Although there are three different men named Thomas Malory in the same general time period, scholars have (mostly) decided that Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire is the most probable author of Le Morte d’Arthur. If so, the author led a life that does not necessarily correspond to the knightly values espoused by his work, and the text itself was most likely composed while Malory was in prison. The value of Malory’s work is in part that it is a compilation of every previous Arthurian text that the author could find, including French works that he translated; evidently, he was given access to books while in captivity, and the “knight prisoner” includes requests to pray both for his soul and for his deliverance. In addition to the usual stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, stories that often were told separately—such as the love of Tristan and Isolde (here called Tristrem and La Beale Isoud), or the quest for the Holy Grail—are incorporated into one long narrative. Whether the author intended the work to be published in one massive volume (as its first publisher, William Caxton, did, subdivided into twenty-one sections, or “books”) or as eight separate volumes (as suggested by its structure in the Winchester manuscript), the stories interconnect and foreshadow future events in a carefully-constructed way. Malory puts his mark on the story in other ways as well. As a knight during the Wars of the Roses, which split England into factions, Malory takes a dim view of the future of knightly behavior; rather than follow a higher code, Arthur’s knights easily slip back into the warrior tradition of valuing blood over all other ties, regardless of guilt or of the consequences of their actions. Doing the right thing is no guarantee of safety. Even during the happiest moments in the story, Malory foreshadows that the end is coming, adding a sense of impending doom. His focus on Lancelot offers additional clues about Malory’s priorities. Although the story begins with the conception and birth of Arthur, it ends not with Arthur’s death, but the death of Lancelot. When Lancelot becomes friends with Tristan, he sees for himself the disaster that follows when a knight falls in love with his lord’s wife, but does not learn the lesson. Lancelot is a worthy knight, but it is his son, Galahad, who will achieve the Holy Grail, since he has the spiritual purity that his father lacks. For all of his strength and nobility, Lancelot’s adultery with Queen Guinevere brings down Arthur’s kingdom. Lancelot’s flaws appear to fascinate Malory, since Malory places this tragic figure at the center of the story, rather than Arthur.
1.17.1 Selections from Le Morte d’Arthur
(also called Le Morte DArthur)
Published in 1485
CHAPTER XVIII. How the knight yielded him, and how Beaumains made him to go unto King Arthur’s court, and to cry Sir Launcelot mercy.
Then came there many earls, and barons, and noble knights, and prayed that knight to save his life, and take him to your prisoner. And all they fell upon their knees, and prayed him of mercy, and that he would save his life; and, Sir, they all said, it were fairer of him to take homage and fealty, and let him hold his lands of you than for to slay him; by his death ye shall have none advantage, and his misdeeds that be done may not be undone; and therefore he shall make amends to all parties, and we all will become your men and do you homage and fealty. Fair lords, said Beaumains, wit you well I am full loath to slay this knight, nevertheless he hath done passing ill and shamefully; but insomuch all that he did was at a lady’s request I blame him the less; and so for your sake I will release him that he shall have his life upon this covenant, that he go within the castle, and yield him there to the lady, and if she will forgive and quit him, I will well; with this he make her amends of all the trespass he hath done against her and her lands. And also, when that is done, that ye go unto the court of King Arthur, and there that ye ask Sir Launcelot mercy, and Sir Gawaine, for the evil will ye have had against them. Sir, said the Red Knight of the Red Launds, all this will I do as ye command, and siker assurance and borrows ye shall have. And so then when the assurance was made, he made his homage and fealty, and all those earls and barons with him.
And then the maiden Linet came to Sir Beaumains, and unarmed him and searched his wounds, and stinted his blood, and in likewise she did to the Red Knight of the Red Launds. And there they sojourned ten days in their tents; and the Red Knight made his lords and servants to do all the pleasure that they might unto Sir Beaumains. And so within a while the Red Knight of the Red Launds yede unto the castle, and put him in her grace. And so she received him upon sufficient surety, so all her hurts were well restored of all that she could complain. And then he departed unto the court of King Arthur, and there openly the Red Knight of the Red Launds put him in the mercy of Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine, and there he told openly how he was overcome and by whom, and also he told all the battles from the beginning unto the ending. Jesu mercy, said King Arthur and Sir Gawaine, we marvel much of what blood he is come, for he is a noble knight. Have ye no marvel, said Sir Launcelot, for ye shall right well wit that he is come of a full noble blood; and as for his might and hardiness, there be but few now living that is so mighty as he is, and so noble of prowess. It seemeth by you, said King Arthur, that ye know his name, and from whence he is come, and of what blood he is. I suppose I do so, said Launcelot, or else I would not have given him the order of knighthood; but he gave me such charge at that time that I should never discover him until he required me, or else it be known openly by some other.
CHAPTER XIX How Beaumains came to the lady, and when he came to the castle the gates were closed against him, and of the words that the lady said to him.
NOW turn we unto Sir Beaumains that desired of Linet that he might see her sister, his lady. Sir, she said, I would fain ye saw her. Then Sir Beaumains all armed him, and took his horse and his spear, and rode straight unto the castle. And when he came to the gate he found there many men armed, and pulled up the drawbridge and drew the port close.
Then marvelled he why they would not suffer him to enter. And then he looked up to the window; and there he saw the fair Lionesse that said on high: Go thy way, Sir Beaumains, for as yet thou shalt not have wholly my love, unto the time that thou be called one of the number of the worthy knights. And therefore go labour in worship this twelvemonth, and then thou shalt hear new tidings. Alas, fair lady, said Beaumains, I have not deserved that ye should show me this strangeness, and I had weened that I should have right good cheer with you, and unto my power I have deserved thank, and well I am sure I have bought your love with part of the best blood within my body. Fair courteous knight, said Dame Lionesse, be not displeased nor over-hasty; for wit you well your great travail nor good love shall not be lost, for I consider your great travail and labour, your bounty and your goodness as me ought to do. And therefore go on your way, and look that ye be of good comfort, for all shall be for your worship and for the best, and perdy a twelvemonth will soon be done, and trust me, fair knight, I shall be true to you, and never to betray you, but to my death I shall love you and none other. And therewithal she turned her from the window, and Sir Beaumains rode awayward from the castle, making great dole, and so he rode here and there and wist not where he rode, till it was dark night. And then it happened him to come to a poor man’s house, and there he was harboured all that night.
But Sir Beaumains had no rest, but wallowed and writhed for the love of the lady of the castle. And so upon the morrow he took his horse and rode until underne, and then he came to a broad water, and thereby was a great lodge, and there he alighted to sleep and laid his head upon the shield, and betook his horse to the dwarf, and commanded him to watch all night.
Now turn we to the lady of the same castle, that thought much upon Beaumains, and then she called unto her Sir Gringamore her brother, and prayed him in all manner, as he loved her heartily, that he would ride after Sir Beaumains: And ever have ye wait upon him till ye may find him sleeping, for I am sure in his heaviness he will alight down in some place, and lie him down to sleep; and therefore have ye your wait upon him, and in the priviest manner ye can, take his dwarf, and go ye your way with him as fast as ever ye may or Sir Beaumains awake. For my sister Linet telleth me that he can tell of what kindred he is come, and what is his right name. And the meanwhile I and my sister will ride unto your castle to await when ye bring with you the dwarf. And then when ye have brought him unto your castle, I will have him in examination myself. Unto the time that I know what is his right name, and of what kindred he is come, shall I never be merry at my heart. Sister, said Sir Gringamore, all this shall be done after your intent.
And so he rode all the other day and the night till that he found Sir Beaumains lying by a water, and his head upon his shield, for to sleep. And then when he saw Sir Beaumains fast asleep, he came stilly stalking behind the dwarf, and plucked him fast under his arm, and so he rode away with him as fast as ever he might unto his own castle. And this Sir Gringamore’s arms were all black, and that to him longeth. But ever as he rode with the dwarf toward his castle, he cried unto his lord and prayed him of help. And therewith awoke Sir Beaumains, and up he leapt lightly, and saw where Sir Gringamore rode his way with the dwarf, and so Sir Gringamore rode out of his sight.
CHAPTER XX. How King Anguish of Ireland was summoned to come to King Arthur’s court for treason.
Then it fell that Sir Bleoberis and Sir Blamore de Ganis, that were brethren, they had summoned the King Anguish of Ireland for to come to Arthur’s court upon pain of forfeiture of King Arthur’s good grace. And if the King of Ireland came not in, at the day assigned and set, the king should lose his lands. So it happened that at the day assigned, King Arthur neither Sir Launcelot might not be there for to give the judgment, for King Arthur was with Sir Launcelot at the Castle Joyous Garde. And so King Arthur assigned King Carados and the King of Scots to be there that day as judges. So when the kings were at Camelot King Anguish of Ireland was come to know his accusers. Then was there Sir Blamore de Ganis, and appealed the King of Ireland of treason, that he had slain a cousin of his in his court in Ireland by treason. The king was sore abashed of his accusation, for-why he was come at the summons of King Arthur, and or he came at Camelot he wist not wherefore he was sent after. And when the king heard Sir Blamore say his will, he understood well there was none other remedy but for to answer him knightly; for the custom was such in those days, that an any man were appealed of any treason or murder he should fight body for body, or else to find another knight for him. And all manner of murders in those days were called treason.
So when King Anguish understood his accusing he was passing heavy, for he knew Sir Blamore de Ganis that he was a noble knight, and of noble knights come. Then the King of Ireland was simply purveyed of his answer; therefore the judges gave him respite by the third day to give his answer. So the king departed unto his lodging. The meanwhile there came a lady by Sir Tristram’s pavilion making great dole. What aileth you, said Sir Tristram, that ye make such dole? Ah, fair knight, said the lady, I am ashamed unless that some good knight help me; for a great lady of worship sent by me a fair child and a rich, unto Sir Launcelot du Lake, and hereby there met with me a knight, and threw me down from my palfrey, and took away the child from me. Well, my lady, said Sir Tristram, and for my lord Sir Launcelot’s sake I shall get you that child again, or else I shall be beaten for it. And so Sir Tristram took his horse, and asked the lady which way the knight rode; and then she told him. And he rode after him, and within a while he overtook that knight. And then Sir Tristram bade him turn and give again the child.
CHAPTER XXI. How Sir Tristram rescued a child from a knight, and how Gouvernail told him of King Anguish.
The knight turned his horse and made him ready to fight. And then Sir Tristram smote him with a sword such a buffet that he tumbled to the earth. And then he yielded him unto Sir Tristram. Then come thy way, said Sir Tristram, and bring the child to the lady again. So he took his horse meekly and rode with Sir Tristram; and then by the way Sir Tristram asked him his name. Then he said, My name is Breuse Saunce Pite. So when he had delivered that child to the lady, he said: Sir, as in this the child is well remedied. Then Sir Tristram let him go again that sore repented him after, for he was a great foe unto many good knights of King Arthur’s court.
Then when Sir Tristram was in his pavilion Gouvernail, his man, came and told him how that King Anguish of Ireland was come thither, and he was put in great distress; and there Gouvernail told Sir Tristram how King Anguish was summoned and appealed of murder. So God me help, said Sir Tristram, these be the best tidings that ever came to me this seven years, for now shall the King of Ireland have need of my help; for I daresay there is no knight in this country that is not of Arthur’s court dare do battle with Sir Blamore de Ganis; and for to win the love of the King of Ireland I will take the battle upon me; and therefore Gouvernail bring me, I charge thee, to the king.
Then Gouvernail went unto King Anguish of Ireland, and saluted him fair. The king welcomed him and asked him what he would. Sir, said Gouvernail, here is a knight near hand that desireth to speak with you: he bade me say he would do you service. What knight is he? said the king. Sir, said he, it is Sir Tristram de Liones, that for your good grace that ye showed him in your lands will reward you in this country. Come on, fellow, said the king, with me anon and show me unto Sir Tristram. So the king took a little hackney and but few fellowship with him, until he came unto Sir Tristram’s pavilion. And when Sir Tristram saw the king he ran unto him and would have holden his stirrup. But the king leapt from his horse lightly, and either halsed other in their arms. My gracious lord, said Sir Tristram, gramercy of your great goodnesses showed unto me in your marches and lands: and at that time I promised you to do you service an ever it lay in my power. And, gentle knight, said the king unto Sir Tristram, now have I great need of you, never had I so great need of no knight’s help. How so, my good lord? said Sir Tristram. I shall tell you, said the king: I am summoned and appealed from my country for the death of a knight that was kin unto the good knight Sir Launcelot; wherefore Sir Blamore de Ganis, brother to Sir Bleoberis hath appealed me to fight with him, outher to find a knight in my stead. And well I wot, said the king, these that are come of King Ban’s blood, as Sir Launcelot and these other, are passing good knights, and hard men for to win in battle as any that I know now living. Sir, said Sir Tristram, for the good lordship ye showed me in Ireland, and for my lady your daughter’s sake, La Beale Isoud, I will take the battle for you upon this condition that ye shall grant me two things: that one is that ye shall swear to me that ye are in the right, that ye were never consenting to the knight’s death; Sir, then said Sir Tristram, when that I have done this battle, if God give me grace that I speed, that ye shall give me a reward, what thing reasonable that I will ask of you. So God me help, said the king, ye shall have whatsomever ye will ask. It is well said, said Sir Tristram.
1.17.2 Reading and Review Questions
1. Both love and duty play important roles in the story. Which one do the characters seem to value more, and why do you think so? Does the author seem to imply one is better than the other?
2. Which knight or knights appear to be loyal to the chivalric code, but not the Christian code? What happens to him/them?
3. Are any of the characters in the story positive role models for the original audience? Why or why not?
4. How does the tone of the story affect your reading of it? If the tone were different (either neutral or more positive), would it change your view of the story? Why or why not?
5. Does anything surprise you about the way that the characters are portrayed? Does anything seem out of place, and why?