What little is known about Sir Thomas Malory is often not very favorable. His version of the Arthur legend, however, would come to be the source for all subsequent stories of the King of Summer and his knights errant. A hymn to chivalry and a bawdy chorus glorifying violence and human frailty, Le Morte d'Arthur remains the standard for rollicking adventure stories.
The incessant fighting can get tedious, but in Medieval writing it served a definite purpose. Literature in those days was always literal and allegorical. An evocation of Middle Ages Christianity, Malory's saga chronicles the exploits of Arthur's knights as spiritual conflict in the guise of physical struggle.
This is real chivalry—not the courtship and ritual of popular imagination, but the working out of the spiritual through the agency of the physical realm. But it isn't a purely Christian concept. The idea that the object of one's idealization (be it woman or God or holy grail) was ultimately unobtainable and desirable for that reason is wholly pagan.
Responsible for helping to codify the major tenets of Courtly Love, Malory read these back onto the vaguely historical King Arthur stories and helped wed Christianity with a pagan humanism that eventually led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The romance of Lancelot and Guinevere was, in Malory's day, more ideal than the Queen's relationship with Arthur.
But there is plenty to be admired in Le Morte d'Arthur. The title means "the death of Arthur," and shows this isn't simply a chivalrous romance or gory adventure story—Malory's work is filled with sadness and imminent doom. Though a celebration of chivalry, it's a criticism of chivalry's excess and futility, and a herald of its demise, destined to fade with Arthur into the ever-romanticized Past.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.