The death of a king
May 7, 2010 5:36 AM   Subscribe

Thomas Mallory's La Morte D'Athur has a french spelling for its title. Was Mallory's story originally written in french, old french, or middle english, or something else. If it was written in middle english, as we suspect, why does it have a french title?
posted by Sparx to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Middle English, according to Wikipedia
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:42 AM on May 7, 2010

My understanding is that French was basically trendy at the time, and a lot of Le Morte was riffing off of existing French romances.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:47 AM on May 7, 2010

The article also says that his original title was 'The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table'. The title under which it was printed has been attributed to Caxton. Since the book was, at least where Mallory didn't make things up, a compilation of both French and English material, it's quite possible that the Middle French title was just a result of that particular part being of French origin, and best known under that name even in England.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:50 AM on May 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

This WordReference thread goes into a bit more detail about different aspects of the puzzling title.
posted by vacapinta at 5:50 AM on May 7, 2010

It's become accepted - see also Morte D'Urban, a wonderful book.
posted by unixrat at 7:09 AM on May 7, 2010

LMDBA has a great answer - is there anything more? It strikes me that there might be a story behind the way Mallory became so well known, and, as we speak of it, are there any links to original texts?
posted by Sparx at 7:14 AM on May 7, 2010

The main source for Malory's Morte D'Arthur was a thirteenth-century French prose romance, La Mort Artu. Malory wasn't the first person to turn this into English; there are two fourteenth-century English poetical versions of the story, now known as the Alliterative Morte Arthur and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, which Malory probably knew. The Alliterative Morte Arthur uses a lot of French words ('With dukes and douspeeres of diverse rewmes / Erles and erchevesques and other ynow'), which has led some scholars to argue that it must be based on a lost French original. In any case, it's clear that the title Morte Arthur was familiar to English readers well before Malory came along. The manuscript of the Alliterative Morte Arthur opens with the words 'Here begynnes Morte Arthure' and closes with the words 'Here endes Morte Arthure', so in this case there's no doubt about the title that the author intended for his poem.

It's sometimes said that Malory never intended to call his version Le Morte D'Arthur, and that this title was accidentally given by the printer William Caxton, who mistook the title of the final section for the title of the whole work. In support of this argument, scholars have pointed to the colophon of Caxton's edition, which says that the book is 'entytled le morte Darthur notwythstondyng it treateth of the byrth, lyf, and actes of the sayd Kyng Arthur'. However, the current scholarly consensus is that Malory probably did call the book Le Morte D'Arthur, and that Caxton faithfully copied the title from the manuscript he was using as the source for his printed edition. Helen Cooper has argued that Malory gave his work the title Le Morte D'Arthur, the death of Arthur, to make the point that 'this is a story in which things go irrevocably wrong'.

The arguments about the title are summarised by R.M. Lumiansky in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, 1947-1987: Author, Title, Text (Speculum 62: 4 (1987), pp 878-97), which you can read if you have a JSTOR subscription. The texts of the Alliterative and Stanzaic Morte Arthur are available for free, along with other medieval and modern versions of the Arthur story, via the Camelot Project of the University of Rochester.
posted by verstegan at 9:17 AM on May 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

At college many years ago, I read a few chapters of a dusty old leather book in middle English (beer really helps when tackling middle English) that started with the backstory on Merlin, his birth, and how it was he who built Stonehenge. Would that have been La Morte D'Athur? I've looked at the modern translation, but it begins later than what I recall.
posted by dws at 9:36 AM on May 7, 2010

PS for manuscript geeks. The Alliterative Morte Arthur survives in only one manuscript (the so-called 'Thornton manuscript', named after its scribe Robert Thornton, in Lincoln Cathedral Library). The Stanzaic Morte Arthur survives in only one manuscript (Harley 2252 in the British Library). Malory's Morte D'Arthur survives in only one manuscript (Add 59678 in the British Library), which, amazingly, was only discovered in 1934. And Caxton's first edition of 1485 survives in only one complete copy (in the Pierpont Morgan Library) and one imperfect copy. So it's an incredible piece of good luck that these versions have come down to us at all; in each case their survival has hung on a mere thread. Reflect on that, and then reflect on what may have been lost.
posted by verstegan at 9:44 AM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Superb answer, verstegan! Thank you so much!
posted by Sparx at 2:40 PM on May 7, 2010

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