Le Morte d'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur)—the title is actually spelled as Le Morte Darthur in the first printing and also in some modern editions—is Sir Thomas Malory's compilation of some French and English Arthurian romances. It was first published in 1485 by William Caxton. Le Morte d'Arthur has become the base story of many modern Arthurian stories, including T. H. White's The Once and Future King.


About the text

Malory likely started work on it while he was in prison in the early 1450s and completed it by 1470. William Caxton may have named it Le Morte Darthur instead of Malory's original title: The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table. Many modern editions update the spelling and some of the pronouns from Malory's original Middle English, repunctuate and reparagraph, but otherwise leave the text as it was written.

Caxton was also responsible for separating it into 21 books comprised of 507 chapters for easier reading. Yet it is apparent that Malory intended the work to be divided principally into eight tales:

  1. The birth and rise of Arthur
  2. King Arthur's war against the Romans
  3. Launcelot
  4. Gareth (brother of Gawain)
  5. Tristram and Isolde
  6. The Quest of the Holy Grail
  7. The affair between Launcelot and Guinevere
  8. The breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and the death of Arthur

Most of the events in the book take place in Britain and France in the latter half of the 5th century. In some parts it ventures farther afield, to Rome and to Sarras (near Babylon), and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Middle East.

All editions prior to 1934 were based on the edition printed by Caxton. However, in 1934, when the library of Winchester College was being catalogued, a previously unknown manuscript copy was discovered—one of the most important new medieval manuscripts discovered in the twentieth century. The Winchester manuscript is regarded as being mostly but not always closer to Malory's original than is Caxton's text, although both derive separately from an earlier copy. Curiously, microscopic examination of ink smudges on the Winchester manuscript showed the marks to be offsets of newly printed pages set in Caxton's own font indicating that same manuscript had been in Caxton's print shop. But Caxton used some other manuscript for his base text. Unlike the Caxton edition, the Winchester MS is not divided into books and chapters and indeed, in his preface, Caxton takes credit for the division.

Eugène Vinaver in his edition to the Winchester Manuscript urged strongly that Malory had in fact not written a single book, but had produced a series of intentionally independent Arthurian tales that were not necessarily intended to cohere with one another, whence Vinaver called his edition The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. This theory explained discrepancies between the different sections which had bothered commentators. But opposition critics pointed out that discrepancies still existed within the tales that Vinaver claimed were independent works and that Malory, particularly in his later tales, added links to his own versions of events in earlier tales, especially in the last two tales. That showed that Malory felt that the tales should cohere, even if Malory did not get to the point of producing a revision that achieved that goal. Even Vinaver treated the last two of his tales as intended to be read together.

The discussion tended to get bogged down into debate on the meaning of unity and what book should be along with accusations that Vinaver's own divisions in his edition ignored the divisions actually indicated in the manuscript. In fact, readers of Malory do mostly continue to read what Malory wrote as a single work comprising several tales and tales within those tales, and which also contains a number of contradictions between different parts of this supposed whole work which are balanced or surpassed by the links between different parts of this supposed whole work.

Selected bibliography and external links

The work itself

  • The text of Le Morte Darthur (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1251) on Project Gutenberg.
  • Editions based on the Winchester manuscript:
    • Facsimile:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. The Winchester Malory: A Facsimile. Introduced by Ker, N. R. (1976). London: Early English Text Society. ISBN 0197224040.
    • Archaic spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. (A Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Shepherd, Stephen H. A. (2004). New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 039397464. (Official website with textual corrections and further commentary: Stephen H. A. Shepherd: Le Morte Darthur: On-line companion (http://faculty.smu.edu/sshepher/MorteDarthur.htm).)
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène. 3rd ed. Field, Rev. P. J. C. (1990). 3 vol. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198123442, ISBN 0198123450, ISBN 0198123469.
      • _________. Malory: Complete Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1977). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192812173. (Revision and retitling of Malory: Works of 1971).
      • _________. Malory: Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1971). 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192541633.
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1967). 2nd ed. 3 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198118384.
      • _________. Malory: Works. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1954). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192541633. (Malory's text from Vinaver's The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947), in a single volume dropping most of Vinaver's notes and commentary.)
      • _________. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Ed. Vinaver, Eugène (1947). 3 vol. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    • Modernized spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Ed. Cooper, Helen (1998). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192824201. (Abridged text.)
    • Translation/paraphrase into contemporary English:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. Trans. and abridged by Baines, Keith (1983). New York: Bramhall House. ISBN 0517020602. Reissued by Signet (2001). ISBN 0451528166.
      • _________. Le Morte D'Arthur. (London Medieval & Renaissance Ser.) Trans. Lumiansky, Robert N. (1982). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0684176734.
  • Editions based on Caxton's edition:
    • Facsimile:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur, printed by William Caxton, 1485. Ed. Needham, Paul (1976). London.
    • Archaic spelling:
    • Modernized spelling:
      • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Matthews, John (2000). Illustrated by Ferguson, Anna-Marie. London: Cassell. ISBN 0304353671. (The introduction by John Matthews praises the Winchester text but then states this edition is based on the Pollard version of the Caxton text, with eight additions from the Winchester manuscript.)
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur. Introduction by Moore, Helen (1996). Herefordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1853264636. (Seemingly based on the Pollard text.)
      • _________. Le morte d'Arthur. Introduction by Bryan, Elizabeth J. (1994). New York: Modern Library. ISBN 067960099X. (Pollard text.)
      • _________. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Cowen, Janet (1970). Introduction by Lawlor, John. 2 vols. London: Penguin. ISBN 067960099X, ISBN 014043044X.
      • _________. Le Morte d'Arthur. Ed. Rhys, John (1906). (Everyman's Library 45 & 46.) London: Dent; London: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton. Released in paperback format in 1976: ISBN 046001045X, ISBN 0460010468. (Text based on an earlier modernized Dent edition of 1897.)
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur: Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table,. Ed. Pollard, A. W. (1903). 2 vol. New York: Macmillan. (Text corrected from the bowdlerized 1868 Macmillan edition edited by Sir Edward Strachey.) Available on the web at:
      • _________. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Simmon, F. J. (1893–94). Illustrated by Beardsley, Aubrey. 2 vol. London: Dent.


sv:Morte D'Arthur


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