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Angry About Literature: How This Will Work, and Le Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

by AK Krajewska

This article originally appeared in my newsletter, Angry About Literature, which ran from January 2017 to June 2017. I am reproducing it at rinsemiddlebliss so that more people can read it, and to keep the archive in my own space.

Hello friends, and welcome to the inaugural issue of Angry About Literature. In the hope that this will not be one of those newsletters that will have a first issue and then never have an issue again, I'm going to tell you how this will work and then do it.

I will read books. Then I will write what I think about them, if they are worth thinking about. Sometimes I will do the traditional thing and write about the books when I have finished them, but sometimes I will write about them while I'm in the middle of them. Sometimes I might also write about books I read a while ago. When there is enough stuff that it seems worth sending, but no more frequently than once a week, I will send a newsletter. These will not strictly speaking be reviews. I mean literature in a really broad sense, not just capital L "Literature" but that too. (I do not have a proofreader. Sorry.) Past newsletters will be available in an archive page unless I have good reason to take them down, like saying something extremely stupid that I'm embarrassed about later.

I will mention either in the subject line or early on in the newsletter what books I will discuss. Thus those of you who depend on surprising elements of the plot for your delight can avoid having that experience spoiled. If I discuss things that might be really upsetting, I'll give a warning ahead of time about the general nature of the upsetting subject. Like if I write about 120 Days of Sodom (currently reading) I'll be sure to warn you about it.

And now on to the main attraction, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. #

When I started reading this book about a year ago, I didn't realize how old it was. At first I thought it was some jerk pretending to be all old fashioned Lord Dunsany style. I labored under a misapprehension:

"Le Morte d'Arthur was first published in 1485 by William Caxton, and is today perhaps the best-known work of Arthurian literature in English. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source, including T. H. White in his popular The Once and Future King and Tennyson in The Idylls of the King." (see _Wikipedia).

Le Morte D'Arthur is modern English in the sense that it's understandable to a modern speaker, but there are slight differences in word meaning that can really trip you up. However most of them you can pick up from context. My favorite was that "random" meant "really fast." The story telling conventions, organization, pacing, ethics, causality assumptions, and so on, are kind of alien. They aren't even all that internally consistent. The first book of volume one reads like a chronicle. But the grail quest vignettes feel like fairy tales.

I read a couple of the chapters out loud to a somewhat willing audience and discovered a lot of the quirks of the language that made it hard going reading silently sometimes, were really comfortable spoken out loud. Normally when I read out loud from a book I find myself stumbling and making mistakes unless I really slow down. This language felt perfect on the tongue.

I found myself thinking about the strange twice remove of reading these stories. Malory was writing stories about a time that was about 500 years ago, and it was particularly notable when he made a comment on some custom or ethical standard that was different from his time. "They loved differently in those times" and so on. Yet I, as a modern reader, similarly found myself reflecting on these reflections of his reflections, and how they differed from my time, 500 years forward from Malory.

But even inside the books themselves, the standard for ethical behavior changes. In the early books all that matters is might and courage in battle. Sexual purity and chastity don't matter (Uther tricks another man's wife to sleep with him and thus conceives Arthur; Arthur likes another man's wife and takes her away to sleep with her (it's his sister! oops (and she gives birth to Mordred who betrays him later, oh no!))). Killing other people doesn't matter, as long as it's in battle against another armed person. One of the most famous lovers, Sir Tristram, is the lover of a married lady. Later, once the quest of the holy grail starts, the standard changes and sexual purity matters, even for men. Being honorable in battle is not enough. Further on, ethical standards get even more strict, and killing other people in jousts or for glory is not OK even if they are armed. Even killing in battle to defend yourself becomes a sin you must confess.

The thing I found hardest to wrap my head around was trial by combat. There's an instance where Lady Guenever is accused of unfaithfulness, and even though she denies it, and there are witnesses that deny it, King Arthur is still compelled by law to burn her at the stake unless another knight comes to be her champion in combat against her accuser. Killing other people in combat is no way to test the truth claim of an accusation (says modern reader used to the rules of evidence).

The final two books of the story where the kingdom is crumbling and the fellowship of the round table falls apart were particularly poignant and beautiful. It more than made up for chapters and chapters of jousting, which just felt like reading the medieval sports scores.

I don't know who to recommend these books to. Everyone and no one. The stories are great and full of action and romance and gore and magic and betrayal and religion and wonderful strange things. But the stories meander and skip over bits and go on too long in parts. It's not fast reading and it's so different that a person used to reading a lot of modern books might find it very hard to get into. It reminds me that the novel is a genre with a structure we assume and Le Morte D'Arthur is NOT a novel. If you like weird stories, if you're patient, if you're adventurous, if you have read a lot of old books, and if you don't read very much at all, you might like this.

If possible, read it out loud. Trust me on this one.

If you would like to read Le Morte D'Arthur yourself, you can get a free digital copy, split into two volumes, at the Gutenberg Project: Volume 1, Volume 2. Tip: the glossary is all the way at the end of the book and pretty handy.

Happy reading!


PS. King Mark is a big jerk.