Sunday, 26 November 2017

Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne-Jones (began in 1881).

I've been meaning to read this book for so many years that I can't believe I finally have! I've owned it for about fifteen years, and for the first seven or eight years, admittedly, it wasn't immediately on my radar. Since then, at least since 2012 anyway, it's been on my to-be-read pile as the 'next but one' read. I had it on my second Classics Club list and booted it off, and when I put it on my third I promised myself it would be one of the first ten books off the list I would read. Now I've come to blog about it, it's actually my fiftieth. But, yes, I've finally done it and reading it doesn't have to be a New Year's Resolution as it has been for the past six years!

Le Morte D'Arthur is an English epic (divided into 21 books) that was written during the English Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1487) and first published by William Caxton in 1485. Caxton said of it,
... I could not well deny that there was such a noble king named Arthur, and reputed to be one of the nine worthies, and first and chief of Christian men. And many noble volumes be made of him and his noble knights in French, which I have seen and read beyond the sea, which be not had in our maternal tongue. But in Welsh be many, and also in French, and some in English, but nowhere nigh all. Wherefore, such as have late been drawn out briefly into English, I have, after the simple cunning that God hath sent me, under the favour and correction of all noble lords and gentlemen enprised to imprint a book of the noble histories of the said King Arthur, and of certain of his knights after a copy unto me delivered; which copy Sir Thomas Malory did take out of certain books of French and reduced it into English. And I, according to my copy, have down set it in print, to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in those days, by which they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished, and oft put to shame and rebuke, humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies, with all other estates of what state or degree they be of, that they shall see and read in this present book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and follow the same. Wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories, and the noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil and it shall bring you unto good fame and renown. And, for to pass the time, this book shall be pleasant to read in, but for to give faith and belief that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your own liberty. But all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to exercise and follow virtue, by the which we may come and attain to good fame and renown in this life, and after this short and transitory life to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven; the which He grant us that reigneth in heaven, the Blessed Trinity. Amen.

Tapestry of King Arthur (c. 1385) depicted as one of the
'Nine Worthies' (the other 'Worthies' being Hector, Alexander
the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, 
Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon).
This is quite an introduction to a remarkable book. It tells the story of the life of King Arthur from his birth to his death. Malory tells of how King Uther fell in love with Igrayne (who was already married), and how the wizard Merlin disguised Uther so that he may sleep with Igrayne: he did, and so Arthur was conceived, and after his birth he was taken care of by Sir Ector. When the king dies and leaves no heir, Arthur pulls the sword from the famous stone and becomes King of England. It was not an easy transition and many were against the new king, not least Arthur's uncle King Lot of Orkeney and the 12 northern kings. They are defeated however and Arthur marries Gwenyvere (though he already has a son - Mordred) who brings the legendary Round Table around which will sit Arthur's knights. From here to Rome where Arthur and his knights do battle with the Emperor Lucius, the result of which is Lucius is defeated and Arthur becomes the new Emperor of Rome, and back again to London where they embark on a new adventure to locate the Holy Grail.

Throughout the story of Arthur Malory also tells stories of the various knights. In Book III we learn of Sir Launcelot Du Lac who, not unlike Odysseus in the Odyssey was enchanted by Morgan le Fay to prevent him from leaving her castle and, later, falls in love with Queen Guinevere. We also learn of Sir Gareth of Orkney, and my favourite - Sir Tristrams de Lione who fell in love with Isode, the wife of his uncle, Mark of Cornwall.

If I go into this any further it risks spoiling it for those who haven't read it, and it does time time and not a little effort to get through it. I did enjoy reading it and seeing some of the characters I've come to know elsewhere: Tristram and Isode, Morgan le Fay, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, and Elaine of Astolat who would inspire Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott. Though a Medieval drama, Le Morte D'Arthur is timeless with themes of love, loyalty, revenge, and betrayal. It's also very much like The Faerie Queene that followed it over a century later, not just for its subject matter but also the idea behind it: the conscious effort to mythologise English history. Malory followed a tradition of historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius who wrote not only fact but also a good deal of myth. As a consequence of these writers, the very tapestry of Britain is far richer than it might have been without them.

To finish, here's some Pre-Raphaelite paintings inspired by Arthurian myth:

Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion by John William Waterhouse (1916).

"I am Half Sick of Shadows," said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1916).

The Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt (1905).

Morgan le Fay by Frederick Sandys (1864).

The Accolade by Edmund Leighton (1901).

La Belle Iseult by William Morris (1858).

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (1872-77).

8 comments:

  1. Congratulations!! i've started my copy several times but distraction, thy name is Mudpuddle... i hope it's not another ten years before i get to it... we'll see... lovely pictures... excellent post, tx...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! And do let me know if you get around to reading it :)

      Delete
  2. Fabulous, you did it! Congrats. Well done you. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I feel ridiculously proud :)

      Delete
  3. Brava! I really loved it but boy, was it odd in some places ...... actually quite a few places. Good job!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was rather odd at times. Also, one of my friends warned me about Book X - boy, was he right! That was quite an effort getting through that :)

      Delete
  4. First of all, a huge round of applause! Only you could have finished it and finished it within a stipulated time that did not translate to months or years! Secondly as excellent review as always; considering the multiple narratives, I think you give a very succinct and insightful look into the book! Maybe it will now figure in my new year resolution...lol!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you :) I hope you get to it - it is very much worth it :)

      Delete

Popular Posts of the Year