Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – the novel
Le Morte D’Arthur is the first true novel written in English. A moving tale of love and betrayal, and quests inspired by noble ideals amidst the turmoil of an age on the threshold of profound change, the essence of Sir Thomas Malory’s timeless masterpiece has remained firmly in the imagination of successive generations. This monumental work of fiction deserves not only to grace the bookshelf of every lover of literature but to be read and appreciated from cover to cover.
Le Morte d’Arthur in context: Arthurian legend
In the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, Arthurian Legend is flourishing more than ever, after over a thousand years of development in literature and in our collective imagination. Whatever the factual origins of King Arthur (if any), he and the Knights of Camelot passed into popular legend from the early Middle Ages. And as the field of European literature developed – British and French, especially – so did versions and variations on the Arthurian tale, proliferating both in books and in poetry. Today, Arthurian legend is understood for what it is – just legend – and King Arthur and his knights are enjoyed as imaginary figures rather than ones based on historical fact.
The romantic concepts of chivalry and heroic quest, in an age of religious purity and secular glory, provided a perfect platform for writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and the poets Wace, Chrétien de Troyes, and Layamon. In the French court – the most powerful in Europe at the time – King Arthur’s popularity was intense, and the French felt an empathy for Arthur perhaps because, even though a Briton, he was regarded as a fellow Celt and was seen as a powerful metaphor for defiance against the invading Saxon hordes. In Britain, King Arthur’s development from his mystic origins into a patriotic symbol grew stronger, especially after the publication of the (English) poet Layamon’s translation of (the French poet) Wace’s version of Arthur as a historical figure, which itself was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “The History of the Kings of Britain” (‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, c.1135).
So the Arthurian Legend continued to grow, spurred on by popular sentiment and imagination on both sides of the Channel, but it was works such as ‘Le Conte del Graal’ (Chrétien de Troyes, in France, c.1191) – marking the first appearance of the Holy Grail (the Sangreal) and the Grail King – and the ‘Vulgate Cycle’ (c.1215 – 1235) – highlighting the importance of Sir Lancelot and his love for Queen Guinevere as the ultimate cause of the downfall of Camelot – that provided the starting point for most future versions of Arthurian Legend.
By the beginning of the 13th Century, the myths surrounding Arthur and his Knights were becoming considerably expanded by writers and poets who adopted the theme of Arthurian Legend to elaborate issues the the day. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were also linked to actual locations such as Glastonbury and Tintagel, and a connection with the Holy Land and the Crusades interwove the concepts of a rescue of the Grail with that of purge of the “heathen occupation” of Jerusalem – a sort of divine justification for the barbarism of the Crusades. Thus, Arthurian Legend was adapted by the mood of the time into propaganda for the preservation of Christianity, and Arthur was transformed from Celtic warlord into a true Christian hero (not to mention the fact that any historical basis for the life of an English King called Arthur was probably obscured for all time).
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did Arthurian Legend, and over the centuries, poets and writers gave new or comparatively minor characters Arthurian tales of their own. The King Arthur concept was also adapted to fit localised issues and literary styles, and in the process was diluted, and lost some of it’s original “high romance”. This apparently appealed to Geoffrey Chaucer, who remarked in The Canterbury Tales something to the effect that stories and poems about Sir Lancelot had become little more than romantic fantasies for the titillation of court ladies.
Le Morte d’Arthur
The Noble and Joyous Book entitled:
LE MORTE D’ARTHUR
Notwithstanding it treateth of the birth, life, and acts of the said King Arthur, of his noble Knights of the round table, their marvelous inquests, and adventures, the achieving of the sangreal, and in the end, the dolorous and departing out of this world of them all, which book, reduced to English by:
Sir Thomas Malory Knight
The Arthurian Legend which today towers above all others is enshrined in Le Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory and completed in 1470. This epic story, culminating with the death of King Arthur, is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s much earlier one, but Malory introduces elements already popularised by the Romance-writers, and brings in other Arthur-related stories from elsewhere on the continent. So for the first time, ‘The Sword in the Stone’, ‘The Round Table’, ‘The Quest of the Holy Grail’, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the tale of Tristram and Iseult (the most romantic of all that Malory tells, and a prelude to the final tragedy of King Arthur), are all brought into one more-or-less coherent single narrative.
Thomas Malory was, by all accounts, a rogue, as well as a (now) distinguished author. His rampant criminality (cattle rustling, ambush with intent to murder, robbery, extortion, rape, insulting an Abbot, etc) is why he spent significant parts of his life in prison, and were it not for the length of his final prison term we may not have Le Morte d’Arthur at all, because it was then, in prison, that he wrote its 507 chapters and more than 300,000 words.
Malory originally wrote Le Morte d’Arthur as eight books, or “tales”.
In brief, the first tale tells of Merlin (the wizard) arranging for Uther Pendragon’s seduction and marriage to Igraine, leading to the birth of Arthur, his fosterage, his pulling out of The Sword of the Stone, and his crowning. The second deals with the establishment of the Round Table and the invasion of France and Rome – Arthur the Emperor, in heroic mode. The third tale largely concerns Lancelot, who deals with Méléagant’s (or Meliagaunce) threat to Arthur’s world, and proves his devotion to Guinevere. The fourth tale is of Gareth, Gawaint’s brother, and is supposedly based on a lost English poem. The fifth tale is about Tristram and Iseult, and originates outside the world of King Arthur and his Knights. The sixth tale is about the “coming of the Grail” – in his version of the Sangreal, Malory adapts the Christian mysticism of the French ‘Quest del Saint Graal’ and inflates the importance of Lancelot, who is recognised as a Grail Knight. The seventh tale is the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere, and is largely based on the French ‘Mort Artu’. It foreshadows the final destruction of the “Arthurian fellowship”. The last and eighth tale concerns the discovery of Lancelot and Guinevere’s ongoing adultery, the battle between Modred and Arthur, and Arthur’s ultimate death.
Whilst consistency and harmony aren’t always prevalent in Malory’s epic work, he nonetheless provides a basic vessel within which a body of other related concepts and tales are fairly well contained, and could be superficially characterised like this:
The central figure was King Arthur, a noble hero around whom were gathered the equally noble Knights of the Round Table – the most valorous Knights (including the sinner-hero Lancelot) in history – and the fair ladies of Camelot, worthy of the highest acts of chivalry. The Knights variously performed great deeds and embarked on a number of virtuous and romantic “quests”, including the supreme ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’. King Arthur was a figure of enigma whose life had a mysterious beginning and a mysterious end. His guardian and advisor in the early days of his kingdom was Merlin the wizard, whose predictions continued to influence the course of the story. King Arthur fought many battles but was ultimately betrayed by those close to him: his sister, son, wife, and friend, causing his inevitable downfall at his last great battle.
Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was printed by the ‘father of British printing’, William Caxton in 1485. He divided Malory’s eight books into twenty-one, and wrote a preface to the story. If you don’t feel like reading and making sense of 300,000 words written in Middle-English, you can instead read a summary of Le Morte d’Arthur.
Who was Sir Thomas Malory?
Discussion over exactly who was the author of Le Morte d’Arthur continues amongst scholars and academics. What is clear is that the author was a member of the English gentry and that the work was largely written whilst he was encarcerated. An excellent and convincing bibliographical note was written by the 20th Century literary historian A.W. Pollard [ from which ]:
“The Morte Darthur was finished, as the epilogue tells us, in the ninth year of Edward IV., i.e. between March 4, 1469 and the same date in 1470. It is thus, fitly enough, the last important English book written before the introduction of printing into this country, and since no manuscript of it has come down to us it is also the first English classic for our knowledge of which we are entirely dependent on a printed text. Caxton’s story of how the book was brought to him and he was induced to print it may be read … in his own preface. From this we learn also that he was not only the printer of the book, but to some extent its editor also, dividing Malory’s work into twenty-one books, splitting up the books into chapters, by no means skilfully, and supplying the ‘Rubrish’ or chapter-headings. It may be added that Caxton’s preface contains, moreover, a brief criticism which, on the points on which it touches, is still the soundest and most sympathetic that has been written.
“Caxton finished his edition the last day of July 1485, some fifteen or sixteen years after Malory wrote his epilogue. It is clear that the author was then dead, or the printer would not have acted as a clumsy editor to the book, and recent discoveries (if bibliography may, for the moment, enlarge its bounds to mention such matters) have revealed with tolerable certainty when Malory died and who he was. In letters to The Athenaeum in July 1896 Mr. T. Williams pointed out that the name of a Sir Thomas Malorie occurred among those of a number of other Lancastrians excluded from a general pardon granted by Edward IV. in 1468, and that a William Mallerye was mentioned in the same year as taking part in a Lancastrian rising. In September 1897, again, in another letter to the same paper, Mr. A. T. Martin reported the finding of the will of a Thomas Malory of Papworth, a hundred partly in Cambridgeshire, partly in Hunts. This will was made on September 16, 1469, and as it was proved the 27th of the next month the testator must have been in immediate expectation of death. It contains the most careful provision for the education and starting in life of a family of three daughters and seven sons, of whom the youngest seems to have been still an infant. We cannot say with certainty that this Thomas Malory, whose last thoughts were so busy for his children, was our author, or that the Lancastrian knight discovered by Mr. Williams was identical with either or both, but such evidence as the Morte Darthur offers favours such a belief. There is not only the epilogue with its petition, “pray for me while I am alive that God send me good deliverance and when I am dead pray you all for my soul,” but this very request is foreshadowed at the end of chap. 37 of Book ix. in the touching passage, surely inspired by personal experience, as to the sickness “that is the greatest pain a prisoner may have”; and the reflections on English fickleness in the first chapter of Book xxi., though the Wars of the Roses might have inspired them in any one, come most naturally from an author who was a Lancastrian knight.
“If the Morte Darthur was really written in prison and by a prisoner distressed by ill-health as well as by lack of liberty, surely no task was ever better devised to while away weary hours. Leaving abundant scope for originality in selection, modification, and arrangement, as a compilation and translation it had in it that mechanical element which adds the touch of restfulness to literary work. No original, it is said, has yet been found for Book vii., and it is possible that none will ever be forthcoming for chap. 20 of Book xviii., which describes the arrival of the body of the Fair Maiden of Astolat at Arthur’s court, or for chap. 25 of the same book, with its discourse on true love; but the great bulk of the work has been traced chapter by chapter to the ‘Merlin’ of Robert de Borron and his successors, … the English metrical romance La Morte Arthur of the Thornton manuscript, … the French romances of Tristan … and of Launcelot, … and lastly to the English prose Morte Arthur of Harley … As to Malory’s choice of his authorities critics have not failed to point out that now and again he gives a worse version where a better has come down to us… But of the skill, approaching to original genius, with which he used the books from which he worked there is little dispute.
“Malory died leaving his work obviously unrevised, and in this condition it was brought to Caxton, who prepared it for the press with his usual enthusiasm in the cause of good literature, and also, it must be added, with his usual carelessness. New chapters are sometimes made to begin in the middle of a sentence, and in addition to simple misprints there are numerous passages in which it is impossible to believe that we have the text as Malory intended it to stand. After Caxton’s edition Malory’s manuscript must have disappeared, and subsequent editions are differentiated only by the degree of closeness with which they follow the first. Editions appeared printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 and 1529, by William Copland in 1559, by Thomas East about 1585, and by Thomas Stansby in 1634, each printer apparently taking the text of his immediate predecessor and reproducing it with modifications. Stansby’s edition served for reprints in 1816 and 1856 (the latter edited by Thomas Wright); but in 1817 an edition supervised by Robert Southey went back to Caxton’s text, though to a copy (only two are extant, and only one perfect!) in which eleven leaves were supplied from Wynkyn de Worde’s reprint. In 1868 Sir Edward Strachey produced for the present publishers a reprint of Southey’s text in modern spelling, with the substitution of current words for those now obsolete, and the softening of a handful of passages likely, he thought, to prevent the book being placed in the hands of boys. In 1889 a boon was conferred on scholars by the publication of Dr. H. Oskar Sommer’s page-for-page reprint of Caxton’s text, with an elaborate discussion of Malory’s sources. Dr. Sommer’s edition was used by Sir E. Strachey to revise his Globe text, and in 1897 Mr. Israel Gollancz produced for the ‘Temple Classics’, a very pretty edition in which Sir Edward Strachey’s principles of modernisation in spelling and punctuation were adopted, but with the restoration of obsolete words and omitted phrases. As to the present edition, Sir Edward Strachey altered with so sparing a hand that on many pages differences between his version and that here printed will be looked for in vain; but the most anxious care has been taken to produce a text modernised as to its spelling, but in other respects in accurate accordance with Caxton’s text, as represented by Dr Sommer’s reprint. Obvious misprints have been silently corrected, but in a few cases notes show where emendations have been introduced from Wynkyn de Worde – not that Wynkyn had any more right to emend Caxton than we, but because even a printer’s conjecture gains a little sanctity after four centuries. The restoration of obsolete words has necessitated a much fuller glossary, and the index of names has therefore been separated from it and enlarged. In its present form the index is the work of Mr. Henry Littlehales.”