A brief disclaimer: As I discuss my thoughts about Le Morte d’Arthur, I will be using the orthography that the book uses, which in some cases, may differ from more well-known spellings.
The legacy of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is ubiquitous in Western culture, from popular culture to symbols of national identity. Most people have heard some form of the stories, and the names Gwynevere, Sir Launcelot, Merlin and King Arthur are cognizant by young school children and scholars alike.
Due to its omnipotence, it is difficult to pinpoint where the version of the Arthurian legends I was familiar with (prior to reading Le Morte d’Arthur) came from. The stories are so entrenched in our consciousness that I feel as if we know them, as we know words we understand, but don’t remember learning. We know the greatness of Sir Launcelot and his passion for Queen Gwynevere, and their betrayal of King Arthur, which led to King Arthur’s downfall, and the collapse of the kingdom. Perhaps less of us know the roles Sir Gawain, Sir Percivale or Sir Gareth played in the stories, but their names are familiar and we associate them with a time of quests and chivalry, long past.
Le Morte d’Arthur is only one version of numerous retellings of the legends, but it is possibly the most well-known. It contains the familiar tales of Tristram and Iseult, the quest for the Sangreale, Gwynevere and Launcelot, the death of King Arthur (as you may have known from the title) and other stories about various Knights of the Round Table and their adventures.
I bought this book for myself near Christmas time last year, and when I tried reading it then, I was very disappointed and thought the way some scenes were written was rather silly. For example:
Kings Brandegoris, Idres, and Angwyshaunce attacked Sir Gryfflet and Sir Lucas, and unhorsed them both. Sir Kay attacked King Nentres, and, winning his horse, gave it to Sir Gryfflet, and, with the same spear, charged King Lot and wounded him. The King of the Hundred Knights attacked Sir Kay, and, unhorsing him, remounted King Lot, who thanked him. Sir Gryfflet overcame Sir Pynel and remounted Sir Kay with his horse.
– The Tale of King Arthur
It’s certainly not the most riveting description of a battle.
On my second attempt at reading, I cast aside my expectations (as least in terms of writing style), and once I fell in love with the stories, the issues I had with the writing faded away into the background. I find that Malory tends to write about actions, instead of emotions. Grief, and anger are expressed with one sentence, and then turn into a quest for revenge. The death of a minor character is noted by a remark from a passing knight, and then by a monument by a king who happens to hear their story.
I love this book, but is difficult to explain why. I think part of it is that it never lacks in entertainment; the stories are is filled with adventure, jousting, and romance. There is also plenty of conflict: between people, and between people and morality. Amongst the numerous knights mentioned in the stories, there are a few that distinguish themselves, including: Sir Gareth, Sir Gawain, Sir Galahad and of course, the two greatest knights of the realm— Sir Launcelot and Tristram of Lyoness. I think their fantastic feats of bravery, strength or unwavering adherence to their morals have us reflecting about those qualities within us, even if we don’t have tournaments or holy quests to prove them. They are defined by their virtues as much as their accomplishments, and it is easy find ourselves hoping for their safety or victory, and for their strength to prevail when faced with immoral temptations.
Another part is the unpredictability, or ‘randomness’, of the book. Characters who have not been introduced previously often appear in the middle of a scene and become principal characters. Ladies and lords come and go by the dozen, leaving their stories of tragedy and woe that are never delved into . Disguises and concealment are used commonly, and inexplicably. Very often, a seemingly ignoble peasant turns out to be the relation of a knight or king, and he is raised from obscurity to become great.
And of course, there is the romance:
… there be within this land but four lovers, that is, Sir Launcelot du Lake and Queen Gwynevere, and Sir Tristram de Lyoness and Queen Iseult
-The Book of Sir Tristram of Lyoness
But that aspect may merit another post in itself.
What I realized from reading this novel is that the versions of the legends we are familiar with are very watered-down. Le Morte d’Arthur shows us that even the most revered figures have their flaws; the greatest romances can be tested by faithlessness; and the tightest bonds of camaraderie and brotherhood can be broken by jealousy, and strife. The unblemished images we have of chivalrous knights and nobility are both enforced and disassembled by these legends, and though they are only legends, it is not difficult to imagine the characters and events and believe that in some form, the Knights of the Round Table once existed. It is easy to lose yourself in this book, and rediscover again, the magic of storytelling.