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.
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?
The "Best of Legends" website contains oodles information about the sources of the Arthurian tradition. Plus, there's info on all kinds of legendary characters, from Beowulf to Robin Hood. Have at it, folks.
King Arthur's Knights
The place to go for a who's who of Arthurian characters. You can trace their origins, and learn where to find the real British locations where Le Morte D'Arthur is set. Go on, see for yourself.
Arthur: Myth or History?
This website traces the epic battle between historical fact and fantastical fiction, that is the story of Arthur and his knights. How much of our story is real history, and how much is a product of age-old imagination?
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
This one's for the kiddies.
This is a classic film based on the 1960 musical of the same name. Yep, <em>musical</em>.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)
If you've never caught a Monty Python flick, now's your chance. This one is a hilarious romp through the world of Arthur's knights, on their way to find that elusive Grail.
A fairly straightforward re-telling of Malory's story – stripped of lots of detail, of course.
First Knight (1995)
Richard Gere plays Launcelot to Sean Connery's Arthur in this film focusing only on the love triangle. Get ready for some tear-jerking schmaltz.
The Mists of Avalon (2001)
This television miniseries, based on a book with the same title, tackles the Arthur legend from the point of view of the ladies, not the knights. It's about time they had their say.
King Arthur (2004)
This movie claims to be a historically accurate version of Arthur's story, but there's no way everyone in Camelot was that good looking.
Tristan and Isolde (2006)
This is a fairly recent, fairly weepy version of the story of star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde. You should watch it mainly to witness James Franco's accent, which is less than convincing.
This BBC television series follows the drama in King Arthur's court through the eyes of a teenage Merlin.
A television series for the adults among us, which focuses on the political and personal drama of the Arthur story.
Take a look at the only manuscript left of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in the "Treasures of the British Library" exhibit. Props to those of you who can actually read the handwriting.
The History of the Kings of Britain
Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle account of the beginnings of Britain contains one of the earliest historical references to King Arthur. Ah, so he did exist!
Arthur's Last Moments in Excalibur
This may look like a low budget high drama, but in its time, the movie was considered visually stunning.
Watch a scene between Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. Gwenyvere's outfit alone is worth the watch. Plus, Richard Harris sings.
The Birth of Arthur
Hear an early section of the Le Morte D'Arthur in its original middle English, which hardly sounds like English at all.
The Chaucer Studio's "Malory Aloud"
Here you can purchase a CD containing dramatic readings of excerpts from Malory.
John William Waterhouse Paintings
J.W. Waterhouse did a number of paintings based on Malory's story of Elaine of Ascolat and the Tennyson poem "The Lady of Shalott." Here's one called "I'm Half-Sick fo Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott.
Looking at Lancelot
Here's our Lady of Shalott again. Another in the John William Waterhouse series.
Waterhouse, Trystram, and Isode
Waterhouse wasn't all about Elaine. He also painted Trystram and Isode drinking the love potion that started the whole love triangle rolling.
Mordred Looking Morbid
Here's a 1910 illustration of everyone's favorite villain, Mordred.