I’ve decided to break this review up into a few parts, just because Le Morte Darthur is a pretty intense read. Part one is only actually going to cover the first 81 pages of Thomas Malory’s text, which are considered, in this particular edition (Oxford 2008), the first section, or book, in this tale of King Arthur Pendragon.
As well as celebrating the life of King Arthur and the chivalric ideals of his knights in their quest for the Holy Grail, Malory also charts the tragic disintegration of the fellowship of the Round Table, destroyed from within by warring factions. Treachery and rivalry break up the company, and when Lancelot and Guinevere’s passion is forced into the open, and Sir Gareth slain, Arthur becomes trapped in a cycle of violence and revenge. – Blurb
A Bit of Context
So, Le Morte Darthur is one of the early tales of King Arthur and his knights. It was supposedly written between 1469 and 1470 by Thomas Malory, who, as Gweneth Whitteridge points out, we really don’t know much about at all. In her essay, “The Identity of Sir Thomas Malory, Knight-Prisoner”, she argues that “only three facts are known for certain about the author of the Morte D’Arthur: his name was Thomas Malory; he was a knight; he finished the ‘noble histories of King Arthur and his knights’ sometime between 4 March 1469 and 3 March 1470 and at that time he was in prison”.
Malory is therefore often referred to as the mysterious “knight-prisoner”; we cannot know why he was in prison or how long he spent there, as there were two Thomas Malorys imprisoned during this time, yet, regardless, during his sentence, he composed a rather long retelling of the stories of King Arthur (at 527 pages it may not be quite up to the standards of Charles Dickens or George R. R. Martin, but it’s still a big chunk of text).
I think that one of the most fascinating things about Le Morte Darthur is that it reveals just how much we don’t know about the myths of Arthur. As I’m reading, I can imagine each little section being turned into a separate film or T.V. show – and when I say little, I mean really little. Whilst some sections of drama occupy several pages, there are some big events that happen in only a mere paragraph. The actual marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, for example, occupies only a few lines:
Then was this feast made ready, and the King was wedded at Camelot unto Dame Guenivere in the church of Saint Stephen’s, with great solemnity. – “The Wedding of King Arthur”
Another example is the May Day massacre, when Arthur sends out hundreds of babies to be drowned… all in a mere paragraph (you can read more about this particular episode here)!
This may be one reason why I find Le Morte Darthur such an intense read; so much can happen in a single page, so, there’s no skim reading or skipping paragraphs with this book – every sentence seems to matter.
If I’m honest with myself, I never would have attempted to read Le Morte Darthur if it wasn’t on the syllabus for my university course; although I’ve always adored the tales of Camelot and Arthur, this isn’t an easy book to read. Although, admittedly, I’m making a lot of notes as I read, it has taken me a very long time just to get through the first section.
It’s not that the book’s not interesting, because it really is; I’m not sure what my issue has been – perhaps, whilst I’m used to the writing styles of Victorian literature, and even Jacobean and Elizabethan pieces, this style is still very unfamiliar to me. The other thing is that I’m reading a modern translation, so maybe the difficulty in reading stems as much from the translator as it does from Malory’s own style.
Five Facts about the Real Camelot
Many of the events mentioned in Le Morte Darthur came as a complete surprise to me, so I’m going to finish this review with some of the more surprising parts to the myth of Arthur.
#1 – King Arthur slept with his sister.
This one came as a real shocker; I was already familiar with the name Mordred, and the idea that Mordred would be the one to kill Arthur, but what I didn’t know, was that Mordred was the child of King Arthur and his sister, King Lot’s wife (her name is not directly given by the text). Now, Arthur didn’t actually know that King Lot’s wife was his sister before he lay with her, as he didn’t know who his mother was, yet this still seems like a bit of a twist, especially considering the somewhat casual way that Malory passes the incest off in:
The King cast great love unto her and desired to lie by her. And so they were agreed, and he begot unto her Sir Mordred, and she was sister on the mother’s side, Igraine. – “How Uther begot King Arthur”
#2 – Excalibur’s scabbard is more valuable than the sword.
Most of us are familiar with the name Excalibur, the famous sword that Arthur retrieved from the Lady of the Lake and wielded in battle throughout his life. Yet, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing particularly supernatural about the sword; it’s a very good sword, of course, but it doesn’t hold any special powers. Excalibur’s scabbard, on the other hand, is pretty magical, as Merlin reveals to Arthur that the person who holds the scabbard in their possession can never lose a single fight.
#3 – Merlin’s the son of a devil.
The common depiction of the wizard, Merlin, is that of an honourable adviser to King Arthur. He’s very powerful and somewhat above human emotion, but what you don’t so often hear, is that, during Arthur’s reign, everyone believed Merlin to be the son of a devil that procreated by raping women while they slept. It’s not exactly a nice image, and Merlin actually gets shunned for it. When he falls in love (another shock – how can the great Merlin be so human?), the lady who he falls for traps him under some heavy rocks because she’s too afraid to be with him.
#4 – Arthur is essentially a b*stard.
I use the word b*stard in its original sense, before it became a common insult in pop culture. A b*stard was anyone who was born outside of wedlock, i.e. the parents weren’t married when the child was conceived. Now, this wasn’t an issue in Arthurian times, as there wasn’t too much store put into marriage and faithful partners, yet the story of Arthur’s conception goes a little deeper than that.
King Uther, Arthur’s father, had fallen in love with the lady Igraine, Arthur’s mother, when she was still married to her husband, the Duke of Tintagel. Now, Igraine was loyal to her husband and so refused Uther’s advances. Instead of leaving her alone, Uther has Merlin disguise him as the Duke of Tintagel, so that he can lie with Igraine while she believes Uther to be her husband – It’s unnatural, to say the least.
#5 – The Round Table wasn’t originally Arthur’s.
I don’t know if this one’s just my mistake, but I used to think that Arthur had brought the Round Table to Camelot. I saw it as symbolic of the values that he inspired, seeing each and every one of his knights as equal. The truth is, though, the Table was originally Uther’s, meaning that he valued the exact same qualities as his son did. After Uther’s death, the table was passed onto Guenivere’s father, and was only given back to Arthur when he decided to propose to Guenivere.
That’s all for now, but I’ll be posting the next part of the review soon! Thank you very much for reading and don’t forget to check out my post about Arthur’s May Day baby massacre.
Gweneth Whitteridge. “The Identity of Sir Thomas Malory, Knight-Prisoner.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 24, no. 95, 1973, pp. 257–265. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/514968.
Malory, Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford UP, 2008.