Notes on Le Morte d’Arthur

Having made my way through two volumes containing one William Caxton’s 1485 edition – apparently the first published – of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, I am left with rather mixed impressions.

As to structure, in Caxton’s hands it has very little; according to John Lawler’s modern introduction, Malory devised a scheme of eight books reminiscent of ancient epic; how Caxton’s twenty “books” correspond is not easy to tell. One can make out a structure of roughly three parts: Arthur’s birth and establishment in the kingdom, with various wars including his invasion of France to fight with the Romans, following the British story found in Nennius, Geoffrey, etc.; then the story of Tristram; and finally the quest for the Holy Grail and the subsequent events leading to Mordred’s betrayal and Arthur’s death.

Interspersed through the first two parts – and bleeding into the last – are accounts of various quests and tournaments; the tournaments particular get a little repetitive and whatever their literary value I suspect they have more as a reflection of Lancastrian courtly expectations – or earlier French ones, depending how close Malory stayed to his sources. Some of the passages are quite well done – and the bit where several knights all end up on each other’s horses amused me – but the eyes glaze over a bit after the third or fourth virtually identical scene within thirty pages. Actual tournament ethics are baffling – at times our champions will avoid another knight doing well in order to help him to the prize, but at other times the best knight on the other side is the one to fight. It seems to have something to do with friendship or feud beforehand, but I can’t come up with a consistent rule.

When Malory is actually getting on with the story, he’s quite interesting. The individual quests are mostly well-done little vignettes; and the longer narratives – King Uther, Arthur’s discovery and early wars, the war with Rome, and the story of Sir Tristram (setting aside most of the interruptions for side-quests) all capture the imagination. (Apart from the odd decision – whether Malory’s or Caxton’s – not to actually finish the story of Tristram, whose sorry end is merely mentioned in passing later.) And the Grail and King Arthur’s death crown the book effectively.

The language does not require translation, and only a few words even require the glossary found in modern printings. A few things stood out. “W” is used instead of “g” in certain words, most commonly “wallop” for “gallop” and “wood” for “good”. “Wood” requires careful treatment, however. It is found as, of course, a noun meaning a collection of trees; as an alternate (in some passages more common) form for “good”; as an adjective with persons or behavior, glossed as “wild” (as in “mad” or even “berserk”, from context; it is tempting to suppose a derivation from “woad” and its martial connotations); it is, especially in the later tales, used adverbially, though “wildly” doesn’t always fit, and it seems to serve as an intensifier; and in certain places the only coherent reading is to take it as a contraction of “wounded”.

“Big” has its modern meaning sometimes but is primarily a synonym for “strong” although it’s used so loosely in places I’m almost inclined to suspect it of being fifteenth century slang. And finally, the verb “yede” (past tense “yode”) appears to mean “go quickly” or “hurried” but, since it seems to be used mostly of person given a specific message or mission, certain sentences result in which the very recent internet neologism “yeet” (meaning most closely, to throw or get rid of something in a hurry) would not be out of place instead at least as an analogy. As far as I know, there’s no actual derivation here, although it’s tempting to imagine one!

Malory’s combination of British and French sources results in some oddities. In the first parts, the causes and results of quarrels are often more reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas, while the later French stories are mostly issues of manners or love. In the British sources, the story knows nothing of knights as such and the story is more direct: Arthur’s war with Rome is interrupted by Morded’s treachery. Malory incorporates this but has him defeat Rome itself, and thus when he crosses to France a second time to fight Sir Launcelot after his adultery is discovered, this is only because Arthur was made to have installed various of his supporters as kings and lords over conquered Gaul.

Characterization of the knights – most notably Sir Kay – also seems to change with the source. In the British sources, Sir Kay and Sir Lucan are Arthur’s primary companions and among his most notable champions; in the quest stories, Sir Kay is full of himself and either a troublemaker or the butt of the story’s jokes, depending. Sir Gawaine’s position is ambiguous throughout. Once we get to the courtly narratives, Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram are acknowledged near-equally as the best knights – along with Sir Lamorak, who seems to have dropped out of popular remembrance entirely. Sir Gawaine and Sir Palomides are sometimes considered their equals and sometimes not.

The story’s sexual morality is more or less non-existent. “Courtly love” in its decadence is in full effect, save for the Quest of the Grail, whose original author seems to have been trying to make a point. Otherwise the narrator is on the side of the knights in their affairs: even King Arthur remains more impressed by Sir Launcelot’s skill at arms than distressed by his betrayal, which is barely noted as such; and King Mark, whose maintainance of a long-running, often patched-up feud with Sir Tristram is about the only understandable reaction, is portrayed as a villain when not (variably) a coward.

More startling yet is King Pellinor’s rape of a woman (resulting, naturally for the genre, in a son who himself will be a knight) which is made to be practically excused by her husband, on the grounds that at least the child’s father was a king. In comparison, Arthur’s own affairs (two recorded – before his marriage, but one (unknowingly) with his sister – barely register. On the other hand – or perhaps as a result – bastardy is barely a concept: a knight’s own deeds define his worth.

There is, strangely, an element of monogamy retained: knights having declared one love are considered to be guilty, at least of bad manners, should they be caught in another affair or – by necessity or trickery – wind up married to some other lady. One suspects mediveal marriage for advantage at court – and possibly suspicion of marriage arising from over-valuing virginity – bears some blame for diminishing to honor of the wedded estate and allowing – demanding? – another code governing passions.

Overall Malory succeeds in combining his sources into a mostly coherent whole. If Caxton chose to call the work Le Morte d’Arthur – Malory’s intended title is uncertain – we can easily understand why, because the final third of the book contains the best writing.

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