Le Morte D’Arthur
Le Morte D’Arthur
THE LITERARY WORK
A romance-epic set in the mythic England of King Arthur (c. 450 C.E.); first published in 1485.
Arthur attains the English throne and establishes the Round Table. He and his knights undergo many glorious adventures before all is destroyed in a climactic civil war, brought on by adultery, treachery, and blind vengeance.
While there were a number of men named Thomas Malory in late-fifteenth-century England, no evidence has come to light that definitively links the author of Le Morte D’Arthur (also known as the Morte Darihur and the Morte D’Arthur) with any one of them. What the author tells us about himself is scanty; he says that his name is Sir Thomas Malory, that he is a knight and a prisoner, and that he finished his book in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV—that is, in 1469 or 1470. He wrote no other work that is known. Since the late nineteenth century critics have for the most part believed that he was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, though substantial objections have been raised to this identification, primarily because the Warwickshire Malory seems to have been a man of habitual and extreme violence. He was indeed an imprisoned knight, but his crimes of “rape, church-robbery, extortion and attempted murder” seem very much at odds with the Christian and chivalric attitudes expressed by the author of the Morte D’Arthur (Field, Life and Times, p. 5). Nevertheless, it is clear that the author Malory (whoever he was exactly) knew two things extremely well—the vast body of Arthurian literature that came down to him, and the business of warfare. The vivid, bloody, and technically detailed battle descriptions in Le Morte D’Arthur argue that his title “Sir” was more than an honorific; he was probably a knight by profession, and accustomed to warfare. The occupation, coupled with his mastery of French and English literary sources for the story of Arthur, made him well qualified to retell this story in a manner that reflected both his profound admiration for the age of Camelot described in Arthurian literature, and his evident pessimism about the capacity of his contemporaries for wise and stable government.
England in the fifth century
Malory was aware of the time in which the historical King Arthur was said to have lived—a full millennium before his own age. He did not doubt (as some modern historians do) that Arthur ever existed. If Arthur did exist, he probably lived in the time in which Malory thought he did—the late fifth century c.e. This period was one of turmoil for England (then called Britannia); existing for centuries as a civilized Roman province, it had recently been abandoned by the Roman army because of the barbarian invasions that threatened the heart of Rome. The people left behind were British but also fully Roman, and their society was similar to those of other long-settled regions of the empire—indeed, it was in many ways more prosperous. There were some rather large cities (one of the largest, Londinium, survives as modern-day London), which were connected by an elaborate system of well-constructed roads, a number of which remain in use to this day. Serving as centers of military and civil administration, commerce, law, and religion, these cities were supported by extensive rural farmlands. Some farms were vast estates owned by noblemen and worked by slaves; others were smaller household farms operated by (for example) retired soldiers, who often received plots of land as a reward for faithful service. So fertile was the land that British grain was exported widely, along with metals from the rich Roman mining operations in Britain. The military was long a major presence, with the fortresses of Roman legions situated in strategic urban locations throughout the island. Resembling the army of a modern first-world country far more than that of the Round Table under Malory’s King Arthur, the Roman military was heavily and hierarchically regimented, with a set chain of command. The knights of Roman Britain were very different from the highly individualized knights of Camelot; they were simply officers in the army and served as part of a disciplined force that had kept the peace for centuries.
The departure of the Romans’ protective shield left the native British population to their own devices and to the depredations of Germanic invaders from northern Europe. These invaders would eventually prevail—in fact, the name “England” comes from the Angles, one of these Germanic peoples, along with the Saxons and Jutes, who invaded and eventually settled Britain. But there was a time in which the forces of Romano-British civilization fought against the forces that sought to destroy them, and for a while they were successful. Arthur, if he ever lived, was probably a leader of these native British people. Whatever the truth of history, it was soon almost entirely lost, and what remained became shrouded in legend. No British historical chronicle survives from the age in which Arthur may have lived; the first historical work in which he is mentioned is the Historia Britonum (The History of the Britons, c. 796) of Nennius, who portrays him as a mighty leader of the British forces that fought the Saxons in 452. The Arthur of Nennius is formidable, but he is not a king, and he bears next to no resemblance to the Arthur portrayed in the literature of the later Middle Ages. The Arthur of Malory owes much to another work, the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1135) of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was responsible for creating the Arthur adapted by all subsequent writers of Arthurian romance. Geoffrey probably invented almost all the details. His near-contemporary William of Newburgh had severe doubts about the truth of his narrative, writing (c. 1198): “[He] disguised under the honorable name of history, thanks to his Latinity, the fables about Arthur which he took from the ancient fictions of the Britons and increased out of his own head” (William of Newburgh in Loomis, p. 72). Nevertheless, Geoffrey’s work came to be accepted as legitimate historical truth throughout Europe, and was avidly read and copied. From Geoffrey’s work grew century after century of Arthurian literature—none of it having much to do with the fifth century. The defining ethos of the Arthurian myth—chivalry—had yet to be invented, and the prevailing concern was that of civilization (that is, Rome) versus barbarism. One quality bridges the gap, however, and that is loyalty to one’s lord, over and against treason, rebellion, and anarchy.
Loyalty and lordship
In periods of civil disturbance, it is crucial to know who one’s allies are, and upon whom one can rely in the face of a mortal foe. This knowledge can be difficult, since lawlessness breeds ambition, and opportunities present themselves for personal advancement at the expense of duty and loyalty. From what we know of the time following the withdrawal of Roman imperial government from Britain, such behavior was largely responsible for the breakdown of society. With no Roman legions to enforce the law and protect the rights of the citizenry, numerous petty warlords tried to seize power. A large portion of the Roman army had been made up of mercenary Germanic soldiers, and many of these stayed behind in Britain, soon to be joined by their countrymen from across the English Channel. They too sought to dominate, and the country collapsed into anarchy. Attempts were made to stabilize the situation through marriage alliances and treaties, but these collapsed in the mad rush to power. It was in this context that the genuine Arthur (some historians believe) succeeded in bringing stable rule to Britain for a time. He did so by winning the loyalty of his followers and by ruling justly in exchange for that loyalty. Of course, his enemies also commanded troops loyal to them, but there is no evidence that their aims went beyond the desire to rule, to dominate others. Arthur, it seems, represented the Roman mode of rule—a lordship informed to some degree by a sense of responsibility to law, order, and fairness. His followers, in turn, exhibited a quality of loyalty that transcended the simply personal; they obeyed Arthur, but their allegiance looked beyond him to the ideals he represented.
This notion of a political legitimacy based as much on ideology as on personal loyalty can be seen clearly in Le Morte D’Arthur. Malory’s Arthur represents a concept of lordship that holds a king accountable to standards of just rule, even at the expense of his personal power. Arthur manages to attract the best knights of Christendom to the Round Table and to command their loyalty, precisely because of this ideology. Wicked rulers like the Roman emperor Lucius (who invades England early in Arthur’s reign) seek only power and wealth, while Arthur extends his dominions to bring justice and law to regions that lack it. King Mark of Cornwall is another negative example of a king in Le Morte D’Arthur; angered because his wife Isoud and Sir Tristram love each other, King Mark is continually plotting to have Tristram (also spelled Tristan) murdered. Mark’s conduct in this regard is at several points called “treason,” with the clear implication that even a king is subject to a higher law—a law that it is “treasonable” to flout. When King Arthur is confronted with evidence of his wife Guinevere’s adultery with Lancelot, he unhappily condemns her to death—not because he wants to, but because this is what the law demands. Mark, in the face of similar evidence of Tristram and Isoud’s adultery, resorts to stealth and ambush. It is this illegal conduct, despite his kingship and the lovers’ guilt, that makes him a traitor against the rules of law, chivalry, and lordship.
Arthur is by these standards an exemplary king; he rules, but does not consider himself above the law. He presides not over a group of self-seeking warlords, but over the knights of the Round Table—a table that by design has no head position, no seat of distinction that might prompt ambition. He joyfully sends his best knights forth on a quest for the Holy Grail, in full awareness that many of them will die and thereby diminish the strength of his realm, because he believes that his legitimacy ultimately derives from God. The oath of chivalry taken by his knights (which is entirely absent in the early medieval Arthurian materials) also owes much to this fundamental notion of lordly responsibility; both Arthur and his subject knights are bound by its rules, and he earns their loyalty because he subjects himself to its standards of noble behavior. Their loyalty is, in turn, based on this same code; a treacherous knight is guilty of an offense against chivalry itself, over and above the strictly legal dimension of his crime. This is made abundantly clear in the fate of one Sir Rauf Grey, who in 1463 was found guilty of treason. The chronicler Richard Grafton described in 1568 the punishment he suffered: “[he] was disgraded of the high order of knighthood by cutting off his gilt spurs, rending his coat of arms, and breaking his sword over his head; and finally, his body was shortened by the length of his head” (Benson, p. 148). A common traitor would simply have been executed—brutally, and without fanfare. Grey’s knighthood made it necessary that the punishment fully show how grossly he had erred, not only as an Englishman who betrayed his king, but as a faithless knight who violated the most basic rule of chivalry.
ARTHUR’S LORDSHIP, AND AN OATH OF CHIVALRY
King Arthur expected his knights to behave chivalrously, and in return he gave them protection and land. Early in the Le Morte D’Arthur this arrangement is described explicitly:
Then the king established all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageously nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succour, upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both young and old.
(Malory, Morte D’Arthur, vol. 1, pp. 115-16)
This oath was not a promise of personal allegiance to king Arthur. Rather, it was an expression of commitment to the abstract ideals of justice, law, mercy, and loyalty—ideals that, for Malory’s Arthur and for Malory himself, transcended the rule of any single king.
Plot summary. Le Morte D’Arthur begins, as it ends, in treachery, adultery, and bloodshed. Uther Pendragon, king of England, is at war with the duke of Cornwall. During a truce, he invites the duke and his wife, Igraine, to his court, but upon their arrival, Uther develops a passionate lust for Igraine. So forward are his advances that Igraine tells her husband, and they stealthily depart. The furious Uther prepares for war, but the duke has two castles well provisioned for siege—Tintagel, in which he deposits Igrain, and Terrabil, in which he secures himself. Uther’s lust is made known to the magician Merlin, who tells Uther that he can fulfill his desire, on the condition that the child born of Uther’s union with Igraine be given to Merlin to raise as he sees fit. Uther swears that he will do so, and that night gains entrance into Tintagel, having been magically transformed into the likeness of the duke. Igraine, believing him to be her husband, welcomes him into her bed, and that night Arthur is conceived. The duke is killed in battle, and Uther marries Igraine. Arthur is born and handed over to Merlin, who deposits him with Sir Ector, a well-regarded knight, to be reared. Uther reigns amid violence and civil war for a time, but then dies. The kingdom is on the point of anarchy when Merlin summons all the nobles of the realm to London, promising a miraculous revelation of England’s future king.
All are gathered for Mass at the greatest church of the city, when suddenly a marvel is perceived in the churchyard. An anvil rests upon a large block of marble, both pierced through by a sword adorned with the following words: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England” (Morte D’ Arthur, vol. 1, p. 16). All attempt this feat, and none succeed except the youthful Arthur. While many proclaim him king, others object; but with the help of Merlin’s sage advice and magic, the rebels are defeated. Arthur then sits securely on the throne. But the seeds of his kingdom’s eventual downfall have already been planted. Arthur’s half-sisters, Morgan le Fay and Morgause (daughters of Igraine and the duke of Cornwall), have long held Arthur in enmity because his father killed theirs. Morgan has since become a necromancer and directs her magical arts against Arthur. Morgause has married King Lot of Orkney and given birth to four sons (Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth). They eventually become famous knights of the Round Table, which does not stop them from playing active roles in Arthur’s destruction. Immediately after Arthur consolidates his rule, Morgause seduces him. From this incestuous union is born Mordred, who will in the end (as Merlin prophesies) rebel against Arthur and kill him. Merlin chastises Arthur for this conduct, but nevertheless provides him with a weapon that will sustain him for many years. Leading him to an otherworldly lake, he shows him an arm reaching up from below the water’s surface, holding a sword and scabbard. They row out to the sword, and Arthur takes it up—it is Excalibur, an enchanted sword of great power, and its scabbard magically prevents the wearer from bleeding. Fearful of Merlin’s prophecy about what will come of his union with Morgause (and not knowing the child’s identity or whereabouts), Arthur has all children born to the nobility on May 1 (the date was given to him by Merlin) placed in a ship, which he sets adrift. It breaks up on the coast, and all the children perish—except Mordred, who is found and raised by a stranger.
Arthur falls in love with and marries Guinevere, despite Merlin’s warning that she will eventually love Lancelot. From Guinevere’s father, Arthur retrieves the Round Table (which originally belonged to Arthur’s father, Uther) and establishes it in London. Twenty-eight knights take seats at the table, and as they begin to have their own adventures, the fame and might of Arthur’s kingdom grows. The Round Table (due to its shape, with no position of authority) allows the knights to sit as equals, and as more are added to its ranks it becomes an international symbol of chivalry, honor, and magnificence. Foreign kings invade and are repulsed until Arthur becomes the greatest king in Christendom. However, not all is well. Morgan succeeds in stealing the magic scabbard and substituting a copy, and Merlin falls in love with a young enchantress who encourages his affections so that she can learn the secrets of his magic. Finally tiring of him, she imprisons him in a cave, and he is forever lost to Arthur.
Lancelot arrives at Arthur’s court and is given a seat at the Round Table. He rapidly establishes himself as the greatest knight in the world. None can withstand him on the battlefield or in tournaments. Moreover, he is a peerless model of knightly courtesy. He and Guinevere commit adultery, and from this point all his feats of prowess are performed in her honor. Knight after knight is defeated and sent to court to present himself to the queen; each must thenceforth do as she commands. Oddly, this arouses few suspicions, and the affair is kept secret for many years. Though his love of Guinevere is adulterous (and treasonable), Lancelot nevertheless holds Arthur in high honor and remains devoted in his service. Regarding his love for Guinevere as permanent and almost holy, he dismisses the overtures of all women who fall in love with him—except one. Lady Elaine is the daughter of King Pelles, a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, the follower of Jesus who brought the Holy Grail (the cup used at the Last Supper) out of Jerusalem centuries before. She loves Lancelot, and King Pelles supports her designs because he knows that from Lancelot and Elaine will be born Galahad, a knight of perfect virtue who will find the Holy Grail. By enchantment Lancelot is made to think that Elaine is Guinevere, and spends the night with her. He forgives her the deception, but feels unhappy about betraying Guinevere. Only his closest friends learn of the tryst. Elaine afterward bears a son, and he is raised as a knight.
Some years later, Galahad arrives at Camelot. Guinevere thinks that he looks very much like Lancelot. At the Round Table, at a seat ever vacant, is found written in letters of gold Galahad’s name; this is the Siege Perilous, the seat reserved (by magic, on pain of death) for the best knight in the world. Galahad takes his seat, and through various manifestations (including a visit by a prophetic hermit, the appearance of a magic sword, and a vision of the Holy Grail itself, floating through the dining room at Camelot) it becomes clear to all that now is the time for the Round Table knights to embark on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Thus, 150 knights prepare for departure. Another hermit appears and warns them not to bring any women with them, and to confess their sins before they go. Arthur (who, as king, must stay behind) is joyful at the glorious nature of the adventure, but fears that the Round Table will never again meet at its full strength. The knights each depart by separate ways.
The knights meet with considerable difficulty; enemies confront them at every turn and offer battle. Some are demons in disguise; some are other Round Table knights not recognized in time to avoid battle. In any case, the result of the battle is a symbolic moral judgment of the knight’s character. Often there is a hermit nearby, who will explain the significance and symbolism of an event to the knight who has just undergone it. Morally flawed knights simply blunder around in the wilderness, fighting (and often losing) battle after battle, never to find the Grail. Gawain, for instance, gets nowhere. In direct contrast to his portrait in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), he is depicted here as an irascible knight who seduces maidens and has a habit of cutting off people’s heads first and asking questions later. The quest for the Grail shows him for what he is in Malory’s work—a knight unworthy of such a sacred goal. As was made clear from the beginning, it is Galahad who is destined to attain the Grail, and he does, in company with two other knights of considerable (but lesser) moral virtue—Sir Percival and Sir Bors. They bear the Grail east and are granted a series of holy and mystical visions. Galahad is now too exalted to remain on earth, and his soul ascends to glory in heaven. Percival (who like Galahad is a virgin) becomes a hermit and lives for a while before also dying in sanctity. Bors returns to Camelot to tell the story.
With the quest over, life at Camelot soon returns to normal. Lancelot did not succeed in attaining the Grail because (as was made clear to him through various supernatural agencies at the time) of his sin with Guinevere. He was granted the grace to get as far as he did only because of his genuine contrition. His vow to avoid future sin does not last long, however, and he and Guin-evere soon fall back into their adulterous ways. Enemies are at work as well; Mordred (now a Round Table knight) and his half-brother Agravain suspect that Lancelot and Guinevere are committing adultery, and they plot to expose this crime to the king. The lovers are surprised together in bed; Agravain, Mordred, and 12knights (all heavily armed) appear at the door of the bed-chamber, loudly crying treason and demanding entrance. Lancelot, naked but armed with a sword, kills Agravain and the 12knights (Mordred survives) and makes his escape. Arthur grieves for the loss of the Round Table’s unity, but his duty as king is clear. Guinevere is condemned to be burned at the stake. As she is about to be executed, Lancelot arrives with a company of knights loyal to him, and a fierce battle ensues. Guinevere is rescued, but Gaheris and Gareth (who bear Lancelot no malice, but obey the command of Arthur to stand at his side) are unknowingly killed by Lancelot. Gawain did not mind the death of Agravain, since he had been warned against plotting to expose the adulterers, but now is prostrate with grief at the deaths of his two remaining brothers. He vows vengeance against Lancelot. Arthur too is intent on revenge, and the royal army besieges Joyous Gard, the castle where Lancelot has taken refuge with the queen and his army. There commences a series of bloody battles. Many die on both sides, though Lancelot is careful never to kill Arthur. The pope in Rome finally has enough of Christian killing Christian, and compels Arthur to accept a treaty—Lancelot will depart for his native France, never to return, and Arthur will be reconciled to the queen. This is accomplished, but Gawain’s desire for vengeance is such that he persuades Arthur to invade France. Lancelot, now ruler of all France, is a formidable opponent with no wish to fight Arthur, but nevertheless an English army of 60,000 crosses over to France and besieges Lancelot’s castle. England and Guinevere are left in the care of Mordred.
Battle is offered, but Lancelot refuses to come forth with his army and fight. Gawain taunts Lancelot so aggressively that he is soon persuaded to emerge and fight Gawain in single combat. The battle proves long and strenuous, but soon Gawain falls, seriously wounded. Lancelot refuses to kill him, and after three weeks the healed Gawain again challenges Lancelot, with the same result. Gawain heals more slowly this time, but resolves anyway to challenge Lancelot once more when news arrives from England—Mordred has usurped the throne and is bent on marrying Guinevere. Arthur returns to England with his army, and is met by a large host; Mordred has found many allies in Britain whom he has persuaded to join him in rebellion. In the initial battle, the weakened Gawain receives his death-wound. Before dying, he expresses sorrow to Arthur for all the trouble he has caused, begs Arthur to send for Lancelot to help in the war against Mordred, and writes a letter to Lancelot asking forgiveness for his vengeful conduct, and for military assistance to help Arthur. He dies and Arthur buries him with honor. That night, as Arthur prepares for the final battle with Mordred, Gawain appears to him in a dream. Gawain advises Arthur to avoid battle with Mordred until Lancelot arrives, since without Lancelot’s help Arthur will surely die. The next morning Arthur arranges to meet Mordred to work out a truce; they approach each other in the area between the two armies, each having instructed his army to begin fighting if a sword is drawn. Then disaster strikes—a snake bites a knight on the foot, and he unthinkingly draws his sword to kill it. Battle is joined, and the slaughter is immense. After a time, Arthur finds himself alone on the field, except for Sir Lucan and Sir Bedevere. Spying Mordred a short distance off, he rushes at him with a spear. Mordred is impaled, but as he dies, he gives Arthur a mortal wound to the head with his sword. A dying Arthur commands Bedevere to cast his sword Excalibur into the nearby lake, and as Bedevere does so, a hand emerges from the water to receive it. Arthur then dies, and Malory speculates on the legend that he will return someday to lead England again, as suggested by the legendary inscription on Arthur’s tomb: Hie iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus [Here lies Arthur, once king, and future king] (Morte D’Arthur, vol. 2, p. 519). Hearing that Arthur and Mordred are dead, Guinevere becomes a nun, renowned for her piety. Lancelot returns to England and endures considerable grief after learning what has happened. He eventually becomes a hermit, and both he and Guinevere die in holy penitence. A number of the surviving Round Table knights go to the Holy Land to fight the infidel. Back in England, Constantine (son of Cador of Cornwall) becomes king after Arthur and rules well.
Le Morte D’Arthur is more than just an account of the reign of Arthur and of the love-triangle that brought it down. There are many other knights of the Round Table whose stories are told by Malory as well. Most prominent among these stories is that of Sir Tristram. Second only to Lancelot in knightly prowess and chivalry, Tris-tram dominates one of the large central sections of Le Morte D’Arthur. Like Lancelot, he too pursues a faithful but adulterous love, in his case for Isoud, the wife of his lord, King Mark. The lengthy and colorful exploits of Tristram, as well as those of other knights such as Gawain, Gareth, and Palomides are episodically interwoven into the basic overall plot summarized above.
The heroic model
The single most defining quality exhibited by the knights of the Round Table is their heroism. They are not ordinary men; their skill at arms, their feats of bravery, their matchless chivalry—all these attributes make them very much larger than life. This is in many ways the point of telling their stories;Malory (who seemed to regard the story of Arthur as more of a history than a work of imaginative literature) thought their deeds a worthy model of behavior—a model to be admired and emulated. This does not mean that the knights were wholly good. In fact, all were flawed in some manner, with the single exception of Galahad, and it is no accident that Galahad has little role to play in the central Arthurian story. His virtue is almost inhuman in its perfection. He does not seek worldly honor; he avoids amorous contact with women; and his sole aim is to complete the mystical quest of the Holy Grail. Once he achieves this, he dies in religious ecstasy. He is ultimately too good for this earth. The heroism of the other knights is of a different sort. Their deeds are beyond the measure of normal men, but they struggle with the vices of lust, anger, and pride, and their extraordinary feats throw these failings into sharp relief. For Malory, they are exemplary in both a positive and a negative sense, in that their good and bad qualities are both so extreme. Bravery and strength, honor and loyalty—these are all noble traits, and the lofty example of the Round Table knights can be an ennobling influence. Conversely, the vengeful wrath of Gawain, Arthur’s incest with his sister, and the calamitous adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere are not garden-variety sins; they are appalling in their wickedness and disastrous in their consequences, and thus serve as supremely potent moral lessons.
The heroic model that emerges from Le Morte D’Arthur is therefore somewhat problematic. How can one admire an adulterer like Lancelot? a habitual killer like Gawain? a killer of a shipload of infants like Arthur? For Malory, they nevertheless must be admired because their virtues outweigh their faults, and these virtues are beacon lights shining forth from the distant past, illuminating a fifteenth—century England that was sadly lacking in this regard. Arthur and his knights were fallible like all men (except for Galahad), and therefore recognizably human—a quality that brought them closer to men who might seek to emulate them.
Sources and literary context
At the time Malory was writing Le Morte D’Arthur, Arthurian literature had been phenomenally popular throughout Europe for centuries. What began in the twelfth century with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1135) rapidly mushroomed into a highly varied body of chivalric romances; by the end of the thirteenth century, nationally distinctive accounts of the exploits of Round Table knights were being produced in every region of Europe. England favored native British knights (such as Sir Gawain), while France weighed in with Lancelot, who emerged wholly from French additions to the basic Arthurian story. He first appears in Le Chava-lier de la Charrete (c. 1181—usually known in English as Lancelot) of Chretien de Troyes. The high-water marks of German Arthurian literature were the Tristram (c. 1210) of Gottfried von Strassburg and the Parzival (c. 1215—a Grailquest narrative featuring Percival instead of Malory’s (Galahad) of Wolfram von Eschenbach, both modeled on French originals. Other Arthurian romances were written in Icelandic, Dutch, Spanish, and even Latin. The bulk of Arthurian literature in the Middle Ages, however, was of French origin, and it is in this French material that Malory found his sources. He refers throughout Le Morte D’Arthur to “the French book” as the source from which he is translating, but this is misleading on two counts: first, more than one French work served as his source (these include long prose narratives about Lancelot, Tristan, and the Grail quest); second, he also made use of English material.
It should be noted at this point that Le Morte D’Arthur is not a single, continuous narrative, but a collection of stories, each with its particular subject. William Caxton, who in 1485 first published the work, divided it into 21 books, some of which naturally group together in that they involve the same story arc. Eugene Vinaver, the editor of the standard critical edition of Le Morte D’Arthur, used as his base text not the edition of Caxton, but a manuscript discovered in 1934, thought by many to reflect more nearly Malory’s original work. This text is divided into eight “tales” or “books,” each treating a different part of the larger story. It is by looking at these eight divisions that Malory’s use of source texts may be best apprehended, as he tends to use an (in most cases) identifiable separate body of materials for each. For example, the first book begins with Uther and takes the narrative through Arthur’s gaining the throne, also detailing the adventures of several knights. It derives primarily from what modern editors call the Suite de Merlin (c. 1235), a lengthy surviving portion of a larger French work that recounts Arthur’s parentage and birth, his early years of struggle for royal supremacy, and the events of this time that look forward to the quest for the Holy Grail. Book 2 recounts Arthur’s early military campaigns. It is adapted from the English Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1400). Other sources (all French) include the Prose Lancelot (c. 1215-30), a long French prose narrative of Lancelot’s pre-Grail adventures, which was the basis for much of the subsequent literature about him; the Prose Tristan (c. 1230), an early French version of the Tristan story; La Queste del Saint Graal (“The Quest of the Holy Grail,” c. 1215-30), which Malory follows fairly closely for his version of the Grail story; and at least two thirteenth-century French prose versions of the story of Arthur’s death. Malory may have used other sources as well; for example, some believe that he was influenced by the romances of Chretien de Troyes, and it will probably never be known how much other material that Malory used has been lost.
In view of this crushing weight of source texts, it would be natural to view Malory as a mere translator and compiler, but this would be wrong. He used his sources with care and deliberation, seeking always to write (as he saw it) a true history of Arthur and his knights. These sources were for him the raw material of this history, not “literary” texts (in the modern sense) to be slavishly translated. Their authority was in the stories they told, not in the way they told it, and Le Morte D’Arthur is very much Malory’s own.
The wars of the fifteenth century
The later fifteenth century was a time of great turmoil for England. The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) devastated the land and people as the houses of York and Lancaster fought for political supremacy. The crown changed hands several times amid conflict of a new and brutal nature. Towns were burned and townspeople massacred, nobles were summarily executed, and mercenary armies roamed the countryside at will, their allegiance changing with the financial and military fortunes of their employers.
The Hundred Years’ War (actually a series of wars, fought between England and France, the last battles of which were waged in 1453) had left idle an enormous number of experienced and hungry soldiers. When the antagonists of the Wars of the Roses began hostilities in 1455, they found a ready supply of armed combatants in such men. For the most part, these soldiers did not care whether York or Lancaster ruled England; they were trained to kill, and would kill at the bidding of whoever was paying their wages. In between employers, they would rob merchants, plunder villages, and commit other outrages more or less with impunity, because the authorities were occupied with the civil war. It was the general lawlessness of the time, as much as the Wars of the Roses themselves, that made this such a turbulent era.
It would have been natural for Englishmen to look back with nostalgia to the days of the Plantagenet kings (the ruling dynasty from 1154-1399) and even the first two Lancastrian monarchs (Henry IV [1399-1413] and Henry V [1413-22]); those were the days, it seemed, when kings kept the peace, and their knights served out of duty and loyalty, rather than greed and self-interest. Many doubtless thought this way, but Malory’s views appear to have been more complex. If the author of Le Morte D’Arthur was indeed the Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, then he served the conservative Lancastrian side, which stood with the landed aristocracy of the countryside, as opposed to the moneyed interests of the cities and towns, who sided with the house of York. This does not mean, however, that he can be dismissed as simply a reactionary who, seeing a decline of chivalry and honor in England, chose to seek comfort in the golden age of King Arthur. He may have thought that the Wars of the Roses brought out the worst in people, and that nobility of conduct was scarcely to be found. But for Malory it was ever thus, even in the age of King Arthur. Writing of the defection of English knights to Mordred while Arthur was busy fighting Lancelot in France, Malory laments:
Lo ye all Englishmen, see ye not what a mischief here was? For he that was the most king and knight of the world, and most loved the fellowship of noble knights, and by him they were all upholden, now might not these Englishmen hold them content with him. Lo thus was the old custom and usage of this land; and also men say that we of this land have not yet lost ne forgotten that custom and usage. Alas, this is a great default of us Englishmen, for there may nothing please us no term.
(Morte D’Arthur, vol. 2, p. 507)
Arthur’s England, like the England of Malory’s day, was flawed; chivalry was alive and well, but ever in conflict with the forces of disloyalty, cowardice, and treachery. The breakdown of the civil order brought on by the Wars of the Roses was comparable to the dissolution of Arthur’s kingdom, with similar forces at work in both instances: fickle warriors, fallible kings, and power-hungry nobles.
Modes of war in the fifteenth century
Malory’s depiction of armed combat as an incongruous blend of noble ideals and shocking brutality seems to be a fairly accurate representation of how warfare was perceived, if not necessarily practiced, in his day. The days when wars consisted primarily of combat among knights were long past, if they ever existed at all; common foot soldiers and archers decided whether battles were won or lost, and chivalric combat continued to be practiced simply because the nobility wanted to, rather than out of any legitimate tactical considerations. Knights might buckle themselves into elaborate suits of plate armor (the cost of which could outfit a small army of foot soldiers armed with bows or pikes) and ride around on the field of battle, seeking honorable engagements with similarly outfitted foes, but late-medieval weaponry such as the longbow and (increasingly) firearms could easily bring them down, and even if their initial wounds were not mortal their cumbersome armor made them easy prey for enemy infantry. Being at such a disadvantage apparently did not bother many knights. It was more important to live and fight with honor and decorum than to win the battle, or even live through it. By the close of the fifteenth century, mounted knights had ceased to be much of a factor in warfare; they were simply too vulnerable to enemy firepower. Knights of a more practical turn of mind began to reserve their heavy full-body armor for ceremonial occasions, and adapted to an increasingly modern and indiscriminately brutal style of battle.
LAWLESSNESS IN ENGLAND: FROM A PETITION ADDRESSED TO THE KING IN 1472
“Sovereign Lord, it is so that in divers parts of this realm, great abominable murders, robberies, extortions, oppressions and other manifold maintainences, misgovernances, forcible entries, as well upon them being in by judgement as otherwise, affrays, assaults, be committed and done by such persons as either be of great might, or else favoured under persons of great power, in such wise that their outrageous demerits as yet remain unpunished.” (Bennett, p. 183)
It was not just advances in military technology that ended the days of the warrior-knight. In the fourteenth century, a knight wounded or captured on the battlefield could generally rely on his enemies to observe certain protocols. He would be treated and healed (if possible), given accommodations appropriate to his social status, and returned to his country after a ransom had been paid. According to the rules of chivalry, one’s enemy was a fellow knight-in-arms, and entitled to be treated as such. Off the field of battle, men who the day before had been doing their best to kill each other could easily act as the best of friends, hunting and drinking together in high aristocratic style. In Malory’s lifetime, however, things began to change. A lowborn foot soldier had no compunction against killing a knight with his longbow or pike, nor was he dissuaded by the knight’s chivalric disinclination to fight against a social unequal. Moreover, such soldiers began to display a disturbing trend in behavior. They would likely as not kill any wounded knight they found in battle, and despoil him of his valuable armor, weapons, and horse. As military commanders began to take a more hardheaded approach to warfare, they did not discourage these practices among their soldiery. Chivalry was all well and good, but at the end of the battle it was better to have one’s enemies dead than alive. Making this situation worse was the fact that the Wars of the Roses were civil wars—each side saw the other as guilty of treason, and each claimant to the throne saw the other as a usurper. This meant that the knights on the losing side of a battle were not simply defeated enemies, but traitors, convicted by their own actions. The penalty for treason was death, and many knights and noblemen were summarily executed on such charges. Others were imprisoned, but again, times had changed. No longer could a knight expect to be imprisoned in relative comfort, and many knights suffered miserable confinements. As noted, Malory himself was imprisoned, which has led many scholars to read an autobiographical element into a passage of Le Morte D’Arthur in which Tristram’s captivity is described:
So Sir Tristram endured there great pain, for sickness had undertake him, and that is the greatest pain a prisoner may have. For all the while a prisoner may have his health of body he may endure under the mercy of God and in hope of good deliverance; but when sickness toucheth a prisoner’s body, then may a prisoner say all wealth is him bereft, and then he hath cause to wail and to weep. Right so did Sir Tristram when sickness had undertake him, and then he took such sorrow that he had almost slain himself.
(Morte D’Arthur, vol. 1, pp. 453-54)
Treating a privileged class of warrior so roughly was not entirely new, but in the Wars of the Roses it seems to have been a widespread tendency, part of an overall trend—chivalry, though still practiced by individual knights, no longer governed warfare.
Persistence of chivalric ideals
If chivalry was seen as an embattled institution in fifteenth-century England, the nobility of the age (and for many generations afterwards) sought energetically to keep it alive. In Malory’s day it was not at all uncommon to find knights who did their best to model themselves after the knights of the Round Table, seeking honor in single combat in warfare, in judicial duels (a duel fought to determine guilt when a knight was accused of an offense), and in tournaments—elaborate ceremonial occasions where heavily armored knights would joust on horseback. Throughout the fifteenth, sixteenth, and even early seventeenth centuries, men possessed and used full suits of armor, and engaged in highly ritualized forms of battle. In 1520, Henry VIII of England hosted an elaborate tournament known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold; the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of France (as well as a host of lesser kings and nobles) attended, and there was a magnificent display of jousting by the finest knights in Europe. In warfare such behavior also persisted. Knights on either side of a battle would formally challenge each other to single combat, and often hostilities would cease so that the bout could take place under properly ordered conditions, and so that all could watch it. In the late sixteenth century the Englishman Ben Jonson (later to find fame as a poet and playwright), while serving with an English army in Flanders, challenged an enemy soldier to single combat during a lull in the fighting. Descended as he was from an old, though impoverished, noble family, he fought in a manner of which Malory would have approved. He skillfully killed his opponent and carried the fallen warrior’s arms triumphantly back to the English camp. The view that true honor could be found only in formal hand-to-hand combat continued to be held for some time, and chivalric (and judicial) combats between individuals persisted even into the nineteenth century. Late medieval and Renaissance knights acted in this manner not so much out of theatrical exuberance (although there was surely an element of this), but in a self-conscious conviction that they were fulfilling their calling as knights. The career of Sir John Astley, Malory’s contemporary, is a case in point. He was an avid collector of chivalric literature, an official at judicial duels, and an actual combatant in chivalric contests that were fought to the death. Skilled at arms, he defeated his opponents repeatedly and lived until 1486. For him, the chivalric past was fully present, and the Arthurian tales, manuals of knighthood, and other books of this sort that he owned were not the diversions of an antiquary, but useful and instructive guides to behavior. As Larry Benson notes, “[g]iven Astley’s interest in chivalric matters … he could well have been one of the ‘noble gentlemen’ who urged Caxton to publish Malory’s work” (Benson, p. 175).
Astley was by no means unique. It is clear that the knightly class of Malory’s day saw the chivalric code, exemplified in the available literature of Arthur and the Round Table knights, as the very core of their being. It was not an issue of nostalgia or even of conservatism. Chivalry was a living and permanent institution for a class of men who saw themselves as participating, in a manner unaffected by the passage of many centuries, in the essence of what made Arthurian England great.
Reception and impact
The impact of Le Morte D’Arthur following its publication was immediate, in that it sustained and animated the tradition of chivalric literature in England. Such literature continued to be published for at least a century afterwards, and it found an enthusiastic readership. In 1590 Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (also in WLAJT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) represented a still-lively taste for knightly heroism and the world of Arthurian magic, and in the mid-seventeenth century, John Milton contemplated writing a long epic poem on King Arthur before deciding to write Paradise Lost (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). But there were also works by people who found such narratives tiresome and ludicrous. Such works include Don Quixote (1605) by the Spanish writer Cervantes, which was widely read in England. The title character is a kindly knight whose foolishness and pretensions to old-style chivalry make the case that there is no place for Arthurian values in the modern world. The play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (first performed 1607-1608, published 1613) by Francis Beaumont voices a similar view, satirizing chivalric literature (and its audience) through the title character, a grocer who is so influenced by Arthurian romances that he tries to live as a knight-errant, with absurd results. In the nineteenth century, Le Morte D’Arthur regained popularity with the rise of neo-medievalism and a taste for the “gothic” in literature. Major works such as Byron’s The Corsair and Lara (1814) and Tennyson’s Idyls of the King (1842-1885) show the pervasive influence of Malory’s romance-epic. It would continue to be rewritten and adapted through the twentieth century, perhaps most notably in T. H. White’s bestselling novel The Once and Future King (1958).
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