Reading Le Morte d’Arthur

Mother Culture selection for June 2016

The first written mention of King Arthur is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England, finished in A.D. 1136. Although he wrote his book in Latin, Geoffrey says that he is translating a much older book written in an early form of the Briton language.* The tales of King Arthur and Merlin were transmitted orally for generations in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and even in France, with some variations in details and emphasis. King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table, and the kingdom of Camelot has had an immense influence on Western literature. Though the stories of Arthur and his knights certainly contain some mythical elements, they have nevertheless been adopted by Britain as part of its national historical narrative.

Thomas Malory, collected many of these tales in his great work Le Morte d’Arthur (le mort dar TUR). William Caxton edited and printed—the most up-to-date technology!his work in 1485, with his purpose inscribed in the preface:

Wherefore, such as have late been drawn out briefly into English I have after the simple conning that God hath sent to me, under the favour and correction of all noble lords and gentlemen, enprised to imprint a book of the noble histories of the said King Arthur, and of certain of his knights, after a copy unto me delivered, which copy Sir Thomas Malorye did take out of certain books of French, and reduced it into English. And I, according to my copy, have done set it in imprint, to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in those days, by which they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke; humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies, with all other estates of what estate or degree they been of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same. Wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown. And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in, but for to give faith and belief that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty: but all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to exercise and follow virtue, by which we may come and attain to good fame and renown in this life, and after this short and transitory life to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven; the which He grant us that reigneth in heaven, the blessed Trinity. Amen.

*Many historians do not believe there was any such old book, just because no one can find a copy of it. But consider this: For centuries, historians believed Troy was a mythical city until Heinrich Schliemann, who loved the Homeric epics, proved them wrong in the late 1800’s. Be cautious about unquestioning acceptance of the “conventional wisdom”

Version Notes

This Modern Library edition is very nice, and coordinates well with the Aubible version of the Morte. I actually own the hardback version, which I love. This is the Caxton manuscript, dating from 1485. At Providence Prep, we used this Oxford World Classics edition which is the Winchester manuscript.   Although this manuscript seems to predate Caxton, and is preferred by some current scholars, it is the Caxton version that was the main source of all things Arthur for almost five centuries. C. S. Lewis reviewed Vinaver’s edition of the Winchester manuscript—The Works of Sir Thomas Malory—favorably, but then concluded, “We should all read the Works but it would be an impoverishment if we did not return to the Morte. (If I had seen this quote before we chose the version for Providence Prep, I think I would have chosen Caxton.) You can read a longer and more in-depth exploration of Vinaver’s version here, including more thoughts from Lewis.

Another good reason to read the Caxton version is because the unabridged Audible version corresponds with the Modern Library edition. If you have a vintage edition on your shelf, it is likely to correspond with the Audible edition as well.

Reading Helps

As with all of our literary selections, the Morte is, first of all, a delightful story and should be enjoyed as such. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in my post on High School Humanities. The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

Background and Context

The greatest English work of (the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance), measured by its effect on subsequent literature, is undoubtedly the Morte d’Arthur, a collection of the Arthurian romances told in simple and vivid prose. Of Sir Thomas Malory, the author, Caxton in his introduction says that he was a knight, and completed his work in 1470, fifteen years before Caxton printed it. The record adds that “he was the servant of Jesu both by day and night.” Beyond that we know little except what may be inferred from the splendid work itself.

Malory groups the legends about the central idea of the search for the Holy Grail. Though many of the stories, like Tristram and Isolde, are purely pagan, Malory treats them all in such a way as to preserve the whole spirit of mediæval Christianity as it has been preserved in no other work. It was to Malory rather than to Layamon or to the early French writers that Shakespeare and his contemporaries turned for their material; and in our own age he has supplied Tennyson and Matthew Arnold and Swinburne and Morris with the inspiration for the “Idylls of the King” and the “Death of Tristram” and the other exquisite poems which center about Arthur and the knights of his Round Table.

In subject-matter the book belongs to the mediæval age; but Malory himself, with his desire to preserve the literary monuments of the past, belongs to the Renaissance; and he deserves our lasting gratitude for attempting to preserve the legends and poetry of Britain at a time when scholars were chiefly busy with the classics of Greece and Rome. As the Arthurian legends are one of the great recurring motives of English literature, Malory’s work should be better known. His stories may be and should be told to every child as part of his literary inheritance. Then Malory may be read for his style and his English prose and his expression of the mediæval spirit. And then the stories may be read again, in Tennyson’s “Idylls,” to show how those exquisite old fancies appeal to the minds of our modern poets. ~ William J. Long, English Literature, Its History and Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World, 1909

The “story” of the Arthurian legends is well told in Henrietta Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls, beginning in Chapter VI, “Some Old Welsh Stories and Storytellers.” You may enjoy reading Chapters 6-9 as an orientation to the tales of Arthur and their place in the literary canon of the West.

If you are totally new to the Arthurian legends, you might consider reading a children’s version first. Because these stories have captured imaginations for centuries, there are numerous well-written retellings to choose from. The best known of these have become classics in their own right, such as King Arthur and his Knights, by Sir James Knowles or The Boy’s King Arthur, by Sidney Lanier (Wyeth’s illustrations are incomparable!). Bulfinch’s Age of Chivalry is completely enchanting. Howard Pyle also wrote lovely retellings for younger children, and there are a host of others! As usual, look for those published before the beginning of the 20th century, although Roger Lancelyn Green is a happy exception. If you want just a quick overview of King Arthur’s life and times, Hamilton Wright Mabie includes just the thing in Heroes Every Child Should Knowwhich, by the way, we have students retell in Bards & Poets.

Commonplace Book Entries

(Read my series of posts on Commonplace Books here.)  Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time. Of course, commonplacing favorite passages as you read should be a regular habit. 

Copy passages from the Morte that

  • detail the development and character of chivalry
  • detail the tenets of the Pentecostal Oath (Book III, Chapter XV in the Modern Library Edition; in the Winchester manuscript, this is at the end of the section titled, “The Wedding of King Arthur”)
  • demonstrate or comment on deviations from the ideals of chivalry
  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

Reflections As You Read

In addition to the general reading journal options, there are a few specific Reading Journal assignments that may be helpful. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • Reflect on the virtues of mercy and justice in the actions of the King Arthur’s knights.
  • Reflect on the role of fate in Malory’s tales.
  • Note which knights are able to achieve the Grail. Why is each able to do so?
  • C. S. Lewis commented that it is in a tragedy such as that of Lancelot, “that most men, especially Englishmen, first see their sins with clarity.” Reflect on this.

Connections and the Great Conversation

Write a response to the reading and community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas that you saw in your reading here and other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

  • Consider the causes that led to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom. Reflect on this in light of other earthly kingdoms, as well as present-day principalities.
  • Every worthwhile book will lead us to repentance, and point us to more that we need to know or read. After reading all Le Morte d’Arthur, which books do you need to add to your reading list? What historical persons, places, or things do you need to understand better?

Links Worth A Look

Further Reading

Mother Culture Community

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.

The Death of Arthur, by James Archer, Scotland 1860

One thought on “Reading Le Morte d’Arthur

  1. The notes on reading a children’s edition brought back one of the few fond memories from the two years in which I attended a local (Christian) school in first and second grade: somewhere in the school library I found a delightful chunky old “King Arthur and His Knights” – it had worn gray-brown boards and a kingly picture on the cover in glowing golden reds and greens. It seemed to me to be the best find I would ever make in that library (most of my checkouts were Bobbsey twins) and I remember losing myself in it on the bus ride to school in the morning. I recall none of what I read, only the sheer joy that the book was so very fat, and seemed to promise endless enchantment.

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