Le Morte Darthur
by Thomas Malory
Sir Thomas Malory was sitting out the War of the Roses, reportedly a prisoner, when he began his famous collation of the Arthurian myths. The earliest mentions of Arthur are in historical accounts like that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but during the medieval era troubadours like Chretien de Troyes adopted and extended the tales to include many of the familiar elements: the round table, the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere, the quest for the Grail. Even though he was an English—or, more precisely, a Celtic hero—it was on the Continent that Arthur’s adventures became the stuff of legend. Malory’s version represents the greatest treatment of the tales in English and proved extremely popular when it appeared under Caxton’s imprint.
The Arthurian legend and the romance of Camelot continue to appeal to modern readers. They represent one of the last remaining vestiges of the chivalric past. Reading the medieval tales, though, the reader will discover many mysterious conventions—as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, much of the rationale for chivalric conduct is lost on us. But there is something about the endless array of jousts and single combats that suggests a parallel with our own taste for action movies and melodrama.
Le Morte D’Arthur lacks the humor and readability of The Canterbury Tales, and I for one have a hard time keeping track of the various knights errant, but as a compendium of the most celebrated myth of chivalry, it is without equal—and essential to understanding the context of later works like Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queene and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
by J. Mark Bertrand