Le Morte Darthur

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur), which describes the legendary court of King Arthur, is one of the great explorations of the culture of chivalry. It depicts a world of courtesy, duty and obligation, but it also exposes the dark underbelly of this same culture.

Who was Thomas Malory?

The authorship of the text is not entirely secure, but scholars largely agree that the author was likely to have been Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel (1416–1471), who in later life became something of a career criminal – he was accused of extortion, theft, rape, cattle-rustling, robbery of an abbey, deer-theft, horse-stealing and attempted murder. He was imprisoned several times and escaped twice – once by swimming the moat of the house in which he was being detained.

When and where did Thomas Malory write Le Morte Darthur?

Malory lived during a series of civil wars – the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) – and in 1468 he was imprisoned again after getting involved in a plot against the new king, Edward IV. He seems to have been sent to the Tower of London, where he lived in some comfort and had access to a library. It was there that he wrote Le Morte Darthur. In the work, he describes himself as ‘Knyght presoner Thomas Malleorre’ [‘Knight, prisoner, Thomas Malory’].

What is Le Morte Darthur about?

Le Morte Darthur was the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages, but it is also the first and only Arthurian text in Middle English to recount the entire legend of Arthur from his birth to his death. Malory originally intended the work to be called The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, but when the text was printed by William Caxton it was erroneously titled with the name Malory had given to just the final section of the cycle.

The text tells the story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, describing their quest for the Holy Grail and Arthur’s eventual death. The Holy Grail was believed to be the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and it was thought to have magical powers.

Influence

Malory died five months after his release from prison in October 1470 on the accession of King Henry VI. Yet his text lived on. It was probably always a popular work: it was first printed by William Caxton (who appears to have printed works which might prove to be a commercial success) and has been read by generations of readers ever since. In a literary sense, Malory’s text is the most important of all the treatments of Arthurian legend, influencing writers as diverse as Edmund Spenser, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck.

Creator:
Sir Thomas Malory
Published:
15th century
Forms:
Poem
Genre:
Arthurian legend
Literary period:
Late medieval

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