Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
This prophecy is what opens the door for Arthur to claim his birthright of the crown. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone with the intention of giving it to his foster brother Kay. He has no idea of its implication, or of his fate. This acts lays the foundation of Arthur’s chief characteristic - he is first a man, and then a King, which seemingly separates him from the other lesser kings of England. The pulling of the sword from the stone makes Arthur High King, although he already has a legitimate claim to the throne. A case of mistaken identity, one of the reoccurring motifs throughout the text, prompts the Kings of the North to declare war on Arthur. They claim he is not of noble birth, and is too young to rule. Arthur, with the aid of Merlin, conquers the Kings of the North, thus proving he is worthy of his crown, by birth and by prophecy.
Now I have warned thee of thy vain glory and of thy pride, that thou hast many times erred against thy Maker. Beware of everlasting pain, for of all earthly knights I have most pity of thee, for I know well thou hast not thy peer on any earthy sinful man.
These words, spoken during the quest for the Sangreal, touch on Launcelot's spiritual failings, and help to define the epic's shift into a more Christian work. On the quest for the Sangreal, Launcelot has a hard time accepting the idea that he might not achieve his goal. After all, he has always been the world's greatest knight. However, this pride is precisely what keeps him from fulfilling the goal. Finding the Sangreal requires spiritual fortitude, not just physical strength. The recluse's words reveal to Launcelot that his best path is to repent of his sins. Redemption, another major theme of Le Morte d’Arthur, proves quite important to Launcelot’s story arc. Here, we see the beginning of Launcelot’s spiritual trial.
Madam, ye are greatly to blame for Sir Launcelot, for now have ye lost him, for I saw and heard by his countenance that he is mad for ever. Alas, madam, ye do great sin, and to yourself great dishonour, for ye have a lord of your own, and therefore it is your part to love him; for there is no queen in this world hath such another king as ye have.
Queen Guenever is rebuked several times during the epic for her treatment of Launcelot, and this attack touches on the selfishness that leads her to treat him poorly. Here, Elaine, the mother of Launcelot’s son, reprimands the Queen for her selfish and damaging reactions. Guenever has sent Launcelot away again, because he was tricked into sleeping with Elaine. There is some hypocrisy here - Elaine only has Launcelot through selfish subterfuge - but she is far less important character than Guenever. Guenever is the woman to whom many of the other female characters are compared, for both beauty or nobility, and yet she is often defined as much by jealously and insecurity as by those greater virtues. She is unwilling to accept her high place as Queen of England, but instead demands even more, demands which will partially lead to the end of her husband's reign. This characterization also touches on the ambivalence with which the epic treats women, as people with little agency outside of the danger they present through their sexuality.
I have done to you no treason, for love is free for all men, and though I have loved your lady, she is my lady as well as yours; howbeit I have wrong if any wrong be, for ye rejoice her, and have your desire of her, and so had I never nor never am like to have, and yet shall I love her to the uttermost days of my life as well as ye.
Palomides's words touch quite poignantly on the power of love in the epic. The dynamic between Palomides and Tristram offers the reader the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between two men who love the same woman. Coupled with their jealousies for one another’s physical prowess, the two are often at odds even as they maintain a mutual if begrudging respect for each other. In this quote, Palomides claims that love is free to all men, meaning he is free to love Isoud. He would not be guilty of treason if he acted on his love. This touches on the extreme power of love, which leads many characters in the epic towards great or terrible ends, often regardless of their own wishes. Further, this may be one of the most romantic lines of the text; Malory did not waste words on affection. Palomides, more than any other character, provides the true embodiment of courtly love within the text. He loves from afar, and does marvelous deeds in Isoud’s name, while expecting no love in return.
Nay, I may not so, for I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost by the faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I had liefer to die with honour than to live with shame; and if it were possible for me to die an hundred times, I had liefer to die so oft than yield me to thee; for though I lack weapon, I shall lack no worship, and if thou slay me weaponless that shall be thy shame.
There are many examples throughout Le Morte d’ Arthur of knights refusing to yield out of honor. Such examples provide strong instance of the fame that knights pursue. Here, Arthur will not yield in a fight, even though he is weaponless. He knows there is some trickery at hand, but he also knows that the lives of the knights he is fighting for hang in the balance. His honor is more important to him than his life; at the same time, he would rather die than be shamed by yielding. Thankfully, Nimue steps in to help Arthur regain his sword, suggesting that honor breeds reward.
Alas, that ever I bare crown upon my head! For now have I lost the fairest fellowship of noble knights that ever held Christian king together. Alas, my good knights be slain away from me: now within these two days I have lost forty knights, and also the noble fellowship of Sir Launcelot and his blood, for now I may never hold them together no more with my worship. Alas that ever this war began.
This lamentation marks Arthur's most poignant realization that the utopian days of Camelot will come to end. Though he foresaw the end of the Round Table at the time his knights left on the quest for the Sangreal, he here realizes that they will perish not from without, but from within, at the hands of their greatest brother Sir Launcelot. Arthur reveals that his own chivalric code has faded, as he soon condemns his queen to death, and a civil war soon follows.
For madam, I love not to be constrained to love; for love must arise of the heart, and not by no constraint.
After the body of Elaine (the Fair Maiden of Astolat) arrives, Launcelot is confronted by Guenever about his guilt in her death. She accuses him of not loving Elaine, and hence causing her death. This reply both confirms the all-consuming power of love and Launcelot's devotion to Guenever. He is subtly reminding her that love cannot be controlled, and that he remains devoted to her not by choice but by love. However, he also reveals unwittingly that it has power beyond the lover's desires. He never meant to destroy King Arthur's kingdom, but his all-powerful love for Guenever required as much, and so this answer serves as foreshadowing. King Arthur approves of Launcelot's statement, though he misses its subtlety.
Wherefore I liken love nowadays unto summer and winter; for like as the one is hot and the other cold, so fareth love nowadays; therefore all ye that be lovers call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenever, for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.
In a rare direct address, the narrator comments on lovers, comparing them to the seasons of spring and winter. The spring lovers know how to love long, and how to grow their love over time, whereas the winter lovers find fault with one another, and their relationships wither and die. The narrator also compares the love of his own time period with that of the chivalric days of King Arthur, saying Queen Guenever knew how to be a lover. He means she knew how to love for a long time, whereas the love affairs of his day were quick and easily cast aside. This attitude adds much complexity to the work's already complicated consideration of the power of love, which is much stronger than any individual's desires.
Tide me death, betide me life, now I see him yonder alone he shall never escape mine hands, for at a better avail shall I never have him.
Here, Arthur prepares to attack his son Mordred at the Battle of Salisbury, even though he knows from prophecy that it will mean his own death. His knights try to convince him to leave Mordred alone, but Arthur is too incensed by the death of his loyal knights to avoid the conflict. He is too driven by honor to choose based on his own safety, and so dies protecting the very loyalty and chivalry that will die with him.
Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life.
This final consideration of Arthur's legacy and power helps explain the king's mythic power. The narrator posits King Arthur as a Christ-like figure who will “come again.” The holy cross is a reference to the Crusades. In early Arthurian literature, Arthur does take part in the Crusades, although Malory chose not to include that particular story within his collection of Arthurian tales. It is important to note here the direct address, as the narrator gives his unambiguous opinion: “I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life.” Arthur was both man and king, who struggled with the limits of his mortality and yet ironically became a myth in the process.
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.