Cover of Le Morte d'Arthur, circa 1906.
|Author||Sir Thomas Malory|
Le Morte d'Arthur (originally spelled Le Morte Darthur, Middle French for "the death of Arthur") is a reworking of existing tales by Sir Thomas Malory about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Malory interprets existing French and English stories about these figures and adds original material (e.g., the Gareth story).
Malory's actual title for the work was The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table, but after Malory's death the publisher changed the title to what is commonly known today. "The Death of King Arthur" originally only referred to the final volume in the complete work.
Le Morte d'Arthur was first published in 1485 by William Caxton and is today one of the best-known works of Arthurian literature in English. Until the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript in 1934, the 1485 ion was considered the earliest known text of Le Morte d'Arthur and that closest to Malory's translation and compilation. Various modern ions are inevitably variable, changing a variety of spelling, grammar, and/or pronouns for the convenience of readers of modern English. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source, including T. H. White in his The Once and Future King and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in The Idylls of the King.
The exact identity of the author of Le Morte D'Arthur has long been the subject of speculation, owing to the fact that at least six historical figures bore the name of "Sir Thomas Malory" in the late 15th century. In the work the author describes himself as "Knyght presoner Thomas Malleorre" ("Sir Thomas Maleore" according to Caxton). This is taken as supporting evidence for the identification most widely accepted by scholars: that the author was the Thomas Malory born in the year 1416, to Sir John Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire.
Sir Thomas inherited the family estate in 1434, but by 1450 he was fully engaged in a life of crime. As early as 1433 he had been accused of theft, but the more serious allegations against him were that of the attempted murder of the Duke of Buckingham, an accusal of rape at least twice, and that he had attacked and robbed Coombe Abbey. Malory was first arrested and imprisoned in 1451 for the ambush of Buckingham, but was released early in 1452. By March he was back in prison at Marshalsea Prison and then in Colchester, escaping on at least two occasions. In 1461 he was granted a pardon by Henry VI, returning to live at his estate.
Although originally allied to the Yorkists, after his release Malory changed his allegiance to the Lancastrians. This led to him being imprisoned yet again in 1468 when he led an ill-fated plot to overthrow Edward IV. It was during this final stint at Newgate Prison in London that he is believed to have written Le Morte D'Arthur. Malory was released in October, 1470 when Henry VI came to the throne, but died only five months later.
Elizabeth Bryan speaks of Malory's contribution to Arthurian Legend in her introduction to Le Morte D'Arthur: "Malory did not invent the stories in this collection; he translated and compiled them... Malory in fact translated Arthurian stories that already existed in thirteenth-century French prose (the so-called Old French Vulgate romances) and compiled them together with at least one tale from Middle English sources (the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) to create this text."
He called the full work The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, but William Caxton instead titled it with Malory's name for the final section of the cycle. Modernized ions update the late Middle English spelling, update some pronouns, and repunctuate and reparagraph the text. Others furthermore update the phrasing and vocabulary to contemporary Modern English. Here is an example (from Caxton's preface) in Middle English and then in Modern English:
The Middle English of Le Morte D'Arthur is much closer to Early Modern English than the Middle English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. If the spelling is modernized, it reads almost like Elizabethan English.
The first printing of Malory's work was made by Caxton in 1485. Only two copies of this original printing are known to exist, in the collections of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and the John Rylands Library in Manchester. It proved popular and was reprinted in 1498 and 1529 with some additions and changes by Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded Caxton's press. Three more ions were published before the English Civil War: William Copland's (1557), Thomas East's (1585), and William Stansby's (1634), each of which contained additional changes and errors (including the omission of an entire leaf). Thereafter, the book went out of fashion until the Romantic revival of interest in all things medieval; the year 1816 saw a new ion by Walker and Edwards, and another one by Wilks, both based on the 1634 Stansby ion. Davison's 1817 ion was promoted by Robert Southey and was based on Caxton's 1485 ion or on a mixture of Caxton and Stansby. Davison was the basis for subsequent ions until the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript.
Caxton separated Malory's eight books into 21 books; subdivided each book into a total of 507 chapters; added a summary of each chapter and added a colophon to the entire book. Malory's eight tales are:
Most of the events in the book take place in Britain and France at an unspecified time. (The historical events on which the legend is based took place in the late 5th century, but the story contains many anachronisms and makes no effort at historical accuracy.) In some parts, the story ventures farther afield, to Rome and Sarras (near Babylon), and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Near East.
Winchester College headmaster W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of the work in June 1934, during the cataloging of the college's library. Newspaper accounts announced that what Caxton had published in 1485 was not exactly what Malory had written. Oakeshott published "The Finding of the Manuscript" in 1963, chronicling the initial event and his realization that "this indeed was Malory," with "startling evidence of revision" in the Caxton ion. It is hypothesized that Caxton's text and the Winchester manuscript are both derived from an earlier copy. (Having said this, microscopic examination revealed that ink smudges on the Winchester manuscript are offsets of newly printed pages set in Caxton's own font, which indicates that the Winchester Manuscript was in Caxton's print shop.) The "Winchester Manuscript" is believed to be closer on the whole to Malory's original. In addition, it does not have the book and chapter divisions for which Caxton takes cr in his preface.
Malory scholar Eugène Vinaver examined the manuscript shortly after its discovery. Oakeshott was encouraged to produce an ion himself, but he ceded the project to Vinaver. Based on his initial study of the manuscript, Oakeshott concluded in 1935 that the copy from which Caxton printed his ion "was already subdivided into books and sections." Vinaver made an exhaustive comparison of the manuscript with Caxton's ion and reached similar conclusions. In his 1947 publication of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, he argued that Malory did not write a single book, but rather a series of Arthurian tales, each of which is an internally consistent and independent work. However, scholars (including William Matthews) pointed out that Malory's later tales make frequent references back to the earlier events, suggesting that he had wanted the tales to cohere better but had not sufficiently revised the whole text to achieve this.
The Winchester manuscript has been digitised by a Japanese team, who note that "the text is imperfect, as the manuscript lacks the first and last quires and few leaves. The most striking feature of the manuscript is the extensive use of red ink."
The publication of Chaucer's work by William Caxton was a precursor to his publication of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Where the Canterbury Tales are in Middle English, Malory extends "one hand to Chaucer, and one to Spenser" constructing a manuscript which is hard to place in one category. Like other English prose in the fifteenth century, Le Morte D'Arthur was highly influenced by French writings, but Malory blends these with other English verse and prose forms. Although Malory hearkens back to an age of idealized knighthood, jousting tournaments, and grand castles to suggest a medieval world, his stories lack any agricultural life, or commerce which makes the story feel as if it were an era of its own.
Because there is so much lengthy ground to cover, Malory uses "so—and—then," often to transition his retelling. This repetition is not redundant, but adds an air of continuity only befitting the story's scale and grandeur. The stories then become episodes instead of instances that can stand on their own.
There is an artful way in which Malory portrays Arthur by revealing him to us only by how others are affected by his actions. This creates a man whom we cannot define, but still stands as the center of the legend, and lets our mind move from him to the scenes around him.
The themes of love and war "are fundamental to the work of Sir Thomas Malory. Religion—the third of the great epic themes—is admittedly and nobly subordinated; only at the end, Guinevere, in expiation of her guilt in destroying the Round Table, becomes a nun; and Lancelot, for love of her and not for the love of God, takes on himself the habit of perfection." It has been declared that, "Malory recreated an epic story from romance," because of his inclusion of the mysterious and magical elements in a depiction of a world with which Malory's contemporaries are familiar. Through the format of a knightly romance provides, "an idealized version of the life of the knightly class; it is the warrior's daydream, designed for recreation (or "solace"), not instruction (or "doctrine"), and representing the average sensual man's point of view." The forms of romantic characters used in order to create the world of Arthur and the Round Table, "consist almost entirely of fighting men, their wives or mistresses, with an occasional clerk or an enchanter, a fairy or a fiend, a giant or a dwarf," and "time does not work on the heroes of Malory."
Arthur is born to Uther Pendragon and Igraine and then taken by Sir Ector to be fostered in the country. He later becomes the king of a leaderless England when he removes the fated sword from the stone. Arthur goes on to win many battles due to his military prowess and Merlin's counsel. He then consolidates his kingdom.
This first book also tells "The Tale of Balyn and Balan", which ends in accidental fratricide, and the begetting of Mordred, Arthur's incestuous son by his half-sister, Morgause (though Arthur did not know her as his half-sister). On Merlin's advice, and reminiscent of Herod's killing of the innocents in scripture, Arthur takes every newborn boy in his kingdom and sends them to sea in a boat. The boat crashes and all but Mordred, who later kills his father, perish. This is mentioned matter-of-factly, with no apparent moral overtone. Arthur marries Guinevere, and inherits the Round Table from her father Leodegrance. At Pentecost, Arthur gathers his knights at Camelot and establishes the Round Table company. All swear to the Pentecostal Oath as a guide for knightly conduct.
This book, detailing Arthur's march on Rome, is heavily based on the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, which in turn is heavily based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The opening of Book V finds Arthur and his kingdom without an enemy. His throne is secure, his knights have proven themselves through a series of quests, Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristan have arrived and the court is feasting. When envoys from Emperor Lucius of Rome arrive and accuse Arthur of refusing tribute, "contrary to the statutes and decrees made by the noble and worthy Julius Caesar", Arthur and his knights are stirring for a fight. They are "many days rested" and excited, "for now shall we have warre and worshype." Arthur invokes the lineage of Ser Belyne and Sir Bryne, legendary British conquerors of Rome, and through their blood lineage demands tribute from Lucius under the argument that Britain conquered Rome first. Lucius, apprised of the situation by his envoys, raises a heathen army of the East, composed of Spaniards and Saracens, as well as other enemies of the Christian world. Rome is supposed to be the seat of Christianity, but it is more foreign and corrupt than the courts of Arthur and his allies. Departing from Geoffrey of Monmouth's history in which Mordred is left in charge, Malory's Arthur leaves his court in the hands of Sir Constantine of Cornwall and an advisor. Arthur sails to Normandy to meet his cousin Hoel, but he finds a giant terrorizing the people from the holy island of Mont St. Michel. Arthur battles him alone, an act of public relations intended to inspire his knights. The giant dies after Arthur "swappis his genytrottys in sondir" and "kut his baly in sundir, that oute wente the gore". Arthur then fights Lucius and his armies defeat the Romans. He is crowned Emperor, a proxy government is arranged for the Roman Empire and Arthur returns to London where his queen welcomes him royally.
In this tale, Malory establishes Lancelot as King Arthur's most revered knight. Among Lancelot's numerous episodic adventures include being enchanted into a deep sleep by the four sorceresses including Morgan le Fay and Sebile and having to escape from their castle, proving victorious in a tournament fighting on behalf of King Bagdemagus, slaying the mighty Sir Turquine who had been holding several of Arthur's knights prisoner, and also overcoming the betrayal of a damsel to defend himself unarmed against Sir Phelot.
The tale of Sir Gareth begins with his arrival at court as le bel inconnu, or the fair unknown. He comes without a name and therefore without a past. Sir Kay mockingly calls the unknown young man "Beaumains" and treats him with contempt and condescension. An unknown woman, later revealed to be the Dame Lynette, eventually comes to court asking for assistance against the Red Knight of the Red Lands, and Gareth takes up the quest. On his quest, he encounters the Black, Green, Red, and Blue knights and the Red knight of the Red Lands. He kills the Black Knight, incorporates the others into Arthur's court, and rescues Lynette's sister Lyonesse. Lustily in love with Lyonesse, Gareth conspires to consummate their relationship before marrying. Only by the magical intervention of Lynette is their tryst unsuccessful, thus preserving Gareth's virginity and, presumably, his standing with God. Gareth later counsels Lyonesse to report to King Arthur and pretend she doesn't know where he is; instead, he tells her to announce a tournament of his knights against the Round Table. This allows Gareth to disguise himself and win honor by defeating his brother knights. The heralds eventually acknowledge that he is Sir Gareth right as he strikes down Sir Gawain, his brother. The book ends with Gareth rejoining his fellow knights and marrying Lyonesse.
In Book IV, there are only two knights that have ever held against Sir Lancelot in tournament: Tristan and Gareth. This was always under conditions where one or both parties were unknown by the other, for these knights loved each other "passingly well." Gareth was knighted by Lancelot himself when he took upon him the adventure on behalf of Dame Lynette. Much later, Gareth is accidentally slain by his beloved Lancelot when Guinevere is rescued from being burnt at the stake by King Arthur.
In "The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones", Malory tells the tales of Sir Tristan (Trystram), Sir Dinadan, Sir Palamedes, Sir La Cote de Male Tayle, Sir Alexander, and a variety of other knights. Based on the French Prose Tristan, or a lost English adaptation of it, Malory's Tristan section is the literal centerpiece of Le Morte d'Arthur as well as the longest of the eight books.
The book is rife with adultery, characterized most visibly in Sir Tristan and the Belle Isolde. However, it should be noted that Sir Tristan had met and fallen in love with Isolde earlier, and that his uncle, King Mark, jealous of Tristan and seeking to undermine him, appears to seek marriage to Isolde for just such a hateful purpose, going so far as to ask Tristan to go and seek her hand on his behalf (which Tristan, understanding that to be his knightly duty, does). Sir Tristan is the namesake of the book and his adulterous relationship with Isolde, his uncle Mark's wife, is one of the focuses of the section. Other knights, even knights of the Round Table, make requests that show the dark side of the world of chivalry. In one episode, Sir Bleoberis, one of Lancelot's cousins, claims another knight's wife for his own and rides away with her until stopped by Sir Tristan. In another, when Tristan defeats Sir Blamore, another knight of the Round Table, Blamore asks Tristan to kill him because he would rather die than have his reputation tarnished by the defeat.
Of all the knights, Tristan most resembles Lancelot. He loves a queen, the wife of another. Tristan is even considered to be as strong and able a knight as Lancelot, although they become beloved friends. Because of King Mark's treacherous behavior, Tristan takes Isolde from him and lives with her for some time, but he then returns Isolde to him. Nonetheless, Mark kills Tristan while he is "harping" (Tristan is noted in the book as one of the greatest of musicians and falconers).
Malory's primary source for "The Noble Tale of the Sangreal" is the French Vulgate Cycle's La Queste Del Saint Graal. Malory's version chronicles the adventures of numerous knights in their quest to achieve the Holy Grail. The Grail first appears in the hall of King Arthur " with samyte", and it miraculously produces meat and drink for the knights. Gawain is the first to declare that he "shall laboure in the Queste of the Sankgreall". He embarks on the quest in order to see the Grail "more opynly than hit hath bene shewed" before, and to gain more "metys and drynkes". Likewise, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and Galahad undergo the quest. Their exploits are intermingled with encounters with maidens and hermits who offer advice and interpret dreams along the way.
At the beginning of the book "Sir Launcelot and Queene Gwenyvere", Malory tells his readers that the pair started behaving carelessly in public, stating that "Launcelot began to resort unto the Queene Guinevere again and forget the promise and the perfection that he made in the Quest... and so they loved together more hotter than they did beforehand." They indulged in "privy draughts together" and behaved in such a way that "many in the court spoke of it" (Cooper, 402).
This book also includes the "knight of the cart" episode, where Maleagant kidnapped Guinevere and her unarmed knights and held them prisoner in his castle. After Maleagant's archers killed his horse, Launcelot had to ride to the castle in a cart in order to save the queen. Knowing Lancelot was on his way, Maleagant pleaded to Guinevere for mercy, which she granted and then forced Lancelot to stifle his rage against Maleagant.
In this same book Malory mentions Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery. Malory says, "So, to passe upon this tale, Sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the Quene and toke no force of his hurte honed, but toke his plesaunce and hys lyknge untyll hit was the dawning of the day" (Cooper, 633). Sir Maleagant, upon finding blood in Guinevere's bed, was so convinced of her unfaithfulness to Arthur that he was willing to fight in an attempt to prove it to others. After Guinevere made it known that she wanted Maleagant dead, Launcelot killed him even though Maleagant begged for mercy (but only after Maleagant agreed to continue fighting with Lancelot's helmet removed, his left side body armor removed, and his left hand tied behind his back—Lancelot felt it necessary to finish the bout, but would not slay Maleagant unless Maleagant agreed to continue fighting). The book ends with Lancelot's healing of Sir Urry of Hungary, where Malory notes that Lancelot is the only knight out of hundreds to succeed in this endeavor.
Mordred and Agravaine have been scheming to uncover Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery for quite some time. When they find an opportune moment to finally and concretely reveal the adulterous relationship, Lancelot kills Agravaine and several others and escapes. Arthur is forced to sentence Guinevere to burn at the stake, and orders his surviving nephews, Gawain, Mordred, Gareth, and Gaheris, to guard the scene, knowing Lancelot will attempt a rescue. Gawain flatly refuses to be part of any act that will treat the queen shamefully. His younger brothers, Gaheris and Gareth, unable to deny the king's request that they escort Guinevere to the stake to be burnt, advise that they will do so at his command, but they will not arm themselves. When Lancelot's party raids the execution, many knights are killed, including, by accident, Gareth and Gaheris. Gawain, bent on revenge for their deaths, prompts Arthur into a war with Lancelot, first at his castle in northern England. At this point the Pope steps in and issues a bull to end the violence between Arthur's and Lancelot's factions. Shortly thereafter, Arthur pursues Lancelot to his home in France to continue the fight. Gawain twice challenges Lancelot to a duel, but each time loses and asks Lancelot to kill him; Lancelot refuses and grants him mercy before leaving.
Arthur receives a message that Mordred, whom he had left in charge back in Britain, has usurped his throne, and he leads his forces back home. In the invasion Gawain is mortally injured, and writes to Lancelot, asking for his help against Mordred, and for forgiveness for separating the Round Table. In a dream, the departed Gawain tells Arthur to wait thirty days for Lancelot to return to England before fighting Mordred, and Arthur sends Lucan and Bedivere to make a temporary peace treaty. At the exchange, an unnamed knight draws his sword to kill an adder. The other knights construe this as treachery and a declaration of war. Seeing no other recourse, at the Battle of Camlann, Arthur charges Mordred and impales him with a spear. But with the last of his strength, Mordred impales himself even further, so as to come within striking distance of King Arthur, then gives a mortal blow to Arthur's head.
As he was dying, Arthur commands Bedivere to cast Excalibur into the lake. Bedivere initially does not throw the sword in the lake, but instead hides it behind a tree. He confesses his reluctance to Arthur, then returns to the lake and throws in his own sword instead of Excalibur. Bedivere once again relays his disobedience to Arthur, who requests the sword be returned to the lake for a third time. When Bedivere finally throws Excalibur back in the lake, it is retrieved by the hand of the Lady of the Lake. The hand shakes the sword three times and then vanishes back into the water. A barge appears, carrying ladies in black hoods (one being Morgan le Fay), who take Arthur to the Isle of Avalon.
After the passing of King Arthur, Malory provides a denouement, mostly following the lives (and deaths) of Guinevere, Lancelot, and Lancelot's kinsmen. When Lancelot returns to Dover, he mourns the deaths of his comrades. Lancelot travels to Almesbury to see Guinevere. During the civil war, Guinevere is portrayed as a scapegoat for violence without developing her perspective or motivation. However, after Arthur's death, Guinevere retires to a convent in penitence for her infidelity. Her contrition is sincere and permanent; Lancelot is unable to sway her to come away with him. Instead, Lancelot becomes a monk, and is joined in monastic life by his kinsmen. Arthur's successor is appointed (Constantine, son of King Carados of Scotland), and the realm that Arthur created is significantly changed. After the deaths of Guinevere and Lancelot, Sirs Bors, Hector, Blamore, and Bleoberis head to the Holy Land to crusade, where they die on Good Friday.
The Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson retold the legends in the poetry volume Idylls of the King. His work focuses primarily on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the Mabinogion, but with many expansions, additions, and several adaptations, like the fate of Guinevere. In Malory, she is sentenced to be burnt at the stake but is rescued by Lancelot; in the Idylls Guinevere flees to a convent, is forgiven by Arthur, repents, and serves in the convent until she dies.
In 1892, London publisher J. M. Dent & Co. decided to produce an illustrated ion of Le Morte Darthur in modern spelling. They chose a 20-year-old insurance-office clerk and art student, Aubrey Beardsley, to illustrate the work. It was issued in 12 parts between June 1893 and mid-1894, and met with only modest success at the time. However, it has since been described as Beardsley's first masterpiece, launching what has come to be known as the "Beardsley look". It was his first major commission, and included nearly 585 chapter openings, borders, initials, ornaments and full- or double-page illustrations. Most of the Dent ion illustrations were reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, in 1972 under the title Beardsley's Illustrations for Le Morte Darthur. A facsimile of the Beardsley ion, complete with Malory's unabridged text, was published in the 1990s.
In 1880, American poet Sidney Lanier published a much watered-down and expurgated version of Malory's book entitled The Boy's King Arthur. This version was later incorporated into Grosset and Dunlap's series of books called the Illustrated Junior Library, and reprinted under the title King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
A number of other English versions of Le Morte d'Arthur have appeared. The first was published anonymously in 1950; the second by Roger Lancelyn and Richard Lancelyn Green published in 1953, and the third by Emma Gelders Sterne, Barbara Lindsay, Gustaf Tenggren and Mary Pope Osborne, published in 2002. Scholar Keith Baines published a modernized English version of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in 1962. In 2009, scholar Dorsey Armstrong published a Modern English translation that focused on the Winchester manuscript rather than the Caxton ion.
Malory's work served as inspiration for Mark Twain's novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In Twain's work, a reading of the text in modern times is interrupted by a mysterious stranger who claims to be a Yankee who was sent back in time to the Arthurian era.
The Once and Future King by T. H. White is, by far, the best-known and most influential retelling of Malory's story. Not a scene-by-scene rendition, White instead retold the story in his own fashion, in the form of a novel. Just as Malory's retelling stands as the "definitive" and most popular version of Arthur's story, White's version stands out as, to date, the "definitive" retelling of Malory's work.
John Steinbeck utilized the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and other sources as the original text for his The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which he never completed. It was published posthumously in 1976 in unfinished form of The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table. He intended the work for young people.
Other adaptations include Excalibur, a 1981 British epic fantasy film directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman, which retells Le Morte d'Arthur with some changes to the plot and fate of the characters (such as completely replacing Morgause with Morgan, who dies in this version). Castle Freeman, Jr.'s 2008 novel Go with Me is a modern retelling of the Tale of Sir Gareth.
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