Le Morte d’ Arthur by Thomas Malory

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Titel: Le Morte d’ Arthur – Forfatter: Thomas Malory


To describe the Arthurian Legend; ‘The cycle of tales most typical of feudal-aristocratic verse for entertainment is undoubtedly the famous one devoted to the legend of King Arthur. Here the knightly class found the mirror in which it liked to believe its best traits were reflected: personal loyalty, idealization of women belonging to the same class, unmercenary adventurousness, bravery […] ’ 1 . The moral codex and values are not unfamiliar to an Anglo-Saxon audience. Heroic ideals of Anglo-Saxon society as they are, e.g. expressed in Beowulf, are very similar to the ideals of the Arthurian Legend. Also, family relations and noble birth are important, and following things; courage, strength, generosity, courtesy and loyalty. Furthermore, the deeds of the past have consequences for the actions of the living; therefore vengeance and honour are central themes. The events of the tale are considered more important, therefore; there are only descriptions of the characters, e.g. how they look and what they do, not their personal feelings and opinions. The actions take place in a feudal society with a hierarchal structure, where the king has the highest status, and it is important to be born as a noble man. Christianity is also an important element, e.g. in Malory’s work, where it is enough for the knights to be honored in God’s name and not in gold.

After the Norman invasion in 1066, the English aristocracy became still more familiar with French myths and legends, especially in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Many versions of ‘Le Morte D’arthur’ came in to existence. There seems to be many similarities between ‘the Mort Artu’ from the French 13th Century and Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’arthur’, e.g. ‘The action marches from one dramatic scene to another, driven by the force of inner human conflicts […]’. There were also English sources, e.g. ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain’ (1136). Many of the English versions of the story focus on Arthur and the end of his kingdom because of disloyalty, while later French sources focus more on Sir Lancelot and his failure to achieve the Holy Grail, which in medieval society represented unity with God, and the fact that ‘the Grail is the goal of man’s highest endeavor’. Malory’s “Le Morte D’arthur” is written as epic prose narrative, where each episode can be read individually, although the overall structure of the entire work is the story of King Arthur and the quest of the Holy Grail. In the tale of Sir Gareth by Thomas Malory, we find all the ingredients of the Arthurian Legend. It is a tale of a brave boy of noble birth, who in order to protect a woman, kills a lot of knights. In the end of the tale, it ends with the marriage between Gareth and Lyonesse, and then Gareth is finally accepted as a great knight. Gareth would be descripted as honest, strong and loyalty to his kingdom.

Furthermore, he works for a year, and the work is unpaid, therefore; he is not selfish. The king shows kindness towards Gareth, when thinking that Gareth is from a lower social class, and still giving him food to eat for a year in exchange for his loyalty to the kingdom. At this time, Gareth has not told that he in fact is noble born; ‘[…] for my heart giveth me to thee greatly, that thou art come of men of worship, and grealy my conceit faileth me but thou shalt prove a man of right great worship’. He is unique and possesses good values, and is truly the perfect example of a knight, e.g., when Gareth does not take advantage of Sir Persant’s daughter; ‘[…] that I should defile you to do Sir Persant such a shame; therefore, fair damosel, arise out of this bed or else I will […] I were a shameful knight and I would do your father any disworship’.

Furthermore, he possesses virtue because he hides the fact that he is noble born. Another influence of the Arthurian Legend is the matter of unmercenary adventurousness; they go on a quest because of loyalty, not for personal glory, thereby it shows loyalty towards the kingdom, e.g. when Gareth does not want a materialistic reward, because the influence of God is enough; ‘I was this day made knight of noble Sir Launcelot, and therefore I will no reward have, but God reward me’. Revenge is also a theme of the story; ‘Also I saw thy brother the Green Knight overcome of his hands. Now may ye be revenged upon him, for I may never be quit of him’. The romantic element is also present in the tale, e.g. the love between Gareth and Lyonesse; ‘[…] and ever the more Sir Gareth beheld that lady, the more he loved her; and so he burned in love that he was past himself in his reason […] and Sir Gareth might not eat, for his love was so hot that he wist not where he has’. As in old tales of the time, the element of magic is also present, e.g., when Dame Lynet brings a knight to life again; ‘[…] came Dame Lynet, and took up the head in the sights of them all, and anointed it with an ointment thereas it was smitten off; and in the same wise she did to the other part thereas the head stuck, and then she set it together, and it stuck as fast as ever it did. And the knight arose lightly up’.

What is also considered relevant is the myth of the rise and fall of a kingdom. Malory explores the myth of forces, which are the reasons for the doom of the kingdom, e.g.; 1) internal; loyalty versus disloyalty, infidelity and the lack of Christian virtues, and 2) external; the break-down of feudal society because of war and diseases, and inability to produce food. Gareth focuses on his loyalty towards the kingdom, and not which status he possesses in life, even though he is noble born. In the end, he reveals his true character, but claims that it is does not change anything; ‘[…] that in no wise there should none of them tell not his name, and make no more of him than of the least knight that there was, ‘for’ he said, ‘I will not be known of neither more ne less, neither at the beginning neither at the ending’.

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