Fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table seems as popular as ever, so this week I want to recommend one of the great classics of Arthurian fiction – `Le Morte D’Arthur’ (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory. Don’t be put off by the French title or the fact that this book was written in the 15th century. It is in English and Malory’s prose isn’t too hard to follow. The two-volume Penguin Classics edition, edited by Janet Cowen, has modernised spelling and a useful glossary. You can also download the text for free via Project Gutenberg. That’s apt because`Le Morte D’Arthur’ was one of the first books to be printed in England. William Caxton published his edition in 1485 (only two copies from this print-run survive). In his introduction to Malory’s retelling of the legend of Arthur, Caxton wrote that, `herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin.’ Few modern blurbs can promise as much.
Malory was working from various French and English poems and romances about Arthur and his court. The aim seems to have been to turn these often conflicting sources into a (relatively) coherent account of the whole of Arthur’s reign. Malory wrote his story in eight parts but Caxton sub-divided it into 21 books. I have to admit that `Le Morte D’Arthur’ is dauntingly long – a thousand pages in the Penguin edition. I daren’t suggest that you should sit down and read it from cover to cover but it is a wonderful book to dip into when you want to find out more about the great figures of Arthurian legend. Think of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ as a dusty old treasure chest full of gems. To encourage you to rummage, I’ll summarize the contents of Malory’s eight books.
Book I explains the cruel deception which led to the birth of Arthur, why he was raised away from the court of his royal father, and how he became king by drawing a sword out of an anvil. With Merlin’s help, young Arthur establishes his rule over the whole of Britain but he casts a shadow over his future by sleeping with his half-sister, the Queen of Orkney, and fathering a son, Mordred. After Arthur is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, he marries the beautiful Guenevere against Merlin’s advice, and establishes the Round Table at Camelot. Book II deals with Arthur’s battles in Europe. Arthur himself defeats a particularly large and brutal giant in Normandy and he and his nephew, Sir Gawaine of Orkney, lead a successful invasion of Italy. In Book III Sir Launcelot du Lake proves himself the greatest knight `in all tournaments and jousts and deeds of arms’. He falls in love with Queen Guenevere but this doesn’t stop him getting entangled with various damsels in distress when he goes off to have adventures in her honour.
Book IV tells the story of another of Arthur’s nephews, Gareth of Orkney, who comes to court in disguise and undertakes a quest to rescue a lady from the Red Knight of the Red Lands. Book V recounts the tragic tale of how dashing Sir Tristram manages to ruin the lives of two princesses called Isoud (Isolde). In Book VI many of Arthur’s knights go in search of the Sangreal (the Holy Grail) but only three, including Launcelot’s son Galahad, are deemed worthy to see it. Book VII deals with the increasingly reckless love affair between Launcelot and Guenevere. When this affair is exposed by Mordred in Book VIII it leads to a terrible civil war in which Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken away in a ship by a group of enchantresses but `men say that he shall come again’.
This brief summary doesn’t include the numerous subplots about the adventures of Arthur’s knights as they encounter feisty or treacherous damsels, wise hermits, wicked knights and spooky castles. Nor can it do justice to all the memorable characters who flit in and out of the narrative, such as Arthur’s magic-wielding half-sister, Morgan le Fay, or his grumpy foster-brother, Sir Kay, King Pellinor and his Questing Beast, Nimue, the chief Lady of the Lake, and the lovelorn Saracen knight, Sir Palomides. Fortunately, Caxton makes it easy to find the inset stories by heading each chapter with a one sentence summary of the contents. Some of these summaries are rather enticing. Who wouldn’t want to read chapters entitled How Galahad and Percival found in a castle many tombs of maidens that had bled to death or How four Queens found Launcelot sleeping and how by enchantment he was taken and led into a castle or How Sir Tor overcame the knight, and how he lost his head at the request of a lady? Warning – a lot of beheading goes on in `Le Morte D’Arthur’. There are also plenty of sword-fights, jousts and battles. When Caxton introduces a chapter with the words, Yet more of the said battle… you wonder if he thought that too much of the book was taken up with detailed descriptions of fighting, but this is one of Malory’s special skills.
Who was Sir Thomas Malory? Even after reading an entire book about him (`Malory: The Life and Times of King Arthur’s Chronicler’ by Christine Hardyment) I can’t give you a definite answer. At least three men called Thomas Malory lived in England at around the right period but it isn’t entirely clear which of them wrote `Le Morte D’Arthur’. The most likely candidate is the Thomas Malory who came from Warwickshire. He seems to have fought in France under King Henry V and his tombstone calls him a `valiant knight’ but he was accused of theft, rape and attempted murder and spent many years in prison as an `obdurate criminal’. This fits with the fact that the author of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ refers to himself as `a knight prisoner’ and with the emphasis throughout the book on flawed heroes and heroines who struggle to live up to the code of honourable behaviour and often fail. Arthur tries to be a just ruler and a champion of the oppressed but he causes innocent children to die when he attempts to get rid of his baby son. Launcelot should be the best knight in the world but he is cruel to the mother of his child and he betrays his best friend, Arthur, by sleeping with his wife. Malory writes with great sympathy about the wronged but ultimately forgiving husband and the guilty lovers. Launcelot is described as `the kindest man that ever struck with sword’ and Guenevere as a `sinful lady’ but `a true lover’ . Malory has the gift of making these legendary figures thoroughly human.
Once you get used to Malory’s style, it becomes quite addictive and his stately dialogue is a constant delight. If you imagined Arthur and his knights as strong, silent types, think again. Malory’s characters are highly emotional and they express their feelings with candour and eloquence. `Le Morte D’Arthur’ became a very influential book and its admirers include King Henry VIII, the poets Milton and Tennyson, William Morris, C.S.Lewis, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler and Lawrence of Arabia. I’m pretty sure that being a Malory fan is the only thing I have in common with Henry VIII. I have previously recommended two 20th century Fantasy classics which owe much to Malory – T.H. White’s `The Once and Future King’ (December 2012) and Naomi Mitchison’s `To the Chapel Perilous’ (November 2014). If you are familiar with the first of these novels, you have already read some of `Le Morte D’Arthur’ because White couldn’t resist frequent quotations. So, why not go back to the original source? On his last page, Malory asked `all gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending’ to pray for his soul. If you boldly take up this recommendation, please spare a thought for a man whose failings as a knight helped him to become a remarkable writer. Until next time…