Le Morte d’Arthur

Thomas Malory

Cover of Le Morte d'Arthur

Rank: A-
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 2011

Author Name: Thomas Malory, Sir Thomas Malory, Thomas Malorie, Sir Thomas Malorie

Review: For those who’ve been following my Le Farce d’Arthur series, it should come as no surprise when I say much of Le Morte d’Arthur reads like a comic farce. That said, the book is still good, and is definitely worth reading at least once in one’s life.

Le Morte d’Arthur is not actually one long epic about the life and death of King Arthur, but rather a collection of stories of the knights of the Round Table fused by Malory into a somewhat coherent tale.

We begin with the conception of Arthur, Arthur as a boy, and the early days of Arthur’s kingship, but thereafter, what happens more often than not is Arthur and the knights of the Table Round are at court, when some old man or some “damosel” comes wandering in and foists a quest off on some unsuspecting knight who then goes on to be the main character for a hundred or so pages.

Mind, this isn’t bad—if you settle down and let Malory take you where he’s going to take you, it’s a hell of a toboggan ride—but if you’re anything like me (who knew nothing beforehand of actual Arthurian legend or Malory), what you expect is a coherent tale of King Arthur and exactly what happened to him and each of his knights separated neatly into different chapters and episodes that one can easily keep track of. That’s not what you get, though.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what the book is. Le Morte d’Arthur comprises several larger stories: The early days of King Arthur’s reign, and how he came to it; the romance of Tristram and Isolde (or Isoud); the story of the Holy Grail; the romance of Lancelot and Guenever; and the death of King Arthur. Intermixed are myriad tales of the other knights (Gawain, Lamorak, Palomides, etc.), all of which came from diverse sources. In weaving all of these stories into one large tale, Malory probably bit off more than he could chew (the book is chock-full of chronological impossibilities and half-told tales [cut off in the interest of “saving time”]), but what he produced is quite an accomplishment, nonetheless, and highly enjoyable.

Part of the unexpected enjoyment for me came from the downright silliness of a lot of the episodes. For example, after Arthur becomes king (after the early part of the book), he’s portrayed as a kind of…idiot, is I guess the word I’m looking for. He’s completely oblivious to much of what goes on (including the fact that Lancelot and Guenevere are professed lovers—and are pretty much the whole time he’s married to her, and everyone knows it but him), and is more often than not insulted right to his face but is too stupid to realize it.

In addition, though, there are lines that are just priceless, and which, I contend, could not have been unintentional. For example, at one point in time Tristram is taken prisoner and suffers in prison for awhile. He’s finally released, and happens upon the castle of Morgan le Fay. He asks for lodging, and she lets him stay, and she gives him “good cheer all that night” (note: “good cheer” doesn’t always mean sex, but I’m pretty sure here it does, as that’s the only thing Morgan le Fay does). Then in the morning he wakes up to go, and all of a sudden, she says:

Wit ye well ye shall not depart lightly, for ye are here as a prisoner.

And Tristram’s response to this…

Jesu defend! said Sir Tristram, for I was but late a prisoner.

…left me dying laughing.

Le Morte d’Arthur is full of stuff like this. And it also includes the most hilarious knight: Sir Dinadan, the cowardly (or so I’ve dubbed him). There is once or twice where Dinadan performs as a knight should, but most of the time what happens is Tristram says, “Come, Sir Dinadan! You and I shall joust with yonder thirty knights!”, and Sir Dinadan says, “Nay, there are too many. I will wait here while you have ado with them.”

And yet Sir Tristram loves him! Tristram can’t say enough about Dinadan and how courageous he is, and what feats of arms he’s performed, and so on. And yet he does nothing courageous—even when presented with the opportunity! Look at how he reasons why he shouldn’t joust here:

How now, said Sir Tristram unto Sir Dinadan, dress thee now and revenge the good knight Gareth. That shall I not, said Sir Dinadan, for he hath stricken down a much bigger knight than I am.

And here he doesn’t even bother giving an excuse:

Then Segwarides asked: Who shall joust with me? I pray thee, said Sir Gareth unto Dinadan, let me have this jousts. Sir, said Dinadan, I pray you take it as for me. That is no reason, said Tristram, for this jousts should be yours. At a word, said Dinadan, I will not thereof. Then Gareth dressed him to Sir Segwarides, and there Sir Segwarides smote Gareth and his horse to the earth. Now, said Sir Tristram to Dinadan, joust with yonder knight. I will not thereof, said Dinadan.

What a coward! It’s just comical!

Anyway, aside from the fact that the action described in the book is redundant (someone is borne over his horse’s “croup” 26 times; the word “smote” occurs [literally] over 600 times), it’s a good time out, and I encourage you to read it. But I can’t depart without commenting on a few things.

First (and I don’t know a way to put this more delicately), the entire series of episodes having to do with the Sangreal (the Holy Grail) are boring. The knights themselves act quite differently throughout the ordeal, as if they’ve put on their Sunday best to perform this holy task. Even Malory makes note of the change once the knights return having successfully captured the grail (read the second paragraph here). I think the entire Sangreal section could have been cut from the book.

Second, there are two episodes that, I think, are truly gripping—and both felt to me like they came out of nowhere. In a book that doesn’t take itself very seriously and doesn’t dwell on sorrow in a non-superficial way, these two scenes were outstanding. (And, of course, I can’t seem to find one right now, so I’ll just have to talk about the other.)

Launcelot, as we all know, is in love with Guenever, King Arthur’s wife. They have romantic episodes together, but otherwise, Guenever is married and Launcelot is single. It comes about that he lodges at a castle where there is a younger girl who falls head over heels for him. Her name is Elaine: the Maid of Astolat. She begs Launcelot to wear a token of hers in an upcoming joust, and even though he never wears tokens, he decides to do so this time so that he won’t be recognized—but that’s it. This, however, is the greatest thing to ever happen to Elaine (in her mind), and she puts a lot of store in it. When Launcelot is going to depart, she begs him to marry her…and he refuses. She then offers to be his “paramour” (which would bring great shame to her), just so she can be with him, and he still refuses. For the love of Guenever, who is, again, another man’s wife (and, in this book, at least, none too likable, at that).

And so he leaves her, and Elaine dies of grief.

And then—just to make it even better—she instructs her father to lay her in a bed in a boat and float her corpse down the river. In her hands she holds a lily and a letter explaining how and why she died. This boat then floats down past Camelot, where Arthur et al. discover her.

Man! What a sequence. And all for Launcelot, who is quite unworthy of her attentions. Malory handles the death of Elaine beautifully, and the scene is truly a standout in an otherwise light-hearted romance.

Finally, there’s one last utterly fascinating issue that I have to comment on: the theme of identity throughout the book—in particular as exemplified by Tristram. What an…utterly bizarre character Tristram is! From the very first, we get a hint of what’s to come, when Tristram goes to Ireland and rather uncleverly “disguises” himself by changing his name to “Tramtrist”. And yet it works! No one knows who he is, and so he goes off and gets La Beale Isoud for his uncle to wed (falling in love with her both naturally and magically along the way).

But that’s just the start of it. For the rest of his life, Tristram engages in what I can only imagine to be a private practical joke with everyone he meets. In this world, we are, I think, to believe that no one is capable of remembering what anyone else looks or sounds like. So if a knight grabs a shield that isn’t his own, he’s suddenly a stranger. And just about every time anyone (even King Arthur—even his friends!) ask Tristram what his name is, he refuses to tell them. Then he makes a game of it. He’ll often refuse to give his name until the other guy gives him his name first. And even then he refuses!

As a modern reader, I have no idea how I’m supposed to interpret this. I refuse to believe that people back then were that stupid (and, after all, La Beale Isoud always knows who he is), so this gamesmanship must be doing work in the text. But what?

Part of it seems to be Tristram’s need to prove himself again and again—but for what reason, I can’t say. It seems like wherever he goes he wants to eschew his reputation so he can win it all over again. One might surmise that he does so to get the jump on his enemies (if they don’t know who he is, they might take him lightly), but, oddly enough, it seems like all knights are able to size up another knight just by looking at him. They may not know if a given knight is Sir Launcelot, but just at a glance, they can tell that he is “one of the noblest knights of the world”. So I don’t buy that explanation. It must be something else.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that Tristram himself simply doesn’t take anything seriously—and that this, perhaps, is ultimately his undoing. That is, he does things and figures, “Eh… It’ll work out in the end.” He falls in love with La Beale Isoud, for example, but then gives her to his uncle to marry. He didn’t have to. I think he simply assumed that it wasn’t a serious matter, marriage (and with an example like Guenever and Arthur, who could blame him?). Likewise, in battle, there’s no one that can match him but Launcelot. Whereas Launcelot displays doubt in battle on occasion, I don’t think it ever occurs to Tristram that he could possibly lose. And perhaps to give him more of a challenge, he hides his name so the knight he’s jousting with won’t give up at the start. And as for when he isn’t doing battle (e.g. when simply meeting with Arthur at the Round Table), I think he just doesn’t care. After all, no one there can beat him; why not mess around with them?

The whole issue of identity is a tangled one and deserves more attention than I’m going to give it here, but I couldn’t leave this review without commenting.

Anyway, Le Morte d’Arthur is long and silly (and at times dull and repetitive), but it’s a work that has influenced so, so, so many. And despite its flaws, it’s quite worth reading. After all, in what other work will you find the word “enthronization”?

2 Responses to “Le Morte d’Arthur”

  1. Erin Peterson says:

    This is a completely off-topic story but I felt it was in keeping with the “farce”.
    Wow, so in response to your last line I googled “enthronization”

    Turns out it has a couple of specific meanings for the catholic church, but more interesting it has an entry in “Webster’s online dictionary”. I clicked on their online .org dictionary only to realize that they have a serious cease and desist coming from Merriam-Webster since they aren’t apparently affiliated in any way with the “Webster’s Dictionary” we all know, except they appear to have striped a number of their definitions from a 1913 copy of the classic dictionary.

    Ok but that aside the page,
    is a riot of laughter. Ignoring the adds and shoddy appearance of the site and focus on the etymology section. They don’t call it the ‘etymology’ section or even the ‘origins’ no it is called “Date “Enthronization” was first used in popular English literature”. And the answer they have is “sometime before 1908 [references]”!
    Ok, I think, well lets see what these references are that they link. I click on the references page (thinking it will probably reference either actual uses or less cool but more in keeping with the shabiness of the website, list which edition of Webster or the OED or such they discovered their information) and after clicking find myself on an amazon.com page selling etymology books. And even better while many of them are dictionaries of etymology it is clear that what they have linked to is the top results when you search for “etymology” as the second and third books on the list are not dictionaries in which you might be able to look up the origins and sources of “enthronization” but are rather books on etymological analysis (perhaps the makers of the dictionary feel that if you really want to know you should do the leg work yourself!).
    I feel that this chain of ridiculousness is somehow a fitting end to your reading of this book…

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