Emanuela Militello | 15 May 2017
King Arthur and the Round Table probably call to mind tales of heroism, adultery (perhaps the infamous affair between Sir Lancelot and Guenivere), and knights in shining armour, riding on their trusty steeds to the rescue of some damsel in distress—and as a depiction of a genre, that is all well and good. After all, most knights in the Arthurian cycle engage in incredible feats of arms and prove their honour in the service of a lady. In this short piece I want to draw your attention to the book that established many of the characteristics of the legend for modern audiences: Le Morte Darthur—the compendium of Arthurian legend in eight episodes, written by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century—and to the potential that this version of the Arthurian cycle still has to touch readers with its powerful emotional appeal that goes beyond the glamour of chivalric adventures.
Truth be told, Malory was not the first to narrate the adventures of King Arthur and his court; rather he is part of a long tradition. For instance, Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to portray Arthur as a great British conqueror in his Historia Regum Britannie (1136-27), and in the second half of the 12th century, Chrétien de Troyes was the first to write a series of French verse romances that gave prominence to Lancelot among Arthur’s knights. Malory’s sources included the later versions of the Arthurian legend known as the French Vulgate Cycle (1215-30) and the Middle English translation of the French Vulgate—the stanzaic Morte Arthur (written around 1400).
What Malory did with his sources was unique though, and the result is a narrative that still manages to move readers centuries after its composition. Critics have identified a unified design in Malory’s composition, as he portrays the rise and fall of the ideal world of Arthurian chivalry. Malory achieves this by cross-referencing existing episodes, making his characters fairly consistent throughout the book, and by inserting new, original episodes to a compounding effect, such as “The Tale of Sir Gareth,” which add pathos and significance to Gareth’s death by Sir Lancelot’s hand in the last tale. Each of Malory’s episodes point to the tragic denouement, and while reading Malory I found myself moved by the tragedy of the Arthurian world to such a point that I started wondering about the secret to its enduring resonance.
Memorable characters certainly contribute to the appeal of the tale through the ages, such as: Sir Gawain and his superhuman strength; Sir Lancelot, the best worldly knight; the capricious Queen Guenivere, who seems to be testing Lancelot’s constancy constantly, while also needing to be saved quite a few times; and the noble, righteous King Arthur, who represents the epitome of justice and honour. However, the Arthurian world is more than its exciting adventures or its larger-than-life heroes. The greatness of Arthur’s knights lies not so much in their feats of arms, prowess and inhuman strength, but rather in the fact that they are fundamentally human. Is this then the key to understanding Malory’s ability to touch the modern reader?
Malory also conveys the depth and destructive consequences of human passions in his carefully constructed tales, and his skill lies in his ability to build up the tension that will lead to the inevitable catastrophe. Even Arthur is liable to act on the impulse of violent passions, such as his desire to face the traitor Mordred on the battlefield, after he’s been repeatedly warned that the battle will end with his own death. The recurrent motifs in the last tale, “The Death of King Arthur,” are the conflict between private and public, jealousy, and thirst for power. In the gilded world of Arthurian chivalry, the chink in the armour is represented by the “privy” hate of Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred against Lancelot and the Queen, which causes Lancelot and Guenivere’s adultery to become public knowledge and Arthur’s authority as King to be under threat. This event sets in motion the destruction of the Round Table and the whole of Arthur’s court. The tragedy of the Round Table is borne out of divided loyalties and inner conflicts, which, being part of human nature through the ages, transcend their historical context and become a-historical.
Finally, Malory’s tale also derives power from it’s ability to suggest a vitality beyond the bounds of its written narrative. Once the majority of Arthur’s knights have died on the battlefield, and the fellowship has ceased to exist, Arthur acquires the status of a mythical figure. The wounded King is carried off by the “three queens’” to Avalon after the last battle, and although Malory reports that the King’s body is later buried by a hermit, he remains non-committal about Arthur’s reported death: “some men say” he is not dead, and that he will come again—a comment that can be read almost as a pre-figuration of Christ’s second coming: “Rex quondam rexque futurus” (“King once, king to be”). The Round Table has been torn apart, but Malory’s tale continues to move readers to this day with his portrayal of heroes that are both exceptional and human.
About Emanuela Militello
I’m a student on the MSc in Literature and Society at The University of Edinburgh, begun after I completed an MA in Modern Languages in Milan. I’m interested in Medieval Romance and in Victorian Literature—my favourite author is Charles Dickens. In my spare time I read historical fiction and British folklore.
Article edited by Gina Maya.
Cooper, Helen. Introduction. Le Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, 2008, Oxford, pp. vii-xxx.
Guerin, Wilfred L. “The Tale of the Death of Arthur.” Malory’s Originality: A Critical study of Le Morte Darthur, edited by R.M. Lumiansky, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1964, pp. 233-275. Print.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Oxford, 2008. Print.