Cover of Le Morte d'Arthur (1906 edition), Volume I
|Country||Kingdom of England|
|Subject||Matter of Britain|
Le Morte d'Arthur (originally spelled Le Morte Darthur, ungrammaticalMiddle French for "The Death of Arthur") is a 15th-century Middle English prose reworking by Sir Thomas Malory of tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table--along with their respective folklore. In order to tell a "complete" story of Arthur from his conception to his death, Malory compiled, rearranged, interpreted and modified material from various French and English sources. Today, this is one of the best-known works of Arthurian literature. Many authors since the 19th-century revival of the legend have used Malory as their principal source.
Le Morte d'Arthur was first published in 1485 at the end of medieval English era by William Caxton, who changed its title from the original The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table (The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table). 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 original version. Modern editions under various titles are inevitably variable, changing spelling, grammar and pronouns for the convenience of readers of modern English, as well as sometimes abridging or revising the material.
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 returned to the throne, but died only five months later.
As Elizabeth Bryan wrote 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 Middle English sources (the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) to create this text." Malory's minor French and English sources include Erec et Enide, L'âtre périlleux, Perlesvaus, Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (or its English version Ywain and Gawain), The Weddynge of Syr Gawen (or possibly this poem might actually be Malory's own work), and John Hardyng's Chronicle. Within his narration, Malory refers to drawing it from a singular "Freynshe booke", in addition to also unspecified "other bookis". His other sources might have included the Roman military manual De re militari.
Malory's writing style is sometimes seen today as simplistic from artistic viewpoint, "rambling" and full of repetitions, yet there are also opposite opinions, such as regarding it a "supreme aesthetic accomplishment". He called the entire work The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table, but William Caxton changed the title to that commonly known today, which originally only referred to the final volume of the work. 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" by 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 Walter Fraser 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. 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."
In his 1947 publication of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, Vinaver 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 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. This was followed by much debate in the late 20th-century academia over which version is superior, Caxton's print or Malory's original vision.
Most of the events 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. Malory modernized the legend by conflating the Celtic Britain with his contemporary Kingdom of England (for example identifying Logres as England, Camelot as Winchester, and Astolat as Guildford) and replacing the Saxons with the Saracens (specifically meaning the Ottoman Turks) as foreign invaders. 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:
According to Charles W. Moorman III, Malory intended "to set down in English a unified Arthuriad which should have as its great theme the birth, the flowering, and the decline of an almost perfect earthy civilization." He identified three main motifs going through the work: Lancelot and Guinevere's affair, the long blood feud between the families of King Lot and King Pellinore, and the Grail quest. Each of these plots would define one of the causes of the downfall of Arthur's kingdom, that is "the failures in love, in loyalty, in religion." Moorman also attempted to put the books of the Winchester Manuscript in chronological order. In his analysis, Malory's intended chronology can be divided into three parts:
Because there is so much lengthy ground to cover, Malory uses "so--and--then," often to transition his retelling of the stories that 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 (addressing the chronological inconsistencies) "time does not work on the heroes of Malory."
The narrative is mainly based on the Prose Merlin in the version from the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (possibly on the manuscript Cambridge University Library, Additional 7071). Arthur is born to the High King of Britain (Malory's "England") Uther Pendragon and his new wife Igraine, and then taken by Sir Ector to be secretly fostered in the country after the death of Uther. Years later, the now teenage Arthur suddenly becomes the ruler of the leaderless Britain when he removes the fated sword from the stone in the contest set up by the wizard Merlin, which proves his birthright that he himself had not been aware of. The newly-crowned King Arthur and his followers go on to fight against rivals and rebels, ultimately winning the war in the great Battle of Bedegraine. Arthur prevails due to his military prowess and the prophetic and magical counsel of Merlin, later replaced by the sorceress Nimue, further helped by the sword Excalibur that he receives from a Lady of the Lake. With his throne secure, Arthur marries the also young Princess Guinevere and inherits the Round Table from her father, King Leodegrance. He then gathers his chief knights, including some of his former enemies who joined him, at his capital Camelot and establishes the Round Table fellowship as all swear to the Pentecostal Oath as a guide for knightly conduct.
The first volume also tells "The Tale of Balyn and Balan", of the treason of Arthur's half-sister, the sorceress-queen Morgan le Fay, and of the begetting of his incestuous son Mordred by one of his other royal half-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 in the end, perish at sea (this is mentioned matter-of-fact, with no apparent moral overtone).
In this first book, Malory addresses his contemporary 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 15th-century England, where many were claiming their rights to power through violence and bloodshed.
This book is based mostly on the Middle English poem Alliterative Morte Arthure, which in turn was heavily based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. Caxton's print version is abridged by more than half compared to Malory's manuscript. Vinaver theorized that Malory originally wrote this part first while without knowledge of French romances. In effect, there is a time lapse that includes Arthur's war with Claudas and the birth of Galahad from Book V.
The opening of Book II finds Arthur and his kingdom without an enemy. His throne is secure and his knights including Gawain have proven themselves in 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. Departing from Geoffrey's history in which Mordred is left in charge (as this happens there near the end of the story), Malory's Arthur leaves his court in the hands of Constantine of Cornwall. 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. After that, the story details Arthur's march on Rome. Following a series of battles resulting in the great victory over Lucius and his allies, and the Roman Senate's surrender, Arthur is crowned a Western Emperor but instead arranges a proxy government and returns to Britain.
In this book, based on parts of the French Prose Lancelot (mostly its 'Agravain' section, along with the chapel perilous episode taken from Perlesvaus), Malory establishes the young Sir Lancelot as King Arthur's most revered knight through numerous episodic adventures, some of which presented in comedic manner. Lancelot always adheres to the Pentecostal Oath, assisting ladies in distress and giving mercy for honorable enemies he has defeated in combat. 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 prominence of jousting tournament fighting in this tale indicates a shift away from battlefield warfare towards a more mediated and virtuous form of violence.
Malory attempts to turn the focus of courtly love from adultery to service by having Lancelot dedicate doing everything he does for Guinevere, but avoid (for a time being) to committing to an adulterous relationship with her. Nevertheless it is still her love that is the ultimate source of Lancelot's supreme knightly qualities, something that Malory himself did not appear to be comfortable with as it seems to clashed with his personal ideal of knighthood.
A short part that primarily deals with the adventures of the young Gareth in his chivalric quest for Lynette and Lioness. The youngest of Arthur's nephews by Morgause and Lot, Gareth hides his identity at Camelot as to achieve his knighthood in most honest and honorable way. While this story (unlike the contents of the previous volumes) is not directly based on any existing text, it resembles various Arthurian romances of the Fair Unknown type.
The fifth volume tells the tales of Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, Sir Dinadan, Sir Palamedes, Sir Alexander the Orphan (Tristan's young relative abducted by Morgan), "La Cote de Male Tayle", and a variety of other knights. Based on the French Prose Tristan, or a lost English adaptation of it (possibly also the Middle English verse romance Sir Tristrem), Malory's treatment of the legend of Tristan is the literal centerpiece of Le Morte d'Arthur as well as the longest of his eight books.
The hero Tristan is the book's namesake and his doomed adulterous relationship with the Belle Isolde, wife of his uncle King Mark, is one of its focuses. Various knights, even those of the Round Table, make requests that show the dark side of the world of chivalry. It also includes the seemingly retrospective story of Lancelot fathering Sir Galahad by Elaine of Corbenic, which was followed by Lancelot's years of madness.
Malory's primary source for this long part was the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, chronicling the adventures of many knights in their quest to achieve the Holy Grail. 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 through chivalry.
The continued story of the romance of Lancelot with Guinevere. Writing it, Malory combined the established material from the Vulgate Cycle's Prose Lancelot (including the "Fair Made of Ascolat") with his own episodes "The Great Tournament" and "The Healing of Sir Urry". In the book, Lancelot completes a series of trials to prove being worthy of the Queen's love, culminating in his rescue of her from the abduction by Maleagant.
Writing this part, Malory used the version of Arthur's death derived primarily from parts of the Vulgate Mort Artu and, as a secondary source, from the English Stanzaic Morte Arthur (or possibly a now-lost common source of both of these texts). Mordred and his half-brother Agravain finally reveal Guinevere's adultery and Arthur sentences her to burn. Lancelot's rescue party raids the execution, killing several loyal knights of the Round Table, 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, where Gawain is mortally injured in a duel with Lancelot, Mordred seizes the throne and takes control of Arthur's kingdom.
At the bloody final battle between Mordred's followers and Arthur's remaining loyalists in England, Arthur kills Mordred but is himself gravely wounded. As Arthur is dying, the lone survivor Bedivere casts Excalibur away, and Morgan and Nimue appear in a boat to take Arthur to Avalon. Following the passing of King Arthur, who is succeeded by Constantine, Malory provides a denouement about the later lives (and deaths) of Bedivere, Guinevere, and Lancelot and his kinsmen.
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. The following sentence (from Caxton's preface) is an example in Middle English and then in Modern English:
There have been many modern republications, retellings and adaptations of Le Morte d'Arthur. A few of them listed below (see also the following Bibliography section):