Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory (circa 1405-1471)

Biographical notes: Little was known definitively for centuries about the author of Morte Darthur, for there was more than one Sir Thomas Malory in fifteenth-century England, but modern scholars generally agree that he was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Ravel, in Warwick. He was the son of a Warwickshire gentleman who died in 1434, and he was in service to the Earl of Warwick before being knighted himself sometime before 1442. Malory served in Parliament in 1445 and fought in the Wars of the Roses, the series of civil wars in England between 1455-1487. Malory spent most of his last twenty years behind bars: though he professed innocence, he was imprisoned for a series of violent crimes, including rape, "assault, extortion, jail breaking, poaching, and a cattle raid. The two most serious offenses of which he was accused were lying in ambush with an armed band to murder Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, and two attacks on Coombe abbey, in which with a hundred followers he broke down doors, terrorized the monks, and plundered the abbot's chests" (Baugh 305). It was while in prison that Malory wrote Morte Darthur, perhaps the most famous and significant literary work of the fifteenth century.

Composition and printing: In composing Morte Darthur Malory drew upon a variety of French and English sources available to him in prison from a nearby abbey library—more variety than is suggested by "the French book" Malory mentions in the text, and including two English texts of similar name, the alliterative poem, Morte Arthure (circa 1400) and the stanzaic Morte Arthur (circa 1360). Morte Darthur was originally published by William Caxton, the first English printer to use a typesetting process, in 1485.

History and importance: Malory's work is the most comprehensive collection of Arthurian legend that has survived the Middle Ages, and it is his book that has most often been the source for later literary works built around King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, including recent novels (Mary Stewart's Arthurian books, e.g.) and films such as Excalibur. The printer, Caxton, divided Malory's text into twenty-one "chapters" and was considered authoritative until the discovery of another, more complete version of Malory's original handwritten text in 1934. This later text divides the book into eight separate romances, and is now considered the definitive or more accurate text.

Civil war: One of the overriding themes of the last segment of Malory's book (from which our reading is taken) is that of civil war, a war which tears apart and destroys the idyllic Round Table and Arthur's whole kingdom. This theme is doubtless a reflection of Malory's perception of England in his own time, divided as it was between different factions fighting over the British crown in the Wars of the Roses. According to one source, "The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars fought in medieval England from 1455 to 1487 between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The name Wars of the Roses is based on the badges used by the two sides, the red rose for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the Yorkists. Major causes of the conflict include: 1) both houses were direct descendants of King Edward III; 2) the ruling Lancastrian king, Henry VI, surrounded himself with unpopular nobles; 3) the civil unrest of much of the population; 4) the availability of many powerful lords with their own private armies; and 5) the untimely episodes of mental illness by King Henry VI" ( Malory fought first on the side of Lancaster, then for York, and then again for the Lancastrians. As our Norton editors tell us, some of Malory's "legal troubles" may have been punishment for his support of the house of Lancaster by the Yorkist King Edward IV (295).

Caxton's preface: The chivalric code was apparently of great significance to Malory, as despite the seeming contradiction of his alleged criminal activities, he seems to have admired and lamented the lost chivalric ideals represented in the Arthurian legends, much of which Mallory believed as historical fact. Caxton might as well have been speaking for Malory when he wrote in his preface to Morte Darthur that the book was written so 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 honor, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke" (qtd. in Baugh 307).

Reading points: As you study or read, consider or be on the lookout for the following:

The chivalric code, as compared to that established in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Sir Lancelot: conflict between love and honor, self and duty.

bulletGawain, Gareth and Gaheris: conflict between duty to king and loyalty to Lancelot.

bulletThe curious attitude of Malory towards Lancelot, the greatest of Arthur's knights, but also the adulterer sleeping with Arthur's queen. Be especially attentive to places where Malory references "the French book," and ponder why he might want to bring in particular "authority" at these precise points of the story.

The curious attitude of Malory towards Lancelot, the greatest of Arthur's knights, but also the adulterer sleeping with Arthur's queen. . . .

The elegiac view of the past: the lost and irretrievable "better times" of chivalry.

The focus on civil war: brother vs. brother, to the destruction of all.

bulletHow Morte Darthur is radically different from a typical chivalric romance such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Consider how it reads and feels more modern, more "novelistic."

Again, the antifeminist notion of "woman as problem," the root of men's troubles.

Works Cited (and consulted)