Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1850
Although in 1570 Roger Ascham attributed the popularity of Sir Thomas Malory’s work to an unhealthy interest in “open manslaughter and bold bawdy,” the continuing popularity of Le Morte d’Arthur is itself evidence of this medieval author’s remarkable grasp of narrative technique. The aesthetic principles governing Malory’s art have been a matter of debate since the discovery of the Winchester manuscript in 1934. Eugène Vinaver, who edited the modern standard edition, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947), has argued that Malory unraveled the complicated entrelacement of his French sources, focusing on narrative units which approach the unity readers expect in modern short stories. Since the appearance of his edition, critics have argued that whatever Malory’s intentions, Le Morte d’Arthur is one work with a cumulative effect. This controversy seems to have subsided, with most scholars agreeing that Malory wrote eight separate tales rather than one unified narrative and that each of the tales exists within a well-defined cycle. Malory’s work thus represents an important transition from the medieval romance to the modern narrative or short story.
“The Tale of King Arthur”
“The Tale of King Arthur,” Malory’s first treatment of Arthur, describes Arthur’s battles to consolidate England as one kingdom. Within this one large unit, there are a number of tales which, although linked to the overall theme of Arthur’s conquests, illustrate Malory’s narrative techniques. “The Tale of Balin,” for example, is a self-contained story in which one learns all that is needed to know about Balin; on the other hand, Malory includes inscriptions on tombs, puzzling prophecies by Merlin, and other interpolations which allude to incidents in the stories of Galahad, Lancelot, and Tristram. These vestiges of the medieval entrelacement supply information which is not necessary to an understanding of Balin’s adventures; their existence makes it impossible to claim “The Tale of Balin” an absolute unity of effect. Nevertheless, the presence of this unnecessary information does not make the story of Balin any less a self-contained and independent narrative unit. This story affords a particularly interesting example of Malory’s characteristic style and use of techniques which were to find their greatest themes in “The Quest of the Holy Grail” and “The Death of King Arthur.”
“The Tale of Balin”
“The Tale of Balin” begins when a mysterious damsel appears at Arthur’s court, wearing a sword that can only be drawn out of its sheath by a virtuous knight. All of Arthur’s knights try and fail to unsheathe the sword. Balin, however, draws out the sword only to be told by the damsel that if he keeps it, he will destroy his best friend and the man whom he most loves. It is then that the Lady of the Lake appears, demanding that Arthur give her the heads of Balin and the sword-damsel. Hearing this, Balin claims that the sword-damsel caused his mother’s death and cuts off her head. By this action Balin violates Arthur’s safe conduct and loses his favor.
In the incidents which follow, Balin tries to regain Arthur’s favor by conquering his enemies; however, in adventure after adventure Balin’s success as a knight, the greatest in the world, is juxtaposed with prophecies of disaster and tragedy. He unintentionally causes the suicides of two sets of lovers and strikes a “dolorous stroke” in self-defense which lays waste three kingdoms. Finally, he meets his brother Balan, his best friend and the person he most loves. Disguised with unfamiliar shields, they fail to recognize each other and fight to the death. Just before they die, they recognize each other and ask to be buried in the same tomb.
While readers accept the supernatural prophecies as tragic foreshadowings, Balin refuses to believe them. Reluctant as he is to accept the validity of the prophetic warnings, he accepts the disasters themselves with a simple fortitude. At three different points in the narrative, he says: “I shall take the aventure that God woll ordayne me.” This courageous acceptance of a tragic fate becomes a compelling secondary theme in the tale.
Of the foreshadowings, the most significant occurs just before the final episode in which Balin and his brother engage in fatal battle. Balin hears a horn blow “as it had ben the dethe of a best. ‘That blast,’ said Balyn, ‘is blowen for me, for I am the pryse, and yet am I not dede.’” After causing the death of innocent lovers and the waste of three kingdoms, Balin says with stark but effective simplicity that he is the prize or victim of the hunt, but he is not yet dead. At this point, he realizes that he is being pursued by supernatural forces.
In fact, this image of fate as the hunter and Balin as the prize or victim epitomizes the irony and pathos of Balin’s fortunes. Through the use of tragic foreshadowing, Malory contrasts Balin’s success as a knight, his demonstration of faith and virtue by winning the sword, with his human vulnerability to fate.
“The Quest of the Holy Grail”
“The Quest of the Holy Grail” is linked somewhat loosely to “The Tale of Balin” by allusions to the failure of all knights, even Lancelot, to draw out Balin’s sword, but it is principally concerned with parallelism between Galahad and his father Lancelot. Malory emphasizes Lancelot’s supremacy over all earthly knights, but it is Galahad who serves as model for the followers of Christ and becomes the spiritual ideal.
Traditionally, the Grail is the name of the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. Later, Joseph of Arimethea was supposed to have caught Christ’s blood in it during the Crucifixion. A vision of the Grail was seen by a nun, the sister of one of the Knights of the Round Table, but only three knights achieve the quest—Galahad, Percival, and Bors. At the conclusion of the tale, a multitude of angels appear and bear Galahad’s soul to heaven; a hand descends to take the Grail and the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s body into heaven.
At the very outset of the quest for the Grail, Arthur laments that however worthy this quest may be, it will destroy the solidarity of the Round Table. Lancelot insists that the quest will bring great honor to the knights. It is a tribute to Malory’s success as a storyteller that he does justice both to the spiritual ideal of the quest and the earthly, but splendid, fellowship of the Round Table.
“The Death of King Arthur”
Malory’s “The Death of King Arthur” is both his greatest work and the one in which he demonstrates most independence from his sources. With profound psychological understanding, he dramatizes the conflict between two loyalties: the chivalric code with its emphasis upon comradeship and devotion to one’s lord, epitomized in the Round Table, and the service of the knight-lover for his lady, the romantic theme of courtly chronicles. In rescuing Queen Guinevere whom he loves and serves as knight, Lancelot is forced to kill Sir Gareth, the brother of Gawain and the knight who loves Lancelot more than all other men. This incident is Malory’s own invention; his sources describe only vaguely the death of Gawain’s brothers.
Faced with the prospect of battle against Lancelot, Arthur realizes that this battle will indeed result in the destruction of the fellowship of the Round Table. His lament emphasizes the tragedy of the loss: “I am soryar for my good knyghtes losse than for the losse of my fayre queen; for quenys I myght have inow, but such felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs in no company.” Eugène Vinaver has commented: it is not through sin or weakness of heart that the end comes about, but through the devotion of the truest friend and the truest lover, though a tragic greatness which fixes forever the complex and delicate meaning of Arthur’s epic.
Confronted with accusations by Agravain and Mordred, his bastard son and nephew, that Lancelot has traitorously loved the queen, Arthur is reluctant to take action. When he agrees to test Lancelot, it is with misgivings because, as he acknowledges, “sir Launcelot had done so much for hym and for the quene so many tymes.” After Lancelot is discovered in the queen’s chamber, Guinevere is sentenced to burning. Lancelot rescues her, and in the process of saving her from the flames, slays Gareth. The war which follows destroys everything.
Even after Lancelot returns the queen to Arthur, Lancelot is exiled and then attacked in France by Arthur and Gawain. While Arthur is gone, Mordred seizes the kingdom and Guinevere, whom he plans to marry. In the first battle with Mordred, Arthur wins, although Gawain receives his death wound and writes repentantly to Lancelot, begging him to come to Arthur’s assistance. Arthur dies on the plains of Salisbury and with him pass the ideals of the Round Table.
When Lancelot returns to avenge the king and queen, he finds that Guinevere has entered a convent. As she explains to Lancelot, she has renounced the world because she feels that their love has caused the wars and the death of Arthur. Although she urges Lancelot to marry and to find his own happiness, he insists that he will become a hermit for her sake: “And therefore, lady, sithen you have taken you to perfection I must needs take me to perfection of right.”
Finally, in an episode that seems to be Malory’s invention, Lancelot learns of Guinevere’s death in a dream and is told to bury her near Arthur. During her burial he swoons in sorrow. When he dies shortly afterward, consumed by grief for the king and queen, the bishop hermit relates a vision in which he sees angels raising Lancelot to heaven. At his burial his brother Ector delivers a eulogy which represents Malory’s definitive statement on the chivalric ideal:Thou were never matched of erthely knyghtes hande. And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the trewest lover of a synful man that ever loved woman, and thou were the kyndest man that ever strake wyth swerde. And thou were the godelyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghtes, and thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in reeste.
It is because of Malory’s handling of the Arthurian materials that the stories of King Arthur became part of English literary tradition. From the complexity of his French sources he produced narratives which remain vital and appealing to the modern reader. Perhaps, however, the best critical summary of Malory’s achievement was offered by William Caxton, Malory’s first editor and critic, who tells readers that in Le Morte d’Arthur they will find “many joyous and playsaunt hystoryes and noble and renomed actes of humanyte, gentylnesse, and chyvalryes.”