272. Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1470)

Source : Le Morte Darthur : The Winchester Manuscript, by Sir Thomas Malory, edited and abridged by Helen Cooper, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.

Thoughts : Although the title suggests it focuses on the death of King Arthur, this book actually covers the life of Arthur : from the civil war that broke out due to his father King Uther Pendragon’s lust for the wife of the Duke of Tintagel and her magically assisted seduction which begets Arthur; through a lengthy collection of Arthurian legends of the Knights of the Round Table, generally involving passing good knights meeting each other in forest glens to engage in fierce combat, and undertaking quests including of course the Quest for the Grail, Lancelot’s love for Queen Guinevere and her suspicions of his unfaithfulness to her, and ultimately the death of Arthur following the treachery of his illegitimate and incestuously derived son Mordred.

Merlin features at the beginning, assisting Uther and later Arthur, but he is fated to be trapped under a rock, and plays no part in later adventures. It is not surprisingly that events continue to spiral into chaos from the high ideal of the Round Table – there is a lot of incest, adultery and excessive pride in many of the stories. At one point Arthur orders all babies born in May to be drowned at sea to ensure his son Mordred cannot grow up to challenge him – not particularly chivalrous or regal behavior!

But the growing tragedy of the story is told in the last third, and describes the destruction of the Fellowship of the Round Table, starting with the rush of Knights to seek the Grail, which quest only serves to lead many of them to their deaths, or show up their moral weaknesses. This is followed by Mordred’s obsession with proving Guinevere unfaithful, and the ensuing war between Arthur and Lancelot which leads Mordred to gain control of the throne and attempt to wed the Queen. Arthur and his depleted army come to face Mordred and the fickle English forces, and the last surviving knights cast away their swords and become hermits.

Malory collected together French and English sources for his collection. This might explain how certain characters (notably Sir Gawain) oscillate between heroism and villainy.

Another thought that crossed my mind as I read: Shakespeare wrote thirty something plays, yet never ventured into the truly British stories of Arthur, Robin Hood or King Alfred.

Favourite scenes:

(i) Sir Lancelot and Sir Tarquin come to blows

“Ah,” said Sir Tarquin, “thou art to me most welcome of any knight, for we shall never depart till the one of us be dead.”  Then they hurtled together as two wild bulls, rushing and lashing with their shields and swords, that sometimes they fell both on their noses.       page 106

(ii) Sir Gareth escorts the damosel Lynette across country despite her constant stinging insults and criticisms, to aid her in lifting the siege of the Red Knight against her sister’s castle. She believes him to be “a stinking kitchen knave” but gradually her respect for him grows as he defeats all comers. Not being a modern Hollywood romantic comedy, Gareth falls in love and marries her sister Lyonesse, while Lynette marries his brother Gaheris.

Personal rating:  6/10

In the years 1410-1450:

  • Henry IV of England dies, 1413, succeeded by his son, Henry V, who sets out to regain the French throne, winning the Battle of Agincourt, 1415; and the Seine, 1416.
  • Medici family become bankers to the Pope, 1414
  • Sir John Oldcastle, supposed model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff, is executed for heresy, 1416
  • Jeanne d’Arc hears voices, 1428, urging her to support the Dauphin and raise the siege of Orleans and defeat the English. Captured by the Burgundian allies of the English, she is burnt at the stake, 1431.
  • Albrecht II becomes German Emperor, first of the Hapsburg rulers, 1438
  • Aztecs under Montezuma expand their empire, 1440s
  • Lancastrians and Yorkians, two branches of the English Royal family are rivals for the throne, 1448- .

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978


PS A quick prayer to all readers to stay safe and well. Those of you self-isolating, be sure you have plenty of good books and the tipple of your choice nearby.


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