Le Morte d'Arthur

by Thomas Malory

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Who is King Arthur in Le Morte d'Arthur?

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The legend of King Arthur forms the basis of what must be the most famous and influential stories in all of English literature. But the story of Arthur first appeared as a work of literature in the French medieval romances by Chretien de Troyes. It has been generally acknowledged by historians that Arthur was not an actual king but a literary figure of mythic status. He is possibly based in part upon a warlord named Arthur first written about by a Welsh monk in the eighth century. Four hundred years later, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about Arthur in a book of English history that is now accepted to be an embellished work with many fictional components. In the 15th century Thomas Malory, a man born into wealth but who became a rebellious outlaw in his twenties, wrote what would later become Le Morte D'Arthur while he was in prison.

In this book, Arthur is imagined as a king who is of the son of King Uther and Lady Igraine, who conceive Arthur when the wizard Merlin casts a spell that allows Uther to persuade Igraine he is actually her husband, the Duke Gorlois. In return for this act of deception, Merlin demands he be allowed to raise Arthur in the forest, and later gives him to the knight Sir Ector as a fosterling. Arthur learns to be a squire to his brother Sir Kay, but because he is believed to be on humble birth he is not allowed to be a knight. Upon his death Uther plunges the magical sword Excalibur into a stone, and Merlin decrees only the true king of England will be able to free the sword. When Arthur does this, he is celebrated as the greatest king England has ever seen. Despite his reign being frought with personal difficulties, there is also peace and prosperity. The magical context of Merlin's influence has been a major part of the story of Arthur since Malory's work was published, and many literary and film versions since have embraced this conceit.

Not long ago an archeological discovery was made of burial remains that suggested a resting place of a Christian knight and king, and a new theory about Arthur's possible employment as a knight of the Crusades was born (this theory was developed into a screenplay of the film King Arthur starring Clive Owen). 

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