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Literature / Le Morte d'Arthur

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Knowing that you can't expect to wield supreme executive power'', just because some watery tart threw a sword at you, Bedivere chucked Excalibur back into the lake.note 

"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."note 
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 Arthurian Legend, Le Morte d'Arthur, is treated as the definitive version in popular culture, at least for the English-speaking world. Despite the Gratuitous French title (it's medieval Anglo-Norman Frenchnote  for "The Death of Arthur"), the book is in a form of Late Middle English virtually indistinguishable from Early Modern English (if you modernize the spelling, what you get is virtually indistinguishable from the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare's day).note 

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 literally translates to "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.note  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.note  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.

Le Morte d'Arthur provides examples of:

  • The Ace: Also Sir Lancelot. Almost every time someone says anything about X knight to be the strongest and noblest knight he's ever seen, he immediately will say "except Sir Lancelot". Sir Tristram does it constantly to himself.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Le Morte d'Arthur is an adaptation of earlier French Arthurian texts: Chrétien de Troyes's romances, Robert de Boron's Merlin, the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate. 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. Elaine and Eliazar, children of King Pelles.
    • 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; much of it is told blow by blow.
    • There are a number of incidents where knights are sprung out of imprisonment by might or by the sheer magnanimity of nobility. Malory describes himself as the knight prisoner. Seems understandable.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: In one incident Sir Lancelot is sleeping in a tower when he sees a knight being attacked by three other knights. In order to get down to help him "therewith he took his harness, and went out at a window by a sheet down to the four knights" to render aid.
  • Bed Trick:
    • Uther wants Igraine, but she's faithfully married to the Duke of Tintagil. He turns to Merlin, who does magic to make her think Uther is her husband. Arthur is conceived out of that.
    • Lancelot believes Elaine is Guenivere, and Galahad is conceived.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: During the fight between Arthur and Accolon of Gaul, just as Accolon was about to strike Arthur down, the Lady of the Lake magically disarmed Accolon, Expelliarmus-style.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: It was perhaps lost on Malory and most of his audience what a sick burn "La Cote Male Taile" is. It is interpretable as "poorly made coat" as found in the story, but by medieval punning, it idiomatically means a compromise satisfying nobody.
  • 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.
  • Butt-Monkey: King Mark upon leaving Cornwall in Book X (Caxton numbering). All the famous parts of the Tristram and Isolde story, except their deaths, happened in Book VIII and have become famous in-story, and everyone Mark meets on his journey accuse him of being "the falsest king and knight" for standing in Tristram's way. It reaches the point of Arthur and his court trolling Mark by writing an intentionally bad lay about him.
  • Celibate Hero: The three Grail heroes - Galahad, Percival and Bors - are all chaste. The first two are celibate 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.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Lancelot by the final book is caught between his loyalty to Arthur and his love for Guenivere.
  • Darker and Edgier: Compared to most Arthurian romances, anyway. Most characters are a deconstruction of the Knight in Shining Armor trope, and the events leading to Arthur's death and Camelot's destruction are a result of vengeance, rage, grief and lies finally exploding.
  • 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 is regarded as a great joker (and he gets punked himself) but his actual lines are decidedly of the snarky variety.
  • 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.
  • A Death in the Limelight: When the action comes back to Arthur in the last book, it's pretty obvious what's coming.
  • 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.
  • 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. The Wordsworth edition, which is longer, is over 800 pages.
  • 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. Twice. He and the Queen are pretty annoyed about it, but nobody raises that it is actually rape (in fact, he apologizes to Elaine for being angry about it), and the subsequent son manages to be the holiest of all knights anyway. At the time, rape was defined solely as a man having sexual intercourse with a woman.
  • 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 about a dozen 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.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Chapter titles don't beat around the bush when describing the events on them.
  • Excalibur
  • Good Old Ways: Courtly Love is not what it was in King Arthur's day! (Newer Than They Think is Older Than They Think.)
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: After being banished away from their loves, Tristram and Lancelot both spend some time running into the wilds as madmen, and seeing as they are the strongest of knights, they were a danger to others sometimes. They recover, but not quickly. Lancelot's case was so severe that a special appearance of the Holy Grail is what cured him.
  • Groin Attack: Just before delivering the finishing blow, King Arthur castrates the baby-eating rapist 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:
  • 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: The title of each chapter is a concise description if the events happening on it.
  • Karma Houdini: Despite William Caxton's preface insisting that good is rewarded and evil is punished in this book, the recurring villain Breuse Sans Pitié is never brought to justice.
  • Killed Offscreen: Sir Tristram. He inexplicably disappears, then we discover he's dead, and eventually we discover how. Iseult and Mark follow suit.
  • King in the Mountain: Malory mentions that many believe Arthur will come again when England has need of him.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Seems to be a favored Idiot Ball here; in particular, Lancelot fails the Grail Quest not only for harboring his love, but more harshly, for pridefully not confessing it for 24 years. Some Author Appeal is evident: Malory was much more focused on chivalry and knightly deeds, which probably explains why Gawain's exploits feature so little despite his huge renown. Moreover, with the excuse that people can't really help who they love, Merlin doesn't dissuade Arthur from Guenivere, Merlin pursues his own love interest that he knows will get him killed, and after the Grail Quest, Lancelot quickly undoes all his repentance to rekindle his affair (turning down several perfectly acceptable ladies in the process).
  • Made of Plasticine: Heads and limbs go flying off faster than you can say smote.
  • Manly Tears: In Malory's world, knights frequently weep at reunions and make "great dole" for death and lost loves. A standout moment, however, is given to King Arthur when so many knights take up the quest of the Grail, as he knows they will be away an entire year and many will die. And perhaps it marks the end of an era, too, for after the Grail quest, things start to fall apart more and more....
  • 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.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: As a baby, Sir Mordred is 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 recognized.
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: The "muggle" Arthur is tutored by the "mage" Merlin.
  • Mutual Kill: King Arthur and Sir Mordred. Both are on foot after nearly everyone else is dead and they charge each other. Arthur runs Mordred through with a spear, but before Mordred dies he drags himself closer and mortally wounds Arthur with a sword stroke to the head.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: All of Sir Balin's actions are borne out of good intentions (he even wins a sword early on for being the so-called "best" knight, despite murdering the relative of his former king), 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. As a baby, Sir Mordred is 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 recognized.
  • Oh, and X Dies: What's the title again?
  • Old Beggar Test: Merlin is introduced like this. Sir Ulfius sets out to look for Merlin, and finds him in the form of a beggar. Ulfius won’t give him the time of day until Merlin says Actually, I Am Him.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted.
    • There are two knights called Ector: the Sir Ector who raised the young Arthur, and Lancelot's brother Sir Ector de Maris.
    • Sir Kay, Arthur's adoptive brother and seneschal shares his name with a minor knight Sir Kay l'Estrange.
    • There are two Isoldes in the Tristram story: La Belle Isolde, Tristram's famous lover, and Isolde les Blanches Mains, his wife.
    • There are numerous characters called 'Elaine': Elaine of Corbin, Galahad's mother; Elaine of Benwick, Lancelot's mother; Elaine of Astolot; and Queen Elaine, the wife if King Nentres of Garlot.
    • Sir Bors de Ganis and his father King Bors of Gaul.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: There are many instances of swords that can only be drawn/held by the Chosen.
    • After the death of Uther Pendragon the Britons cannot agree on who should be the next king, and turn to Merlin for advice. Merlin shows them a sword lodged in an anvil placed in a churchyard at Westminster and prophecies that only the true king of Britain will be able to pull the blade out. When Arthur has grown, his kingship is revealed when he succeeds in pulling the sword out.
    • The Siege Perilous is the only unlabelled seat Merlin places at the Round Table, and incinerates anyone who sits in it except "He who shall surpass all other Knights", and only this knight will be able to find the Holy Grail. The knight who eventually occupies the seat is Sir Galahad.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Lancelot and Gawain. Both are almost totally angst-free, though.
  • The Power of Love: In one episode, Sir Dinadan is skeptical that being a lover makes a knight a better fighter, but Sir Tristram expresses the opposite opinion. Sir Dinadan not too long after gets his butt handed to him by Sir Epinogris (who is a lover), to Tristram's glee. Sir Lancelot also credits his success in worldly deeds to his love of Guenivere.
  • Public Domain Artifact: The San(c)greal / Saint Graal / Holy Grail (blessid mote it be), which before it is "achieved" (obtained) shows up on its own in places seemingly of its own miraculous accord, like in a chapel with no entrance, or in King Arthur's court unbidden, but seems to nominally reside in the keeping of King Pelles. Presence of the Grail is accompanied by the scent of pleasant spices, healing of wounds and lands (under the right circumstances), feasts' worth of any food one might desire, visions of angels and religious ceremonies, and coverings of fine cloth, but an actual glimpse of it is apparently only for the worthiest of knights. The quest portion gets a bit more abstract and introspective than the rest of the book, and while it is clear that the quest must involve travails and unimpeachable righteousness, the book never quite says outright why Galahad can't just trot to his grandpa's castle for it.
  • Pull Yourself Down the Spear: Mordred in his battle with Arthur, possibly the Trope Codifier. He is impaled with a spear by Arthur, then pulls himself down the shaft of the spear to break the enemy's head open with his sword. Only the fact Arthur still had his helmet on kept it from being instantly fatal.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Happens to Tristram and Arthur.
  • Sdrawkcab Alias: Tristram goes to Ireland incognito as... Sir Tramtrist.
  • 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: Not only do names vary between traditional and modern spelling editions (Perceval/Percival, Iseult/Isode, Palamedes/Palomides, etc.), sometimes they vary on the same page. Caxton's for one certainly didn't bother; that was normal in his day. Bonus points for Safyr/Safere (Palomydes' brother), who thanks to confusion with the long s is sometimes called "Sasere", etc. As Long as It Sounds Foreign....
  • Spoiler Title:
    • The chapter titles. Pretty much every character death, result of battle or any other event of importance is announced. To be fair, they were composed by Caxton in his table of contents as an (imperfect, sometimes event-transposing) index to chapters (which aren't given page numbers and some of which were numbered incorrectly), but most later editions put them right on top of the chapters.
    • And, of course, the book itself, just in case you somehow thought Arthur survived to the end.
  • 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!
  • 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 armor, 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.
  • Those Two Guys: Balin and Balan, Sir Palamedes and Sir Safer his brother, Kings Ban and Bors and many more.
  • Tsundere: 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 Un-Favourite:
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You Killed My Father: 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.

Alternative Title(s): Morte Darthur, Thomas Malory, Thomas Mallory