traditions established by real-life knights.]

The case of chivalry in its more general sense is much the same as that of courtly love. Romance chivalry—the idea that a knight must perform deeds for the honor of his lady and to acquire “worship”—was in the twelfth century a literary ideal, with only an indirect relation to the life of the times. The early...

(The entire section is 13773 words.)

P. J. C. Field (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Field, P. J. C. Introduction to Le Morte Darthur: The Seventh and Eighth Tales, edited by P. J. C. Field, pp. 33-67. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Field provides an overview of Malory's Morte Darthur, focusing on issues of authorship, structural unity, and sources.]


Although Sir Thomas Malory lived a thousand years later than the events that gave his story its origin, not much more is known with certainty about him than about the historical Arthur. All that is certain is found in his book, mostly in the explicits (the closing words) of the eight tales that make up the...

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Dhira B. Mahoney (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Mahoney, Dhira B. “Narrative Treatment of Name in Malory's Morte D'Arthur.ELH 47, no. 4 (1980): 646-56.

[In the following essay, Mahoney studies Malory's treatment of names and their significance in Le Morte Darthur.]

The nature of any form of prose fiction is dictated by the author's attitude towards his readers or audience, and, as a corollary, towards his fictional material—his characters and the events which involve them. The medieval narrative tradition requires an author to treat his material in a way that is unfamiliar to readers of the novel, used as they are to either the omniscient, manipulative narrator of nineteenth-century fiction or...

(The entire section is 4877 words.)

Ann Dobyns (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Dobyns, Ann. “The Rhetoric of Character in Malory's Morte Darthur.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 28, no. 4 (winter 1987): 339-52.

[In the following essay, Dobyns points out the metaphoric quality of Malory's dialogue, noting that this contributes greatly to the creation of symbolism in his characters.]

Malory's tendency to substitute dialogue for narrative has long been recognized as one of his dominant stylistic characteristics, and while many readers of the Morte describe this dialogue as lively and vivid, they also insist on its lack of individuality.1 The apparent contradiction in the two observations is acknowledged...

(The entire section is 5547 words.)

Ginger Thornton (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Thornton, Ginger. “The Weakening of the King: Arthur's Disintegration in The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones.” In Sir Thomas Malory: Views and Re-views, edited by D. Thomas Hanks, Jr., pp. 3-15. New York: AMS Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Thornton offers an account of Arthur as a king prone to failure and tragedy because of his inability to recognize weakness in those around him.]

From its initial tale Malory's Morte Darthur is ostensibly the story of Arthur's rise and fall. Yet Arthur soon fades from view in the tales of Launcelot and Gareth, appearing only briefly to dispatch a knight on some “aventure” or welcome home the...

(The entire section is 4841 words.)

Jeffrey L. Morgan (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Morgan, Jeffrey L. “Malory's Double Ending: The Duplicitous Death and Departing.” In Sir Thomas Malory: Views and Re-views, edited by D. Thomas Hanks, Jr., pp. 91-105. New York: AMS Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Morgan re-examines structural issues debated by various critics regarding the last two chapters of Le Morte Darthur.]

In the Morte Darthur's two final chapters, its tragic themes achieve their fullest development. In these chapters the universe itself seems to conspire in the annihilation of the Round Table. As “The Day of Destiny” opens, Arthur returns from the siege of Benwick to do battle with Mordred, the usurper, and with...

(The entire section is 5970 words.)