In Our Time: Le Morte d’Arthur

The form of the Arthurian legend that was written by Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur was the first English language prose form of this legend, written around the 1460s & it had a lot of influence on later stories about Arthur. Discussing it on In Our Time were Helen Cooper (University of Cambridge), Helen Fulton (University of York) and Laura Ashe (University of Oxford).

They opened the programme by setting Malory in context – Cooper told us a little about the times he lived in, which was the end of the Hundred Years War and the start of the Wars of the Roses. This meant that he lived through unsettled times in a political sense. He himself wasn’t a very nice man – Cooper said that even by the standards of the time he was a thug, and he spent at least 15 years imprisoned for crimes ranging from cattle rustling to rape (the latter might’ve been consensual adultery – a husband could bring charges of rape under such circumstances). Being as he was a gentleman he was under house arrest rather than shackled in a dungeon, and he must’ve had access to a library during this time as his imprisonment is the period when he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur.

The Arthurian legend already existed in various forms by the 1460s. One of these forms was a pseudo-historical Arthur – crowbarred into the time between the end of the Roman Empire (in Britain) and the Anglo-Saxons, a mythical King who was British not Roman or Anglo-Saxon and who lead armies into battles & nearly defeated the Roman Empire. I think they were saying these English sources were in poetic form. There were also various French prose romances which were about Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table and their deeds, and chivalrous exploits. Malory’s tale took both these Arthurs and wrote one coherent book which both had elements of the pseudo-history and elements of the chivalrous romance. And was an English prose work, which was also new.

One of the experts (I forget who :/ ) made the point that Malory’s work was ground-breaking for romances of the time. His prose style was a lot more direct than the French sources he drew upon, which was a refreshing change (or so she was saying). And his focus on the characters and their stories was fairly new in English prose literature of the time – and is a part of what’s made this work last and influence more modern literature.

They also spent some time discussing the content of Le Morte d’Arthur – the theme they talked about that’s stuck with me is how the tragedy of the Arthurian Court is built into the premise. Arthur isn’t one of the Knights, he’s the King who sends out his Knights on their quests etc. Lancelot is the “best Knight” (although not the most spiritually pure Knight, he doesn’t get to find the Holy Grail after all) – and who should the “best Knight” be with but the “best Lady”, and that’s the Queen. And the downfall is brought about because other Knights are jealous of Lancelot, and so bring the whole thing out into the open where it can’t be ignored. So it’s that Lancelot is best that’s what brings about the tragic end. (The experts were also all saying that Lancelot seemed to be Malory’s favourite character.)

After Malory’s death the manuscript was printed (and edited) by Caxton and two forms of that have survived to the modern day. A while after the publication the book fell out of favour, but in Victorian times it was revived – chivalry as a concept was part of the cultural attempt to deal with having an Empire, and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a chivalrous romance became popular again. And spawned more Arthurian stories & re-tellings from then through to the modern day.