Le Morte Darthur can die a rather epic death.

Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Mallory was my latest project.

The book was subtitled ‘The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knythes of the Rounde Table’. Yes, I read it in Old English, or, apparently, an early form of modern English.

It was a terrible, terrible decision.

In my defence, I thought it would be neat to hold a little piece of history in my hands, i.e. one of the earliest written and most comprehensive collections of Arthurian legends. I’m uncertain if the book was representative of how people talked back in the days, or simply how books were written, but you may rest assured that I’m really glad I wasn’t living in 1469.

You see, actually reading Le Morte Darthur wasn’t difficult – it was the content that was absolutely excruciating.

Let me give you an example of a paragraph in part one, ‘Fro the Maryage of Kynge Uther unto Kyng Arthure that Regned Aftir Hym and Ded Many Batayles’. The following excerpt is exactly as it appears in the book, but with modernised spelling (courtesy of yours truly, I’m rather wonderful like that).

And so they went home and unarmed themselves, and so went to supper. And after supper the three kings went into a garden and gave praises to Sir Kay and to Sir Lucas the Butler and to Sir Gryfflet. And then they went into council, and with them Genbaus, brother to Kings Ban and Bors, a wise clerk; and also went Ulphuns, Brascias and Merlion [Merlin]. And after they had been in their council they went to bed. And in the morning they had Masse, and to dinner [breakfast] and so to their council, and argued about what was best to do.

You probably hate me now, right? I mean, it was like reading a story written by an eight-year-old – “and then this happened, and then this, and oh! What do you mean the details of how often meals are served aren’t vital to the tale?”

BBC's Merlin

I don’t know about Malory, but when I read a book, it’s mandatory for there to be some character development or, at the very least, characterisation. Also a few setting descriptions wouldn’t go amiss, and, while we’re at it, I prefer my plot to be more than a bullet pointed war chronology that happens to be written out in prose form.

I admit I only read about one third of part one and gave up – The Death of Arthur indeed. From now on, I’m going to stick to Wikipedia for my Arthurian legends, and to BBC’s Merlin for my regular hit of shenanigans committed by a prince and his secretly-a-sorcerer manservant.

Fun Fact: Sir Thomas Malory, or, at least, the man that academics seem to agree on as being the most likely to have written Le Morte Darthur, was actually a criminal. He went to jail a bunch of times, for stealing, raping, extortion etc. What I want to know is: how is it possible for a man steal 335 sheep in one day?!

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21 responses to “Le Morte Darthur can die a rather epic death.

  1. For a second, I thought I was reading Stieg Larsson!

  2. The movie Merlin with Sam Neill is also a great alternative. Lots of sorcery and stuff. That book sounds hateful. Would they have said “hatefulle” in Old English back in those days? :) More like “ye olde boringe storey linne”.

    • Ooh thanks for the recommendation! I think it would be ‘ye olde borynge storey lynne’. Because they replace most of their i’s with y’s. It was quite cool because the Norton Critical Edition had notes on how to pronounce old English, and all the spelling/grammar rules. Too bad I couldn’t be bothered after being subjected to the actual story…

  3. Haha! Well aren’t you just a glutton for punishment! I am SO GLAD to hear you gave up.

  4. I tried reading Le Morte Darthur a few years ago and gave up, too. No wonder Mallory doesn’t have a publishing deal anymore! :-)

    • I know there’s modernised versions of his book, so maybe they would be a little better? Unless it’s just some people fixing up the spelling like I did up there…
      But I wonder if Malory’s contemporaries wrote like he did as well? I think I may do some more research.

  5. I read this about 10 yrs ago, when I was researching various mythologies & it was hard work, so appreciated your post.

  6. I read this back in college, but I had a modernized edition and it wasn’t too bad. :)

    But yay for Merlin! A friend at work got me hooked on the show and it is a guilty pleasure of mine. :)

    • Hmm, I might have to pick up the modernised version, because I was definitely looking forward to reading this book. Merlin is fantastic, and I’m so excited that Season 3 has just started! Only problem, is that they only have 13 eps per season :(

  7. Well, I will try not to get on your bad side! Really bad you say? I agree, sometimes the language can be hard to follow, maybe like you mentioned that maybe the more modern version would flow a bit better. Thanks for keeping it real! I need to be more honest with the reviews I been doing lately (I have come across a few baddies–still, I am forcing myself to add niceties to the reviews). Maybe I need assertiveness training?

  8. this brings me back to when i decided to read the norton anthology of middle english lit. i did it, but all the prose was, well, like that unmodernized bit you include from le morte d’arthur. after a couple hundred pages you can get into the flow of the language, the spelling, the ways the plots progress, but I’m not sure if the saintly feeling I got at end was worth the effort. Plus, I can’t even claim to have read one of the books excerpted in its entirety (or to have tried to, like you did).

    • No way, I think it’s far more impressive to have read that anthology – trust me the only saintly feeling I got was when I borrowed Le Morte Darthur out at the library. All saintliness disappeared when I had to read the thing. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I agree with your review of ‘Le Morte’. I love the musical and the BBC show, but it was hard to get through the voice in this book!!!

    • Oh my, there’s a musical?? The voice was horrid, but I may need to try & get the modern version instead. Or maybe just a nice non-fiction book with lots of pictures, lol. Thanks for the comment!

  10. The notion that, for a 15th century writer, “it’s mandatory for there to be some character development or, at the very least, characterisation” fails to acknowledge that novelistic characterization was a product of the 17th century at the earliest, when Renaissance humanism had begun to make people think of themselves as individuals rather than as indistinguishable parts of a group of people. You can’t reject the value of the work if you are expecting it to be a novel, because in fact its a prose romanace. When reading a “prose romance,” a tale of chivalric adventure in which the ideal and identity of the ruling class is propagated and celebrated, to expect character development is to ask for apple juice from an orange. Stick to novels, man!

    If you ever do give it another go, read the last three books. They are tragic and and powerful. Then you’ll know why it was called “the Death of Arthur,” because his death symbolises the death of a society–think of it like Gone with the Wind.

  11. You should try “Le Morte D’Arthur” from Steinbeck, it sticks to Mallory but the writting is much more contemporary. I’m french and even though I read it in english I enjoyed it a lot

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