Le Morte D'Arthur (Book IV)

Week 9: Medieval Heroes - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


King Arthur is a legendary figure of profound importance for Celtic folklore and for the island of Britain. The earliest reference to "King Arthur" in an extant literary source is in Welsh poem which dates to around the year 600 (Welsh is one of the main Celtic languages, along with the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland). Some of the adventures of Arthur are included in the great Welsh epic, called the Mabinogion.

The first major source for the stories of King Arthur is the historian Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote a "Historia Regum Britanniae," or "History of the Kings of Britain" (in Latin) around the year 1135. Around the same time Wace composed a "Roman de Brut" (in French) which adapted the stories of Arthur to the traditions of chivalric literature which had become extremely popular in France. Chrétien de Troyes, a French poet also dating to the 12th century, wrote five romances in verse form about the adventures of King Arthur's knights. Medieval German authors such as Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg also contributed to the corpus of Arthurian literature. The readings you will have this week are taken from the last of the major medieval treatments of King Arthur: Le Morte de Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, which dates to the 15th century.

You may already know the basic outlines of the Arthur legend, which is roughly as follows. Uther Pendragon was the king of Britain, and he fathered a bastard son, Arthur. Arthur was raised secretly and revealed himself only when Uther died, proving his destiny by pulling the famous sword from the stone. Arthur was also given another sword, Excalibur, by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur was tutored and guided by the magician Merlin. Arthur's court was at the castle of Camelot, where he gathered together a band of knights, called the "Knights of the Round Table." Although Arthur had many loyal followers, he also had enemies, notably his sister Morgan and his nephew Mordred. King Arthur was married to Guinevere, but she notoriously betrayed Arthur by taking the knight Lancelot as her lover.

Sir Thomas Malory

Sir Thomas Malory died in 1471, and the date of his birth is not known precisely; he was probably born around the year 1420. Malory was a notorious individual, and was convicted of all kinds of crimes, including robbery and murder. He spent most of the last twenty years of his life in prison, and he died in a London prison (probably Newgate Prison). It seems likely that he composed his Arthur stories while he was imprisoned. In 1485, the printer William Caxton published Malory's work about Arthur and he gave the work the exotic French title of Le Morte de Arthur even though Malory had written his work in English.

William Caxton

William Caxton (1421-1491) is a pivotal figure in English literature. He was one of the first printers in England, and his print shop produced a massive quantity of works (at least one hundred titles are known), including popular works in English, along with many translations from foreign languages, especially French. You may have read some of Caxton's translations of Aesop in a previous unit; you can read his complete edition of Aesop online at aesopica.net. In 1477, Caxton printed the first book in England: Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres. Caxton had learned printing when he lived in Germany and Belgium. Gutenberg had printed the first book in Europe, the famous Gutenberg Bible, in 1455.

You will be reading a version of Caxton's edition of Malory with modernized spelling, but you might also want to take a look at Caxton's original spelling (or lack thereof), as in his Preface to Malory's work. Caxton is concerned to show that Arthur is one of the nine great men that ever lived: three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David, Judas Maccabee), and three Christians (Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon).

Book IV of Le Morte de Arthur

In order to read Book IV of Malory's Le Morte de Arthur, you will need to be familiar with the main characters:

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM