Arthurian Romances

The World Pertaining to King Arthur


Medieval Literature

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Women in the Arthurian Romances ~Guinevere


According to earlier legend, Arthur met Guinevere or Guenevere (she was called Guanhumara (Guenhuuara) by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia regnum Britanniae) in the court of Duke Cador of Cornwall. Guinevere was the ward of Cador. Guinevere came from a noble Roman family; according to both Wace and Layamon, it was on her mother’s side that she was Roman.

Later legends say that Guinevere (Guenevere) was the daughter of Leodegan (Leodegraunce), king of Camelide (Camelerd). After Arthur helped Leodegan, Arthur became betrothed to Guinevere. One of Guinevere’s companion, after she married Arthur, was her cousin and lady-in-waiting, Elibel. They married but had no children (except in the Perlesvaus, where their son was named Lohot (Loholt)).

In the Welsh Mabinogion called Culhwch and Olwen (before 1100), Guinevere was called Gwenhwyfar (Gwenhwyvar), which possibly means the “White Phantom”. This was Guinevere’s (Gwenhwyfar) first appearance. Gwenhwyfar was the daughter of Gogrfan (Gogrvan or Ocvran). She was the wife of Arthur. The tale also mentioned that Gwenhwyfar had a sister, named Gwenhwyfach or Gwenhwyach.

This sister of Gwenhwyfar, Gwenhwyfach, also appeared in the Welsh Triads 54, in the 2nd line of the Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain:

The second Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwenhwyfar: and for that cause there took place afterwards the Action of the Battle of Camlan….

This is the only Welsh reference that we have found in Guinevere’s connection to the Battle of Camlann, which is markedly different from that of Mordred seizing her and the throne of Arthur.

According to Diu Krône, Heinrich von dem Turlin says that her sister was Queen Lenomie of Alexandria.

The Mabinogion had mentioned several times that Arthur had several sons: Gwydre, who was killed by the boar Twrch Trwyth (in Culhwch and Olwen), Llacheu, who was later identified as Lohot or Loholt (in the Dream of Rhonabwy), and Amhar (in “Gereint and Enid”). But there was nothing to indicate that they were her sons, though as wife of Arthur, we could possibly assume they probably were her sons.

In most tales, they were married but had no children, except in the Grail romance, titled Perlesvaus, where their son was named Lohot (Loholt). According to this tale, when Sir Kay murdered Lohot, Guinevere was grief-stricken and she died from broken heart.

In the poem known as the Welsh Triad, Arthur had three queens. All three wives were named Gwenhwyfar (Gwenhwyvar). They were called Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwent (Cywryd), and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran (Gogrvan) the Giant. This reminded me of the Celtic love for the number three, like the triple personifications of Ireland, the triple war-goddesses Morrigan, the triple Sovereignty of Ireland (Eriu and her sisters Banba and Fodla) or triple mother-goddesses Danu in Irish myths.

Here, the Welsh myths are identical to the Irish, with the three wives of Arthur (Gwenhwyfars) being the personifications of Britain or the Sovereignty of Britain. Gwenhwyfar represents the land of the kingdom, and was more than than just a queen, but a powerful goddess. And in order for Arthur to become king of Britain, he must wed and mate with the three goddesses in order to ensure the prosperity and fertility of the land (Britain). See Wedded to the Land in the Celtic World & Cultures page for more explanation of the Sacred Marriage.

In the Latin romance, titled The Rise of Sir Gawain, Gwendolena (Guinevere) was not only Arthur’s wife, she was a powerful sorceress, who had the ability of foretelling. It was she who predicted a champion (Gawain) would come to Arthur’s court, bearing gifts on two horses. The horses had belonged to Arthur and Sir Kay, when these two challenge Gawain, but were unhorsed.

Guinevere was said to be a wise queen as well as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her great beauty also caused trouble for her. She had being abducted a few times, where she had to be rescued.

According to The Life of Gildas, Caradoc of Llangarfan wrote that Melvas, king of the Summer Country, had abducted and raped Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). War erupted between Arthur and Melvas. Melvas retreated to Glastonbury. St Gildas doesn’t like Arthur, since the king had killed his rebellious brothers, but he intervene. St Gildas talked the two warring kings to make peace, and Melvas returned Gwenhwyfar back to Arthur.

This event was most likely the source for the romance of Chretien de Troyes, titled Le Chevalier à la charrette, which translated to Knight of the Cart, though sometimes it was “Lancelot”. This Melvas became Meleagant, the son of King Baudemagus of Gorre. Meleagant had abducted Guinevere and later challenged the hero Lancelot to a duel, which he lost. Lancelot fought him again, in the second duel, and killed Meleagant.

Though, Lancelot appeared in earlier works of Chretien, but his role was minor. The Knight of the Cart is actually Lancelot’s first appearance as a hero, and it was the first time that he appeared as Guinevere’s lover.

In the early tradition (in Geoffrey’s work and the Welsh texts), when Mordred acting as a regent during Arthur’s absence in the war against the Romans, his nephew seized power in Britain. To add salt to Arthur’s wound, Mordred had married Guinevere. Mordred may have forced Guinevere into marrying him, but most say that she was accomplice in the treason, and may have seduced Mordred.

According to the alliterative Morte Arthure, Guinevere had two sons by Mordred. Again, like the Irish myth, king can only rule the land if he marry a goddess of the land. And since the Welsh see Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) as a goddess, it was she who could choose a king, and she had seduced Mordred, therefore Mordred was in effect, a legitimate king.

There is one interesting short story, which a poetess named Marie de France had written in the late 12th century, titled Lanval. Marie had written that she had translated from a Breton song, known as the lai. The story tell of how the hero Lanval was loved by a fairy woman, where he must not reveal of her presence to anyone. When Guinevere, his liege lord’s wife, had unsuccessful tried to seduce him, he boast of the fairy woman’s beauty surpassing the Queen. Guinevere then falsely accused him of making unwanted advances upon her and bragging of loving a woman more beautiful than her. Arthur would have punished him if Lanval could prove his boast, had it not being the timely arrival of the fairy woman saved from execution with her appearance. Lanval and the fairy woman then left the mortal world, to dwell in Avalon.

Here, Guinevere was clearly portrayed as the adulteress, who tried to seduce the young knight. The tale is similar to the another later Breton lai, titled Graelent, written in the mid-13 century, by an anonymous writer.

However, Guinevere was best known for her long love affair with Lancelot, the best knight in the world. This first appeared in Chretien de Troyes’ romance titled Knight of the Cart (or Lancelot).

In the Vulgate Cycle and after, Guinevere had definitely betrayed Arthur by committing adultery. However, it was not Mordred who was her lover, but the greatest knight of them all – Lancelot of the Lake.

All Lancelot’s heroic deeds were performed because of his love with her. Lancelot was inspired by her love. Lancelot was her lover and her champion. Lancelot would often rescue her from one danger to another. (See Knight of the Cart from Lancelot du Lac.)

There was probably some justification of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, since Arthur was not entirely blameless or guiltless. In the Vulgate text (Lancelot), on the night Lancelot first made love to Guinevere, Arthur was in the arms of Saxon sorceress and enemy. (See Lancelot.)

And, their love would cause Lancelot to fail in the Quest of the Grail, and would bring about the circumstance, which would cause death of Arthur and the destruction of the Round Table.

The kingdom and the Round Table became identically associate with Guinevere. When Arthur married Guinevere, he was given the Round Table and a hundred knights, as part of dowry. When Arthur tried to execute Guinevere, then a war broke out between Lancelot and Arthur, the Round Table in a sense had been broken. Before the Grail quest, Guinevere’s love for Lancelot had in fact made Arthur’s kingdom and the Round Table – strong.

The big difference between Mordred and Lancelot was that Lancelot didn’t seek to rule in Arthur’s place. Lancelot loved Arthur as his king, and was willing to carry this secret relation to his grave. This strange loyalty to Arthur had actually made Arthur’s claim to kingship, even more stronger. But this triangle could not last, since adultery is seen as crime and a sin.

It was only when Arthur arrested Guinevere for adultery and treason, that the power of the Round Table broke. The Round Table was not broken in the physical sense, but symbolically when the two strongest supporters of Arthur became two factions between the House of Ban (Lancelot) and the House of Orkney (Gawain), came into conflict.

Though the war ended without either side winning and Guinevere was returned to Arthur, the strength of Round Table was seriously weakened without the support of Lancelot and his kinsmen, when Mordred betrayed Arthur and seized the kingdom.

In the Vulgate Cycle and later authors, Guinevere had managed to prevent Mordred from marrying her by gathering loyal men hide behind the walls of Tower of London.

As Arthur fought Mordred, Guinevere had fled to abbey at Caerleon or the City of Legion (or outside of London, according to Mort Artu). Guinevere took the vow to become a nun, even before the battle was decided.

Before I finish the article on Guinevere, I think I should mention that there were two Guineveres, according to the Vulgate Cycle. In the Vulgate Merlin, the second Guinevere was the daughter of King Leodegan and his seneschal’s wife. His seneschal was named Cleodalis, who married the maid of Leodegan’s wife. The maid became a lady in Leodegan’s court. Leodegan lusted after the seneschal’s new wife. Leodegan had send Cleodalis with an army against the Irish. Shortly after Leodegan had made love to his wife, the Queen being a devout Christian, went to the church. So in his wife’s absence, Leodegan took advantage of the situation and ravished his wife’s former maid.

The two Guineveres were actually half-sisters. As it can be seen, they were conceived on the same night and were later born on the same day aand with the same name, and they looked exactly alike. Leodegan and his wife’s daughter became Arthur’s wife and the mistress of Lancelot. This second Guinevere was frequently known as the False Guinevere or Second Guinevere. The only mean of identifying the real Guinevere from the false was that she had a birthmark of a king’s crown on her back, while the Second Guinevere had none.

In Lancelot Proper, the False Guinevere would later cause the separation of Arthur and his wife. She posed as the false queen and wife of Arthur; trying to get Arthur to execute the real Guinevere. This plan was foiled when Lancelot challenged three of her knights in a trial by combat. Even though, Lancelot won the contest, Arthur was still in love with the imposter, because she had given love potion to the king. The False Guinevere and her accomplice Bertholai confessed to their crime when they were both was struck down by mysterious illness. I not certain, if the imposter died from her illness or she was executed on Arthur’s order. (See False Guinevere in the page called Lancelot du Lac.)


Definition: any idyllic place or period, especially one of great happiness.
1. Any idyllic place or period, especially one of great happiness.
2. The legendary site of King Arthur’s palace and court, possibly near Exeter, England.
1. The glamorous ambience of Washington, D.C., during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, 1961–63.
1. A tiny house next to it had been the girl’s home for all the summers of her short life. It was her castle, her retreat, her hideaway, her Camelot.
– Matina Psyhogeos, Reaching for the Sky
2. His father’s voice brought him out of his Camelot reverie. Probably the old man was reading his mind and that would account for his sardonic smile under the raised eyebrows.
– Ward S. Just, Forgetfulness

Morgan Le Faye

Morgan Le Fay

Morgan Le Fay: popularly known as Arthurian sorceress, benevolent fairy, priestess, dark magician, enchantress, witch, sea goddess, shape-changer, healer, and the sole personage of Avalon the Isle of Apples, not to mention daughter of Ygerna (Igraine) and Gorlois, half-sister to King Arthur, mother of Mordred, lady-in-waiting to Guinevere, wife of Uriens, lover of Sir Accolon, fancier of Sir Lancelot, and ‘as fair a lady as any might be’.

Morgan Le Fay was first introduced into Arthurian legend by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Vita Merlini (c. 1150) but her true origin, as with many Arthurian characters, leads back into Celtic mythology and inevitably develops with each new rendition of the tale. Morgan Le Fay’s character is interesting enough, but so is her name.

The name ‘Morgan Le Fay’

In Celtic terms, Morgan (or Morcant) is a man’s name. The feminine version is more correctly Morgain (or Morgue or Morgne). Also Morrigan equates with Morrigu of Irish mythology. According to Celtic tradition the Morrigan (a Triple Goddess of Celtic myth, thought of as the Goddess of Death) flew over battles, shrieking like ravens and claiming dead soldiers’ heads as trophies. Or the answer may lie in Uriens – in early Welsh literature Modron (a version of Matrona) was the daughter of Avallach, wife of Urien, and mother of Owein. The Welsh and Arthurian story lines were later merged, forming a link between Modron and King Arthur. Further, there was a sixth-century Cumbrian ruler called Urien Rheged who presided over a loose coalition of kings (according to some accounts there was also an Arthur, son of King Aedan of dal Riada). Urien had a loose ally: Morcant Bulc – a man – who eventually plotted to assassinate him, which could have been Sir Thomas Malory’s inspiration for the plot in Le Morte d’Arthur where Morgan Le Fay attempts to kill Arthur and Uriens.

‘Le Fay’ is an ancient word for a fairy and to this day, apparently, the Breton name for a water-nymph is a ‘Morgan’.

The possible roots of the Arthurian character Morgan Le Fay therefore run deep into early British mythology and can be traced across several hundred years up to her final act as one of the three women who transported the fatally wounded King Arthur in a barge to the Isle of Avalon to be healed (outcome unrecorded). A speculative summary, based on Welsh and other Arthurian legend, suggest an identification with Modron and also with the river goddess Matrona, possibly derived from the Irish goddess Morrigan. Given the superstitious Christian attitude to supernatural women in the medieval era, the more she is humanised, the more the name Morgan Le Fay descends into an easy literary metaphor for devious, sometimes evil mischief.

Nonetheless the much-maligned Morgan Le Fay never becomes purely evil. Her attractive qualities remain – a healer, she is associated with art and culture, she is sexy, and in the end is worthy of redemption.

Morgan Le Fay pre-Malory

In Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Morgan was the chief among her nine sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Cliton, Tyronoe, and Thitis, and Morgause. She could change shape at will (and to be young or old, beautiful or ugly, or an animal or other object) and to fly with wings, hence – ‘Le Fay’, or Faerie. There was no suggestion of a blood relationship between Arthur and Morgan – she was simply his healer. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide, Morgan le Fay was a friend of Guingamar, Lord of Avalon and one of the guests at the wedding of Erec and Enide. Chrétien descibes her as a giver of healing ointments but she is more typically portrayed as a wicked enchantress who learned her crafts in a Christian nunnery, powers which were subsequently extended with the help of Merlin. She was referred to later as Arthur’s sister (and again as a healer), and in Le Chevalier au Lion her ointments cured Yvain’s madness. Neither Geoffrey of Monmouth nor Chrétien de Troyes described her as the wife of Uriens.

In the The Vulgate Cycle (1215 to 1235) Morgan Le Fay is however married to Uriens. She is also Queen Guinevere’s lady in waiting and fell in love with the King’s nephew, Giomar, but Guinevere put an end to the romance. Morgan responded by betraying the Queen’s affair with Lancelot to King Arthur. She had herself become infatuated with Sir Lancelot though he consistently refused her attentions, despite being imprisoned by her several times. The suspect nature of Morgan Le Fay’s character appears to have been fuelled by the Cistercian monks who wrote the stories of the Vulgate Cycle, prejudiced by the earlier concept of the Morrighan. They undoubtedly considered the idea of a non-religious female healer to be the mark of blasphemy.

In another well-known work – the anonymous late 14th Century poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (the Green Knight was, like Morgan, a ‘shape-shifter’) – she was the instigator of the plot which began the story. Here, the Virgin Mary (as the female archetype representing spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life) is contrasted with Morgan Le Fay’s representation of courtly love, disobedience, lust and death.

Morgan Le Fay in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

In Le Morte d’Arthur Morgan Le Fay is fully established as wife of Uriens, sister of Arthur, but is not, truly, a major character. Her best-known part in the tale is as follows:

When Uther Pendragon married Igraine (Book 1), Morgan was the youngest of her three daughters from her previous marriage to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, who had been slain by Uther’s army just before he raped her at Tintagel Castle (and begat Arthur). Morgan was then sent to a nunnery. According to Malory’s timescale, at the time of Uther’s death two years later, Morgan would have been between thirteen and sixteen and already married to Uriens. At any rate, when the young King Arthur waged war against the five kings Morgan had a grown son, Uwaine, who was close to knighthood.

King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay first came face to face when he sent for Igraine to verify his parentage. At that stage there are no indications of any feelings either way between Morgan and Arthur, but at the burial of Lot and the eleven kings (Book 2) Merlin told Arthur, “Sir, take care with the scabbard of Excalibur, for ye shall lose no blood while ye have it upon you, no matter how many wounds ye have.” Arthur passed the scabbard to Morgan Le Fay for safekeeping, but she loved another knight more than she did her husband (or King Arthur) so she secretly had made a replica of the scabbard and gave the real one to her lover, Sir Accolon of Gaul to protect him.

Following the war with the five kings, Arthur, Uriens, and Accolon went on a hunt (Book 4). Their horses exhausted, they found themselves near nightfall by a great lake where they saw a silk-clad ship approach. Venturing on board, they were greeted by twelve damosels, banqueted, then shown separate chambers. Once in a drug-induced sleep, each was magically transported away, Uriens back to Camelot (where he awoke beside Morgan), Arthur to the prison of the evil Sir Damas (minus his sword and scabbard), and Accolon to a well close to manor of the good Ontzlake, younger brother of Sir Damas.

Morgan Le Fay’s wicked plan

Despite being brothers, Sir Damas and Sir Ontzlake had become mortal enemies, the younger offering to resolve their differences in combat but the latter always refusing, preferring to elect another knight to fight for him. But Damas was too hated ever to find such a knight. At this point a damsel came to Arthur with an offer from Damas that he and his fellow-prisoners would be freed if he would take on the fight, to which Arthur agreed. The damsel was of course ‘false’, having been sent by Morgan Le Fay.

At the same time a dwarf came to Sir Accolon by the well, sent by Morgan to remind him of his earlier (secret) promise to fight an unspecified knight whenever she chose the moment. Accolon would bring her the knight’s head and Morgan Le Fay would become Queen. And now was the moment. The dwarf gave him Excalibur and the scabbard, sent by Morgan, and Accolon made himself ready for combat, on behalf, as it turned out, of Sir Ontzlake against his brother. As Arthur in turn readied himself another damsel came, once again sent by Morgan, and gave him a sword like Excalibur and its scabbard, from which he took reassurance not knowing they were nothing more than poor replicas. The whole monstrous ruse, evidently, had long been planned by Morgan Le Fay so that she could replace Guinevere as Queen.

Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, saves King Arthur

The duel, watched by Nimue, the Lady of the lake, was prolonged and bloody and Sir Accolon, boldened by Excalibur, almost won after Arthur’s useless sword snapped off at the handle. Nimue took pity and with the help of her enchantment Arthur was able to deal such a blow to his opponent that the real Excalibur fell to the ground and he leaped to it and took it in his hand. About to kill Accolon, he asked his name and Accolon confessed all, and thus was spared but died from his wounds soon after, prompting Arthur to despatch his remains to his half-sister at Camelot as a warning.

In the meantime Morgan would have slain her husband, confident of Accolon’s success with Excalibur and the scabbard, but Uriens was saved at the last moment by the intervention of Uwaine, his son, by whom Morgan would herself have been slain had she not agreed to leave Camelot forever. She rode to the nunnery where Arthur was recovering from his wounds and tried to steal back the real Excalibur and scabbard while he slept, but was only able to take the scabbard because the sword was in his hand. When Arthur awoke he set off with Sir Ontzlake in pursuit of Morgan, but she cast the scabbard into a deep lake. She then used her shape-changing powers to disguise herself and her entourage as standing stones to escape further pursuit.

Morgan Le Fay then retreated to her domains (still Book 4). En route she came across a knight leading another bound knight, Manassen (a cousin of Accolon) to be drowned in a fountain for adultery with his wife. For her lost love, and because Manassen swore his innocence, she released him and let him bind and drown his accuser.

At this point Morgan fades somewhat from the mainstream of the story. She went to occupy her lands in Gore, and then to her Castle of Tauroc. To thwart any reprisal by Arthur she sent a damosel to give him a rich mantle embellished with precious stones (in atonement for her sins). But the mantle was laced with poison – Nimue intervened to save Arthur, who made its bearer put it on, who fell down and burnt to coals. Uwaine was later suspected by Arthur of being instrumental in Morgan’s earlier escape from Camelot, and was banished from the court.

The Royal court appears to have thought Morgan Le Fay dead, until King Arthur came across her residence while out hunting one day, and the two were reconciled. In later life she moved to the Isle of Avalon, where she and her allies, the Queen of Northgalis, and the Queen of the Wastelands (and also many damosels, including Nimue) took her dying half-brother to be “healed” after his last battle.


Le Morte d’Arthur

Great article by Patrick Taylor

Le Morte d’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – the novel
Le Morte D’Arthur is the first true novel written in English. A moving tale of love and betrayal, and quests inspired by noble ideals amidst the turmoil of an age on the threshold of profound change, the essence of Sir Thomas Malory’s timeless masterpiece has remained firmly in the imagination of successive generations. This monumental work of fiction deserves not only to grace the bookshelf of every lover of literature but to be read and appreciated from cover to cover.
Le Morte d’Arthur in context: Arthurian legend
In the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, Arthurian Legend is flourishing more than ever, after over a thousand years of development in literature and in our collective imagination. Whatever the factual origins of King Arthur (if any), he and the Knights of Camelot passed into popular legend from the early Middle Ages. And as the field of European literature developed – British and French, especially – so did versions and variations on the Arthurian tale, proliferating both in books and in poetry. Today, Arthurian legend is understood for what it is – just legend – and King Arthur and his knights are enjoyed as imaginary figures rather than ones based on historical fact.
The romantic concepts of chivalry and heroic quest, in an age of religious purity and secular glory, provided a perfect platform for writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and the poets Wace, Chrétien de Troyes, and Layamon. In the French court – the most powerful in Europe at the time – King Arthur’s popularity was intense, and the French felt an empathy for Arthur perhaps because, even though a Briton, he was regarded as a fellow Celt and was seen as a powerful metaphor for defiance against the invading Saxon hordes. In Britain, King Arthur’s development from his mystic origins into a patriotic symbol grew stronger, especially after the publication of the (English) poet Layamon’s translation of (the French poet) Wace’s version of Arthur as a historical figure, which itself was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “The History of the Kings of Britain” (‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, c.1135).
So the Arthurian Legend continued to grow, spurred on by popular sentiment and imagination on both sides of the Channel, but it was works such as ‘Le Conte del Graal’ (Chrétien de Troyes, in France, c.1191) – marking the first appearance of the Holy Grail (the Sangreal) and the Grail King – and the ‘Vulgate Cycle’ (c.1215 – 1235) – highlighting the importance of Sir Lancelot and his love for Queen Guinevere as the ultimate cause of the downfall of Camelot – that provided the starting point for most future versions of Arthurian Legend.
By the beginning of the 13th Century, the myths surrounding Arthur and his Knights were becoming considerably expanded by writers and poets who adopted the theme of Arthurian Legend to elaborate issues the the day. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were also linked to actual locations such as Glastonbury and Tintagel, and a connection with the Holy Land and the Crusades interwove the concepts of a rescue of the Grail with that of purge of the “heathen occupation” of Jerusalem – a sort of divine justification for the barbarism of the Crusades. Thus, Arthurian Legend was adapted by the mood of the time into propaganda for the preservation of Christianity, and Arthur was transformed from Celtic warlord into a true Christian hero (not to mention the fact that any historical basis for the life of an English King called Arthur was probably obscured for all time).
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did Arthurian Legend, and over the centuries, poets and writers gave new or comparatively minor characters Arthurian tales of their own. The King Arthur concept was also adapted to fit localised issues and literary styles, and in the process was diluted, and lost some of it’s original “high romance”. This apparently appealed to Geoffrey Chaucer, who remarked in The Canterbury Tales something to the effect that stories and poems about Sir Lancelot had become little more than romantic fantasies for the titillation of court ladies.
Le Morte d’Arthur
The Noble and Joyous Book entitled:
Notwithstanding it treateth of the birth, life, and acts of the said King Arthur, of his noble Knights of the round table, their marvelous inquests, and adventures, the achieving of the sangreal, and in the end, the dolorous and departing out of this world of them all, which book, reduced to English by:
Sir Thomas Malory Knight
The Arthurian Legend which today towers above all others is enshrined in Le Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory and completed in 1470. This epic story, culminating with the death of King Arthur, is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s much earlier one, but Malory introduces elements already popularised by the Romance-writers, and brings in other Arthur-related stories from elsewhere on the continent. So for the first time, ‘The Sword in the Stone’, ‘The Round Table’, ‘The Quest of the Holy Grail’, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the tale of Tristram and Iseult (the most romantic of all that Malory tells, and a prelude to the final tragedy of King Arthur), are all brought into one more-or-less coherent single narrative.
Thomas Malory was, by all accounts, a rogue, as well as a (now) distinguished author. His rampant criminality (cattle rustling, ambush with intent to murder, robbery, extortion, rape, insulting an Abbot, etc) is why he spent significant parts of his life in prison, and were it not for the length of his final prison term we may not have Le Morte d’Arthur at all, because it was then, in prison, that he wrote its 507 chapters and more than 300,000 words.
Malory originally wrote Le Morte d’Arthur as eight books, or “tales”.
In brief, the first tale tells of Merlin (the wizard) arranging for Uther Pendragon’s seduction and marriage to Igraine, leading to the birth of Arthur, his fosterage, his pulling out of The Sword of the Stone, and his crowning. The second deals with the establishment of the Round Table and the invasion of France and Rome – Arthur the Emperor, in heroic mode. The third tale largely concerns Lancelot, who deals with Méléagant’s (or Meliagaunce) threat to Arthur’s world, and proves his devotion to Guinevere. The fourth tale is of Gareth, Gawaint’s brother, and is supposedly based on a lost English poem. The fifth tale is about Tristram and Iseult, and originates outside the world of King Arthur and his Knights. The sixth tale is about the “coming of the Grail” – in his version of the Sangreal, Malory adapts the Christian mysticism of the French ‘Quest del Saint Graal’ and inflates the importance of Lancelot, who is recognised as a Grail Knight. The seventh tale is the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere, and is largely based on the French ‘Mort Artu’. It foreshadows the final destruction of the “Arthurian fellowship”. The last and eighth tale concerns the discovery of Lancelot and Guinevere’s ongoing adultery, the battle between Modred and Arthur, and Arthur’s ultimate death.
Whilst consistency and harmony aren’t always prevalent in Malory’s epic work, he nonetheless provides a basic vessel within which a body of other related concepts and tales are fairly well contained, and could be superficially characterised like this:
The central figure was King Arthur, a noble hero around whom were gathered the equally noble Knights of the Round Table – the most valorous Knights (including the sinner-hero Lancelot) in history – and the fair ladies of Camelot, worthy of the highest acts of chivalry. The Knights variously performed great deeds and embarked on a number of virtuous and romantic “quests”, including the supreme ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’. King Arthur was a figure of enigma whose life had a mysterious beginning and a mysterious end. His guardian and advisor in the early days of his kingdom was Merlin the wizard, whose predictions continued to influence the course of the story. King Arthur fought many battles but was ultimately betrayed by those close to him: his sister, son, wife, and friend, causing his inevitable downfall at his last great battle.
Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was printed by the ‘father of British printing’, William Caxton in 1485. He divided Malory’s eight books into twenty-one, and wrote a preface to the story. If you don’t feel like reading and making sense of 300,000 words written in Middle-English, you can instead read a summary of Le Morte d’Arthur. See also Francoise Taylor’s illustrations for Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Who was Sir Thomas Malory?
Discussion over exactly who was the author of Le Morte d’Arthur continues amongst scholars and academics. What is clear is that the author was a member of the English gentry and that the work was largely written whilst he was encarcerated. An excellent and convincing bibliographical note was written by the 20th Century literary historian A.W. Pollard [ from which ]:
“The Morte Darthur was finished, as the epilogue tells us, in the ninth year of Edward IV., i.e. between March 4, 1469 and the same date in 1470. It is thus, fitly enough, the last important English book written before the introduction of printing into this country, and since no manuscript of it has come down to us it is also the first English classic for our knowledge of which we are entirely dependent on a printed text. Caxton’s story of how the book was brought to him and he was induced to print it may be read … in his own preface. From this we learn also that he was not only the printer of the book, but to some extent its editor also, dividing Malory’s work into twenty-one books, splitting up the books into chapters, by no means skilfully, and supplying the ‘Rubrish’ or chapter-headings. It may be added that Caxton’s preface contains, moreover, a brief criticism which, on the points on which it touches, is still the soundest and most sympathetic that has been written.
“Caxton finished his edition the last day of July 1485, some fifteen or sixteen years after Malory wrote his epilogue. It is clear that the author was then dead, or the printer would not have acted as a clumsy editor to the book, and recent discoveries (if bibliography may, for the moment, enlarge its bounds to mention such matters) have revealed with tolerable certainty when Malory died and who he was. In letters to The Athenaeum in July 1896 Mr. T. Williams pointed out that the name of a Sir Thomas Malorie occurred among those of a number of other Lancastrians excluded from a general pardon granted by Edward IV. in 1468, and that a William Mallerye was mentioned in the same year as taking part in a Lancastrian rising. In September 1897, again, in another letter to the same paper, Mr. A. T. Martin reported the finding of the will of a Thomas Malory of Papworth, a hundred partly in Cambridgeshire, partly in Hunts. This will was made on September 16, 1469, and as it was proved the 27th of the next month the testator must have been in immediate expectation of death. It contains the most careful provision for the education and starting in life of a family of three daughters and seven sons, of whom the youngest seems to have been still an infant. We cannot say with certainty that this Thomas Malory, whose last thoughts were so busy for his children, was our author, or that the Lancastrian knight discovered by Mr. Williams was identical with either or both, but such evidence as the Morte Darthur offers favours such a belief. There is not only the epilogue with its petition, “pray for me while I am alive that God send me good deliverance and when I am dead pray you all for my soul,” but this very request is foreshadowed at the end of chap. 37 of Book ix. in the touching passage, surely inspired by personal experience, as to the sickness “that is the greatest pain a prisoner may have”; and the reflections on English fickleness in the first chapter of Book xxi., though the Wars of the Roses might have inspired them in any one, come most naturally from an author who was a Lancastrian knight.
“If the Morte Darthur was really written in prison and by a prisoner distressed by ill-health as well as by lack of liberty, surely no task was ever better devised to while away weary hours. Leaving abundant scope for originality in selection, modification, and arrangement, as a compilation and translation it had in it that mechanical element which adds the touch of restfulness to literary work. No original, it is said, has yet been found for Book vii., and it is possible that none will ever be forthcoming for chap. 20 of Book xviii., which describes the arrival of the body of the Fair Maiden of Astolat at Arthur’s court, or for chap. 25 of the same book, with its discourse on true love; but the great bulk of the work has been traced chapter by chapter to the ‘Merlin’ of Robert de Borron and his successors, … the English metrical romance La Morte Arthur of the Thornton manuscript, … the French romances of Tristan … and of Launcelot, … and lastly to the English prose Morte Arthur of Harley … As to Malory’s choice of his authorities critics have not failed to point out that now and again he gives a worse version where a better has come down to us… But of the skill, approaching to original genius, with which he used the books from which he worked there is little dispute.
“Malory died leaving his work obviously unrevised, and in this condition it was brought to Caxton, who prepared it for the press with his usual enthusiasm in the cause of good literature, and also, it must be added, with his usual carelessness. New chapters are sometimes made to begin in the middle of a sentence, and in addition to simple misprints there are numerous passages in which it is impossible to believe that we have the text as Malory intended it to stand. After Caxton’s edition Malory’s manuscript must have disappeared, and subsequent editions are differentiated only by the degree of closeness with which they follow the first. Editions appeared printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 and 1529, by William Copland in 1559, by Thomas East about 1585, and by Thomas Stansby in 1634, each printer apparently taking the text of his immediate predecessor and reproducing it with modifications. Stansby’s edition served for reprints in 1816 and 1856 (the latter edited by Thomas Wright); but in 1817 an edition supervised by Robert Southey went back to Caxton’s text, though to a copy (only two are extant, and only one perfect!) in which eleven leaves were supplied from Wynkyn de Worde’s reprint. In 1868 Sir Edward Strachey produced for the present publishers a reprint of Southey’s text in modern spelling, with the substitution of current words for those now obsolete, and the softening of a handful of passages likely, he thought, to prevent the book being placed in the hands of boys. In 1889 a boon was conferred on scholars by the publication of Dr. H. Oskar Sommer’s page-for-page reprint of Caxton’s text, with an elaborate discussion of Malory’s sources. Dr. Sommer’s edition was used by Sir E. Strachey to revise his Globe text, and in 1897 Mr. Israel Gollancz produced for the ‘Temple Classics’, a very pretty edition in which Sir Edward Strachey’s principles of modernisation in spelling and punctuation were adopted, but with the restoration of obsolete words and omitted phrases. As to the present edition, Sir Edward Strachey altered with so sparing a hand that on many pages differences between his version and that here printed will be looked for in vain; but the most anxious care has been taken to produce a text modernised as to its spelling, but in other respects in accurate accordance with Caxton’s text, as represented by Dr Sommer’s reprint. Obvious misprints have been silently corrected, but in a few cases notes show where emendations have been introduced from Wynkyn de Worde – not that Wynkyn had any more right to emend Caxton than we, but because even a printer’s conjecture gains a little sanctity after four centuries. The restoration of obsolete words has necessitated a much fuller glossary, and the index of names has therefore been separated from it and enlarged. In its present form the index is the work of Mr. Henry Littlehales.”


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