ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

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

General: Review online readings on Courtly Love and Translatio. For Malory, read NA 13-14 ("The Fifteenth Century") and NA 438-9 (headnote to Malory -- REQUIRED READING although our primary text will be in the Penguin Classics edition, not NA). 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!). Read Caxton's Preface (on e-reserve; be sure to print out and bring it with you to class).  Notice the way in which Caxton defines Malory's work. Know what is meant by the Winchester Manuscript and (roughly speaking) how it differs from Caxton's printed version (see chart detailing the divisions of Malory's text in the manuscript, found in same e-reserve .PDF file as Caxton's Preface). Be aware of the broad amount of material covered in the full work -- far greater than the portions we will read in class.  Know lifespan of Malory (dates) as well as composition and publication dates of the Morte Darthur (see NA 456:  date of composition is on the left; date of publication on the right).  Know the form in which Malory's work is written (alliterative verse? rhymed verse? prose?) and its primary sources.  Know the meaning of the term "interlace" and its relevance to the Morte Darthur.  Be sure you understand the distinction between Caxton and Malory, and between Caxton's printed version and the Winchester manuscript.

Malory's Morte Darthur: Background

Malory's Morte Darthur is preserved in the printed edition published by Caxton in 1485 and in the Winchester Manuscript, discovered in 1934. Your edition follows the chapters in Caxton's printed version; the divisions in the Winchester MS (= manuscript) are indicated on the chart included in the  e-reserve file. The two extant versions of Malory's work are not identical, and scholars have argued 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 longer French prose works (the "Vulgate Cycle") which tell the "whole" story of the rise and fall of King Arthur's kingdom (see translatio). Due to its length, it is a much less unified work than SGGK; in a sense, it is closer to a modern series of loosely related historical novels than to a medieval verse romance. In the Morte, the focus has broadened to include not one but many of Arthur's knights, whose adventures have been intertwined in a complex pattern called "interlace." Our lengthy readings will cover only a small (!) part of the whole: roughly, the story of Lancelot and Guinevere's love and its consequences, Galahad and the Grail Quest, and the downfall of the kingdom.  Consult the table of contents in our edition and the chart in the e-reserve file describing the divisions in the Winchester manuscript for a sense of the contents of the whole work.

The French title of the work (which translates as "Death of Arthur") 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 and the Alliterative Revival online readings).  Whereas in The Knight of the Cart, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere was blameless (and led Lancelot to become the savior of Arthur's kingdom), in the Vulgate Cylcle (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 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. It is interesting to note that the early 13th-century Vulgate Cycle, with its glorification of male virginity, is contemporaneous with Hali Meidhad, which idealizes virginity for a feminine audience.  Pay attention to the attitude toward love -- erotic and spiritual -- as you read through the work, especially the glorification of virginity and demonization of women in the Grail Quest sections, as well as the treatment of the problematic relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere.

Malory's Morte Darthur: Reading Questions

The Morte Darthur is a vast and convoluted work with far too many details to master in a cursory reading.  Don't worry about names/events that are referred to in passing.  But do be sure you are clear on the roles played by the following:  Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur, Elaine (mother of Galahad), Galahad, Bors, Perceval, Perceval's sister, Nacien, Joseph of Arimathea, Elaine le Blank (the "Fair Maiden of Astolat"), Urry, Agravain, Mordred, Ector and Bedivere. 

Our readings are taken from approximately the last third of the work (engendering of Galahad, the Grail Quest, and the events leading to the fall of Arthur's kingdom).  Click on the links for specific assignments, divided for a twice weekly or a four times weekly class.  Read these passages for enjoyment, for the basic plot, and for the following themes and issues, which you should think about (and look for) as you read:

In the Grail Quest sections, pay particular attention to the "interlaced" adventures of Lancelot and the three Grail heros, Galahad, Perceval and Bors; know the fate of each. What roles do women play in the Grail Quest? Why is Lancelot, despite his often mentioned sin, allowed to perceive the Grail? What is the difference between Lancelot and his son, Galahad? What constitutes chivalric (i.e. knightly ) perfection? What is the difference between earthly and celestial chivalry?

While the central hero of the Grail Quest is the "celestial knight" Galahad, Lancelot's son, elsewhere in the Morte, the central figure is Lancelot, the best earthly knight of Arthur's court (a status similar to Gawain's in SGGK). Yet Lancelot is also the lover of the Queen, and their adulterous liaison is blamed for the fall of Arthur's kingdom. Are these two visions contradictory? To what extent is Lancelot admirable, and how is he at fault? (Consider the definition of courtly love.) How about Queen Guinevere? (Compare with the Guinevere of SGGK.) Does the Gawain of the Morte resemble the Gawain of SGGK? How do they differ?

In addition to the central triangle of King, Queen and best knight, many supporting characters help reveal the meaning(s) of chivalry. For example, the Grail knights Galahad, Perceval and Bors are contrasted with the sinful knights of the Round Table. But other characters contribute to this aspect of the work as well.  From this perspective, what is the significance of Mordred? Ector? Bedivere?

What are the consequences of the love relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere? What are the positive and negative effects of that love? To what extent are they justified in their passion? blamed for it? Admired? What is the function, in this regard, of Elaine le Blank, the Fair Maiden of Astolat? Of the Boiling Lady? (and who is she?) Of Sir Urry

In SGGK, Gawain's fault is defined relative to the code of chivalrous behavior (including courtly love). According to that set of "laws," are Lancelot and Guinevere guilty? Is there a conflict between Christian law and the rules of courtly love? How is that conflict resolved? At the time of their deaths, Lancelot and Guinevere have taken holy orders: she is a nun, he a monk. Guinevere is able to predict her own death, and Lancelot has visions -- signs of heavenly favor -- and his death is accompanied by further signs of holiness (the bishop's dream, the sweet smell of his body -- conventional elements in hagiography rather than romance). Moreover, in spite of her adultery, Guinevere is reunited with her husband in death. How do these events affect our understanding of the lovers' innocence or guilt? Consider also Sir Ector's lament upon Lancelot's death.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2007

Click here for the twice-weekly class Reading Assignments in Malory's Morte Darthur

Click here for the 4-times-weekly class Reading Assignments in Malory's Morte Darthur

Click here for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Study Questions

Return to ENGL 330 homepage
Return to ENGL 512 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!