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Le Morte d'Arthur

Thomas Malory

Study Help Essay Questions

1. It has sometimes been argued that Le Morte d'Arthur was not originally intended as a unified legend, but was merely a sequence of unrelated tales. Accordingly, Eugéne Vinaver, in his great edition of Malory, used the title The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. (Professor Vinaver has since modified his position on the tales.) The present set of Cliffs Notes on Le Morte d'Arthur assumes that the legend is unified, partly because that is the opinion which has won general acceptance; but the reader need not be limited by the point of view adopted in the Notes. What arguments can be advanced for and against an interpretation of Malory's "works" as coherent legend?

2. Discuss Malory's narrative method, commenting on his apparent lack of interest in chronology of the sort usually found in the modern novel; his juxtaposition of plots and situations which serve to comment upon one another; his fondness for presenting crucial events offstage (such as the murders of Lot, Pellanor, Tristram, and Lamerok).

3. Trace Malory's development of Gawain's character. Is the characterization consistent? If it can be said that Gawain has certain consistent defects, can it also be said that he has consistent virtues?

4. Merlin sets up Arthur's kingdom partly through the agency of the Archbishop of Canterbury; the archbishop (sometimes called simply the bishop) also plays a part in the conclusion of the Morte d'Arthur. Is there any significance in this? Is there any significance in the fact that, like many of Arthur's knights, the archbishop at last becomes a hermit?

5. In the Grail section, both dreams and physical events are interpreted allegorically. Elsewhere, Malory and his characters rest content, for the most part, with the outer appearance of things. To what extent, if any, do earlier and later adventures have allegorical as well as literary meaning?

6. Discuss Malory's use of symbolic settings in Le Morte d'Arthur — for instance, Tentagil, the Castle of Maidens, Joyous Gard, Benwick, the Castle of Corbenic, and so forth.

7. Discuss the interrelationship of the following motifs in Malory's work: courtly love, married love, the knightly vow of friendship, fealty, revenge, the ravishing of maidens, the murder of knights, Christian devotion, diabolism.

8. In what way does the feud between Lot's house and Pellanor's house contribute to the fall of the Round Table?

9. In Le Morte d'Arthur, the medieval Christian ideal of renunciation of the world and the Renaissance concern with legitimate and illegitimate ambition stand in nervous equilibrium. Discuss this thesis as a means of accounting for Malory's ambivalent attitudes toward Launcelot, Gawain, Dynadin, and Tristram.

10. Point out specific instances of Malory's comic treatment of King Mark, Dynadin, and others, and comment on how the humor modifies Malory's theme.

11. What are the differences, for Malory, between ordinary people, witches or sorcerers, and devils?

12. Discuss Le Morte d'Arthur as a book for courtiers; as a book on kingship.

13. In "The Day of Destiny" Malory writes:

Lo, ye all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshup of noble knyghtes, and by hym they all were upholdyn, and yet myght nat thes Englyshemen holde them contente with hym. Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe, and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom.

In what specific ways does Malory's book "ended the ninth yere of the reygne of King Edward the Fourth" comment on the contemporaneous political situation?

14. Discuss the survival of pagan myth in Le Morte d'Arthur. To what extent do pagan myths seem to be more or less consciously manipulated here? (Consider Gawain's waxing and waning powers, the myth of the Wasteland and the king wounded in the thigh, etc.)

15. Either by close analysis of one tale in relation to its nearest sources or by examination of one tale and the studies of sources listed in the bibliography, show exactly what Malory did in composing any given tale, and point out the relevance of Malory's additions or deletions to the theme of Le Morte d'Arthur.