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Le Morte'd Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory - the novel

Updated on January 28, 2014
King Arthur lay dying at Avalon.  (Painting by Edward Burne Jones)
King Arthur lay dying at Avalon. (Painting by Edward Burne Jones) | Source

The Death of King Arthur by SirThomas Malory

Recently I wrote an article on the question of whether King Arthur of Britain was a legend or, in fact, historically accurate. We may not know this for sure today, and many historians will tell you King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are just a myth, but I believe there is a kernal of truth to the King Arthur story. Perhaps some of the story surrounding King Arthur is exaggerated and made more romantic by our Western culture searching for a heroic and just king of our dreams, but King Arthur's story is fascinating nonetheless.

The "go-to" reference for the English story of King Arthur is none other than Le Morte 'd Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory, a British writer, who wrote this more than 600 years ago. It is a timeless masterpiece read and studied in high schools and colleges throughout the western world even today.

It is a monumental work of fiction and the first true novel written in English. It is a tale of love, betrayal and quests inspired by the noble ideals during the turmoil of an age going through great change.

Today, the Arthurian legend is thriving more than ever. More than 1000 years of development in literature and countless movies have been made of and around the King Arthur legend. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table passed into popular legend from the early Middle Ages. As British and French literature developed, so did versions and variations of the Arthurian legend.

Geoffrey of Monmouth (English) and Chrietien de Troyes (French) are credited with the earliest writings about King Arthur and the romantic concepts of chivalry and heroic quests. In the French court at the time these men were writing, King Arthur's popularity was intense. France had empathy for King Arthur, even though he was British, because he was a fellow Celt and was seen as a powerful figure for running the Saxons out of England. In Britain, King Arthur became a patriotic figure for the same reason, and Britain at the time believed Arthur to be a true figure of history because of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae,c. 1135, (The History of the Kings of Britain) . Chrietien de Troyes, c. 1191, in France wrote of the Holy Grail and highlighted the importance of Sir Lancelot and his love for Guinevere as the ultimate downfall of Camelot.

The Arthurian Legend is credited with also giving rise to the reason England entered into the crusades of the Middle Ages which again was the quest for the Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot is even mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as the chivalric knight wooing the ladies of court.

Le Morte d' Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte 'd Arthur in 1470 and today it towers above all other versions of the King Arthur tale. It is the story and novel about King Arthur's life that culminates with the death of King Arthur and is based on the version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia.

"The Sword in the Stone", "The Round Table," "The Quest for the Holy Grail," the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, the "Tale of Tristram and Isolde" are all brought together in Le Morte 'd Arthur. They had been written as separate stories, but Malory was the one that brought them all together to make them the Arthurian legend we know today.

Sir Thomas Malory was considered a rogue during his lifetime, but today he is considered a distinguished English writer. He was in and out of prison many times during his lifetime for none other than robbery, murder and rape, yet his reputation has been saved by his writing of the King Arthur legend. His final prison term, for not paying his debts, was when he wrote Le Morte 'd Arthur. He wrote 507 chapters and more than 300,000 words as he languished in prison. The modern world, however, is grateful for this "jail bird." Malory originally wroteLe Morte 'd Arthur as eight books or tales:

  • Book I - Merlin (the wizard) arranges for Uther Pendragon's seduction and marriage to Igraine which leads to Arthur's birth. It describes Arthur pulling out The Sword in the Stone and his coronation as king.
  • Book II - Establishes the Knights of the Round Table. And it is a round table because no one sits at its head, including King Arthur. It stresses the ideal of "Arthurian fellowship" and that each knight at the table is of equal importance. This book also is the story of the invasion of France and Rome and the ideal of Arthur the Emperor.
  • Book III - Here Sir Lancelot is introduced and Meleagrant's threat to Arthur and Cameot is presented. Sir Lancelot's devotion to Queen Guinevere is also presented.
  • Book IV - This is about Sir Gareth, Sir Gawain's brother and is supposedly based on an epic English poem.
  • Book V - This book tells the story of Tristam and Isolde which is outside of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
  • Book VI - This is the "coming of the Grail" and Malory adapts the Christian mysticism of the French "Quest del Saint Graal" and inflates the importance of Sir Lancelot as he is recognized as a Grail Knight.
  • Book VII - Here is written the romance between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and is largely based on th French "Mort Artu". It also foreshadows the destruction of the "Arthurian fellowship."
  • Book VII - King Arthur discovers the adultery between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and the last battle between Mordred and Arthur occurs and Arthur's eventual death.

Le Mort 'd Arthur was finished in the ninth year of Eduard IV reign in 1469 or 1470. It was the last important English book written before the introduction of printing in England. The original written notes no longer exist.

It was printed by William Caxton in 1485. When he printed it, he divided Malory's eight books into twenty-one. It is the first English classic for which we are dependent only on the printed text. The original written form by Malory no longer exists.

Of course, the original printing of the novel was in Old English. For easier reading I suggest you read a translation into modern English. It will be a fascinating journey back to the 5th and 6th century and the days of King Arthur, chivalry, and knights in shining armor.


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  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thanks so much James for reading and your comments. They are always appreciated! I'm reminising my college studies with this hub- it has brought back so many good memories. I so enjoyed the King Arthur readings when in college and I have never lost my love or interest in them. I'm a romantic at heart! LOL

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

    I very much enjoyed reading your excellent article about King Arthur. The painting at the top is marvelous as well. Thank you for an illuminating Hub. I enjoyed the journey.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you for commenting. Yes, there are lovely publications out there with beautiful illustrations as you say. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • mckbirdbks profile image

    mckbirdbks 5 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

    Fascinating work. There are many beautiful publications of these stories. Many fine presses have published beautiful volumes.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hi Hyphen: Thank you for reading and commenting. I always love to hear your imput. I'm glad you enjoyed this. That is so interesting about the Discovery or Nat.Geo. special. Let me know if you can as I would love to see it. I still believe there is a kernal of truth to all this!

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    This painting is breathtaking. I saw a Discovery or Nat Geo special about King Arthur and it seems he was indeed real. It may be available for download. If I find it I will let you know. I have read some of your referenced books and love them. This is one of my all time favorite tales and obviously many others agree. Thank you Suzette.