How is Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur version of Arthur's death different from Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory is the definitive source for many of the  modern works concerning the Arthurian Legend.  Malory did not create all of the Arthurian stories, but rather translated them from the French and then added the English flavor to the stories. 

In Malory’s version of  Arthur’s death emphasis was placed on character of Mordred, the illegitimate son of Arthur and his sister.  Mordred had sent letters advising that Arthur had been killed in battle. This was not true; however, Mordred was made King of England.  He tried to marry Guinevere but was rejected. 

The emphasis is not so much the death of Arthur but about the end of the knights of the Round Table.  The primary difference between the two stories is in the style of the writers.  Malory told the story in a factual way so that the reader knew what happened:

Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And there King Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, throughout the body. And right so he smote his father Arthur, on the side of the head, that the sword pierced the helmet and the brain-pan, and  Sir Mordred fell stark dead to the earth; and the noble Arthur fell in a swoon.

Then he mentions that it took Bedivere three times to throw the sword into the lake. Then, Arthur is taken off on a boat by his sisters . 

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his Idylls of the King using Malory’s version as his source.  The main difference in the versions is the stylized poetic form that Tennyson used for his poem.  Written in blank verse and iambic pentameter, the legends are transformed into beautifully written imagery.  The descriptions enhance the already interesting stories into scenes in which the reader can place himself. Arthur's death is basically the same; however, it is the use of the language and the form that Tennyson writes that creates his beautiful version of Arthur’s going away:

One of the best illustrations of the difference in style would be the difficulty of Sir Bedivere in throwing in Excalibur to the Lake.  In Malory’s version, it simply mentions that Bedivere went three times before he threw in the sword. 

Tennyson illustrates why Bedivere did not obey Arthur.  It also shows the anger of Arthur building  as each time Bedivere lies to him and tells him that he has thrown in the sword.  When he finally does throw in the sword, Bedivere marvels at the hand of the Lady of the Lake as she wields the sword three times and then sinks back into  the lake. Arthur is near death, so he carries him near to the water where he is taken on a barge. Bedivere  looks out and sees Arthur and the Ladies of the Lake taking him to Avalon to be healed of his grievous wounds. 

Bedivere yells out to Arthur asking what should he do now that the old world has ended:

Arthur from the barge:

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils himself in many ways,

Comfort thyself: I have lived my life,

and that which I have done

May He within himself make pure!,

If thou shouldst never see my face again,

Pray for my soul.

The story is the same.  Malory’s purpose was to translate the stories into English so that the stories could be enjoyed.  Tennyson’s goal was to enhance the stories with the literary devices that were available to create a beautiful poem.

Read the study guide:
Idylls of the King

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