Look at the pretty book. Thank goodness this 896 page long monster is punctuated by lovely illustrations. I love the fantasy fan-fiction look of them. They’re in soft focus like every Arwen and Aragorn love scene.
Le Morte D’Arthur was published in 1485. Scholars are still debating which of four candidates named Sir Arthur Mallory is the actual author. Don’t let the title fool you, this volume is not just about the death of King Arthur. It is actually a compilation of many Arthurian tales. The story starts with Arthur’s conception and ends with his death, but takes plenty of detours.
Literary merit did not put Le Morte D’Arthur on my highlight list. The book is honestly quite tedious, mostly due to countless jousting scenes consisting of variations of the sentence “Sir A smote Sir B from his horse, and gave Sir C the horse, and Sir C went on to perform many great deeds that day and knock many knights from their horses.” Incredibly repetitious. We hear the story of a knight errant who gets in a lot fights and builds his reputation, and then the story of another knight who does the same thing but with different details. Repeat for 900 pages. However, it was interesting to see what chivalry actually meant in Arthurian tales. It is not all about holding doors for women. I picked out three guiding principles. In order of importance they are:
- Fighting Ability
- Being Nice to Women
- Loyalty to Your King
I put a lot of thought into ranking those and I’m confident in the result. The knights who emerge as the greatest Arthurian knights are Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristram and Sir Lamorak. Two of the three are sleeping with their king’s wife. Clearly, loving a woman takes priority over honoring your king. Apart from witchy Morgan Le Fay, women are portrayed as vulnerable and in need of defense. In a few stories a knight on a quest sees a woman and distress and refuses to help her, because his quest is too urgent. Something terrible happens to the knight as a result of his negligence. He vows to always protect and aid women and becomes known as some variation of “Sir Helps-women-all-the-time.” By “women” I mean “ladies,” because, you know, who cares about commoners? No one.
Helping women is the number two way to become a renowned knight. I had to put it at number two, because of one particular character. Tragically, I can’t remember his name. It’s something like Sir Huge Jerk. He crosses paths with knights of the Round Table a few times. Each time they are traveling and they see him chasing a woman on horseback, trying to kill her. He just hates women so much that he tries to kill them whenever he sees them. The knights try to eliminate him a few times, but he’s a really great jouster and horseman and he gets away. Finally, they overcome him, but decide to let him live. He’s such a good fighter, they respect him and can’t bring themselves to kill him. That’s why Fighting Ability is number one.
Embarrassingly, there was one big point of confusion for me that I didn’t figure out until I had nearly finished reading Le Morte D’Arthur. Often two old friends are out questing, run into each other in the woods or on a road and are so filled with a desire to win battles and be more famous that they start jousting and nearly kill each other. Two of them actually do kill each other. I won’t say who. It happens early in the book, so if you do give Le Morte D’Arthur a try, you will probably make it that far before you have had your fill. I was actually moved by that story. It was sad, but super confusing. How did they not recognize each other? Much later it occurred to me: full body armor and helmet. Duh. Frequently, when a knight does a great deed for a lady and solves her pesky problem, she is so grateful that she insists on giving him new armor with her family insignia on it. Then he goes on and gets in fights with his friends, because they don’t recognize each other’s armor. Tragic.
You might like this book if:
- you REALLY like Arthurian myth
- you love hearing about people knocking other people off of horses
- you are interested in chivalry and medieval literature
- you like dragons and monsters so much that you are willing to read through many mundane battles to get to the monsters
You might not like this book if:
- you don’t like the list above
- you don’t have a lot of patience
Final thought: If you do try to read this, I recommend skipping the parts about Sir Tristram. He does have some fun interactions with his rival, the heathen Sir Palomides. However, there is a lovely free audio recording of Joseph Bedier’s Tristan and Iseult at librivox.org. It’s shorter, the reader has a delightful accent and I prefer Bedier’s version.