Le Morte D'Arthur Introduction
In A Nutshell
King Arthur. You'd have to be living under a rock for quite a while to never hear of this guy. But in case that's you (hey, it might be quite nice to live under a rock, and Shmoop isn't one to judge), rest easy. You're about to learn more about old Artie than you ever dreamed.
Le Morte D'Arthur is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, beginning with Arthur's conception and birth, and concluding with his death at the hands of his bastard son, Mordred (perhaps due to his choice of name?). Along the way, we meet handsome knights, beautiful ladies, and become immersed in the soap opera that is Camelot. Get ready for juicy drama, frightening battles, and joust after joust after… well, you get the picture.
Let's start at the beginning. By the time Thomas Malory sat down to write Le Morte D'Arthur (first published in 1485), the characters of Arthur and his knights were already well-known in England. In the ninth century, a monk-historian named Nennius gave the name Arthur to a sixth-century Roman-British general who waged some successful battles against invading Saxons. It wasn't until the 1100s, though, that the Arthur craze really took off in England. The French Normans who invaded England around that time traced their ancestry back to Arthur, using that as an excuse for their reign in England. So, from that point on, tales of Arthur and his knights were popular at royal courts.
In the beginning, these tales were mostly in French. The most influential group, Chrétien de Troyes' collection of five long tales, introduced characters such as Launcelot, Gawain, and Percival to the written world of English (okay, French) literature. By the fourteenth century, the Arthurian tales had finally made their way into English in many-a-versions (ever heard of the the prose romance Merlin?)
It appears our Mr. Malory had a lot of material to work with. It's no wonder this book is 800 pages long. And as it turns out, he relied on both English and French sources as he was writing Le Morte – except for the Tale of Sir Gareth, which is his own invention. Hey, he had to have a little fun.
While Malory was writing (probably in prison, but that's another story), England was knee-deep in the Wars of the Roses, a fight between rival groups who claimed the English throne. It's way too complicated to go into the whole story here, but what's important to keep in mind is that the War of the Roses was an internal and civil war, kind of like the one between the rival groups of Arthur's knights (you know, the one that eventually brings his whole kingdom down).
Besides reminding us of the dangers of in-fighting – no matter what century you're in – Le Morte asks plenty of questions that are timeless, no matter who's reading it. For one thing, Le Morte D'Arthur explores what it means to be a great knight, or a great man in general. Is Launcelot, the undisputed battlefield champion, the best knight in the world? Or is his son Galahad, who rejects earthly love and glory in favor of all things spiritual, the ideal knight?
With questions like these and many others, Le Morte D'Arthur keeps our brains and our hearts fully engaged and ready to rumble. En garde, awesome readers. You're about to enter Camelot.
Why Should I Care?
Simple. Le Morte D'Arthur has been one of literature's greatest influences on pop culture for the past 600 years. We know, we know: you'd probably never heard of it before your teacher assigned it, right? But you've absolutely heard of King Arthur, haven't you? How about the sword in the stone? Or star-crossed lovers Gwenyvere and Launcelot?
You most likely encountered the story of King Arthur and his knights in a different form than Le Morte D'Arthur. Maybe as a kid you saw the awesome flicks The Sword in the Stone or A Kid in King Arthur's Court. Or perhaps your Sean Connery obsession led you to First Knight. Or maybe you lit nerds out there stumbled upon Camelot in Idylls of the King or The Once and Future King.
Regardless, the fact that you know who Arthur is in the first place is all thanks to Le Morte D'Arthur. That's because this book collected the numerous, scattered legends of the Arthurian tradition, from multiple languages, into one novel-esque narrative in English. Le Morte D'Arthur immediately captured the reading public's imagination and boom! Before long, Tennyson was writing his famous Idylls of the King based on Le Morte, and then T.H. White was writing The Once and Future King, and then Disney was making it into a movie (which is, of course, how you know a story's really made it).
But what's so great about it? What's made this story so popular, for so long, and why does it have such a huge influence on literature and entertainment? Well, for one thing, it's a huge book with a lot of fodder for the imagination. Enjoy armor and swordplay and epic battles? It's got that in spades. Are you more of a romance fan? It's got that, too. Do you enjoy contemplating big, philosophical questions, like what constitutes loyalty or betrayal, or what it means to be in the presence of God? Those kinds of questions are definitely in there, too.
This mixture of genres and topics in Le Morte D'Arthur makes it well-suited for whatever purpose you might have in mind, whether it's a popcorn flick or a children's book or a term paper. And that means that the story told in Le Morte D'Arthur is here to stay. So you'd better get crackin' – did we mention it's almost 800 pages?