Le Morte d’Arthur

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Themes and Colors
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Journeys and Quests Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Le Morte d’Arthur, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon

Every year, at the Christian feast of Pentecost, the Knights of the Round Table renew their oaths to follow the code of chivalry as proclaimed by King Arthur. Chivalry includes showing mercy, fighting for good, and protecting ladies whenever they may be in harm. This is a code that is meant to govern the knights’ actions throughout Le morte d’Arthur—however, Malory also takes care to show just how difficult, if not impossible, this code proves for many of the knights, as well as how it can be easily corrupted through circumstance and human folly.

Malory’s collected stories contrast the results of following the code of chivalry with what happens when a knight breaks that code or succumbs to temptation. Sir Gawaine, for instance, refuses to grant mercy to a man who asks for it (thus breaking part of the code) and, as his lover hurls herself forward to protect him, accidentally kills the lady—carrying the shame of this act with him for the rest of his adventures. Conversely, Launcelot always grants mercy to a knight that asks for it, underlining his characterization as an honorable knight—in battle, if not in spiritual purity.

Indeed, Malory’s view of the knights and of Arthurian society in general often verges on the cynical, as he shows how various knights succumb to the temptations of lust or of the selfish search for glory. For instance, only Galahad, who steers clear of both (mostly because he is so young and is also divinely fated to do so), can attain the Holy Grail, while the other knights are not “pure” enough—that is, they lack the greatest honor and chivalry. Malory thus shows how deep of a gap there is between the chivalric ideal and the sorry morals of those inhabiting it. Besides, even this chivalric ideal is internally contradictory: the ideal of chastity is somewhat at odds with the ideal of defending a lady, for instance, and Malory never explicitly condemns Launcelot’s affair with Guenever—even though it leads to a tragic end—simply because their love is so strong and “pure,” and because Launcelot is such a skilled knight in other aspects. Instead, Malory seems content to describe these contradictions as they are without reconciling them, and without explicitly condemning them to hypocrisy.

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Honor and Chivalry ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Honor and Chivalry appears in each book of Le Morte d’Arthur. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Honor and Chivalry Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur

Below you will find the important quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur related to the theme of Honor and Chivalry.
Book 1 Quotes

And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:— Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.

Related Characters: King Arthur
Related Symbols: Excalibur
Page Number: Vol 1, 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Not long after King Uther's death, Merlin has told the Archbishop of Canterbury to gather all the knights of the kingdom together for a great tournament: he declares that God will reveal who should lead the kingdom, though he doesn't give any other details than that. After the attendees celebrate Mass, the first miraculous event takes place - the appearance of a grand sword sticking out of a stone. It is significant that the miracle meant to herald and establish the next rightful king of England is based on a sword, since in this society the ability to fight well and to triumph in jousting is a sign not just of physical might but also of spiritual honor and worth.

The path by which the next king of England is decided also depends on an understanding of identity particular to this time, place, and culture. According to this, one may be the rightful king of England even without knowing it: it is by completing a task set out in advance that one does not just become worthy of a label, but proves that he bore this identity (i.e., royal bloodline) all the while.


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Book 4 Quotes

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 that 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.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker), Sir Accolon of Gaul
Page Number: Vol 1, 132
Explanation and Analysis:

With the help of his lover Morgane le Fay, Sir Accolon of Gaul has managed to get his hands on Arthur's sword, Excalibur, which is why he is able to fight so successfully against the king. Now, Arthur's sword is broken, and two possibilities arise: either Arthur yields to Accolon and asks for his mercy, or he accepts death, since he has lost. By choosing the latter, Arthur reiterates his commitment to the chivalrous code, vowing to remain honorable even if it means he must die. Paradoxically, Arthur takes pride in granting mercy to others whom he conquers himself, but he considers it shameful to ask for this same mercy.

Arthur thus claims that he considers certain values more important than simply triumphing against enemies. He is left without a weapon, but this fact is far less a cause for shame than yielding to Accolon would be. Still, he acknowledges at the end that Accolon must adhere to the same values that he does, and it would be shameful for Accolon to kill Arthur without a weapon, just as it would be shameful for Arthur to seek to avoid death.

Book 5 Quotes

Then the king wept, and dried his eyes with a kerchief, and said, Your courage had near-hand destroyed you, for though ye had returned again, ye had lost no worship; for I call it folly, knights to abide when they be overmatched. Nay, said Launcelot and the other, for once shamed may never be recovered.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker), Sir Launcelot du Lake (speaker)
Page Number: Vol 1, 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Launcelot and Sir Cador, in charge of thousands of Roman prisoners, find themselves met by a massive army of 60,000 men sent by Lucius to rescue the prisoners. Even though Launcelot and Cador are with only 10,000 men, they still fight and successfully hold off their enemies. When they return to Arthur to tell him of what happened, the king is shocked but also impressed at how valiantly his knights have fought. It is perhaps Arthur's love for his men, especially Launcelot, that causes him to modify his fierce sense of honor here - he claims it would not be shameful for them to have withdrawn, since they were so unequally matched. Launcelot, however, won't accept any kind of modification of the code of chivalry. For him, strict consistency is necessary for a knight to maintain his glory - if he is even "once shamed," he can never recuperate that former glory. As a result Launcelot feels it necessary to welcome and even to seek out whatever battles he can.

Book 7 Quotes

I took none heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wrecked upon them that I had do withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was; for peradventure though I had meat in King Arthur’s kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places, but all that I did for to prove and assay my friends, and that shall be known another day; and whether that I be a gentleman born or none, I let you wit, fair damosel, I have done you gentleman’s service, and peradventure better service yet will I do or I depart from you.

Related Characters: Sir Gareth (Beaumains) (speaker), King Arthur
Page Number: Vol 1, 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Beaumains has traveled much of the country with the anonymous damsel, attempting to prove himself and help her on her "adventure." Beaumains has conquered a number of knights quite impressively, but has still been subject to the damsel's regular insults and mockery. Finally, the damsel begins to acknowledge that she is somewhat impressed that Beaumains has endured all of this berating so stoically. Here Beaumains attempts to explain himself. He claims that he transferred his anger and frustration towards her onto the men against whom he fought. Indeed, her dismissal of him made him more eager to prove what a strong and chivalrous knight he was. 

For Beaumains, this kind of test is similar to what he put himself through as a menial kitchen boy at King Arthur's court - although he comes from a powerful family, it was important for him to prove his worth on his own, by setting a series of challenges and quests for himself, and completing them under a false identity, without the help of others or his own noble name. As a result, Beaumains has only underlined how he was worthy of great worship all along, even if his true identity remained unknown to others. Finally, he may be frustrated by the damsel, but as a woman she is particularly prized as someone whose admiration and respect he wants to provoke.

Book 10 Quotes

For an it happeth an envious man once to win worship he shall be dishonoured twice therefore; and for this cause all men of worship hate an envious man, and will shew him no favour, and he that is courteous, and kind, and gentle, hath favour in every place.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever (speaker), Sir Palomides
Page Number: Vol 2, 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Guenever has been recovering from sickness at a seaside castle when Bleoberis and Ector de Maris leave the tournament and come find her, telling her about everything that has happened there. Guenever’s statement critiques the behavior of Palomides in particular, but it is also a general declaration regarding the unsuitability of envy for a chivalrous knight. Competition and revenge may be central aspects of this society, but even though it is justifiable to desire to avenge one’s losses, what is not defensible is to sulk about those losses or to actively act jealous and upset rather than graceful. In some ways, then, this taboo is about appearances more than true feelings – but this doesn’t mean that the taboo is any less powerful. Indeed, actions like those of Palomides can, according to Guenever, cast unforgivable shame on a knight, causing him to be shunned by others. Guenever’s statement also underlines the portrayal of women as subtle, careful judges of behavior and of the correct way to live and act.

Book 13 Quotes

Ah Gawaine, Gawaine, ye have betrayed me; for never shall my court be amended by you, but ye will never be sorry for me as I am for you. And therewith the tears began to run down his visage.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker), Sir Gawaine
Related Symbols: The Holy Grail (Sangreal)
Page Number: Vol 2, 250
Explanation and Analysis:

A number of the knights of Arthur’s court have vowed to seek the Holy Grail along with Galahad, including Gawaine, whom Arthur holds particularly dear. Although this is a moment of great honor and pride for these knights, it is a time of sorrow for Arthur, since he recognizes the danger perhaps better than many of his men do. Only the most worthy knights will be permitted to achieve the Holy Grail, and while Arthur cares deeply for his knights, he knows that most of them have sinned and that it is likely that he won’t see many of them ever again.

This scene of farewell, then, underlines the treacherous nature of quests, even as it also foreshadows greater troubles to come. This is the first time that Arthur’s court has been broken up for a significant amount of time (and indeed, the Sangreal was prophecied as the object that would "break the Round Table"). Much of Arthur’s sorrow stems from the fact that he realizes that the unity the court enjoyed for so long will perhaps never be regained again, or at least not to the same extent as before. Ironically, it is the greatest journey that a knight can take – the Sangreal quest – that threatens to break this strong connection.

My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto great dishonour. For when I sought worldly adventures for worldly desires, I ever enchieved them and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfit in no quarrel, were it right or wrong. And now I take upon me the adventures of holy things, and now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me and shameth me, so that I had no power to stir nor speak when the holy blood appeared afore me.

Related Characters: Sir Launcelot du Lake (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Holy Grail (Sangreal)
Page Number: Vol 2, 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Half asleep, Launcelot has seen a knight be blessed by the vessel of the Holy Grail, but a voice has told him to leave this place, since he is not worthy to achieve the Sangreal himself. Now, Launcelot seems to have a total epiphany regarding his prior actions. He recognizes that, although he is perhaps the greatest knight of the Round Table, his motivations have been worldly, if not selfish. He has pursued triumph and glory for his own interests, rather for the inherent goodness of the challenges themselves. As a result (and because of his affair with Guenever), he has been physically barred from even remaining close to the holy vessel.

Launcelot’s epiphany underlines the complexity at the heart of the book’s attitude towards chivalry, fighting, and spirituality. Winning at tournaments and triumphing over enemies is shown to be a good in itself, a source of great honor for knights; however, the book also signals that there is a greater good in being holy and selfless and acknowledging a religious rather than earthly hierarchy. It is in this latter category that Launcelot has failed, showing his only weakness. His love for Guenever is alternately portrayed as chivalrous and as weak or wrong, since it is an adulterous love. Without definitively abandoning this love, it is difficult to see how Launcelot will fulfill the terms of his vow to be a better person—at least according to the dogmatic Christian rules of the Sangreal.

Book 14 Quotes

Merlin made the Round Table in tokening of roundness of the world, for by the Round Table is the world signified by right, for all the world, Christian and heathen, repair unto the Round Table; and when they are chosen to be of the fellowship of the Round Table they think them more blessed and more in worship than if they had gotten half the world; and yet have seen that they have lost their fathers and their mothers, and all their kin, and their wives and their children, for to be of your fellowship.

Related Characters: King Arthur, Merlin
Related Symbols: The Round Table
Page Number: Vol 2, 276
Explanation and Analysis:

Merlin has been rather absent in the story for a long while, since he was trapped in a cave by a woman’s magic. Now a bit of background information clarifies the origin of the Round Table, which was created by Merlin. The narrator explains the importance of the symbolism of the table, which is meant to represent not just a particular corner of England and the fellowship of the knights, but the entire world. The Round Table is technically limited to those who are Christian and who show enough prowess to prove themselves worthy of being a part of this limited group; however, part of their task in joining the Round Table is to defend all who need defending, and thus to truly represent all others who are absent from the Table.

In addition, the narrator stresses that despite all that the knights of the Round Table gain from their fellowship, they also lose a great deal as well. They must abandon their parents and their wives and children in order to live a life that is in some ways more artificial, restricted to the purely physical challenges of battle and jousting.

Book 17 Quotes

He called to Galahad, and said to him: Come forth the servant of Jesu Christ, and thou shalt see that thou hast much desired to see. And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh began to hold the spiritual things. Then he held up his hands toward heaven and said: Lord, I thank thee, for now I see that that hath been my desire many a day. Now, blessed Lord, would I not longer live, if it might please thee, Lord.

Related Characters: Sir Galahad (speaker), Joseph of Arimathea (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Holy Grail (Sangreal)
Page Number: Vol 2, 369
Explanation and Analysis:

Joseph of Arimathea has called to Galahad in order to reveal to him all the secrets of the Holy Grail – “spiritual things” that are denied to most humans, who are deemed not worthy enough to receive them. Galahad, however, has been destined all along to “achieve” the Holy Grail, which here is shown to mean seeing what others cannot. Indeed, even the narrator refrains from describing exactly what Galahad sees, emphasizing how no one on earth can know such mysteries unless one is specifically chosen by God. While other knights desire earthly pleasures and worldly triumphs, Galahad’s only desires all along have been related to the spiritual satisfaction linked with the Holy Grail. It is this limitation of desire, indeed, that has allowed Galahad to complete the quest that he and so many others of the Round Table have pursued. For Galahad, seeing the mysteries of the Holy Grail does not just mean the end of the quest, but also the end of his life, since he believes he no longer needs to live longer; there is nothing more he needs to do.

Book 18 Quotes

For ever, said Arthur, it is a worshipful knight’s deed to help another worshipful knight when he seeth him in a great danger; for ever a worshipful man will be loath to see a worshipful man shamed; and he that is of no worship, and fareth with cowardice, never shall he show gentleness, nor no manner of goodness where he seeth a man in any danger, for then ever will a coward show no mercy; and always a good man will do ever to another man as he would be done to himself.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker)
Page Number: Vol 2, 425
Explanation and Analysis:

During a tournament called by Arthur, Arthur’s knights had begun to perform quite well against those of Launcelot, so Gareth had decided to disguise himself and fight with Launcelot’s group, helping to regain some of the ground lost. After the tournament, when Arthur learns what Gareth had done, he is gracious rather than angry. He takes the opportunity, indeed, to make a general proclamation on the proper behavior of knights during a fight that turns out to be unequal.

Arthur considers it proper for a knight to join his friend (or indeed, any knight deemed "worshipful" in his reputation) when he sees that the friend is in danger or fighting against unfair odds. For an honorable knight, the possibility for any other honorable knight to be shamed – not just himself – should be enough motivation to help. Such knights are to be contrasted with more cowardly knights, and Arthur claims that the shamefulness of such knights is only confirmed by the fact that these knights fail to show mercy to or come to the aid of others. His final statement – that one should act towards others as he would want to be treated himself – seems to stem from the "Golden Rule" of the New Testament of the Bible, where Jesus’s teachings expressed the same sentiment.

For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May, in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month, for divers causes. For then all herbs an trees renew a man and woman, and likewise lovers call again to their mind old gentleness and old service, and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence. For like as winter rasure doth always arase and defase green summer, so fareth it by unstable love in man and woman. For in many persons there is no stability; for we may see all day, for a little blast of winter’s rasure, anon we shall deface and lay apart true love for little or nought, that cost much thing; this is no wisdom nor stability, but it is feebleness of nature and great disworship, whosomever uses this.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 425
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the few points in the book when the narrator does not closely follow the actions of the main characters, and instead takes the chance to express some opinions and beliefs of his own. We have learned that the court has been at peace through Easter and into May, and it is suggested that this calmness stems from the very nature of the spring season—but also that spring will lead to the end of such peace. The narrator grafts an understanding of romantic love onto the cyclical aspect of the seasons: during the winter, love can grow dangerously cold or unstable just like the weather. However, in the spring, the season of rebirth, lovers recall the vows they made to each other and remember the proper way to treat each other. In terms of the story, however, the problem with this "season of love" is that it rekindles the romance between Launcelot and Guenever—the love affair that will eventually bring down Arthur's kingdom.

Unlike at other moments in the book, here women are not shown to be more scheming and treacherous than men: instead, both men and women are portrayed as similarly vulnerable to weakness, but also similarly capable of regaining strength and honor. However, the narrator also seems to suggest that the problems of love have something unexpected and uncontrollable about them, merely developing as a result of greater forces than the lovers themselves.

Book 21 Quotes

Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world; for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever (speaker), King Arthur, Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 523
Explanation and Analysis:

Launcelot has pursued Guenever who, after learning of the death of Arthur, has shut herself into a convent. Here Guenever is forced to reckon with her profound responsibility for the disintegration of the kingdom and the death of her husband. This is the first time, indeed, that she truly comes to terms with the implications of her adulterous love for Launcelot, a love that had long seemed able to coexist with her responsibilities and proper place as queen. The book has refrained from explicitly judging or condemning the affair between Guenever and Launcelot, although various characters have not refrained from doing so (even if usually for their own benefit or in their own interests). By putting an expression of regret into Guenever’s voice, the narrator continues to espouse more of an ambivalence than a condemnation. However, there is no doubt that Guenever feels deeply ashamed of her actions, as well as struck by the tragic power of love, which has wrought such destruction.

Then Sir Launcelot saw her visage, but he wept not greatly, but sighed.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 526
Explanation and Analysis:

Even after Guenever, having recognized the destructive power of her affair with Launcelot, had chosen to live in a convent rather than go away with him, Launcelot had not failed to be loyal to her. Now, at her death, Launcelot makes one last pilgrimage to his former lover in order to see her body and to carry it to be buried next to Arthur’s.

Throughout the book, many knights have expressed sorrow, pain, and anger loudly and with great fanfare, weeping and tearing at their hair and in general calling great attention to their feelings. It thus makes for a powerful contrast and telling change that Launcelot does not weep at his sorrow – instead, he merely sighs. Although a sigh might seem to express less emotion than tears, for Launcelot the sigh bears within it the burden of his responsibility and guilt for the destruction and death he has caused, and also for the love that has been called the most powerful in the kingdom. While Guenever was alive, Launcelot could at least share the responsibility with her, even if the two of them remained apart until her death. Now, however, only he is left alive and thus entirely alone with the remnants of the once great King Arthur’s court and Round Table. The sorrow he feels is shown to be too great even for tears.

Thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.

Related Characters: Sir Ector de Maris (speaker), Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 530
Explanation and Analysis:

As Launcelot had paid a visit to Guenever’s body to honor her at her burial, so too does his brother Sir Ector de Maris make his own pilgrimage to see Launcelot’s tomb and to honor his life. Ector’s words serve to recall Launcelot’s greatness – even if this greatness was marred at the end of his life by guilt and tragedy – through a series of superlatives, from “most curious” and “truest” to “meekest” and “gentlest.” Launcelot’s might, of course, largely lay in his powerful skill in jousting and in his chivalry among other knights. But Ector also acknowledges his qualities off the battlefield, at peacetime and among friends. Ector even suggests that his relationship with Guenever had much that was defensible and honorable about it, since his love for her was so powerful and he remained loyal to her at all costs. Ector’s final declaration thus underlines all the paradoxes and contradictions of Launcelot’s life, as the knight fought valiantly to fulfill the values of honor and chivalry, even as these values sometimes contradicted those of loyalty and love.