Sir Thomas Malory’s prose achieves the impression of simplicity, while comprising words beautifully arranged. His narrative has the quality of realism, even in his most fanciful scenes. He is also a master of naturalistic dialogue. For these reasons, he serves as the model for later writers of English prose, his work behind only, perhaps, the King James version of the Bible.
Malory presents himself as a translator of the French Arthurian romances. A chief source for his own writing might have been the twelfth century romances of Chrétien de Troyes, who introduced the separate legend of the Holy Grail into the Arthurian tales. The French romancers also contributed the concept of courtly love. In short, the Arthurian legend had been growing and evolving for centuries before Malory sat down to write Le Morte d’Arthur.
The historical Arthur, if he had existed, is said to have been a Celtic chieftain named Artorius who resisted the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the early sixth century. One contemporary historian describes a great British victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) around 500, but he makes no mention of Artorius. In the ninth century, Nennius places the battle somewhat later (516) and states that a person named Arthur had commanded against the invaders. By the next century, Arthur’s legend had grown considerably. In the twelfth century, Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136; History of the Kings of Britain, 1718), a work that makes Arthur into a great romantic figure. Geoffrey’s Anglo-French translator first mentions the Round Table, and soon Arthurian tales were appearing in Old French.
In Merlin, an early thirteenth century verse romance, a version is introduced wherein Arthur wins his crown by drawing a magic sword from a stone. By Malory’s day, Arthur and his knights are medieval heroes projected back into an ancient Britain. In 2004, the film King Arthur makes Arthur the leader of a warrior band in the time of the Roman occupation, and Guinevere is a fighting Celtic princess who paints her body before battle. Malory’s Knights of the Round Table are so fixed in the reading public’s imagination, however, that such attempts at supposed authenticity can succeed only as curiosities.
Malory was well prepared to describe the carnage of war in feudal times. He served in France in the latter part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and supported the Lancastrian side in the War of the Roses (1453-1487). He led a turbulent life and is believed to have written Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison. In his conclusion, Malory states that he completed his book in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV (r. 1461-1470, 1471-1483). Malory died in 1471, and his book did not appear until it was printed in 1485 by William Caxton, the first English printer. The extent of Caxton’s editing of Malory’s work was not known until 1934, when a manuscript dating from Malory’s time was discovered in the Fellows’ Library at Winchester College in England. It appears that Malory thought of his book as a series of eight romances. Caxton reordered, and in some cases rewrote, parts of the narrative and divided it into twenty-one books. Malory entitled, quite understandably, the last of his romances “Le Morte d’Arthur,” but Caxton chose that unrepresentative title for the entire compilation. Current editions are usually a combination of the Winchester and Caxton texts.
Critics complain that Le Morte d’Arthur is frequently rambling and repetitious, especially when Malory abandons his central theme to follow knight after knight, each of whom is experiencing essentially the same adventure in his quest for the Holy Grail. It is also true that while Malory appears to pay homage to chivalry, it is infidelity, recklessness, and betrayal that provide the narrative its drama. Malory is also criticized for having created one-dimensional characters who exist merely to serve the demands of the plot. These are indeed not the well-rounded characters readers will come to expect in Renaissance and later fiction.
In his most critical passages, however, Malory has a sure feel for the conflict, psychological as well as physical, which satisfying fiction must always possess. Guinevere loves her husband’s lofty nature and nobility, but she loves Lancelot with passion. Lancelot loves the king he has come to serve, but he loves Guinevere with passion. Arthur loves them both but is finally forced to stand against them. He feels a paternal sense of obligation toward his son, Mordred, so when he leaves for France he makes Mordred his regent—but Mordred betrays him. In the end, father and son kill each other. The Knights of the Round Table love their king but, as events spiral out of control, they must choose sides for a final, terrible battle. The result of these conflicted emotions is the poignant destruction of Malory’s idealized Merrie England.
What qualities make Arthur a great King?
Though King Arthur is often absent for long stretches of the epic, it is his ability to unite people around noble ideals and strong fellowship that allows these many adventures. After the death of Uther Pendragon, England was in ruins. There was no High King, but rather an influx of lesser kings, each of whom ruled his own section of the larger kingdom. When Arthur stepped forward as the true heir of England, he successfully united the fractured society. He defeated those who denied him his throne over three successful campaigns, and eventually extended his kingdom to include regions of Europe and the Roman Empire. In addition to creating peace and uniting a nation, he created the Round Table, a fellowship bound together by the ideals of chivalry and loyalty. Arthur’s England was a utopia, and at its center was a king worthy of the worship bestowed upon him.
Describe the oath of the Knights of the Round Table, and explain its significance to the overall epic.
Each year at Pentecost, the Knights of the Round Table renewed an oath that kept the utopia of Camelot and England intact, thereby allowing knights to rely on justice and loyalty even as they did not always live up to those ideals in their adventures. Their oath included promises: not to murder; to flee from treason; to be merciful; to be loyal to King Arthur above all others; to protect women; and to never enter into a wrongful quarrel. Later, it was understood that no Knight of the Round Table could engage in combat with another member of their fellowship either in anger or in revenge. Though all of the knights (and the king himself) broke these promises on at least one occasion, they kept this ideal as something to strive for, thereby keeping intact the virtues of Camelot that enabled their adventures.
Why does Launcelot fail to find the Sangreal? What does this show about him?
Launcelot has every expectation of finding the Sangreal, since he is considered the greatest knight in the world, but he fails because his greatness is merely in the physical realm, and does not extend to the spiritual, or moral, realm. During his journey, Launcelot learns that his spirituality is not on par with his physical prowess. In fact, he is explicitly told that God is disappointed with him. He tries to rectify this through prayer, good deeds, and repentance, but fails because his heart is always turned towards Guenever and self-love. He attempts to transcend his pride and illicit love for his liege's wife, to little avail. What we learn from Launcelot's attempts is that while he desires to transcend his weaknesses, he is too defined by them to ever fully reach the spiritual heights that his son Galahad does. Ironically, he is the greatest knight and yet struggles with the same spiritual conflict that any Christian does.
Do you consider Sir Gawaine to be a noble knight?
Sir Gawaine's nobility can be argued either way, although there is substantial evidence suggesting he is not a noble knight. Simply put, he does not uphold the vow he makes as a Knight of the Round Table. Although it is an accident, he murders a woman when she tries to defend her lover. He kills King Pellinore and Sir Lamorak for revenge. In fact, during the quest for the Sangreal, Nacien suggests Gawaine give up the quest because of his sinful nature, and Gawaine easily complies. However, most grievous is how Gawaine's insatiable desire for vengeance helps cause the destruction of Arthur's kingdom when he demands the king go to war several times against Launcelot. Despite all of these weaknesses, however, Gawaine is extremely loyal to his uncle King Arthur, to his family, and to the ideals of the Round Table. He may not have been noble all of the time, but he is a formidable and important member of the Round Table, which in itself suggests a degree of nobility.
Describe the influence of dreams and visions, using one major character as example.
Many characters are influenced by detailed dreams and visions, and many others are doomed by the truths foretold in those dreams. Overall, these visions suggest the nature of fate in the world of the epic, and the lack of agency an individual has in the face of such fate. One great example is Launcelot's vision during the quest for the Sangreal, in which he learns that God is disappointed in him for acting as a warrior of the flesh and not of the spirit. God has given Launcelot many gifts, and he has in turn used them to obtain glory on the battlefield instead of using them to bring glory to God. To repent for his sins, Launcelot fasts, wears a hair shirt, abstains from sex, and goes to mass everyday. Although he does not obtain the Sangreal, Launcelot is greatly influenced by the dream to make changes in his life. However, once he returns to Camelot, he resumes his sinful ways with Guenever, suggesting that the sinful nature detailed in the dream is inescapable.
Discuss the importance of virginity within the text.
One strange contradiction in the epic is how the sexual nature of courtly love is implicitly praised, while virginity is simultaneously touted as a supreme virtue. This latter truth is most clear during the quest for the Sangreal, in which several characters fail precisely because they have compromised their virginity, and the characters who succeed do so because of their chastity. Further, sexuality - especially when it originates in women - is depicted as a highly volatile and dangerous quality. Guenever's lust is one of the most damaging aspects in the entire epic. Overall, the work posits a strong Christian value and strength in virginity, while its stories belie that depiction somewhat.
Discuss the nature love and marriage within the text.
Love is arguably the epic's most prevalent theme, and yet the sanctity of marriage is only rarely achieved. In fact, the most significantly explored relationships in the text are adulterous ones, like that between Launcelot and Guenever, and between Tristram and Isoud. The love between both couples is profound, and despite their tragic significance, those loves serve as a standard by which others are judged. The narrator, in fact, touts Guenever as an archetypal model for lovers in his discussion of spring. Not surprisingly, then, not many of the happy relationships end in marriage. One of the rare exceptions comes with Sir Gareth, who falls in love with and marries Dame Lioness. It is another of those strange contradictions - while the epic explicitly praises Christian virtue, it seems more pleased with relationships born of human passion and weakness than with those based in chastity and purity.
There are several inconsistencies within the plot. Why is this? Name two and give examples.
The inconsistencies within the plot certainly derive somewhat from Malory's use of various sources in compiling the work. By compiling a myriad of old stories, he likely did not realize when these stories contradicted one another. However, another possibility is that his editor William Caxton rewrote sections of the work, thereby increasing the inconsistencies. Two good examples are the distribution of Excalibur, and Galahad's death. In the beginning of Book I, Arthur pulls the famed sword from the stone and becomes King of all England. At the end of Book I, the Lady of the Lake presents the sword to Arthur anew. The second notable inconsistency involves Galahad's death. Sir Galahad dies at the end of Book XVII, a year after finding the Sangreal and becoming King of Sarras. Bors returns to Camelot and relates the story of Galahad’s death. Then, in Book XVIII, a tournament is held in which the Galahad, "the haut prince,” takes part.
Discuss Sir Mordred’s character development. In what ways can he not be help accountable for his villainy?
Mordred is in many ways an unambiguous villain in the work, but he arguably only grows into a role defined for him by fate. He was born of and subject to hatred and sin, none of which was his doing. The first sin that defines him is his birth from incest, which explains somewhat why he is pre-destined to kill his father. Arthur commits an arguably great sin in trying to kill the infant on Merlin's advice. Despite this offense, Mordred shows a desire to live in his father's grace by eventually becoming a Knight of the Round Table. Mordred disappears from the text for a long while, only sporadically appearing, but he reveals his evil nature when he helps Agravaine expose Launcelot and Guenever’s affair. One could argue that this decision comes from jealousy over his father's love of Launcelot. Mordred, now living up to his villainous stereotype, steals the crown and the kingdom, actions which directly influence the fall of all that Arthur had built. However, he shows a willingness to accept peace when Arthur proposes it, suggesting he truly does wish to be his father's true heir, and not usurper. Fate has different plans though, and through an adder, makes certain that Mordred will indeed kill his father.
Why does the Round Table fall? Identify and interpret the major events that cause the fall.
The title Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) gives the epic a tragic shape by suggesting its end from the beginning. Though the end is foretold by Merlin in the early books, the events that cause destruction only begin to manifest in the latter half of Books XIX and XX. These causes had been gestating for a while, but come to the forefront when Agravaine and Mordred expose the affair between Launcelot and Guenever. Though Arthur has been given many chances throughout the epic to recognize the truth of this affair, he seems more interested in maintaining his kingdom than in exposing the truth. However, Agraivaine and Mordred force his hand, and he turns on both his queen and best knight. In effect, he ignores the bonds of his fellowship, which in turn only inspires more hatred and betrayal. Launcelot kills many other knights in his fury, Gawaine encourages war from vengeance, and the knights are split in their loyalties. Once this has happened, the central bond of the Round Table has been compromised, and so it could never be reformed. There are many final displays of both violence and loyalty, but the fellowship is inexorably broken. In the end, the best answer for the Table's fall is that utopia cannot last forever. As time passes, so does myth. Our best hope is that Arthur will return, to bring England again to discover its best possible identity.