"Le Morte d'Arthur" by Thomas Malory
A Reading Experience (Pt.24)
When I was a little girl, like a lot of other small children, I liked reading the Arthurian Tales in children’s form. There were so many of them: The Sword in the Stone, The Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot and Guinevere etc. But the best thing is that as I grew up, they got more and more sophisticated until I was fifteen and found the two volumes of Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory. It was like discovering a diamond after having nothing but crystals - there weren’t very many words for having the real thing in my hands. I am going to admit I read both volumes in the same day because I just couldn’t put it down. It was everything I’d ever wanted - an adult book made from the books I read as a child. This book completely changed me and changed what I thought about the children’s stories of my younger days. They really did come from other things. That was all a well and good theory until we got on to the fairy tales and Charles Perrault. Then it just got creepy and weird.
My favourite character from Le Morte D’Arthur will always be Lancelot. He seems to be the most incredible character in most of Grail Literature. He has so many different personalities throughout the different stories and thus he shows the biggest human quality out of all of the characters - complete and utter inconsistency. The best thing about Lancelot is his sorrow. He’s always very emotional after he realises he’s gotten something wrong. Especially when he falls in love with Guinevere. He realises this and then he has these contemplations that are deep, filled with intense language of religion and philosophy, filled with strange dark images and grief. Lancelot has a sorrow that has been depicted in artworks over and over again and even on stamps. I actually used to have a stamp that depicted Lancelot and Guinevere sitting upon horseback. It was painted in these strange pastel colours and was slightly faded. I never really knew what happened to it. But I remember what it looked like perfectly. However, Lancelot’s greatest weakness just happens to be his optimism. At first, he seems like the perfect knight. He is a man whom everyone, including himself, thinks is going to get the Grail, keep the Grail and have the most honour from all the Knights of the Round Table. But, when it comes down to it, Lancelot can get somewhat unrealistic about his own talents - when he makes a mistake, things get overwhelming and sorrowful and Lancelot has this massive reaction. This is probably best displayed by his affair with Guinevere. He only has a violent reaction when he truly knows what he’s doing is just plain wrong. He begins to lose this optimism that was there so surely at the beginning. The question is really about whether the affair would’ve happened at all, or even the way it did, if Lancelot wasn’t as overly optimistic about his position. I mean, it’s the dark ages for a reason, there is really no point being that optimistic at all. I also believe Lancelot represents a key idea in the story. He represents bravery. He is the personification of bravery in every aspect of life. He is brave in battle, he is brave in life and he is brave in love and even in the face of death. It is an amazing character design and one that has endured centuries atop centuries.
A key theme in this book is the concept of new life. New life is given to the knights via the Grail and thus, every time there is strife, death or worry, they turn to the Grail - which serves as a symbol for their religion - in order to reinvent themselves and give themselves new life. There is a sense of courage, energy and bravery that comes along with this and each character seems to understand how it works as well as how to use it correctly. We rarely ever see a character abuse the powers of the Grail and that is obviously to present the new life as a gift from God - God rarely also gives gifts to those who do things wrong. The abuse of the Grail would not be conducive to having the characters gaining access to better skills, more energy, a boost of confidence etc. The various characters that we see play out this theme include Lancelot and Sir Gawain especially. The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is often a tale in which Sir Gawain’s certainty has possibly been attributed to positive thoughts and energy to do with the Grail. However, obviously this cannot be confirmed. But when you have a look at how each character gains confidence or has been healed by the Grail physically - you can also see how they acted just prior to that in order to deserve the healing powers of the legendary item. I believe this theme is used as well to depict that even after death, the Grail still has some power over the humans. If the humans seek to do good in life because of the Grail then they too get into Heaven. So when we see the various characters die, there is some amount of redemption there as well as having a scene of complete heartbreak. This is exactly what happens in the scene in which Arthur himself dies as well. It is a moment of complete redemption as he dies in an ‘honourable’ state.
This book means a lot to me because not only did it prove that the stories I read as a child could come from somewhere else and somewhere far more complex - it also proved to me that the stories of the Dark Ages were actually worth reading. When it comes down to it, I’d like to admit that I got to fifteen years’ old without reading much Dark Age literature because every time I wanted to, some Renaissance fan talked me out of it. However, when I got to Thomas Malory, because it was about King Arthur - I wasn’t about to let someone talk me out of it that easily. Actually, I think someone tried and I told them I’d talk to them after I’d made up my own mind. I don’t remember what happened afterwards though. My latter reading experiences included Chretien de Troyes and Eschenbach - two more Grail legend writers whom I really enjoyed to read as well. Through my re-readings of Malory, I have been able to compare the three authors in how they wrote the legends and which one I prefer. My favourite is Malory, obviously. The best thing about Malory’s book is definitely the depiction of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. It’s the best story in the whole book by a mile.
I hope more people read this book, including and especially children who love the Arthurian Tales because these basically take you back to that simpler time on an amazing Medieval Adventure. It is everything you think it is and it is brilliant. I once met someone who was obsessed with Arthurian Tales and had read so many of them. He said that the best thing about them was their ability to convey and connect so many stories into one narrative and I think about that so much that upon my next re-read of Malory, I’m going to investigate the way that is done. Mixing narratives has always been a big interest of mine.