Morte d'Arthur, Le

Morte d'Arthur, Le
   by Sir Thomas Malory
(ca. 1469–1470)
   Beside CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES, Le Morte d'Arthur is perhaps the most enduringly popular of all English texts written in the Middle Ages, and it is certainly the most famous of all English treatments of Arthurian legend. Only one manuscript of the text survives (the “Winchester Manuscript”), copied sometime before 1483, after Malory’s death in 1471, but the first printer in England,William Caxton, produced an edition in 1485, which formed the basis of nearly all subsequent editions that were to appear through the first half of the 20th century. Early critiques of Sir Thomas MALORY’s work were not always positive: The great Renaissance scholar Roger Asham, for instance, found that “the whole pleasure of [the] booke standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open mans-slaughter, and bold bawdrye (ribaldry)” (The Scholemaster, 1570); Nathaniel Baxter, Puritan author, and tutor in Greek to Sir Philip Sydney, found it comprised of “the horrible actes of those whoremasters, Launcelot du Lake (LANCELOT DU LAC), Tristram de Liones, Gareth of Orkney, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, with the vile and stinking story of the Sangreall (Holy Grail)” (Baxter’s dedicatory epistle to the translation of Calvin’s sermons on Jonas, 1577); and the historian William Oldys claimed that the work “seems to have been kept in print, for the entertainment of the lighter and more insolid readers” (Biographia Britannica, 1748). Approval of Malory is, however, more plentiful— evident, for instance, in his influence on such writers as Sir Philip Sydney (Defense of Poesie, ca. 1579, and Arcadia, 1578–83), Edmund Spenser (View of the Present State of Ireland, 1596, and the Faerie Queene, 1590–1596), Shakespeare (2 Henry IV, 1597–98), John Milton (Paradise Lost, 1667), William Wordsworth (“The Egyptian Maid,” 1828),William Morris (The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, 1858), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (the Idylls of the King, 1859–85), and Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 1889), not to mention a host of writers of modern fantasy and science fiction.
   Le Morte Darthur is conventionally understood to have eight separate “books” or sections: 1, the birth of Arthur, his rise to the throne, the tale of Balyn and Balan, Arthur’s wedding, early adventures of knights of the Round Table; 2, Arthur’s war with Lucius, emperor of Rome; 3, early adventures of Sir Launcelot du Lake; 4, the story of Sir Gareth of Orkney; 5, tales of Sir Trystrams de Lyones; 6, the quest for the Holy Grail (Sankgreal); 7, the story of the love between Launcelot and Guenevere; and 8, the destruction of the court of Arthur, and the death of Arthur. For most of these, Malory translated from French prose sources, though book 2 is derived from an accomplished English poem, the ALLITERATIVE MORTE ARTHURE. Book 4 appears to be largely of Malory’s own invention, and books 7 and 8 combine French sources with another English poem, the STANZAIC MORTE ARTHUR. Malory tends to use one source in particular as a kind of template for the plan of each book, a procedure that may indicate a serial borrowing of source manuscripts not inconsistent with his famous claim that, while writing, he was a “knyght presoner.”
   In handling his sources Malory typically engaged in extensive abbreviation, suppressed moments of sentimentality and introspection, and reduced passages of religious and doctrinal expression and accounts of magical phenomena; he enhanced accounts of martial endeavor and chivalric values, and drew greater attention to the heroism of certain characters—especially Launcelot. It is generally agreed that books 7 and 8 present Malory at his most innovative and challenging, and where his prosody is most liberated from that of his sources. The characterizations of Launcelot,GUENEVERE, ARTHUR, GAWAIN, and Mordred all achieve unprecedented degrees of moral, emotional, and expressive nuance, and Malory’s own extemporaneous comments show an intensity of personal engagement and cumulative thematic insight not matched in earlier books. For example, in the midst of his account of the cataclysm resulting from the discovery of Guenevere’s adulterous relationship with Launcelot, Malory questions not Guenevere, but the practices of his own age: . . . ryght so faryth the love nowadayes, sone hote, sone colde: thys ys no stabylyté. But the olde love was nat so; for men and women coude love togydirs seven yerys, and no lycoures (lecherous) lustis was betwyxte them— and than was love trouthe and faythefulnes. And so in lyke wyse was used such love in Kynge Arthurs dayes.Wherefore I lykken love nowadayes unto sommer and wynter: for, lyke as the tone (one) ys colde and the othir ys hote, so faryth love nowadayes. And therefore all ye that be lovers, calle unto youre remembraunce the monethe of May, lyke as ded (did) Quene Gwenyver, for whom I make here a lytyll mencion, that whyle she lyved she was a trew lover, and therefor she had a good ende. Critical receptions of Malory were affected dramatically after 1934, when the Winchester Manuscript was discovered. Compared against Caxton’s edition, the manuscript provides extra autobiographical information, divides and decorates the text differently, and has thousands of variant readings. Further complications arose in 1977 when it was discovered that the Winchester Manuscript had been in Caxton’s printing shop when he was preparing his own edition. Much discussion has ensued about which aspects of which version are more authentic, and, although Winchester has emerged as the more authoritative, the high degree of forensic scrutiny now being applied to Caxton’s text promises a finer appreciation of Malory’s intentions. Also providing new contexts for a finer appreciation are studies of Malory’s life records, especially those which suggest something about the reasons for Malory’s periods of extensive imprisonment; theft, battery, rape, and attempted murder are all alleged in the records, and imprisonment for political affiliations or severe debt cannot be ruled out. That all of these are important subjects in Le Morte Darthur makes the prospects for further research especially exciting.
   ■ Archibald, Elizabeth, and A. S. G. Edwards, eds. A Companion to Malory. Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1996.
   ■ Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1993.
   ■ Kato, Takako. Caxton’s Morte Darthur: The Printing Process and the Authenticity of the Text. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
   ■ McCarthy, Terence. An Introduction to Malory: Reading the Morte Darthur. Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2002.
   ■ Sutton, Anne F. “Malory in Newgate: A New Document,” The Library. Seventh Series, no. 1 (2000): 243–262.
   ■ Takamiya, Toshiyuki, and Derek Brewer, eds. Aspects of Malory.Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1981.
   ■ Vinaver, Eugène, ed. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3rd ed. Revised by P. J. C. Field. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
   ■ Wheeler, Bonnie, Robert L. Kindrick, and Michael Salda, eds. The Malory Debate: Essays on the Texts ofLe Morte Darthur.” Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2000.
   Stephen H. A. Shepherd

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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  • Le Morte d'Arthur — /leuh mawrt dahr theuhr/ a compilation and translation of French Arthurian romances by Sir Thomas Malory, printed by Caxton in 1485. Also, Le Morte Darthur. * * * Le Morte d’Arthur [Le Morte dArthur] stories about the life of King Arthur, written …   Useful english dictionary

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