Le Morte d'Arthur

by Thomas Malory
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In William Caxton's preface to the first edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, he explains that he published it to provide a model for good behavior. How well does from Malory's romance fulfill Caxton's purpose?

Malory's text is less a model of how to behave than a presentation of humanity in all its complexities and failings, particularly when it comes to trying to live by an ideal.

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While virtue and heroism are major themes in Le Morte d'Arthur , to present the text as a moralistic treatise on good behavior would be problematic, to say the least. It is true that there are plenty of characters in the story who are pure of heart and remain true...

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While virtue and heroism are major themes in Le Morte d'Arthur, to present the text as a moralistic treatise on good behavior would be problematic, to say the least. It is true that there are plenty of characters in the story who are pure of heart and remain true to their knightly calling; for example, Galahad is a devoted Christian who forsakes physical desire to better approach his calling as a knight. However, the remarkable thing about the characters in Le Morte d'Arthur is that many of them do not live up to their ideals. In fact, they miss the mark by wide margins.

King Arthur is presented as a wonderful king, committed to justice and chivalry. He admires his knights. He possesses high political ideals. However, he too has his flaws, shown in his affair with Morgause and his willingness to overlook the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. He is not a model of perfect behavior, even if he is one of the noblest characters in the story.

Lancelot and Guinevere might be the best examples of this blend of good and bad. Both are adulterers who contribute to Camelot's ultimate dissolution and Arthur's fall. However, they are not presented as simple villains. Lancelot is a good knight: brave, loyal, and skilled in battle. Guinevere stands for justice when Gawain kills a lady and rewards knights who behave well. They are complex people, intended less to teach people how to behave (or not) than characters displaying very human frailties and strengths.

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