Malory: Complete Works

“Ye must take the adventure that God woll ordayne you.”

Thomas Malory

This is another one of those serendipitous books I’ve always wanted to read and have finally been given a chance to do so by my English course. (There’ve been rather a lot of those recently, which is nice.) It’s better known as the Morte Darthur, the Death of Arthur, but this is a somewhat misleading title since only the last few chapters deal with King Arthur’s actual death; the rest is a collection of tales adapted by Malory (in the mid-fifteenth century, no less) from older French and English stories about King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.

What’s it like? Well, for a start, it’s long: eight hundred pages in this edition, all in Middle English (although you can get a modernised edition). And, while there are some excellent, fascinating bits (the Quest for the Holy Grail is a personal favourite) it can get rather repetitive, with endless tournaments, battles and random challenges. One scene that seems to repeat itself endlessly goes something like this:

An unknown knight turns up at a king’s castle. He asks for a gift in return for a service like ridding the country of a particularly troublesome monster (for example), without specifying the gift in advance. Once this service has been performed, he returns and names his gift, which usually turns out to be something problematic like “the king’s wife” or “food for a year”, and everyone gets very upset and people die.

This happens over and over again, and never once does anyone think to ask the knight to specify what he wants in advance or even just to say no.

Apparently everyone in Arthur’s court was really stupid.

But it helps, actually, to read Malory more like a fairy-tale, or like The Lord of the Rings: as a story aiming not for strict realism but for a Moral of the Story, or a kind of stylised version of chivalry. Then the tales become a lot more atmospheric, with bits like “Snow White” or “Cinderella”, or just bedtime stories of monsters and knights and magic. In fact, the best bits, for me, were the parts I already knew, from other Arthur stories: the death of Arthur, which everyone knows from Tennyson, where Sir Bedivere throws his sword away; the Sword in the Stone; the bit where Merlin gets stuck in a cave. It becomes an experience akin to reading an ancient and beloved fairytale: you know exactly what is going to happen, and the words drop into place with a satisfying mental clunk. This isn’t to downplay its merit; it just works differently to modern novels. It’s almost refreshing to be able to read something like this, on its own terms.

On the whole, I did rather enjoy the Morte Darthur, despite its prodigious length and occasional repetition (avoid the bit about Sir Tristram of Lyoness, which goes on for ever). You can’t go far wrong with an Arthur tale, after all. Even if we do all know how it ends.

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