Top critical review
24 people found this helpful
Idealism Doomed by Human Weakness
on 25 May 2010
Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur " is perhaps the best-known version of the Arthurian legends in English. Despite the title, "the death of Arthur", the work does not deal solely with King Arthur's death but rather with the whole of his life and reign. The error appears to have originated with Malory's first publisher William Caxton who applied the title of Malory's final section to the entire work. The book retells some well-known stories from French and English sources, such as the Sword in the Stone, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the romance of Tristan and Isolde, the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guinevere and the death of King Arthur at the hands of the traitor Mordred. One of the book's eight sections, the Tale of Sir Gareth, appears to be Malory's own invention.
The identity of the author is not precisely known. During the time it was being written, during the 1450s and 1460s, there were at least six men named Thomas Malory living in England, but most (although not all) modern scholars attribute the work to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. This individual lived from around 1413 to 1470, so would have lived through the latter part of the Hundred Years War as well as the Wars of the Roses. He appears to have been a colourful character who served as an MP for Warwickshire but also served time in prison for various offences including rape and robbery. There is an irony if such a man was indeed the author of Le Morte D'Arthur, as one of the work's major themes is how one might reconcile two of the great preoccupations of the Middle Ages, love of God and love of violence.
There is some doubt as to whether King Arthur ever existed, and to judge from Caxton's preface there were some people who had doubts about his existence even in the 1400s. Malory, however, presents his work as though it were the true story of a real historical figure who lived about a thousand years before his own time. The work is, however, anachronistic in that the society which Malory describes bears a much greater resemblance to that of the fifteenth century than it does to that of the fifth. Malory even makes reference to cannon, even though firearms were only introduced into Europe about a century before his birth. (Mind you, the only character who actually makes use of guns is Mordred. Perhaps Malory saw them as the coward's weapon.)
Indeed, the whole work is based around an anachronism. Although fifth-century societies had warriors, they had no concept of the institution of knighthood or chivalry, something which grew up in the later Middle Ages. This institution may have developed in an attempt to reconcile warfare with Christian ideals. In "Le Morte d'Arthur" these ideals are represented by the Pentecostal Oath sworn by the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur makes his knights swear that they will only fight in a righteous cause, show mercy to defeated opponents, uphold justice, fight against oppression, protect the poor and weak and respect the chastity of women.
A key concept in the book is "honour"- except that Malory generally does not use this Norman-French loanword, preferring the native English "worship", with all its religious connotations. A knight can gain worship by mighty feats of arms, provided they are performed in a worthy cause. A knight will lose worship if he fights in an evil cause or if he fights unfairly, such as by striking an opponent who is wounded or unhorsed.
Yet despite this note of idealism, Malory's vision is at heart a pessimistic one. The only knight who wholly lives up to these ideals is Galahad, who is rewarded with a vision of the Holy Grail but dies young. Galahad's father Lancelot, in other respects a paragon of knighthood, is deemed unworthy because of his adultery with Queen Guinevere, and most of the other knights fall a lot further short of the ideals expressed in the Pentecostal Oath than does Lancelot. Even Arthur himself, although initially presented as a beacon of hope, is far from being an idealised monarch- he fathers a child, for instance, by his own sister. It is the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere which leads to the civil war which devastates the kingdom, to the downfall of the Round Table and to the death of Arthur. Malory was doubtless inspired to write these passages by the civil war which had devastated England in his own lifetime and his message is clear; idealism is doomed to failure by human weakness.
My comments are based upon the Wordsworth edition which modernises the spelling and punctuation but otherwise leaves the text as it was first published by Caxton. The modern reader's main problem with the work is unlikely to be Malory's language- there are only a handful of unfamiliar vocabulary items, and the Wordsworth edition provides a helpful glossary of these- but his long-winded prose style and tendency to repeat himself. Apart from the Holy Grail sequences, which are more like an extended religious allegory, the narrative tends to fall into a very familiar pattern- Knight A rides out, meets Knight B, fights with him, overcomes him and then moves on to a fight with Knight C, which is described in similar terms. Even Malory's similes become repetitive- two knights fighting are generally likened to two wild boars hurtling together, even though these creatures had been extinct in England for around two hundred years at the time he was writing. Malory's passion for informing us exactly how many knights Lancelot or Gawaine unhorsed at some particular tournament recalls that of the football anorak who can recite by heart all Sheffield Wednesday's results from the 1956-57 season.
Some modern editions abridge the text, and I can understand why. "Le Morte D'Arthur" may be the best-known work of English-language Arthurian literature today, but as another reviewer has pointed out "well-known" does not always equate to "widely read", and I suspect that most readers today will owe their familiarity with the story to a modern retelling. The original, at least in its unabridged form, will probably be of most interest to those with an academic interest in the development of English literature.