Le Morte d'Arthur

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Le Morte d'Arthur



The legend of King Arthur can be found in English stories and folktales as early as the sixth century. The greatest and most complete version, however, did not appear until the fifteenth century, with Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. To create the epic tale, Malory drew from many sources, most notably thirteenth-century French prose romances. He supplemented these French sources with English Arthurian materials.

Malory's story was originally written in Middle English, an early form of the English language, and consisted of eight books, or tales. The first tale concerns the conception, birth, and coronation of King Arthur. The second tale involves the invasion of France and Rome. The third tale, which focuses mainly on the knight Lancelot, was inspired by the French prose story Lancelot. Gareth, the brother of Sir Gawain—a brash knight of Arthur's Round Table—is the subject of the fourth tale, and the fifth tale centers on the story of Tristram and Isolde. Malory's theme for the sixth tale is the quest for the Sangrail, also known as the Holy Grail. The romance of Lancelot and Guinevere is the topic of the seventh tale. Malory's eighth and final tale concentrates on the discovery of Guinevere's affair, the battle between Mordred—another of Gawain's brothers—and Arthur, and ultimately Arthur's death. In addition to specific Arthurian sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and the French Perclesvau, among others, also inspired Malory's work. By collecting, combining, and abbreviating the stories from various sources, Malory produced a single compilation of Arthurian legends.

Of course, Malory did more in this classic work than simply copy sources. He adapted texts and brought together different of Arthurian legends and sources to create a work that is wholly unique. For instance, unlike most of the Arthurian romances, Malory's narrative is written in prose rather than verse. In addition, certain elements of the text have no known sources and are purely Malory's creation. Indeed, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur has often been credited as being the first English novel ever printed, and his text has served as an inspiration for much of the Arthurian tradition as it is known today. Works from Alfred Tennyson's collection of Arthurian poems in Idylls of the King and T. H. White's The Once and Future King, to Camelot and Monty Python and the Holy Grail were inspired by Malory's version of the King Arthur tale.

The text of Le Morte d'Arthur, translated as The Death of Arthur in modern English, has been passed down from two sources: a 1485 version published by England's first printer, William Caxton, and a manuscript discovered at Winchester College in 1934. The Caxton version divided Malory's eight tales into twenty-one books. The latter manuscript, published in 1947 as The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, divided the tale into five books.

Little is known about Malory besides what he reveals about himself in his text. He wrote the manuscript while imprisoned for various crimes; in fact, what little is known about his life seems to be directly opposed to the golden ideal of chivalry that his work promoted. However, regardless of Malory's personal indiscretions, his story has met with much critical success since its publication over five hundred years ago.

Regarded as the most extensive and influential telling of Arthurian legend, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur provides a complete history of the Arthurian world. His story includes not only the birth and death of Arthur himself, but also individual histories of some of the most prominent knights of the Round Table. Indeed, although the book gets its title from the legendary King Arthur, who is the central figure of the text, much of the book focuses on the famous knights who belong to the fellowship of the Round Table. As separate tales themselves, or interwoven with other tales, the stories of knights such as Lancelot, Tristram, Galahad, Gawain, Mordred, Bors, Palomides, and Lamorak are at the center of much of Malory's account. Malory also includes information about Merlin, the wizard who helped train and advise Arthur, as well as details about the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, the romance of Tristram and Isolde, and a comprehensive account of the religious quest for the Holy Grail that the Knights of the Round Table pursue.

Overall, Le Morte d'Arthur can be viewed as a narrative of knightly adventure and quests undertaken to defend the chivalric code. The text celebrates the life of King Arthur and the chivalric ideals of his knights, and also chronicles the tragic collapse of those ideals through disloyalty and treason.


Book I

Le Morte d'Arthur begins with King Uther Pendragon falling in love with the Duke of Tintagel's wife Igraine. The wizard Merlin helps Uther seduce Igraine by disguising him as the duke. The scheme works; King Uther and Igraine conceive Arthur and the real duke is killed. King Uther and Igraine are married, and upon Arthur's birth Merlin takes the baby away to be fostered by Sir Ector.

Meanwhile Uther dies, causing discord in the realm. Merlin invites the warring lords to London, where they find a mysterious sword in a stone, with the words "Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England." Many attempt the feat but all fail. Sir Ector, his son Kay, and Arthur come to London on New Year's Day. Arthur sees the sword in the stone and removes it with ease. Arthur is eventually made king and establishes the court of Camelot.

After becoming king, Arthur fights three battles, enlisting the help of two knights, Bors and Ban, to aid in his success. Arthur then travels with Bors and Ban to defend King Leodegrance against King Roince. After parting from Bors and Ban, Arthur sleeps with King Lot's wife Morgawse, who unbeknownst to him is his half sister. They conceive the child Mordred, and Merlin warns Arthur that Mordred will be the cause of his destruction. Eventually Arthur comes to the Lady of the Lake; she gives him Excalibur, a powerful sword. Arthur has all babies born on May Day, including Mordred, sent away.

Book II

Book II begins with the appearance of a mysterious damosel, or young unmarried woman, in Camelot. She has a sword in a scabbard that can only be pulled out by a great knight. Sir Balin succeeds at removing the sword, but then he is warned that sorrow will befall him. Meanwhile the Lady of the Lake comes to court, and Balin kills her in retribution for her having killed Balin's mother, which upsets Arthur. To appease Arthur, Balin and his brother Balan attack King Roince, who yields to the two brothers. King Nero is angered by this assault and attacks Arthur in turn, but Arthur triumphs.

Balin next arrives at King Pellam's court and injures the king. Balin attempts to journey onward but is told he may not pass until he jousts with a local knight. The knight turns out to be Balin's brother Balan, but Balin does not recognize him. They kill each other in the joust, and Merlin buries them together. He leaves Balin's scabbard at their tomb, and puts the sword that Balin had removed into a block of marble in the river.

Sir Thomas Malory

Details of Sir Thomas Malory's life are uncertain, but evidence indicates that he came from Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, England. While the exact year of his birth is unknown—it was probably sometime between 1405 and 1420–most sources agree that he died in March of 1471. Although the details of Malory's personal life are obscure, records indicate that a Thomas Malory was knighted in 1441 and held various public offices until 1450.

Sometime after 1450 Malory apparently turned to a life of lawlessness. He was imprisoned for an assortment of crimes ranging from extortion to attempted assassination. Early in the text of Le Morte d'Arthur the author refers to himself as a knight prisoner, and one of the few certainties regarding him is that he wrote the book while he was in prison.

Whatever the exact details of Malory's life, it is clear that the politics of the time profoundly affected the creation of his text. Malory lived during the War of the Roses, a time of much political strife between two royal houses fighting for control of England. The personal rivalries and political disintegration of Malory's era clearly influenced his interpretation of Arthurian legend.

Book III

Arthur courts a young noblewoman named Guinevere. Her father, King Leodegrance, gives Arthur the Round Table and a hundred knights. Meanwhile, Merlin explains the significance of the Siege Perilous, the one seat at the Round Table that will kill any who sits in it except a chosen knight whose identity is yet unknown.

Arthur and Guinevere are married. During their wedding feast a white hart, or male deer, bounds through the banquet hall pursued by hunting hounds. After the deer runs from the hall, Merlin tells Arthur that he must see that this adventure is brought to an end. Arthur sends Sir Gawain out to bring back the white hart.

Sir Gawain and his brother Gaheris, outfitted with greyhounds, chase the hart into a castle. The greyhounds kill the hart, and in turn, a knight emerges and kills two of the greyhounds. Gawain and the knight fight, but Gawain accidentally slays the knight's lady instead. Guinevere thus determines that in the future Gawain must always defend ladies, and the tale ends with Arthur giving his knights the orders of chivalry.

Book IV

Merlin falls in love with Nenive, a damosel of the lake. Old and knowing that he will not be around much longer, Merlin warns Arthur of various future events, emphasizing that Arthur must keep his sword and scabbard with him at all times. Nenive leaves Camelot and Merlin follows her until she imprisons him in a rock.

In the meantime Arthur, King Uriens, and Sir Accolon go hunting and happen upon a ship where they are offered lodging. It turns out to be a trap set by Morgan le Fay, Arthur's sister, in an attempt to have him killed. She switches his sword, Excalibur, with a brittle counterfeit and gives Excalibur to Arthur's opponent. The opponent, unbeknownst to Arthur, is Sir Accolon. Arthur survives the trap and reclaims Excalibur but loses his magic scabbard. Fearing the further treason of Morgan, Arthur sends her son Sir Uwain out of his court. Sir Uwain's cousin Sir Gawain leaves with him. The adventures of Uwain, Gawain, and their companion Marhault last until the end of the year, when they receive word that Arthur wants them to return to the Round Table.

Book V

At least twenty-five years have passed since the end of Book IV, and the tale begins with the arrival of messengers from Emperor Lucius in Rome demanding truage, a type of tax or tribute. Arthur refuses and the Romans respond by gathering an army against him. Arthur assembles his fleet and his entire army to meet them in battle, pausing only long enough to have a prophetic dream about his future and to slay a giant that has been tormenting the area. A battle ensues between Arthur's knights and the Romans. Arthur slays the emperor, and is eventually crowned Emperor of Rome himself. However, he and his men become homesick and return to England.

Book VI

Book VI is concerned with the adventures of Sir Lancelot, who is introduced as a great knight and Queen Guinevere's love. Accompanied by his nephew Sir Lionel, Lancelot leaves Arthur's court seeking adventure. While sleeping he is captured by four queens, including Morgan le Fay, who try to seduce him. He is ultimately rescued by King Bagdemagus's daughter. He agrees to fight on behalf of her father in a tournament, which he wins.

After the tournament Lancelot learns that a knight named Sir Tarquin has captured sixty-four of Arthur's knights and imprisoned them. He triumphs against Sir Tarquin and frees the knights. Lancelot then helps various damosels by killing an unchivalrous knight, slaying two evil giants, and healing Sir Merliot. After other adventures, including battling knights of the Round Table while disguised, rescuing Sir Kay, and narrowly escaping a trap set by Sir Phelot, Lancelot returns to Camelot to tell of his adventures.

Book VII

A nameless man arrives in Camelot, asking Arthur for three gifts; the first is food and lodging for a year, after which he will ask for the other two. The man is christened Beaumains (Fair Hands) by Kay, and spends the year working in the kitchen. When the year is up, a damosel arrives asking for help to fight against the Red Knight. Beaumains asks for his final two gifts: first, he wishes to go on this adventure, and second, he wishes to be made a knight by Lancelot. Arthur agrees.

The damosel is unhappy about being accompanied by a simple kitchen worker. Beaumains (who is really Sir Gareth of Orkney, Sir Gawain's brother) performs numerous feats, including nearly beating Lancelot and defeating numerous knights, before the damosel finally stops insulting him. Ultimately he defeats the Red Knight and saves the damosel's sister Lyonesse, whom he marries.


Book VIII begins the tale of Tristram, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. Tristram kills Sir Marhault of Ireland and receives a serious wound that can only be healed by going to Ireland. In Ireland, disguised as Tramtris, Tristram is lodged and healed by the king (Marhault's brother) and queen, whose daughter is La Belle Isode. However, Tristram's true identity is discovered and he returns home.

Tristram eventually returns to Ireland to retrieve Isode so that she can marry King Mark. On the return trip, Tristram and Isode both unwittingly drink a potion that causes them to fall in love. Mark marries Isode, but Tristram performs various feats of bravery for her, including rescuing her from Sir Palomides. Eventually Mark discovers that Tristram and Isode are lovers. Tristram escapes, but Isode is kept by the king. Tristram is wounded by a man in the forest, but since he cannot be healed by his Isode, he is told to travel to Brittany and seek help from Isode la Blanche Mains. Though his heart always remains with La Belle Isode, Tristram marries Isode la Blanche Mains at the request of her father, King Howell.

Book IX

This book continues the tale of Tristram, telling of his return to Cornwall to see La Belle Isode. It narrates his further adventures with Sir Lamorak and Palomides and tells of his being driven mad from believing Isode loves another. Tristram disappears for a time and everyone believes he is dead. While away, Tristram slays a giant and is discovered by King Mark's men. Not recognizing him, the men take him back to the king's court. When King Mark realizes Tristram is indeed alive, he banishes him.

Tristram arrives in England accompanied by Sir Dinadan. Once there, Tristram is involved in several battles with other knights and proves his worth as a great knight to all, including Lancelot, who continually praises him.

Book X

In the final section devoted to Tristram, King Mark travels to England with plans to kill Tristram. Mark's plan is discovered, and King Arthur asks him to treat Tristram with respect. King Mark agrees, and he takes Tristram back to Cornwall with him so that Tristram may again see La Belle Isode.

The story briefly digresses to tell of Sir Lamorak: his lineage and his affair with the Queen of Orkney. When their affair is discovered by the queen's son Gaheris, the enraged Gaheris kills his own mother.

Meanwhile, King Mark again tries to have Tristram killed during a tournament. When that fails the king accosts Tristram while sleeping and imprisons him. Tristram escapes with La Belle Isode to England, where he learns that Agravain and Gaheris have killed Lamorak. Tristram battles with the two to avenge Lamorak, but lets them go with minor injuries out of respect for King Arthur. Eventually Tristram and his enemy Palomides make peace, but when Tristram learns Palomides is still in love with Isode, that peace vanishes. The tale ends with Tristram receiving honor and glory equal to or greater than that of Lancelot.

Book XI

A hermit comes to Arthur's court predicting that within the year, the person chosen to sit in the Siege Perilous will be born. Through deceit and enchantment, Lancelot sleeps with King Pelles's daughter Elaine and thus conceives Galahad, who it is believed will one day find the Sangrail, or Holy Grail. Guinevere becomes angry with Lancelot because of his infidelity and Lancelot runs away, mad with grief. Many knights from Arthur's court travel in search of Lancelot, but to no avail. The tale ends after Sir Ector and Percival, who have almost fatally wounded each other, are both revived and healed by a maiden who offers them each a drink from the Sangrail.

Book XII

After leaving King Arthur's court, Lancelot wanders the countryside, surviving on whatever food he can find. During this period he has various experiences while living with Sir Bliant and Sir Selivant, and spends time, unrecognized, as a fool in King Pelles's court. Elaine recognizes Lancelot, and he is taken to the tower where the Sangrail is kept. He drinks from it and recovers from his madness. At first, Lancelot is too ashamed to return to Arthur and lives for a while as Le Chevaler Mal Fet (The Knight who has Trespassed); he is finally discovered by Percival and Ector and returns home.

The next part of this book returns to the story of Tristram. Tristram is on his way to a feast at Camelot in honor of Lancelot's return when he comes across Palomides. Tristram is not armed, so he borrows the armor of Sir Galleron, the knight Palomides had injured before his arrival, and Tristram and Palomides fight. Palomides yields, again makes peace with Tristram, and together they go to the feast.


This tale marks the beginning of the quest for the Sangrail. Lancelot is taken away from Arthur's court to make a knight of Galahad, who is now a young man. Meanwhile, a sword appears in the water near Camelot. (This is the sword of Balin, put there by Merlin in Book II.) Galahad comes to Arthur's court, takes his rightful place in the Siege Perilous, and recovers the sword. The Sangrail makes a brief appearance to the Knights of the Round Table, all of whom vow to leave on quests to seek the object.

Galahad rides off in search of the Grail and comes to an abbey where he is given a shield. He next goes to the Castle of Maidens and frees the place of its evil customs through battle. The knights Gawain, Uwain, and Gareth are depressed because they cannot find any adventures to pursue. They separate, and Gawain encounters a hermit who tells him he is too wicked to achieve the Grail. The book ends with Lancelot learning that he also is too wicked for the Grail quest, because he has battled not for God, but for Guinevere.

Book XIV

Next the tale turns to Percival. Percival comes to a monastery where he sees the four-hundred-year-old King Evelake, who has bargained to live until he sees the knight who shall reclaim the Holy Grail. Percival departs and battles twenty men; he is saved by Galahad, who leaves immediately afterward. Percival then has an unusual dream. Soon after, a white ship arrives, carrying a priest who explains Percival's dream. Following that ship's departure a black ship arrives, carrying a lady who promises to take him to Galahad in return for a favor. The woman attempts to seduce Percival, but he rejects her advances and preserves his virginity.

Book XV

The story turns back to Lancelot as he leaves the hermit. Lancelot meets a man who gives him the hair of a dead priest to wear, and tells him to avoid flesh and wine and to hear mass daily. All this must be done for Lancelot to have any hope of seeing the Grail. Lancelot then travels on, and he has a dream that he is told signifies his genealogy connects him with Joseph of Arimathea, the famous disciple of Jesus who is believed to be responsible for bringing Christianity to England.

Lancelot happens upon a tournament between black and white knights; he helps the black knights because they are weaker and their victory would therefore bring him greater honor, but he is beaten. He comes across a woman who explains to him that the tournament was a sign from God. The black knights represent the sinful seekers of the Grail, and he aided the sinners because of his pride. He is reminded again to live better, and as he leaves he meets a man in black who kills his horse.

Book XVI

Ector and Gawain meet, complaining to each other about their lack of adventures. They come to a chapel where they have strange dreams. After awakening, they hear a voice that tells them they will never achieve the Grail because they are not holy enough. Gawain battles and kills fellow knight Uwain. While they bury him, a hermit explains the dreams, saying that only Percival, Galahad, and Bors are pure enough to claim the Grail.

The tale turns to Bors, who meets a man who tells him what is required to achieve the Grail. Bors then aids a lady in regaining her lands. After this, Bors sees his brother, Lionel, and a damosel, both in need; he helps the damosel. Next, Bors comes to a woman who threatens his purity, but he avoids the trap. Bors runs into Lionel again, who tries to kill him. Bors flees, arriving at a white boat with Percival inside.


Galahad meets with Bors and Percival. Together they free Earl Hennox from evil knights, after which they meet up with a maid who is Percival's sister. They come to a castle where Percival's sister dies from giving up a silver tray of her blood, as is the custom of the castle. Before dying she asks to be put on a boat that will arrive at the holy place of the Grail. After this, the three knights separate.

Lancelot and Galahad meet on the boat, spending half a year together before parting. Lancelot arrives at a castle where he manages to partially see the Grail, but he is left unconscious. After he awakens, he returns to Camelot and tells Arthur of his adventures.

Galahad meets Evelake, and Evelake dies after the two embrace. Then Galahad meets with Bors and Percival, and with the Maimed King (Pellam) they come to the castle where they see the Grail. After healing Pellam, the three knights leave with the Grail, traveling to the holy land of Sarras as divinely instructed. Ultimately, Galahad dies after clearly seeing the Grail, Percival dies in a hermitage a year later, and Bors returns to Camelot to tell of the adventure.


Despite his religious experiences while searching for the Sangrail, Lancelot again resumes his affair with Guinevere. The pair is the subject of much court gossip, especially from Sir Agravaine, Sir Gawain's brother. Lancelot tells Guinevere that they should be more discreet, and that he will therefore give attention to other damosels. Guinevere feels betrayed and tells Lancelot to leave Camelot.

Guinevere arranges a dinner for the Knights of the Round Table, to show that she does not favor Lancelot above any of them. The vengeful knight Sir Pinel poisons an apple intended for Gawain, but it is eaten by Sir Patrise instead, who dies. Patrise's cousin Sir Mador blames the queen for the death, since she arranged the dinner, and demands justice. Since Lancelot has left the court, Sir Bors agrees to fight Sir Mador on behalf of Guinevere. On the day of the fight, a disguised Lancelot replaces Sir Bors and overcomes Sir Mador in battle.

Afterward, Nenive, the damosel of the lake, appears at Camelot and reveals the true murderer of Sir Patrise. Sir Pinel, exposed, flees the kingdom.

Lancelot becomes involved in a tournament in which he disguises himself by wearing a damosel's token to fight against Arthur. He is injured in the tournament and Guinevere is angered that he wore another's token. Once he heals, Lancelot involves himself in various other tournaments. Mean while, the damosel whose token he wore dies from sorrow because she cannot have Lancelot.

Book XIX

Guinevere is captured by Sir Meligruant, who is in love with her. Lancelot hears word of the kidnapping and frees her, but spares Meligruant's life. Lancelot sneaks into Guinevere's chamber to spend the night with her, but cuts his hand while entering her window. Meligruant enters and spies Lancelot's blood on the queen's bed. He charges the queen with treason for being unfaithful to King Arthur. Lancelot defends Guinevere against the charge by battling and killing Meligruant. The tale ends with Lancelot healing the injured knight Urry.

Book XX

This tale begins the fall of the Round Table. The problems arise when Agravaine catches Lancelot and Guinevere in adultery. Lancelot fights his way out of the situation and, knowing that his actions could lead to civil war, begins to recruit knights to his cause. Meanwhile Mordred informs Arthur of what has been discovered and charges the queen with treason. Guinevere's punishment is to be burned at the stake, but before this can happen Lancelot rides in to rescue her. Lancelot and Guinevere go to Joyous Gard, Lancelot's castle. Arthur arrives at Joyous Gard, and their armies battle. Eventually they receive a papal order ending the battle and forcing Lancelot to return Guinevere. Lancelot then travels to France pursued by Arthur, who leaves Mordred in charge at home. Gawain and Lancelot battle repeatedly, until Arthur hears news from home that forces him to return.

Book XXI

While Arthur is in France, Mordred usurps the throne. He manages to persuade many to take his side, and when Arthur returns home a great battle ensues. Before his death, Gawain writes to Lancelot asking him for help to save Arthur, but before Lancelot can arrive another battle begins. Arthur inflicts a deadly wound on Mordred, but not before receiving one himself.

Near death, Arthur has one of his knights, Bedivere, return Excalibur to the lake where Arthur received it. A mysterious barge filled with fair maidens appears and takes Arthur away by sea. Bedivere arrives at a hermitage, where he moves in to pray over a body that is likely Arthur's. Meanwhile, Lancelot finally arrives to find that Guinevere has become a nun upon hearing of Arthur's death. Lancelot himself becomes a monk and dies six years later. The story ends with Sir Constantine of Cornwall being made the new king of England.


Heroes and Leaders

Throughout Le Morte d'Arthur, characters such as Gareth, Lancelot, Tristram, and Galahad define the ideal of knightliness. These various knights of the Round Table represent good knighthood and heroic action, an ideal that was common to much of Arthurian legend. This is especially true in Malory's work. It seems clear that one of the main purposes the author had in writing Le Morte d'Arthur was to present inspirational models of knighthood.

Lancelot, for instance, is portrayed as "the most honourable knight of the world, and the man of most worship." Lancelot's worthiness is emphasized repeatedly throughout the text, and indeed, Lancelot becomes the meter by which all other knights' worth is measured, and the ideal to they all aspire: "Sir Lancelot du Lake … passed all other knights." Even more than King Arthur, Lancelot is the main heroic character of the text.

Other knights, such as Gareth—described as a "full noble man"—and Tristram, who is referred to as "the knight of most worship," stand as further examples of what a good knight should be. These knights display leadership and heroic qualities that make them among the most honored knights in the worldly realm. In addition, another ideal of knighthood and true heroism is presented in Galahad, who can be seen in many ways as a counterpart to those who seek and achieve their honor in earthly glories. Galahad's honor extends beyond the earthly world into the spiritual realm, making him a knight without parallel and one of the few capable of reaching the Holy Grail. Galahad's heroism is so great that Arthur declares that he alone "shall worship us all."

Being a knight of worship, honor, and nobility was certainly essential to leadership, for leaders of the time were often knights and warriors who had proven themselves on the battlefield. Heroism also required following a strict code of conduct and performing momentous acts of bravery that exhibited great skill. The fellowship of the Round Table, where knights lived by a strict code of honor, defined the idea of bravery and knightly behavior. King Arthur stands as the ideal example of what a just leader should be, and his knights serve as the epitome of heroic behavior.

Women and War

Although women did not actively participate in the battles of the Middle Ages, they did play an important role in the knightly concept of war. For the Knights of the Round Table, it was on behalf and in defense of women that many battles were undertaken. A damosel in distress was a call to action for these knights, and assisting damosels was considered one of the main duties of a true knight. Such service was in fact a requirement of Round Table knighthood, as in the oath in which they agreed "always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen and widows succor."Agood knight would always come to the aid of a lady, and requests for such aid were common.

There are many examples of knights doing their duty to help women throughout Le Morte d'Arthur. For instance, Sir Gareth proves his worth as a knight by helping to save Dame Lyonesse from the tyrant who imprisons her. Sir Bors is so devoted to fulfilling his obligation to women that, when forced to choose between helping his brother or a lady in need, he chooses the maiden. Lancelot and Tristram are further examples of knights who are committed to helping any lady in need; they have both sworn to be of service to their chosen ladies throughout their lives. Tristram guarantees to La Belle Isode that he will be her "servant and knight in all right and in wrong." Lancelot makes a similar vow to Guinevere. Certainly Lancelot fulfills this promise, taking part in battles to defend Guinevere on three separate occasions. His worth as a knight is proven through such service.

It was a common occurrence for women to appear at Arthur's court asking for the aid of an honorable knight, and it was not unusual for a knight "to have ado for damosels and maidens." In this sense, women can be seen as integrally linked to much of the combat that takes place in Malory's work.

Violence and Brutality

In Le Morte d'Arthur, knights such as Sir Breunis Sans Pite exemplify the brutality of the era of the Middle Ages. Sir Breunis is an expert at violence, willing to smite any whom he holds at a disadvantage. He is described as "the falsest knight of the world, and most he is of villainy." Sir Tarquin provides another example of cruelty, and he too is described as "a false knight." His treatment of other knights is especially severe, as when he battles with Sir Ector, whom he beats "with thorns all naked."

Other acts of extreme violence mentioned throughout the text include those of the knight who disgraces women, Sir Peris de Forest, and the knights of the castle Carteloise who slay their father for love of their sister. Yet while these examples demonstrate the violent extremes to which knights who are considered shameful or false will go, good knights such as Lancelot, Gareth, and even Galahad also undertake various acts of violence and are responsible for the deaths of others. Even those knights who are considered honorable take part in tournaments or jousts where they seek to injure lesser knights or each other.

The violence of most Knights of the Round Table can be distinguished from the actions of those who are simply cruel and unjust. The difference between good and evil does not consist in merely the avoidance of violence; rather, it involves the reasons for which violence is carried out and the way in which it is handled. These factors determined one's status in the Arthurian realm. Since all knights fight in battles, it is up to the knight to behave in such a fashion that his actions will be seen as honorable. If a knight must kill another, he is to do so "knightly and not shamefully." This assures that his violence will not be mistaken for brutality.


The War of the Roses

Between the years 1455 and 1487, England suffered through the great unrest of a civil war. Later dubbed the War of the Roses, the conflict involved the families of Edward III (the House of York) and Henry IV (the House of Lancaster), and centered around the controversy over who was the legitimate heir to the throne of England.

Richard, Duke of York and descendant of Richard II, claimed in 1455 that the current king, Henry VI, had no right to the throne because Henry IV had taken the throne unlawfully by murdering Richard II. Henry VI, who was mentally unstable, ended up leaving England for nine years in 1461; Richard's son then became King Edward IV. By 1470, Henry VI had recovered; he returned to England with an army and briefly regained the throne, but lost it again to Edward IV.

Edward died in 1483. His son and heir to the throne, Edward V, was only a child. The boy's uncle, Richard III, set himself up as temporary ruler and had Edward V sent to the Tower of London and presumably murdered (since he was never seen again). Richard declared himself the next Yorkist in line to the throne, and while he had strong northern support many southerners were outraged by his rule.

It was not until 1485, after the Lancastrians had regained power by winning the Battle of Bosworth, that the War of the Roses would finally begin to be resolved. Henry Tudor, who had direct blood ties to the house of Lancaster, raised an army to fight Richard III and triumphed. He became King Henry VII and ended the rivalry once and for all by marrying Edward IV's daughter, thus making his children, both Yorkist and Lancastrian, the rightful heirs to the throne.

The fact that Malory composed Le Morte d'Arthur during the political instability of the War of the Roses is evident in his treatment of Arthurian legend. Helen Cooper suggests in her introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the tale that Malory's version of events can be seen as "a study of the personal rivalries that underlie personal disintegration," and moreover, that Malory's "awareness of the connections between the story he is recounting and his own times becomes on occasion explicit." Indeed, Malory's text clearly references the problems inherent in his England, where participants changed sides depending on local disputes and justice often was reserved for those who were in favor politically. Such is the case in his mentioning the tendency of the English to exchange one king for another, and in his candid referral to King Arthur's time as a reign where "there should be none other than righteous judgment, as well upon a king as upon a knight."

Chivalry and Knighthood

The concepts of knighthood and chivalric behavior were important components in the feudal societies of the Middle Ages. Knighthood, which was reserved for the nobility or those of wealth, involved a code of conduct that mandated a member's way of life in both the political and social realms. Whether involved in battles to defend their lords and country or simply taking part in tournaments to display their prowess, knights were expected to demonstrate bravery, loyalty, and virtuous living. They were professional soldiers who were expected to behave according to the code of chivalry.

During the time he was writing, Malory's details of knightly conduct and chivalric deeds would have been more than simply adventurous tales. Rather, as William Henry Schofield notes in Chivalry in English Literature: Chaucer, Malory, Spenser and Shakespeare, they would have been appreciated as "a true guide for gentleman's careers." As a knight himself, Malory had a personal interest in highlighting the worshipful conduct of Arthurian knights as a model by which to live. For example, his sometimes excessive account of battles and tournaments is directly related to the fact that, as Cooper suggests in her "Explanatory Notes," he was "writing for a readership with an insatiable appetite for the details of tournaments." In light of the popularity and honor of knighthood in the fifteenth century, Malory's chosen treatment of Arthurian legend becomes more understandable.

Medieval Religion

In the Middle Ages, religion and the Catholic Church were integral parts of Europeans' daily lives. Not merely reserved for the private realm, religion played a vital role in the politics of medieval life. Miracles were regarded as commonplace, and direct communion with God was seen as an attainable goal for true believers. The Catholic Church clearly influenced the way in which people in the Middle Ages viewed their existence. Yet at the time, the Church itself was still a relatively new institution. Religious doctrines such as the Eucharist and confession, while important components of a religious life, were still in an initial stage of development and growth. In fact, only in 1215 did confession for all believers and the doctrine of transubstantiation—the belief that communion wafers and wine are actually the body and blood of Christ—become official Church doctrines.

Malory's work reflects this emphasis on religion in the Middle Ages and seeks to show that the more complicated aspects of religion are accessible to the common people. Throughout his text Malory emphasizes aspects of religious life—mass, for instance—as the duty of every Christian. Moreover, through the character of Sir Palomides, an unchristened Saracen, Malory repeatedly stresses baptism as a condition for salvation. Cooper points out that Malory's inclusion of the necessity of confession, as well as the truth of transubstantiation, "were designed to promote acceptance" of these doctrines.

King Arthur: Fact or Fiction

Although Malory's work is clearly fictional in its details, there is some debate over whether or not King Arthur actually existed. He is first mentioned in Welsh poems from the sixth century, though these offer nothing specific regarding his accomplishments. In the ninth century, he is mentioned in a collection of Welsh history, but is not yet referred to as a king. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote History of the Kings of Britain, a popular text that included Arthur among its list of noble rulers. At the same time, French writers began documenting their own versions of traditional tales of Arthur.

Some scholars argue that the legend of Arthur is based on an actual Welsh chieftain. Some believe the legend has its origins in a second-century Roman general named Lucius Artorius Castus. Still others believe that he is entirely the creation of bards and storytellers. No significant evidence has yet been found to favor any one theory over the others, and it is unlikely that the true source of the legend will ever be known for certain.


From the time Le Morte d'Arthur was published in 1485 by Caxton, it was a popular success. During the fifteenth century, other forms of the Arthurian legend, such as the French romances, were already experiencing a surge in popularity. Malory took the legends centering on King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and created the first complete chronicle of an English "king" written in the English tongue. In "Caxton's Preface," Caxton suggests that Malory's text served the function of presenting English readers with a story of Arthur in their native tongue that rivaled those legends written by the French. Moreover, Caxton promoted Le Morte d'Arthur as a national epic whose intent was "that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry." Certainly the story intrigued its contemporaries and was widely read; in fact, as Cooper notes in her introduction, Malory's book was reprinted numerous times, and even when other versions of the legend ceased to be reprinted Malory's survived.


An abridged version of Le Morte d'Arthur (2005) is available on CD by Highbridge Audio. It is narrated by Derek Jacobi.

A documentary on Malory's tale of King Arthur, Great Books—Le Morte d'Arthur: Legend of the King (1993), was produced by Discovery Communications and originally aired on The Learning Channel. It is available on VHS.

The Sword in the Stone (1963) is an animated version of young Arthur's training to become king. The film was produced by Disney and based on T. H. White's book about Merlin's training of Arthur, The Once and Future King. It is available on VHS and DVD from Walt Disney Home Video.

Excalibur (1981), a Warner Studios film by John Boorman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Arthurian legend as presented in Le Morte d'Arthur. Starring Nigel Terry and Helen Mirren, it is available on DVD from Warner Home Entertainment.

King Arthur (2004) sets the story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot in the fifth century, rather than the fifteenth as in Malory's tale. The film is directed by Antoine Fuqua and stars Clive Owen as Arthur and Kiera Knightley as Guinevere. It is available on VHS and DVD from Buena Vista Home Video.

Renewed interest in Arthurian legend in the nineteenth century sparked increased publication of Le Morte d'Arthur. Interest has continued since then, and numerous editions of Malory's text are still in print and widely available from different publishers. As the legend of Arthur has increasingly become part of the cultural consciousness, the name of Malory has increasingly become synonymous with the legend. Considered by many to be essential reading for anyone interested in or studying Arthurian legend, Le Morte d'Arthur has become one of the most widely read texts about King Arthur and his knights. In a history rich with stories of the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, it is Malory's text that stands at the forefront of the whole tradition of the legend as it is known today. Not only has Le Morte d'Arthur inspired countless adaptations, it has been frequently referenced in various other works. Indeed, Arthurian creations in virtually every medium, from poems to films, reflect the legend of King Arthur as told by Malory.


R. L. Kelly

In the following excerpt, Martin points out the questions of the civilization's moral responsibility for war and violence raised by Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans.

In Malory's "Tale of the Death of Arthur," Lancelot, as he rescues Guenevere from being burnt at the stake, slays Gareth and Gaherys, brothers to Gawain and nephews to King Arthur. Lancelot subsequently offers, in reparation, to found chantries on behalf of the souls of the slain brothers. This is peace diplomacy, since Lancelot proposes the chantries as an alternative to the war of revenge he knows Arthur and Gawain intend to launch against him. Malory invented Lancelot's peace proposal, but, as Peter Field notes in his edition of the tale, he had an historical model for doing so, the arbitration in March, 1458, of the grievances of King Henry VI against Richard, Duke of York, and his followers stemming from the battle of St. Albans (March 22, 1455). For slaying the Earls of Northumberland and Somerset, the Duke of Buckingham, and Lord Clifford, the Duke of York and his party were required, among other forms of restitution, to endow a perpetual chantry at St. Alban's Abbey on behalf of the souls of the slain lords. The settlement, made at Winchester on March 24 and sealed in a solemn ceremony at St. Paul's the following day, was celebrated by chroniclers and poets.

The resonance between the fictional episode and the memorable 1458 "loveday" between Lancastrians and Yorkists suggests that the shared theme, penitence as a remedy for war, is an important clue to the meaning, or at least one thread of meaning, Malory and his contemporaries would have found in the tale. The opposition between penitence and war, anticipated in Malory's earlier "Tale of the Sank-greall," becomes in the "Tale of the Death of Arthur" the organizing theme, capable of sustaining a new and relatively comprehensive interpretation of the tale. War is unarguably central to the narrative: the tale is about the antecedents of Arthur's invasion of France to punish Lancelot, the French war itself, Mordred's usurpation (which is precipitated by Arthur's absence in France), the cataclysmic civil war between Arthur and Mordred which the usurpation occasions, and the responses of the survivors. Interwoven through all phases of the narrative are a variety of expressions of religious devotion which are essentially penitential, that is, intended for the remission of one's own or another's sin.

War and its aftermath evoke various kinds of penitential responses: Gawain is "shryven" as he is dying from a wound originally given him by Lancelot and reopened in the war against Mordred; Bedevere commits himself to the hermitage in response to a plea by Arthur, mortally wounded by Mordred, that Bedevere "pray for my soule" and Guenevere becomes a nun to allay the guilt she feels, "for thorow thys same man [Lancelot] and me hath all thys warre be wrought, and the deth of the moste nobelest knyghtes of the worlde". But the explicit associations between penitence and war most significant thematically and structurally are those which anticipate the tale's two wars. One instance is Lancelot's chantry-founding gesture, already mentioned; Lancelot says that founding the chantries for Gareth and Gaherys "were fayrar and more holyar and more perfyte to their soulis than ye, my moste noble kynge, and you, sir Gawayne, to warre uppon me, for thereby shall ye gete none avayle". The other thematically crucial association of penitence and war is made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in expectation of the war between Mordred and Arthur. After excommunicating Mordred, the bishop commits himself to "poverté and holy prayers; for well he understood that myschevous warre was at honde". Lancelot's peace offer announces the central theme, penitence as a remedy for war. His gesture is structurally important, as well, for it foreshadows his eventual resignation from kingship, his pacifist response to Arthur's invasion, and his eventual retirement from arms. Besides reiterating the tale's central theme, the Archbishop has additional thematic importance. Although he is only one of several survivors of war who abandon high station for a penitential form of living, he takes on prophetic authority because of his status as primate of all England, and because of his personal sanctity, his courageous defence of public order and morality in the face of Mordred's depravity, and his disinterested motive for undertaking a penitential life. His decision to join with the new King, Constantine, to restore normality to church and state governance signals that the seven-year-long national purgation is over, and that the combined merit of the penitents has restored the nation to spiritual health.

In arguing that the motif of penitence is intertwined with the war motif, and that penitence redeems the nation as well as individuals, my reading of Malory's concluding tale is at the opposite extreme from Eugene Vinaver's secular and fatalistic interpretation of the tale. Vinaver neatly removed the tension between secular and religious elements in the tale by denying any significance to the latter. For him the tragic outcome is "made inevitable by the fatal interplay of human loyalties." It offers no moral nor comfort, "no 'trust to trust in' for those who are left to mourn the dead: nothing but the knowledge that so must end the noblest of human conflicts." Most Malory critics since Vinaver have agreed that Malory's vision of society is pessimistic, but have allowed that the tale holds open the hope for individual salvation through devout spirituality. Yet the religious phenomena of the tale resist analysis, in part because they do not yield up their significance to the modern categories of thought through which even those critics with an avowedly historicist viewpoint tend to view them. John Plummer's analysis of the tale, focused on the Tower of Babel motif, is representative. He concludes: "Social activities (the relations of men to each other, rather than to God) are by their vary nature secular, at least in structure. The theoretical impossibility of a moral society is suggested even in the fact that all the holy personages of the Queste (and Malory's story of the Sankgreall) are recluses, asocial, or at least non-social solitaries, including the holy knight Galahad, a pattern reconfirmed in the flight of the bishop of Canterbury to his wilderness hermitage, and, finally, in the hermetic lives of Lancelot, Bors and the others at the end of the story." Such dichotomies—private versus public, religious versus secular—are commonplaces of critical and everyday discourse. But they collapse when applied to instances of religious belief and devotion in Malory's tale.

In the first place, the survivors of the war flee the "world," but not community. Guenevere joins a convent (taking several noble waiting-women with her) and eventually becomes abbess. Bedevere, Lancelot, and Lancelot's Kinsmen, become neither "asocial" nor "nonsocial." They form a community of hermits around the Archbishop of Canterbury, complete with a habit, communal observances, and, by implication, a rule; all this, together with the distinction between lifetime members and conversi, suggests Carthusian, communal eremitism. More importantly, the formula, "the relationships of men to men, rather than to God," appears as a false dichotomy when one examines the devotional practices of Malory's characters. Their belief in personal salvation and a literal afterlife is intimately bound up with belief in the existence of purgatory and the efficacy of vicarious remission of sin through intercessory prayers and other spiritual exercises. Religious experience for Malory's characters centers upon the "communion of the living and the dead," and is inherently social. If one ignores the implications of purgatory and intercession, one cannot thematically account for the tale's four funerals, Bedevere's becoming a hermit in response to Arthur's dying plea for prayer, and Gawain's death-bed request, in his letter to Lancelot, that Lancelot visit his tomb and "pray som prayer more other les for my soule". When Lancelot responds to Gawain's modest request with the characteristically magnificent funeral rites he sponsors at Dover, Malory and his contemporaries (at least the non-Wycliffite ones) believed that these obsequies would literally transfer merit from Lancelot to Gawain. Through the funeral rites, Lancelot relates to Gawain and God in the same act, or, perhaps, to Gawain through God.

Lancelot's offer to found chantries also confounds Plummer's dichotomies. Besides averting an anticipated war, Lancelot hopes to accomplish two ends: winning intercessory merit in remission of the sins of Gareth and Gaherys, who are presumed to be in purgatory, and making amends for the guilt Lancelot feels he has incurred. The first motive is self-evident from the concept of chantries. The motive of guilt is evident from Lancelot's intention of founding the religious houses in person while on a trek in his "shearte" and "barefoot": he envisages his proposed act as a pilgrimage undertaken as public penance. This single proposed act of piety, then, is at once private and public, political and religious, worldly and otherworldly.

Lancelot's gesture goes to the heart of fifteenth-century aristocratic religiosity, for the chantry was "the most popular, most widely endowed ecclesiastical institution of the later middle ages." Rosenthal ascribes the popularity of chantry foundations to the church's teachings about "charity, poverty, and the need to share one's worldly riches," and teachings concerning purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Also lurking behind Lancelot's chantry-founding gesture is the "merchandising with God" theology which had excited the wrath of Wyclif and would do so as well for Luther and Calvin in the next century. Lancelot and the other characters of the tale (and most likely Malory, himself) occupy a universe perceived as being governed by a divine economy of merit and demerit, in which every moral act "counts" in an often quite literal sense. For example, when Lancelot distributes twelve pence to each citizen of Dover who mourns at Gawain's funeral, Malory's readers would very likely have concluded that Lancelot earns six times the customary merit for such alms-giving, as the normal payment, as we know from surviving wills, was about two pence. There were national "accounts" as well as individual ones, and the individual and the public were not always clearly distinct. Shakespeare captures the entire system of beliefs with great insight in Henry V's explanation to Williams, Bates, and Court on the eve of Agincourt, of war as "God's scourge", and in Henry's prayer, later, to the "God of battles":

    Not to-day, O Lord,
    O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
    My father made in compassing the crown!
    I Richard's body have interred new,
    And on it have bestowed more contrite tears,
    Than from it issued forced drops of blood.
    Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay,
    Who twice a day their wither'd hands hold up
    Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
    Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
    Still sing for Richard's soul.

In the theological system implicit in Malory's narrative, war as "the scourge of God" (an all-pervasive motif in fifteenth-century chronicles), merges with a belief in purgatory and in the efficacy of penitence to expiate guilt (for oneself, for the dead, and for the nation, generally). Thus war and penitence, the public and private realms, are essentially related.

This system of ideas and beliefs, although conventional, was not a mental straitjacket. H. A. Kelly demonstrates that, while the chroniclers of the Wars of the Roses shared the same general theology of war, they shaped its application in a politically partisan way. If chroniclers did so, Malory, who was not bound by literal truthfulness to established facts, would have had at least as much latitude for subjectivity. A useful guide for help in understanding the political slant Malory gave to the conventional theology of war is The Treatise of Hope, translated, probably by Sir John Fortescue (ca. 1394–1476), from Alain Chartier's Le Traité de l'Esperance (1428). The Treatise of Hope presents the theme, penitence as a remedy for war, in a straightforward way, thus helping to clarify Malory's more inferential development of the theme. Because of the political context in which the translation appeared, it is equally useful insofar as it suggests how and why Malory and his earliest readers would have found that theme relevant to their lives; for Malory's tale, while it has an exemplary thrust, is not an allegory, but a work of fiction with particularized historical meaning.

Source: R. L. Kelly, "Penitence as a Remedy for War in Malory's Tale of the Death of Arthur'," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 94, No. 4, Fall 1997, pp. 417-427.


Caxton, William, "Caxton's Preface," in Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 530.

Cooper, Helen, "Introduction," in Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. ix, xii.

――――――, "Explanatory Notes," in Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 543, 556.

Malory, Sir Thomas, Le Morte d'Arthur, abridged, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, 1998.

――――――, Le Morte d'Arthur, edited by John Matthews, Cassell Academic, 2000.

Schofield, William Henry, Chivalry in English Literature: Chaucer, Malory, Spenser and Shakespeare, Harvard University Press, 1912, reprinted in Vol. 2 of Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Thomson Gale, 1984, pp. 122-23.