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Le Morte d'Arthur

 A Romance

A Guide for Beginners in 8 Different Literary Elements

Thomas Malory's romance is presented here below using a didactic method that makes it easier to describe a work in prose.The following text is a beginner's guide that covers eight literary elements:

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

The title: Le Morte d'Arthur

Thomas Malory penned this literary piece, which was later printed by William Caxton. The name Arthur in the title conjures up ancient legends in our imaginations. (For further information, see the PPT How Arthur Became King Arthur.) "Morte" is derived from the French word "mort," which means "death." La, a feminine determiner, should come before it. In the past, the title may have sounded like "La Morte d'Arthur" in the past. Later, the entire title began to be regarded as a compound phrase, and hence as male or neuter in gender, necessitating the use of the male determiner le.

According to the title, the plot revolves entirely around Arthur's death, yet the plot does not revolve entirely around the king's death. Sir Thomas Malory titled his book after the existing Arthurian Romances, which recounted the king's final years. Malory's romance opens with a youngster "lightly and fiersly" pulling Excalibur from a stone and concludes with the words "the glorious felyship of the Rounde Table is brokyn for ever," underlining the mutability of human existence.


Brief biography

Only a few details concerning Thomas Malory (1400-1471) are known. According to tradition, he was a knight who was born in Warwickshire. He spent most of his life as a law-abiding person. He became an outlaw in 1450. He was sentenced to jail after being accused of a series of violent crimes (ranging from robbery to attempted murder).

Le Morte d'Arthur is commonly referred to as the first literary work in English. Malory finished his work between 1469 and 1470, according to Caxton's account. Caxton shortened and printed the work in 1485.


Sources

Malory drew on a mix of English and French sources to describe the story of King Arthur, from his birth, education, and accession to the throne to the tragic collapse of his court. Apart from that, we learn of Lancelot, Gareth, and Tristram and their quest for the Holy Grail. He also mentions Lancelot and Guinevere's adulterous relationship.

Two main sources can be found: a 12th-century French collection known as the Vulgate Cycle (romances), and two English-written poems:

a. the alliterative "Morte Arthure," a heroic poem with no sentimental or romantic account and only a passing reference to Lancelot and Guinevere;

b. the in-verse "Le Morte d'Arthur," which contains the majority of Lancelot and Guinevere's romance.

In a few words, we may summarize what he gathered from his sources as follows:

Malory adopted the themes of chivalry and courtly love from the French stories and drew the idea of the national hero from the English poems.


Genre

Focus  on 'The Romance,' a text that serves as a comprehensive guide to understanding medieval romances. It will walk you through the definition, origin, features, and examples of this intriguing genre.

For those inclined toward auditory learning, we have a valuable resource on YouTube titled 'Medieval Romance Explained 101.' This video will further enhance your understanding, offering visual and auditory dimensions to complement the textual exploration. 


Structure and plot

The plot revolves around "the byrth, lyf, and acts of the sayd Arthur [and] of his noble knyghts of the Round Table,". Malory follows Arthur from childhood until death. The birth of the protagonist is both an adventure and a supernatural event. Following that, we learn about Arthur's royal accession after he pulls a magical sword out of a stone. The romance comes to an end with Arthur's wife, Queen Guinevere, having an affair with Sir Lancelot and the scattering of the Knights of the Round Table.

Some critics see Malory's work as little more than a reworking of prior Arthurian stories. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that he selects, abridges, alters, and rearranges the sources, exhibiting an extensive knowledge of medieval French and English literature in the process. He also has an exceptional ability when it comes to incorporating unique elements into his romance: he takes out a lot of information from the sources and substitutes it with fresh material, such as Gareth's tale.

Malory's story follows a basic structure that has been preserved in most subsequent versions of Arthur's story. (See Arthur's PPT for further details.)

The following sections may be found in the work:


  • 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 book was modified and rewritten by the printer, William Caxton, who gave it its ultimate shape (21 books).


Narrative techniques

A compilation of various episodes makes up the first English-written prose fiction. It combines dialogue with narrative. The language is straightforward. The sentences are long yet always comprehensible, despite Malory's lack of regard to grammar.

It might be hard to draw a line between what is real and what is imaginary at times.


Characters and setting 

The characters are not defined, and the location in time and place is vague: Arthur has "grey eyes," Lancelot and Tristram are "big men," and all the ladies are "fair." Chivalry is described in a simple manner.


Themes

One of the major themes is chivalry. The code of ethics that the Knights of the Round Table must follow may be found throughout the text. Even if they breach their vows on several occasions, the protagonists preserve those values.

Another theme is love. The Knights' love for Arthur, God's love, familial love, and courtly love are all examples of love.

Women are viewed as second-class citizens in romance. Many of them don't even have a name. The author describes them as dangerous when he concentrates on them. They are then called witches and temptresses. The kingdom comes to an end when Guinevere, Camelot's most powerful lady, is unable to deal with her affair with Lancelot

LnT suggests:

LnT Bibliography

Tuckerman B. (1882). A History of English Prose Fiction from Sir Thomas Malory to George Eliot. G.P. Putnam's Sons

Scudder V.(1917) Le morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory & its sources. Internet Archive: lemortedarthurs00scudgoog

Buchan J. (1923) A History of English Literature Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd

Kittredge, G. L. (1977.) Sir Thomas Malory. London: R. West.

Baugh, A. C., & Malone, K. (2003). A Literary History of England. Routledge.

Rogers, P. (1998). An Outline of English Literature. Pat Rogers.

Kocourek T (2007) Reflection of the Wars of the Roses in Thomas Malory`s Le Morte D`Arthur: Literary-cultural analysis

Bachelor paper https://dk.upce.cz/bitstream/handle/10195/29787/KocourekT_Reflection%20of%20the%20Wars_OR_2008.pdf;jsessionid=C06E7E590E95FA7A5861C43275C3A852?sequence=1

Hicks, E. (2013). Sir Thomas Malory. Harvard University Press 1928