Le Morte d'Arthur, completed in 1469 or 1470 and printed by Caxton in abridged form in 1485, is the first major work of prose fiction in English and remains today one of the greatest. It is the carefully constructed myth of the rise and fall of a powerful kingdom — a legendary kingdom, but perhaps also, obliquely, the real English kingdom which in Malory's day seemed as surely doomed by its own corruption as the ancient realm of King Arthur. Malory's myth explores the forces which bring kingdoms into being and the forces, internal and external, which destroy them. The power of the myth goes beyond whatever political implications it had in its day-set tip in, for instance, the parallels Malory introduced between Arthur's reign and the reign of Henry V (discussed below). Malory's grim vision has relevance for any kingdom or civilization: the very forces which make civilization necessary must in the end, if Malory is right, bring it to ruin.
What holds the myth together is not only its undeviating philosophy of doom. In Le Morte d'Arthur, Malory created, or gave new personality to, some of the most striking characters to be found in all English literature: King Arthur himself, the tragic hero; Launcelot, the noblest knight in the world, torn by a conflict of loyalties which must result in his destruction of all he loves best; Sir Gawain, vengeful and treacherous but steadfast in loyalty to his king; Queen Guinevere, emblem of courtly courtesy, generous but also fierce in jealousy; and many more. Another force binding the legend together is Malory's fascination with deadly paradox — events which simultaneously support and undermine the kingdom. For instance, the murder of all children born on May Day, which Merlin arranges to help Arthur escape his predestined death at Mordred's hands, fails to kill Mordred but turns many powerful lords against Arthur — above all, King Lot and a part of his house, doomed themselves but established from the outset as the focus and central cause of Arthur's doom. The legend is also held together by atmosphere. Arthur's realm draws together the ancient days of Celtic magic and irrationality, the by-gone age of Christian miracles, and the fifteenth-century England Malory's readers knew — an England which, Malory suggests, is not as rational or divinely protected as it foolishly imagines.
Not that Malory's vision is wholly black. His legend has moments of great tenderness as well as comedy, and his characters' values are real and noble values; but they are values which mutually conflict and must in the end prove destructive. When the world collapses under Malory's heroes, they are robbed even of the "existential" satisfaction of such characters as Gide's Theseus, who says at the end of it all, "I have lived!" For Malory there is knowledge, but no satisfaction. Except in the case of saints like Galahad, there is only the pattern of human ambition, remorse, penance, and sorrowful death. The ancient British idea of the protector-king comes down, in Malory, to Arthur's words to Sir Bedivere as the king is rowed, mortally wounded, to Avalon:
Then sir Bedwere cryed and seyd,
"A, my lorde Arthur, what shall becom of me, now ye go frome me and leve me here alone amonge myne enemyes?"
"Comforte thyselff," seyde the kynge, "and do as well as thou mayste, for in me ys no truste for to truste in."
The standard edition of Malory's Morte d'Arthur is The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed., Eugéne Vinaver in three volumes (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1947; reprinted with corrections 1948). This is not Caxton's famous text, but another (much closer to Malory's original) which was discovered in 1934. The spelling of names in this text, as in Caxton's, is inconsistent; and in some cases it is doubtful that the scribe used the right name at all. It may be that the manuscript which reached the scribe was confused, incomplete, or in bad repair, and lie simply did what he could with it, or it may be that Malory himself allowed inconsistencies to creep in.
This volume of Cliffs Notes is based on Vinaver's edition. The spelling of names used here is based, generally, on the more common spellings in Vinaver, but sometimes on what has become standard critical practice. As for the title of Malory's book, the Notes follow the practice which has become normal in recent criticism rather than the earlier standard, Morte d'Arthur, or Vinaver's very general title (based on his belief that the tales were not unified), The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Titles used here for the eight main sections and for divisions within some of these sections are adapted from Vinaver but are shortened and simplified. For instance, Vinaver's title for Section VI, "The Tale of the Sankgreal Briefly Drawn Out of French, Which Is a Tale Chronicled for One of the Truest and One of the Holiest That Is in This World" is reduced here to "The Holy Grail."