Any fourth year currently in the throes of a dissertation will be familiar with the following question, and the sensation of extreme dread it provokes. ‘So, what is it you’re doing your dissertation on, exactly?’ A cold chill runs down the spine. Excuses begin piling up behind your tongue. The urge to dissemble, deprecate, avoid, is overpowering.
Or is that just me? Sometimes, it’s hard to justify 10,000 words spent on a microscopic analysis of queenship in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
After all, who’s even heard of it? A late 15th century compilation of a variety of disparate Arthurian sources attempting to synthesise a complete retelling of the story of King Arthur is a tough sell. I’m aware of that. Going into the dissertation, I wasn’t sure what I expected from Malory in the original Middle English – in the raw, as it were. Something tough, knotty as its language, obtuse, defying modern conceptions of narrative, characterisation, and morality. It’d be interesting, but if I did learn to love it, it’d be a result of many hard-fought hours in the library.
So, I’m sure it’ll come as much of a shock to you as it did to me that’s it’s completely and compellingly readable. Sure, you need some to have some interest in the Arthurian legend, and a reasonable tolerance to the blood and tears code of the Round Table. But really, stripped of the Cistercian mysticism of a lot of the French Romances and the dry, dodgy and painstaking attention to ‘historical’ detail of the English chronicles, what Malory has on his hands is a rollicking good story. A tale of an unremarkable boy who has a destiny, a wise and mysterious mentor, an unknown parentage, and a tragic fate lurking in the distant future. There’s a reason it’s a classic. All this combined with a genuinely moving tale of love in the face of betrayal, the timeless conflict between the temporal and the heavenly, countless damsels, wicked step-sisters, gallant albeit misguided knights, a chorus of monsters, and more allegory than you can shake a stick, or sword, at.
It’s a long work – my edition comes in at well over 600 pages – and you can be forgiven for becoming irritated at the lengthy digressions. Although Malory wisely reduces the incredibly anachronistic ‘Arthur versus Rome’ sequence from earlier chronicle accounts, the 200 pages spent on the largely tangential Tristram of Lyonesse sequence is harder to justify. Of course, it’s thematically appropriate, and without Queen Isolde my dissertation would be looking a wee bit more famished, but really we’re here for Arthur and Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, Morgan, Lancelot, and Mordred. The escapades of the other knights are enjoyable, especially if you have a taste for allusion, allegory, and the numinous, but ultimately they are the side-dressing at the main feast.
But if you have the time, and a bit of patience, Malory is a highly capable writer, who has a skillful and always intriguing grasp of prose and imagery. Combined with the real weight of tragedy he brings to bear on his material, and Malory’s obvious command of his sources, Le Morte d’Arthur is something truly special. Allusive and elusive, human and unearthly, familiar, and yet with enough oddities and rarely dramatised episodes as to be always surprising, I can honestly recommend this 15th century Middle English Romance as both a great work of literature and an unexpected page turner.
Photo credits: The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse, Wikimedia Commons