A person's’s identity is so important within the world of Le Morte d’Arthur. Each character is defined not only by his familial relations, but also by his abilities, whether on the battlefield, as a lover, or as a leader. A person is also defined by his loyalties to his country or liege. Knights are usually defined with epithets about their abilities or loyalties, sometimes given through fate, sometimes through their own accomplishments. Many people struggle with identities given to them by fate or circumstance. For instance, when Arthur was young, he thought of himself as the adopted son of a landowner and knight, not as the heir to all of England. After Arthur learns he is the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, he has a hard time accepting his identity, even though that identity compels him to take power meant for him by fate. Similarly, his son Mordred also has difficulty accepting his identity - though he is predestined to kill his father, he is bothered by the Archbishop of Canterbury's statements on his sinful conception.
Interestingly, though, many characters often don disguises. For instance, Sir Launcelot frequently hides his identity so that he can solicit jousts with knights who might otherwise be too frightened to fight him. Mistaken identity in Le Morte d’Arthur often results in tragedy, as was the case for the brothers Balin and Balan. Merlin is perhaps the most persistent in his attempt to conceal his identity, mostly from Arthur, as he transforms into old men or young children, usually to teach the King a lesson. The regularity of disguise suggests that characters often wish freedom from an identity that otherwise too fully limits them in the eyes of others.
Several characters within Le Morte d’Arthur are predestined to certain ends. Some examples include: Arthur was meant to bring peace to a fractured country; Mordred was meant to destroy his father’s kingdom; and Galahad was destined to find the Sangreal. The whole epic has a sense of inevitable fate because of its title, which foreshadows Arthur's death long before it happens. This makes sense, considering that Merlin prophesies it so early. Many of Merlin's prophecies are quite complicated; for instance, he sets Galahad up to be the world's greatest knights in several different ways. Whether a character's identity is determined by fate, or whether his character enables his fate, is a question only implicitly posed in the epic, but the supernatural forces that control the world are very explicit throughout.
The Journey/The Quest
The most repetitive theme in the text is that of the journey, or quest. Knights within Le Morte d’Arthur have a strong desire to seek adventure, to do noble deeds, and to find glory within the most difficult of circumstances. They undertake journeys for the sake of the journey alone, and not always for a specified goal (as is the case with the Sangreal). The desire to find adventures is sometimes all-consuming; for instance, King Pellinore is so intent on his quest that he ignores a young woman's pleas for help. The existence of the Questing Beast suggests the importance of a quest - even if it seems impossible, a knight will continue to pursue it. The most prestigious quest is certainly that for the Sangreal, which has both a physical and spiritual component, suggesting that after the age of Arthur, people will need to journey inwards into themselves to find purity, and not simply outwards to find fame. Even the task of reading Le Morte d’Arthur is a journey in itself, as we travel with the characters from one adventure to the next.
Variations of love exist within Le Morte d’Arthur. The most immediate is that which the Knights of the Round Table have for Arthur, a love that helps the fellowship stay strong. There is also the love of God, which inspired the Knights to attempt the difficult task of finding the Sangreal. Love of family is prevalent, whether characters were defending or avenging family members. Perhaps the most dominant form of love within the text is courtly love, which by its definition encourages knights to perform acts of valor in honor of their lady, who is usually a married woman of noble birth. Launcelot often engaged in combat in the Queen’s defense, or for her honor. Malory’s courtly love varies from the traditional usage by refusing to delve into a character's inner feelings and instead allowing the love affairs to be clearly based in lust.
The main exception to this involves Launcelot's feelings. While the narrator does compare their love to the flourishing of spring, the story reveals the dire consequences of illicit, sexual love. Launcelot and Guenever’s affair contributes to the downfall of the kingdom. Overall, there is rarely easy love within Le Morte d’Arthur, and even the basic code of courtly love is complicated throughout the narrative.
Prevalent throughout the text of Le Morte d’Arthur is the theme of family. No character is introduced without some familial tie given as important aspect of his or her identity. The younger Orkney brothers are usually introduced as the siblings of Gawaine, until they distinguish themselves. All of the descendants of King Ban are constantly referred to by their connection to Launcelot. For instance, Lionel is defined as his nephew, and Ector as his brother. Launcelot himself is blessed in part because of his familial ties to Joseph of Aramathie. Galahad, his son, is one rare example; he is defined as much by his purity as by the identity of his father. A lack of connection between a character and his family often results in confusing circumstances. For instance, Arthur’s seeming lack of a proper family connection incites a war when the six Kings of the North challenge his early reign.
It is when the family unit is off balance that the most damage is done. For example, Gawaine’s revenge on Launcelot for the deaths of Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine causes severe harm to the kingdom. The most tragic example of familial difficulties is that of Arthur and Mordred’s relationship, which begins when Arthur tries to kill his infant son, and ends when Mordred destroys his father’s kingdom.
Role of Women
Although the focus of Le Morte d’Arthur is almost exclusively on the male characters, the female characters play an important yet often subservient role. They often serve as little more than motivation for acts of valor like jousting, tournaments, battles, and war. Many of the women throughout the text do not have names, whereas similarly insignificant male characters have not only names but lineages.
However, despite their lack of agency, women are frequently depicted as dangerous through their sexual power. The most powerful women are temptresses, sorceresses, seducers, or malcontents like Maledistant. However, the most powerful woman in the narrative is undoubtedly Guenever, who through her sexuality and inability to deal with Launcelot causes the kingdom to fall apart.
The Christian ideal of redemption provides strong motivations throughout the epic. Characters often attempt to rectify their sins by devoting themselves to God - Launcelot does penance while on the quest for the Sangreal; Percivale wounds himself over temptation; and later, Guenever enters an abbey in atonement for her affair with Launcelot. Even Gawaine, perhaps the most sinful knight who is not doomed early for his sins, redeems himself before dying by begging Launcelot's forgiveness. Especially once the epic reaches the quest for the Sangreal, its Christian purpose becomes clear - we all live lives of aggression and sin, but it is within our power to ask forgiveness and be redeemed by God.
A major theme throughout the text, chivalry defines the code of ethics that the Knights of the Round Table must uphold. King Arthur cements the importance of chivalry within the fellowship of the Round Table by asking his knights to renew their vows of knighthood at Pentecost each year, promising to protect women and to flee from treason and murder. Most of the main characters, including King Arthur, Launcelot, and Gawaine, uphold their promises of chivalry; however, they, like many of the other characters, break their vows on various occasions. For instance Arthur kills the sorceress Annowre; Launcelot fights and kills other Knights of the Round Table; and Gawaine encourages Arthur to go to war with Launcelot. Chivalry is as much an ideal for knights to strive for than an easily realized virtue.
Le Morte d'Arthur Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Le Morte d'Arthur is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The theme of betrayal is illustrated through the conflict between Mordred and Arthur, but I believe it goes much deeper than that. Mordred's murder of Arthur was predestined..... it was foretold and it seems.... unchangeable. Arthur tried to take...
Knowing he was near death, Arthur asked Bedivere to throw his sword, Excalibur, into the water and then to report what he saw. Bedivere took the sword, but because of its beauty and value, he could not bring himself to throw it into the lake. He...