Le Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthur
The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (begun 1881), detail, by Edward Burne-Jones (d. 1898), greatly influenced by Le Morte d'Arthur throughout his career.

Le Morte d'Arthur (originally spelled Le Morte Darthur, Middle French for "the death of Arthur"[1]) is a compilation by Sir Thomas Malory of Romance tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. The book interprets existing French and English stories about these figures, with some of Malory's own original material (the Gareth story). First published in 1485 by William Caxton, Le Morte d'Arthur is perhaps the best-known work of English-language Arthurian literature today. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source, including T. H. White for his popular The Once and Future King and Tennyson for The Idylls of the King.


Publication history

Title page (N.C. Wyeth) for The Boy's King Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory's History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Edited for Boys by Sidney Lanier (1922).

Malory probably started work on Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in prison in the early 1450s and completed it by 1470. "Malory did not invent the stories in this collection; he translated and compiled them...Malory in fact translated Arthurian stories that already existed in thirteenth-century French prose (the so-called Old French Vulgate romances) and compiled them together with at least one tale from Middle English sources (the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) to create this text."[2] He called the full work The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, but Caxton instead titled the publication with the name Malory gave to the final section of the cycle. Many modern editions update the spelling and some of the pronouns from Malory's original late Middle English, repunctuate and reparagraph, but otherwise leave the text as it was written; others update phrasing and vocabulary to contemporary Modern English. For example, from Caxton's 'preface', Middle followed by Modern English:

Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renomme.[3]
Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown.[4]

The Middle English of Le Morte D'Arthur is much closer to Early Modern English than the Middle English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The first printing of Malory's work was made by Caxton in 1485; it proved popular, and was reprinted, with some additions and changes, in 1498 and 1529 by Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded Caxton's press. Three more editions followed at intervals to the time of the English Civil War: William Copland's (1557), Thomas East's (1585), and William Stansby's (1634), each of which manifested additional changes and errors (including the omission of an entire leaf). Thereafter the book went out of fashion until the time of the Romantic revival of interest in all things medieval; the year 1816 saw a new edition by Walker and Edwards, and another one by Wilks, both based on the 1634 Stansby edition. From Davison's 1817 edition (promoted by Robert Southey) on, Caxton's 1485 edition (or a mixture of Caxton and Stansby) was used as the basis for future editions, down to the time of the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript.

Caxton was responsible for separating Malory's eight book format into 21 books, subdividing each book into a total of 507 chapters, and adding a summary of each chapter and colophon to the entire book.[5] Originally, Malory divided his work principally into eight tales:

  1. The birth and rise of Arthur: "From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles"
  2. King Arthur's war against the Romans: "The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome"
  3. The book of Lancelot: "The Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac"
  4. The book of Gareth (brother of Gawain): "The Tale of Sir Gareth"
  5. Tristan and Isolde: "The Book of Sir Tristrams de Lyons"
  6. The Quest for the Holy Grail: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal”
  7. The affair between Lancelot and Guinevere: "Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwynevere"
  8. The breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and the death of Arthur: "Le Morte D'Arthur"

Most of the events in the book take place in Britain and France in the latter half of the 5th century. In some parts, it ventures farther afield, to Rome and Sarras (near Babylon), and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Near East.

The Winchester Manuscript

In June 1934, during the cataloging of the library of Winchester College, headmaster W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of the work. Newspaper accounts outlined that what Caxton had published in 1485 was not necessarily exactly what Malory had written.[6] Oakeshott published "The Finding of the Manuscript" in 1963, chronicling the initial event and his realization that "this indeed was Malory," with "startling evidence of revision" in the Caxton edition.[7] The "Winchester Manuscript" is regarded as being mostly, but not always, closer to Malory's original than is Caxton's text, although both derive separately from an earlier copy.[citation needed] Microscopic examination of ink smudges on the Winchester manuscript showed the marks to be offsets of newly printed pages set in Caxton's own font, indicating that same manuscript had been in Caxton's print shop.[citation needed] Unlike the Caxton edition, the Winchester MS is not divided into books and chapters, which Caxton takes credit for devising, in his preface.

Malory scholar Eugène Vinaver examined the manuscript shortly after its discovery. Though he was encouraged to produce an edition himself, Oakeshott ceded the project to Vinaver.[7] Based on his initial study of the manuscript, Oakeshott concluded in 1935 that the copy from which Caxton printed his edition "was already subdivided into books and sections."[8] Based on a more exhaustive study of the manuscript alongside Caxton's edition, Vinaver reached similar conclusions, and in his 1947 edition The Works of Sir Thomas Malory argued that Malory had in fact not written a single book, but produced a series of Arthurian tales which were internally-consistent and independent works. Other scholars have pointed out that Malory, particularly in his later tales, added links to his own versions of events in earlier sections. They argued that Malory felt that the tales should cohere, even if Malory did not get to the point of producing a revision that achieved that goal.[citation needed]


Book I: "From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles" (Caxton I–IV)

Arthur is born to Uther Pendragon and Igraine and then taken by Sir Ector to be fostered in the country. He later becomes the king of a leaderless England when he removes the fated sword from the stone. Arthur goes on to win many battles due to his military prowess and Merlin’s counsel. He then consolidates his kingdom.

This first book also tells "The Tale of Balyn and Balan", which ends in accidental fratricide, and the begetting of Mordred, Arthur’s incestuous son by his half-sister, Morgause (though Arthur did not know her as his half-sister). On Merlin's advice, and reminiscent of Herod's killing of the innocents in scripture, Arthur takes every newborn boy in his kingdom and sends them to sea in a boat. The boat crashes and all but Mordred, who later kills his father, perish. Oddly enough, this is mentioned matter-of-factly, with no apparent moral overtone. Arthur marries Guinevere, and inherits the Round Table from her father Leodegrance. At Pentecost, Arthur gathers his knights at Camelot and establishes the Round Table company. All swear to the Pentecostal Oath as a guide for knightly conduct.

In this first book, Malory addresses 15th century preoccupations with legitimacy and societal unrest, which will appear throughout the rest of the work. As Malorian scholar Helen Cooper states in Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'arthur - The Winchester Manuscript, the prose style (as opposed to verse), which mimics historical documents of the time, lends an air of authority to the whole work. She goes on to state that this allowed contemporaries to read the book as a history rather than as a work of fiction, therefore making it a model of order for Malory's violent and chaotic times during the War of the Roses. Malory's concern with legitimacy reflects the concerns of 15th century England, where many were claiming their rights to power through violence and bloodshed. Genealogy was a way to legitimize power in a less arbitrary manner, and Malory calls this into question.

The Pentecostal Oath (the Oath of the Round Table) counter-balances a lack of moral centre exemplified in the fratricide in "The Tale of Balyn and Balan". Also, once in power, Arthur becomes a king of dubious morals even while he is held up as a beacon of hope. Arthur's most immoral acts are the begetting of Mordred (which is not a strong example, since Arthur had lain with a woman whom he did not know was his half-sister) and the following mass infanticide, which only add to Arthur's shaky morality and cast Merlin in a negative light from which he never emerges. There is even the notion of being overly moral, in that Arthur on two occasions is prepared to burn Guinevere at the stake (reminiscent of King Saul's willingness to sacrifice even his son, Jonathan, if he had done wrong). Arthur's unique notion of morality plagues him for the whole of his reign. The attempt to kill off the infants harks to the tale of Herod seeking to kill the infant Jesus. Thus there is a mixture of splendid, David-like, kingship, and low, Herod-like royalty, that both find their place in Arthur.

In the end, the book still holds out for hope even while the questions of legitimacy and morality continue in the books to follow. Arthur and his knights continually try and fail to live up to their chivalric codes, yet remain figures invested with Malory’s desperate optimism.

Book II: "The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome" (Caxton V)

This book, detailing Arthur's march on Rome, is heavily based on the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, which in turn is heavily based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The opening of Book V finds Arthur and his kingdom without an enemy. His throne is secure, his knights have proven themselves through a series of quests, Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristan have arrived and the court is feasting. When envoys from Emperor Lucius of Rome arrive and accuse Arthur of refusing tribute, "contrary to the statutes and decrees made by the noble and worthy Julius Caesar," Arthur and his knights are stirring for a fight. They are "many days rested" and excited, "for now shall we have warre and worshype." Arthur invokes the lineage of Ser Belyne and Sir Bryne, legendary British conquerors of Rome, and through their blood lineage demands tribute from Lucius under the argument that Britain conquered Rome first. Lucius, apprised of the situation by his envoys, raises a heathen army of the East, composed of Spaniards and Saracens, as well as other enemies of the Christian world. Rome is supposed to be the seat of Christianity, but it is more foreign and corrupt than the courts of Arthur and his allies. Departing from Geoffrey of Monmouth's history in which Mordred is left in charge, Malory's Arthur leaves his court in the hands of Sir Constantine of Cornwall and an advisor. Arthur sails to Normandy to meet his cousin Hoel, but he finds a giant terrorizing the people from the holy island of Mont St. Michel. This giant is the embodiment of senseless violence and chaos, a monster who eats men and rapes women to death. He uses sex as a violent act of control and appetite, divorced from sensuality or reason. Arthur battles him alone, an act of public relations intended to inspire his knights. The fight is closely documented by Malory, a blow-by-blow description of blood and gore. The giant dies after Arthur "swappis his genytrottys in sondir" and "kut his baly in sundir, that oute wente the gore". When Arthur does fight Lucius and his armies it is almost anticlimactic, when compared to his struggles with the giant. Arthur and his armies defeat the Romans, Arthur is crowned Emperor, a proxy government is arranged for the Roman Empire and Arthur returns to London where his queen welcomes him royally.

This book is Malory's attempt to validate violence as a right to rule. In the Geoffrey of Monmouth history Arthur refutes the basis of Rome's demands because "nothing acquired by force and violence is justly possessed by anyone". His demand of tribute is a parallel request that emphasizes the absurdity of Rome's request. In the end, Malory seems to find violence lacking. Despite the neat resolution with Arthur as Emperor he never again tries this "might makes right" tactic. Similarly, Malory's treatment of the Giant of Mont St. Michel seems to be an exploration of violence in his own society where powerful men committed seemingly-senseless acts of violence.

Book III: "The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac" (Caxton VI)

In this tale, Malory establishes Lancelot as King Arthur's most revered knight. Among Lancelot's numerous episodic adventures include being enchanted into a deep sleep by Morgan le Fay and having to escape her castle, proving victorious in a tournament fighting on behalf of King Bagdemagus, slaying the mighty Sir Turquine who had been holding several of Arthur's knights prisoner, and also overcoming the betrayal of a damsel to defend himself unarmed against Sir Phelot.

These adventures address several major issues developed throughout Le Morte Darthur. Among the most important is the fact Lancelot always adheres to the Pentecostal Oath. Throughout this tale he assists damsels in distress and provides mercy for knights he has defeated in battle. However, the world Lancelot lives in is too complicated for simple mandates. This can be seen when a damsel betrays Lancelot and he must fight Sir Phelot unarmed. Although Lancelot aspires to live by an ethical code, the actions of others make it difficult for the Pentecostal Oath to fully establish a social order.

Another major issue this text addresses is demonstrated when Morgan le Fay enchants Lancelot. This action reflects a feminization of magic along with a clear indication that Merlin’s role within the text has been diminished. The tournament fighting in this tale indicates a shift away from war towards a more mediated and virtuous form of violence.

On courtly love, Malory attempts to shift the focus of courtly love from adultery to service by having Lancelot admit to doing everything he does for Guinevere, but never admit to having an adulterous relationship with her. However, a close parsing of his words can perhaps allow Lancelot to retain his honorable word, for he never says that he has not lain with the queen, but rather that if anyone makes such a claim, he will fight them (the assumption being that God will cause the liar to lose). Further, since Lancelot—who in all of the book never breaks his word or lies—claims that the queen was never untrue to her lord, then it seems to be the case that he must consider his love of the queen to be somehow pure or special, not an act of unfaithfulness to the king he loves and serves. Although this forbidden love is the catalyst of the fall of Camelot (i.e., the Round Table, for it was at Camelot/Winchester that the Round Table met, though Arthur lived and governed from another location), the book's moral handling of the adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere (and the love between Tristan and Isoud) implies that it is understood that if a love is somehow true and pure—especially if the knights be especially noble and honorable—that it is seen more as a foible than the depraved act of adultery. Only in the end of the book, when Arthur is dead and Guinevere has become a nun, does she reproach herself and Lancelot for their love, now understanding that it brought about the fall of Camelot, the death of 100,000 knights, and her great sorrow. Thus, she wills to spend the rest of her life offering penitence for what, in earlier chapters, seemed of no particular moral concern (outside of the care to not be caught in the act). In fact, it is understood that Lancelot is of such honor that he would never have committed adultery without the express willingness or invitation of Guinevere.

In this way, Malory focused on the ennobling aspects of courtly love. The attempt is undercut by the other characters who constantly insinuate that Lancelot is sleeping with Guinevere. Lancelot's obsessive denial that the queen had been untrue implies that he only defines himself through his actions towards women. Furthermore, Lancelot and Guinevere function within the French romantic tradition wherein Guinevere provides Lancelot with order. On numerous occasions he refuses the love of other women and sends Guinevere knights he has defeated in battle who must appeal to her for forgiveness. This proves somewhat problematic because it provides some evidence of Lancelot's love for the queen, which is ultimately used to force division between Lancelot and Arthur.

Book IV: "The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney" (Caxton VII)

The tale of Sir Gareth begins with his arrival at court as le bel inconnu, or the fair unknown. He comes without a name and therefore without a past. Sir Kay mockingly calls the unknown young man "Beaumains," and treats him with contempt and condescension. An unknown woman, later revealed to be the Dame Lynette, eventually comes to court asking for assistance against the Red Knight of the Red Lands, and Gareth takes up the quest. On his quest, he encounters the Black, Green, Red, and Blue knights and the Red knight of the Red Lands. He kills the Black Knight, incorporates the others into Arthur’s court, and rescues Lynette's sister Lyonesse. Lustily in love with Lyonesse, Gareth conspires to consummate their relationship before marrying. Only by the magical intervention of Lynette is their tryst unsuccessful, thus preserving Gareth's virginity and, presumably, his standing with God. Gareth later counsels Lyonesse to report to King Arthur and pretend she doesn’t know where he is; instead, he tells her to announce a tournament of his knights against the Round Table. This allows Gareth to disguise himself and win honor by defeating his brother knights. The heralds eventually acknowledge that he is Sir Gareth right as he strikes down Sir Gawain, his brother. The book ends with Gareth rejoining his fellow knights and marrying Lyonesse.

In the book, there are only two knights that have ever held against Sir Lancelot in tournament: Tristram and Gareth. This was always under conditions where one or both parties were unknown by the other, for these knights loved each other "passingly well." Gareth was knighted by Lancelot himself when he took upon him the adventure on behalf of Dame Lynette. Much later, Gareth is accidentally slain by his beloved Lancelot when Guinevere is rescued from being burnt at the stake by King Arthur.

This story seems unengaged with the problems that Malory addresses elsewhere in the text: there is no known source for this book, and in other tales, knights are always interacting with other knights from the Round Table, but not here. There are no consequences for Gareth’s battles with them as there are during battles with other knights from the Round Table.

The second half of the book brings into question Gareth’s true commitment to the chivalric code. He displays decidedly underhanded behavior in his quest for worship and personal fulfillment. Gareth uses deceit to achieve his aims ; however, pays a price for his deception as he strikes his brother Gawaine from his horse - he breaks one of the strongest bonds of loyalty by winning honor through the defeat of a kinsman.

Although the book concludes happily, it raises a number of questions of whether Gareth is a successful knight . The book presents matrimony as one possible way of validating the knightly order, but Gareth's example is fraught with complications that serve to undermine it as a viable option. In one sense, his marriage has been presented as a stabilizing force in chivalric society - Gareth’s tale stands in contrast to the Tristram or the Lancelot. However, Gareth’s readiness to sleep with Lyonesse before marriage questions how dedicated Gareth is to the ideal

Book V: "The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione" (Caxton VIII–XII)

In “The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Malory tells the tales of Sir Tristan (Trystram), Sir Dinadan, Sir Palamedes, Sir La Cote De Male Tayle, Sir Alexander, and a variety of other knights. Based on the French Prose Tristan, or a lost English adaptation of it, Malory's Tristan section is the literal centerpiece of Le Morte D’Arthur as well as the longest of the eight books.

The book displays a very realistic and jaded view of the world of chivalry. It is rife with adultery, characterized most visibly in Sir Tristan and the Belle Isolde. However, it should be noted that Sir Tristan had met and fallen in love with Isolde earlier, and that his uncle, King Mark, jealous of Tristan and seeking to undermine him, appears to seek marriage to Isolde for just such a hateful purpose, going so far as to ask Tristan to go and seek her hand on his behalf (which Tristan, understanding that to be his knightly duty, does). Sir Tristan is the namesake of the book and his adulterous relationship with Isolde, his uncle Mark’s wife, is one of the focuses of the section. The knights, Tristan included, operate on very personal or political concerns rather than just the standard provided by the world of Pentecostal Oath as we have seen it so far. One knight, Sir Dinidan, takes this so far as to run away or refuse to fight if he sees any risk. However, it should be understood that Sir Dinidan is a playful, humorous knight that, in later chapters, shows himself to be brave and noble. It is unclear whether his refusals to fight are part of his comic character or otherwise. Other knights, even knights of the Round Table, make requests that show the dark side of the world of chivalry. In one episode, Sir Bleoberys, one of Lancelot’s cousins, claims another knight’s wife for his own and rides away with her until stopped by Sir Tristan. In another, when Tristan defeats Sir Blamore, another knight of the Round Table, Blamore asks Tristan to kill him because he would rather die than have his reputation tarnished by the defeat.

The variety of episodes and the alleged lack of a cohesive nature in the Tristan narrative raise questions about its role in Malory’s text entirely. However, the book foreshadows the rest of the text as well as includes and interacts with characters and tales discussed in other parts of the work. It can be seen as an exploration of the secular chivalry and a discussion of honor or “worship” when it is founded in a sense of shame and pride. If Le Morte is viewed as a text in which Malory is attempting to define knighthood, then Tristan becomes an important critique of chivalry and knighthood as he interacts with the real world, rather than attempting to create an example as he does with some of the other books.

Of all the knights, Tristan most mirrors that of Lancelot. He loves a queen, the wife of another. Also, Tristan is considered a knight as strong and able as even Lancelot, though they became beloved friends. We find in the book, and only in passing in the latter chapters, that Tristan, after taking Isolde from King Mark and living with her for some time (due to King Mark's treasonous behavior, etc.), returned her to King Mark, only to be later treasonously killed by King Mark while he, Tristan, was "harping" (he was noted in the book for being one of the greatest of musicians and falconers).

Book VI: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” (Caxton XIII–XVII)

Malory’s primary source for "The Noble Tale of the Sangreal" is the French Vulgate Cycle’s La Queste Del Saint Graal. Within Malory's version, the text chronicles the adventures of numerous knights in their quest to achieve the Holy Grail. The Grail first appears in the hall of King Arthur "coverde with whyght samyte", and it miraculously produces meat and drink for the knights. Gawain is the first to declare that he "shall laboure in the Queste of the Sankgreall". His reason for embarking on the quest is that he may see the Grail "more opynly than hit hath bene shewed" before, in addition to the potential for more "metys and drynkes". Likewise, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and Galahad also decide to undergo the quest. Their exploits intermingle with encounters with young maidens and hermits, who offer advice and interpret dreams along the way. Despite the presence of hermits, the text overall lacks an officiating Catholic presence. It might[original research?] be argued, however, that this is not the case, for not only does the pope send a papal bull to end the war between Arthur and Lancelot, but there are bishops, the "receiving the Savior"/communion, making of the cross, and references to the Virgin Mary.. There are also instances of penance when hermits advise Gawain, Lancelot, and others to atone for their sins. Whereas Gawain simply refuses to do so, Lancelot recognizes his offense of placing Queen Guinevere before God. And though he does at that point renounce this transgression, later, after seeing all of the Grail that he will be permitted to see, he yields and falls again for Guinevere. The only knights to achieve the Grail are Percival, Bors, and Galahad. The story culminates with Galahad vanishing before the eyes of his fellow knights as his soul departs "to Jesu Cryste" by means of a "grete multitude of angels [who] bare hit up to hevyn".

After the confusion of the secular moral code as manifested in the Pentecostal Oath within "The Fyrst and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones", Malory attempts to construct a new mode of chivalry by placing an emphasis on religion and Christianity in "The Sankgreal". However, the role of the Catholic Church is drastically subverted within the text, and this illustrates 15th-century England’s movement away from the establishment of the Church and toward mysticism. Within the text the Church offers a venue through which the Pentecostal Oath can be upheld, whereas the strict moral code imposed by religion foreshadows an almost certain failure on the part of the knights. For example, Gawain is often dubbed a secular knight, as he refuses to do penance for his sins, claiming the tribulations that coexist with knighthood as a sort of secular penance. Likewise, Lancelot, for all his sincerity, is unable to completely escape his adulterous love of Guinevere, and is thus destined to fail where Galahad will succeed. This coincides with the personification of perfection in the form of Galahad. Because Galahad is the only knight who lives entirely without sin, this leaves both the audience and the other knights with a model of perfection that seemingly cannot be emulated either through chivalry or religion.

Book VII: "Sir Lancelot and Queen Gwenyvere" (Caxton XVIII–XIX)

At the beginning of the book, "Sir Launcelot and Queene Gwenyvere," Malory tells his readers that the pair started behaving carelessly in public, stating that "Launcelot began to resort unto the Queene Guinevere again and forget the promise and the perfection that he made in the Quest… and so they loved together more hotter than they did beforehand"(Cooper, 402). They indulged in "privy draughts together" and behaved in such a way that "many in the court spoke of it"(Cooper, 402).

This book also includes the "knight of the cart" episode, where Mellyagaunce kidnapped Guinevere and her unarmed knights and held them prisoner in his castle. After Mellyagaunce's archers killed his horse, Launcelot was forced to ride to the castle in a cart in order to save the queen. Knowing Lancelot was on his way, Mellyagaunce pleaded to Guinevere for mercy, which she granted and then forced Lancelot to stifle his rage against Mellyagaunce.

It is in this same book where Malory mentions Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery. Malory says, "So, to passe upon this tale, Sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the Quene and toke no force of his hurte honed, but toke his plesaunce and hys lyknge untyll hit was the dawning of the day" (633). Sir Mellyagaunce, upon finding blood in Guinevere's bed, was so convinced of her unfaithfulness to Arthur that he was willing to fight in an attempt to prove it to others. After Guinevere made it known that she wanted Mellyagaunce dead, Launcelot killed him even though Mellyagaunce begged for mercy (but only after Mellyagaunce agreed to continue fighting with Lancelot's helmet removed, his left side body armor removed, and his left hand tied behind his back—Lancelot felt it necessary to finish the bout, but would not slay Mellyagaunce unless Mellyagaunce agreed to continue fighting).

This is the first time Malory explicitly mentions the couple's adultery. Malory purposely shows this event as occurring once. He intends for his readers to believe the couple's adultery was much more than a singular incident. The moment lacks romance or chivalry. The entire text depends upon this adulterous moment, and yet Malory sums it up into one sentence. Malory's refusal to expand upon their adultery demonstrates his insistence that adultery is always dangerous and never ennobling. But it could also be argued that Malory's reluctance to describe their physical adultery demonstrates a reluctance on his part to condemn them for it, which is supported by his assertion that Guinevere had a good end to her life because she was a true and honest lover to Lancelot . The book ends with Lancelot's healing of Sir Urry of Hungary, where Malory notes that Lancelot is the only knight out of hundreds to be successful in this endeavor.

Malory presents Guinevere in a more negative light than his French predecessors. Guinevere is so contemptible in this book that it is difficult to understand Lancelot's reason for loving her. Malory goes so far as to suggest Guinevere uses charms or enchantments to win Lancelot's love. While Guinevere remains unlikeable throughout this book, Lancelot is a more problematic character. He is a flawed knight, certainly, but the best one Malory gives us. He has committed treason unto King Arthur and yet is the only knight virtuous enough to heal Sir Urry. After healing Sir Urry, Lancelot wept as a "chylde that had bene beatyn," (644) because he recognized his own failure as a person and as a knight. Malory tries to contrast virtue and love with desire and failure as he further emphasizes the instability of the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere and, ultimately, the text itself.

There is some reason to think that Malory may have been ambivalent about their adultery because it was supposedly of such a noble and endearing type. That is, it was not simply sexual, but based on a true love of each other (though both loved Arthur also). Guinevere is given to fits of jealousy and pettiness when she finds that Lancelot has shown any degree of affection toward another woman, regardless of the situation (e.g., the enchantment that caused him to sire Galahad). But though she has these flaws, Arthur and Lancelot both hold her to be the best woman of the world.

Book VIII: "The Death of Arthur" (Caxton XX–XXI)

The Death of King Arthur by James Archer (1823–1904), who began painting Arthurian subjects in about 1859.

In this book, brothers Mordred and Agravaine have been scheming to uncover Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery for quite some time. When they find an opportune moment to finally and concretely reveal the adulterous relationship, Lancelot kills Agravaine and several others and escapes. Arthur is forced to sentence Guinevere to burn at the stake, and orders his surviving nephews, Gawain, Mordred, Gareth, and Gaheris, to guard the scene, knowing Lancelot will attempt a rescue. Gawain flatly refuses to be part of any act that will treat the queen shamefully. His younger brothers, Gaheris and Gareth, unable to deny the king's request that they escort Guinevere to the stake to be burnt, advise that they will do so at his command, but they will not arm themselves except for their helmets. When Lancelot's party raids the execution, many knights are killed, including, by accident, Gareth and Gaheris. Gawain, bent on revenge for their deaths, prompts Arthur into a war with Lancelot, first at his castle in northern England. At this point the Pope steps in and issues a bill to end the violence between Arthur's and Lancelot's factions. Shortly thereafter, Arthur pursues Lancelot to his home in France to continue the fight. Gawain challenges Lancelot to a duel, but loses and asks Lancelot to kill him; Lancelot refuses and grants him mercy before leaving. This event plays out twice, each time Lancelot playing a medieval version of rope-a-dope due to Gawain's enchantment/blessing to grow stronger between 9 a.m. and noon, then striking down Gawain, but sparing his life.

Arthur receives a message that Mordred, whom he had left in charge back in Britain, has usurped his throne, and he leads his forces back home. In the invasion Gawain is mortally injured, and writes to Lancelot, asking for his help against Mordred, and for forgiveness for separating the Round Table. In a dream, the departed Gawain tells Arthur to wait thirty days for Lancelot to return to England before fighting Mordred, and Arthur sends Lucan and Bedivere to make a temporary peace treaty. At the exchange, an unnamed knight draws his sword to kill an adder. The other knights construe this as treachery and a declaration of war. Seeing no other recourse, at the Battle of Salisbury, Arthur charges Mordred and impales him with a spear. But with the last of his strength, Mordred impales himself even further, so as to come within striking distance of King Arthur, then gives a mortal blow to Arthur’s head.

As he is dying, Arthur commands Bedivere to cast Excalibur into the lake, where it is retrieved by the hand of the Lady of the Lake. A barge appears, carrying ladies in black hoods (one being Morgan le Fay), who take Arthur to his grave. When Lancelot returns to Dover, he mourns the deaths of his comrades. Lancelot travels to Almesbury to see Guinevere, now a nun, and follows her lead by becoming a monk. Arthur's successor is appointed (Constantine, son of King Carados of Scotland), and the realm that Arthur created is significantly changed. After the deaths of Guinevere and Lancelot, Sirs Bors, Hector, Blamore, and Bleoberis head to the Holy Land to crusade against the Turks, where they die on Good Friday.

Guinevere is portrayed as a scapegoat for violence without developing her perspective or motivation. Despite this unsympathetic portrayal, the growth of Morgan le Fay as a character through her reconciliation with Arthur on the barge could call these interpretations of misogyny into question. Malory’s portrayal of Lancelot is more sympathetic than that of Guinevere and tries to redeem him as the most honorable knight. The portrayals are equally unflattering because Guinevere is Lancelot’s impetus for action. Lancelot cannot satisfy Gawain by explaining that, in the tumult to save the queen, and with their helmets being on, he did not know that he had slain Gawain's brothers; nor did he know that they were unarmed. Lancelot later claims that due to his great love of Gareth, who he had made a knight, he would never have killed him intentionally. General interpretations find the Pope’s failure to settle Lancelot and Gawain’s feud as characteristic of the failure of the institution of religion to provide ethical guidance throughout the text, echoing “The Noble Tale of the Sankgreal.” However, in the book, the papal bull is actually accepted. But while Gawain respects the pope's bull, he also perhaps sees that there is a loophole in that while the bull stops the fighting for now, it does not prevent future warfare. Thus, Gawain tells Lancelot that within a period of time, the war will resume. With the failure of institutions and the collapse of the Round Table, the only hope Malory can offer the reader is in Arthur’s second coming to recover the throne, a hope fostered by the inscription on Arthur’s grave: HIC JACET ARTURUS REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS, or "Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King".

The death of Arthur

Later publications

"How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water", illustration for Le Morte Darthur, J. M. Dent & Co., London (1893-1894), by Aubrey Beardsley.

The Victorian poet Tennyson based his retelling of the legends in the Idylls of the King primarily on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the Mabinogion, but with many expansions, additions, and several adaptations, a notable example of which is the fate of Guinevere. In Malory she is sentenced to be burnt at the stake but is rescued by Lancelot; in the Idylls Guinevere flees to a convent, is forgiven by Arthur, repents, and serves in the convent until she dies. Tennyson amended the traditional spellings of several names to fit the metre.

In 1892, London publisher J. M. Dent & Co. decided to produce an illustrated edition of Le Morte Darthur. They chose a 20 year old insurance-office clerk and art student, Aubrey Beardsley, to illustrate the work. It was issued in 12 parts between June 1893 and mid-1894, and met with only modest success at the time. However, it has since been described as Beardsley's first masterpiece, launching what has come to be known as the "Beardsley look".[9] It was his first major commission, and included nearly 585 chapter openings, borders, initials, ornaments and full- or double-page illustrations. Most of the Dent edition illustrations were reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, in 1972 under the title Beardsley's Illustrations for Le Morte Darthur. A facsimile of the Beardsley edition, complete with Malory's unabridged text, was published in the 1990s.

In 1922, American poet Sidney Lanier published a much watered-down and expurgated version of Malory's book entitled The Boy's King Arthur. This version was later incorporated into Grosset and Dunlap's series of books called the Illustrated Junior Library, and reprinted under the title King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.[10]

John Steinbeck used the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and other sources as the original text for The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in 1976. The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table was published mainly for young people. Besides Steinbeck's work, there are at least three modern English language versions. The first was published anonymously in 1950; the second by Roger Lancelyn Green, Richard Lancelyn Green and Lotte Reiniger (illustrator), reissued in 1995, and the third by Emma Gelders Sterne, Barbara Lindsay, Gustaf Tenggren and Mary Pope Osborne, published 2002.

Scholar Keith Baines published a modernized English version of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur for Signet Classics.


Until the presentation of the Winchester Manuscript in 1934 the 1485 edition printed by William Caxton was considered the earliest known text of Le Morte d'Arthur and that closest to Malory's translation and compilation.[11] Modern editions are inevitably variable, changing a variety of spelling, grammar, and/or pronouns for the convenience of readers of modern English.

The Arthurian characters and tales act like litmus, responding to the issues, aspirations, and anxieties of readerships in every different time and place that they touch. But Arthurian narratives can also act on the cultures that reproduce them, whether expressing an idealizing national wish about the "Camelot" Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, or articulating English King Edward I's symbolic kinship with the Welsh in hopes of military advantage in the late 1200s...
—Bryan (1994), p.x[12]
These and other controversies [providential historiography vs. Christian penance, courtly love vs. adultery] operating within the accumulation of tales and genres lend some force, ironically, to Caxton's claim that readers should look to this text for moral example. Caxton instructed readers of this narrative of knights' adventures to "Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renommee." It is ultimately the enormous complexity of conflicting demands that will engage moral sensibilities of readers of this text.
—Bryan, p.xii.[3]
I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed came from [Le Morte d'Arthur]....It did not seem strange to me that Uther Pendragon wanted the wife of his vassal and took her by trickery. I was not frightened to find that there were evil knights, as well as noble ones. In my own town there were men who wore the clothes of virtue whom I knew to be bad....If I could not choose my way at the crossroads of love and loyalty, neither could Lancelot. I could understand the darkness of Mordred because he was in me too; and there was some Galahad in me, but perhaps not enough. The Grail feeling was there, however, deep-planted, and perhaps always will be.

See also

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The work itself

  • Editions based on the Winchester manuscript:
    • Facsimile:
    • Original spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. (A Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Shepherd, Stephen H. A. (2004). New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-97464-2. (Official website with textual corrections and further commentary: Stephen H. A. Shepherd: Le Morte Darthur: On-line companion.)
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène. 3rd ed. Field, Rev. P. J. C. (1990). 3 vol. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-812344-2, ISBN 0-19-812345-0, ISBN 0-19-812346-9.
      • _________. Malory: Complete Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1977). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-281217-3. (Revision and retitling of Malory: Works of 1971).
      • _________. Malory: Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1971). 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-254163-3.
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1967). 2nd ed. 3 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-811838-4.
      • _________. Malory: Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1954). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-254163-3. (Malory's text from Vinaver's The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947), in a single volume dropping most of Vinaver's notes and commentary.)
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1947). 3 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    • Modernised spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Ed. Cooper, Helen (1998). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-282420-1. (Abridged text.)
    • Translation/paraphrase into contemporary English:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. Trans. and abridged by Baines, Keith (1983). New York: Bramhall House. ISBN 0-517-02060-2. Reissued by Signet (2001). ISBN 0-451-52816-6.
      • _________. Le Morte D'Arthur. (London Medieval & Renaissance Ser.) Trans. Lumiansky, Robert M. (1982). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-684-17673-4.
      • Steinbeck, John, and Thomas Malory. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources. (1976) New York: Noonday Press. Reissued 1993. ISBN 0-374-52378-9.
      • Brewer, D.S. Malory: The Morte Darthur. York Medieval Texts, Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, Gen. Eds. (1968) London: Edward Arnold. Reissued 1993. ISBN 0-7131-5326-1. (Modernized spelling version of Books 7 and 8 as a complete story in its own right. Based on Winchester MS, but with changes taken from Caxton, and some emendations by Brewer.)
      • Armstrong, Dorsey. Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript (Renaissance and Medieval Studies) Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2009. ISBN 1-60235-103-1.
  • Editions based on Caxton's edition:
    • Facsimile:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur, printed by William Caxton, 1485. Ed. Needham, Paul (1976). London.
    • Original spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Caxton's Malory. Ed. Spisak, James. W. (1983). 2 vol. boxed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03825-8.
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Sommer, H. Oskar (1889–91). 3 vol. London: David Nutt. The text of Malory from this edition without Sommer's annotation and commentary and selected texts of Malory's sources is available on the web at:
    • Modernised spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Matthews, John (2000). Illustrated by Ferguson, Anna-Marie. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-35367-1. (The introduction by John Matthews praises the Winchester text but then states this edition is based on the Pollard version of the Caxton text, with eight additions from the Winchester manuscript.)
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur. Introduction by Moore, Helen (1996). Herefordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1-85326-463-6. (Seemingly based on the Pollard text.)
      • _________. Le morte d'Arthur. Introduction by Bryan, Elizabeth J. (1994). New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-60099-X. (Pollard text.)
      • _________. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Cowen, Janet (1970). Introduction by Lawlor, John. 2 vols. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-043043-1, ISBN 0-14-043044-X.
      • _________. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Rhys, John (1906). (Everyman's Library 45 & 46.) London: Dent; London: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton. Released in paperback format in 1976: ISBN 0-460-01045-X, ISBN 0-460-01046-8. (Text based on an earlier modernised Dent edition of 1897.)
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur: Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table,. Ed. Pollard, A. W. (1903). 2 vol. New York: Macmillan. (Text corrected from the bowdlerised 1868 Macmillan edition edited by Sir Edward Strachey.) Available on the web at:
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Simmon, F. J. (1893–94). Illustrated by Beardsley, Aubrey. 2 vol. London: Dent.
    • Limerick translation: Le Morte d'Arthur, an Epic Limerick, 2006, by Jacob Wenzel, ISBN 978-1-4116-8987-9



  1. ^ Since morte (or mort) is a feminine noun, French would require the article la (i.e., "la mort d'Arthur"). According to Stephen H. A. Shepherd, "Malory frequently misapplies le in titular compounds, perhaps on a simple sonic and gender-neutral analogy with 'the'". Stephen H. A. Shepherd, ed., Le Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 1n.
  2. ^ Bryan (1994), p.viii-ix.
  3. ^ a b Bryan (1994), p.xii.
  4. ^ Bryan, ed. (1999), p.xviii.
  5. ^ Bryan (2004), p.ix
  6. ^ W. F. Oakeshott. "The Text of Malory". http://virtual.park.uga.edu/~jdmevans/public/september.html. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  7. ^ a b Walter F. Oakeshott, "The Finding of the Manuscript," Essays on Malory, ed. J. A. W. Bennett (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 1-6.
  8. ^ Walter F. Oakeshott, "Caxton and Malory's Morte Darthur," Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (1935), 112-116.
  9. ^ Dover Publications (1972). Beardsley's Illustrations for Le Morte Darthur, Publisher's note & back cover.
  10. ^ http://www.amazon.com/Arthur-Knights-Illustrated-Junior-Library/dp/0448060167
  11. ^ Bryan, Elizabeth J. (1994/1999). "Sir Thomas Malory", Le Morte D'Arthur, p.vii. Modern Library. New York. ISBN 0-679-60099-X.
  12. ^ Bryan (1994), p.x.
  13. ^ Bryan (1999). Le Morte D'Arthur, back cover.

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