Le Morte d'Arthur (originally spelled Le Morte Darthur, Middle French for "The Death of Arthur") is a reworking by Sir Thomas Malory of existing tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Malory interpreted existing French and English stories about these figures and added 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 (The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table), but after Malory's death the publisher changed the title to that commonly known today, which originally only referred to the final volume of the 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 edition was considered the earliest known text of Le Morte d'Arthur and that closest to Malory's translation and compilation. Modern editions are inevitably variable, changing spelling, grammar and pronouns for the convenience of readers of modern English. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source.
|Le Morte d'Arthur|
Cover of Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume I
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 the publisher William 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, England.
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 included that of the attempted murder of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham, an accusation of at least two rapes, 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 the Marshalsea prison and then in Colchester, escaping on multiple occasions. In 1461 he was granted a pardon by King Henry VI, returning to live at his estate. Although originally allied to the House of York, after his release Malory changed his allegiance to the House of Lancaster. This led to him being imprisoned yet again in 1468 when he led an ill-fated plot to overthrow King 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 13th-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."
Malory called the full work The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and 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. The Middle English of Le Morte d'Arthur is much closer to Early Modern English than the Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. If the spelling is modernized, it reads almost like Elizabethan English. The publication of Chaucer's work by 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 15th century, Le Morte d'Arthur was highly influenced by French writings, but Malory blends these with other English verse and prose forms. Caxton separated Malory's eight books into 21 books; subdivided the books into a total of 507 chapters; added a summary of each chapter and added a colophon to the entire book.
The first printing of Malory's work was made by William 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 editions 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.
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 edition.
Malory scholar Eugène Vinaver examined the manuscript shortly after its discovery. Oakeshott was encouraged to produce an edition 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 edition "was already subdivided into books and sections." Vinaver made an exhaustive comparison of the manuscript with Caxton's edition and reached similar conclusions. In his 1947 publication of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, he argued that Malory wrote not a single book, but rather a series of Arthurian tales, each of which is an internally consistent and independent work. However, 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.
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 manuscript is believed to be closer on the whole to Malory's original and does not have the book and chapter divisions for which Caxton takes credit in his preface. The 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."
Most of the events in the book take place in Britain and France at an unspecified time (the historical events on which the Arthurian 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 plot ventures farther afield, to Rome and Sarras, and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Near East. 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. Malory's eight (originally nine) main books are:
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 befitting the story's scale and grandeur. The stories then become episodes instead of instances that can stand on their own. As noted by Ian Scott-Kilvert, the forms of romantic characters used in order to create the world of Arthur and his knight "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 Britain when he removes the fated sword from the stone. Arthur goes on to win many battles against rivals and rebels due to his military prowess and the prophetic and magical counsel of Merlin (later replaced by Nimue), further helped by the sword Excalibur.
The first book also tells "The Tale of Balyn and Balan", of the treason of Arthur's sister Morgan le Fay, and of the begetting of Mordred, Arthur's incestuous son by one of his other sisters, Morgause (though Arthur did not know her as his sister). On Merlin's advice, Arthur takes every newborn boy in his kingdom and all but Mordred, who miraculously survives and eventually indeed kills his father, perish at sea (this is mentioned matter-of-fact, with no apparent moral overtone). Arthur marries Guinevere, and inherits the Round Table from her father Leodegrance. He then gathers his chief knights, including some of his former enemies, at Camelot and establishes the Round Table fellowship as all swear to the Pentecostal Oath as a guide for knightly conduct.
In this first book, Malory addresses 15th-century preoccupations with legitimacy and societal unrest, which will appear throughout the rest of the work. According to Helen Cooper in Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'arthur - The Winchester Manuscript, the prose style, which mimics historical documents of the time, lends an air of authority to the whole work. This allowed contemporaries to read the book as a history rather than as a work of fiction, therefore making it a model of order for Malory's violent and chaotic times during the Wars of the Roses. Malory's concern with legitimacy reflects the concerns of 15th-century England, where many were claiming their rights to power through violence and bloodshed.
This book, detailing Arthur's march on Rome, is based mostly on the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, which in turn was 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 and his knights including Gawain have proven themselves through a series of battles and quests.
Seeking more glory, Arthur and his knights then go to the war against (fictitious) Emperor Lucius who demanded Britain to resume paying tribute. After defeating the Romans and killing Lucius, Arthur is crowned a Roman emperor but instead returns to Britain.
In this tale, based on the French Prose Lancelot, Malory establishes Sir Lancelot as King Arthur's most revered knight through numerous episodic adventures. Lancelot always adheres to the Pentecostal Oath, assisting ladies in distress and giving mercy for honorable enemies he has defeated in battle. However, the world Lancelot lives in is too complicated for simple mandates and, although Lancelot aspires to live by an ethical code, the actions of others make it difficult.
Other issues are demonstrated when Morgan le Fay enchants Lancelot, which reflects a feminization of magic, and in how the tournament fighting in this tale indicates a shift away from warfare towards a more mediated and virtuous form of violence. Malory also attempts to shift the focus of courtly love from adultery to service by having Lancelot admit to doing everything he does for Guinevere, but never admit to having an adulterous relationship with her.
A short part that primarily deals with the adventures of the young Sir Gareth in his chivalric quest for Lynette and Lioness.
The tales of Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, Sir Dinadan, Sir Palamedes, Sir Alexander the Orphan, "La Cote de Male Tayle", 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.
Tristan is the namesake of the book and his adulterous relationship with the Belle Isolde, his uncle King Mark's wife, is one of the focuses of the section. Various knights, even those of the Round Table, make requests that show the dark side of the world of chivalry. It also includes the story of Lancelot fathering Sir Galahad by Elaine of Corbenic.
Malory's primary source for this long part was the French La Queste del Saint Graal. Malory's version chronicles the adventures of many knights in their quest to achieve the Holy Grail, which first miraculously appears to them at the Round Table. Gawain is the first to embark on the quest for the Grail. Other knights like Lancelot, Percival, and Bors, likewise undergo the quest, eventually achieved by Galahad. Their exploits are intermingled with encounters with maidens and hermits who offer advice and interpret dreams along the way.
After the confusion of the secular moral code he manifested within the previous book, Malory attempts to construct a new mode of chivalry by placing an emphasis on religion. Christianity and the Church offer a venue through which the Pentecostal Oath can be upheld, whereas the strict moral code imposed by religion foreshadows almost certain failure on the part of the knights. For example, Gawain is often dubbed a secular knight, as he refuses to do penance for his sins, claiming the tribulations that coexist with knighthood as a sort of secular penance. Likewise, Lancelot, for all his sincerity, is unable to completely escape his adulterous love of Guinevere, and is thus destined to fail where Galahad will succeed. This coincides with the personification of perfection in the form of Galahad. Because Galahad is the only knight who lives entirely without sin, this leaves both the audience and the other knights with a model of perfection that seemingly cannot be emulated either through chivalry.
The book is dedicated to the story of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere's adulterous romance, including his rescue of her from the abduction by Maleagant.
Writing this part, Malory used the version of Arthur's death originating from the French Mort Artu. Mordred and Agravaine finally reveal Guinevere's adultery and Arthur sentences her to burn. Lancelot's rescue party raids the execution, killing many knights including Gawain's brothers Gareth and Gaheris. Gawain, bent on revenge, prompts Arthur into a war with Lancelot. After they leave to pursue Lancelot in France, Mordred seizes the throne and takes control of Arthur's kingdom.
At the bloody Battle of Camlann between Mordred's and Arthur's loyalists, Arthur kills Mordred but is himself mortally injured. As Arthur is dying, the lone survivor Bedivere casts away Excalibur and a barge carrying Morgan and Nimue appears to take Arthur to Avalon.
After the passing of King Arthur, Malory provides a denouement, mostly following the lives (and deaths) of Bedivere, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Lancelot's kinsmen. Arthur's appointed successor is Constantine, son of King Carados of Scotland, and the realm that Arthur created is significantly changed.
The year 1816 saw a new edition by Walker and Edwards, and another one by R. Wilks, both based on the 1634 Stansby edition. Thomas Davison's 1817 edition was promoted by Robert Southey and was based on Caxton's 1485 edition or on a mixture of Caxton and Stansby; Davison was the basis for subsequent editions until the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript. Modernized editions update the late Middle English spelling, update some pronouns, and re-punctuate and re-paragraph 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:
There have been many modern republications, retellings and adaptations of Le Morte d'Arthur, some of them listed below. (See also the following Bibliography section.)
Accolon is a knight character in Arthurian legends. He appears in French romances and Le Morte d'Arthur, and in subsequent modern works based on the Arthurian cycle.Astolat
Astolat () is a legendary city of Great Britain named in Arthurian legends. It is the home of Elaine, "the lily maid of Astolat", and of her father Sir Bernard and her brothers Lavaine and Tirre.
The city is called Shalott in many cultural references, derived from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott". It is also named Ascolat in the Winchester Manuscript and Escalot in the French Arthurian romances.
Chapter nine of Sir Thomas Malory's book Le Morte d'Arthur identifies Guildford in Surrey with the legendary Astolat:
And so upon the morn early Sir Launcelot heard mass and brake his fast, and so took his leave of the queen and departed. And then he rode so much until he came to Astolat, that is Guildford; and there it happed him in the eventide he came to an old baron’s place.Chapel perilous
The term chapel perilous first appeared in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) as the setting for an adventure in which sorceress Hellawes unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Sir Lancelot. T. S. Eliot used it symbolically in The Waste Land (1922). Dorothy Hewett took The Chapel Perilous as the title for her autobiographical play, in which she uses "the framework of the Arthurian legend, Sir Lancelot, to create a theatrical quest of romantic and epic proportions."Corbenic
Corbenic (Carbonek, Carboneck, Corbin) is the name of the Grail castle, the edifice housing the Holy Grail in the Arthurian literary tradition. It first appears by that name in the 13th-century Lancelot-Grail Cycle and figures in Thomas Malory's 15th-century Le Morte d'Arthur. It is the domain of the Fisher King and the birthplace of Galahad.
In Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail (c. 1190), one of the first works to mention the Grail, the Grail castle is described somewhat differently than in later literature, and is given no name. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (ca. 1210s), based on Chrétien, the Grail castle's name is Munsalväsche (rendering Monsalvat, in medieval tradition associated with the name of Montserrat in Catalonia).Dinadan
Sir Dinadan (Dinadam, Dinadano, Dinadeira, Divdan, Dynadan) is a Knight of the Round Table in the Arthurian legend's chivalric romance tradition. He is the son of Sir Brunor senior (the Good Knight without Fear), a brother of Sirs Breunor le Noir and Daniel, and a close friend of Sir Tristan.Dolorous Stroke
The Dolorous Stroke is a trope in Arthurian legend and some other stories of Celtic origin.
In its fullest form, it concerns the Fisher King (King Pellehan or Anfortas), the guardian of the Holy Grail, who falls into sin and consequently suffers a wound from a mystical weapon (often the Spear of Destiny from Christian eschatology). He becomes the Maimed King, and his kingdom suffers similarly, becoming the Wasteland: neither will be healed until the successful completion of the Grail Quest.
The stroke is usually described as being to the king's thighs: this has been taken as a euphemism for the genitals, which are explicitly stated to be the location of Anfortas's wound in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. In the Post-Vulgate Cycle, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and later works based on those, the stroke is delivered by Sir Balin, a knight of the Round Table. He ignores an "unearthly voice" warning him off and strikes the king when he is deprived of his weapon and thinks his stroke is 'justified'.Elaine of Astolat
Elaine of Astolat (), also known as Elayne of Ascolat and other variants of the name, is a figure in Arthurian legend. She is a lady from the castle of Astolat who dies of her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot. Well-known versions of her story appear in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, as well as in Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott".Gareth
Sir Gareth [ˈɡarɛθ] (Old French: Guerrehet) is a Knight of the Round Table in Arthurian legend, nicknamed "Beaumains" in Le Morte d'Arthur. He was the youngest son of King Lot and Morgause, King Arthur's half-sister, thus making him Arthur's nephew, as well as brother to Gawain, Agravain, and Gaheris, and either a brother or half-brother of Mordred.Griflet
Sir Griflet , also called Giflet, Girflet or Jaufre, is a Knight of the Round Table in Arthurian legend. He is called the son of Do or Don, and he is cousin to Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere. Like many another character in Arthurian Romance, his origins lie in Welsh mythology - in this instance in the minor deity Gilfaethwy fab Dôn, who features in Math fab Mathonwy, fourth of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.
Griflet first appears as a squire and one of King Arthur's earliest allies. When he is knighted he becomes one of the first Knights of the Round Table. He is one of Arthur's chief advisors throughout his career, and according to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, he was one of the Battle of Camlann's few survivors, and is the knight Arthur asked to return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. (In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, however, Griflet is one of the knights killed defending Guinevere's execution when the queen is rescued by Lancelot; Malory follows the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, making Bedivere the knight who casts Excalibur into the lake.) Griflet is the hero of his own romance, Jaufré, the only surviving Arthurian romance written in Provençal.Hellawes (sorceress)
Hellawes the Sorceress is a character in Thomas Malory's 15th-century compilation of Arthurian legends Le Morte d'Arthur. She is lady of the Castle Nygurmous ("of necromancy"), associated with the chapel perilous in one of the quests of Lancelot.Knights of the Round Table
The Knights of the Round Table were the knightly members of the legendary fellowship of the King Arthur in the literary cycle of the Matter of Britain, in which the first written record of them appears in the Roman de Brut written by the Norman poet Wace in 1155. In the legend, the Knights are an order in the service of Arthur, tasked with ensuring the peace of the kingdom and sometimes also charged with leading the quest for the Holy Grail. The Round Table at which they met was created to have no head or foot, representing the equality of all the members. Different stories presented different numbers of the Knights, ranging from only 12 to as many as 150 or more.Lady of the Lake
The Lady of the Lake is an enchantress in the Matter of Britain, the body of medieval literature and legend associated with King Arthur. She plays a pivotal role in many stories, including giving Arthur his sword Excalibur, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. Different writers and copyists give the Arthurian character the name Nimue, Nymue, Nimueh, Viviane, Vivien, Vivienne, Niniane, Ninniane, Ninianne, Niviene, Nyneve or Nineve, among other variations. At least two different sorceresses bearing the title "the Lady of the Lake" appear as separate characters in some versions and adaptations since the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Le Morte d'Arthur.List of Arthurian characters
The Arthurian legend features many characters, including the Knights of the Round Table and members of King Arthur's family. Their names often differ from version to version and from language to language. The following is a list of characters with descriptions.
The symbol indicates a Knight of the Round Table.Lynette and Lyonesse
In some versions of Arthurian legend, Lynette (alternatively known as Linnet, Linette, Lynet, Lynette, Lyonet) is a haughty noble lady who travels to King Arthur's court seeking help for her beautiful sister Lyonesse (also Linesse, Lioness, Lionesse, Lyones, Lyonorr, Lyonors), whose lands are besieged by the Red Knight. The young Gareth picks up the quest, eventually marrying Lyonesse, while Lynette becomes the lady of his brother Gaheris.Merlin (series 1)
The first series of Merlin, a British fantasy television series, began on 20 September 2008 and ended on 13 December 2008. Regular cast members for the first series include Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, Anthony Head, Richard Wilson, and John Hurt as the voice of the Great Dragon. The first series contained thirteen episodes, with 7.15 million tuning into the premier and 6.27 for the series finale. It was the only series to be comprised completely of stand-alone episodes. Before the series finale, the BBC confirmed that the series was renewed for a further 13 episode second series. Series two premiered on 19 September 2009.Morgause
Morgause , also known as Morgawse and other spellings and names, is a character in later Arthurian traditions. In some versions of the legend, including Thomas Malory's 15th-century text Le Morte d'Arthur, she is the mother of Gawain and Mordred, both key players in the story of King Arthur and his downfall. Mordred is the offspring of Arthur's inadvertent incest with Morgause, the king's estranged half-sister. She is furthermore a sister of Morgan le Fay and the wife of King Lot of Orkney, as well as the mother of also Gareth, Agravain, and Gaheris, the last of whom murders her.Pentecostal Oath
The Pentecostal Oath was an oath which the Knights of King Arthur's Round Table swore, according to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. It embodied the code of Chivalry.
According to Malory's text:
« The king stablished all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost. »— Le Morte d'Arthur, Book III, Chapter XVRed Knight
Red Knight is a title borne by several characters in Arthurian legend.Thomas Malory
Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1415 – 14 March 1471) was an English writer, the author or compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur (originally titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table). Since the late 19th century, he has generally been identified as Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. Occasionally, other candidates are put forward for authorship of Le Morte d'Arthur.