English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam

**   7. Malory   **


Arthur in Gutenberg!


 Vol. 1A, pages 25-26, 259-291 from Longman 3rd ed.
"The Spread of Book Culture in the Fifteenth Century" 1A 25-26. "Sir Thomas Malory" 259-291


An internet version of Caxton's Malory is available from University of Michigan. Other versions and materials are available online from Luminarium  

This lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings.  Some other journaling ideas for today include:

How is Morte Darthur different from previous Arthurian readings in this course?

Is Morte Darthur "moral" as Caxton claims? If this book is not a guide to good and bad behavior, then what is its function?

Describe Malory's writing style in your own words.

What could account for the lasting popularity of Morte Darthur?

  For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

These notes are adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.
Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003).

Rounding out Arthur's story in this lesson, we jump ahead to 1485. That is when Arthur was introduced to an emerging reading public, an audience broader than that of courts and monasteries, an audience potentially as large as all readers of English. The meeting place was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (or Morte Darthur), edited, mass printed on a new fangled printing press, and sold by the first English book retailer, William Caxton of Westminster (c. 1422- c. 1492). 






Nineteenth century illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley contributed to the Victorian revival of Arthurian legend and book illumination

Popularizing Arthur, this entertainment established conventions and expectations for Arthurian characters and adventures in later English language fiction and performing arts. It inspired the romantic and Victorian medievalism of, among others, Sir Walter Scott (The Lady of the Lake (1810)), Robert Southey (Madoc (1805)), Alfred Lord Tennyson (
Idylls of the King (1859–85)) and William Morris ("The Defence of Guenevere "(1858)). Its modern influence is to be seen in Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)), T. H. White (The Once and Future King (1958)), and a myriad of others down to Monty Python (Spamalot (2005)).






One Arthur leads to another. The theatrical Spamalot rips off the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The parody of chivalric romance has its own tradition dating back to Chaucer (as we will see) and Cervantes.

Sir Thomas Malory

Who was Sir Thomas Malory? The name may be Caxton's invention, or an apt pen name ("Malory" being maleüré, which is archaic French for unfortunate). Without great success, scholars have advanced various historical individuals as the author. The leading candidate has been Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire (cir. 1405-1471), a  local politician repeatedly arrested and jailed for foul misdeeds, but then eventually released and never convicted. This record suggests a Malory who lived up to his name as a political victim repeatedly held on false accusations for long periods of time. This Malory may have had enough time to write Morte Darthur, and a suitably dour disposition too, but there is no proof that he may have had the literary motivation, inclination or talent.

Whoever he was, Malory reflected the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses in his fictional world of complicated intrigue, slander, grue, religiosity, treachery, delusion, and despair. Malory's Arthur and GuinevereKing Henry 6 of England seem to mirror the polite but sometimes catatonic Henry VI (1421-1471), and Henry's slandered queen, the beautiful Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482). If political parallels of this kind were intended, as they seem, then the author of would have had reason to hide his identity behind "Thomas Malory." And if he understood the secret, Caxton would have been smart to keep it.















Perhaps following Malory's lead, Shakespeare would found his career on "history plays" dramatizing the reign of Henry VI and other events that led to the creation of the Tudor dynasty and the later reign of his queen Elizabeth I .


Neither Henry VI nor Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel lived to see the end of the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII of EnglandThey were long dead when Morte Darthur was published in 1485. That was the year when the new Tudor dynasty was established by the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the marriage of the last surviving Lancastrian Henry Tudor to Elizabeth of York. Henry Tudor's Welsh ancestry must have factored in Caxton's decision to print Morte Darthur; it certainly moved the king to name his first child Prince Arthur. Henry VII moved to restore the power of the monarchy, and clearly it helped him that his people remembered the chaos that ensued when barons held private armies and could make war for or against the king.

Tangled Form and Paratactic Style
The form, style and content of Morte Darthur are such that Henry VI himself could have written it. There's method in it, at least sometimes, but on the surface it looks like madness.

Malory pushes the stories along much faster than the leisurely French Arthurian romances that he used as sources. As if to peel away the rationality of the action, Malory drops the explanatory and moralizing passages from the source texts while he maintains their action. The result is enigmatic, sometimes inconsistent plots that are episodic and diffuse, filled with short scenes of brief dialogue and a big cast of characters, often featuring minor figures like Sir Pinel and Patrise in "The Poisoned Apple," or Lucan and Bedivere in "The Day of Destiny." The storybook collection has a consistently melancholy tone but no central hero, or other unifying plot device, to bring  controlled continuity to the narrative.

Perplexing fragmentation exists at the sentence level, too. This is prose, not verse, but Malory's simple often rhythmic style sometimes captures effects from the alliterative English romance tradition. Rhythmic drive comes mainly from persistent repetition and, especially at moments of high emotion, alliteration:

“‘What sawest thou there?’ said the king.

‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I saw nothing but waters wap and waves wan’”
(“The Day of Destiny”).

But the music is broken as is the flow of meaning. Malory is an originator of paratactic sentence structure, its independent clauses linked by simple coordinating conjunctions, and without the implicit explanatory logic of subordinate clauses. There are few transition words or none. Descriptions of events and speeches are abbreviated and uninterpreted, leaving the reader to piece together what is happening and why.

Caxton’s Prologue

Many noble and dyuers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond camen and demaunded me many and oftymes / wherfore that I haue not do made & enprynte the noble hystorye of the saynt greal [Grail]/ and of the moost renomed crysten kyng / Fyrst and chyef of the thre best crysten and worthy / kyng Arthur / whyche ought moost to be remembred emonge vs englysshe men tofore al other crysten kynges . . .

To whome I answerd / that dyuers men holde oppynyon / that there was no suche Arthur / and that alle suche bookes as been maad of hym / ben fayned and fables / by cause that somme cronycles make of hym no mencyon ne remembre hym noo thynge ne of his knyghtes /

wherto they answerd / and one if specyal sayd / that in hym that shold say or thynke / that there was neuer suche a kynge callyd Arthur / myght wel be aretted grete folye and blyndenesse / For he sayd that there were many euydences of the contrarye / Fyrst ye may see his sepulture in the monasterye of Glastyngburye / And also in polycronycon in the v book the syxte chappytre / and in the seuenth book the xxiij chappytre/ where his body was buryed and after founden and translated in to the sayd monasterye / ye shal se also in thystorye of bochas in his book de casu principum / parte of his noble actes / and also of his falle / Also galfrydus in his brutysshe book recounteth his lyf / and in dyuers places of Englond / many remembraunces ben yet of hym and shall remayne perpetuelly / and also of his knyghtes

Caxton’s Prologue is not unlike a jacket blurb today, using the words of persons of prestige to promote the appeal or social utility of the merchandise. Note Caxton’s insistence on the “noble and dyuers gentylmen” who press him to publish a full Arthurian narrative. He touts his book politically, too: the French in one direction and Welsh in another have all the stories of Arthur, but the English “nowher nye alle.” Caxton will supply the lack, though he does even this under the favor and correction of both lords and gentlemen: he is a servant of the reading public. Literate clerics are not the author's only choice for audience any more, nor is the noble patron the sole supporter of the writer's enterprise. The new commercialism of the age of books is already under way.

Caxton recognizes that there are those who read to learn the truth and those who read for pleasure. He is sure that Malory's book will find acceptance by the latter. The truth of the story may not be literal truth, he admits, but virtue is rewarded and vice punished, so Morte Darthur is claimed to be a practical guidebook on behavior.

Beardsley The Holy Grail



Founder of the Tudor dynasty Henry Tudor (Henry VII) initiated programs of law enforcement, taxation and regulation that kept the barons in check and built the powers of the monarchy.











































In Caxton, print culture arrived in England. Printing presses enabled standardized mass education, standardized miseducation, and standardizeed fantasy.





If you can find it in a monastery or book, it must be true? Caxton does not necessarily agree.

The Miracle of Galahad
The Wars of the Roses were religious wars, insofar as the usurping Lancastrians attempted to justify their cause on grounds that their rival Yorkists were spiritually deficient or unorthodox. Exaggerated Lancastrian pietism seems to be reflected in Malory's emphasis on sacraments and miracles, and his dismissal of  earthly objectives.

The acceptance of death is the same theme as that presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but Galahad brings no garters back to Camelot. He doesn't even come back, and there's finally no Camelot to come back to. Galahad's vision of the grail is represented in terms of the Eucharist, the mass as a repetition of the Last Supper (compare also the twelve knights at Corbenic to the twelve of Jesus), and the transubstantiation of the wafer into the body of Christ. The Lord's meal transforms the flawed Round Table to a imagined spiritual fellowship on an unearthly plane.

Galahad's tale is thick with death, corpses and burials and wishes for death. The saintly knight heals the wounded and the sick, but it's a bizarre sort of healing that frees the patients to die and leave this world, rather than rejoin and reform it. No other knights can match Galahad's level of detachment. The last words of Lancelot's son are unsuccessful in raising Lancelot from his entanglement in the world and tragic passion for Guinevere.  



The Poisoned Apple

The grail quest is the ultimate adventure but it's also a disaster for the secular Round Table. Sir Bors returns from it to a mere “remnant” of the prior company. The surviving characters seem stuck in this diminished world, still playing out old passions and hostilities with a sense of exhausted inevitability, banal and doomed. Lancelot has had a brief vision of the grail and the warning from his son Galahad, but he takes up with Guinevere anyway, resuming an affair that now has become a spiteful, weary argument.

The poisoned apple explores the sad paradox at the center of Malory's book: Arthur can't win with or without Lancelot. Desire for Guinevere is what keeps his star knight at court, yet overall it undermines the code and cohesion of the court. Public celebration of the Round Table is possible only in silence about the affair.

Arthur is undone by the animosities among his knights. Sir Patrise is killed accidentally when Sir Pinel tries to poison Sir Gawain. Sir Mador then tries to avenge the death of Patrise, resulting in the recall of Sir Lancelot and renewal of his affair with Guinevere. This in turn results in the death of Gawain's brothers, who are attempting to expose Lancelot's adultery, so Gawain takes revenge against Lancelot, and the whole kingdom is weakened to the point that Arthur is doomed.


The Day of Destiny

 Brief moments of knightly harmony are always hedged by potential strife and violence. Arthur's kingdom is unsustainable, seeming bent on its own destruction.The court holds together only temporarily and only because of moral compromises, such as silence about Lancelot's affair with Guinevere. This is a reflection of the collapsed medieval world from a royal point of view, when barons had more power than kings leaving states vulnerable to invasion, prone to civil war and marauding. Arthur has no agenda except to keep the peace. He is no leader. He merely reacts to the petty personal activities of his knights, and they are ungovernable.

Morte Darthur describes the death of the old order. The final episode is littered with texts of death: fake letters announcing Arthur’s death, tombs, inscriptions, tales of death, and most poignantly Gawain’s letter, his dying effort. The legacy of these heroic people and their glamorous society is nothing but tombs with inscriptions on them.


“The Day of Destiny” sets the final conflict between feudal loyalty and clan loyalty. As Gawain seeks vengeance for Lancelot’s killing of his kinsmen, Arthur’s absence while prosecuting that kinship vendetta provides Mordred with the chance to kill his father--first in fake letters and then in fact. He would if he could replace Arthur on the throne and in the bed of his stepmother. As evil as Mordred seems to be, many of the common people support him because Arthur's reign has brought them nothing but fighting. Only the church supports Arthur.

The future is degenerate and to be avoided. Throughout the final episode, one character after another abjures the world, to become a hermit, a nun, or a man suspended near death on an unknown island (rather like Henry VI).  Faith and devotion console these individuals, but they destroy the fellowship of the round table which used to hold the world together.



Caxton exhibit at University of Glasgow.

Le Morte Darthur at Virginia Electronic Text Center.

Penn State's Sir Thomas Malory page.

Sir Thomas Malory at Bartleby.



Students are not examined on these "other resources and amusements." However, if you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess.