Day 1210: Le Morte D’Arthur

Cover for Le Morte D'ArthurIt’s time for my review for the latest Classics Club Spin, and the spin assigned me Le Morte D’Arthur to read by the end of April.

If I’d been aware of how long this book is, I might have thought twice about putting it on my Classics Club list. It’s not the length that made it so difficult to read, though, but the repetitiveness of one knight after another getting into a joust and smiting right and left.

I tried hard to finish this book, but after a month of reading it (interrupted by a few other books), I decided to skip to the last two books (out of twenty-one), which deal with Lancelot’s break with Arthur and the end of Arthur’s kingdom. All told, I read about 400 pages.

I actually began eager to read the original of the Arthurian legends or at least as original as we have. The introduction to Cassell’s unabridged edition says that we don’t know the source of the book, although Malory makes many references to “the French book.” The structure of the book suggests that it may be a compilation of every Arthurian story known to Malory, as it is full of chapters about fight after fight. In fact, after a while I pictured Britain, particularly Cornwall and Wales, as seething with wandering knights, who, when they encounter one another, go immediately into battle. I was also struck by how often they don’t recognize each other even when in the same room and presumably out of armor.

There are some sustained story lines, such as the tale of Tristram and La Beale Isoud, and they are interesting, but they’re broken up and sprinkled in among the fights, and of course they too involve fights.

Women are fairly negligibly treated, not surprising for the time despite the patina of chivalry, which is supposed to suggest otherwise. We don’t see much of them or learn what they are like. In fact, Arthur says at the end of the book that he isn’t as upset about losing Guenever as the loss of his knights “. . . for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.” Which might give us a clue why Guenever preferred Lancelot. In any event, characterization isn’t a strong suit of medieval literature.

I would say that this book is best for dipping into rather than trying to read all at once. It is an important work of literature, and sometimes the language is quite charming. However, its form is very foreign to us now and shows us just how far literature has come. (There is a glossary in the back of the version I read, which unfortunately I didn’t discover until the end.)

Related Posts

The Lantern Bearers

Grave Goods

The Buried Giant

Day 202: The Lantern Bearers

Cover for The Lantern BearersIf you are historical fiction lover and are not familiar with Rosemary Sutcliff, I recommend that you try one of her books. She is best known for her novels about the Roman occupation of Britain and the interaction between the Romans and the various British peoples. Although many of her books are classified as children’s literature, the ones I have read are just as suitable for adults. My review today is of a Sutcliff book I read most recently, which unfortunately is the third book of her acclaimed Eagle of the Ninth trilogy, The Lantern Bearers. Although she wrote a series of eight books about the Aquila family, three are usually grouped together and sometimes can be purchased as one book. The other two are The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.

The Lantern Bearers is about the desertion of Britain by the Romans and its subsequent inundation by marauding Saxons. Aquila is a soldier with the last battalion on Britain. He is recalled to his regiment to withdraw from Britain and leave his father and sister behind in the home they have occupied for generations.

Aquila finds that his heart is with Britain, so he deserts his regiment and returns home. However, the day after he arrives, his home is attacked by the Saxons, his father is killed, and he and his sister are enslaved.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the story eventually focuses on the rise of the British ruler Ambrosius and his adopted son Artos, from whom we get the stories of King Arthur.

I think these books are fascinating, although of the three in the trilogy, my favorite is The Eagle of the Ninth (which, by the way, was recently made into a very good movie that no one apparently went to see; I recommend it). If I had any criticism of this book, which is carefully researched, well written, and full of action, I would say that sometimes it seems as if Sutcliff thinks the Roman occupation of Britain was completely positive. I doubt if the Britains felt that way when they were conquered. However, even though her heroes are often Romans, her ideas are more nuanced than that.

If you decide to read this trilogy, I suggest you start with The Eagle of the Ninth, although the books are far enough separated in time to be read as stand-alones.