Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2337
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; for queens I might have enough, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.” This conflict between public and private virtues, a universal condition of humankind that Malory perceived at the heart of the Arthurian tale that he was transcribing, is the cause of the tragic development in the story.
The essence of the conflict Malory portrays in Le Morte d’Arthur has been described by D. S. Brewer as “the divergence of the values of honour and goodness from each other.” The concept of honor is the paramount public virtue, informing the code of chivalry and motivating actions of those who were proponents of knighthood. Goodness, on the other hand, is a private virtue, and in Le Morte d’Arthur it is specifically identified as a Christian attribute. Hence, the conflict between honor and goodness is elevated beyond the level of individuals struggling within themselves to choose the proper path in life; it becomes, under Malory’s skillful handling of individual tales from Arthurian romances, a larger conflict between two modes of living—the way of the good knight and the way of the good Christian.
The public virtue of honor had been the hallmark of chivalry for centuries before Malory brought it under scrutiny in Le Morte d’Arthur, and his characters all place great emphasis on winning and maintaining it. The promise of honor brings the knights to court; the chance to increase one’s honor motivates them to accept the most impossible quests and to battle against the most insurmountable odds. The preservation of honor demands strict obedience to one’s lord, unswerving fidelity to one’s lady, and unshakable loyalty to one’s brother knights. By striving for honor, the knights make the Round Table great, and paradoxically, by striving to maintain their honor, they destroy it.
In the society that Malory’s Arthur imagines and attempts to build, honor and goodness are inseparable. In a passage not in any of Malory’s sources, the king charges all his knights never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason [that is, to avoid committing it]; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worshipand always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succour, upon pain of death.
By their honor, the knights are committed to doing good deeds. As the story progresses, however, the requirements of honor and goodness begin to diverge, and the inability of the knights and ladies to reconcile the two leads to the tragic demise of Arthur’s society.
Malory highlights the growing divergence throughout a number of stories in Le Morte d’Arthur, but in none more clearly than “The Poisoned Apple” (book 18, chapters 1-7). In this vignette, Guinevere is accused by Sir Mador of poisoning Sir Patrice, his cousin. Mador demands justice: Either the queen is to be executed, or her champion must defeat Mador in battle. Arthur cannot fight, as he is to sit in judgment of the case, and Lancelot is not at court. Clearly this is a matter of honor—the king’s lady is to be shamed, bringing dishonor on the entire court—and yet all of the knights present at court suspect Guinevere and refuse to fight in her behalf. In desperation, Arthur and Guinevere send for Sir Bors. They appeal to him to champion the queen not because she is to be shamed, and through her the court, but rather because he has an obligation to uphold the honor of his kinsman Lancelot, who no doubt would fight for the queen were he at court.
Bors tells Arthur he will fight “for my Lord Luancelot’s sake, and for your sake.” Bors then appeals to other knights, claiming that “it were great shame to us all” should the wife of Arthur be “shamed openly”; he is rebuked by many who, while acknowledging their respect for the king, have no love for Guinevere because she is a “destroyer of good knights.” Though Lancelot eventually arrives in time to fight for Guinevere and save her from this charge, of which she is innocent, the implication here—borne out later in Le Morte d’Arthur—is that the prowess that wins honor may also allow one to win when the cause for which one is fighting is on the wrong side of justice; it might may indeed prevail for evil instead of goodness.
This sad fact is brought home to the reader in Malory’s account of Lancelot’s battles for the queen when she is accused of adultery. Lancelot is forced to come to Guinevere’s rescue, even at the expense of creating strife within Arthur’s realm, because his honor is at stake. “Whether ye did right or wrong,” Bors advises him, “it is now your part to hold with the queen, that she be not slainfor and she so die the shame shall be yours.” In the final chapters of Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory presents Lancelot fighting reluctantly against truth to preserve his honor. Arthur, too, fights reluctantly, even though he is on the side of truth, for he would rather preserve his noble society of knights than save his queen, and he appears willing to be cuckolded rather than have the Round Table destroyed by internal strife.
The clear dichotomy between knightly and Christian virtues is made evident at several points in Le Morte d’Arthur, but Malory makes his most forceful statement about the problem in “The Maid of Astolat” (book 18, chapters 9-20). Lancelot, fighting in disguise against his own kinsmen and the other knights of the Round Table, is wounded and taken to a hermitage to heal. The hermit attending him asks who this knight is, and when he learns it is one who fought against Arthur, remarks, I have seen the dayI would have loved him the worse because he was against my lord, King Arthur, for sometime I was one of the fellowship of the Round Table, but I thank God now I am otherwise disposed.
The hermit has renounced his former calling, perhaps because he has seen where the path of honor leads and has adopted a new path and a new Lord. Lancelot, who recovers from his wound while at the hermitage, comes to a momentary realization of his folly and bitterly acknowledges that his “pride” has led to his being thrown into this lowly condition. Only much later, however, does he abandon the pursuit of honor through the chivalric code, and by then Arthur is dead, Guinevere has entered a nunnery, and the kingdom is in ruins. The sense that one gets from reading Malory’s account of the last days of Arthur’s realm is that even the most chivalric society is doomed to failure, and that humanity’s only hope lies in adopting values and goals that transcend worldly ideals.
What, then, has Malory accomplished in telling this tale? In the strife that tears Arthur’s kingdom apart, fifteenth century readers saw mirrored their own griefs over the demise of feudal England, ravaged by the bloody struggle for the English throne that became known as the Wars of the Roses. Le Morte d’Arthur offered these readers faith, in a curious way, because in his work Malory has shown that, despite the collapse of an ideal society, lives and societies continue.
Even in their failures, the characters of Le Morte d’Arthur appear as larger-than-life personages who speak to the reader of the potential greatness of humankind. If honor can somehow be wedded to goodness, if the public virtues that gave the knights their sense of purpose can be married to the private virtues that cause people to rise above societal bonds when necessary, the ideal society can be created. To his contemporary readers, Malory’s story no doubt offered this note of special hope. Thus, Le Morte d’Arthur speaks to not only its fifteenth century readers but also, through the story of Arthur and his knights, all peoples of all nations and times of the possibility of greatness, the inevitability of failure, and the glory that humankind achieves by striving for the impossible.