Analysis: Le Morte d’Arthur
The modern reader approaching Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur may be perplexed at first reading, for while the story of Arthur and his knights has the appearance of a novel, it is certainly far removed from representatives of the genre with which today’s reader is more familiar. Though there is an overarching structure to the work, provided by the chronology of Arthur’s reign, individual stories often seem mere appendages that add little to the major plot and seldom seem to have concrete beginnings or endings themselves. The “fault” for this apparent lapse into chaos lies not so much with Malory (though too close a reliance on his sources does tend to cause the story to branch off in several directions that lead nowhere), but rather with the reader who is not familiar with medieval techniques of storytelling.
It is not uncommon to find medieval romances that simply begin in medias res and seem to end there as well. That form of narrative technique has been supplanted in the modern literary world by the “well-made story,” whose beginning, middle, and end are clearly defined, and whose parts are clearly integrated into the whole. The medieval audience demanded neither tight concentration on a single story line nor analysis of cause-and-effect relationships; to appreciate Malory and his achievement in the chain of events leading to the modern novel one must first appreciate that for writers before him, and for Malory himself, emphasis on the event itself, rather than on its consequences or on the role of characters, was of primary importance. Malory, in fact, was one of the first writers to delve into the minds of his characters and achieve a certain degree of verisimilitude in presenting the people who appear in his story.
Malory lacks originality in the modern sense, since almost everything he recounts in Le Morte d’Arthur is taken from medieval romances popular for centuries before his. His accomplishments as a storyteller and his claim to literary greatness lie in the artistry with which he wove together the elements of the Arthurian legend and in the insight he presents into the meaning of the story both for his contemporaries and for readers throughout the centuries. Beneath the surface chaos of the tales that make up the work, Malory has presented a unified vision of a society in triumph and in decay; his is a complex work with a complex purpose. As D. S. Brewer explains in his introduction to Malory: The Morte Darthur (1968), the work was “a part of the movement that transformed the medieval knight into the English gentleman.” Through this story of the “ideal society,” Malory presents the enduring dilemma of humankind’s attempt to reconcile individual demands with those of the society and those of God.
Le Morte d’Arthur consists of eight tales, which Caxton divided into twenty-one books in his edition. The story itself divides into three large sections. The first, consisting of books 1 through 5 in the Caxton text, details the coming of Arthur and the establishment of the Round Table. It begins with the adulterous conception of the king, tells the now popular story of the sword in the stone, and continues with an account of the early battles and adventures of Arthur and his knights in their effort to subdue external threats to the realm. Always the careful craftsman where larger issues of plot and motivation are concerned, Malory skillfully interweaves into this larger story details that become important in later episodes: the “dolorous stroke” wielded by Balin that initiates in a curious way the Holy Grail quest, the hatred felt by Morgan le Fay for her brother Arthur, and the power of Excalibur and its symbolic significance. In the final book of this section, Arthur is hailed as the conqueror of Rome and welcomed into the city by the pope himself; the last great external challenge to this new order of society has been met and overcome.
The main books of Le Morte d’Arthur (11-17) deal with the adventures of Arthur’s knights. Included are tales of the prowess of Sir Lancelot, the dedicated idealism of Sir Gareth (“Beaumains”), and the accomplishments and deceptions of Sir Tristram and his paramour, La Beal Isould. In these accounts, the court of King Mark is established as a kind of counterculture to that of Arthur, and the reader is made to feel the imminent doom that awaits Arthur’s kingdom should the knights falter in their loyalty to their leader and the virtues he upholds. The final books of this section recount the quest of the Sangreal (Holy Grail), a devastating undertaking that strips Arthur of many of his knights and exposes the shortcomings of many of those considered the best in the realm. The quest marks the beginning of the end of the Round Table, for through vain pursuit of this holy artifact, the knights reveal their spiritual imperfection and perhaps their inherent imperfectability.
The third and final section of the work tells of the decay of Arthur’s kingdom, a process that begins when the knights return from the unsuccessful Grail quest. Lancelot, by his actions, reveals that his dedication to the queen is greater than his devotion to God, his personal needs more important than his public duties. Arthur becomes unable to effect a suitable compromise between public and private life, and as incident after incident forces him to choose between his queen and his knights, he reluctantly is forced to opt for the latter. His sad statement after the civil war has begun in his kingdom reflects his inability to maintain a balance between his private and public lives: “Much more I am sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen;...
(The entire section is 2337 words.)