Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Other Arthurian Classics


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
I'm thinking this book is not just a classic of medieval literature, not just the primary source of some classic modern fantasy... but it is, or anyway can be, an initiation into the human mystery.

It may seem, read superficially today, a long-ago-and-far-away heroic dream. But I'd like to contend that it is an initiation into reality. This is what life is.

It is mutability. Malory shows that our life here is one of continuous change. And he makes us feel that and know that if we read aright.

Moreover, he has much insight into what propels that mutability. On one level, it's the pressure of conflicting human desires, what I think the East calls tanha, thirst--the thirst for approval from others, the thirst for accomplishment especially at others' expense, the irritation of lust, the aspiration to take hold of unruly humanity and make it conform to our personal wishes and ideals. Malory understands how human achievement happens... and why it doesn't last. One sees disaster coming (somehow relevant in this wretched presidential election year). On a higher or deeper level mutability is felt as something more than the sum of human actions. It can be manifest in something dear to us, like the change of seasons. There's a bit of mono no aware in Malory, it seems to me. One could relate that to the medieval tradition of Fortune. And that in turn speaks to me of that classic work in the minds of medieval people, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, which deals with Fortune.

I have invoked Eastern tradition, but the Morte connects with Biblical and Christian elements. The frequent references to feasts of the Church Year may be mentioned. There is even an element of mystagogical initiation here: I'm reminded of the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.

The Grail or Graal element speaks both to one of the most familiar and (outwardly) humble acts of the Church, the taking of bread and wine for the remembrance (anamnesis) of Christ, and to the miracle effected in the Sacrament as instituted by the Lord, which has been the center of devotion for innumerable people (including Tolkien), subjectively considered; and, objectively considered... as something not perhaps for discussion here.

But let this be a place for the discussion primarily of Malory, perhaps also of pre-19th-century Arthurian literature, but not of T. H. White et al.
I could not agree more... Those stories all contain more than what the plot is. They tell stories about what life is about and the trails of choosing between what it right and honorable and what are desires are and so many more complex emotions and forks in the paths of life that we come across.
Absolutely. Doesn't Mallory himself say that he wrote the book to give people examples of good and bad conduct to learn from?

I sometimes wish that Fantasy as a genre had leaned more on Mallory and less on Tolkien. One thing that strikes me about the King Arthur stories (at least those relating to Mallory) is the lack of a coherent fantasy world, without maps and bestiaries and clearly-defined sides. If I remember rightly, King Arthur fights the Roman emperor (and his giants) and then cracks on in the medieval world quite happily, with occasional bouts of possibly pre-Christian mystical stuff. It's strange what you respond to as a reader, too: I still remember phrases like "passing fair" and "a dolorous blow" with great affection.

I'm a huge fan of John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights and reviewed it here: The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck Tastes vary, but I preferred it to T.H. White's books. That said, I discovered a few years back that White had written a satirical "ant-colony as dictatorship" passage, which must have subconsciously influenced my own Space Captain Smith.

(Oh, and what about John Boorman's Excalibur? I think it's the best cinema version: lush and strange, full of weirdness and violence and magic beyond "casting spells". I'm just remembering the end, with the Wagner funeral music. Fantastic. I really must write a review of it.)
Yes, Elventine--Malory's book seems to me much more real and perceptive and grown-up than, I suppose, a lot of "realistic" fiction.

One thing that seems to be going on is the tragic interplay of at least four things--Christian morality and devotion; the chivalric code; and courtly love; and ordinary human selfishness, lust, greed, etc. Each of the first three can raise individuals and society above the feral level. Malory responds to the chivalric code. He sees that the earthly glory associated with it is glorious; it is truly a glorious thing, that fellowship of the knights, that stability of society emanating from a good king, etc. He is moved also by courtly love, the strange medieval religion whereby a warrior centered his life in winning the esteem of a woman of high status and beauty (and her status was usually connected with her being married to a man of higher status than that of the knight who was devoted to her). The courtly love code inevitably propels knights and the married women they adore towards treason vis-a-vis the lord or king, an irreconcilable conflict with the chivalric, aristocratic feudal code of service to the earthly lord. And both of these conflicts with the Christian faith that sets the worship of God above all earthly pow'rs.

The Christian moral standard (represented in Malory largely by the hermits) is a guilt/righteousness or purity or forgiveness norm, whereby what matters most is one's relationship with God, who sees what mortals don't see, sees the heart. The chivalric code and courtly love are shame/glory or honor codes, where the main thing is how one is seen by the people who count; how a knight is seen by his peers, or how a lover is seen by his lady.

It's so impressive the way Malory shows Lancelot as the best knight, considered in terms of chivalry and courtly love--and then shows him, on the Grail quest, aspiring to Holiness, and getting a veiled sight of the Grail... and then, after this "conversion," falling back into the merely natural life, and he and Guinevere loving "hotter," says Malory, than before. And how keen Malory is in showing Gawain jumping up to start the Grail quest--as a great chivalric enterprise... and finding no adventures, and at last getting bored with the whole thing. Yet when his own kind force the issue of Lancelot and Guinevere on Arthur's attention, by that point Gawain pleads for patience and mercy, he who in younger days had been such a hothead.

I admit, though, that having read the whole Morte once, now I never read Arthur's war with Lucius or the Tristram-Isode-Mark material!
If you've read Malory, have you read the whole Morte? I have, but it took me over twenty years, from June 1980-18 Aug. 2003! I read the two-volume Penguin Classics edition. Now what I read is the World's Classics paperback (Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript), and only about 350 pages of that, out of about 530. I skip Arthur's war with Lucius of Rome, some of the Lancelot material, and the whole Tristran and Isode sequence. What I do read includes the "Book of Merlin," the story of Balin and the Dolorous Blow, Pelleas and Ettard, the Grail sequence, the Knight of the Cart material, and the Death of Arthur.

Do you have a favorite sequence or episode or moment?

I'm tempted to say that my favorite bit is that in which Sir Urry, whose wounds will not heal and whose mother has brought him through many countries, comes at last to Arthur's court. The spell on him is such that he can be healed only by the best knight. At last Lancelot is compelled to take a turn examining Sir Urry. Lancelot has by then gone through the Grail story in which Percecal, Bors, and Lancelot's son Galahad achieved the quest and he himself did not. Lancelot prays, privily acknowledging his unworthiness, and then "searches" Urry's wounds, and heals him; and he cries "like a child that had been beaten." I literally goosebumped writing this and felt tears come to my eyes. It's not only one of the most moving moments in the Morte but in anything I have read.
I have read part one of Mort as I don't have the other parts as yet. I loved the opening battle where they are fighting other knights and it just goes on with this one smiting that one and they all swap horses about three times.. It just felt very much like how life is... you get knocked down but you just have to get back on the horse and go on with life!

Something just hit me for the first time as I'm finishing a rereading of (much of) the Morte. Before the day appointed for the great battle between Arthur's host and Mordred's, the spirit of Sir Gawain appears to the king with a message from God, counseling Arthur to make a treaty with Mordred for a month, on generous terms, so that later Arthur can be victorious. And the treaty is agreeable to Mordred, and so the parties meet, I take it to formalize the agreement. And many readers will remember what happens next, how a serpent bits a knight (we aren't even told on which side he was), who attacks the snake with his sword; and the sight of the unsheathed blade sets off the final battle, that leaves England a wasteland. And I found myself thinking that this serpent suggests the devil. It's as if Malory is just hinting at an invisible conflict -- between God and the devil -- generally veiled, though manifested in the violence of sinners. Brrrrrr!

There's also a just masterful touch here, that as Arthur is lying, dreadfully wounded, at the end of the day's battle, he hears sounds he can't place. What are they? They are the sounds of people who have come out onto the battlefield to pillage the dead, and to kill and rob knighst who aren't quite dead yet. Again -- brrrr!
Malory; The Life and Times of King Arthur's Chronicles by Christina Hardyment is a fascinating account of the sometime knight, thief and rapist that was Thomas Malory. Ultimately the story told by Malory which was borrowed from the likes of Chretian, Wace, Von Essenbach has it medieval origins in Geoffery of Monmouth, who plucked the story from Welsh bards and the Historia Brittonium has changed for each generation.

For the Welsh he is a warleader of ambiguous morals. He is at times an enemy of the Church, a ravager of women(in one story he plays a game of chance with the husband of a woman he has taken a shine to), he slaughters his enemies without mercy. This is the original Arthur. An Arthur belonging to a more savage time.

In medieval literature you have a king who is held up as ideal of kingship and chivalry. A rebuke to the real kings and Knights.

At the other spectrum you have the Arthur of Tennyson's Idylls. A Victorian gentleman.

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