Le Morte D’Arthur


It took me about a year or so, but I finally finished Sir Thomas Malory’s English compendium of Arthurian legend. While you can find more graceful tellings of these stories elsewhere, Malory’s attempt to capture all the facets of them has a magnificent cumulative power to it. Like I said a few months ago, it’s one of those books that feels like a world unto itself.

Although it does ultimately paint a complete arc, depicting the rise and fall of Arthur and the Round Table, treating it as a novel is a good way to burn out on it: the tone of Malory’s prose is dry and historical, and the structure has many redundancies and repetitions, particularly the first half, where most of the more episodic stories are gathered. If anything, the experience is more similar to watching a TV show where the earlier seasons are mostly made up of fairly formulaic monster-of-the-week episodes of varying quality, and with the later seasons experimenting with longer story arcs. I found the best way was to read it in chunks, taking breaks whenever I felt I had pored over a few too many jousts.

Part of the reason I think it worked so well for me was that I have a fascination with those literary tomes that almost function as miniature libraries in their own right – the Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick, etc.

Of course, the rise and fall of Arthur is also the rise and fall of chivalry; chivalry emerges as the answer to a period of instability and barbarism, an attempt to inject morality and order into power. And thus Morte unfolds as an examination of what it means to adhere to a strict moral code in a complex world, and, perhaps more infamously, the relationship between duty and desire. The work’s depth is less in the individual tales, but more in how its motifs inevitably get revisited and re-evaluated by later tales, with the latter part ultimately finding chivalry inadequate when compared to Christian perfection. Chivalry and the culture of knighthood, like any creation of man, eventually reaches its expiration.

So on a meta level Morte emerges as a sort of nostalgic lament by a man who is fascinated by and to some extent identifies with his subject matter. If the historians are correct, Malory spent most of his life as a criminal, thereby becoming a sort of poetic embodiment of the clash between ideals and human reality found in his work.

It’s a great book, and it makes me wonder something: one of the key literary experiences of my life was reading Don Quixote as a teenager. While other books from that time have had a greater staying power with me, Cervantes’ novel was the one which opened me up to the possibilities of literature. Now, Don Quixote was written, at least initially, as a jaundiced deconstruction of exactly the sort of stories Malory compiled. I wonder if my life or reading would have been any different if I had read Malory’s work instead. Or perhaps I needed all those experiences in the interim to be capable of appreciating the man’s work.

Anyway, Peter Ackroyd has a modern prose retelling that I wouldn’t mind checking out at some point.



About Josh W

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2 Responses to Le Morte D’Arthur

  1. Gaheret says:

    So interesting. I did just that, reading Malory and de Troyes first as a teenager and the Quixote just recently, even considering I´m Spanish. It impressed me as a colourful Christian mythology full of wonders, with very human and complex heroes, and that Silmarillion feeling or Robin Hood feeling of stories built over stories in a way that makes sense. I remember being specially moved when, before the final battle, Arthur confessed and went to Mass, so whatever happened, everything would be allright. That feeling of trascending its own role in the story was unique at that time. The Greek mythological or tragic characters couldn´t do that, nor Luke Skywalker, Verne´s heroes, Batman, Holmes, even Aragorn or Gandalf. They were all, in a way, trapped in their own story, and in a sense they rose or fell with it (except perhaps for that awesome Holmes Australian mistery… but that´s another story). Arthur and his knights were aware of their limits. All which is human ends, but you live your role enthusiastically, try to do good, create and know there is a bigger purpose. Their fate was tragic, but La Morte didn´t felt like a tragedy to me. The Arthurian mythos have informed both my writing, my ideal of a lay Christian hero/gentleman, my approach to the “finding christian potential in pagan stuff” problem, and my sense of justice and wonder, and I´m always happy to revisit them.

  2. Gaheret says:

    On the other hand, I tried the Quixote at that time once or twice, but I found it unfair and exaggerated. I mean, La Morte contained its own “Watchmen”, so to speak: the sins and inconsistencies of the characters and their ideal (unsustainable courtly love, tolerance of adultery, violence, justice by force) brought the Round Table down. That´s honest. No need of mocking what´s valuable in the ideal, and the magic part was not that absurd nor arbitrary. Years later, I found the Amadis de Gaula, Orlando Furioso, the Song of Roland and so, and my viewpoint changed. These were ridiculous superhero knights who conquered exotic empires like Trapobana by themselves with a single sword, who were seemingly persecuted by every single beautiful woman in the world, who could let themselves die of hunger and sorrow if their lady was angry that moring and whose villains had no other role that to fall again and again and again against their marvelous force to the point I almost wanted them to win. Some of the ideal remained, but for the most, it was ridiculous. I like superhero comics better. So when I tried again, I really enjoyed the parody.

    And then, the Quixote trascended the parody in a subtle and very Christian way which I didn´t even notice until the book ended. My disordered thoughts in the subject: crazy as he was, I found Alonso Quijano the Good was nonetheless improving by fighting, learning and enduring, becoming better and wiser, and the rest of the characters became increasingly aware of that. At the end, it wasn´t a joke anymore, but a misteriously rich and meaningful life. The character had once again trascended his own role, and this time not by confessing and going to Mass. He lived under God, in a world with purpose, and was a Christian. That´s the Catholic thing in it: no matter what, the providential purpose is so strong and real that it leaves its mark in everything, even the broken, the crazier, the worst man, and the resulting paradoxes which result are almost too much for us to deal with. But simple and full of wonder, at once. In retrospect, I think that Dostoyevski has developed like no other this aspect of the Quixote in his otherwise “realistic” works.

    This comment is becoming far too long. Ending: every Spanish thinker (and some others) confronts Don Quixote sooner or later. Unamuno, Galdós, León Felipe, Chesterton and many others defend him against his author, but that is wrong. I think María Zambrano has found the key: “when appearing in the human world, the mythic heroes have to travel it again in decay, living the greatest penance which a hero can live: being a mockery”. Somehow, that brings them back from the myth, brings them closer to us and makes them deep and appealing…

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