Le Morte d'Arthur

 A Romance

A Guide for Beginners in 8 Different Literary Elements

Thomas Malory's romance presented thanks to a didactic tool designed to facilitate the description of a work in prose. The following text is a guide for beginners in 8 different literary elements:

  • Title
  • Biography
  • Sources 
  • Genre
  • Structure and plot
  • Narrative techniques
  • Setting and characters
  • Themes

The title: Le Morte d'Arthur

This Medieval work in prose was written by Thomas Malory and later printed by William Caxton. The name Arthur in the title evokes legends of ancient times in our modern minds. (See PPT How Arthur became King Arthur). The term "Morte" comes from the French word "mort" which stands for death. It should be preceded by la, a female determiner, and it was in the past. Later little by little the whole title started to be considered as a compound phrase and hence as male or neuter in gender, needing the male determiner le.

According to the title the plot should deal with Arthur's death, but the plot does not revolve only around the king's death. Sir Thomas Malory entitled his work borrowing the title from existing Romances about Arthur, which told the king's later days. Malory's romance begins optimistically with a boy who "lightly and fiersly" pulls Excalibur out of a stone and ends showing the mutability of human life with the words: "the noble felyship of the Rounde Table is brokyn for ever."

Brief biography

We only know a few facts about Thomas Malory (1400-1471). It is Traditionally accepted that he was a knight, born in Warwickshire. He lived his life as a respectable citizen for most of his life. In 1450 he became an outlaw. He was charged with a series of violent crimes (from robbery to attempted murder), sent to prison.

Le Morte d'Arthur is often referred to as the first prose work in English. Caxton refers in his statement that Malory completed his work in 1469-1470. The book was abridged and printed by Caxton in 1485.


Malory drew his inspiration from a variety of English and French sources to tell us the story of Arthur, the King, from his birth, education, accession to the throne to the tragic decay of his court. Beside all this we come to know about Lancelot, Gareth, Tristram and their pursuit of the Holy Grail. He also comes out with the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guinevere.

We can trace two main sources:

  • a French collection of the 12th century called the Vulgate Cycle (romances),
  • Two English-written poems: a. the alliterative "Morte Arthure", a heroic poem with no sentimental nor romantic account in which Lancelot and Guinevere are only vaguely mentioned; b. The in-verse "Le Morte d'Arthur", which contains most of the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere.

In a few words we can sum up as follows:

  • from the French tales, Malory took elements to show chivalry and courtly love;
  • from the poems in English, he drew the idea of the national hero.


The romance

Slide show 

A video  

Structure and plot

Le Morte d'Arthur is centred on "the byrth, lyf, and acts of the sayd Arthur [and] of his noble knyghts of the Round Table". Malory follows Arthur from his youth to his death. The very birth of the protagonist is an adventure mixed with a supernatural event. Then we learn how Arthur assumes the title of king after pulling a magical sword from a stone. The romance closes up after the adulterous affair between Queen Guinevere, Arthur's wife, and Sir Lancelot and the subsequent dispersion of the Knights of the Round Table.

Some consider Malory's work a mere compilation of the existing stories about Arthur and his knights. He does much more that: he selects, abridges, adapts and rearranges the sources. By doing so he shows his thorough knowledge of medieval French and English literature. He also displays an outstanding quality as an author. Moreover he inserts original elements in his romance: he omits much information from the sources and replaces it with original material: for example, he invents the story of Gareth.

Malory retains a basic structure to his narrative that has remained the same in most of the subsequent versions of Arthur's legend. (see ppt other sources Arthur).

The work can be divided into the following sections:

  • 1. The birth and rise of Arthur
  • 2. King Arthur's war against the Romans
  • 3. The book of Launcelot
  • 4. The book of Gareth (brother of Gawain)
  • 5. Tristram and Isolde
  • 6. The Quest of the Holy Grail
  • 7. The affair between Launcelot and Guinevere
  • 8. The breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and the death of Arthur

The printer William Caxton edited and rearranged the book giving it its final form (21 books).

Narrative techniques

The first English prose fiction is quite episodic. It mixes dialogues with narrative. The language is very simple. The sentences are long but always clear even though Malory does not pay much attention to grammar.

It is sometimes quite difficult to fix a limit between what is actual from what is imaginary.

Setting and characters

The setting in time and place is quite vague and the characters are not delineated: Arthur has got "grey eyes", Lancelot and Tristram are "big men" and all the ladies are "fair". Chivalry is described in a simple way.


Chivalry is one of the main themes. Throughout the text we can read about the code of ethics that the Knights of the Round Table have to honour. The characters uphold those values even though they break their vows on various occasions.

Love is declined in his various forms: the Knights' love for Arthur, love of God, love of family, courtly love

Role of women: women play a subservient role in the prose fiction. Many of them do not even have a name. The author focuses on them when he depicts them as dangerous. It is then that they become temptresses and witches. The kingdom comes to its end when Guinevere, the most powerful woman in Camelot, is unable to deal her affair with Lancelot.

LnT suggests:

LnT A slide show designed to facilitate the presentation of Thomas Malory's main work.

LnT The audiobook platform has decided that, for as long as schools are closed, anyone can listen to a vast selection of its titles. Simply visit from any web browser to get started. No log-ins, credit card or passwords needed. Here is to you 

The Story of King Arthur and His Knights

  • Written By: Howard Pyle
  • Narrated by: Stuart Langton
  • Length: 10hrs 55mins