Le Morte d’Arthur is an epic written by Sir Thomas Malory, a “knight prisoner,” published around 1485.
Le Morte d’Arthur tells the epic tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The Arthurian legend, however, significantly predates Le Morte d’Arthur, and in fact, the majority of the text is compiled from other sources, including: Gregory of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and the French Vulgate Cycle (or Romances). These later works treated Sir Launcelot as a primary character, and featured most of the story arcs that Malory used, most notably the quest for the Holy Grail. Only "The Tale of Sir Gareth" is solely Malory's work.
In composing Le Morte d’ Arthur, Malory successfully consolidated a myriad of Arthurian legends into one epic tome. This mammoth undertaking resulted in one of English literature's most influential works, and the definitive source for Arthurian legend. In fact, almost every subsequent adaptation of the Arthurian story is based on Malory’s work.
The history of Le Morte d’ Arthur has caused much debate, and stoked the intrigue of scholars for generations. The first publication of Le Morte d’ Arthur appeared in 1485, and was published by William Caxton, who also produced The Canterbury Tales. The Caxton version remained the sole textual source for Malory’s work for over 400 years, although a number of re-publications changed or reinterpreted the text in subtle ways, such as using modern language in place of its original Middle English.
It was not until 1934 when another source of the text became available in the Winchester Manuscript, found by W. F. Oakeshott in the library of Winchester College, England. Believed to be Malory's original manuscript, the Winchester Manuscript had many details suggesting that Caxton had acted not only as editor, but also as rewriter of certain key sections. For instance, Book V (in which King Arthur goes to war with the Roman Empire) is shorter in the Caxton version, but the speech that Lucius gives to his army is longer. The Winchester Manuscript also revealed that Malory’s intention was to divide the work into eight books instead of the twenty one books that Caxton employed. Though Caxton does freely admit his restructuring in the Preface, it remains possible that his tampering was far more extensive. Unfortunately, we may never know.
Regardless of the version or translation, the core story of Le Morte d’ Arthur remains the same, as the thrilling tale of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table still resonates today.