LIAM GUILAR revisits the too little-read Le Morte Darthur
According to the blurb for one Audible version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur:
Comparing Batman, Superman, and Captain America to Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Galahad isn’t a huge leap of the imagination. Perhaps, for the 15th century reader, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were the equivalent of our modern day Justice League or Avengers.[i]
This is an excellent example of ‘dumbing down a book’.
At the end of Malory’s book, Arthur tells his one surviving knight, ‘In me there is no trust to trust in.’ The Arthurian experiment fails because the best of those involved in it may have perfected their craft, but as humans they still have to negotiate the problems inherent in being alive in their world. They are not superheroes, they do not have super powers[ii], and Malory was writing as an adult, for adults. Modern readers may have lost the ability to hold contradictions open to create a space for reflection; Malory’s text assumes this is exactly what the reader wants to do.
When I was in primary school, memorising carols for the inevitable Christmas concert, I was convinced that ‘The first Noel the angels did say/was to certain poor shepherds’ meant that the doubtful shepherds were being ‘certained’. The purpose of so much modern writing, whether fictional or not, in film or print, seems to be ‘to certain’ the audience. Comparing Sir Lancelot to Batman might certain a prospective reader, suggesting they will encounter nothing unusual or unfamiliar, nothing requiring thought or effort, but it’s a gross misreading of the book.
The book most people refer to as ‘Malory’ or ‘The Mort(e)’ was written by Sir Thomas Malory, and published by William Caxton in 1485. It is the last great work of medieval English literature and the first great work of modern English prose. It’s also the high point of the European medieval Arthurian tradition[iii]. It is a book that refuses to certain anyone.
Malory took the sprawling mass of Arthurian tales which had been circulating in Europe for over five hundred years and translating them mostly from French sources, shaped them into a single narrative.
He wasn’t the first English writer to tell the whole story of King Arthur between one set of covers. But running from Arthur’s conception, to his death at the Battle of Camlan, Malory’s book contains everything you probably think you know about Arthur and his Knights – the magical conception at Tintagel, the round table, the sword in the stone, Merlin, the Lady in the Lake, Morgan le Fey, the love stories of Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Gwenyvere; Tennyson’s Lady of Shallotte, Mordred, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the suggestion that Arthur doesn’t die and will return to save Britain.[iv]
We don’t know a great deal about Sir Thomas Malory, despite the strenuous efforts of scholars to track him through the surviving records. Given medieval assumptions about authorship, what we do know can’t add much to an understanding of his work. He’s not much more than his book and a trace in some legal documents. But when he lived his life is possibly more important than how he lived it.
He belongs to the last generation that could take the Romance version of Arthur and Camelot as historical fact. Caxton claims he printed the book only after he had been convinced that Arthur was real.[v]
The knight errant, the central figure of these stories, the young man who dons his armour, gets on his horse and rides out to fight for truth, justice and the Arthurian way, had been a popular figure in medieval storytelling since at least the 12th century. It’s an attractive idea and in many ways explains the popularity of the stories: leave the mess of your daily life behind and go seek adventures.
But it is an adolescent’s fantasy. All the knight’s problems can be reduced to a single enemy who can be defeated physically. He gets the gold, the glory, and often the bride, in a finite world utterly different from the mess and tedium of real life. It’s a world where problems are simple, figured as dragons and giants and evil lords dressed in black armour. In the hands of the best storytellers, it was more than that, but it was a world that never existed.
Malory enjoyed the fantasy. His book is full of knights who are free to roam the countryside looking for adventures. But his version of the fantasy is shaped by the times in which he was writing. He had participated in the Wars of the Roses. Men had swapped sides, sometimes in the middle of a battle. Primitive artillery was making an appearance on the battle field. Malory did not live to hear of Richard III’s failed charge at Bosworth. The last massed charge by mounted knights in a major battle on British soil happened in the year his book was published. The knight, who had dominated the battlefields of Europe for four hundred years, was finished as a military force.
Authors who live through ugly times don’t always avoid the temptation to escape into fantasy, but he did. He knew the reality of rich men with their castles and their private armies of armed retainers – a reality made all too visible in the civil and social disruption they caused, and at battles like Towton (1461), where anything up to thirty thousand men died hacking at each other in a snow storm[vi].
So what makes Malory worth reading, and what makes him more grown up than the majority of writers, was his understanding that while the landscape might have giants and dragons and witches and warlocks, the real challenges people face are always personal and rarely straightforward.
His book begins and ends with a betrayal. ‘The Sword in the Stone’, Disney’s cute version of T. H. White’s retelling, obscures the darkness that permeates the early books. Born as the result of a trick, Arthur is a strange, impetuous figure, who unwittingly commits incest with his half-sister then orders all the boys born on one day murdered. Merlin warns him that the woman he intends to marry will be unfaithful with his greatest knight, and Arthur blithely ignores him.
To offset the darkness, Malory presents the great Arthurian experiment. The newly formed Round Table Fellowship swear an oath,
never to do outerage nothir mourthir; and always to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy… and always to do ladyes, damsels and jantilwomen and wydowes soccour, strenghte hem in hir ryghtes and never to enforse them upon payne of dethe. Also that no man take no batyles in a wrongfull quarrel for no love ne for no worldly goods.
It’s a radiant ideal: the people who would benefit most from anarchy; armoured knights, lords with castles, are promising to fight against it. The people who could most easily exploit the weak are promising to protect them. And the best of them do all those things most of the time.
But balanced against this idealism, is the picture of a court stained with jealousy, resentments and memories of old wrongs.
Perhaps the most adult of Malory’s perceptions is that the world is not divided into heroes and villains, into ‘good’ people and their polar opposites. There are caricatures littering the edges of some of the tales, giants and renegade knights and wielders of magic, who are little more than plot devices, but they are the gaudy inheritance of the genre. The challenges facing Malory’s characters are moral and personal as they attempt to negotiate different and often contradictory codes of behaviour. People do things, often with good intentions, but with unintended, unforeseeable, disastrous consequences.
This is presented most succinctly in ‘The Knight of the Two Swords’, the second section of the first book[vii]. It’s a mini tragedy which feels Greek in its inexorable movement towards catastrophe. It turns the adolescent fantasy of the knight errant into a nightmare.
In a story that turns on the problems of recognition, everything Balyn, the Knight of the Two Swords, does, he does with the best of intentions. But he leaves a trail of misery and destruction in his wake as he heads towards a fatal duel. He kills, and is killed by, his twin brother and they recognise each other only after they have dealt the killing blows. It’s the darkest of the stories and it sets the tone for what follows.
If the Round Table is the best humans can manage, the quest for the Holy Grail shows that measured against the highest of ideals, it’s not good enough. But the lesson of the Grail, characteristically for Malory, works two ways. That so many knights fail is a critique of the value of the Grail ideology as much as it as a critique of the Knights. Galahad is the least likeable of Malory’s heroes. He is born to succeed in the Quest, and it never feels as though he won’t. When he achieves the Grail, he is transported on a beam of light to Heaven. To be human, to live in the world, is to try and find a way home through the forest, and the attempt to overcome greed and lust and ego is what characterises the best of humans. Perfection offers no way of living in the world.
The greatest of the Round Table Knights, Lancelot, is also the greatest contradiction. When he dies Ector speaks his threnody over his body:
And thou were the curtest [most courteous] knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the trewest lover of a synful man, that ever loved woman, and thou were the kyndest man that ever strake with swerde. And thou were the godlyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghtes. And thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in the reeste.
But Lancelot is an adulterer. In the moral framework of the time this means he’s going straight to an eternity of terrifying punishment in hell. In medieval terms, adultery with the queen is treason and the punishment for that was terrifying enough before he even got to hell.
And he fails. He fails in the quest for the Holy Grail because he can’t stop thinking about Gwenyvere. He unintentionally kills his friend, Gareth, who worships him ‘this side idiolatry’. And this greatest of knights arrives with an army that would have saved Arthur, but only after the final battle is over and lost. By simplified modern standards of heroism, Lancelot is a loser.
The idea of the ‘flawed hero’ is common enough. But it’s a simplistic way of reading, or writing: ‘Identify the tragic flaw in Hamlet’s character’. Ten points and a pat on the back if you answer ‘indecision’. No points if you try to argue that a character who only has one ‘flaw’ is less than human or that to argue there is a ‘flaw’ suggests there is a perfect personality which is not only attainable but identifiable. It’s symptomatic of a binary, all-or –nothing argument.
Sir Thomas Malory, knight, prisoner, is excluded by name from two general pardons issued by the Yorkist King. Even P. J. C. Field’s exhaustive study of the documents doesn’t bring to light who he had annoyed, and why. But he had annoyed someone with the power to keep him in prison and manipulate the judicial process, so he never came to trial. When scholars first discovered that a Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel had been accused of various misdemeanours, including breaking into Coombe Abbey, cattle stealing, roughing up the locals, and raping the same woman on two separate occasions, there was a reaction against this identification. Surely this couldn’t be the man who wrote the Pentecostal oath.
But it could be and if Field is right, it probably is. Malory probably died in prison. We should qualify ‘prison’: not the kind of dungeon you can visit in a medieval castle. Wherever he was he had access to an impressive library, and time to write and stay focussed on his story. The temptation to escape into his fantasy must have been very powerful. And he obviously enjoyed whiling away the hours imagining two armoured knights bashing away at each other, a delight it is hard to share as a modern reader. But the ending of his book suggests that Sir Thomas Malory, Knight prisoner, had a very clear headed view of human nature.
The ending of the Morte is one of the great adult endings in English Literature. Malory’s best fictional creation is the relationship between Lancelot and Gwenyvere. They have grown older together, and they bicker like a fond old married couple. It’s difficult not to speculate: if Lancelot is Malory, then who was the Queen? And why did Malory resist the very human desire to allow his main characters to live happily ever after?
When Lancelot arrives from France too late to save Arthur, England is anarchic. It’s not clear who, if anyone is in control. He sets out on one last quest to find Gwenyvere. Traitor he may have been, adulterer he certainly was, but as Ector says, he was true to his lady.
He finds the Queen hiding in a convent. They have risked so much to be together. He tells her that now they can go to his lands in France and live without fear or guilt.
And she says no. She intends to spend the rest of her life praying for forgiveness. She knows that they have been instrumental in the destruction of their world. A lesser man might see this as a betrayal. But he accepts her decision and says he will follow her example and spend the rest of his life in prayer. Before he leaves, he asks her for one last kiss. And she says no.
This is the bare outline of the scene. It does no justice to the dialogue. He found this ending in his sources, and there are many ways he could have written it, but he stays true to the characters he had developed and the dialogue is his. If there was any doubt, at this point, Gwenyvere’s final refusal, you realise Malory didn’t flinch.
The Morte has been my desert island choice since the 1970s. It’s a book that rewards many readings. But it does belong to a lost world. It can hold contradictions in balance, admire what is admirable and leave judgements to the reader. It will not certain anyone.
Reading the Morte – a suggestion
If you’re interested in reading Malory, I would suggest using a version that hasn’t been modernised. Malory’s prose isn’t that unfamiliar, it takes a little getting used to but it’s worth remembering he probably spelt words as he pronounced them.
Hit befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of al Englond and so regned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the Duke of Tyntagil.
At times his vocabulary does show the influence of the French he was translating, so there are words that are no longer in use, but the trick is to commit to reading a number of pages, and allow the rhythm of the prose to carry you over the occasional phrase that’s unfamiliar.
His world is still medieval, with its casual acceptance of both brutality, cruelty and indifference: “Then he raced of his helme and smote off his head. Then they went into souper.” (p.517)
If you’re the type of reader who only reads what makes you feel comfortable, or you insist on your heroes being squeaky clean, don’t bother with this book.
If you just want to sample Malory, I’d suggest reading the final book. I think he learnt to write as he went on, and by the end he had mastered his craft.
Eugene Vinaver staked his critical reputation on his belief that Malory didn’t write one coherent book but eight ‘tales’. Whether he’s right or not can be left to the purists, but it does give you the freedom to pick what interests you in no definite order.
If you want to begin at the start and keep going you will need a relaxed attitude to Malory’s eagerness to describe, at length, every combat between individual knights, groups of knights, or armies, and his knights’ habit of levelling their spears and charging into each other at every possible opportunity.
First time through, you might skip the tale of the Emperor Lucius, which is where Malory dumped the Middle English alliterative Mort[viii], and perhaps the two long books of Sir Tristam, where Malory seems to have been dragged off course by his sources.
[i] This is from the publisher’s summary for the Audible audio book version of Le Morte D’Arthur read by Chris MacDonnell and published by Spoken realms.
[ii] Gawain’s strength waxes with the sun’s rise towards midday, and wanes as it moves through the afternoon, but that’s it.
[iii] Until the 1940s, editions based on Caxton’s version of the text were the only ones available. In 1934 a manuscript was discovered in Winchester (these things do happen) which is one step closer to what Malory wrote than Caxton’s printed text. Detailed analysis shows it had been in Caxton’s workshop. The Winchester Manuscript was edited by Eugene Vinaver as The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. This became the scholarly standard. Vinaver was convinced Malory wrote eight tales rather than a single book. The best single volume edition currently available is P.J.C. Field’s. (Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. 2017, D.S. Brewer Cambridge.) Claiming to be ‘the definitive original text’, this also contains a summary of Field’s extensive research into Malory’s life. Page references are to this edition. There is a two-volume edition, also edited by Field, in hard back. Translations and modernisations are unnecessary evils and are best avoided.
[iv] Not everything, the poem Gawain and the Green Knight, recently brutalised in the cinema, is missing and was probably not in his sources. Nor does Malory seem to have known the early Welsh story Culuwch and Olwen, in which Arthur’s retainers do have ‘super powers’.
[v] He notes in his preface that he had originally decided against doing so because ‘dyvers men holde oppynion that there was no suche Arhtur and that alle suche bookes as been maad of hym ben but fayned and fables’ however, having listened to the counter argument, he affirms: ‘Thenne, al these thynges considered there can no man reasonably gaynsaye but there was a king of thys lande named Arthur’.
[vi] How many fought, and how many died, at Towton is ‘a matter for scholarly debate’. The traditional figure of thirty thousand dead might be an exaggeration, but it is still the deadliest battle fought in England and a lot of the scepticism about the figure seems driven by an unwillingness to believe more died at Towton than on the first day of The Somme in 1916.
[vii] ‘Balyn le Sauvage’ in Field (pps. 47-75).
[viii]It would be a pity to shipwreck as a reader on the language of this section, since the language of the alliterative poem was probably old fashioned when Malory was transcribing it.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head