Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

Malory's epic Le Morte d'Arthur deviates from traditional romantic epics in that it is a prose work, rather than a poem. This choice may reflect Malory's own talents and preference for the prose format. There is little knowledge of Malory's education, but it is doubtful that he had any serious education. Prior to Gutenberg's success in 1454, there were few books, and so there is no reason to think that Malory had any practical access to the epic tradition, as it evolved from works such as The Odyssey or The Aeneid. These Greek and Roman epics had virtually disappeared from public view until the Renaissance made them more widely accessible. There is no evidence that Malory wrote any other works, but that does not diminish his accomplishment in writing Le Morte d'Arthur. With this work, Malory functions as a compiler, compiling all the stories associated with the Arthurian legends and assembling them in one book. As a compiler, Malory also places the stories in a more straightforward chronological format, which makes the work more accessible to the reader.

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Initially, many of Malory's readers focused on proving or disproving the historical veracity of his work. In the initial printing, William Caxton devoted a considerable portion of his preface to arguing that Malory's work proved that King Arthur really did exist and that his exploits really were true. Caxton ignored the fact that Malory had no scholarly sources for his text. He had performed no research, and in fact, none existed that would have aided him. Instead, Malory relied upon the early French legends and a fourteenth century alliterative poem for information. None of these details bothered Caxton, who demonstrated that he had all the makings of a good salesman as he marketed the book to readers. Caxton's assertions in the text's preface made little difference anyway since the book helped to establish a national heritage, and that was more important than any search for the truth.

Malory's text does suggest that the English were in need of the many important morals emphasized by Le Morte d'Arthur. Arthur's establishment of the Round Table indicates a need for a code of conduct that will govern the land. His knights are bound by honor, both to king and God, ideas that are equally important to Malory's readers. Sir Galahad succeeds in the quest for the Holy Grail because he is pure and without sin. He never forgets that he serves God before he serves his king. While most modern readers would recognize that Malory is suggesting a moral code, not all of Malory's early readers embraced this view. In The Scholemaster, Roger Ascham condemns the morality of Arthur's knights:

In our forefathers tyme, when Papistrie, as a standyng poole, couered and ouerflowed all England, fewe bookes were read in our tong, sauyng certaine bookes of Cheualrie, as they sayd, for pastime and pleasure, which, as some say, were made in Monasteries, by idle Monkes, or wanton Chanons: as for example, Morte Arthure: the whole pleasure of which booke standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open mans slaughter, and bold bawdrye: in which booke those be counted the noblest Knightes, that do kill most men without any quarell, and commit fowlest aduoulteres by sutlest shiftes.

In addition to the obvious attacks on the Catholic Church, which were common in many English texts printed after the Reformation, Ascham is leveling criticism on the knights' behavior. Interestingly, this is the same criticism Malory implies. Only the purest of the knights—Galahad, Bors, and Percival—succeed in the Grail Quest. The implication is clear: those knights who engage in adulterous behavior or who use their strength or talent with a sword in an unjust or murderous manner, will not be rewarded with God's blessing. Ascham apparently misses this point, but he undoubtedly was not alone. Although Malory's epic was popular as entertainment, quasi-history, or even a model of morality, it was not regarded as serious literature for some time. Eventually, Le Morte d'Arthur took a place in the literary canon and was recognized as a major influential work. While Malory's book influenced many of the poets who followed him, such as Spenser and Tennyson, it also created an interest in the world of Knights, jousts, and courtly love. In this century, the Knights of the Round Table have spawned several films and even a musical. And finally, comparisons during the John Kennedy presidency to Arthur's Camelot, recalled the excitement and perfection of Arthur's rule, and later after it had ended, the brevity of his world.

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