Reference > The Library > Helen Rex Keller > Reader’s Digest of Books

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
H. R. Keller.  The Reader’s Digest of Books.
Morte D’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory (d. c. 1470)
Morte D’Arthur, a prose compendium of the Arthurian romances, made by Sir Thomas Malory, knight, who completed it in 1470, the year before his death. It was published by Caxton in 1485. The prose romance of Merlin by Robert de Baron, the English metrical romances ‘La Morte Arthure,’ and ‘Le Morte Arthur,’ the French romances of Lancelot and Tristan formed the basis of the work. Starting from the obscure figure of a British chieftain, a dux belloum, against the Saxons, King Arthur had developed into a world-monarch, the center of an intricate cycle of stories. To the marvelous tales of his birth, marriage, Round Table, conquests, and death, had been added the loves and adventures of his knights, Gawain, Lancelot, Tristan; and the mystical Christian legend of the Holy Grail; and all these stories had been told again and again in many languages and in ever-varying forms. From this confused exuberance of material, Malory, by selection and alteration, produced in reasonable compass a unified and fairly complete version of the whole cycle. The convenience of this version and its transparent, picturesque, and expressive style have made it popular ever since, and it has been the source of practically all subsequent literary redactions of the Arthurian legend. The general scope of the narrative may be indicated under the following heads: 1. THE BIRTH AND EARLY EXPLOITS OF ARTHUR. The magician Merlin plays an important part in this division of the story. It is Merlin who makes possible the clandestine union between King Uther Pendragon and Igrayne, Duchess of Cornwall, of whom Arthur is born. Merlin too provides for the boy’s education and through his arrangements Arthur afterward becomes king. Through Merlin he obtains the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. Merlin is his constant mentor, and the chief prop of his throne. Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, daughter of King Leodegran, and his various struggles with discontented subjects, invading kings, giants, and the Roman Emperor Lucius, who sends to Britain to demand tribute, make up the principal exploits of this period. 2. THE PASSION OF LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE. Lancelot du Lake occupies in Malory and in the later French romances the position of leading knight at Arthur’s court, earlier held by Arthur’s nephew Gawain. In Malory, Gawain is represented as cruel, fickle, and a light-of-love—traits which Tennyson has retained. Lancelot, on the other hand, is “the gentlest knight that ever ate in hall among ladies, the sternest to his mortal foe that ever put spear in rest.” Yet he continues for years, without Arthur’s knowledge, an intrigue with Guinevere. This is finally revealed to the king by the traitor Mordred. Lancelot escapes, afterwards rescues Guinevere from execution by burning, and retires with her to his castle of Joyous Gard; but at the order of the Pope he yields Guinevere to Arthur. After the death of the king, both Lancelot and Guinevere take monastic vows and retire from the world. 3. THE PASSION OF TRISTRAM AND ISOULDE. This famous love story is less brilliantly told by Malory than by the Norman Thomas or the German Gottfried, its interest being subordinated to that of Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristram of Lyonesse by a combat with Sir Morôlt of Ireland, frees his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, from paying tribute to the Irish king. Wounded by his opponent’s poisoned spear, he goes to Ireland, where he is healed by Isoulde, daughter of the Irish king. Afterwards he goes to woo her for his uncle, King Mark; but as he is conducting her to Cornwall, they drink a potion, which makes them lovers till death. Their clandestine meetings after her marriage to Mark are at length discovered. Tristram is exiled to Brittany, where he marries the king’s daughter, Isoulde of the White Hands. But the tragic ending of the story is not given by Malory, who, though he conducts Tristram through many other adventures, does not mention his death. 4. THE QUEST OF THE HOLY GRAIL. Arthur’s knights set out to find the Holy Grail, the cup in which the Lord’s Supper was instituted, and which had been brought to England by Joseph of Arimathæa. The quest is achieved by Sir Galahad, the maiden knight, a son of Sir Lancelot. Accompanied by Sir Perceval and Sir Bors he crosses the sea to the holy city of Sarras, where, after receiving the Sacrament from the Grail, he dies and the Grail is caught away to Heaven. 5. THE PASSING OF ARTHUR. When Arthur is making war upon Lancelot, his natural son, Mordred, made regent in his absence, raises a rebellion in the hope of seizing the crown. After a bloody battle, Mordred mortally wounds Arthur and is himself stain by him. Arthur then departs in a barge to the Valley of Avilion to be healed of his wound. Malory’s narrative is characterized by a love of chivalric and aristocratic ideals, and an English preoccupation with questions of morality.  1

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