Literature: Le Morte d'Arthur
aka: Thomas Mallory
"There was sene in the chircheyard ayenst the hyhe aulter a grete stone four square, like unto a marbel stone; and in myddes therof was lyke an anvydle of stele a foot on hyghe, and theryn stack a fayre swerd naked by the point—and letters there were wryten in gold about the swerd that saiden thus: "WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWERD OF THIS STONE AND ANVYLD IS RIGHTWYS KYNG BORNE OF ALL ENGLOND.
—Le Morte d'Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1405—1471; his name is also spelt Mallory and a handful of other variants) was an English writer. His version of the King Arthur
legends, Le Morte d'Arthur
, is treated as the definitive version
in popular culture.
This is due in part to the fact that the book was one of the first to be printed in Britain (by William Caxton in 1485,) at what is believed to be about fourteen years after Malory's death. Also, it was composed in the later half of the 15th century, as The Late Middle Ages
were coming to an end — making it the final major medieval Arthurian work (in English) as well as one of the first major all-prose works written in the English language.Le Morte d'Arthur
is medieval French for The Death of Arthur
; it was originally only the title of the 8th and last "book" of Malory's narrative, which he
might have named The Hoole Booke of Kyng Arthur & of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table*
. It was Caxton that changed the title
to the one that was afterwards almost universally used, presumably because it was shorter.
The author of the book has caused much speculation among scholars. It is generally agreed that the author was a man named Thomas Malory who was born in a small town near Warwick called Newbold Revel. Malory served as the Member of Parliament from Warwick, but he is mostly known from his arrest record. Ironically, in popular scholarly opinion, Malory was himself an evil knight, who wrote the tale during various stints in prison for robbery, murder, and even rape. The political situation in England at the time was not pretty
, and in many ways the book and its author are a product of their period. Of course, as there is record of a number of 'Sir Thomas Malorys' alive at the time, there is no certainty which of them was the author.
Malory also has a bit part in T. H. White's The Once and Future King
, as the squire that King Arthur
sent off to tell the story of the Round Table.
Tropes exemplified by Le Morte d'Arthur:
- A Death in the Limelight: When the action comes back to Arthur in the last book, it's pretty obvious what's coming.
- A Million Is a Statistic: The Battle of Bedegraine. Merlin convinces Arthur to stop by pointing out that 45,000 of 60,000 men were lost.
- The Ace: Sir Galahad.
- Also Sir Lancelot. Almost every time someone says anything about X knight to be the strongest and noblest knight he's ever seen, he immediatly will say "except Sir Lancelot". Sir Tristram does it constantly to himself.
- Adaptation Distillation: Malory made significant cuts to much of his source material. Many published versions cut it even more, especially the various lists of knights present at whichever tournament is going on at the time.
- Alliterative Family: Gawain, Gaheris and Gareth. Balin and Balan. Lyonet and Lyonesse.
- The colour-coded knights fought by Gareth take the cake. Their real names are Perard, Pertolepe, Perimones and Persant (black, green, red and blue respectively.)
- Alliterative Name: This too, with so many characters, is near inevitable. Sir Baudwin of Britain, Sir Lancelot du Lake, Sir Cador of Cornwall, Sir Bellenger le Beau, Sir Galleron of Galway...
- Author Appeal: The whole Chivalric Romance genre, with their Knight Errant characters, battles with spears, swords, shields, armors, jousting tournaments; everything is described in this work with high detail.
- Badass: Actually, a World of Badass: Almost every named knight in the legend kicks ass, but those who worth to be mentioned are Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristram, Sir Galahad, Sir Breunor le Noire (or La Cote Male Tale), Balin, Sir Gareth, Sir Gawain, Sir Perceval and King Arthur himself.
- Bed Trick: The conceptions of Arthur and Galahad. Both are under enchantment: Igraine thinks Uther is her husband, and Lancelot believes Elaine is Guenivere.
- Broken Ace: Lancelot starts falling about the time of the Grail Quest. His feats of arms have made him hugely famous and popular, but he performed them all for the love of Guenivere. This first makes him unworthy of the grail, and then Arthur finds out, he accidentally kills his close friend Sir Gareth, and is subsequently banished from England.
- Balin could be this, as it is claimed he would have been the best of Knights. However his claiming a cursed sword and beheading the Lady of the Lake prevents this.
- Celibate Hero: The three Grail heroes - Galahad, Percival and Bors - are all celibate. The first two are virgins, and Bors has sex just once to conceive his son.
- Child by Rape: King Arthur himself, as well as Sir Galahad and Sir Tor. Only in the case of King Pellinore raping Sir Tor's mother is the deed actually condemned; the other two are conceived when one parent performs a Bed Trick and this seems to be all fine.
- Chivalric Romance
- The Chosen One: Sir Galahad.
- Conflicting Loyalty: Lancelot by the final book is caught between his loyalty to Arthur and his love for Guenivere.
- Courtly Love
- Dark Age Europe: Filtered through The Middle Ages
- Decoy Protagonist: Even though the book has Arthur's name on its title, he is not the protagonist in many of the books inside it. As early as in Book II, the main character becomes Sir Balin. Lancelot and Tristram's books are both long enough to be published in their own right. King Arthur does appear from time to time in those stories, but the main role doesn't go back to him until Book XXI, the last one.
- Deadpan Snarker: Sir Dinadan
- Deadly Distant Finale: We expected Le Morte d'Arthur, but we also track through several years to experience Guenivere, Lionel and Lancelot dying too. We're then told how Sirs Bors, Blamor, Beoberis and Ector de Maris will die.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Sir Tristram and Sir Palamedes. Though that friendship doesn't stop Palamedes' sudden attacks of jealous rage against Tristram for stealing Iseult. It works better for Gareth.
- Death by Despair: Many, many damosels. Iseult is the most prominent example, but also causes a couple of guys to do this too. Lancelot triggers it a few times himself.
- Death by Sex: Unpleasantly combined with Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action.
- The Dividual: Gawain's two youngest brothers, Gareth and Gaheris, are almost always together, and it's hard to tell them apart in their dialogue because they take the same view about everything. They even marry sisters and die together at Lancelot's hand.
- Doorstopper: Malory's narrative fills 527 pages in the Oxford edition, which took significant cuts.
- Double Knockout: A few. It happens with Percival and Bors de Ganis, but they are healed by the Grail.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Elaine of Corbin has her maid enchant Lancelot so he believes she is Guinevere. He and the Queen are pretty annoyed about it, but nobody raises that it is actually rape, and the subsequent son manages to be the holiest of all knights anyway.
- Dual Wielding: Sir Balin becomes known as the "Knight with the Two Swords", because, you guessed it, he obtains two swords instead of one.
- Duel to the Death: One of the staples, but honourable knights encourage yielding.
- Eats Babies: When King Arthur finally finds the lair of the ogre who raped and killed the Duchess of Brittany, he sees this gruesome scene: The ogre just over there resting while some captive damsels are roasting like a dozen of impaled babies over a campfire, as if they were chicken. The King's justice after that just gives satisfaction for such a crime.
- Elephant in the Living Room: When things start coming to a head with Guenivere's affair with Lancelot, it is established that Arthur has known, or at least suspected the truth for a long time. Being the good king he is, he expresses the opinion that he cares less about his queen than having a good fellowship of knights. Queens are easy to find.
- Ending Memorial Service: The last dialogue in the book is a relative of Lancelot's, Sir Ector de Maris, delivering a short eulogy.
- Fan Nickname: As stated above, this definitive rendition of Arthurian legend originally had a much longer name. It was later called Le Morte d'Arthur by publisher William Caxton, possibly because it was the most well-known part of the rendition.
- Good Old Ways: Courtly Love is not what it was in King Arthur's day! (Newer Than They Think is Older Than They Think.)
- Gray Eyes: The first known example of Arthur having them.
- Groin Attack: Just before delivering the finishing blow, King Arthur castrates the Duchess raper and babies eater ogre with a swing of his sword.
- Heartbroken Badass: Sir Tristram, for a quite a stretch after losing Iseult. Sir Pelleas after he is rejected by Lady Ettard. Possibly, Lancelot after his separation from Guenivere and consequent banishment, as he doesn't seem very heartbroken, but if he is, it doesn't stop him ruling over most of France.
- Hollywood Tactics: Lancelot's rescue of Guenivere in the last book is simply to charge into the thickest mass of knights and slay everything he sees. Subverted in that it goes horribly wrong. Parodied by Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action: The fate of the Duchess of Brittany is not pleasant and fairly graphic.
- I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The Siege Perilous, which is freed by Galahad. Lancelot takes the Dolorous Gard, renames it the Joyous Gard, then rerenames it Dolorous Tower when he becomes the Broken Ace.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: When spears are the starting weapon of all battles, this happens often. The word 'brain-pan' appears quite a lot too.
- Most importantly, Arthur in his climactic battle with Mordred.
- Incest Is Relative:
- Surprise Incest: Sir Mordred is King Arthur's son, from his sister Lady Morgawse, although back then Arthur didn't know they were blood relatives. Later, when Mordred grew up, he was made knight and served as member of the Round Table and Arthur's heir... and they were all fine with that!
- Villainous Incest: When Mordred tried to take over the kingdom for himself, he tried to take Queen Guinevere as his wife, even after he was calling her "mother" for quite a while. She ran away before he could get her.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval, but Galahad especially. The book covering the Grail Quest tests this constantly to no avail.
- In Which a Trope Is Described
- Killed Off Screen: Sir Tristram. He inexplicably disappears, when we discover he's dead, and eventually we discover how. Iseult and Mark follow suit.
- King Arthur: Duh.
- King in the Mountain: Malory mentions that many believe Arthur will come again when England needs.
- Knight Errant
- Load-Bearing Boss: King Pellam. Likely the Ur Example.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: As one would expect. The register of knights who attempt to heal Sir Urry exemplify this. In this tropers edition, it's three pages of names.
- Love Is a Weakness: This is why Lancelot fails the Grail Quest. Some Author Appeal is evident; Malory was much more focused on chivalry and knightly deeds, which probably explains why Gawain's exploits features so little despite his huge renown.
- Moses in the Bullrushes: See Nice Job Breaking It, Herod!
- Mutual Kill: King Arthur and Sir Mordred
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Sir Balin. All of his actions are borne out of pure intentions (he even wins a sword early on for being the "purest" knight), but because he's not omniscient, a lot of his actions accidentally cause disasters (for example, he brings a knight to investigate what happened to his lady, only the lady is with an ugly lover, and the jealous knight kills them both and then himself). He's also the one who strikes the Dolorous Stroke. Balin's not without genuinely Badass moments, however, as he's the one who captures the enemy King Royns for Arthur, and Balin wins almost all his battles.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Herod!: Probably the version that first added this bit to the Arthur legendarium. It's with Sir Mordred, of course. He's sent off on a raft with all those who share his birth date to starve on the ocean. He's the only one who survives, is fostered by a shepherd, and returned to court at 14 where his lineage is recognised.
- Normally, I Would Be Dead Now: Arthur in his battle with Mordred. He is impaled with a spear by Mordred, then pulls himself down the shaft of the spear to break the enemy's head open with Excalibur.
- The Obi-Wan: Who else? Merlin
- Oh, and X Dies: What's the title again?
- Only the Chosen May Wield: The Sword in the Stone and the Holy Grail are the most famous examples. There are many instances of swords that can only be drawn/held by the Chosen.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Lancelot and Gawain. Both are almost totally angst-free, though.
- Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Happens to Tristram and Arthur.
- Shot in the Ass: Happens to Sir Lancelot.
And ... she put a brode arow in her bowe and shot at the hynde - and so she overshotte the hynde, and so by myssefortune the arow smote Sir Launcelot in the thycke of the buttok [...] And the wounde was passynge sore and unhappyly smytten, for hit was on such a place that he myght nat sytte in no sadyll.
- Sibling Rivalry: Gawain starts resenting Gareth when his younger brother beats him at a tournament. This clears up once Gareth dies.
- Spell My Name with an "S": The most famous characters avoid this, but names vary between traditional- and modern-spelling editions. Perceval/Percival, Iseult/Isode, Palamedes/Palomides...
- Surprisingly Sudden Death: Due to the laconic style, many deaths feel this way to the modern reader, with little-to-no build-up. For example, when Lancelot is caught in Guenivere's bed by fourteen knights all at once, he kills one to get armour, and then twelve more of them in a paragraph, including important characters such as Sir Agravain.
- Survivor Guilt: Queen Guenivere suffers this and spends her life in penance. Lancelot and his seven fellows enter a hermitage and do likewise.
- The Rival: Sir Palamedes for Sir Tristram.
- Those Two Guys: Balin and Balan, Sir Palamedes and Sir Safer his brother, Kings Ban and Bors and many more.
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: King Mark pulls it.
- Took a Level in Badass: Sir Dinadan.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Sir Galahad, Sir Perceval and his sister.
- The Tourney: Habitually.
- Tsundere: Queen Guinevere
- And Lady Lynnet, who spends most of her travels with Gareth bitching at him for being a 'kitchen knave', then promptly marries his brother Gaheris.
- The Unfavourite: By Gawain to his brother Gaheris. Both Gareth and Gaheris are accidentally slain by Lancelot in the final section, but Gawain usually speaks only of avenging Gareth, not that other brother he had.
- Could also apply to Gawain's other slain brother, Agravain, whose death is barely mourned, since Gawain decides he brought it upon himself.
- Unwanted Harem: Lancelot is abducted by one early on, who want to imprison him until he chooses one.
- Values Dissonance: Blink and you'll miss it, but Lancelot does actually kill a poor carter in Book XIX for not giving him the cart he's using immediately. See the rape- and incest-related entries for more.
- What's Up, King Dude?: This happens fairly often, but Sir Tor's appearance is exemplary as it's not a lord or lady who appears, but a poor cowherd. Gareth enters court in a similar fashion.
- Wound That Will Not Heal: Malory confuses just how many 'Maimed Kings' there are, but there are at least two. Sirs Tristram and Urry also have them at times.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: There are a few slip-ups, but it is really long.
- You Killed My Mother: Balin acts out of haste and kills the Lady of the Lake by beheading her because Balin thinks the Lady of the Lake caused his mother to be burned to death. Since Arthur had been granting the lady hospitality at the time, this doesn't go over well.