Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur or King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table

Morte D'Arthur, Le - Thomas Malory, Robert Graves I just recently finished reading "Le Morte d'Arthur", and it was an interesting experience. It defies categorization. Not a novel, not an epic poem, not exactly a collection of myths, more than a collection of folk stories, certainly a product of a Christian imagination, but very earthy. Repetitive, but after I got into the rhythm of it, not boring. Once you submit your prejudices to the vision of the author, you become able to enter into this strange world of kings, knights, ladies, wars and tournaments. When we do, we discover that Arthur and his court represent an ideal. For Malory and his audience, a true king was noble at all times and able to marshall his forces in service of the good. A true knight trusted God to uphold his cause in the test of arms. A true lady was virtuous and worthy of being defended at all costs. There is much in these ideals that is noteworthy, and we look down our nose at these ideas at our own peril, I think.There is a rhythm, a pattern in how the tales of King Arthur and his knights are told. There is always a quest in need of a knight, a lady in need of a champion, and a knight in need of proving his mettle. He will do so in the only way available to him at that time; through jousts and combat at arms with other errant knights he meets on his way. Courts, juries and judges are few and far between, so wrongs can only be righted by a gentle knight who will prove with his puissance that his cause is just. Again, when you sit back and accept that this is the pattern Malory used, the tales are enjoyable even though we know the formula and can predict with ease what is going to happen. "Morte d'Arthur", though, is more than jousts and hunts. Digging beneath the surface, the reader discovers that the stories are filled with symbols and metaphors that show that Malory was telling more than stories of jousting knights. The legends of King Arthur are filled with Biblical allusions. Arthur, the once and future king, is a type of Christ. HIs knights bear resemblances to many of the apostles; Gawain is Peter, Modred is Judas, and so on. Even hunting excursions mean more than just a hunt. A white hart sometimes symbolizes Christ Himself, and the hunt becomes a pursuit of salvation. But Malory was no mere idealist. King Arthur and his knights and ladies are deeply flawed. Sir Tristram and Queen Iseult indulge in an adulterous relationship for years under the protection of Lancelot. Lancelot himself uses his skill in battle to prove the innocence of himself and Guenevere, something few believe and even the king doubts. Gawain's impetuous nature is as much to blame for the fall of Camelot as Modred's treason. And in the quest for the holy Grail, the knights of the round table are all held accountable for their manifold sins. The quest for the Grail came as a surprise to me. I always thought that the goal of the quest was to obtain the cup and give it to the king, and it is often presented in this manner. Malory, though, saw it differently. The quest for the Grail was a quest for the beatific vision, to be admitted into the presence of Christ while still on Earth. This is the reason it could only be accomplished by one who was as sinless as Galahad. This is also the reason that so many of the knights die in this quest. In their pride they pursued the Grail as an object to be possessed and manipulated. They embark on the quest unworthy of the quest itself, let alone the Grail. Half of them will pay for this affront with their lives.Another surprise for me was the way in which "Le Morte" made it clear that Arthur, Camelot, and Logres are inextricably connected. The life of each follows the same arc. Camelot and Logres only begin to enjoy their greatness when Arthur becomes king. They grow and age with him, and his fate is their fate. As he waxes in strength, wisdom and goodness, so do they. They are at their height when he is at his, and when he falters and fails, they must also fall. The death of King Arthur is the death of his court and all that it stood for when at its best. The hope that he will return is the hope that true nobility, true chivalry has not died but only slumbers to awaken at need. "Le Morte" is written in almost a perfunctory fashion. There is not much beauty to its prose. But the story itself is beautiful enough in its promise and tragedy to ameliorate any defect of technique. It is the font from which nearly all of our Arthurian stories springs. There is not a single book, poem, play, or movie about kings, knights and wizards that does not owe a certain debt to "Le Morte". There is much to reward the reader today who is willing to let Malory tell his tale his way. I encourage you to do so.