|Synopsis||Arthur Pendragon is revealed to be the true King of England when he accidentally pulled the sword of destiny from a mysterious stone! Now he's faced with a lifetime of war and conflict as his men set out to live out their lives as gallant knights serving God.|
|Author||Sir Thomas Mallory|
|Length||1000 Pages (Penguin Classics Edition)|
I’ve been writing the Classics Review section for several months, but I’ve been a writer here at Geeks Under Grace for more than three years now. To be frank, few reviews have been as challenging as this one. Classics are always hard. On the other hand, most novels have ways of making its story coherent for a first-time reader.
That’s arguably less true with the King Arthur mythos. The legend is so vast and complex. It’s immensely difficult to gather even a basic understanding of the canon without intensive reads into archaic and forgotten books of lore. These tomes are themselves buried in dense medieval symbolism. Because of that, I had to do MONTHS of research into the topic of King Arthur to get a sense of this one book, its relationship to the greater Arthurian canon, and how the book fits as a singular work of authorship, satire, and storytelling.
I can’t argue with the results, though. I am not sure I would call this a particularly well-crafted piece on Sir Thomas Mallory’s magnum opus. However. it is a comprehensive one that I hope can provide readers with a sense of context that might encourage them to give the book a chance!
Spiritual Content: The book is set in Catholic Britain, and all of its characters are practicing Catholics. Religious adherence, loyalty, and faith are important themes in the story.
Violence: Significant action, jousting, sword fights, stabbing, smiting, and warfighting with characters dying somewhat brutal deaths
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Arthurian stories frequently wrestle with themes of adultery and lust
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters frequently drink wine at dinners for merrymaking
Other Negative Themes: Themes of death, evil, disloyalty, adultery, murder, and selfishness
Positive Content: Themes of love, faith, loyalty and adventure
There are many classical texts the Arthurian scholars will turn to when coming to understand the history of the King Arthur legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, Chretien De Troyes’s French Arthurian romance poetry, the Welsh Mabinogion and anonymously written Vulgate Cycle remain some of the oldest sources we still have in print for understanding the mythical British king. Sadly, this doesn’t tell us much about history. Most of what we know about Arthur comes from fan fiction written about him. From 1100-1250, Arthurian poetry was among the most popular and copied stories among the courts of France, Germany, England, Wales, and the greater part of Europe. As eccentric as many of these fanciful stories were, they tend to treat the character with more reverence and generally take it for granted that Arthur was a real king during the 5th century, during the time when England was freshly abandoned by the Roman Empire and facing an onslaught of foreign invasions from Scandinavian Vikings.
In recent centuries, we’ve received updated versions of the myth that play up the ahistorical nature of the character like Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and T.H. White’s five-part epic The Once and Future King. These stories treat him with less credulity but explore the stories as literature.
The bridge to understanding Medieval romance, Victorian poetry, and 20th-century prose literature surrounding the legend of King Arthur can be found in a single volume. Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (translated from French as The Death of Arthur) is the bridge connecting classical Arthurian poetry to modern Arthurian literature over the last one thousand years. It stands among the most influential and beloved works of Western literature in existence alongside Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, and the King James Bible. Every version of Arthur that’s come out since the 19th century has in some way been indebted to this massive work of talent.
But what is Le Morte D’Arthur? The answer to that can be found in the book’s original title: The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table.
Le Morte D’Arthur is one of the few works of Arthurian storytelling that tells the entire story of the rise and fall of Camelot and the Round Table, from its conception to its inevitable destruction. It’s an enormous, thousand-page long epic that leaves few stones unturned in the entire canon of the Arthurian genre. It mixes and remixes dozens of Arthurian sources from multiple cultural traditions (Latin, Welsh, English, French, and so on) and in some manner depicts almost every major event from every major Round Table story. While there are Arthurian stories like Parzival, Tristan, Knight of the Cart and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that more intimately focus on individual characters and stories in the mythos with greater depth, few Arthur stories offer such a variety.
Sir Thomas Mallory and The War of the Roses
Few stories in the canon overtly grapple with the “Matter of Britain” more sharply and intimately than Le Morte D’Arthur. The epic was written two hundred years after the golden age of Arthurian poetry. At that time, the poems and romances were being written in the immediate aftermath of the Crusades. Those stories grappled with contemporary issues of Catholic doctrine, medieval concepts of marriage and courtly love, and the implications of the Muslim world’s clash with Christendom. In 1485, a very different political situation was ongoing in England – the War of the Roses.
Nowadays, people mostly know of the War of the Roses as the Machiavellian inspiration for Game of Thrones. From 1455 to 1487, the royal families in England of the Lancasters and the Yorks engaged in a long series of bloody civil wars and succession crises. This ultimately resulted in the two homes marrying and becoming the Tudor family, which ruled until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.
The enigmatic author of Le Morte D’Arthur was one Sir Thomas Mallory. History has not been kind to Mr. Mallory. The book’s publisher William Caxton refers to him as a knight prisoner. Beyond that, we don’t know that much about Mallory. There were several individuals in Britain with that name who technically could’ve been the poet in question. What’s important, though, is that history records a few details of Mallory’s actions that are distinctly odd. We know that Sir Thomas Mallory was a veteran of the War of the Roses and that he was arrested and placed in prison for thievery, murder, rape, and conspiracy. It’s believed that Mallory was either an excessively unruly knight who betrayed one of the royal families or that he had been an honorable knight who was falsely framed for a long list of crimes due to his associations in the royal court. Regardless, he was imprisoned from 1460-1469 and set about using his time to write a work of considerable nobility.
Le Morte D’Arthur is first and foremost a political satire. It’s an adventure story and a story of Christian morality as well. However, the book’s thematic weight and emotional through line most make sense when viewed as a contemporary work of criticism. The late Professor Charles Moorman of the University of Southern Mississippi writes that Sir Mallory “to set down in English a unified Arthuriad which should have as its great theme the birth, the flowering, and the decline of an almost perfect earthy civilization.” It’s a story epitomized by “the failures in love, in loyalty, in religion.”
It’s worth remembering that the Arthurian mythos was always a story about a tragic decline of a great civilization. The nostalgic Welsh poets who first wrote poems about the mysterious King Arthur were writing about a warrior whose claim to fame was that he died in battle facing the Viking invasions from Saxony. It was always a myth about a great king’s lament for a civilization that was destroyed violently and tragically. With the decline of Rome and the rise of Christianity, these themes meant something new to 12th century and 15th century Europeans who also faced massive wars and existential crises within and without their cultures.
As we’ll come to see, Sir Mallory’s incredible genius came in his ability to mold the ideas, instincts, and fears that subtextually stewed underneath the Arthurian mythos and make it into a story about why the War of the Roses was destroying Britain. He tied the very modern (circa 1485) issues of religion, love, marriage, loyalty, and war into a mythos that had been growing, mutating, and expanding for a millennium. Like all great writers, he took an old story and made it new again. It has since inspired centuries of readers.
A Note on Transcripts and Editions
When I first set out to begin studying King Arthur, I didn’t realize just how deeply the issue of transcripts and editions would become in my research. Le Morte D’Arthur took off in a BIG way in the 19th century. It was republished for the first time in several centuries, but even then it was a hefty beast. It was barely accessible to lay readers at the time, despite the fact that the intellectual classes were buying copies of the book in droves. Great authors like Mark Twain and Tennyson were smitten by the text and immediately set to writing their own renditions of King Arthur.
In an attempt to make the original Mallory text more marketable, dozens of authors from the late 19th century to modern-day set about creating their own editions of the book that they could sell to uneducated readers. The most famous version of this was Sir James Knowles’s publishing of The Story of King Arthur in 1860. Since then, we’ve seen other prominent editions of the story like Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur. In 1976, the late novelist John Steinbeck’s estate published his version of the book titled The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which was incomplete but retold the events of the original novel somewhat loyally.
Abridgments, reprints, and rewrites of Le Morte D’Arthur are extremely common. At used bookstore, it’s possible to see several different versions of the book lined up with no clear distinction as to which is which. I fell trap in this mess when I bought my first edition of the book earlier this year. Instead of a proper text, I purchased Keith Baines’s severely abridged “rendition in modern idiom” from 1988. It’s only half as long as the full text, and I’ve seen abridgments as small as 200 pages in used bins. Finding a concise, full text of the original book can be challenging if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Thankfully it’s not impossible to find comprehensive editions. Thomas Mallory’s ubiquity has meant that he is an immediate favorite for reprint houses. Any Barnes and Noble is probably going to have a complete copy of Le Morte D’Arthur in the $5 paperback classics bin alongside others like Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, Brothers Karamazov, and more. (I found a used $2 edition of the Borders reprint at a local bookstore this past week!) The downside is just that you’re trading availability for quality. Some reprints of Mallory are downright baffling, like the Penguin Classics edition that bizarrely splits the book into two 450 pages volumes for no discernible reason.
What complicates things further is that there are two academically recognized texts of the full book that exist. In 1934, W.F. Oakeshott discovered a mysterious transcript of the book which would go on to be called “The Winchester Manuscript”. It had been lost in a university library for the better part of 500 years and suddenly appeared before the academic world as a long-lost version of the book that could change the way audiences understood Sir Mallory.
As C.S. Lewis writes, Oakeshott “secured something not unlike immortality to his name and also reduced the study of Malory to a state of suspense for thirteen years. During that period, nothing could be said about the Morte D’Arthur without a reservation; no one knew what the Winchester Manuscript… might refute or confirm.”
When the manuscript was published, with commentary, in 1947, it became the talk of the intellectual world. As they discovered, the Winchester manuscript was the version of the book that had been handed to Sir Mallory’s publisher William Caxton in 1485. At this point, Mallory was dead, and the book could no longer be defended as a work independent of its publisher. The manuscript’s content makes it clear that the publisher wanted to change elements of the novel to make it easier to sell to lay readers. Sir Mallory had written an aristocratic satire. Caxton wanted to sell a knightly adventure story for the masses that could teach the laity about the lives of the elite and how to emulate knightly behavior. Sir Mallory’s text wasn’t entirely mutilated, but sections of the book were left on the cutting room floor or rearranged while loose narrative threads that Mallory hadn’t finished were trimmed. Caxton even rewrote a handful of sections to make them more cohesive as a singular novel. He changed the name from Mallory’s original title to Le Morte D’Arthur, which was an editing mistake as he took the title of the last chapter and believed it to be the title page.
It’s hard to argue with the results, though. The published text of Le Morte D’Arthur became the definitive English text on the life of King Arthur for the next half a millennia. It remains unsurpassed to this day in popularity and depth. Maybe the book beloved the world over ought to be regarded as Caxton’s work equally as Mallory’s. Regardless, I hope this digression offers some insight into the problem of editions. A reader who wants to read the novel will need to track down a serviceable complete text of the book or at the very least should be aware that the edition they may be buying is an abridged edition.
The Story Part 1: The Youth of Arthur Pendragon and his Conquest of Rome
Let’s start our usual breakdown of the narrative. Traditionally, editors break up Le Morte D’Arthur in one of two ways: 8 books or 21 books. For the sake of discussion, I’m primarily going to discuss the narrative of the book in its overall structure and movements. In that sense, I think you can reasonably break the book down into four important structural points – the origin of Camelot, the golden age of Camelot, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and the destruction of Camelot. This is probably over-generalizing a VERY long narrative, but for the sake of summarizing the story, it will due.
Let us begin the story at the beginning: Arthur’s conception. Arthur Pendragon is the son of Uther Pendragon, the former King of England who died after sleeping with the wife of the Duke of Cornwall. The infant Arthur subsequently falls into the care of two knights: Sir Ector and Sir Kay. At the age of 15, the mysterious wizard Merlin stands before the entire English nobility and proclaims that the true king of England will be the man who is capable of pulling the sword of destiny from a marble anvil. (Note: This is NOT Excalibur which Arthur receives later from the Lady of the Lake.)
Following the ceremony, Sir Kay, Sir Ector, and the young Arthur arrive in London to do a series of jousts, but Kay forgot his sword and asks Arthur to retrieve him a new one. Arthur unknowingly pulls the sword of destiny and gives it to Sir Kay. He tries to take credit for the feat but is unable to recreate it. Arthur does it multiple times. For this, he is crowned at the feast of Pentecost.
King Arthur proceeds to spend his youth fighting off contests of power from rival lords and kings who don’t respect his power. He eventually succeeds in uniting the entirety of Britain under his command. He marries princess Guinevere, forms the Round Table, has his kingdom blessed by the Bishop of Canterbury, and begins consolidating his rule. Merlin is seen for the last time, as he is sealed in a cave in Cornwall by the wizard Vivian who he had spent the better part of several weeks stalking. From now on, Arthur can no longer seek his former druid for prophecy or advice. He alone can run the kingdom.
In Book V, Arthur is approached by ambassadors from Rome who demand he pay tribute as his father and other neighboring kings have done. Instead, Arthur leads the Round Table and an entire British army against the Roman Empire. Within 30 pages, he’s successfully installed a puppet government in Rome and conquered Europe.
The City of God: Arthur as Christ Figure
Symbolically, we can already see the ideas that Sir Mallory wants us to understand about King Arthur as a character. He’s a “chosen one”, divinely picked by God and the leader of a great Catholic Empire. By conquering Rome, he’s single-handedly inherited the legacy of the greatest civilization in his time. More importantly, he’s established himself as the inheritor of a civilization founded on a great idea. Anyone who knows about Rome can speak about just how powerful the “Idea of Rome” is as a civilizational principle. That the Romans existed to enhance and spread the reach of a great and moral city-state across the world was the foundational heart of that society. Now, Le Morte D’Arthur has shifted that moral position to Camelot. Not only is King Arthur a mythical Christ-Figure, but his kingdom has become the mythical representation of the City of God, the place where Heaven touches Earth and where goodness and righteousness pour out across a great civilization.
Arthur himself is a symbol of Christ. As Robert Graves writes in the introduction to my Modern Idiom edition, “Arthur had been converted into a counter-christ, with twelve knights of the Round Table to suggest the twelve apostles, and with no second coming.”
This becomes the context for the rest of the story and how it’s told. In almost ALL Arthurian literature, Arthur is a secondary character. He’s the gravitational center by which all stories and events orbit, but he rarely factors into the plot as an individual character with his own desires. He’s merely the ultimate point of adoration, the high watermark of a great civilization. He’s the embodiment of the mythical Good King who makes the world orderly and right merely by sitting on the throne. Le Morte D’Arthur is no different. Like most Arthurian poetry, the story is about the Knights who serve under his command. From Book VI to Book XIX, the story becomes about what it’s like to live as a Knight in the supposedly perfect society of Camelot.
This serves as the inevitable lead-in to the question that has to be asked next: how did it all fall apart? Just as Augustine asked before him, how does the City of God collapse? How did Camelot, the story’s divinely ordained kingdom of man, become corrupted to the point where it came crashing down? How could the man chosen by God to create a great empire of godliness and chivalry fail so completely?
Just because you destroy every external threat doesn’t mean you’ve destroyed every internal threat. The Vikings, Romans, and Muslims may be serving as Patrons of Camelot. Just as the Ancient Jews found a way to destroy their kingdom of God and watched their Temple destroyed by their own sin, Camelot’s downfall would be entirely an internal collapse.
The Story Part 2: The Tales of Sir Lancelot, Sir Gareth, and Sir Tristan
Now is a good time to mention that Le Morte D’Arthur is a deeply idiosyncratic novel. At times it’s strangely incohesive, episodic, long-winded, and contradictory. This is most evident during the novel’s longest segment. From Books VI to Book XII, we’re treated to the longest and most meandering segment of the work which follows the adventures of the round table as they travel amidst their kingdoms, fight monsters, save women, and defeat evil kings. To be quite frank, this segment of the novel is repetitive and action-focused. There’s hardly a single chapter that goes by without a joust, duel, or fight. One begins to wonder how many wandering knights existed in Britain and how it could’ve been possible for someone to have this many adventures walking through the English countryside.
Still, this segment is important. This is the golden age of Camelot’s rule. We need to see the Knights of the Round Table at their strongest and we also need to see the small cracks forming slowly towards the edges of the story.
Book VI begins with the story’s first mention of Sir Lancelot, who will go on to become the most notable and thematically important knight in the entire story. The book is about his early adventures. Lancelot Du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake) is established as the finest and more honorable knight in Arthur’s early court. He makes himself a patron of Queen Guenever and earns status as the greatest knight in the land. He competes in tournaments, defeats monsters, and saves damsels from distress. Lancelot’s famous adultery with Guenever isn’t mentioned this early, but the story here is ultimately building his character up. The book ends with Lancelot returning to the Round Table and receiving renown for his incredible feats.
Book VII similarly deals with the adventures of Sir Gareth. Similarly, these chapters are action-focused but explore Gareth’s adventures traveling across the land in disguise to accomplish great deeds without necessarily being falsely modest and having these feats attached to his name.
Book VIII begins the hardest, but arguably most important, segment of the quest in its retelling of the story of Sir Tristan. Tristan is one of the most important Arthurian knights, partially because his artistic tradition was older than the Arthurian stories themselves. Stories of Sir Tristan existed before the golden age of Arthurian stories but were integrated into the mythos by prominent poets who tied his adventures to the Round Table and later the Holy Grail quest.
The basic legend is fairly straightforward. Sir Tristian is a Cornish knight serving under the rule of one King Mark. He’s dispatched to Ireland to help save a distressed princess from a dangerous dragon and succeeds but manages to injure himself in the process. In thanks, the king gifts his daughter Iseult to Tristin with the expectation that she will be married to King Mark. Additionally, Iseult is gifted a wine bottle for her wedding night that’s actually a powerful love potion that will cause her to fall maddeningly in love with whoever else drinks it. By accident, the two drink the potion and fall in love on the spot, consummating their affair on the boat to Cornwall. Iseult is eventually married to King Mark, but the two maintain their illicit affair for a time until Tristin is either discovered by Mark or dies in battle with a fatal wound to his thigh (a symbol of sexual sin).
Mallory’s retelling of Sir Tristin’s adventures is arguably one of the weakest points in the entire novel. It’s almost 400 pages in some editions and diverges substantially from the original Tristin legend to the point where it’s thematically and textually at odds with most versions of the legend. Joseph Campbell summarizes Mallory’s retelling of the Tristan story by saying:
“Tristan is represented as one of the Knights of the Round Table; Mark is transformed into a cowardly dastard and a tyrant; and Tristan is slain by Mark himself, who thrusts a poisened spear into his back while he is singing to Iseult in her bower.”Romance of the Grail, by Joseph Campbell, Page 114
Sir Mallory is far more forgiving of Sir Tristan than most writers of that legend. Tristan and Iseult both live out their days in Sir Lancelot’s castle and the story overtly approves of their love. This relates to one of the more curious and unsettling elements of Le Morte D’Arthur‘s morality: it doesn’t seem to spend much energy castigating some of the more scandalous actions of its characters. Characters commit murders, casually commit adultery, and launch horrific wars with seeming impunity. At one point, Arthur orders an entire generation of royal children executed when Merlin prophecizes one of them will destroy him.
“Then King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten lords and born of ladies; for merlin told Kign Arthur that he that should destroy him should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all… and all were put in a ship to the sea, and some where four weeks old, and some less. And so by fortune the ship drave unto a castle, and was all to-riven, and destroyed the most part…”Book I, Chapter XXVII
Actions like these speak to a strange sense of immorality for a book that’s subtextually about the destruction of a perfect kingdom. The book sparsely comments on these events from a moral perspective and just lets them play out. How can Sir Mallory defend Tristian’s adultery and Arthur’s murders?
Of course, it’s hard to say if Mallory is overtly approving of these events or not. For one, Arthur’s murder serves as a quiet introduction for the character of Sir Mordrid, his nephew who will go on to seize the throne in a Machiavellian power grab during the final book. Mordrid accidentally survives the murder and is raised in a royal family to eventually join the Round Table. The seeds of destruction are planted early in Arthur’s career.
Still, at times it’s hard to tell if Mallory is disinterestedly describing “historical” events or if he’s purposely avoiding providing moral commentary at times. Thankfully, whatever splotches of moral greyness exist in these segments are brought to the forefront in the next segment of the story.
The Story Part 3: The Quest for the Holy (San)greal
At last, we reach the book’s arguable highlight. The Holy Grail is the story element of the King Arthur mythos that most signifies the story of Arthur. It’s been a storytelling device in modern stories from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. It’s also a MacGuffin that’s been somewhat obfuscated by its cultural omnipresence. Most people know WHAT it is, but they don’t know where it comes from and what its artistic significance is within the Arthurian mythos. They know it’s the cup Christ drank out of during the last supper and that his blood was captured within it when Christ’s side was pierced, but they don’t know why it’s usually hidden in Britain of all places.
To that end, we need to consider the mythological origins of the Grail. As a story, it first appears in Chretien De Troyes’ story of Sir Percival where it appears in a mysterious castle in the possession of a man named the Fisher King. Sir Percival is on a quest to find his estranged mother when the castle appears out of nowhere in his path. He’s invited to dinner where a Grail and a bleeding lance are paraded into the dining room. Percival, a kind and quiet knight, says nothing and leaves after dinner.
As it turns out, he’s committed a massive mistake. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, we find out the Fisher King is the descendent of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who donated Christ’s grave after the crucifixion. He caught Christ’s blood with the Grail and was given possession of the spear that pierced his side. After the resurrection, he traveled to England where he handed down the artifacts to an order of nameless knights led by a Grail King who protects the Grail at all costs.
The Grail has special powers because of its connection to Christ’s blood. Anyone familiar with the Catholic Eucharist can speak as to why. When a person consumes the blood and body of Christ, they are believed to be literally partaking in Christ’s flesh. Because the Grail was filled with Christ’s blood, it has taken on the same qualities. To be in the presence of the Holy Grail is to be in the literal presence of Christ. It is for that reason the quest for the Holy Grail is mythologically significant. To be in the presence of the Grail is to signify spiritual and moral perfection.
Thomas Mallory’s rendition of the Grail quest is radically different from De Troyes and Eschenbach’s. It draws heavily from the French Vulgate tradition where the Grail Knight isn’t Sir Percival but Sir Galahad. Galahad’s name supposedly comes from the Hebrew word for “Mountain of Witness” and the entirety of his being reflects this. He’s a morally unquestionable virgin with a perfect intuition for perceiving right from wrong. He can perform miracles, heal wounds, and even reenacts Arthur’s first accomplishment by pulling another sword from another stone to signify he is a perfect knight chosen by God. The only impure thing about him is he’s the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot. In an earlier story of Le Morte D’Arthur, we find out Lancelot was brainwashed into sleeping with the daughter of King Pelles, named Elaine.
This brought about the conception of Galahad who appears at Camelot on the feast of Pentecost. After performing a handful of incredible miraculous feats, every knight in Camelot is gifted with a vision of the Holy Grail that convinces 150 knights to seek it out in person.
“Then anon they heard cracking and crying of thunder, that them though the place should all to-drive. In the midst of this blast entered a sunbeam more clearer by seven times then ever they saw day and all they were alighted of the grace of the holy ghost… Then there entered into the hall the Holy Grail covered with white samite, but there was none might see it, nor who bare it. And there was all the hall fulfilled with good odours and every knight had such emats and drinks as he best loved in the world. And when the Holy Grail had been borne through the hall, then the holy vessel departed suddenly, that they wist not where it became…”Book XIII, Chapter VII
There’s an irony to the quest of course. Arthur’s Round Table had been incomplete for years because a prophet had told him to keep one seat open on the table exclusively for the man who would be revealed to be the Grail Knight. When Sir Galahad arrived on Pentecost, he took the seat, and for the first and last time, the Table Round was complete. Arthur actually laments the quest because he realizes this night would be the only night the entirety of the Round Table would be assembled all at once. This moment, the moment the perfect knight took his place, was the moral height of Camelot.
The journey ends up taking about five years. Of the 150 knights that seek the quest, only four knights ultimately get to stand in the presence of the Grail: Lancelot, Bors, Percival, and Galahad. Lancelot is the first to discover the castle of the Grail, but when he arrives, he’s warned not to enter the chamber of the Grail.
“So came he to the chamber door, and would have entered. And anon a voice said to him: Flee Lancelot, and enter not, for thou oughtest not to do it; and if thou enter thou shalter for-think it… Then looked he up in the midst of the chamber and saw a table of silver, and the Holy Vessel covered with red samite, and many angels about it… Right so entered he into the chamber and came toward the table of silver; and when he came nigh he felt a breath, that him though it was intermeddled with fire, which smote him so sore in the visage that him though it brent his visage; and therewith he fell to the earth… seemingly dead to all people.”Book XVII, Chapter XV
The holy fire blast knocks Lancelot unconscious for 24 days for disobeying its directive. Lancelot was already intimately familiar with why he shouldn’t have entered the chamber. In Book XV, Lancelot stumbles upon several hermits whom he asks for advice regarding difficult questions in his quest. He admits his adultery with Elaine and that it has made him impure for the quest. As he travels, though, he continues to make mistakes. He keeps going down the wrong paths and embracing the path of sin over the path of good.
“For thou art so feeble of evil trust and good belief, this made it when thou were they took thee and led thee into the forest… thou should’st know good from evil and vain glory of the world, the which is not worth a pear. And for great pride thou madest great sorrow that thou hadst not overcome… and therefore God was wroth with you, for God loveth no such deeds in this quest. And this advision signified that thou were of evil faith and of poor belief, the which wil make thee to fall into the deep pit of hell if thou keep the not.”Book XV, Chapter VI
Only a perfect knight can come into the presence of the Grail. After Lancelot abandons his quest, Bors, Percival, and Galahad discover it together, but Galahad is revealed to be the true Grail Knight. For his perfection, perfect faith, and chastity, he’s welcomed to Heaven and his soul is carried by a host of angels away from his body. Sir Percival ends up dedicating his life to faith and dies shortly after in a hermitage. Sir Bors is the only knight who witnesses the full glory of the Grail and who returns to Camelot.
“Come forth the servant of Jesu Christ, and thou shalt see that thou hast much desired to see. And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh began to behold the spiritual things. Then he held up his hands toward heaven and said: Lord I thank thee, for now I see that that hath been my desire many a day. Now blessed Lord, would I not longer live, if it might please thee lord… And therewith he kneeled down to-fore the table and made his prayers, and then suddenly his soul departed to Jesu Christ, and a great multitude of angels bare his soul up to heaven, that the two fellows might well behold it.”Book XVII, Chapter XXII
As glorious as it is, Mallory’s rendition of the Grail Quest is a very dark and revealing story. That only three knights were worthy to stand in its presence out of 150 spoke poorly to the character of the Round Table. What were their sins? Even the mighty Lancelot was unworthy to stand in its presence. Coming as late in the story as it does, it also serves as a kind of prophetic warning. For if the Feast of Pentecost represented the very height of Camelot’s spiritual ascendency, the utter failure of 147 knights in that quest speaks to the torment and horrific tragedy still to come in the book’s final chapters.
As C.S. Lewis writes:
“The Human tragedy becomes all the more impressive if we see it against the background of the Grail, the failure of the quest becomes all the more impressive if it felt thus reverberating through all the human relationships of the Arthurian world. No one wants the Grail to overthrow the Round Table directly, by a fiat of spiritual magic. What we want is to see the Round Table sibi relictus, falling back from the peak that failed to reach heaven and so abandoned those tendencies within it which much work it’s destruction. All the touches which Mallory added only make it more overwhelming…”The Morte DArthur by C.S. Lewis
The Story Part 4: The Death of Arthur
Finally, we arrive at the book’s inevitable conclusion; the moment the book itself is named for and that every rendition of the Arthur story from Monmouth to White eventually has to grapple with. It’s the moment Le Morte D’Arthur has slowly foreshadowed and seeded across the entire narrative of the piece: the moment Camelot tears itself apart.
Naturally, such a moment doesn’t arrive all at once. Shortly after Lancelot and Bors have returned from the quest, Queen Guinevere is captured by the evil Sir Meliagrance who holds her hostage at his castle. Repeating his famous feat from Chretien De Troyes’ Knight of the Cart, Sir Lancelot charges out furiously to save his queen and kills his horse from exhaustion in the process. Near the castle, he jumps in a cart led by two men and demands them to drive him to the castle (in the original story, this signified his absurd desperation to reach her, as noblemen don’t ride peasant carts). Lancelot eventually manages to break her out and return her to Arthur.
Shortly after, though, Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine stumble upon Lancelot’s sexual affair with Queen Guenever. Up until this point, the affair has been kept secret by the fact the queen is incapable of bearing children. With the discovery by Mordrid, Arthur is lead to the conclusion he must charge his greatest knight with treason and similarly execute his wife. Twelve knights attempt to corner Lancelot, but he kills them all and escapes to safety. When word reaches him that his queen is to be executed, he returns to Camelot and murders Sir Gareth to whisk her away.
Sir Gawain is so deeply disturbed by the murder of his brothers and friends that he swears vengeance upon Lancelot and the other knights like Sir Bors and Sir Lionel that have decided to stay loyal to him. Arthur gathers an army of knights and lays siege to Lancelot’s castle, Joyous Gard. The siege lasts for several days and the full-scale war between Arthur and Lancelot reaps a bounty of blood and death. The war doesn’t cool at all until the Pope himself intercedes and petitions for peace and negotiation between both sides which briefly ends the fighting. Arthur commutes Guenever’s death sentence and Lancelot delivers her back to him before departing for Normandy.
Arthur and Gawain once again make ready to war with Lancelot again following the ceasefire and prepare an army of 60,000 men to cross the English Channel amidst an armada of ships. Just as they begin their conflict again, Arthur is forced to withdraw his entire force when he discovers Sir Mordrid has proclaimed to England that Arthur died in combat. He’s declared king and even attempts to marry Guinevere to solidify his power. She refuses and locks herself in the Tower of London.
Arthur and Mordrid do intense battle from the shores of Dover to the fields of Camlann whereupon the final desolation of Camelot is laid bare. In their final battle, 100,000 men die and all but two of Arthur’s loyal knights are slain. Sir Mordrid dies by Arthur’s hand, but not without laying a mortal wound upon him. Arthur speaks that his wounded body is to be carried away to the Isle of Avalon to be healed but that he may not return.
A tomb is set for Arthur with the cryptic words “Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus” written upon it. Guinevere and Lancelot are left as two of the only survivors of that horrific war, beset by sadness for their failures in love, loyalty, and faith. Both dedicate the remainder of their lives to penitence, with the queen becoming a nun and Lancelot becoming a priest. The line of succession is handed to Sir Constantine of England, but those few surviving knights of the Round Table depart to their home countries to better serve their own peoples. The great kingdom of Camelot is no more and great trials are implied to beset England in its absence.
“Yet some men say in many parts of England that Kign Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jeus into another place; and men say that he shall come again and he shall win the holy cross.”Book XXI, Chapter VII
And like that, Le Morte D’Arthur comes to a somber and painful conclusion. Sir Thomas Mallory’s epic story brings its crescendo to its height and ends its tale of romance and adventure with an all too familiar bloodbath. It’s hard to imagine his contemporary noblemen wouldn’t have seen the plain reading of the text splayed out for them. They had just lived through decades of bloody civil war and violence. They had seen what happens when backstabbing leaders and disloyal warriors wreaked havoc. To them, Camlann would’ve felt like just another battlefield. To see the glory of that society break down into such contemporary violence must’ve felt scathing.
I’m going to end this analysis by saying something that will probably harm my intellectual benefits, but it needs to be said regards. Arthurian stories are HAARRDD. I say that as someone who has read and enjoyed Homer and Milton. It took me MONTHS to finish Le Morte D’Arthur, and that’s in addition to other Arthurian books I’ve started but haven’t finished.
Arthurian stories are insanely deep, insanely complex, and constantly contradict one another. They’re caked in obtuse medieval symbolism where arbitrary events happen specifically to serve as an impetus; I just show up later and explain what the Christian meaning behind that event was. On top of that, most of the stories are undecipherable unless you’re actively familiar with the literary traditions, story structures, and cultural inclinations of the writers. Welsh, Latin, French, German, and English Arthur tales have VERY different intellectual and artistic backgrounds that set them up.
King Arthur stories are not a franchise or a genre, they are a series of artistic traditions that spread across centuries and dozens of countries. It’s almost impossible to talk about one King Arthur story without tying the dozens of other interpretations into the discussion as a study in contrast. It doesn’t help that the original sources for these series have been lost to history (or were entirely fabricated). Tracking some sort of singular ancestor is impossible.
Part of the legend’s meaning comes in the ways these stories interact with one another. In Wolfram Eschach’s Parzival, he succeeds in finding the Holy Grail (which turns out to be a literal rock). In Tennyson’s version, Percival fails. In both versions, the story of questing knights seeking the grail that held Christ’s blood is a metaphor for knightly chastity and man’s ability to live up to the edicts of God. Part of interpreting these stories has to come with the irony of grappling with why THIS version of the story ends differently than another one.
On top of that, they can be quite uncomfortable to read, as you must grapple with less godly elements that were popular during this time. The medieval concept of “Courtly Love” is suggests love for its own sake is a virtue and that adultery is forgivable so long as the couple is truly in love. This might’ve made some sense in a time when marriages were political arrangements. Even later Arthurian stories had to go miles out of their way to explore just how deeply sinful and apocryphal many of these early romances were.
All that said, what makes the Arthurian mythos so deeply rewarding is how insightful and revealing the narratives are when they finally do click. When I first read stories like The Once and Future King or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I found their complexity and detail daunting. With each reading, they blossom as narratives with distinct and specific themes.
Maybe Le Morte D’Arthur feels particularly timely because it speaks to the same fear of dissolution that our own time seems to be dreading. It is a time of incredible paranoia and uncertainty – political strife, economic suffering, racial tension, class division, climate change, religious tension, and so on. There is a great fear in society that one or more of these factors will be the thing that destroys either society or humanity as a whole.
Mallory’s great insight is fundamental – there is no single cause to the destruction of a society. Everybody has a hand in the proliferation of evil. The lust of Guinevere and disloyalty of Lancelot give way to murder. Gawain’s vengeful hatred leads to war. Said war gives Mordrid the ambition to cease the throne, and the war between him and Arthur kills the surviving Knights of the Round Table.
At every step in this process, there was an option to turn away from vice. None of them are individually responsible. Lancelot’s actions may have started the ball rolling, but much had to happen in his absence for the kingdom to break apart. The virtuous option was ignored. Each small act of sin builds upon the next until the entire court of Camelot is splayed out in a mass of blood and death upon the fields Camlann.
Maybe Caxton was serendipitously intuitive when he accidentally changed the title of the book to Le Morte D’Arthur. For a book that’s trying to tell such a huge story, no words truly capture the depths of its tragedy quite like “The Death of Arthur”. This is a story about death. At the heights of its triumph and glory, it tells you in its title to think about how the events you’re reading will eventually fall apart. In that, it may yet be one of the greatest stories of human frailty ever set to page.
+ Comprehensive Telling of the Entire Life of King Arthur
+ Notable Retellings of Most of the Major Events of Arthurian Mythos
+ Archaic and Prickly but Powerful Prose
+ Powerful Conclusion that brings the entire Novel Together
- Excessive Length and Style May Turn off some Readers
- Dense Symbolism that Doesn't Hold the Reader's Hand
The Bottom Line
Le Morte D'Arthur is one of the five most influential works of literature in the English language, and it's not hard to see why. It's a huge undertaking but also a deeply rewarding experience!