Book I: “From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles” (Caxton I–IV)
Arthur is born to Uther Pendragon and Igraine and then taken by Sir Ector to be fostered in the country. He later becomes the king of a leaderless England when he removes the fated sword from the stone. Arthur goes on to win many battles due to his military prowess and Merlin’s counsel. He then consolidates his kingdom.
This first book also tells “The Tale of Balyn and Balan”, which ends in accidental fratricide, and the begetting of Mordred, Arthur’s incestuous son by his half-sister, Morgause (though Arthur did not know her as his half-sister). On Merlin's advice, and reminiscent of Herod's killing of the innocents in scripture, 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. This is mentioned matter-of-factly, with no apparent moral overtone. 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.
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 in Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'arthur - The Winchester Manuscript, the prose style (as opposed to verse), which mimics historical documents of the time, lends an air of authority to the whole work.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 contemporaries to read the book 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. 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, and Malory calls this into question.
Book II: “The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome” (Caxton V)
This book, detailing Arthur's march on Rome, is heavily based on the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, which in turn is heavily based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The opening of Book V finds Arthur and his kingdom without an enemy. His throne is secure, his knights have proven themselves through a series of quests, Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristan have arrived and the court is feasting. When envoys from Emperor Lucius of Rome arrive and accuse Arthur of refusing tribute, “contrary to the statutes and decrees made by the noble and worthy Julius Caesar”, Arthur and his knights are stirring for a fight. They are “many days rested” and excited, “for now shall we have warre and worshype.” Arthur invokes the lineage of Ser Belyne and Sir Bryne, legendary British conquerors of Rome, and through their blood lineage demands tribute from Lucius under the argument that Britain conquered Rome first. Lucius, apprised of the situation by his envoys, raises a heathen army of the East, composed of Spaniards and Saracens, as well as other enemies of the Christian world. Rome is supposed to be the seat of Christianity, but it is more foreign and corrupt than the courts of Arthur and his allies. Departing from Geoffrey of Monmouth's history in which Mordred is left in charge, Malory's Arthur leaves his court in the hands of Sir Constantine of Cornwall and an advisor. Arthur sails to Normandy to meet his cousin Hoel, but he finds a giant terrorizing the people from the holy island of Mont St. Michel. This giant is the embodiment of senseless violence and chaos, a monster who eats men and rapes women to death. He uses sex as a violent act of control and appetite, divorced from sensuality or reason. Arthur battles him alone, an act of public relations intended to inspire his knights. The fight is closely documented by Malory, a blow-by-blow description of blood and gore. The giant dies after Arthur “swappis his genytrottys in sondir” and “kut his baly in sundir, that oute wente the gore”. When Arthur does fight Lucius and his armies it is almost anticlimactic, when compared to his struggles with the giant. Arthur and his armies defeat the Romans, Arthur is crowned Emperor, a proxy government is arranged for the Roman Empire and Arthur returns to London where his queen welcomes him royally.
Book III: “The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac” (Caxton VI)
In this tale, Malory establishes Lancelot as King Arthur's most revered knight. Among Lancelot's numerous episodic adventures include being enchanted into a deep sleep by the sorceress Morgan le Fay and having to escape her castle, proving victorious in a tournament fighting on behalf of King Bagdemagus, slaying the mighty Sir Turquine who had been holding several of Arthur's knights prisoner, and also overcoming the betrayal of a damsel to defend himself unarmed against Sir Phelot.
These adventures address several major issues developed throughout Le Morte d'Arthur. Among the most important is the fact Lancelot always adheres to the Pentecostal Oath. Throughout this tale he assists dancing ladies in distress and provides mercy for knights he has defeated in battle. However, 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. 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. This action reflects a feminization of magic along with a clear indication that Merlin’s role within the text has been diminished. The tournament fighting in this tale indicates a shift away from war towards a more mediated and virtuous form of violence.
On courtly love, 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. However, a close parsing of his words can perhaps allow Lancelot to retain his honorable word, for he never says that he has not lain with the queen, but rather that if anyone makes such a claim, he will fight them (the assumption being that God will cause the liar to lose). Further, since Lancelot – who in all of the book never breaks his word or lies – claims that the queen was never untrue to her lord, then it seems to be the case that he must consider his love of the queen to be somehow pure or special, not an act of unfaithfulness to the king he loves and serves.
Book IV: “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” (Caxton VII)
The tale of Sir Gareth begins with his arrival at court as le bel inconnu, or the fair unknown. He comes without a name and therefore without a past. Sir Kay mockingly calls the unknown young man “Beaumains” and treats him with contempt and condescension. An unknown woman, later revealed to be the Dame Lynette, eventually comes to court asking for assistance against the Red Knight of the Red Lands, and Gareth takes up the quest. On his quest, he encounters the Black, Green, Red, and Blue knights and the Red knight of the Red Lands. He kills the Black Knight, incorporates the others into Arthur’s court, and rescues Lynette's sister Lyonesse. Lustily in love with Lyonesse, Gareth conspires to consummate their relationship before marrying. Only by the magical intervention of Lynette is their tryst unsuccessful, thus preserving Gareth's virginity and, presumably, his standing with God. Gareth later counsels Lyonesse to report to King Arthur and pretend she doesn’t know where he is; instead, he tells her to announce a tournament of his knights against the Round Table. This allows Gareth to disguise himself and win honor by defeating his brother knights. The heralds eventually acknowledge that he is Sir Gareth right as he strikes down Sir Gawain, his brother. The book ends with Gareth rejoining his fellow knights and marrying Lyonesse.
In Book IV, there are only two knights that have ever held against Sir Lancelot in tournament: Tristram and Gareth. This was always under conditions where one or both parties were unknown by the other, for these knights loved each other “passingly well.” Gareth was knighted by Lancelot himself when he took upon him the adventure on behalf of Dame Lynette. Much later, Gareth is accidentally slain by his beloved Lancelot when Guinevere is rescued from being burnt at the stake by King Arthur.
Book V: “The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione” (Caxton VIII–XII)
In “The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones,” Malory tells the tales of Sir Tristan (Trystram), Sir Dinadan, Sir Palamedes, Sir La Cote De Male Tayle, Sir Alexander, and a variety of other knights. Based on the French Prose Tristan, or a lost English adaptation of it, Malory's Tristan section is the literal centerpiece of Le Morte D’Arthur as well as the longest of the eight books.
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. However, it should be noted that Sir Tristan had met and fallen in love with Isolde earlier, and that his uncle, King Mark, jealous of Tristan and seeking to undermine him, appears to seek marriage to Isolde for just such a hateful purpose, going so far as to ask Tristan to go and seek her hand on his behalf (which Tristan, understanding that to be his knightly duty, does). 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. However, it should be understood that Sir Dinidan is a playful, humorous knight who, in later chapters, shows himself to be brave and noble. It is unclear whether his refusals to fight are part of his comic character or otherwise. 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.
Of all the knights, Tristan most resembles Lancelot. He loves a queen, the wife of another. Tristan is even considered to be as strong and able a knight as Lancelot, although they become beloved friends. Because of King Mark's treacherous behavior, Tristran takes Isolde from him and lives with her for some time, but he then returns Isolde to him. Nonetheless, Mark kills Tristran while he is “harping” (Tristran is noted in the book as one of the greatest of musicians and falconers).
Book VI: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” (Caxton XIII–XVII)
Malory’s primary source for “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” is the French Vulgate Cycle’s La Queste Del Saint Graal. Malory's version chronicles the adventures of numerous knights in their quest to achieve the Holy Grail. The Grail first appears in the hall of King Arthur “coverde with whyght samyte”, and it miraculously produces meat and drink for the knights. Gawain is the first to declare that he “shall laboure in the Queste of the Sankgreall”. He embarks on the quest in order to see the Grail “more opynly than hit hath bene shewed” before, and to gain more “metys and drynkes”. Likewise, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and Galahad undergo the quest. Their exploits are intermingled with encounters with maidens and hermits who offer advice and interpret dreams along the way.
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 attempts to construct a new mode of chivalry by placing an emphasis on religion and Christianity in "The Sankgreal". However, the role of the Catholic Church is drastically subverted within the text, illustrating 15th-century England’s movement away from the Church establishment and toward mysticism. Within the text the Church offers a venue through which the Pentecostal Oath can be upheld, whereas the strict moral code imposed by religion foreshadows 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, Lancelot, for all his sincerity, is unable to completely escape his adulterous love of Guinevere, and is thus destined to fail where Galahad will succeed. This coincides with the personification of perfection in the form of Galahad. 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 seemingly cannot be emulated either through chivalry or religion.
Book VII: “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere” (Caxton XVIII–XIX)
At the beginning of the book “Sir Launcelot and Queene Gwenyvere”, Malory tells his readers that the pair started behaving carelessly in public, stating that “Launcelot began to resort unto the Queene Guinevere again and forget the promise and the perfection that he made in the Quest… and so they loved together more hotter than they did beforehand”(Cooper, 402). They indulged in “privy draughts together” and behaved in such a way that “many in the court spoke of it” (Cooper, 402).
This book also includes the "knight of the cart" episode, where Mellyagaunce kidnapped Guinevere and her unarmed knights and held them prisoner in his castle. After Mellyagaunce's archers killed his horse, Launcelot had to ride to the castle in a cart in order to save the queen. Knowing Lancelot was on his way, Mellyagaunce pleaded to Guinevere for mercy, which she granted and then forced Lancelot to stifle his rage against Mellyagaunce.
In this same book Malory mentions Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery. Malory says, "So, to passe upon this tale, Sir Launcelot wente to bedde with the Quene and toke no force of his hurte honed, but toke his plesaunce and hys lyknge untyll hit was the dawning of the day" (633). Sir Mellyagaunce, 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 made it known that she wanted Mellyagaunce dead, Launcelot killed him even though Mellyagaunce begged for mercy (but only after Mellyagaunce agreed to continue fighting with Lancelot's helmet removed, his left side body armor removed, and his left hand tied behind his back—Lancelot felt it necessary to finish the bout, but would not slay Mellyagaunce unless Mellyagaunce agreed to continue fighting). 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 succeed in this endeavor. He has committed treason to King Arthur (because of his adultery with Guinevere) and yet is the only knight virtuous enough to heal Sir Urry. After healing Sir Urry, Lancelot wept as a "chylde that had bene beatyn" (644).
Book VIII: “The Death of Arthur” (Caxton XX–XXI)
Mordred and Agravaine have been scheming to uncover Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery for quite some time. When they find an opportune moment to finally and concretely reveal the adulterous relationship, Lancelot kills Agravaine and several others and escapes. Arthur is forced to sentence Guinevere to burn at the stake, and orders his surviving nephews, Gawain, Mordred, Gareth, and Gaheris, to guard the scene, knowing Lancelot will attempt a rescue. Gawain flatly refuses to be part of any act that will treat the queen shamefully. His younger brothers, Gaheris and Gareth, unable to deny the king's request that they escort Guinevere to the stake to be burnt, advise that they will do so at his command, but they will not arm themselves. When Lancelot's party raids the execution, many knights are killed, including, by accident, Gareth and Gaheris. Gawain, bent on revenge for their deaths, prompts Arthur into a war with Lancelot, first at his castle in northern England. At this point the Pope steps in and issues a bull to end the violence between Arthur's and Lancelot's factions. Shortly thereafter, Arthur pursues Lancelot to his home in France to continue the fight. Gawain challenges Lancelot to a duel, but loses and asks Lancelot to kill him; Lancelot refuses and grants him mercy before leaving. This event plays out twice, each time Lancelot playing a medieval version of rope-a-dope due to Gawain's enchantment/blessing to grow stronger between 9 a.m. and noon, then striking down Gawain, but sparing his life.
Arthur receives a message that Mordred, whom he had left in charge back in Britain, has usurped his throne, and he leads his forces back home. In the invasion Gawain is mortally injured, and writes to Lancelot, asking for his help against Mordred, and for forgiveness for separating the Round Table. In a dream, the departed Gawain tells Arthur to wait thirty days for Lancelot to return to England before fighting Mordred, and Arthur sends Lucan and Bedivere to make a temporary peace treaty. At the exchange, an unnamed knight draws his sword to kill an adder. The other knights construe this as treachery and a declaration of war. Seeing no other recourse, at the Battle of Camlann, Arthur charges Mordred and impales him with a spear. But with the last of his strength, Mordred impales himself even further, so as to come within striking distance of King Arthur, then gives a mortal blow to Arthur’s head.
As he is dying, Arthur commands Bedivere to cast Excalibur into the lake. Bedivere initially does not throw the sword in the lake, but instead hides it behind a tree. He confesses his reluctance to Arthur, then returns to the lake and throws in his own sword instead of Excalibur. Bedivere once again relays his disobedience to Arthur, who requests the sword be returned to the lake for a third time. When Bedivere finally throws Excalibur back in the lake, it is retrieved by the hand of the Lady of the Lake. The hand shakes the sword three times and then vanishes back into the water. A barge appears, carrying ladies in black hoods (one being Morgan le Fay), who take Arthur to the Isle of Avalon.
After the passing of King Arthur, Malory provides a denouement, mostly following the lives (and deaths) of Guinevere, Lancelot, and Lancelot's kinsmen.
When Lancelot returns to Dover, he mourns the deaths of his comrades. Lancelot travels to Almesbury to see Guinevere. During the civil war, Guinevere is portrayed as a scapegoat for violence without developing her perspective or motivation. However, after Arthur's death, Guinevere retires to a convent in penitence for her infidelity. Her contrition is sincere and permanent; Lancelot is unable to sway her to come away with him. Instead, Lancelot becomes a monk, and is joined in monastic life by his kinsmen. Arthur's successor is appointed (Constantine, son of King Carados of Scotland), and the realm that Arthur created is significantly changed. After the deaths of Guinevere and Lancelot, Sirs Bors, Hector, Blamore, and Bleoberis head to the Holy Land to crusade against the Turks, where they die on Good Friday.