This is THE definitive King Arthur story. I’m a serious King Arthur nerd, and a fan of both the historical (Lawhead, Cornwell) and fantastical (Sutcliff, Green) approaches to his influential life. So when I saw “Le Morte d’Arthur” – the seminal Arthurian tome – on a shelf at my local library, I figured now was as good a time as any to read it. Authored by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485, “The Death of Arthur” tells Arthur’s story from birth to death.
For starters, this is a LONG book. Very long. At more than 900 pages, it’s not exactly beach reading. But, length really isn’t that much of a concern…is it? After all, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was more than 850 pages long, and that was still a pretty quick read. How hard can it be…really?
To put it bluntly, “Le Morte d’Arthur” makes Shakespeare or the King James Version look positively modern. Consider the following passage:
“And then the bishop made semblaunt as though he would have gone to the sacring of the mass. And then he took an ubblie which was made in likeness of bread. And at the lifting up there came a figure in likeness of a child, and the visage was as red and as bright as any fire, and smote himself into the bread, so that they all saw it that the bread was formed of a fleshly man; and then he put it into the Holy Vessel again, and then he did that longed to a priest to do to a mass.”
There’s a 500-page chunk in the middle of the book that is dry as dust. There just aren’t that many ways of describing jousts, tournaments, and one-on-one duels. Things get really old, really fast. (This is the part having to do with Sir Tristram after his flight from Cornwall, and his feud with Sir Palomides.) It’s tedious, dull, and probably the most difficult book I’ve ever read.
“Le Morte d’Arthur” is NOT easy reading. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t give it a try.
Fans of Roger Lancelyn Green’s “King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table,” will find much to like here. The stories and characters are classics – King Arthur, Sir Launcelot, Sir Gawaine, Sir Tristram, Sir Galahad, Sir Percivale, and countless others. Virtually every conceivable Arthurian adventure is covered (the only notable omissions being the stories of “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight” and “Geraint and Enid.”) The climax of the book is definitely the search for the Sangreal (Holy Grail). This adventure makes up for the lengthy boring stretches earlier in the book. It’s exciting, fast-paced, spiritually provocative, and deeply triumphant.
Morally, “Le Morte d’Arthur” is an interesting case. The adulterous love between Sir Tristram and Queen Isoud of Cornwall is held up as a tragic love story in the vein of “Romeo and Juliet.” However, a similar relationship between Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever is portrayed as dangerous and treasonous. Romantic relationships outside of wedlock are seemingly condoned in some of the early adventures…yet the ideals of purity and chastity are crucial parts of the quest for the Holy Grail.
Character development is handled in an interesting way. Readers almost never get any insight into the inner feelings of the knights of the Round Table, but their moral convictions are developed through their actions. By the end of the book, it’s clear that Launcelot is a temptation-troubled champion, Tristram is a melancholy romantic, Gawaine is a hot-tempered blowhard, Palomides is a vengeful and brooding warrior, and Gareth is a quiet leader. This extends to probably ten or fifteen other knights as well. The only character whose motivations are ambiguous is King Arthur himself. Arthur is a bit of a cardboard character – he doesn’t often leave Camelot, and when he does, he’s inevitably beaten in battle by one of his best knights.
I could go on and on, but I’ll move on to the big question: is it worth reading?
For Arthurian nuts like me: yes. Anyone incensed by the mutilation of the King Arthur story in popular media might also find it interesting.
For everyone else: read Roger Lancelyn Green’s version. It’s shorter, snappier, simpler, and more fun to read.
Obtuse? Yes. Difficult? Yes. Rewarding? Yes.