Camelot is generally considered an idyllic place, and the core values of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table uphold the importance of equality among all. In this es.say, consider how the downfall of Camelot ultimately occurs. Is it through the fault of one or two individuals, or do the issues extend well beyond a small group of characters? In answering this question, consider the representation of both men and women, and explain the series of events that lead to the end of this mythical realm. Be certain to use examples and/or quotes from the text to support your answer.
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Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur: The Winchester Manuscript, edited by Helen Cooper. Oxford University Press, 2008.
- The Noble Tale of the Sangrail, pp. 310 to 320
- Of Sir Galahad, pp. 321 to 326
- Of Sir Lancelot, pp. 329 to 334
- Of Lancelot, pp. 388 to 394
- The Tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, pp. 403 to 467
- The Death of Arthur, pp. 468 to 527
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Malory, Thomas, Sir, 15th cent. Le morte Darthur : the Winchester manuscript/Sir Thomas Malory;
edited and abridged with an introduction and notes by Helen Cooper, (Oxford world’s classics)
Based on the ‘Winchester manuscript’ of the Morte Darthur held by the British Library.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index. 1. Arthurian romances. 2. Knights and knighthood—Romances.
3. Kings and rulers—Romances. I. Cooper, Helen. II. Title. III. Series
PR2043.C63 1998 823′.2—dc21 97–18955
ISBN–13: 978–0–19–282420–2 ISBN–10: 0–19–282420–1
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OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS
SIR THOMAS MALORY
Le Morte Darthur
THE WINCHESTER MANUSCRIPT
Edited and abridged with an Introduction and Notes by
OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS
LE MORTE DARTHUR
THE greatest English version of the stories of King Arthur, the Morte Darthur was completed in 1469–70 by Sir Thomas Malory, ‘knight prisoner’. His identity is uncertain, but he is likely to have been the lord of the manor of Newbold Revel, in Warwickshire. After initially leading the life of a responsible member of the gentry, this Sir Thomas Malory turned to a career of spectacular lawlessness; he spent a number of years in prison, was excluded from two general pardons, and died in 1471.
Malory’s text collects, combines, and abbreviates the key French thirteenth-century prose romances of Arthur, many of which were themselves based on earlier verse originals, and supplements them with English Arthurian material. The ‘historical’ Arthur had been given a biography of pan-European conquest by Geoffrey of Monmouth early in the twelfth century, and Malory incorporates a later version of this story too. The Morte thus channels all the important Arthurian legends into a single source that itself stands at the head of the whole later Arthurian tradition in English, from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone to Camelot and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
This edition, slightly abridged from the original, is the first designed for the general reader to be based on the ‘Winchester manuscript’ of the Morte Darthur, now British Library MS Additional 59678. This manuscript represents what Malory wrote more closely than the version edited and printed by William Caxton, the only version known until earlier this century, which has been used as the basis for most other editions of the work.
HELEN COOPER is Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Oxford, and Tutorial Fellow, University College, Oxford. She is the author of Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (Clarendon Press) and has edited Keith Harrison’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Oxford World’s Classics (1998).
Note on the Text
Chronology of Arthurian Material to 1500
Glossary of Recurrent Words
LE MORTE DARTHUR FROM THE MARRIAGE OF KING UTHER UNTO KING ARTHUR
How Uther Pendragon begot the Noble Conqueror King Arthur
The Tale of Balin and Balan
The Wedding of King Arthur
Of Nenive and Morgan le Fay
THE NOBLE TALE BETWIXT KING ARTHUR AND LUCIUS THE EMPEROR OF ROME
A NOBLE TALE OF SIR LANCELOT DU LAKE
THE TALE OF SIR GARETH OF ORKNEY
THE BOOK OF SIR TRISTRAM DE LYONESSE
Of Sir Galahad, Sir Lancelot’s son
Of Sir Lancelot
Of Sir Tristram and of Sir Palomides
THE NOBLE TALE OF THE SANGRAIL
Of Sir Galahad
Of Sir Gawain
Of Sir Lancelot
Of Sir Percival de Gales
Of Sir Lancelot
Of Sir Gawain and Sir Ector
Of Sir Bors de Ganis
Of Sir Galahad
Of Sir Lancelot
Of Sir Galahad
THE TALE OF SIR LANCELOT AND QUEEN GUENIVERE
THE DEATH OF ARTHUR
APPENDIX Caxton’s Preface
Index of Characters
The Story of Arthur
At the battle of Camlann, Arthur and Medraut fell.
That cryptic line is not quite the earliest reference to Arthur, but it is the first that lays claim to historical plausibility. It is also the first to name Mordred together with Arthur in their last battle—though whether as opponents or associates is not clear. The Annales Cambriae, which contains the entry, dates the battle to the early sixth century. Between that date, whether legendary or historical, and the first full account of Arthur written 600 years later, legends about him were widespread, as we know from tantalizingly allusive references in Welsh poetry, from recurrent appearances of Arthur as a Christian name, and from the record of a fracas in Cornwall early in the twelfth century between a local man and the servant of a visiting ecclesiastical dignitary over the issue of whether Arthur was still alive.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, writing his History of the Kings of Britain in the 1130s, who first made Arthur into the great British hero, and who provided him with the biography that remained current in accounts of the English past down to the time of the sixteenth-century historian Holinshed. Like the writers of much of the best fiction, Geoffrey claims to be deriving his work from an ancient book that he was lent, written in the British language; neither its existence nor its non-existence can be proved. His Arthur is a conqueror (both within the British Isles and on the continent of Europe) who is supported by a group of warriors, notable among them Gawain and Kay; it is while he is campaigning on the continent that his nephew Mordred, left as regent in his absence, attempts to usurp the throne, resulting in their final internecine battle. The Round Table makes its first appearance in a French verse redaction of Geoffrey made some fifteen years later, the Roman de Brut of Wace. Shortly after that, probably starting in the 1160s, Chrétien de Troyes composed the first French verse romances devoted to the exploits of individual knights of the Round Table. It is in
these that Lancelot first achieves prominence, as the lover of Guenivere and as Arthur’s best knight, displacing Gawain.
The fashion started by Chrétien initiated an extraordinary literary flowering of Arthurian material across Europe. New romances were composed; French ones were translated and adapted into a multiplicity of languages, from Norse to Portuguese and Hebrew. Early in the thirteenth century in France, the stories contained in the verse romances of Arthur were given a new and extended form in prose. A connected series of these written by various authors, known as the Vulgate Cycle, covered the whole history of the Round Table from the pre-history of the Grail in the generation after the Crucifixion down to Arthur’s death in battle against Mordred, who by this time had become his illegitimate son unwittingly begotten on his sister. In this cycle, divine retribution for sexual sin— Arthur’s incest with his sister, Lancelot’s adultery with Guenivere—brings about the fall of the Round Table, and the Grail knights are accordingly upgraded into being warriors of God, pure of any sexual contact, and with the new figure of Galahad replacing the earlier and more worldly Grail hero Perceval. Tristan and Isolde, whose story had originally been independent of any Arthurian connections, were also drawn within the great magnetic field of the Round Table, and Tristan, in a huge prose romance of his own, became the only knight of medieval romance to rival Lancelot in both prowess and popularity.
In England, the history of Arthurian romance followed a slightly different path. The ‘historical’ story of Arthur, ultimately derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth, was retold several times in poetic form, notably in the alliterative Morte Arthure of the late fourteenth century. There are a number of English metrical romances of individual Arthurian knights: a version of the original Tristan story, a translation of Chrétien’s Yvain, a Percival of Gales without the Grail. The most striking feature of the English tradition, however, is that Gawain remains the most popular Arthurian knight, eleven surviving metrical romances being devoted to his exploits besides the magnificent alliterative Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lancelot never received the kind of attention that he did in France: only a verse adaptation of the last part of the Vulgate Cycle, the stanzaic Morte Arthur, accords him any significant space before Malory himself.
The stanzaic Morte Arthur, probably composed around the same time as the alliterative Morte, is typical in translating French prose into English
verse. Prose romance arrived late in England, well into the fifteenth century. To us, Malory’s decision to write in prose looks inevitable; at the time he was writing, in the 1460s, it was by no means such an obvious choice. Only one English translation of Vulgate Cycle material out of the five that precede Malory uses prose; and his English sources are all in verse, stanzaic or alliterative. His choice of prose may have been influenced by the fact that the earliest English prose romances tend to be stories of disaster or tragedy—stories such as Oedipus or the fall of Troy—rather than of wish- fulfilment and happy endings. That Malory gives his whole work the title of the Morte Darthur, the death of Arthur, insists that this too is a story in which things go irrevocably wrong.
Although Malory was writing over two centuries after the composition of the French prose romances that form the bulk of his sources, he was neither old-fashioned nor anachronistic in turning back to them. They were enjoying a new surge of popularity in the fifteenth century, with new manuscript copies being made and a cult of chivalry to encourage their reading. A number are known to have been owned by readers in England, and Malory would probably not have needed to go to the continent to find copies of his source works.1 England’s first printer, William Caxton, who printed Malory’s work in 1485, was both cashing in on the fashion for Arthurian material and setting the pace for its broader dissemination: the first French Arthurian prose romance to be printed, the Lancelot, appeared in 1488, the Tristan in 1489.
It was Malory’s work, however, that survived. After tastes changed in the course of the sixteenth century the French romances ceased to be reprinted, and in so far as they have been known at all since then it is largely as works for study by academics, despite recent translations of some of them. Malory, by contrast, was reprinted several times down to 1634; he passed into some obscurity after that, but since the revival of interest in the Morte that started early in the nineteenth century, he has served as the direct or indirect basis for almost every Arthurian work in any medium: poems, novels, children’s books, science fiction, films, advertisements, cartoons, modern heritage paraphernalia—everything from epics to T-shirts.
Sir Thomas Malory
Who was Sir Thomas Malory? The strong likelihood is that he was a man who at first sight appears distinctly unpromising, at least if one believes that writers’ lives should accord with the principles of their work. The career of Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, in Warwickshire, reads more like an account of exemplary thuggery than chivalry.2 His date of birth and early years are obscure; he may possibly have served in France in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. He first enters the records in 1439, and had been knighted by 1441. With the exception of an episode of grievous bodily harm, until 1450 he lived the life of a socially responsible member of the gentry, holding various public offices including that of Member of Parliament. After this, however, he turned to a career of crime and violence, interspersed with long periods of imprisonment. He began with a spectacular outburst that included attempted assassination, cattle-rustling, extortion, abbey-breaking, and rape. (He was indeed accused of raping the same woman on two separate occasions; in his favour, it should be noted that at this date a charge of rape of a married woman could be a husband’s way of going on the offensive over his wife’s adultery.) Unprecedentedly large forces were sent to arrest him; he twice escaped from imprisonment— once by swimming the moat, once with the help of swords and long knives —and his jailers were threatened with record-breaking penalty clauses in the event of a further escape. He had the unique distinction of being exempted by name from two separate general pardons. In his periods of liberty, various of the magnates who had interests in the Warwickshire area made gestures towards recruiting him into their affinities (political and, if necessary, military interest groups), but none showed any enthusiasm about either holding on to him or offering him support. A number of comments in the course of his Arthurian work inform us that he wrote it in prison; he completed it, he tells us, in the year 1469–70. He died in March 1471.
The mismatch between this life and the golden ideal of chivalry that the Morte Darthur promotes has led to a series of attempts to find other candidates for its authorship, but none has been convincing. There were other Malory families in the fifteenth century, but none contained a Thomas known to have been knighted, nor one known to have been imprisoned for anything like the length of time necessary for producing such a huge work. Claims have been made for a Yorkshire Malory and, less convincingly, for a Cambridgeshire Malory, but supporting evidence is no more than circumstantial.3
The contrast between the ethics promoted in the Morte Darthur and those evinced by Malory’s life is huge, but it is not so greatly different in kind from the contrast shown by the age in which he lived. The fifteenth century witnessed a cult of chivalry such as had never been known before: its practitioners seem to have thought of it as a revival, but it is hard to find actual precedents. Tournaments and individual chivalric combats, the latter often based on the model of the prose romances, reached new heights of elaboration on the continent of Europe. Noblemen and other gentlemen would sometimes set up a pillar or a shield or a basin at a crossroads or some comparable place, to be struck by challengers who wished to engage in combat with them—a process known as the pas d’armes, the passage of arms. A Burgundian gentleman named Jacques de Lalaing acquired fame for conducting his life on the model of a knight errant, travelling Europe in a search for chivalric combatants. Orders of knighthood flourished: one of the earliest, Edward Ill’s Order of the Garter, had been established in 1348, in a conscious imitation of the fellowship of the Round Table, but the majority of such orders were fifteenth-century foundations. Malory himself apparently modelled the oath sworn by the fellows of the Round Table on the charge laid on the neophyte knights in the ceremony for creating Knights of the Bath.
Chivalric orders, however, were founded in order to set standards of aspiration in a world that was less than ideal. Local and national disorder in England increased in intensity in the course of the fifteenth century, more or less in line with Malory’s own career of violence. The weak adult rule of Henry VI culminated in civil war between his house of Lancaster and the rival dynasty of York; but the battle for the throne was only the extreme form of a more general feuding and civil disturbance, which a stronger king could have controlled. It is much too easy to imagine the Wars of the Roses as a simple struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians: in practice it was more like a series of faction-fights in which participants might on occasion change sides, not just over the question of which king they supported, but according to baronial enmities and local disputes that could in turn draw members of rival magnate affinities into larger feuds.
Malory’s work may ostensibly be set in a legendary age in which chivalric behaviour was lived most fully, but not the least interesting thing about his own redaction of his Arthurian material is the way it intersects with the conditions of his own era. In the French Vulgate Cycle, it is the
failure of earthly knighthood, as shown up by the standards of religious perfection set by the quest for the Holy Grail, that causes the downfall of Arthur. In Malory’s version, the fellowship of the Round Table is split from within by warring factions. Gawain and his brothers (always excepting the ‘good knight’ Sir Gareth) acquire a hatred of Lancelot grounded on envy; and they murder Sir Lamorak because of a blood-feud deriving from their father’s death in battle at the hands of Lamorak’s father Pellinore. Arthur, bound to Gawain by close ties of kinship, appears helpless to stop the violence; and after Lancelot accidentally kills Gareth while he is unarmed and on the King’s service, Gawain demands revenge from the King that Arthur cannot legally or feudally refuse.
All these episodes are present in his French sources, but Malory’s changes of emphasis amount to an ethical restructuring of the whole history of Arthur. His version is not a clash between earthly and divine focused on the issue of sexual sinfulness, but a study of the personal rivalries that underlie political disintegration. His awareness of the connections between the story he is recounting and his own times becomes on occasion explicit: as he notes that in Arthur’s days justice was exercised regardless of the rank of the accused and without miscarrying for ‘favour, love, nor affinity’—the last being a reference to the system of magnates’ packing of juries in support of their retainers; or in his outburst attacking ‘all ye Englishmen’ who are prepared to exchange one king for another, ‘and men say that we of this land have not yet lost that custom’. Malory’s Morte Darthur is not an exercise in nostalgia for a golden age: it is an account of the destruction of an ideal.
Malory’s Arthurian World
Malory’s ‘whole book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the Round Table’ gives a complete history of the Arthurian world. In part it comprises a life of Arthur himself, from the mysterious circumstances of his begetting and birth, through his mighty conquests, to his downfall and death. Integrated with and inset within that is a series of individual histories of the most famous members of the fellowship of the Round Table. Some are given space of their own—Gareth, Lancelot, Tristram, Galahad; others are told of in the course of other stories—Gawain, Mordred, Pelleas, Bors, Palomides, Dinadan, Lamorak. The important thing, however, is that they
do make up a fellowship. They support each other, rescue each other, ‘enfellowship’ with each other—the verb is Malory’s own coinage. If they engage in combat in anger (as distinct from sport), it is because of mistaken identity, or because of an explicit failure of fellowship: a failure that becomes increasingly evident as the whole history progresses, and which finally destroys the fellowship from within.
The ideal of knighthood that Malory presents is summarized in the oath sworn by the Round Table knights: to avoid treason and wrongful quarrels; to show mercy; never to offer violence, especially sexual violence, to gentlewomen (the aristocratic social basis is a premiss almost universal in medieval romance, not least in Arthurian material) and to fight on their behalf. Later he adds that the quarrels in which a knight fights should come from God or his lady; and he repeats many times and in many forms that true love should be faithful and unchanging. It is, in fact, an ideal of secular Christian chivalry, that incorporates physical prowess, an observance of one’s duties to God—his knights are generally meticulous about attending Mass—and faithful heterosexual love.
None of these, however, is unproblematic. Secular romance gave primacy to love—most often, to courtship and sexuality that leads to marriage; less often, though more famously, to love independent of marriage, such as proved its absoluteness by its inability to be constrained by the social taboos against adultery in general, or, in particular, with the wife of one’s overlord. The medieval church, by contrast, had a tendency to define spiritual perfection in terms of sexual intactness, virginity, in a manner directly at odds with the ethos of secular romance. Malory seems perfectly happy to give examples of all three attitudes: Gareth’s winning of Dame Lyonesse as his wife, the illicit passion of Lancelot and Guenivere or Tristram and Isode, the elevation of virginity in the knights of the Grail quest. He is notably free of the anxieties about sexuality that are often ascribed to medieval culture; he takes it as natural and unthreatening, for instance, that women have sexual desires, reserving his disapproval for women such as Morgan le Fay who try to impose their desires by force or blackmail in a female equivalent of rape. His villains in his presentation of love are those men or women who are promiscuous, jealous, or violent, or who betray lovers in order to destroy them. Hermits and other confessors who try to impose the standards of the Church are accepted without fuss: they are, after all, only doing what holy men are supposed to do.
The knight’s position in regard to God can none the less be rendered untenable by the demands of a different ethical system. The clash of the two becomes the engine that drives Malory’s version of the Grail quest. The French prose romance of the Grail may have been written to offer a religious counterbalance to the attraction of secular romance; it insists on the positive damage done by sexuality, by the desire for honour, by all those things that elsewhere in the Arthurian stories constitute the essence of knighthood. Lancelot, accordingly, becomes the exemplary failure, the knight who is foiled by his own sinfulness, his inability to change from a worldly ethic to a spiritual one. Malory’s Lancelot, by contrast, comes close to being the hero of the quest, precisely because he will not give up: because he will not abandon his desire for the Grail, and cannot ultimately abandon his desire for Guenivere.
It is only in the course of the Grail quest, when the episodes function less as narratives of knightly adventure than as allegories of moral temptation or theological signification, that Lancelot can be overcome. Elsewhere, his prowess is absolute. His physical superiority and his faithfulness to the terms of the Round Table oath together make him the paragon of knightliness; by the time of Malory’s great lyric encomium on love, his devotion to Guenivere is included as a part of that excellence. Might does not always or necessarily indicate right, however. Good knights will frequently be defeated and mistreated by stronger wicked ones, and rely on the most powerful figures, Lancelot or Tristram, for rescue. King Mark generally relies on the underhand methods of plotting rather than open combat to further his own interests and defeat his enemies, but he has the good fortune to defeat in combat an opponent who has justly charged him with murder—God does not always, as Malory notes, intervene to support the right. And in the final stages of the work, even Lancelot’s prowess becomes problematic.
Malory designs the last two sections of his work around Lancelot’s three successive rescues of Guenivere from the threat of judicial execution. In the first, when she is charged with murder, she is innocent. In the second, given its place here by Malory himself and not by his sources, the charge is of adultery with one of the wounded knights lying in her chamber, and she is innocent only on a technicality: it is Lancelot himself who has slept with her. On the third occasion, when Lancelot is taken in her chamber and fights his way out, even Malory acknowledges that her innocence is problematic.
He will not commit himself as to ‘whether they were abed or at other manner of discourse’, but he recognizes the inevitability of the position taken by both Lancelot and his kin, that he must fight in her defence: ‘In so much as ye were taken with her, whether ye did right or wrong, it is now your part to hold with the Queen.’ ‘Whether right or wrong’ becomes almost a leitmotiv phrase of the end of the work; and Arthur and Lancelot both know that if the issue comes to individual combat, then, whether right or wrong, Lancelot will be the victor.
There is a strong sense, however, in which Lancelot is in the right: not necessarily over the question of what happened that night in the Queen’s chamber, which Malory avoids specifying, but because he, in contrast to his accusers, is (paradoxically) faithful to Arthur as his lord. Malory’s Arthurian world operates by the principles of a shame culture, where worth is measured in terms of reputation, ‘worship’, rather than by the principles of a guilt culture, of what one’s conscience may declare to be right or wrong. So long as Arthur’s honour is not spoken against, his kingship is untouched. Agravain and Mordred insist on bringing the affair into the open, regardless of its direct damage to the King and the consequences to the fellowship and the realm. Lancelot, by contrast, does his best to restore ‘worship’ to Arthur by offering to fight (and therefore to overcome) all those who are prepared to accuse the Queen, and to restore the fellowship to its wholeness by his offers of reparation to Gawain. His refusal to fight with Arthur himself is consistently presented as due to love and loyalty rather than a guilty conscience. As author, Malory blames Agravain and Mordred for the downfall of the Round Table; both Gawain and Guenivere blame themselves. Lancelot bitterly laments his misfortune in accidentally killing Gareth and his failure to arrive in time to assist Arthur in his final battle, but if Malory targets him for blame, it is only through his disposition of material, never by direct statement. Moreover, any guilt that might attach to the sin of the lovers in the eyes of God is strongly countered in two passages, apparently original to Malory, that occur on either side of the second accusation of Guenivere, the only occasion in the work when they do explicitly sleep together: first, when he insists that ‘she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end’—a phrase implying that her faithfulness to Lancelot wins her acceptance into Heaven; second, when God allows Lancelot to perform his own personal miracle, in the healing of Sir Urry.
Good knighthood in Malory is presented in terms of models and counter- models, led by Lancelot, Gareth, and Tristram. Opposing them are characters such as the brutal Sir Tarquin; the outright villain Sir Breunis sans Pité, who is an expert in violence but who flees as soon as he is offered serious opposition; and Mordred, the traitor within Arthur’s own household. Malory deploys a rigorously limited vocabulary to define the two groups, in a resonating repetition that serves to associate all good or all bad knights with each other: noble, worshipful, good, against shameful, false, traitorous, or (most commonly used by his knights rather than himself as narrator) recreant or recrayed. This does not mean, however, that all good or all bad knights are interchangeable. Dinadan, whose worth Malory consistently stresses, is as much Tristram’s sidekick as follower, a knight who has no more than the ordinary measure of physical courage or prowess and knows that he can get hurt; he is the direct ancestor of Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza. Yet he too is a knight of the Round Table, and his courage is all the more notable for not being sustained by the casual self-confidence that marks Tristram or Lancelot; and his unhesitating clarity of moral vision makes him a touchstone for measuring knightliness in others. Other knights swing between the opposing poles of fellowship and treachery, often very consciously. Palomides’ hopeless love for
The post Camelot is generally considered an idyllic place, and the core values of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table uphold the importance of equality among all. In this es. first appeared on courseworkresearch.