In "Narrator Point of View" we drew your never-wavering attention to the few moments in the story in which the narrator gives us a piece of his mind. What these moments tell us is that he views Le Morte D'Arthur as having some important lessons for his audience and, to be honest, his tone is a bit teachy and preachy, to boot. In fact, you might even call it moralizing.
What do we mean by that? Well, a moralizing tone is one that somehow judges events or characters. One way or another, it tells us readers what to think about what's going down. But Le Morte D'Arthur doesn't do this by giving us that judgment outright. Instead, we know just what we're supposed to think based on the adjectives it uses to describe people and events. Clever, huh?
For example, consider the book's take on Mordred and Aggravayne, who bring the accusation of treason against Launcelot and Gwenyvere. The two are described as "unhappy," or somehow ill-favored knights who bring about a "great angur and unhap that stynted nat tylle the floure of chyvalry of [alle] the worlde was destroyed and slayne" (646.9-10). Just in case you couldn't tell by their actions, our narrator makes sure that we see this pair as evil, and the events they bring about as evil, too. After all, they destroy chivalry. Does it get any worse than that?
Plus, when Arthur lands on the shores of England after Mordred has taken it over, we can almost hear the moral indignation in the narrator's voice as he tells how Mordred was "redy awaytyng uppon his londynge – to lette hys owne fadir to londe uppon the londe that he was Kynge over" (681.1-2), and how the ensuing battle caused the death of "noble men of armys; and there was muche slaughtir of jantyll knyghtes" (681.3-4). Friends, this is not neutral language. It's pretty darn clear that Mordred is in the wrong here and Arthur in the right.
By contrast, many of Arthur's knights are described as "mervelous" and "noble" most of the time (113.3, 8). What's awesome about this tone is that for most of the book, we know exactly where we stand. We know whose side we're supposed to be on, and who has acted honorably and nobly (and who has not). The challenge, then, is to decide whether or not we agree with the narrator's morals in the first place. But that's a whole other enchilada.
This book has it all: romance, death, harrowing journeys, miraculous feats. If you're not quite sure which genre best fits Le Morte D'Arthur, then the title, which means "The Death of Arthur," should give you a clue. A story about how feuding, adultery, and a king's bastard son bring down the kingdom he's worked so long and hard to build? That sure sounds like a tragedy to us.
Yet Le Morte isn't just the story of how the kingdom falls; it's also the tale of how it's built. A big part of that story are the tales of Arthur's knights, who journey all over the land risking life and limb to rescue damsels from dragons, win more subjects for Arthur, evade wicked sorcerers, settle legal disputes, kill ogres, win glory in jousts… the list goes on and on, and that makes this story an adventure.
Sometimes, Arthur's knights embark on adventures with a specific goal in mind, like when Gareth sets out to rescue the lands of the Lady Lyonet from an evil knight who's besieging them, or when all of Arthur's knights embark on a journey to catch a glimpse of the Holy Grail. In the course of these adventures, the knights learn some stuff about themselves. Gareth proves that he's got what it takes to be a knight worthy of his family name; Launcelot realizes that all the time he's spent thinking about Gwenyvere makes him unfit for an adventure during which he should be devoting himself to God instead. We call these goal-oriented adventures involving self-discovery quests, and they make up a huge part of Le Morte D'Arthur as well.
Well, we'll answer that question in a minute… But first, it's helpful to know that Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D'Arthur by hand, in manuscript form. It wasn't until about ten years later, when the first printer in England – a Mr. William Caxton – decided to publish a copy, that the world got a print version of Le Morte.
When he was deciding what to call the book, Caxton relied on a copy of Malory's original manuscript. And, yup, that title happened to be Le Morte D'Arthur, a French phrase that means "The Death of Arthur."It might seem strange that a manuscript in English would have a title in French, but many of Malory's sources for his work were French; it's possible the person who copied down the manuscript just borrowed the title of one of them.
But its French-ness isn't the only strange thing about our title: it also really only refers to the last book of Malory's eight-book work, the one in which (you guessed it) Arthur dies. Just like us, Caxton thought this was mighty strange and, for that reason, gave the book a secondary title, one that he found at the end of the manuscript he was working with: The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table.
Most people agree this is the title Malory intended, and we think it does a much better job of describing the book's contents. On the other hand, try saying (let alone spelling out) that every time you refer to it. It's a bit of a mouthful to say the least. Maybe that's the reason that we've always known Malory's Hoole Book as simply Le Morte D'Arthur.
In the last book of Le Morte D'Arthur, the whole Round Table comes crashing down around Arthur's ears. Some of Arthur's knights, who also happen to be his blood relations, really have it in for Sir Launcelot. They use Launcelot's continued affair with Gwenyvere to take the guy down, causing civil war to break out among the knights. This turn of events is especially sad because the Knights of the Round Table have an unspoken agreement specifically to not fight with each other.
On the other hand, it's not completely unexpected: hints of the discord brewing among Arthur's knights, and between Arthur and his vassals, are present right from the very beginning of Arthur's reign. Soon after he becomes king, Arthur's uncle, King Lot, leads an alliance of kings that challenge his lordship. And very soon after Lot's sons come to court, another one of Arthur's knights, King Pellynore, kills King Lot. Unable to let it go, Lot's sons kill Pellynore's son, Sir Lamerok. (You with us? That's a lot of killing.)
Arthur's knights take sides in the feud, which means that even before Arthur's nephew and son accuse Launcelot of treason with the Queen, factions have been formed. The line in the sand has already been drawn. Alas, it seems the unity of the Round Table was doomed from the very beginning.
The discord and blood feuding and hatred among the Knights of the Round Table are all very depressing. And, with this, the story could be trying to make the point that a kingdom divided against itself will inevitably fall, or even that a perfectly united kingdom can never exist in the first place.
On the other hand, though, the very end of the book shows Gawain giving up his enmity toward Launcelot on his deathbed in a letter in which he asks him to pray on his tomb. It also shows Launcelot and all his knights following Gwenyvere's lead into the religious life, and Launcelot being received in heaven by choirs of angels. This ending is not wholly unexpected, either: the book about the "Sankgreall," or "Holy Grail" showed Arthur's knights reaching for spiritual, rather than earthly, glory.
So, with this ending, the story suggests that maybe Galahad, the virginal knight whose spiritual prowess eventually achieved him eternal bliss, had the right idea after all. Unity between men on earth will necessarily be destroyed by our sinful pride; even the code of chivalry is not strong enough to withstand it. For that reason, why not pursue a higher goal – unity with God in heaven?
Since Arthur is king of "all England," it's unsurprising that much of Le Morte D'Arthur takes place there. But it's also a really big deal that Arthur manages to defeat Lucius, the Emperor of Rome, and, on his way home, get all the places he passes through to yield tribute to him as king. That's a lot of ground to cover.
This kind of conquest is what Arthur's knights engage in on a smaller scale as well. Each time someone like, say, Launcelot conquers another knight, he sends that knight back to him to yield to Arthur as king. If that knight happens to possess lands and vassals, those resources now belong to Arthur. This is the feudal system at work, with Camelot and Arthur's court as the center of power and order. As long as all the lands around him are submitting to Camelot and Arthur remains there, things go well for him.
However, through Launcelot's dispute with Arthur, Launcelot and a bunch of knights defect and return to his ancestral lands in France. This move takes this portion of Arthur's tribute with them, which changes the map a bit. Plus, it was Arthur's alliance with Launcelot's relatives, Ban and Bors, that gave him these all-too important lands in the first place, which helped him solidify his power. So when Launcelot skips town and takes those lands with him, it represents a crushing blow to Arthur's power. He has lost a strategically important region that has helped keep him in power. Now, there's no telling what might happen.
On top of that, Arthur makes a huge mistake by leaving Camelot to take back these lands from Launcelot. Once he leaves his center of power, Mordred makes his move and it's all over for Arthur, which just goes to show how important the control of certain geographic areas is to power in Le Morte D'Arthur.
From the get-go, it's obvious we're reading about a time and place very different from our own. England in the Middle Ages was all about chivalry, and we're not just talking about holding the door open for your date. Much of what goes down in Camelot goes down because of the chivalric code that was the law of the land in Le Morte D'Arthur. Closely related to the feudal system, chivalry demanded absolute loyalty from its knights, with the added rule that they should be kind to, defend, and honor ladies, and not just their own.
But this isn't just about wooing the women-folk. It's about honor in general, and understanding chivalry helps us understand many of the events in the book. For example, Lamorak's murder is so unforgiveable, because in chivalric terms, stabbing someone in the back is the ultimate no-no. If you kill a man, he had better be facing you. And he had better be armed. It also helps explain why Gawain is such a ne'er do well. Not only is he part of Lamerok's death, he also totally ignores multiple damsels in distress. No wonder it takes him so long to make a name for himself at the Round Table.
Plus, chivalry helps explain why many of these knights do things that seem downright foolish. Why won't Launcelot just marry Elayne? Because he's devoted to Gwenyvere, of course. And why won't he battle with Arthur? Because he's sworn his loyalty to him. For all the trouble it causes, you can say one thing about chivalry: it sure makes decision-making easier. In Medieval England, despite all the drama, things were pretty black-and-white.
But don't let that scare you! Yes, it's written in Middle English. And yes, it's really, really long. But here's the deal with the Middle English of Le Morte D'Arthur. It's pronounced exactly the way it's spelled. And when you say the words out loud, they sound exactly the same as their counterparts in modern English. (Good excuse to stage a play, anyone?) As for Le Morte D'Arthur's length, well, just do what we did: take it one day at a time. You'll get there eventually, we promise.
Our narrator's got a lot of ground to cover if he's going to get through the entire story of Arthur's rise and fall, including the full tales of many of his knights. Maybe for that reason, he doesn't waste time on smooth transitions between the parts of his story. Most adventures begin with a simple "Now turn we to the tale of Sir So-and-So" and end with the straightforward, "Here ends the tale of Sir So-and-So." And there are a ton of these kinds of transitions to deal with, because Le Morte D'Arthur is episodic.
A story with an episodic structure contains lots of smaller stories – episodes with beginnings, middles, and ends – as part of one larger story. The larger story here is, of course, the tale of the rise and fall of Arthur and the Round Table. An example of a smaller story within that story is the "Tale of Sir Gareth," which is connected to the larger story because it's about Arthur's nephew and how he becomes a part of the Round Table. But even within this story, or "episode," we have still smaller episodes, like each of Gareth's different battles with the colored knights, or the tale of how his and Lyonet's attempts to sleep together before marriage are thwarted by her sister. Phew. It's enough to make your head spin.
The advantage of an episodic structure like Le Morte D'Arthur's is that it can connect very different stories as part of one bigger one. In Le Morte, some of the stories are even different genres. The story of the Sankgreall, for example, is a religious allegory at heart. The knights attempt to get a glimpse of the Grail, which represents unity with God in heaven.
Thanks to the episodic style of Le Morte, this story can sit comfortably next to, for example, the romance between Launcelot and Gwenyvere. The togetherness of these stories highlights that might have otherwise slipped right by us, like the fact that a man's devotion to a woman is similar to his devotion to God – so similar, in fact, that he might not have room in his life for more than one love at a time.
In a way, this episodic style actually gives stories even more meaning than they have on their own, since in addition to thinking about these stories individually, we also have to think about their relation to each other and to the larger whole.
There are so many swords in Le Morte D'Arthur, you'd be forgiven for losing track. The first important sword that appears is the well-known "sword in the stone" that Arthur pulls in a churchyard, which proves that he is king of all England.
From this example, you might think that a sword represents power… and you're not wrong. After all, Arthur and his knights gain and maintain power "by the sword." Arthur wins wars against an alliance of Northern kings and against Lucius, Emperor of Rome, by the sword, on the way to solidifying his kingship. Plus his knights defeat other knights with swords, and send those guys to Arthur as vassals. So if a sword represents power, it also represents the way that Arthur and his knights hold onto that power, through violence.
But the sword that Arthur pulls from the stone also tells us something about his identity, too. When Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, it tells him and everyone else that he's the real deal: the King of England. Plus, other swords give us other identities, too. In the "Tale of Balyn and Balan," for example, a damsel arrives in Arthur's court with a sword that can only be pulled by "a passynge good man of hys hondys and of hys dedis, and withoute velony other trechory, and withoute treson" (40.41-42). Balyn pulls it, and – bam – he's a man with these attributes.
Galahad also pulls a sword in a stone that confers an identity on him, this time as the best knight in the world. In the same story, Galahad becomes the owner of a sword with a history that stretches back to the Old Testament, establishing his identity as the heir to an ancient and mysterious holy family. So when a man in Camelot claims and wields a sword, it tells us a lot about what makes that man worthy.
As it turns out, armor in general is pretty important to one's identity, and the significance of the sword is a part of that, too. Remember that a knight is recognizable on the battlefield only by his armor, which leads to a whole lot of unfortunate cases of mistaken identity for knights who lose or swap theirs. A knight's coat of arms, or the markings on his shield, tells everyone who sees it what family he belongs to. His sword, on the other hand, tells others who he is as an individual, and his role in Camelot.
Have you noticed yet how there are a lot of mysteriously-guided rudderless boats in the "Tale of the Sankgreall"? Galahad, Percyvale, and Bors all board some strange ship that carries, them, captain-less, to yet another mysterious ship where they find an ancient sword, then to a castle whose occupants they defeat. Later, Galahad and Launcelot spend quality father-son bonding time on that same rudderless boat. It's all a wee bit creepy, huh? Where are these boats headed, and why are all these knights so willing to jump aboard?
Wondering what that's all about? Well, it turns out that in Christian-influenced medieval literature, the rudderless boat represents the good Christian's sacrifice of his will to God. You see, by boarding the rudderless boat, the Christian signals that he's putting himself completely in God's hands. In that sense, these boats aren't rudderless at all – they're steered by God.
But still, that knight has no idea where he's going, so it's definitely a leap of faith. And did you notice that the knights' adventures in the rudderless boat don't happen until near the end of the Grail Quest? Could that mean that it's only at this point in their journey, after they've been tested and have passed with flying colors, that they're ready to fully yield themselves to God?
When the Holy Grail arrives in Arthur's court in a beam of light, covered in white silk, it fills the entire room with wonderful smells and tasty foods, and everyone present appears more beautiful than they ever have before. Sounds like the ultimate party trick, right? Oh, but it's so much more. So wonderful is this brief taste of the Grail that Gawain immediately declares his intent to go seek it again, stopping only when he catches full sight of it. Wanting in on the action, all of Arthur's knights jump on the bandwagon and take off, too.
The idea of a cup that bestows favorite foods, smells, and sights upon passersby seems kind of weird to us. There has to be something else to it, right? Right indeed. As it turns the "Tale of the Sankgreall," the Grail actually symbolizes the presence of God.
To a medieval Christian, being in God's presence was pretty much the most wonderful thing you could imagine, and the way to express this wonder was through the most pleasurable things – like food, smells, and sights – you could possibly imagine. When Arthur's knights head off on the Grail Quest, then, they aren't just on a quest for some more of that yummy roasted boar. They're trying to achieve unity with God by being in his presence, represented by full sight of the Grail.
If the Grail represents unity with God, or God's presence, the quest itself represents the life of the Christian as he struggles toward that unity. On the quest, the knights face all kinds of difficult choices, like when Bors has to decide between saving his brother, Lionel, or a damsel in distress. They're faced with temptation, like when Percyvale almost succumbs to the charms of a sexy lady only to be pulled back from the brink at the very last minute. How they make these choices helps us see whether or not they're worthy of the Grail.
The knights who have the most success on the quest are those who make sacrifices for God, particularly sacrifices involving their bodies. Percyvale and Galahad remain life-long virgins, and Launcelot wears a hair shirt and eats only bread and water. Medieval Christians believed that these kinds of sacrifices were the quickest way to heaven, which is why they're so important for the knights on the Grail Quest.
The challenges and temptations the knights face on the Grail Quest represent the challenges and temptations in the life of an ordinary Christian; if they meet and withstand them then they, like the successful Grail Knights, will achieve full sight of the Grail, and unity with God.
Our narrator is absolutely all-knowing in the truest sense of the word. He sees and hears just about everything, and instead of narrating events from the point of view of just one two people, he opts to follow almost one hundred different characters on their adventures throughout the course of the story.
That's a lot of action to keep track of, but there's a perfectly good reason for taking on such a daunting task. This strategy allows him to give a comprehensive tale of not just Arthur or those close to him, but of the whole Round Table. For example, when he narrates the Grail Quest, he does so in episodes, following Galahad for a while, then Gawain, then Launcelot, then returning to Galahad, etc. He can interweave the characters' stories, as when Percyvale, Bors, and Galahad emerge from their separate adventures during the Grail Quest to set sail on a mysterious ship together and achieve the quest.
And while we may takes sides in various feuds, rooting for Launcelot, Trystram, or even Gawain, the narrator of Le Morte D'Arthur remains pretty objective. He rarely gives his opinions on the goings on in Camelot. Because they're so rare, the few moments when he does, however, tell us a lot about what interests him most about his story.
For example, when the people of England defect from Arthur in favor of Mordred, the narrator launches into a long diatribe about the lack of loyalty of the English people, which he compares to the "new fangill"-ness of the modern English people (680.25&ff). Likewise, the narrator puts the devoted love between Launcelot and Gwenyvere on a pedestal in comparison to that of lovers "nowadayes" who lack "stabilyté," or faithfulness (625.3&ff).
Not only do these examples tell us that the narrator really values loyalty, but they also tell us that he sees Arthur's story as having important parallels to his own time, maybe even teaching some important lessons. So while he may be mostly objective about Camelot drama itself, he's got a whole slew of opinions about what that drama can shed light on in his England.
A young, unknown boy named Arthur becomes King of England, and his noble parentage as the son of King Uther is revealed. He defeats an alliance of twelve northern kings who contest his succession.
The big challenge for Arthur at this point is simply to establish his (double!) legitimacy as king. He accomplishes this when Merlin verifies his parentage and he defeats the alliance of kings who are still protesting his succession. But just proving legitimacy is not all it takes to be a great king – more is left to be accomplished, and that's where Arthur turns his attentions next.
With his marriage to Gwenyvere, who brings with her a round table and whole boatload of knights, Arthur enters the beginning of his golden period. He has 150 knights who not only swear allegiance to him, but also swear an oath to uphold certain rules of chivalry. These knights travel all over the kingdom winning renown for and bringing glory to Arthur.
Arthur ignores the love between Launcelot and Gwenyvere, and he fails to protect Lamerok from murder at the hands of Lot's sons. Fractures appear among his knights. Arthur's unwillingness to confront Launcelot and Gwenyvere over their love, despite obvious evidence, will eventually be responsible for the total downfall of his rule, as will his failure to put an end to the feud between the families of Lot and Pellynore. If only we could drop him a hint!
Aggravayne and Mordred expose Launcelot and Gwenyvere, forcing Arthur to bring Gwenyvere to justice. In the ensuing battle, the factions in Arthur's court face off. Gawain convinces Arthur to go to war with Launcelot, and while they are in France, Mordred takes control of Arthur's kingdom.
Ugh, it's all just a big mess now isn't it? Aggravayne and Mordred's decision to expose Launcelot and Gwenyvere moves all decision-making power out of Arthur's hands; if he fails to punish her and Launcelot, he'll look like a weak king. Arthur's powerlessness continues when, for some reason, he can't seem to say no to Gawain's demand that he go to war with Launcelot. This opens up a power vacuum that enables Mordred to seize the throne. Things are not looking good for our guy.
In the end, Mordred gives Arthur his death-wound on Salisbury Plain. Arthur's death is caused by forces he has set in motion in more ways than one: (1) His war against Launcelot, which allows Mordred to seize the throne, was partially a result of his failure to control his own knights (and his wife, for that matter) and (2) Mordred, his killer, is the product of his incestuous relationship with his sister long ago.
Okay, to be fair, there's a lot more to the story of the beginning of Arthur's reign than just getting crowned, getting married, and getting the world's largest table as a wedding gift. But it's with the establishment of the Round Table that the plot really takes off. Now, there are 150 knights who will go on to prove themselves in the remaining tales. Not only that, but Arthur has a beautiful new wife, who proves to be a source of all kinds of drama. Soon after the founding of the Table, Launcelot arrives, and the triangle of Arthur, Launcelot, and Gwenyvere will come to be very important to the events that follow.
Arthur's goal after establishing the Round Table is to have unity amongst his knights, and to command the loyalty and respect of the best knights in the world. Unfortunately, Artie, that's a bit of a pipe dream. Launcelot's love for Gwenyvere obviously conflicts with this goal, and the blood feud between the families of Lot and Pellynore splits the Round Table in two.
Launcelot's affair with Gwenyvere has been going on for a long time, but it's not until now that Aggravayne and Mordred decide to do something about it. This really throws a wrench in things, because now Arthur can't just sit back and ignore it. It forces the knights in court to take sides,(something that the feud between the families of Pellynore and Lot has already sort of done) so battle-lines form quickly. Launcelot's rescue of Gwenyvere, who's about to be burned at the stake, leaves things unresolved, though. The affair has ended, but nobody has really been punished.
All right, all right, he's been in several wars. But this one's special, we swear. He goes to war with Launcelot, of all people. Of course the only possible reason a king would go to war with his favorite knight is a woman. So this war is the inevitable end of Launcelot and Gwenyvere's affair. Arthur can't ignore what Launcelot has done; he has to punish the guy somehow. And Launcelot can't help fighting with Arthur once he invades his lands.
The war with Launcelot is still going on, but now Mordred's set himself up as King of England, while Arthur's off, fighting over his Queen. Will Arthur be able to re-claim his lands from Mordred? Will Gwenyvere allow herself to be married to England's new ruler?
Gawain's reconciliation with Launcelot symbolizes the end of the feuding between Arthur's Knights, resolving that tension. Unfortunately, though, Arthur is not able to re-claim his lands from Mordred without dying.
With Arthur dead at the hands of Mordred, Launcelot and Gwenyvere's affair is really at an end. Both of them have now devoted themselves to God. Launcelot's burial of Gwenyvere's body at Arthur's side signals his final ceding of Gwenyvere to the King in death, which is something he refused to do in life. And so ends the reign of Arthur.
King Uther conceives a son with Igrayne, a boy named Arthur – his boy goes on to pull the sword from the stone and claim the throne of England. Impressive, no? Arthur marries Gwenyvere and establishes a Round Table fellowship of 150 knights. We're all set for intrigue, romance, and of course, adventure.
Arthur's knights win great glory on quests and on the battlefield, and Arthur is reputed to be the greatest king that's ever lived. However, one of Arthur's knights, Launcelot, is in love with Arthur's wife, which makes things a bit difficult. And the unity of the Round Table is threatened by an ongoing feud between the families of King Lot and King Pellynore. Things come to a head when the Lothian faction, headed by Aggravayne and Mordred, surprise Launcelot in the Queen's bedroom, forcing Arthur to convict her of treason and sentence her to be burned at the stake. Talk about marriage woes.
Launcelot rescues Gwenyvere from burning, accidentally killing two Lothian knights, Gareth and Gaheris, in the process. This prompts Gawain to seek vengeance for their deaths by encouraging Arthur to go to war with Launcelot, which he does. The power vacuum this opens enables Mordred to seize power in England, and Arthur loses his life fighting to regain it. Gwenyvere and Launcelot repent for what they have done and enter the religious life.