Malory probably started work on Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in [prison] in the early 1450s and completed it by 1470. Originally Malory intended Le Morte Darthur to be the title of only the final book of his cycle; he calls the full work The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table; Caxton may have misunderstood the author's intentions when naming the book. Many modern editions update the spelling and some of the pronouns from Malory's original Middle English, re-punctuate and re-paragraph, but otherwise leave the text as it was written.
The first printing of Malory's work was made by Caxton in 1485; it proved popular, and was reprinted, with some additions and changes, in 1498 and 1529 by Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded Caxton's press. Three more editions followed at intervals down to the time of the English Civil War: William Copland's (1557), Thomas East's (1585), and William Stansby's (1634), each of which manifested additional changes and errors (including the omission of an entire leaf). Thereafter the book went out of fashion until the time of the Romantic revival of interest in all things medieval; the year 1816 saw a new edition by Walker and Edwards, and another one by Wilks, both based on the 1634 Stansby edition. From Davison's 1817 edition (promoted by Robert Southey) on, Caxton's 1485 edition (or a mixture of Caxton and Stansby) was used as the basis for future editions, down to the time of the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript.
Caxton was also responsible for separating it into 21 books comprising 507 chapters for easier reading. Originally, Malory divided his work principally into eight tales:
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 Sarras (near Babylon), and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Near East.
In his edition of the Winchester Manuscript, Eugène Vinaver argued strongly that Malory had in fact not written a single book, but produced a series of independent Arthurian tales that were not necessarily intended to cohere with one another; therefore, Vinaver called his edition "The Works of Sir Thomas Malory." Vinaver's theory explained a number of discrepancies between the different sections which had bothered commentators. However, opposition critics pointed out that discrepancies still existed within what Vinaver claimed were independent and internally consistent works, and that Malory, particularly in his later tales, added links to his own versions of events in earlier sections. They argued 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. This is especially apparent in the final two tales, which even Vinaver agreed were intended to be read together.
The question of the work's unity has never been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Most scholars, however, agree that whatever Malory's intentions for the individual books, he did mean them to be considered an interrelated series, if not a unified whole. This is usually how Le Morte d'Arthur is read today.
Also in this first book is "The Tale of Balyn and Balan", which ends in fratricide, and the conception of Mordred, Arthur’s incestuous son by his half-sister, Morgause. At Merlin’s advice, Arthur takes every newborn boy in his kingdom and sends them to sea in a boat. The boat crashes and all but Mordred, who later kills his father, perish. Arthur marries Guinevere, and inherits the Round Table from her father Leodegrance. At Pentecost, Arthur gathers his knights at Camelot and establishes the Round Table company. All swear to the Pentecostal Oath as a guide for knightly conduct.
Critics argue that in this first book, Malory addresses 15th century preoccupations with legitimacy and societal unrest, which will appear throughout the rest of the work. As Malorian scholar Helen Cooper states, the prose style (as opposed to verse), which mimics historical documents of the time, lends an air of authority to the whole work. She goes on to state that this allowed the book to be read as a history rather than as a work of fiction, therefore making it a model of order for Malory’s violent and chaotic times during the War of the Roses. Many believe Malory’s concern with legitimacy reflects the concerns of 15th century England, where many were claiming their rights to power through violence and bloodshed. Genealogy was a way to legitimize power in a less arbitrary manner, though scholars argue that Malory himself calls this into question.
Scholars also point out that The Pentecostal Oath is meant to correct a lack of moral center exemplified in the fratricide in "The Tale of Balyn and Balan." Also, once in power, argue critics, Arthur becomes a king of dubious morals even while he is held up as a beacon of hope. They state that Arthur’s most immoral acts are the conception of Mordred and the following mass infanticide, which only add to Arthur’s shaky morality and cast Merlin in a negative light from which he never emerges. Arthur’s immorality, then, plagues him for the whole of his reign.
In the end, critics say the book still holds out for hope even while the questions of legitimacy and morality continue in the books to follow. Arthur and his knights continually try and fail to live up to their chivalric codes, yet remain figures invested with Malory’s desperate optimism.
These adventures address several major issues developed throughout Le Morte Darthur. Among the most important is the fact Lancelot always adheres to the Pentecostal Oath. Throughout this tale he assists damsels in distress and provides mercy for knights he has defeated in battle. However, many critics have noted that the world Lancelot lives in is too complicated for simple mandates. This can be seen when a damsel betrays Lancelot and he must fight Sir Phelot unarmed. These critics suggest that although Lancelot aspires to live by an ethical code the actions of others make it difficult for the Pentecostal Oath to fully establish a social order.
Another major issue this text addresses is demonstrated when Morgan le Fay enchants Lancelot. Several critics believe that this action reflects a feminization of magic along with a clear indication that Merlin’s role within the text has been diminished. It has also been suggested that the tournament fighting in this tale indicates a shift away from war towards a more mediated and virtuous form of violence.
Other critics have focused on courtly love. They point out that Malory attempts to shift the focus of courtly love from adultery to service by having Lancelot admit to doing everything he does for Guinevere, but never admit to having an adulterous relationship with her. In this way critics say that Malory seems to want to focus on the ennobling aspects of courtly love. The attempt is undercut by the other characters who constantly insinuate that Lancelot is sleeping with Guinevere. Critics suggest that Lancelot's obsessive denial of his relationship with Guinevere implies that he only defines himself through his actions towards women. Furthermore, some believe that Lancelot and Guinevere function within the French romantic tradition and that Guinevere also provides Lancelot order within the world. On numerous occasions he refuses the love of other women and sends Guinevere knights he has defeated in battle who must appeal to her for forgiveness. This proves extremely problematic because it undermines the ultimate authority of Arthur.
Critics have suggested that since this tale seems unengaged with the problems that Malory addresses elsewhere in the text, it appears fictional or disconnected. There is also no known source for this tale, and it is possible that Malory created this story himself out of frustration with the inadequacies of the tradition he was working in. The fictional aspect of this tale, some argue, makes it a poor model to follow. In other tales, knights are always interacting with other knights from the Round Table, but not here. The Rainbow Knights seem very fake—they are not given real names, and there are no consequences for Gareth’s battles with them as there are during battles with other knights from the Round Table. When Gareth incorporates knights into Arthur’s community, perpetuating the dream that this violence is serving the realm, he sends them to Arthur. This is important to note since previously we have seen Lancelot send knights back to court, but he sends them to Guinevere, which some suggest implies that his motives are not entirely pure. Gareth sending them to Arthur implies that his motives are untainted, but it also makes him a cipher that exemplifies nothing but the desire to be just a knight and nothing more. This leaves Gareth with little personality since he is merely an embodiment of the symbolic order of knighthood.
The second half of the book brings into question Gareth’s true commitment to the chivalric code. He displays decidedly underhanded behavior in his quest for worship and personal fulfillment. Gareth uses deceit to achieve his aims; while behavior like this may be praised by a cunning hero like Odysseus, it does not seem to mesh with the notion of knightly virtue. It does suggest that the knights hold a philosophy where the ends justify the means. Gareth pays a price for his deception as he strikes his brother Gawaine from his horse. He breaks one of the strongest bonds of loyalty by winning honor by defeating a kinsman.
Although the book concludes happily, it raises a number of questions of whether Gareth is a successful knight. The book presents matrimony as one possible way of validating the knightly order; however, his example is fraught with complications that serve to undermine it as a viable option. In one sense, his marriage has been presented as a stabilizing force in chivalric society. Gareth’s tale stands in contrast to the Tristram or the Lancelot. However, Gareth’s readiness to sleep with Lyones before marriage questions how dedicated Gareth is to marriage.
The book displays a very realistic and jaded view of the world of chivalry. It is rife with adultery, characterized most visibly in Sir Tristan and the Belle Isolde. Sir Tristan is the namesake of the book and his adulterous relationship with Isolde, his uncle Mark’s wife, is one of the focuses of the section. The knights, Tristan included, operate on very personal or political concerns rather than just the standard provided by the world of Pentecostal Oath as we have seen it so far. One knight, Sir Dinidan, takes this so far as to run away or refuse to fight if he sees any risk. Other knights, even knights of the Round Table, make requests that show the dark side of the world of chivalry. In one episode, Sir Bleoberys, one of Lancelot’s cousins, claims another knight’s wife for his own and rides away with her until stopped by Sir Tristan. In another, when Tristan defeats Sir Blamore, another knight of the Round Table, Blamore asks Tristan to kill him because he would rather die than have his reputation tarnished by the defeat.
The variety of episodes and the alleged lack of a cohesive nature in the Tristan have caused many scholars of the past to ignore it or question its role in Malory’s text entirely. Current trends in research believe this to be a mistake, as the book foreshadows the rest of the text as well as includes and interacts with characters and tales discussed in other parts of the work. Some critics see it as an exploration of the secular chivalry and a discussion of honor or “worship” when it is founded in a sense of shame and pride. If Le Morte is viewed as a text in which Malory is attempting to define knighthood, the Tristan becomes an important critique of chivalry and knighthood as it interacts with the real world, rather than attempting to create an example as he does with some of the other books.
Critics suggest that after the confusion of the secular moral code as manifested in the Pentecostal Oath within “The Fyrst and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Malory is attempting to construct a new mode of chivalry by placing an emphasis on religion and Christianity in “The Sankgreal.” However, some critics assert that the role of the Catholic Church is drastically subverted within the text, and that this illustrates fifteenth-century England’s movement away from the establishment of the Church and toward mysticism. While some maintain that within the text the Church offers a venue through which the Pentecostal Oath can be upheld, others argue that the strict moral code imposed by religion foreshadows an almost certain failure on the part of the knights. For example, Gawain is often dubbed a secular knight, as he refuses to do penance for his sins, claiming the tribulations that coexist with knighthood as a sort of secular penance. Likewise, critics suggest that because Lancelot is unable to renounce his adulterous love of Guinevere, he is destined to fail where Galahad will succeed. This coincides with another issue of critical concern: the personification of perfection in the form of Galahad. Some suggest that because Galahad is the only knight who lives entirely without sin, this leaves both the audience and the other knights with a model of perfection that cannot be emulated, thus culminating in the failure of religion as the means through which chivalry is conducted.
This book also includes the "knight of the cart" episode, where Mellyagaunce kidnapped Guinevere and her unarmed knights, holding them prisoner in his castle. After Mellygaunce's archers kill his horse, Launcelot was forced to ride to the castle in a cart in order to save the queen. Knowing Lancelot was on his way, Mellygaunce pleaded to Guinevere for mercy, which she granted, forcing Lancelot to stifle his rage against Mellygaunce.
It is in this same book where Malory mentions Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery. Malory says, "So, to passe upon thys tale, Sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the Quene and toke no force of hys hurte honed, but toke hys plesaunce and hys lyknge untyll hit was the dawning of the day" (633). Sir Mellygaunce, upon finding blood in Guinevere's bed, was so convinced of her unfaithfulness to Arthur that he was willing to fight in an attempt to prove it to others. After Guinevere makes it known that she wants Mellyagaunce dead, Launcelot kills him even though Mellygaunce has begged for mercy.
While this is the first time Malory explicitly mentions the couple's adultery, critics are split on his intent. Many believe that Malory purposely shows this event as occurring once, while others argue he intended for his readers to believe the couple's adultery was much more than a singular incident. In addition, many have noted Malory's lack of romance or chivalry concerning this occasion. The entire text depends upon this adulterous moment, and yet Malory sums it up into one sentence. Some have suggested that Malory's refusal to expand upon their adultery further demonstrates his insistence that adultery is always dangerous and never ennobling. The book ends with Lancelot's healing of Sir Urry of Hungary, where Malory notes that Lancelot is the only knight out of hundreds to be successful in this endeavor.
Critics have also been intrigued by the portrayal of Guinevere in this book, noting that Malory presents her in a more negative light than his French predecessors. Some argue that he does this in order for Guinevere to serve only as a problematic, misogynistic male fantasy. Guinevere is so contemptible in this book that it is difficult to understand Lancelot's reason for loving her. Scholars have noted that Malory even goes so far as to suggest Guinevere uses charms or enchantments to win Lancelot's love. While Guinevere remains unlikeable throughout this book, Lancelot is a more problematic character. He is a flawed knight, certainly, but the best one Malory gives us. He has committed treason unto King Arthur and yet is the only knight virtuous enough to heal Sir Urry. Critics assert that after healing Sir Urry, Lancelot wept as a "chylde that had bene beatyn," (644) because he recognized his own failure as a person and as a knight. Scholars have argued that as Malory tries to contrast virtue and love with desire and failure he further emphasizes the instability of the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere and, ultimately, the text itself.
Most literary criticism of "The Death of Arthur" focuses on the characters of Guinevere and Lancelot. As the final installment, some critics regard this as misogynistic in how it portrays Guinevere as a scapegoat for violence without developing her perspective or motivation. Despite this unsympathetic portrayal, the growth of Morgan le Fay as a character through her reconciliation with Arthur on the barge could call these interpretations of misogyny into question. Some critics find Malory’s portrayal of Lancelot as more sympathetic than that of Guinevere and try to expand on this to redeem him as the most honorable knight, but others argue that the portrayals are equally unflattering because Guinevere is Lancelot’s impetus for action. Lancelot cannot give Gawain a legitimate reason for slaying his brothers; he had only Guinevere in mind. General interpretations find the Pope’s failure to settle Lancelot and Gawain’s feud as characteristic of the failure of the institution of religion to provide ethical guidance throughout the text, echoing “The Noble Tale of the Sankgreal.” With the failure of institutions and the collapse of the Round Table, some read Le Morte d’Arthur as an ultimately unsuccessful text; the only hope Malory can offer the reader is in Arthur’s second coming to recover the throne, a hope fostered by the inscription on Arthur’s grave: HIC JACET ARTURUS REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS, or "Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King". Others, conversely, read this as a text that intentionally and successfully conveys Malory’s view on the failures of medieval institutions.
Many writers, influenced by this courageous and beautiful story, have been producing various versions with various titles. (See the List of books about King Arthur.) Among them John Steinbeck, an enthusiastic Arthurian author, using the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and other sources as the original text, wrote The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in 1976. His work has been recognized as the most reliable modern text of Arthurian legend.
The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table was published mainly for young people. Other than John Steinbeck's work, there are three or more modern English language versions. The first was published anonymously in 1950. The second is by Roger Lancelyn Green, Richard Lancelyn Green and Lotte Reiniger (illustrator), reissue edition in 1995. The third is by Emma Gelders-Sterne, Barbara Lindsay, Gustaf Tenggren and Mary Pope Osborne, published in 2002.