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Le Morte d’Arthur: An Analysis

by Peter McLeod

For my primary source report, I chose Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, an english

writer. I will be focusing on the Grail Saga, which takes place between page 68 and page 91 of the text,

as it is the first section to possess an overarching story-line of any considerable volume. The document

was originally written in 1485 AD as an effort by Sir Thomas to codify the existing French and English

legends about the titular Arthur and his knights. It is the second iteration of the King Arthur story, the

first of which was the Historia Regum Britanniae by Father Geoffrey of Monmouth written in 1136

AD, who despite embellishing to a rather shocking degree on the source material (which consisted of 2

short blurbs in Annales Cambriae) actually believed his story to be historical fact. The primary reason

why I believe Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur was because the Historia Regum Britanniae

was incomplete: the most important part of the story (at least the a Christian reader), the Grail Saga,

was incomplete and fairly vague, as Father Geoffrey died before it could be completed. In order to do

so (and given that, like Geoffrey, he likely believed the Arthurian Legends to be literal truth), it is very

likely in my opinion that he scoured the British and Scottish countrysides for folk-tales and myths that

might help bridge the gaps in Father Geoffrey’s writings, as evidenced by several pagan elements that

occur throughout the heavily Christianized plot. Another reason, however, might have been the change,

or rather further refinement of the code of ethics of the citizens of Britain during that time period.

When Father Geoffrey of Monmouth originally wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae, the Crusaders

had recently introduced the concept of courtly love, or unconsummated love from a distance, which

became rather vague in the intellectual circles of the time. However, as the Middle Ages came to a

close and the Renaissance approached, many intellectuals and clergy, and Sir Thomas Malory in

particular, began to question if the concept of courtly love was actually compatible with Christian

morality. In particular, Geoffrey had written in a character known as Lancelot, who embodied classical

chivalry and courtly love, in particular with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. While Sir Thomas Malory
certainly liked the idea of courtly love, as it had a feeling of romance to it which was very similar to the

new ideas coming out of the humanist movement, he evidently (as seen later) was very uncomfortable

with its moral implications. I believe that Sir Thomas Malory also wrote Le Morte d’Arthur to address

this very serious issue with the original text, and as a result ended up making Lancelot a far more

interesting character than he otherwise might have been (in my humble opinion).

While I expected to (and did) find minor pagan influences here and there amongst the

document, I was surprised to find an outright rip-off of a pagan beast within the single most Catholic

section of the document, that being the 8-chapter-long Quest for the Holy Grail. The particular beast in

question was found on page 80, in chapter 9: Sir Percival’s Temptation. Therein, the knight Sir Percival

of the Round Table is tempted by numerous demonic entities and comes embarrassingly close to failing

multiple times. The particular beast in question was said to be an inky black horse given to him by a

strange woman, which he mounted and attempted to ride in order to catch up with Sir Galahad (who

had proven himself to be a regular Sonic the Hedgehog in this part of the book). This did not work out

to well for poor Sir Percival, as the horse “came to a rough water the which roared, and […] would

have borne him into it”1, at which point Sir Percival made a sign of the cross, an act which apparently

offended the demon horse, who promptly bucked him off. Turns out that the water was actually hell, as

when part of him fell into the water, “it seemed unto him that the water burned”2. I would have

overlooked this somewhat unusual passage if it weren’t for the fact that there are actually a number of

celtic and nordic monsters which meet the description of this hydrophilic horse, among them: the

Welsh Ceffyl Dŵr, the Scottish Kelpie, the Celtic Each-Uisge, and the Scandinavian Backahast. All of

these monsters are horses who live in of near a lake, and like to kill humans and/or drag them into the

lake, in no particular order. Of them, the Each-Uisge and the Backahast have the explicitly stated

method of tricking mortals into riding them, trapping them on their backs through some unknown

1 Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D' Arthur (GB: William Claxton, 1485), 80.
2 Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D' Arthur (GB: William Claxton, 1485), 80.
means, and then jumping into their lake to drown and later devour their victims, and this appears to be

more-or-less what the inky-black horse in the text was attempting to accomplish. What I find

interesting, however, is the fact that the monster was identified as “a fiend” of some kind by Sir

Percival. There are a number of reasons why the author my have identified this particular beast as a

demon. The one I find the least convincing is that, because it was a pagan monster and he was a

Christian writer he automatically interpreted the monster as a demon. This theory falls apart when

viewed in the context of the rest of the book: there are a number of cases where magical people, places,

and objects are mentioned which the author does not bother to refer to as fiends or servants of fiends;

the various chromatic knights are a prime example of this. Another theory I came up with is that it has

to do with the particular nature of these monsters in pagan culture: some historians believe that these

beings were actually minor pagan gods which the peoples of britain and scandanavia used to sacrifice

to, but then stopped. Given the Church’s much stronger stance on Pagan deities, this may have lead the

writer to call them fiends. However, no other recognizable pagan deity appears in the text as a demon

or otherwise, so I also doubt this. The last possibility, and perhaps the strangest, is that the monk

somehow got the Celtic Each-Uisge and the northern Scottish Nuckelavee confused, or that he

purposely combined the two. The Nuckelavee was an enormous, horrific, centaur-like monster that was

said to occasionally emerge from the sea, which appeared to possesses no skin but had both a human

and a horse head. The monster was said to spread plague and famine wherever it went, and to glory in

it’s ability to cause misery to mankind. What sets this being apart is that is was unique and considered

almost god-like in power, such that when Christianity was introduced to Scotland the Nuckelavee was

instantly associated with Satan. The writer may has followed a chain of logic that looked something

like this: if the Nuckelavee is the Devil, and he is a horse-like creature that comes from a large body of

water in Celtic mythology, than a horse-like creature that comes from a small body of water in Celtic

mythology must therefore be a demon. In any case, what is certain is that the writer knew at least a

smattering of details about Celtic monsters, and if he bothered to include them in the document they
must have been closer to the public consciousness than might otherwise be expected, and thus despite

the fact that Christianity continued to be the dominant religion of the region, old pagan beliefs may not

have been as stamped out than we might otherwise be lead to believe.

Something interesting to note is the conflict between the code of honor of a knight and the code

of morality of the church, shown mostly through comparisons and contrasts between Lancelot and

Galahad, the two greatest knights of Arthur’s court. Lancelot is by far the most martially distinguished

of all the knights of the round table, and has at one time or another beaten almost every other knight in

Camelot. His “peers” view him as a living legend, like Cu Chulainn reborn. Lancelot embodies the

traditional chivalrous code of honor, always fighting for the honor of his lady, and drawing strength

from that devotion in combat. The issue here is that the particular lady he has chosen to devote himself

to in the story is married to his own lord, that is to say King Arthur. Throughout the grail saga, this fact

is rubbed in his face, and despite his skill in battle he is cursed by God, so that any attempt to seek that

which is holy is forever beyond him. Galahad, on the other hand, holds himself to a very similar yet

fundamentally different code of honor. Where Lancelot fights for the honor of his lady, Galahad fights

for justice and in the defense of the innocent, and is considered the purest and most noble knight living.

Indeed, the text goes so far as to demonstrate that Galahad is definitively more virtuous than the other

knights, as he is the only knight to ever sit in the Siege Perilous without great misfortune befalling him.

Before the Grail saga, Galahad is just another knight, not the strongest, but not the weakest either. As

soon as the Grail saga starts, however, Galahad seems to become infused with power, becoming the

only knight aside from Lancelot to reach the Grail at the end, and the only one to actually see the Grail

period. All through this period, he zig-zags across the continent of Britain, defeating the demons who

were attacking the other knights in a matter of seconds before running off into the sunset before the

knight’s even had a chance to process what just happened, seemingly unconcerned the opponents he

faces himself. Lancelot, on the other hand, presses on through sheer tenacity and strength of arms, an

unstoppable juggernaut. Both are portrayed as heroes of legend, yet in the end, it is Galahad who
succeeds. It is revealed by a priest that the very source of Lancelot’s strength and tenacity is his

downfall: his devotion to Queen Guinevere, another man’s wife, is offensive to God, so God himself

has been thwarting his efforts, and though he does repent and seek confession from a priest, his long-

time sin prevents him from ever seeing the goal of his quest even as he completes it before all others.

Even before the Priest explains this, however, Lancelot seems to have gotten an inkling of what was

going on, as before seeking out the priest for aid he said:

My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto dishonour. When I sought worldly adventures

from worldly desires, I ever achieved them, and had the better in every place, and never was I

discomfited in any quarrel, were it right or wrong. But now when I take upon me the adventures

of holy things, I see and understand that mine old sin lindereth and shameth me, so that I had no

power to stir or to speak when the Holy Grail appeared before me.3

Galahad, on the other hand, who seems completely unconcerned with completing the quest, completes

it anyway simply because God desired him to do so. While in the end the writer holds Galahad as the

superior knight for his devotion to God, the fact that Lancelot got so far, and even arrives first,

indicates that even the author was at least somewhat conflicted on the subject. Indeed, the conflict can

actually be seen in the voyant graph, shown below. The Grail saga occurs between document segments

12 and 16. As you can see, prior to that point Galahad is hardly mentioned as all, and Lancelot remains

a major figure. However, as soon as the Grail Saga occurs Galahad becomes much more relevant. Their

relevance to the plot trades places several times, represented by the crests and troughs appearing at

roughly the same time for both of them.

3 Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D' Arthur (GB: William Claxton, 1485), 77.