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The Last Sleep of Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones

Le Morte d'Arthur (spelled Le Morte Darthur in the first printing and also in some modern editions, Middle French for la mort d'Arthur, "the death of Arthur") is Sir Thomas Malory's compilation of some French and English Arthurian romances. The book contains some of Malory's own original material (the Gareth story) and retells the older stories in light of Malory's own views and interpretations. First published in 1485 by William Caxton, Le Morte d'Arthur is perhaps the best-known work of English-language Arthurian literature today. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source, including T. H. White for his popular The Once and Future King and Tennyson for The Idylls of the King.

Malory probably started work on Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in prison in the early 1450s and completed it by 1470. Originally Malory intended Le Morte Darthur to be the title of only the final book of his cycle; he calls the full work The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table; Caxton may have misunderstood the author's intentions when naming the book. Many modern editions update the spelling and some of the pronouns from Malory's original Middle English, re-punctuate and re-paragraph, but otherwise leave the text as it was written.

The first printing of Malory's work was made by Caxton in 1485; it proved popular, and was reprinted, with some additions and changes, in 1498 and 1529 by Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded Caxton's press. Three more editions followed at intervals down to the time of the English Civil War: William Copland's (1557), Thomas East's (1585), and William Stansby's (1634), each of which manifested additional changes and errors (including the omission of an entire leaf). Thereafter the book went out of fashion until the time of the Romantic revival of interest in all things medieval; the year 1816 saw a new edition by Walker and Edwards, and another one by Wilks, both based on the 1634 Stansby edition. From Davison's 1817 edition (promoted by Robert Southey) on, Caxton's 1485 edition (or a mixture of Caxton and Stansby) was used as the basis for future editions, down to the time of the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript.

Caxton was also responsible for separating it into 21 books comprising 507 chapters for easier reading. Originally, Malory divided his work principally into eight tales:

  1. The birth and rise of Arthur: "From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles"
  2. King Arthur's war against the Romans:"The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome"
  3. The book of Lancelot: "The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac"
  4. The book of Gareth (brother of Gawain): "The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney"
  5. Tristan and Isolde: "The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione"
  6. The Quest for the Holy Grail: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal”
  7. The affair between Lancelot and Guinevere: "Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwenyvere"
  8. The breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and the death of Arthur: "The Death of Arthur"

Most of the events in the book take place in Britain and France in the latter half of the 5th century. In some parts, it ventures farther afield, to Rome and Sarras (near Babylon), and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Near East.


The Winchester Manuscript

All editions prior to 1934 were based on the edition printed by Caxton. In June of that year, when the library of Winchester College was being catalogued, W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy—one of the most important medieval manuscripts discovered in the 20th century. Newspaper accounts appearing on June 25, June 26, August 25, and September 27, 1934 outlined to the public the unfolding story of the recognition that what Caxton had published in 1485 was not necessarily exactly what Malory had written.[1] Oakeshott published an account of his remarkable discovery, "The Finding of the Manuscript," in 1963, chronicling the initial event and his realization that "this indeed was Malory," with "startling evidence of revision" in the Caxton edition.[2] The "Winchester Manuscript" is regarded as being mostly, but not always, closer to Malory's original than is Caxton's text, although both derive separately from an earlier copy. Curiously, microscopic examination of ink smudges on the Winchester manuscript showed the marks to be offsets of newly printed pages set in Caxton's own font, indicating that same manuscript had been in Caxton's print shop. Unlike the Caxton edition, the Winchester MS is not divided into books and chapters. Indeed, in his preface, Caxton takes credit for the division.

Eugène Vinaver, an already-established Malory scholar, appeared in Winchester on June 27 asking to see the manuscript. Though he was encouraged to produce an edition himself, Oakeshott acknowledged Vinaver's editorial superiority and eventually ceded the project to him.[3] But on the basis of his initial study of the manuscript, Oakeshott concluded as early as 1935 that the copy from which Caxton printed his edition "was already subdivided into books and sections."[4] Based on a more exhaustive study of the manuscript alongside Caxton's edition, Vinaver reached similar conclusions, and in his 1947 edition—polemically entitled The Works of Sir Thomas Malory—Vinaver argued strongly that Malory had in fact not written a single book, but produced a series of Arthurian tales which were internally-consistent and independent works. Other scholars have pointed out that Malory, particularly in his later tales, added links to his own versions of events in earlier sections. They argued that Malory felt that the tales should cohere, even if Malory did not get to the point of producing a revision that achieved that goal. This is especially apparent in the final two tales, which even Vinaver agreed were intended to be read together. The question of the work's unity has never been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Whatever Malory's intentions for the individual books, he did mean them to be considered an interrelated series, if not a unified whole.

Book I: "From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles" (Caxton I–IV)

Arthur is born to Uther Pendragon and Igraine and then taken by Sir Ector to be fostered in the country. He later becomes the king of a leaderless England when he removes the fated sword from the stone. Arthur goes on to win many battles due to his military prowess and Merlin’s counsel. He then consolidates his kingdom.

Also in this first book is "The Tale of Balyn and Balan", which ends in fratricide, and the begetting of Mordred, Arthur’s incestuous son by his half-sister, Morgause. At Merlin’s advice, Arthur takes every newborn boy in his kingdom and sends them to sea in a boat. The boat crashes and all but Mordred, who later kills his father, perish. Arthur marries Guinevere, and inherits the Round Table from her father Leodegrance. At Pentecost, Arthur gathers his knights at Camelot and establishes the Round Table company. All swear to the Pentecostal Oath as a guide for knightly conduct.

In this first book, Malory addresses 15th century preoccupations with legitimacy and societal unrest, which will appear throughout the rest of the work. As Malorian scholar Helen Cooper states in Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte Darthur - The Winchester Manuscript, the prose style (as opposed to verse), which mimics historical documents of the time, lends an air of authority to the whole work. She goes on to state that this allowed the book to be read as a history rather than as a work of fiction, therefore making it a model of order for Malory’s violent and chaotic times during the War of the Roses. Malory’s concern with legitimacy reflects the concerns of 15th century England, where many were claiming their rights to power through violence and bloodshed. Genealogy was a way to legitimize power in a less arbitrary manner, and Malory calls this into question.

The Pentecostal Oath (the Oath of the Round Table) is meant to correct a lack of moral centre exemplified in the fratricide in "The Tale of Balyn and Balan." Also, once in power, Arthur becomes a king of dubious morals even while he is held up as a beacon of hope. Arthur’s most immoral acts are the begetting of Mordred and the following mass infanticide, which only add to Arthur’s shaky morality and cast Merlin in a negative light from which he never emerges. Arthur’s immorality, then, plagues him for the whole of his reign.

In the end, the book still holds out for hope even while the questions of legitimacy and morality continue in the books to follow. Arthur and his knights continually try and fail to live up to their chivalric codes, yet remain figures invested with Malory’s desperate optimism.

Book II: "The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome" (Caxton V)

This book, detailing Arthur's march on Rome, is heavily based on the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, which in turn is heavily based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The opening of Book V finds Arthur and his kingdom without an enemy. His throne is secure, his knights have proven themselves through a series of quests, Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristan have arrived and the court is feasting. When envoys from Emperor Lucius of Rome arrive and accuse Arthur of refusing tribute, "contrary to the statutes and decrees made by the noble and worthy Julius Caesar," Arthur and his knights are stirring for a fight. They are "many days rested" and excited, "for now shall we have warre and worshype." Arthur invokes the lineage of Ser Belyne and Sir Bryne, legendary British conquerors of Rome, and through their blood lineage demands tribute from Lucius under the argument that Britain conquered Rome first. Lucius, apprised of the situation by his envoys, raises a heathen army of the East, composed of Spaniards and Saracens, as well as other enemies of the Christian world. Rome is supposed to be the seat of Christianity, but it is more foreign and corrupt than the courts of Arthur and his allies. Departing from Geoffrey of Monmouth's history in which Mordred is left in charge, Malory's Arthur leaves his court in the hands of Sir Constantine of Cornwall and an advisor. Arthur sails to Normandy to meet his cousin Hoel, but he finds a giant terrorizing the people from the holy island of Mont St. Michel. This giant is the embodiment of senseless violence and chaos, a monster who eats men and rapes women to death. He uses sex as a violent act of control and appetite, divorced from sensuality or reason. Arthur battles him alone, an act of public relations intended to inspire his knights. The fight is closely documented by Malory, a blow-by-blow description of blood and gore. The giant dies after Arthur "swappis his genytrottys in sondir" and "kut his baly in sundir, that oute wente the gore". When Arthur does fight Lucius and his armies it is almost anticlimactic, when compared to his struggles with the giant. Arthur and his armies defeat the Romans, Arthur is crowned Emperor, a proxy government is arranged for the Roman Empire and Arthur returns to London where his queen welcomes him royally.

This book is Malory's attempt to validate violence as a right to rule. In the Geoffrey of Monmouth history Arthur refutes the basis of Rome's demands because "nothing acquired by force and violence is justly possessed by anyone". His demand of tribute is a parallel request that emphasizes the absurdity of Rome's request. In the end, Malory seems to find violence lacking. Despite the neat resolution with Arthur as Emperor he never again tries this "might makes right" tactic. Similarly, Malory's treatment of the Giant of Mont St. Michel seems to be an exploration of violence in his own society where powerful men committed seemingly-senseless acts of violence.

Book III: "The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac" (Caxton VI)

In this tale, Malory establishes Lancelot as King Arthur's most revered knight. Among Lancelot's numerous episodic adventures include being enchanted into a deep sleep by Morgan le Fay and having to escape her castle, proving victorious in a tournament fighting on behalf of King Bagdemagus, slaying the mighty Sir Turquine who had been holding several of Arthur's knights prisoner, and also overcoming the betrayal of a damsel to defend himself unarmed against Sir Phelot.

These adventures address several major issues developed throughout Le Morte Darthur. Among the most important is the fact Lancelot always adheres to the Pentecostal Oath. Throughout this tale he assists damsels in distress and provides mercy for knights he has defeated in battle. However, the world Lancelot lives in is too complicated for simple mandates. This can be seen when a damsel betrays Lancelot and he must fight Sir Phelot unarmed. Although Lancelot aspires to live by an ethical code, the actions of others make it difficult for the Pentecostal Oath to fully establish a social order.

Another major issue this text addresses is demonstrated when Morgan le Fay enchants Lancelot. This action reflects a feminization of magic along with a clear indication that Merlin’s role within the text has been diminished. The tournament fighting in this tale indicates a shift away from war towards a more mediated and virtuous form of violence.

On courtly love, Malory attempts to shift the focus of courtly love from adultery to service by having Lancelot admit to doing everything he does for Guinevere, but never admit to having an adulterous relationship with her. In this way Malory focuses on the ennobling aspects of courtly love. The attempt is undercut by the other characters who constantly insinuate that Lancelot is sleeping with Guinevere. Lancelot's obsessive denial of his relationship with Guinevere implies that he only defines himself through his actions towards women. Furthermore, Lancelot and Guinevere function within the French romantic tradition wherein Guinevere provides Lancelot with order. On numerous occasions he refuses the love of other women and sends Guinevere knights he has defeated in battle who must appeal to her for forgiveness. This proves extremely problematic because it undermines the ultimate authority of Arthur.

Book IV: "The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney" (Caxton VII)

The tale of Sir Gareth begins with him arriving at court as le bel inconnu, or the fair unknown. He comes without a name and therefore without a past. An unknown woman, later revealed to be the Dame Lynette, eventually comes to court asking for assistance against the Red Knight of the Red Lands, and Gareth takes up the quest. On his quest, he encounters the Black, Green, Red, and Blue knights and the Red knight of the Red Lands (Rainbow Knights). He kills the Black Knight and incorporates the others into Arthur’s court, and rescues Lynette's sister Lyonesse. Lustily in love with Lyonesse, Gareth conspires to consummate their relationship before marrying. Only by the magical intervention of Lynette is their tryst unsuccessful. Gareth later counsels Lyonesse to report to King Arthur and pretend she doesn’t know where he is; instead, he tells her to announce a tournament of his knights against the Round Table. This allows Gareth to disguise himself and win honor by defeating his brother knights. The heralds eventually acknowledge that he is Sir Gareth right as he strikes down Sir Gawain, his brother. The book ends with Gareth rejoining his fellow knights and marrying Lyonesse.

Since this tale seems unengaged with the problems that Malory addresses elsewhere in the text, it appears fictional or disconnected. There is also no known source for this tale, and it is possible that Malory created this story himself out of frustration with the inadequacies of the tradition he was working in. The fictional aspect of this tale, makes it a poor model to follow. In other tales, knights are always interacting with other knights from the Round Table, but not here. The Rainbow Knights seem very fake—they are not given real names, and there are no consequences for Gareth’s battles with them as there are during battles with other knights from the Round Table. When Gareth incorporates knights into Arthur’s community, perpetuating the dream that this violence is serving the realm, he sends them to Arthur. Previously we have seen Lancelot send knights back to court, but he sends them to Guinevere, which some suggest implies that his motives are not entirely pure. Gareth sending them to Arthur implies that his motives are untainted, but it also makes him a cipher that exemplifies nothing but the desire to be just a knight and nothing more. This leaves Gareth with little personality since he is merely an embodiment of the symbolic order of knighthood.

The second half of the book brings into question Gareth’s true commitment to the chivalric code. He displays decidedly underhanded behavior in his quest for worship and personal fulfillment. Gareth uses deceit to achieve his aims; while behavior like this may be praised by a cunning hero like Odysseus, it does not seem to mesh with the notion of knightly virtue. It does suggest that the knights hold a philosophy where the ends justify the means. Gareth pays a price for his deception as he strikes his brother Gawaine from his horse. He breaks one of the strongest bonds of loyalty by winning honor by defeating a kinsman.

Although the book concludes happily, it raises a number of questions of whether Gareth is a successful knight. The book presents matrimony as one possible way of validating the knightly order; however, his example is fraught with complications that serve to undermine it as a viable option. In one sense, his marriage has been presented as a stabilizing force in chivalric society. Gareth’s tale stands in contrast to the Tristram or the Lancelot. However, Gareth’s readiness to sleep with Lyonesse before marriage questions how dedicated Gareth is to marriage.

Book V: "The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione" (Caxton VIII–XII)

In “The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Malory tells the tales of Sir Tristan (Trystram), Sir Dinadan, Sir Palamedes, Sir La Cote De Male Tayle, Sir Alexander, and a variety of other knights. Based on the French Prose Tristan, or a lost English adaptation of it, Malory's Tristan section is the literal centerpiece of Le Morte D’Arthur as well as the longest of the eight books.

The book displays a very realistic and jaded view of the world of chivalry. It is rife with adultery, characterized most visibly in Sir Tristan and the Belle Isolde. Sir Tristan is the namesake of the book and his adulterous relationship with Isolde, his uncle Mark’s wife, is one of the focuses of the section. The knights, Tristan included, operate on very personal or political concerns rather than just the standard provided by the world of Pentecostal Oath as we have seen it so far. One knight, Sir Dinidan, takes this so far as to run away or refuse to fight if he sees any risk. Other knights, even knights of the Round Table, make requests that show the dark side of the world of chivalry. In one episode, Sir Bleoberys, one of Lancelot’s cousins, claims another knight’s wife for his own and rides away with her until stopped by Sir Tristan. In another, when Tristan defeats Sir Blamore, another knight of the Round Table, Blamore asks Tristan to kill him because he would rather die than have his reputation tarnished by the defeat.

The variety of episodes and the alleged lack of a cohesive nature in the Tristan raise questions about its role in Malory’s text entirely. However, the book foreshadows the rest of the text as well as includes and interacts with characters and tales discussed in other parts of the work. It can be seen as an exploration of the secular chivalry and a discussion of honor or “worship” when it is founded in a sense of shame and pride. If Le Morte is viewed as a text in which Malory is attempting to define knighthood, then Tristan becomes an important critique of chivalry and knighthood as he interacts with the real world, rather than attempting to create an example as he does with some of the other books.

Book VI: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” (Caxton XIII–XVII)

Malory’s primary source for “The Noble Tale of the Sankgreal” is the French Vulgate Cycle’s La Queste Del Saint Graal. Within Malory’s version, the text chronicles the adventures of numerous knights in their quest to achieve the Holy Grail. The Grail first appears in the hall of King Arthur “coverde with whyght samyte,” and it miraculously produces meat and drink for the knights. Gawain is the first to declare that he “shall laboure in the Queste of the Sankgreall." His reason for embarking on the quest is that he may see the Grail “more opynly than hit hath bene shewed” before, in addition to the potential for more “metys and drynkes.” Likewise, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and Galahad also decide to undergo the quest. Their exploits are wrought with young maidens and hermits, who offer advice and interpret dreams along the way. Despite the presence of hermits the text overall lacks an officiating Catholic presence. Religious officials, as well as the sacraments, are generally absent. There are, however, instances of penance when hermits advise Gawain, Lancelot, and others to atone for their sins. Whereas Gawain simply refuses to do so, Lancelot recognizes his offense of placing Queen Guinevere before God. He is, however, unable to renounce this transgression and will ultimately fail in the quest. The only knights to achieve the Grail are Percival, Bors, and Galahad. The story culminates with Galahad vanishing before the eyes of his fellow knights as his soul departs “to Jesu Cryste” by means of a “grete multitude of angels [who] bare hit up to hevyn."

After the confusion of the secular moral code as manifested in the Pentecostal Oath within “The Fyrst and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Malory is attempting to construct a new mode of chivalry by placing an emphasis on religion and Christianity in “The Sankgreal.” However, the role of the Catholic Church is drastically subverted within the text, and this illustrates fifteenth-century England’s movement away from the establishment of the Church and toward mysticism. Within the text the Church offers a venue through which the Pentecostal Oath can be upheld, whereas the strict moral code imposed by religion foreshadows an almost certain failure on the part of the knights. For example, Gawain is often dubbed a secular knight, as he refuses to do penance for his sins, claiming the tribulations that coexist with knighthood as a sort of secular penance. Likewise, because Lancelot is unable to renounce his adulterous love of Guinevere, he is destined to fail where Galahad will succeed. This coincides with the personification of perfection in the form of Galahad. Because Galahad is the only knight who lives entirely without sin, this leaves both the audience and the other knights with a model of perfection that cannot be emulated, thus culminating in the failure of religion as the means through which chivalry is conducted.

Book VII: "Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwenyvere" (Caxton XVIII–XIX)

At the beginning of the book, "Sir Launcelot and Queene Gwenyvere," Malory tells his readers that the pair started behaving carelessly in public, stating that "Launcelot began to resorte unto the Quene Gwenivere agayne, and forgate the promise and the perfeccion that he made in the Queste… and so they loved togydirs more hotter than they dud toforehonde"(588). They indulged in "prevy draughtis togydir" and behaved in such a way that "many in the courte spake of hit"(588).

This book also includes the "knight of the cart" episode, where Mellyagaunce kidnapped Guinevere and her unarmed knights and held them prisoner in his castle. After Mellygaunce's archers killed his horse, Launcelot was forced to ride to the castle in a cart in order to save the queen. Knowing Lancelot was on his way, Mellygaunce pleaded to Guinevere for mercy, which she granted and then forced Lancelot to stifle his rage against Mellygaunce.

It is in this same book where Malory mentions Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery. Malory says, "So, to passe upon thys tale, Sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the Quene and toke no force of hys hurte honed, but toke hys plesaunce and hys lyknge untyll hit was the dawning of the day" (633). Sir Mellygaunce, upon finding blood in Guinevere's bed, was so convinced of her unfaithfulness to Arthur that he was willing to fight in an attempt to prove it to others. After Guinevere made it known that she wanted Mellyagaunce dead, Launcelot killed him even though Mellygaunce begged for mercy.

This is the first time Malory explicitly mentions the couple's adultery. Malory purposely shows this event as occurring once. He intends for his readers to believe the couple's adultery was much more than a singular incident. The moment lacks romance or chivalry. The entire text depends upon this adulterous moment, and yet Malory sums it up into one sentence. Malory's refusal to expand upon their adultery demonstrates his insistence that adultery is always dangerous and never ennobling. The book ends with Lancelot's healing of Sir Urry of Hungary, where Malory notes that Lancelot is the only knight out of hundreds to be successful in this endeavor.

Malory presents Guinevere in a more negative light than his French predecessors. Guinevere is so contemptible in this book that it is difficult to understand Lancelot's reason for loving her. Malory goes so far as to suggest Guinevere uses charms or enchantments to win Lancelot's love. While Guinevere remains unlikeable throughout this book, Lancelot is a more problematic character. He is a flawed knight, certainly, but the best one Malory gives us. He has committed treason unto King Arthur and yet is the only knight virtuous enough to heal Sir Urry. After healing Sir Urry, Lancelot wept as a "chylde that had bene beatyn," (644) because he recognized his own failure as a person and as a knight. Malory tries to contrast virtue and love with desire and failure as he further emphasizes the instability of the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere and, ultimately, the text itself.

Book VIII: "The Death of Arthur" (Caxton XX–XXI)

The Death of King Arthur by James Archer

In this book, brothers Mordred and Agravaine have been scheming to uncover Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery for quite some time. When they find an opportune moment to finally and concretely reveal the adulterous relationship, Lancelot kills Agravaine and several others and escapes. Arthur is forced to sentence Guinevere to burn at the stake, and orders his surviving nephews, Gawain, Mordred, Gareth, and Gaheris, to guard the scene, knowing Lancelot will attempt a rescue. Gawain refuses, and when Lancelot's party raids the execution, many knights are killed, including Gareth and Gaheris. Gawain, bent on revenge for their deaths, prompts Arthur into a war with Lancelot, first at his castle in northern England. At this point the Pope steps in and issues a bill to end the violence between Arthur's and Lancelot's factions. Shortly thereafter, Arthur pursues Lancelot to his home in France to continue the fight. Gawain challenges Lancelot to a duel, but loses and asks Lancelot to kill him; Lancelot refuses and grants him mercy before leaving. Arthur receives a message that Mordred, whom he had left in charge back in Britain, has usurped his throne, and he leads his forces back home. In the invasion Gawain is mortally injured, and writes to Lancelot, asking for his help against Mordred, and for forgiveness for separating the Round Table. Gawain tells Arthur to wait thirty days for Lancelot to return to England before fighting Mordred, and Arthur sends Lucan and Bedivere to make a temporary peace treaty. At the exchange, an unnamed knight draws his sword to kill an adder. The other knights construe this as treachery and a declaration of war. Seeing no other recourse, at the Battle of Salisbury, Arthur charges Mordred and impales him, but, with his last breath, Mordred comes back with a mortal blow to Arthur’s head. As he is dying, Arthur commands Bedivere to cast Excalibur into the lake, where it is retrieved by the hand of the Lady of the Lake. A barge appears, carrying ladies in black hoods (one being Morgan le Fay), who take Arthur to his grave. When Lancelot returns to Dover, he mourns the deaths of his comrades. Lancelot travels to Almesbury to see Guinevere, now a nun, and follows her lead by becoming a monk. Arthur's successor is appointed, and the realm that Arthur created has significantly changed. After the deaths of Guinevere and Lancelot, Sirs Bors, Hector, Blamore, and Bleoberis head to the Holy Land to crusade against the Turks, where they die on Good Friday.

Guinevere is portrayed as a scapegoat for violence without developing her perspective or motivation. Despite this unsympathetic portrayal, the growth of Morgan le Fay as a character through her reconciliation with Arthur on the barge could call these interpretations of misogyny into question. Malory’s portrayal of Lancelot is more sympathetic than that of Guinevere and tries to redeem him as the most honorable knight. The portrayals are equally unflattering because Guinevere is Lancelot’s impetus for action. Lancelot cannot give Gawain a legitimate reason for slaying his brothers; he had only Guinevere in mind. General interpretations find the Pope’s failure to settle Lancelot and Gawain’s feud as characteristic of the failure of the institution of religion to provide ethical guidance throughout the text, echoing “The Noble Tale of the Sankgreal.” With the failure of institutions and the collapse of the Round Table, the only hope Malory can offer the reader is in Arthur’s second coming to recover the throne, a hope fostered by the inscription on Arthur’s grave: HIC JACET ARTURUS REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS, or "Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King". This can be read as Malory’s view on the failures of medieval institutions[citation needed].

The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table

The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table had been originated with the title The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table by Sir Thomas Malory from 1450s to 1470. William Caxton published it with the title Le Morte Darthur (Middle French for la mort d'Arthur, "the death of Arthur") at 1485. As a result, Knightly Virtues and Romances have spread over a wide area in Europe.

Many writers, influenced by this courageous and beautiful story, have been producing various versions with various titles. (See the List of books about King Arthur.)

The Victorian poet Tennyson based his retelling of the legends in the Idylls of the King primarily on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the Mabinogion, but with many expansions, additions, and several adaptations, a notable example of which is the fate of Guinevere. In Malory she is sentenced to be burnt at the stake but is rescued by Lancelot; in the Idylls Guinevere flees to a convent, is forgiven by Arthur, repents, and serves in the convent until she dies. Tennyson amended the traditional spellings of several names to fit the metre.

John Steinbeck, an enthusiastic Arthurian author, using the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and other sources as the original text, wrote The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in 1976. The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table was published mainly for young people. Besides Steinbeck's work, there are at least three modern English language versions. The first was published anonymously in 1950; the second by Roger Lancelyn Green, Richard Lancelyn Green and Lotte Reiniger (illustrator), reissued in 1995, and the third by Emma Gelders Sterne, Barbara Lindsay, Gustaf Tenggren and Mary Pope Osborne, published 2002.

Noted scholar Keith Baines also published a modernized English version of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur for Signet Classics.

See also


The work itself

  • Editions based on the Winchester manuscript:
    • Facsimile:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. The Winchester Malory: A Facsimile. Introduced by Ker, N. R. (1976). London: Early English Text Society. ISBN 0-19-722404-0.
    • Original spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. (A Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Shepherd, Stephen H. A. (2004). New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-97464-2. (Official website with textual corrections and further commentary: Stephen H. A. Shepherd: Le Morte Darthur: On-line companion.)
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène. 3rd ed. Field, Rev. P. J. C. (1990). 3 vol. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-812344-2, ISBN 0-19-812345-0, ISBN 0-19-812346-9.
      • _________. Malory: Complete Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1977). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-281217-3. (Revision and retitling of Malory: Works of 1971).
      • _________. Malory: Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1971). 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-254163-3.
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1967). 2nd ed. 3 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-811838-4.
      • _________. Malory: Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1954). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-254163-3. (Malory's text from Vinaver's The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947), in a single volume dropping most of Vinaver's notes and commentary.)
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1947). 3 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    • Modernised spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Ed. Cooper, Helen (1998). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-282420-1. (Abridged text.)
    • Translation/paraphrase into contemporary English:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. Trans. and abridged by Baines, Keith (1983). New York: Bramhall House. ISBN 0-517-02060-2. Reissued by Signet (2001). ISBN 0-451-52816-6.
      • _________. Le Morte D'Arthur. (London Medieval & Renaissance Ser.) Trans. Lumiansky, Robert M. (1982). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-684-17673-4.
      • Steinbeck, John, and Thomas Malory. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources. (1976) New York: Noonday Press. Reissued 1993. ISBN 0-374-52378-9.
      • Brewer, D.S. Malory: The Morte Darthur. York Medieval Texts, Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, Gen. Eds. (1968) London: Edward Arnold. Reissued 1993. ISBN 0-7131-5326-1. (Modernized spelling version of Books 7 and 8 as a complete story in its own right. Based on Winchester MS, but with changes taken from Caxton, and some emendations by Brewer.)
  • Editions based on Caxton's edition:
    • Facsimile:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur, printed by William Caxton, 1485. Ed. Needham, Paul (1976). London.
    • Original spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Caxton's Malory. Ed. Spisak, James. W. (1983). 2 vol. boxed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03825-8.
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Sommer, H. Oskar (1889–91). 3 vol. London: David Nutt. The text of Malory from this edition without Sommer's annotation and commentary and selected texts of Malory's sources is available on the web at:
    • Modernised spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Matthews, John (2000). Illustrated by Ferguson, Anna-Marie. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-35367-1. (The introduction by John Matthews praises the Winchester text but then states this edition is based on the Pollard version of the Caxton text, with eight additions from the Winchester manuscript.)
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur. Introduction by Moore, Helen (1996). Herefordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1-85326-463-6. (Seemingly based on the Pollard text.)
      • _________. Le morte d'Arthur. Introduction by Bryan, Elizabeth J. (1994). New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-60099-X. (Pollard text.)
      • _________. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Cowen, Janet (1970). Introduction by Lawlor, John. 2 vols. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-043043-1, ISBN 0-14-043044-X.
      • _________. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Rhys, John (1906). (Everyman's Library 45 & 46.) London: Dent; London: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton. Released in paperback format in 1976: ISBN 0-460-01045-X, ISBN 0-460-01046-8. (Text based on an earlier modernised Dent edition of 1897.)
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur: Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table,. Ed. Pollard, A. W. (1903). 2 vol. New York: Macmillan. (Text corrected from the bowdlerised 1868 Macmillan edition edited by Sir Edward Strachey.) Available on the web at:
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Simmon, F. J. (1893–94). Illustrated by Beardsley, Aubrey. 2 vol. London: Dent.
    • Limerick translation: Le Morte d'Arthur, an Epic Limerick, 2006, by Jacob Wenzel, ISBN 978-1-4116-8987-9



  1. ^ W. F. Oakeshott. "The Text of Malory". Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  2. ^ Walter F. Oakeshott, "The Finding of the Manuscript," Essays on Malory, ed. J. A. W. Bennett (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 1-6.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Walter F. Oakeshott, "Caxton and Malory's Morte Darthur," Gutenberg Jahrbuch (1935), 112-116.

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