ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Arthurian Romance III:
Malory's Morte Darthur
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

BACKGROUND:  Review the online readings on Courtly Love and Translatio and the headnote to Legendary Histories of Britain (NA 117-8).  Read background information on "The Fifteenth Century" (NA 13-4) and the headnote to Malory (NA 438-9). Recall that Caxton's printing of Malory's Morte Darthur in 1485 is one of the two events which mark the end of the Middle English Period and of the Middle Ages (see NA 1; know political event as well!).  Know approximate lifespan of Malory (dates) as well as composition and publication dates of the Morte Darthur (NA 438 and 456). Know the form in which Malory's work is written (alliterative verse? rhymed verse? prose?). Know what is meant by the "Vulgate Cycle," what stories it contained, and what is meant by the term "interlace."  Know the authors, approximate date, language of composition, and form of the "Vulgate Cycle," as well as its relevance to Malory's Morte Darthur.  Know what is meant by the Winchester Manuscript.

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Like Chrétien's Knight of the Cart, Malory's Morte Darthur defies the efforts of critics attempting to recreate Malory's "authentic" text. It is preserved in the printed edition published by Caxton in 1485 and in the Winchester Manuscript, discovered in 1934. The two extant versions of Malory's work are not identical, and scholars argue about which is most "authentic," "correct," "reliable," etc.  A modern editor must decide which to use as his base text, knowing that neither is likely to duplicate exactly the text as originally written by Malory.

Malory's work is not a poem -- it is a lengthy prose narrative, based on even lengthier French prose works, telling the "whole" story of the rise and fall of King Arthur's kingdom. Due to its great length, it is a much less unified work than The Knight of the Cart or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  In the Morte, the focus has broadened to include not one but many of Arthur's knights (although Lancelot is still the central figure). The adventures of these various knights are intertwined using a technique known as "interlace."

The French title of the work (which translates as "Death of Arthur" -- although only a very small portion concerns Arthur's death) indicates its primary source: Malory was working from the French prose romances of the Vulgate cycle, the last of which is called La Mort le Roi Artu ("The Death of King Arthur"). As a result, Malory incorporates the biases found in that cycle, a Cistercian reworking of the original 12th-century verse romances (e.g. The Knight of the Cart; see translatio).  Whereas in The Knight of the Cart, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere was blameless (and causes Lancelot to become the savior of Arthur's kingdom), in the Vulgate Cycle (and in Malory) it is problematic, both the source of Lancelot's chivalric prowess and the cause of the downfall of Arthur's kingdom.  Cistercian monastic values are also apparent in the glorification of virginity in the Grail Quest, in which the virginal Galahad replaces the sinful Lancelot as the "best" knight in the world.

The Morte thus exemplifies the tradition of translatio. It is an adaptation and English translation of the early 13th-century French "Vulgate Cycle" (or "Lancelot-Grail Cycle") of prose romances, which in turn grew out of the continuations of Chrétien's Knight of the Cart and his unfinished Story of the Grail, themselves fictional narratives rooted in the supposedly "true" chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace. In both Malory and the Vulgate Cycle, the one-time-only love affair of Lancelot and Guenevere invented by Chrétien in The Knight of the Cart is expanded into an on-going affair like that of Tristan and Isolde. The parallels with the Tristan legend were apparently too strong and too appealing for Chrétien's early readers to heed his careful signals that the love of Lancelot and Guenevere was a one-time-only affair (see Knight of the Cart study guide).

Lancelot is the central figure in Malory's Morte. He is Arthur's best knight, surpassed in earthly chivalry by none and in celestial chivalry only by his son Galahad. Paradoxically, Lancelot's love for Guenevere is BOTH a positive and a negative force: it is the source of his greatness AND of his downfall. Lancelot's earthly prowess is inspired by his very sensual and earthly love for Guenevere (unlike Gawain in SGGK, who shuns earthly love in the arms of Lady Bercilak in favor of a more spiritual type of "love service"). This is the positive side of courtly love. But the passion of Lancelot and Guenevere also causes him to fail at the Grail quest and it sparks the war that leads to Arthur's downfall. This paradox reflects two different codes of behavior operating within the romance. While Christian law condemns adultery, the chivalric code values courtly love because it makes the lovers better people. Society as a whole benefits from the knight's love-inspired valor (as Arthur did during the years when Lancelot was his best knight).

A note on the Grail Quest:  the Holy Grail was introduced into Arthurian literature in Chrétien's unfinished Story of the Grail as a simple dish used to carry a communion wafer to an old man. In the Vulgate Cycle and Malory, however, it is developed into a holy relic, identified with both the cup used by Jesus to drink wine at the Last Supper and a cup used to catch some of Christ's blood during the Crucifixion. It was said to have been brought from Jerusalem to England by Joseph of Arimathea, a direct ancestor of Lancelot and his son Galahad. Galahad has all of Lancelot's knightly perfection but lacks his sins (i.e. he is a virgin). As a result, he, not his father, is able to complete the Quest of the Holy Grail and is ultimately borne by angels directly into heaven. Lancelot is identified as the best of all EARTHLY knights because of the chivalric prowess which is inspired by his love for Guenevere. But he is a failure as a CELESTIAL knight because of the sin of that very love.

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In the NA selections from Malory's Morte Darthur, note how the lovers are betrayed through the spite of Agravain and Mordred. Lancelot accidentally kills Gawain's brothers Gaheris and Gareth while rescuing the queen, thereby earning Gawain's enmity and causing a civil war in Arthur's kingdom. Eventually a peace treaty is worked out, Guenevere is returned to the king, and Lancelot goes into exile. But Gawain pushes Arthur to raise an army and pursue Lancelot to avenge his brothers' deaths. While Arthur and his army are in France fighting Lancelot, Mordred declares himself King and tries to marry Guenevere; Arthur and his army must return home to fight Mordred. Gawain repents his bitterness against Lancelot before dying and his ghost tells Arthur that Lancelot will save him from Mordred. Guenevere decides to become a nun and convinces Lancelot to become a monk. Interestingly, at the end of the Morte Darthur, Lancelot and Guinevere are saintly individuals although they still love one another (chastely, as monk and nun). Guinevere is able to predict her own death, a sign of God's Grace. Similarly, Lancelot has visions -- more signs of heavenly favor -- and his death is accompanied by further signs of holiness (the bishop's dream, the sweet smell of his body). Moreover, in spite of her adultery, Guinevere is reunited with her husband in death. The fact that Lancelot is the one who takes her to be buried by Arthur's side recalls Lancelot's exploit in The Knight of the Cart, where he rescues Guenevere from what might be the Land of the Dead and also restores her to Arthur. Sir Ector's eulogy for Lancelot suggests that Lancelot's love for Guenevere is part of his perfection as a knight. Read carefully the account of the deaths of Guenevere and Lancelot; note how signs and portents point to their sanctity. Read carefully Ector's eulogy.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2008

Click here for The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) Study Questions

Click here for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Questions

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