Le Morte d’Arthur

After more than a day and a half of reading time spread out over almost three months, I can finally check off Thomas Malory’s 1485 Arthurian saga on my must-read list.

Having had success with listening to Shakespeare performances while reading the test, I employed the same tactic with Le Morte d’Arthur. A wise decision, as Malory is no poet; his prose is so didactic and sedate that I’d have had difficulty staying engaged all the way through. The audiobook from Audible weighs in at thirty-eight hours twenty-six minutes and twenty-five seconds, a figure that has to be spelled out to be appreciated. It’s a good thing I ride a stationary bike for an hour two times a week.

I was already familiar with many of the characters and stories, haven seen more than a few Arthurian films over the years. Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone… Merlin’s cryptic guidance… Guinevere and Lancelot… Gawain, Tristan, Galahad, and so many other knights of the Round Table. My primary interest was discovering lesser known characters, and I believe I’ve found one in Sir Palamedes, a pagan knight with Muslim origins. Palamedes is a rival of Tristan for Isolde, whom neither can have after she is married to the cowardly King Mark. Like most knights in the saga, Palamedes can be extremely chivalrous at some moments yet violently cruel at others, and his status as both a religious and cultural outsider who nevertheless joins the Round Table makes him fascinating.

I’ve always wondered why Malory was never assigned during my decades of academic literary study, and I now fully understand. It’s a historical chronicle with speculative elements, magicians and dwarves and holy artifacts thrown in mostly to make the protagonist’s conquests seem all the more astonishing. There’s little poetry to be found, hardly a passage worth remembering for the elegance of its prose. But within its numerous pages I did find the origin of almost every Arthurian legend I’ve encountered in other texts, and that ultimately is what makes “Le Morte d’Arthur” a valuable and necessary read. Malory collected tales in numerous languages spread out over many centuries, laying the foundation upon which so many great works of literature have been constructed.

The audiobook performance by Chris McDonnell was much like the prose of the text — steady but unspectacular. It did feel almost as if he read the entire book in one session, a complete impossibility but a testament to the reader’s dedication.

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