On Finishing Le Morte d’Arthur

I reached something of a personal milestone today.

I finished reading Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, having made my initial attempt in the last years of primary school and having stopped and started (again) at intervals over the ensuing thirty-ish years.


First page of Caxton’s 1485 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur

What possessed me to attempt an extended late-medieval prose narrative at so tender an age, you might ask? 

I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Mr T.H. White. I first discovered The Sword in the Stone in the children’s section of Kentish Town Library. It was a stoutly-bound, hardbacked volume of respectable vintage. I have a feeling that I had seen and enjoyed the cartoon version of the story not long before and that this was what prompted me at the age of nine or so to select the book and bring it home.

I loved The Sword in the Stone out of measure. It offered me an education comparable to that  which Merlin provided the Wart – 

“The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.”

The words and phrases seared themselves in my brain. The ramblings of the confused King Pellinore were for me the height of hilarity, while episodes such as Wart among the bitter grandeur of the militaristic hawks blindfolded in the mews with their disturbing bloodthirsty ditties, or the medieval Christmas in the Great Hall followed by the blood and snow of the grim boar hunt formed memories as deep as any real-life experience and made me long for a reality so vivid and magical. 

I borrowed that book many times in succession from Kentish Town Library until a thoughtful adult gifted me not merely with The Sword in the Stone but with The Once and Future King, a volume containing not only that initial book of boyhood magic and transformation but the Arthurian novellas that succeeded it. 

As I approached adolescence in company with the damaged sons of Morgause and with the Ill-Made Knight and his tormented scruples I was drawn into a darker world of cruelty and guilt, anguished speculations on the rights and wrongs of violence and the damage done to children by the words of adults around them. I suspect I would have been an unhealthily introspective young person even without the help of T.H. White, but he certainly did help and for that I can only tender my gratitude.

These later books made it clear that behind White lurked the figure of Malory, rather as Malory himself alludes to ‘the book’ or ‘the French book’ and so ad infinitem, possibly.. Thus, with a visit to the Owl Bookshop, I secured Volume One of Le Morte d’Arthur and began to read.

I got through the first books all right, the drama of Igraine and Uther, which I would soon after reprise with my excitable thirteen year old perusal of The Mists of Avalon, the familiar tale of Excalibur, the setting up of the Table Round. Recklessly, I invested in Volume Two, in anticipation of finishing Volume One.

Yet I became discouraged. It wasn’t the language that formed a barrier; I enjoyed and absorbed the late medieval phrasing, especially with the aid of the glossary at the foot of the page. 

The campaign in Rome threw me first of all  – the bit where Arthur and his knights suddenly find themselves at war with the entire Roman Empire, despite the fact that Rome has certainly fallen by any foolish attempt at historical contextualising. It had nothing to do with my idea of what the King Arthur story was about – T.H. White either skipped it or alluded to it briefly and later retellings rarely mention such a thing so I felt somewhat lost. Somehow, at some point, I got through that part  with the reward of a horrible story of a cannibalistic giant who became part of the continental adventure. 

It was the mid point of the work I found really hard going, the last few books of Volume One and the first book of Volume Two. The obsession with jousting and tournaments, the surreal landscape in which knights rode around for no other purpose, seemingly, than to knock other knights off their horses and the weird peripatetic existence of the ‘damsels’ with their strange mixture of independence and victimhood, riding about on their palfreys, delivering messages, being rude and unpleasant to new knights, but then being captured and swapped around like tokens, with little apparent objection for the most part.

It was as though the British countryside became a checquered gameboard on which a peculiar game was being enacted a la Alice Through the Looking Glass. It began to seem unedifying, repetitious and rather dull like those films with the explosions and car chases that are just white noise to me. 

At various times over the years, then, I got to that middle point (having started from the beginning each time) and then retreated. 

A month or so ago however, as recorded in my previous post, I had the urge to immerse myself in things Arthurian as part of a project to write my own Tristan and Iseult. With new determination I pushed through the monster of book 10 with which vol 2 begins and then found that the second half of the work is wonderful. 

The impending tragedy of Launcelot and Guinevere gathers pace, there is the strangeness and mystery of the Grail Quest and the mindless knocking of people from their horses is exchanged for something like psychological subtlety and hints of depth of character as these noble, larger than life beings hurtle towards their doom.

At their holy and pitiful end, Launcelot and Guinevere remind me rather of Abelard and Heloise, which makes me wonder if their story was an inspiration for Malory, or whether it was part of a broader narrative trope.

So an ending of sorts has been reached of a considerable portion of my own life, but I like to think hopefully that this ending represents a beginning and that having achieved the Grail of Le Morte d’Arthur I do not expire upon my knees but am instead inspired to go galloping off on further quests.






New Project: Medieval Immersion

CEC128164 Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion, 1867 (mixed media) by Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Charles  (1828-82); 62.3x59.1 cm; The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford, UK; (add.info.: intended for Isolde the Fair and King Mark of Cornwall;); English,  out of copyright
Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion, 1867  by Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Charles (1828-82);The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford, UK

My new fiction project is a novelistic retelling of the Tristan and Iseult Romance.

This tragic and bitter-sweet tale, set in the Celtic lands of Cornwall, Brittany and Ireland is known from an array of medieval retellings, including a substantial precis in Malory. Originally seemingly separate from the Arthurian legend complex, it has been grafted in and made part of the story, so that Tristan becomes a knight to rival Sir Lancelot while his love for Iseult, wife of King Mark parallels and echoes Lancelot’s love for Queen Guinevere, wife of Arthur.

After an interlude of forgetfulness, 19th and 20th century authors took up the theme, with poems such as Swineburne’s Tristan of Lyonesse and artwork by the Pre-Raphaelite brethren, who immersed themselves in Arthurian lore to escape the ugliness of their industrialised present.

So, for the next while, I shall be immersing myself in things Celtic, Arthurian and medieval as my own retelling of this tale finds its shape and voice. In the process, I’ll share here interesting and useful websites, artwork, book musings, articles and perhaps the odd ficlet.